As researchers, how can we open our profession – the things we do everyday, the people we meet and environments we work in – towards embodied and relational awareness? The Mindful Researchers is an initiative to explore and practice, to become good at noticing what is ongoing and needed, now, together.
This text presents modified excerpts from the epilogue of my PhD thesis.
Exploring avenues for co-creative development
At its core, the Mindful Researchers are inspired by enactive and embodied views of cognition (Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991): an understanding of human knowledge and behaviour in which bodies, social and ecological processes evolve together in constant relation – including the systems that we study and the methods we use for doing so. As a group, we therefore experimented with individual and collective forms of practice to notice and ground in ongoing experience, we check in from our diverse work and life backgrounds, and we co-create – we explore how we can involve our social and physical environment in our thinking and productive activity.
In particular, the Mindful Researchers have held regular meetings and events: in a core team of ‘Gardeners’, we met (online) on a weekly basis, to develop a shared practice, prepare Mindful Researchers events, clarify and pursue individual and collective research interests, and take care of organisational matters. Once or twice per month we invited a larger community of around 160 international participants to join Mindful Researchers events (likewise online). In March 2022, we held our first physical gathering: the core team of active Gardeners (all co-developers except Dara and Nikola) spent a week together on Amrum, an island in Northern Germany, attending from across Europe as well as Mary from Texas, USA. Besides getting to know each other better, we used this time to deepen our shared practice, continue our conversation around organisational matters and opportunities to do research together, formulated guiding principles, and started to write reflections on our work as Mindful Researchers.
Our activities are marked by an emphasis on practice and a commitment to ongoing renewal and development. We use generic embodied contemplative practices, co-facilitation and participatory (co-design) protocols to structure our meetings and identify common grounds, key themes and core questions. This allows us to build flexible structures and the skill-sets required to listen and learn from each other’s curiosity. As a consequence, our inquiry evolves through our (Gardeners) as well as others’ motivated participation (thinking mainly of the larger community of people we connect to through our individual networks, the Mindful Researchers newsletter and our (bi-)monthly events).
Our meetings usually begin with a short grounding practice – we ring a bell, sit in silence, or someone guides a contemplative or embodied awareness practice for everyone to settle and arrive more fully to the group. From grounding, we move into a check-in: an opportunity to enter the group space by sharing about one’s current state, day or ongoing background of personal and/or professional activity. From here, we move into further rounds of sharing, often guided by an agenda or a thematic prompt, sometimes prepared and offered by rotating teams of facilitators. This is particularly the case for (larger group) Mindful Researchers events, which are often structured according to a specific format, such as a Listening Circle, Mindful Presentation, Co-creation or Playful Academic session (see below).
Regardless of the meeting format, our intention is to support each other in noticing and sharing important dynamics from our experience. This can be supported by (or requires) a sense of ease and trust among those present – the impression that differences are met with grounding (embodied awareness, noticing) and an eye for curious exploration (how is this meaningful or interesting for whoever is sharing and/or me?). Our facilitation style is an important means for accomplishing this: based on the regular practice and relationships that have formed in our core group of Gardeners, we (can) provide a lived example of welcoming experience and work with the opportunities (and challenges) of the moment. This may make it easier for others to notice and express their perspective. As such, we encourage spontaneity and speaking to what matters or is present now, without the need to justify or respond to what was said before. The conversation can then harbour very distinct views. Variety and tension in the group may become more visible and bearable, as the group offers support through listening. Besides the immediate benefits for well-being (that are noticed and expressed by many participants), sustaining this quality of group interaction leads us to think at the edge of what we know and can imagine, individually and as a group. Our dialogues and practice further employs structured formats. Thus: starting in existing forms of practice (Listening Circle, participatory design, open conversation, generic forms of contemplative and relational practice), we co-create the structures and environments needed to support our inquiry. In a continuous learning experience, we seek to flexibly accommodate newcomers or unexpected courses of events: perhaps the most essential principle of our joint project is to remain open and welcome emerging ideas and participants at whatever level they wish to engage. Thus, instead of reinforcing existing (social, organisational) norms, we (learn to) facilitate group dialogue on a lightly pre-structured basis. Responding to the agenda, needs and opportunities of the moment, we ground in unfolding experience and identify possible ways forward, together.
