Episode 15: Mindfulness and Activism with Dr. James Rowe
James K. Rowe is an Associate Professor in the School of Environmental Studies. His interests lie with social movement strategy, which he approaches from the perspective of political economy and political ecology, and with a particular focus on the roots of injustice. He is especially concerned with the role of existential fears and resentments in the creation of injustice and the concomitant need for social movements to develop strategies capable of addressing these fears. He regularly teaches ES 200 (Introduction to Environmental Studies) and ES 407 (Mindfulness, Sustainability and Social Change). Since 2013, James has been working with UVic Faculty for Divestment to encourage the university to align their investments with their stated commitments to reconciliation and sustainability.
"My hearts deepest aspiration isn't to be liked – it's to promote justice."
Dr. James Rowe
Waving, Not Drowning
Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone, I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning, a UVic Bounce Podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples. In this week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. James Rowe, an Associate Professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. His interests lie with social movement strategy, which he approaches from the perspective of political economy and political ecology, with a particular focus on the roots of social justice. James is especially concerned with the role of existential fears and resentment in the creation of injustice and the concomitant need for social movements to develop strategies capable of addressing these fears.
James regularly teaches environmental studies 200 and environmental studies 407: Mindfulness, Sustainability, and Social Change. Since 2013, James has been working with Uvic faculty for divestment to encourage the university to inline their investments with their state of commitments to reconciliation and sustainability. In this wide-ranging and deeply enlightening conversation, James talks about how he’s started to practice meditation as a graduate student. And then, he explains how his meditation practice is connected to his advocacy work. To his commitments to furthering justice. He shares the importance for him of practicing meditation as a way for connecting tin to his own sense of purpose, and also how meditation is a kind of practice that is very much aligned with those values of community, of peace, and indeed of social justice. He ends our conversation by talking about the absolute importance of striving to see the good. Of striving to see that “paradise is here,” as he puts it. And since in our conversation, James shares a few quotes from literature, quotes that really bring home some of the ideas that he’s sharing, I thought that I would share a poem that really speaks to the ideas that James gets at in this episode. Strangely enough, this poem came to my attention just in the past week, really just on the heels of this powerful conversation with James. This poem is by the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet W.S Merwin. Merwin wrote many poems about the Vietnam War. He was Buddist, and I think that after you hear this poem, and after you hear the episode, you’ll see why I chose it.
BY W. S. MERWIN
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. James Rowe, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Rebecca Gagan: Hi, James.
James Rowe: Hi, Rebecca. Nice to be with you.
Rebecca Gagan: You too. How have you been doing?
James Rowe: Pretty well, given a global pandemic.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, it’s hard to believe that we’ve been in this now for more than a year and are now really in a period of what feels like even a deeper uncertainty– so classes have ended for students, and I’m sure they’re feeling some measure of relief. And I think all of us, as faculty, are also feeling some measure of relief that we have gotten through this year of online teaching and really, what has been, I think for so many of us, just a very challenging time. How have you been coping with it, James?
James Rowe: Yeah, well, it’s been up and down, for sure. It’s sort of a roller coaster where some days it’s not a problem. And part of that’s afforded by having a secure job and some of those material things taken care of, but then other days, things are just really hard, and I feel like I’m operating at 75 to 80% energy level. There’s just a sort of tiredness that can settle in. And so, it’s– you know, partly just acknowledging that it’s really hard has been helpful and not beating myself up for maybe not accomplishing everything that I would have otherwise hope to have done if there wasn’t a global pandemic and so, some level of gentleness with self has been a pretty important strategy in this time.
Rebecca Gagan: I was just reading an article in the New York Times in which the author talks about that feeling of not being at a hundred percent energy– he calls it languishing. So, it’s still a kind of way of describing mental health that isn’t opt– like at its best. It’s sort of between thriving and depression, and it’s certainly– he gave words to, I think, that feeling that you described where it’s some days the energy just isn’t there, you feel tired and– at least for me, I feel really unmotivated. And I don’t know these days I feel like I have two modes: I can either be uber-productive or just not at all; that like those days that I’m not productive–it’s almost like I can’t do anything. And so that kind of gentleness that you suggest– with the need to be gentle with yourself, seems so important, especially these days.
