Sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE, Siddhartha Gautama wandered the villages and forests of eastern India, drawing a growing crowd of disciples. This man, who would come to be known as the Buddha, taught that existence is fleeting, yet too often ruined by our own desires. Cravings for sensuality, identity, money, and prestige create a never-ending cycle of greed that defines our lives. Mindfulness, he argued, was essential to breaking out of this cycle. By focusing our attention on the present moment and purposefully allowing other distractions to fall away, we can see the reality of our own emotional, mental, and physical state. We simply notice, without judgment, and over time, the results can be extraordinary.
In the context of your graduate education, it’s easy to lose sight of the present as you become immersed in your work, harried by meetings, and consumed by deadlines. It is an unquestionably stressful time; mindfulness can alleviate that stress.
Benefits of focusing the mind
Since the journey of Siddhartha, Eastern religions have promoted mindfulness as a way to achieve a higher level of spirituality and free up the inner energy we need to see what is truly important. More recently, psychologists throughout the West have turned their attention to its benefits. It’s been found to strengthen one’s grasp of reality, attention span, level of self-knowledge, and openness to new experiences. It reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. It positively impacts social interactions, decreasing violence between prison inmates and calming anxious children at school. Mindfulness also strengthens us physically: it improves the body’s reaction to stress, the #1 aggravator of physical illness; strengthens the immune system; and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. It also raises our consciousness of how our body feels, leading us to make healthier choices.
Mindfulness in graduate school
Of course, we’re not all spending our days sitting underneath a Bodhi tree. In addition to the family, relationship, social, and financial commitments that demand your attention, you are also dealing with deadlines, exams, research, e-mails, planning, and other obligations while in graduate school. And while it’s necessary to make some sacrifices in order to do all of the things we love, the fact remains that the human brain was not designed for multitasking. It takes a toll on our memory, attention span, and body every day; over time, the effects can be catastrophic.
What can I do?
You really don’t need anything to practice mindfulness. Start by simply sitting for 10 minutes a day. Focus on your breath until your mind quiets itself—or if it doesn’t, notice your level of distraction.
If you’re the type of person who likes guidance, look for the many types of yoga that foster mindfulness; the physical movements are designed to relax the body and thus free up the mind. If yoga’s not your thing, you can likely find a wealth of meditation classes in your area, many open to the public and asking for nothing more than a donation, if anything. Apps like Headspace and SleepStream also offer guided meditation or soothing sounds to help you focus.
Be advised that mindfulness can also be uncomfortable in some ways. I’ve practiced yoga for years and find meditation difficult. It can lead to frustration, a feeling of wasted time, or even anger or sadness if deep fears or suppressed realizations rise to the surface. But this is all part of the work: the harder it is, the more progress you’re making.
In graduate school, where multitasking is at an all-time high, it’s a mistake not to allow your mind time to process unconscious thoughts and emotions. So somewhere in that calendar, leave yourself a few minutes a day to sit and unwind. You may be surprised at the positive effects it has on your attitude, your health—and even your thesis.