Meeting formats for shared practice
The following paragraphs present short descriptions of the meeting formats that we have practised with the Mindful Researchers (see also, Mindful Researchers):
Listening Circle: A Listening Circle (Linnea & Baldwin, 2010; Bohm, 2004) – also referred to as Council (Zimmermann & Coyle, 2009) – is an intentional space to share experiences. The practice is based on the ancient tradition of gathering around a fire to tell stories. It usually begins with a reminder of its form – there is a beginning, an end, a centre and a talking piece – and its principles: (1) to listen with one’s whole self (at a conceptual/mental, emotional and physical/bodily level, as well as to the general atmosphere in the group), (2) to share stories from one’s personal experience (instead of abstract ideas or explanation), (3) to wait before speaking until the essence of an experience has settled (to express the essence), (4) to share spontaneously, without too much planning or judgement, (5) to share something of service – to oneself, those present, and all others, and finally (6) to honour confidentiality – the agreement that we may harvest richly from our experience of a circle, but that the stories shared by others should remain theirs to share. After a reminder of these principles, the practice proceeds with a moment of grounding. It then opens up for anybody to voice intentions and dedications for this circle, and enters into sharing and witnessing of the stories that are present in the group. Listening Circles, or more simply the opportunity to hear voices and reflections, to digest and compost experience as a group, can be instances in which a whole group participates to set and shift their context and purpose (modified description from Lübbert et al, 2021). Wolfgang and myself have completed training for Listening Circle facilitation and are the regular facilitators. More recently, we have shared the facilitation with other Gardeners.
Mindful Presentations: After a short welcome, grounding and check-in, one or two researchers present their work, followed by group conversation in the spirit of a Listening Circle. Whenever appropriate we may invite a moment of pause to reconnect and ground with our embodied experience – such as after a contribution of any length that feels significant (it can be very short, even one word, or an expressed emotion), or when someone spoke very fast or intensely, to digest the momentum and energy. Different from the presentations we typically give to academic peers, these short talks (also) invite deeper reflections on why and how we care about or struggle with our research. The format includes the possibility and invitation to discuss non-academic resources, ventures and questions in life that matter to us.
Stepping deeper into our work or branching off into new directions can quickly involve uncertainty, which we welcome and learn to work (move) with. With this format, we offer a simple space of support and curiosity for researchers to test-run reflections that depart from their typical style or the established discourse in their home-discipline. All Gardeners facilitate this form – there may also be external facilitators joining because of their special role in inviting the speaker or bringing about the event.
Co-creation session: In a series of co-creation meetings, we have explored shared note-taking as a means to harvest insights from an emergent group process. For instance, we have combined a listening circle format with online canvases to investigate the needs and interests of the larger community: how should the network of Mindful Researchers evolve, so that it aligns well with the concrete needs and possibilities envisioned by diverse individual and groups of researchers? What should be its core purpose(s)? We have also used this format to collect our experience – or imagined ‘typical personae’ – at conferences and other scientific gatherings, intending to learn more about the spaces people navigate there and what could be improved to support fruitful exchange. Most recently, we are engaged in a prolonged phase of reflection to integrate our (Gardeners) perspectives on the Mindful Researchers into a common ground and shared focus. Here, we invite individual sharing (on how we came to, are currently experiencing and envision our future engagement in the Mindful Researchers), take collective notes there-of, and offer individual reflections and presentations that integrate what we heard from everyone.
The co-creation session is an evolving format. Besides tools from our other meeting formats, we bring in elements of co-design (Simonsen & Robertson, 2013) and an empirical attitude: we reflect more consciously on methodology, gather data, document the process and trace developments over time. In short, we use this format to support co-creative organisational design with a contemplative attitude.
Playful Academic session: Based on my work with Katrin Heimann and Pedro Gonzàlez-Fernàndez (see Playful Academic), we have facilitated playful academic sessions in which participants are guided through a series of games (or scores). The sessions usually begin with a fun and simple improvisation game, individual exploration (e.g. of space, embodied awareness, our reading or writing habits) and break-out sessions in pairs to ease into interaction. This involves prompts for reflection and dialogue about our intentions and motivation for our work, as well as simple joint improvisation games. Later, we moved to sharing and/or scores that involved the entire group of participants. Overall, the sessions provide a light and easy way to open work habits to nearby areas of possibility: what happens when I stay aware of bodily sensations (e.g. in the lower back or feet), as I read or write this text – does anything shift? What comes up in my experience – which images, memories, imagined personae or scenarios – as I listen to this sentence or paragraph? When I follow someone else’s movements, find a rhythm with them, complement or complete an action they performed – where does that take us, what do we come to speak about or create together? Be it in thought, writing or interaction, the idea of a playful academic session is to practice different modes of attending and exploring, to become aware of the opportunities that are available through (small) shifts in the frame through which we approach our work.