James Rowe: Yeah. Yeah. And as I was saying before we got started, I have a regular meditation practice, and that’s been helpful for me in a variety of ways, but one is to be able to catch any kind of negative self-talk that might be arising around “oh, you’re not doing enough,” and whatever else and just be able to check in with my body and realize that no, I’m not working at a hundred percent and that’s not my fault. There’s a global pandemic. And likewise, having read articles, like you mentioned, that really helps cognitively to remind that other people are going through this dynamic as well. And again, a reminder to be gentle, which not only is beneficial for my own mental health but sort of more broadly, the more gentle– Just as the philosophical point for me–, the more gentle we can be with ourselves, the more gentle we’re going to be with each other in the world as well, so there’s a benefit to promoting that gentleness and so that’s been an important self-care strategy.
Rebecca Gagan: And I like how you phrase that James– that it’s a kind of gentleness with oneself that actually permeates into all relationships, including your relationship with your environment, and just with nature, with the world. And so, yes, my hope is that some of those strategies that we are certainly more mindful of now in terms of how to be compassionate to ourselves, how to be gentle with ourselves, will outlive the pandemic; that those will be the things that we will take with us, that we will keep with us– those strategies or qualities or skills or however you want to describe that– that that’s something that will continue on. And it sounds like your meditation practice is something that has been so nourishing and supportive for you, just in reminding you of that need to be gentle and compassionate with yourself.
James Rowe: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, just having a time, you know, try to do it every day– not always accomplished that feat, but knowing that there’s a regular time where I can take care of myself, basically, and check-in. And also, I guess part of it– this is a broader again, philosophical point– but it’s easy in the context of this global pandemic and accelerating climate change and all these other challenges that we face to lose trust in the world. And I think it’s actually quite sensible to have lost trust in our institutions; that I understand, and I think is actually a fair point that I wouldn’t necessarily contend if we’re thinking about corporate institutions and some governmental institutions that can understand that. It’s easy in this context to lose trust in the world itself– like in his fundaments, in that we’re beset with this virus that has browned our worlds to a halt, and it’s easy to feel afraid and belittled in the face of these conditions. And one of the things about the mindfulness practice that I’ve been taught is that it’s just a helpful reminder allowing me to check in with my basic organism that works well. It’s a well-working organism it’s an embodiment of an ultimately well-working world. We have good air to breathe, we’ve got, you know– just in its fundaments– like this earth provides us with a rich abundance of food and water and air, and there’s just so much good in the world in its fundaments; just like when we wake up in the morning, fundamentally, the world is a good place, even though it includes challenging phenomena, such as sickness and death and impermanence, which is partly what meditation was designed to help us cope with in the first place, which is the fact of impermanence. And so, being able to just have times in the daily life to connect with that basic goodness of life, despite the real challenges that we face, has been very sort of nourishing and fortifying for me in this time.
Rebecca Gagan: And thank you for that, James, because what’s so interesting about what you’re saying is that really, you’re talking about how can we have, in this moment of a global pandemic, but also everything that we’ve been witnessing, in terms of just racism and you know, you look at the news, and it’s really easy to feel defeated, I think, in certain ways– and such despair. I guess I can only speak for myself, but that’s certainly how I feel sometimes. And the past two guests that I’ve talked to, they have you, very intentionally signalled the importance of trying, and not in some kind of like cliched way, to flag the importance of hope and being able to see what is good. And as you say, what is working. Because these days, I think that’s a challenge in and of itself. In addition to everything else is to feel that there is goodness in the world and that things will get better amidst all of this uncertainty. I think that being able, as you say, to every day have a kind of check-in with your own body, this incredible, as you say, organism that is working in whatever way that kind of manifests for you. I think being able to check-in and to remember where there is good. So, Ireh Iyioha, who I spoke with last week, she talks about just really, damaging racism that she experienced as a graduate student in Canada. But at the end of that episode, she reminds everyone to laugh, feel like the vibrations of the laughter throughout your body, like dance to– like the keynote of that episode is really about hope and a kind of faith in humanity in many ways. And so, I really appreciate what you’re sharing here as a reminder because we always begin these episodes by talking about how things have been going in the pandemic, and I think that what everyone needs every day is that kind of reminder that there’s still goodness.
