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A Week of Mindfulness and Thoughts on Value Judgments

18 July 2015

I learned something terribly important in the last few weeks, and it is really important to record it for my own reference going forward. I have returned this week from a Research Intensive at my university, on the topic of Mindfulness and how that works with our creativity. For me it meant a week to fully immerse myself in my novel, to try and unblock myself, and also to learn some things about Nature Mysticism and how it impacts on my creativity. Just why do I find it easier to be creative when immersed in nature? The week gave me lots of alone-time to do this, and it also gave me an opportunity to work with a group of other creatives, to give each other peer support. But it was feedback with a difference. We were not allowed to give each other value judgements about each other's work, unless it was specifically and explicitly asked for. We were working with Liz Lehrman's Critical Response Process, which goes like this:

Step 1 - Responders statements / summaries: a) The responder(s) briefly establish their own bias/relationship to the work shared. b) Then, without judgment, simply describe/list/summarize what you have seen/read/heard - what stands out/ what was meaningful/ memorable/ stimulating/ surprising?

Step 2 - Researcher as questioner: The researcher (very briefly) sets out the questions he/she has about the work shared.

Today I have been working on.... I am thinking about.... What is significant to me, today is... l have been tussling with ...

The researcher asks for specific areas of feedback...

b. I would like to hear your thoughts about ....(2 or 3 questions at the most) (again responses should be open and non-judgmental - the person giving feedback should try to locate their own bias and position or indeed lack of knowledge)

Step 3 - Neutral questions from the responders: Those offering feedback ask questions in as neutral a manner as possible - this is not about assessing quality value / significance - but a genuine effort questions to draw out details and ask some of the things you want to know about. No more than 3 questions in total.

NB. Asking neutral questions takes practice and attention.

Lerman has a nice example when she says: Judgmental question: 'Why is this cake so dry?' Neutral question: What was the texture you where after?'

An academic version might be: Judgmental question: 'Why are you so gender biased in your writing?' Neutral question: 'What is your thinking ubout the place of gender ín your research?'

Step 4. The responder may ask permission to offer opinions on a topic. 'l have a view on x'. Would you be interested to hear it?' The researchers may say yes or no. Opinions should kept be brief and not aggressive. Your opinion should be listened to and in turn the researcher may or may not respond as they wish. (no more than 3 opinions in total)

The researcher - in choosing not to hear a view - it may be that it isn't key question for you that day or in your research, it is something you already are dealing with or perhaps have discussed a lot already. In hearing an opinion - Try to avoid being defensive in your responses: but you might ask for clarification or specific input on the topic from the person who offered it.

The process is fascinating as you have to firstly face and state clearly what your own bias is to the topic - what are your own prejudices? Its a hard question to ask yourself. Also, while most of my experiences in academia have been pretty judgemental - I often hear people making the "I" statements - "I think", or "I would suggest" etc. What that indicates is that the person speaking isn't assessing the piece of work for its own sake, but for how it relates to them and what they know. Put it this way, I had to stop looking at other people's work through the lens of my own experiences and research and opinions, and start assessing my own research in the light of theirs instead. It turns the ego on its head.

When we make value judgements about anything, whether it is someone's creative work, their academic work, their behaviour or anything else, we are not making a judgement about them, but about ourselves. The old adage about when you point the finger, remember that three are pointing back at yourself springs to mind.

Having spent a week in which value judgements were only offered if asked for, and we're not sought as part of the day to day process, I have really felt freed by it. No longer did I need to think, 'is my work good enough? Am I good enough?' I just had the space to be, to think about what I wanted, and to create without the shackles of other people's opinions.

If they like my work, that is nice, but if they don't, that is really not my problem. And yes, you heard me right. It is really not my problem. We are so trained to value other people's opinions, and to seek approval. Goddamit my whole gender is disabled by this in-bred societal requirement to seek people's approval. And to step away from it, just for a week, was so freeing, I really don't want to go back there again.

Working in the voluntary sector, I am used to hearing this phrase bandied about, 'we are a non-judgmental organisation', but it is usually said and not always meant. Often the statement is followed by a value judgement of some kind. We may aspire to being non-judgmental. But that is not always what is practiced.

So I issue a challenge to myself in the coming weeks - really shake off the need for approval. It does not automatically open the way to conflict, but instead you might get something that is closer to your authentic self, and your actual needs. Notice when you are offering a judgement, or receiving a judgement, and just take the time to step back and notice it. If you can't change the need for it or step away completely from the requirement to receive it, then at least recognise it for what it is. Invariably it is all about the person giving the opinion, and not the one who is expected to receive it openly and with gratitude.

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