Open discussion: In this meeting format, the structure and flow is more emergent. After our usual grounding and check-in, we move to an open conversation (a continuation of sharing rounds). These meetings are gently facilitated open spaces for welcoming new members, reconnecting with each other, and engaging in open conversation on questions or themes brought on by participants. The facilitators may also offer a prompt to elicit conversation around a timely or ongoing theme.
Curiosity about and sensitivity towards shared space
Our initiative involves cross-disciplinary researchers (and other professionals) in both shorter- and longer-term participatory processes. As evident from the descriptions of our meeting formats, we emphasise the ability (opportunity) to pause and notice what is present within and around us (thoughts, bodily sensations, social & physical environment). We also invite participants to voice what is going on in their experience and diverse life backgrounds. Through structured formats such as the Listening Circle, we recruit (strengthen) the capacity of the group to listen and offer sensitive support – that is, with openness to difference and by collectively defining what is important: in a Listening Circle, stories are offered from experience in response to collectively set intentions and inclusive prompts. In general, the group learns to make space for what appears most important in the present meeting and moment. This presents both challenge and opportunity: it confronts us with the tensions and creative potential inherent to the group. Since the group process requires ongoing participatory sense-making, careful attention and trust in the possibility to express (be heard) and listen are vital ingredients.
Our approach fits well with the enactive ethics described by Di Paolo and De Jaegher (2021), which focuses on the potential for fruitful participation that is inherent in differences. We have come to notice (especially during our recent in-person meeting among the Gardeners group) that the structural and collective support we offer to listening (and letting be, De Jaegher, 2021) can help us become aware of our biases. Varela’s (1999) advocacy for inquiry into first person awareness makes a related point: as he argued, methodological inquiry into first person awareness could provide the natural sciences with a “needed ground, for all knowledge necessarily emerges from our lived experience” (ibid, p.336). In other words, given that concepts become accessible (affordable, useful) from within, access to a fuller range of experience affords deeper insight and understanding of conceptual implications and possibilities. Often, however, cognitive-affective reflexes can bias our perception and behaviour. The space we cultivate with the Mindful Researchers initiative has the potential to enhance our sensitivity to such subtle (or buried), often unnoticed dimensions of experience (Maturana & Varela, 1992; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991; Thompson, 2007; Rees, 2019). As such, we find that sustained engagement in our practice may support more grounded and thorough scientific inquiry and work.
Beyond positive effects on individual well-being, strength of character and scientific ability, we believe that our work welcomes, calls and prepares us for wider systemic change: through regular engagement in rigorous practice and co-created projects, including the discovery of what is most important for us to address, we may generate more sustainable research projects and academic trajectories in the long run (Brette, 2020; Woolston, 2020; Joynson & Leyser, 2015). In particular, this concerns a way of working that is grounded in a spirit of curiosity and mutual offering, as well as research themes and questions that are formulated by a collective – through ongoing, playful exploration of what we find most helpful and inspiring.
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Besides myself, the currently active core team of Gardeners consists of:
- Wolfgang Lukas (Graz, AT), PhD in physics, supporting collaborative science communities;
- Mary Rees (Houston TX, USA), PhD in psychology and interdisciplinary inquiry, strengthening integrity and ethics through contemplative awareness;
- Enrico Fucci (Canary Islands, ES), PhD in neuroscience, IGDORE board member, building structural support for a rigorous science of openness and integrity;
- Willeke Rietdijk (Amsterdam, NL), PhD in education, exploring the mind in meditative processes;
- Francesco Michele Noera (Milan, IT), anthropologist, promoting co-design and co-creative tools in academia and beyond; and
- Nikola Winter (Vienna, AT), PhD in molecular biology, asking “What is life?” / “What is aliveness?” / “How does it all work together?”.
As Mindful Researchers, we have explored principles of embodied and enactive cognition beyond the classical cognitive science laboratory: together, we developed and tested tools, posed research questions to sharpen and reflect our practice, shared methods and identified modes of meeting, collaborating and organising that can support our work in the future. I feel lucky to have found a group of researchers who value lived experience, practice and exploration just as much as rigorous study, reflection and analysis.
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