James Rowe: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, again, I think that it’s a dance where we have to be able to feel our feelings when we’re feeling grief and despair, whether it’s about the pandemic, or about systemic racism, or other terrible phenomena that we encounter, we have to be able to feel that pain and I’m not wanting to suggest, and I know you’re not doing this either have some kind of, bypassing where we’re just, as you say, in a cliched Pollyannish way, that everything is hunky Dory, Ned Flanders. But no, I think that it takes some strength to be able to hold those realities, which are painful and true, and then simultaneously hold that there is fundamental goodness that shapes the world. And people can disagree with that. It’s a philosophical orientation or point, but I do think that if you take the time to look into your– again, your organism, or into your everyday life, you’ll find a lot of goodness animating in the world and maybe use a geophysical point, but like just literally, our life on this planet is enabled by a superabundance of solar energy that’s bestowed upon us on a daily basis. Just all of life is solar-powered, and all of that energy comes down upon us without us really giving any return, you know, human sacrifice, it’s out of style– probably for good reason, but by less damaging rituals we could use to thank the sun, but anyway, there’s just an incredible amount of richness that animates our world then– and that’s also part of the human experience and taking time to embody and encounter that, is just as important as being very real about the profound challenges that we’re facing.
Rebecca Gagan: And as you say, the challenge and the hard work is trying to hold those two pieces in one moment, right? To know that you can feel that grief, you can feel that pain, and that you can also hold that joy or gratitude, or a kind of recognition of goodness and beauty in the same moment often, and that it is a challenge to do. But I think, as you’ve suggested, it’s important labour– a kind of labour of love, right? In terms of thinking about just how to balance those feelings so that you aren’t in this kind of cycle of despair, I think, and hopelessness.
James Rowe: Yeah, there’s a— maybe just insert a lovely line from F. Scott Fitzgerald that I really love, which is that “the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing ideas in your mind at the same time and retain the ability to function.” and then I think that’s a crucial life skill because our world is shaped by paradox. It’s shaped by that complexity, and so being able to hold that, I think, is really important.
Rebecca Gagan: Since you’ve mentioned the literary reference, I’ll throw my own in there. The poet– the romantic poet John Keats, he writes in a letter to his brother something very similar about being able to hold, and in some way, recognize they can’t be reconciled those two incompatible ideas, and he calls that negative capability. And it’s also holding a kind of uncertainty that sort of goes along with that, so I’m pleased to know that we’re in good company, though, in terms of talking about this concept of keeping those two things always influx together. So James, one of the reasons I was wanting to talk to you today is because I was hoping you would be able to share with us some of your own story about being a student and whether that’s an undergrad or a graduate student some of your experiences with perhaps, challenge and difficulty so that, as you know, Bounce wants to work to support students by really de-stigmatizing discussions around these kinds of challenge and difficulty and letting students know that their instructors, their own professors, have been through some of these really similar challenges to the ones that they’re experiencing.
James Rowe: Particularly salient for me because I actually did my undergrad at UVic.
Rebecca Gagan: Oh, I did not know that!
