Meditating your way to a calmer Phd.

Today I am re-committing to a daily meditation practice.

Many of you know that I double as a yoga teacher and meditation goes hand-in-hand with yoga.  (In fact, the main purpose of a physical yoga practice, asana, is to prepare your body physically for long periods of sitting in meditation).  Over the years I have had a fluctuating meditation practice, but, I do know that I feel better when I meditate regularly.  I am able to make better decisions, have more clarity of mind and am able to handle stress with much more grace than I have been lately!  But recently I have found myself saying, more often than not, that I do not have time to meditate.

It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that PhD students often experience high levels of anxiety and stress (some blog posts here and here) and I can see why – it is quite the juggling act, can be a very isolating process and not everyone gets a lot of support from supervisors (I’m lucky!) and colleagues.  Meditation is one technique that can help to experience a much calmer (and more enjoyable) PhD candidature.  (For serious anxiety or depression it is important to consult a professional – try your university student support or Lifeline).

There is more and more research on the benefits of meditation and I could use this blog post to review and critique the literature and try and convince you with scientific evidence that meditation is a good idea.  But I’m not going to do that (and not just because it feels like work :p).  I think that the benefits of meditation are best demonstrated through experiential learning.  So it’s time to sit still and just be.

How do I meditate?

First you need to find a (fairly) quiet space – I am lucky enough to live only 2 minutes walk from home and my office is usually just me – but even a nice outdoor spot in a park can work (I have taken a nap in the middle of the Great Court at UQ St Lucia and meditated at a train station in Sydney – public spaces are fine!).  Then find a comfortable sitting position.  Ideally your hips are above your knees, so sit on a cushion if you can, but even sitting in your office chair will work well.

It is important to set a timer so you don’t worry about drifting off for too long.  I usually meditate for 15-20 minutes but you do not have to do that long.  CONSISTENCY is key – it’s going to be more beneficial to do 5 minutes a day seven days a week than 15 minutes a day sporadically.

There are many different meditation techniques and I’m a bit of meditation-whore – I like to mix it up!  So experiment – find the one that works for you (google is your friend).  Since my 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat last year I am partial to that technique but if your mind is particularly wild when you sit to meditate or you are new to meditation simply counting your breaths is a simple and effective practice.  Close  the eyes, relax the shoulders, but draw the crown of the head so you’re not slumping.  And then on each exhale, starting at 10, count down to 1.  Once you reach 1, start again at 10.  If you find your mind is drifting and you’ve lost count just gently draw the attention back to the breath and start at 10 again.

So many of my friends and students tell me ‘I can’t meditate.  My mind just won’t stay still’.  And that is part of the practice!  My mind constantly wanders, some days more frantically than others, but it is the practice of becoming aware of what your mind is doing, where it goes and then re-focussing the attention.  Some days I’ll spend the whole session writing a piece in my head – as much as I try to bring the attention back to the breath it keeps returning to that piece of work.  And sometimes (not all the time) I let it.

I find that if I meditate regularly the hours I spend not meditating (everything minus the 15 minutes of sitting still) are more productive and more calm.


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