The Mindful PhD: A Beginning
I’ve never been much of a blogger—I don’t even follow many blogs—but here I start a blog series. Why? Based on my constellation of experiences and what I’ve been learning more recently, I have something to say to my fellow PhDs and PhDs-in-training.* But more about my story next time.
Not too long ago, I was introduced to the practice and science of mindfulness, and I’ve seen it take hold in medical schools, nursing schools, and increasingly K-12 classrooms. Yet I look around me at my university colleagues and friends and mentees and students, and I worry. I worry about their quality of life, their health, and their happiness. I worry about these things because they’ve suffered greatly in my life in recent years, and (pardon the cliché) I wish I knew then what I know now—particularly about mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? Put simply, it means being – here — now. Practicing mindfulness can counteract our habits of getting “lost in distraction, doing one thing while thinking of another, and acting reflexively or out of habit to both our emotional and real-life experiences” (Bertin, 2013). You may already know that it has a 2,500-year-old tradition in Buddhism and that it’s traditionally “other-focused,” intended to foster compassion, empathy, and altruism and—as a result—decrease suffering not only in ourselves but more significantly in others (Shapiro, et al, 2005; Bertin, 2013). Of course, these are fantastic goals, but that’s another conversation.
My immediate goal is to share with my colleagues and students how we can achieve some of the psychological, physiological, and cognitive effects of mindfulness to help us better lighten the impact of stress on our minds and our bodies. I reach out to my academic peers in particular because we’re a highly stressed bunch, despite some popular conceptions (Adams [hint: university professor was cited as “the least stressful job of 2013”]). We know we’re stressed, but there’s some interesting research on the specific stressors for those of us on college and university campuses. More about this research in the coming weeks.
In future posts, I’ll share some of the research on mindfulness (and there is a lot, most done by scientists looking directly at the brain and body, not just our perceptions); some of the research on stress for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates; and a little of my story for context. I’ll end each post with a single, simple practice you can take with you—into your classrooms, your committee meetings, your grading sessions, your office hours, your research and writing times, and your transitions into your home life.
This one is simple, brief, and more beneficial than you’ll realize at first. Much of the “effort” of mindfulness (and yes, those are ironic quotes) is grounded in the breath, so this practice is simply breathing:
- Sit comfortably but with alertness.
- Take a slow, deep, diaphragmatic breath—filling your belly and your lungs with air very slowly, and then releasing that air even more slowly. Notice how your chest and belly rise and fall.
- Notice your breath as you draw it in through your nose. Notice it as you very gently release it through your nose. Notice when it feels warm and when it feels cool.
- Don’t feel the need to breathe quietly. Instead, especially on your exhale, try what’s called the “ocean breath” or Ujjayi breath in yoga by breathing through the back of your throat, as if you were cleaning your glasses but with your mouth closed. Notice the sound of the ocean.
- When you’re ready, after you’ve tried it once reading these instructions, gently close your eyes. Repeat this breath three times. Notice its slow-deep-diaphragmatic-noticed-cool-warm-sonorous simplicity.
- Practice this breathing regularly, and as needed: before you walk into the classroom, the meeting room, someone else’s office, your front door. Notice the moment of calm.
* as well as those with or working toward other graduate degrees, too many to list elegantly
- Adams, Susan. (2013, Jan. 3). The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013. Forbes.
- Bertin, Mark. (2013, April 29) “Feed Your Brain, Feed Your Life: The Science of Everyday Mindfulness.” Huffington Post.
- Shapiro, Shauna L., Astin, John A., Bishop, Scott R., & Cordova, Matthew. (2005) “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results from a Randomized Trial.” International Journal of Stress Management12.2 164-176.
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