James Rowe: And yeah, so it’s you know– it’s so bizarre for me sometimes to teach a class in Cornett where I had my own sort of transformative experiences, or challenging experiences, or meltdowns or whatever, it might be. So different bathrooms I was recovering from hangovers in. Anyways. But yeah, no, I came to UVic actually to do commerce– I wanted to do marketing, initially, and part of my thinking at the time was that I could be creative, I thought, within the marketing terrain while also making a s*** ton of money was ultimately one of my ambitions at the time. But yeah, I came to UVic, and I just did so poorly in my pre-business classes. There was a lot of economics and math. And I just didn’t like them and wasn’t doing well in them. And I found that I actually was enjoying some of my classes in taking English and in philosophy. And it was actually in a Saturday morning– I took a Saturday morning philosophy class in my first year, sort of felt like the breakfast club or something like that. Hanging out at UVic on Saturday morning, but it was in that class that I had my mind blown, and it was indicative of some of the privilege that I walked onto campus with that I really hadn’t been encouraged in my K through 12 education to think seriously about oppressions, along the axes of race, class, gender species, sexuality. And this class was really the first time that I really, in a systematic way, that I was faced with some of the profound inequities that shape our world. And it was just a shattering experience for me, given that I hadn’t really been inoculated and was sort of fragile to use some of the language of the day. And yeah, it was just a shattering experience. I can remember– you know, I can’t remember exactly, but in my mind, I spent like an entire week on my couch, just in despair of the world and yeah, it was a really distressing sort of experience, but it was also transformative. There was a sort of crack that would then, I think, let some light in after the fact. And it was after that experience of being just so crestfallen, learning about the sort of deep pains that shape our world, that I made a decision to try to do something about these things and to take action.
And I remember– I can picture and, memory’s deceiving in terms of how accurate this memory is, but I can remember on that couch in despair, seeing this publication on my coffee table, which I picked up in Edmonton, where I grew up the previous summer, and it was a street newspaper sold by homeless folk with stories from the street and, I literally just pick that up, found a phone number and called them and signed up to volunteer for that newspaper that summer and I was returning home for the summer. And that really started a journey of becoming engaged politically, and for me personally, just speaking about mental health and self-care, forget about any sort of difference that may have been made in the world due to my actions or not. I may have screwed things up. I don’t know, but just in terms of my own wellbeing, taking action was absolutely crucial to pulling myself off of the couch and feeling capacitated and resilient. Taking action was really important to kind of align the steps I was taking in the world with these new values that I had encountered in my Saturday morning philosophy class. There was a sort of destabilization that that class provide. And then, because I wasn’t living in alignment with those values at the time, and that was deeply troubling to me. And so, to take that first step to then start walking a different walk in alignment with those values was very healing and nourishing and helpful for my own.
Rebecca Gagan: And it sounds like, as you say, that you had to have that kind of shattering first, right? The shattering happened and the shattering, in part, as you say, was not just a recognition of injustice in the world in ways that you hadn’t fully grasped it previously, but it was a shattering around realizing– I love how you phrase this James– like that something was out of alignment, right? That you were taking a path of study that wasn’t aligning anymore with your values, and so something had to change. And so, as you say, out of that crack then you know, as Leonard Cohen says, like “the light comes in,” so that you were– and I just am so intrigued by how you’ve shared that you– the kind of antidote or a way of starting to work with that shattering was to take action– but to actually do something. Do something– so there was the reflection, there was all of that work too, but then there was the work of actually– I’m going to do something. I’m going to take action so that my– the work that I’m doing, the path that I am going to study, which I’m sure you’ll tell us about in a minute, how that changed. You know, it aligns, so did you then change a direction in terms of moving out of those business marketing courses?
James Rowe: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I can’t remember exactly when I declared my major, but I found that, yeah, the classes I was taking in political science and philosophy, and English were just resonating with me much more, and they were deepening my understanding– a new outlook that I have received in this class where my– you know, it’s almost akin to that Matrix moment where you’ve got like the blue pill or the red pill, and I, I can’t remember which colour wakes you up and which keeps you in slumber, but I’d been given the one that woke me up and now I needed to resource myself in this new world that I was in and yeah. I ended up declaring in political science with a, basically, a defacto minor in English. I don’t think it was official, but I took a lot of my electives in English because I loved learning about the world through story, and so yeah, shifted course, and then, from there, I ended up– I sort of faced a juncture at the end of undergrad about whether to pursue more social activism work that I’d been doing in the summer or to go to grad school and I decided to do grad school, and the rest is history, but happy to go into more detail.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, I would love to hear about– you shared with me before we started — that it was in grad school that you started, really, your practice of meditation. And so, I’m curious to know, James, did you start that as a way– like how did you come to meditation as a way of maybe– I’m just guessing, like coping with some of the stress of grad school?
