Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stay on your mat

This is not about training a dog to stay in one place.

All during Sunday's run (which, to briefly recap, was a race that was farther than I usually run) I kept thinking about my yoga teacher's advice to "stay on your mat."

It is not physical presence that she's referring to, but rather mental presence. Her injunction is about focusing on your own practice and finding what works for you so that you can grow in a manner appropriate to your own situation. Her concern in telling us to stay on our mat is about keeping our attention on our own practice, rather than focusing on the practice of others.

During the race, I kept telling myself to stay on my mat--to listen closely to what my body had to say to me and to pace myself accordingly. I let the other runners do their running at the pace they wanted, and, although it was a race, I didn't get into a race with them.

It is difficult to stay on our own mats. People tell us one thing and another. The media bombard us with images, ideas and suggestions. We compare ourselves to others. We try to keep up with the Joneses, as the saying goes.

This outward focus is not useful. Yes, of course, as researchers we need to look outside ourselves. And yes, of course, we want to be able to learn from and admire and even imitate others and their work. But ultimately, we must learn to develop our own voice. We must find our own thing to say, our own way of presenting ideas--something coherent, preferably--something that comes from inside; something that comes from really internalizing the research done and developing that into your own, carefully developed view.

The greater your awareness of your own situation, and the greater your presence within your own voice, the easier it is to use that which you can see in the world around you. When you are centered in your own voice, then, as an academic writer, it becomes easier to engage with the work of other researchers and theoreticians: your own voice provides a guide.

My premise is that, unless you are actually in a race for the sake of racing, you should be able to see the projects you engage in as part of a larger life: sometimes there may be reason to work yourself into the ground, but for the most part, what really matters is protecting and nurturing the ability to engage in life fully the next day, too.

By staying on your mat, by focusing your attention inward, and by understanding who you are and what is suitable for you, you are best able to care for yourself, thus protecting your ability to profit from both today and tomorrow.

And in the world of dissertation writing, it is the process of staying on one's own intellectual mat--by understanding your own abilities and situation--that you are able to develop your own voice and to use the ideas and examples of others in a way that works with your voice, rather than against it.

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