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Begin with what you don’t know: An end of year reflection and meditation for academics

W.S. Merwin, who was recently the Poet Laureate of the United States, grew up in New York City. As a child, he had a recurring nightmare of concrete covering all the green areas of the earth. His whole life, and all his poetry and writing, has had the aim of serving to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

We academics are an anxious group. Will my article be accepted? Will I get tenure? Will my department survive the next round of budget cuts? We can get stuck in endless cycles of worry.

In an interview with Jack Myers and Michael Simms in their book, Ecopoetry, W.S. Merwin teaches us that it is exactly this place from which poetry and writing and creating come:

I think that poetry, and maybe all writing, certainly everything we do to some degree, does not come out of what you know, but out of what you don’t know. And one of the great superficialities of positivistic thinking is the assumption that things evolve out of what you know. Nothing evolves out of what you know. You don’t move from what you know to something else you know. And it’s the unknown that keeps rendering possibilities.

When we open to what we don’t know, we also open to the emotions connected to this unknowing. And, as I have encountered again and again in coaching academics, connecting emotionally to an event or situation is essential for coming to clarity and balance—and to moving forward with our work.

Let’s open our hearts through a very gentle, guided meditation. You can do this by simply reading the following slowly and mindfully, occasionally closing your eyes to go within. Or you can listen to me reading the meditation at

Open your heart to this…

Take a moment to close your eyes and breathe deeply. Allow your belly to rise on the inhalation and fall on the exhalation. This sends a signal to our parasympathetic nervous system—the heartbeat, blood pressure, and other automatic systems of the body—that it is okay to relax, and slow down, and let go.

Take an event or situation from your life that you are currently worried or concerned or sad about, and let this situation rise up in front of you. You might sense it as a presence in front of you—something outside of you, against you. Be with this feeling.

Then imagine this situation shrinking and becoming smaller. Keep going until it is smaller than your hand. You might feel some resistance; that’s okay. It’s the same kind of resistance that we might feel when first working with clay, warming and stretching it with our fingers.

As the situation becomes smaller, a tiny crack of compassion for the situation opens in you. You might sense how limited or vulnerable or prone to pain it is.

Next, imagine taking this small thing into your heart. Let your heart shelter it. At this point, you might begin to feel some sorrow. A sense of loss. Tears. You might feel like a child again—you want something and you are not getting it, and it makes you sad. Empty. Stay with this feeling.

Because in this emptiness, in this sadness, there is an opening. You begin to expand your heart to take in all the situations, all the people, all the natural world that has also experienced such loss.

Imagine your heart expanding to take all of this in. It may be scary at first, but breathe through the fear and begin to sense light, and warmth, as your heart connects to a greater source.

It is no longer simply your heart, it is the world’s heart, and it holds all of us in it.

We see now how small we humans are, how brief our time on earth is, and how careful we must be with such littleness.

Now allow your attention to rest in your breath. Feel the intake of air and the rising of your belly, and then exhale and feel how, when you let something go, you get closer to the ground.

In your breath, the situation dissolves and becomes part of you; it is no longer something outside of you to fight or resist.

It is you, connected to you, as you are connected to your breath and something greater.

Gently return your attention to your body, in the present time, in the present season. Stretch and look around.

Reflect on this …

Take some time now to open your journal and record what you learned and experienced during the meditation. What did you see? What did you feel? What did you remember? What did you realize? What did you not know that opened you up to an insight?

Cassie Premo Steele

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is the author of 13 books and works as an academic writing coach. She designed her Feminar class as a way to introduce mindfulness and feminist theory to women academics to inspire their writing, research and teaching while also tending to their own self-care. The next one starts in January.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Text & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.