James Rowe: Yea, actually, it’s interesting. It’s a story I like, so I’ll tell it– but one of my first days of grad school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I got signed up for our teaching assistant union by this young woman and Alexa Shotwell her name was, she was actually a pretty well-known sociologist at Carleton. Now, wrote a great book called Against Purity. Anyhow, became friends with Alexis and learned that she’d grown up in a Buddhist community– had grown up Buddhist, meditating her whole life, and we were out at a bar in downtown Santa Cruz sometime after that and with some friends, and this fellow was quite inebriated and approached us, and it was just unwieldy and difficult and disruptive. And it was amazing to watch how Alexis related to this person, just like very non-defensively, very spacious, and yet also, very firm in terms of, you know, you should probably move on now and again if I have to use another movie reference, it felt like Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, where like these are not the droids you’re interested in and basically, like this fellow, just for repeated whatever Alexis said. He’s like, “yes, it is time for me to move on now.” And so, just to watch that level of skillfulness in interpersonal interaction was very inspiring to me and magnetizing. After watching that sort of proof of what meditation might accomplish for somebody, I really started peppering Alexis with questions about her experience, and she gave me some meditation cushions that I still have and a bunch of books and then off to the races from then on, but yeah, like grad school was very stressful, and that was my first year. And so, it was less because of stress at that time and more because of inspiration that I turned to these practices, but undoubtedly, they have been a huge source of nourishment in being able to surf the very challenging waters of graduate school.
Rebecca Gagan: And I don’t know that much about meditation I’ve, as I say, tried it a bit myself and certainly have like you– I have a big interest in it and want to try to do some more work with it. And I know that it’s recommended to students like very frequently and I see this advice going out to students that they could try it as a way of coping with, you know, of stress and coping with anxiety, so it sounds like you were fascinated by the way in which Alexis engaged with others in this kind of, as you say, spacious, and it sounds like very peaceful– a very peaceful way that you were wanting to understand and emulate in addition to, what sounds like a benefit, which was being-= having, you know, stress reduction as a graduate student. And you still, as you’ve shared, you’re still meditating to this day. And James, do you find that the meditation has like a place or a connection with some of your other interests? Like you talked about how in your undergrad, you absolutely changed course and at Santa Cruz where you– was your PhD– was that in environmental?
James Rowe: I was in a political science, but like environmental politics was a focus, for sure.
Rebecca Gagan: So, I’m just interested to think about the connections between, as you’ve said– that it was important to you and for your mental health like to take action and of course, our listeners might know of your incredible work with Divest UVic. And so, I’m just wondering about some of the connections between meditation as a student and the meditation practice you have now, and your interest in social justice and how all of these things are maybe knitted together as part of your own sort of work of self-care.
James Rowe: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. For me, it all comes together. This comes back to my effort to go into marketing, and I’m going to market one of my classes, but this all comes together in a fourth-year class I teach called Mindfulness, Sustainability, and Social Change, where we explore the intersections between personal change practices, personal transformation, and broader social or systemic change. So, for me, they’re very much interwoven in this sort of a very pragmatic way that works out and just use a concrete example, like the divest campaign. We’re in the eighth year of that campaign, and we finally had a breakthrough this year, which was wonderful, but in my meditation practice, I do a sort of daily vow practice where I just remind myself of, you know, what I’m here on this earth to do, and to reorient away from maybe more extrinsic and egoic pursuits towards more sort of justice-oriented pursuits and just having that daily reminder of, trying to, you know, I’m wanting to promote social and ecological justice, having that daily reminder during the eight years of a campaign, where sometimes things are fallow, and there isn’t much happening– but I’m reminding myself on a daily basis that I have this commitment and the primary site for me in which this commitment is realized right now is the divestment campaign. And so being able to sort of state in this for the long haul and to stay activated and motivated, I’ve found that those daily check-ins have really helped just remind myself where I can easily get pulled by all the work that’s coming through or just other demands in life. And so be able to stay focused because of this daily reminder– to this daily vow practice has been very helpful. And so that’s just like a one specific concrete way that having a mindfulness practice has supported my activism, but then, there’s a deeper philosophical point for me that emerged in the context of grad school, where I really do think that a lot of the challenges, we face in this world are rooted in a will to supremacy what Martin Luther King called the “drum major instinct,” the desire to be out first. And if that plays a role in shaping white supremacy and patriarchal supremacy and human supremacy, and these other dynamics that caused such harm, then we need practices that can work to undo that will to supremacy. And for me, I think mind-body practices actually play a really important role in relating to some of the fears and felt belittlement that can lead us to sometimes be magnetized towards that drum major instinct or that guilt of supremacy, whether in our daily lives or in supporting, unfortunately, some of these larger systems and structures. And so, while it isn’t by any means a panacea that will single-handedly change the world, I think it plays a really important role in supporting Individual activists in their pursuits, but then also beginning to address some of the root drivers of that will to supremacy.
Rebecca Gagan: There’s a lot to unpack there, James, and what you’ve just shared. And so, I’ll just add a couple of things, or maybe query a couple of things. So, one of the things I think I’m hearing is that that practice supports at your activism– it supports wellbeing in all kinds of ways, but it also, really challenges a kind of idea of resilience, or of wellbeing as being entirely individualistic– like driven by the individual in the sense that if I’m getting this right it, sounds to me that it’s more community-based because the outflow, or the kind of, I guess– like what flows from this work is that ultimately it’s about being in relation with others differently and not driven by the ego and by all of those things that lead to a conflict that lead to supremacy in all kinds of ways. So, would that be accurate, James? Like how I’m describing that?
James Rowe: Absolutely, cause, like Buddhist meditation– the goal of Buddhist meditation is to dissolve one’s ego, which then facilitates much profound– much more profound connection to not only others but the more than human world as well. And that’s quite distinct from the way that mindfulness oftentimes gets advertised– now as a way of self-optimization– you’re going to become a much better worker or are much better–
Rebecca Gagan: Being your best self. Like you just do this, and you’ll be even better.
James Rowe: Exactly. And so, there’s some real tensions there. And yeah, within the contemporary mindfulness movement, there’s ways that it can easily get co-opted within a– to use some academic language– like a neo-liberal discourse of responsibilization, where it’s your fault that you’re feeling anxiety and depression and it’s your responsibility to use these practices. And unless you do, then you know, you haven’t pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and you’re going to get left behind. That’s sort the narrative that we get fed, and unfortunately, well, that’s very destructive, and it’s a disservice to what these practices within the Buddhist context, anyhow, were originally designed for, which is to nurture that connection that you just discussed before.
Rebecca Gagan: And to really disrupt that narrative, right? That it’s every person for themselves and that you optimize yourself, and that all of that is what– and that you optimize yourself in order to be your best self-gain more power, be more competitive, do all of those things. And as I’ve talked about already on this program, I really resist using the word resilience connected to this initiative because I think it has been co-opted in a way in which, as you share, is very destructive to, in a way that, suggests that it is your fault if you can’t be resilient, when we know that it is institutions, it is systems that support resilience or prevent resilience, and make it difficult for people to be resilient. And so, one of the challenges around student wellbeing is that I really do want to disrupt that narrative, that it’s up to the individual student to just be resilient, to just carry more and more, and if you can’t, then not some kind of failing. And so, I hear you that mindfulness has become another kind of tool in the toolkit around wellness, that now, “you use this” and if you really want to be the best that you know, your best self, then you use mindfulness, but I think so importantly, James you’ve gotten at, really, this is mindfulness operates in community with others, right?
So it might be a practice that you, you can certainly do it with others, but that you typically do by yourself, but it’s about trying to help you to be in relation not just with others, but with your world in a way that isn’t egoic, that isn’t, you know, driven by competition and a need to, as you say, get out in front of somebody else that as we know, leads to supremacy in all kinds of ways. And I really appreciate your reflections on mindfulness in that way because I think it’s very helpful, and in trying to think about how we can engage in practices of wellness that are also community-based, so not individualistic, that are working to change a larger conversation and working to change how we engage with others, how we can be in relation with others in a new way, perhaps. And this course that you teach when you mentioned it earlier in our conversation, I just thought this is a course I would want to take. I know that it needs to be a small course and you can’t open it up to 200 people because that might defeat the purpose, but I think these are the kinds of courses, as well, that allows students to really connect as well with how their own wellbeing, how that connects in with advocacy, right? Which so many students are, are invested in. And I think you’ve shared today, James, that for you, advocacy– it aligns with your own sort of authentic self.
And the other thing that you mentioned, just quickly, you said that repeating the vow reminded you of your purpose every day. And so, it took you out of the day-to-day struggles or distractions that we all have and really pull us away or distract us from that purpose. And I’ll just share that when I had a chance to interview the retired general Romeo Delayer for a Bounce video, one of the first things he said was: “it’s really important that you keep your eye on the bigger picture,” which I think is a different way of saying what you were saying that he said it was so important in this moment where students are inundated with so much stuff, so much noise to be able to not get, he said sort of, too caught up in the day to day, like what you’re dealing with now and to think about the larger purpose. So, I’m just wondering, James, if you can just say a bit more maybe about that larger purpose and how it has guided you as a student. It sounds like you found it in undergrad after that shattering, and it still guides you today, and meditation helps you key into it. Are there other ways in which you think it’s been important for you?
James Rowe: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I didn’t experience intense anxiety until I started teaching for the first time around like 13, 14 years ago, whatever it was. But yeah, like really intense anxiety and what I learned about myself, anyways, is that I was most anxious when I was worried about my sort of sense of value being at stake. You know, like in that if the students liked me, then I was a good person and if they didn’t like me that I was a bad person or, I was a failure or whatever. But there was a certain sense that my ego was tied up in this and that I was aiming for a certain level of heroism or also just wanting to avoid being a villain, and I found that personally, it was really helpful for me to manage that anxiety, to connect with my purpose every time before I entered the classroom by meditating and doing a vow of like, “why am I even doing this?” I’m not teaching to be a hero like I’m teaching because I’m wanting to promote social and ecological justice. And it might actually be the stuff that I need to teach will make me disliked, but that’s actually in the service of the larger mission. It’s not about being liked. That’s not my– my heart’s deepest aspiration isn’t to be liked, it’s to promote justice, so to be able to connect with that vow brought me out of my ego and connected me to that purpose, which then gave me more energy and capacity to help realize that in the classroom without being as held back by intense anxiety. And again, it’s this interesting way where, for me connecting to purpose, I think, it’s helped me move forward on some of the goals that I have, but it’s also just been a really important self-care strategy around being able to quiet ego, which often times is what is that source of, for me, suffering and anxiety. Am I good enough? Am I worthy? If I’m able to connect to my sense of purpose and to the fundamental goodness of the world that we talked about before, that’s also within my organism. Those have been really important tools for me, both cognitive tools and also embodied experiences. For being able to relate to some of the challenges that can arise as one pursues their path. And for me, one of those big challenges has been really intense anxiety that arose upon needing to thrust myself in front of large groups of people in the classroom on a regular basis.
Rebecca Gagan: Which I think– you know, students might be surprised that profs do get so anxious right in front of the class. And certainly, I’ve been through that same kind of process, James, in terms of, you know, feeling how important it felt to me to be validated in the classroom and to be liked, and I think students probably experienced this in all kinds of ways with social media and wanting to feel that they are– that they are seen in certain ways and that they’re getting that kind of external validation. And we talk about this across a few different episodes. When we talk about grades where students have so much grading anxiety, and while I think we can acknowledge that, grades are needed for certain purposes. There can be a way in which, just as you’ve described around teaching, wanting that kind of validation that you lose sight of what you’re even doing– that it’s just about “am I going to get that grade that I want and what happens when I don’t?” And one of the things that I’ve been trying to share with my own students is that as soon as you can start to do the work of not needing the validation from the outside– so you’ve described, James, like trying to– like how you were rooted in yourself, right? You were grounded in yourself, and that meditation helped you to do that, but as soon as you can start that work of recognizing that it’s got to come from within, you can’t get it from without– from outside, you’ll be able to do the work, write that essay, or take those classes, or do whatever it is you need to do in your studies. You’ll be able to do that differently because it won’t be just because of the grade. And then when you get the grade, the grade won’t just be some sense– it won’t be reflecting in the same way on how you understand yourself, right? So, if you get that bad grade, well, I must be a failure. I must not be smart enough. I’m not good enough. And so, I mean, that’s hard work to do, and I wasn’t able to do that until quite late, I think, in my adult life, be able to shift that relationship to, I guess, extrinsic feedback and things like that.
But certainly, I think what you’re suggesting is so helpful to students. You were a teacher experiencing that in the classroom, but I think it applies to students in all kinds of ways, that they can diminish some of their suffering, which so many of us experience around how we feel in relation to “are we good enough?” They can diminish some of that suffering if they can try to maybe shift that relationship to those voices in the outside.
James Rowe: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think– and I think it’s important– I guess, a daily practice for me and my ego and my hunger and my drum major instinct still runs roughshod every given day, so it’s a daily practice to work with it. It’s not like– some moment like–
Rebecca Gagan: It’s over! Suddenly it doesn’t bother you anymore.
James Rowe: Yeah, no, no, absolutely not, so I think that’s an important point, but yeah, I think for students. Yeah– to be connected with their sense of purpose and to not be so externally focused, where a grade can– a poor grade can sort of be seen as like a judgment on your soul. And then it actually just frees you up to actually approach it in a bit more of a discerning way, where instead of just being broken by it, it’s like “oh, like, okay, there actually might be something in this feedback that I can learn from and can improve and then actually better achieve my purpose,” whatever it might be, so, sort of to not be as tethered to external judgment. Again, we are relational beings, and so there isn’t really some point where we’re completely removed from it. I think that’s actually like– some form of psychopathy that I’d want to not—no, that this is encouraged, but I think the less– the more that we cannot be so tethered to external judgment and be more resourced within ourselves, then we’re better able to learn from some of the feedback that we do encounter, whether it’s from students as teachers or as– or sorry, as teachers from students or students learning from teachers.
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely, well James, I’ve already learned so much from this incredibly thoughtful conversation, but I’ll just give you one give you a chance to share– you know, is there sort any last words that you might want to share with our listeners just about you know– I know you’re probably hesitant to use the word words of wisdom, but words of support for students who are, You know, going through some challenges and difficulties.
James Rowe: Yeah. I might return to where I started, which is– there’s a phrase I like, which is: in the social change world, we often talk about, you know, we need to change the world, and of course, we absolutely do in terms of these different systems and structures that cause such strife, but I find it really nourishing on a daily basis to remind myself the world that I want, the world that we want, it’s actually right here like right now, like the Holocene conditions that we live under are tremendous, and there’s just a lot of goodness and richness in the world right now when we take the time to be with, and to notice it. And yes, we need to change the world in pretty profound ways, but I think a really helpful resource on the day-to-day is that’s it’s not something that happens in the future. We don’t have to wait for paradise, I guess like paradise is very much here now, and we can touch into it and use that as an energy and a resource so that our social and institutional worlds better reflect the profound flourishing in generosity and richness of the more than human world that we are a part of.
Rebecca Gagan: I can’t think of a better way to end this conversation than with that quote, James, that paradise is here. And I think those are words that we all need to hear and really to remember right now. James, thank you so much for being here today. I have really enjoyed this conversation, and I’ll be taking so much from it.
James Rowe: Myself too. Thanks so much, Rebecca. This is great.
Rebecca Gagan: Okay, bye. For now.
In next weeks of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Cindy Holmes. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Victoria. In our conversation, Cindy shares with me some of her experience as an undergraduate who was struggling with their mental health and how this struggle was compounded by homophobic systems, by the constant stigmatization of mental health, and how she ultimately found a way to cope with some of these challenges by moving into advocacy work, community work, and joining with others in the community in the shared labour of fighting for social justice and changed to the systems. I really hope that you’ll tune in for this powerful conversation. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d like it if you’d give us a follow over on our Instagram @uvicbounce. We hope you join us for the conversation,