Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

What is Mindfulness?

People started recommending meditation to me when I was in high school. I, because I am at heart a contrarian, resisted the idea forever - I had no desire to sit "with my mind" because my mind was often a hostile place, swirling and negative and anxious. 

But then, a therapist introduced me to a similar but distinct concept: mindfulness. Her basic explanation was that mindfulness was any time that you made an effort to be present and notice what was happening right now. Sometimes this is physical, and sometimes this is mental, and sometimes both, but it was always about what was happening now, rather than what had happened or what will happen. 

(A note: I am, for the purposes of this write-up, presenting mindfulness as it exists colloquially or in a therapeutic context. I am aware of, and actually a practitioner, of mindfulness as a Buddhist practice, but that is another post for another time.) 

The opposite of mindfulness is distraction. For me, this can look like: scrolling through Twitter, and looking up to see that 20 minutes have gone by, going for a run and replaying the conversation I had two weeks ago, or sitting down to write only to find myself answering emails and shopping for a fountain pen I have no intention of buying. It isn't bad, necessarily - we all spend most of our days in some version of this state. No one can be perfectly mindful all the time. But, the thinking goes, the more distracted we are, the harder it is to identify, and eventually change, unhelpful patterns, habits, and thoughts. 

Okay, I said - how do I get to be less distracted? How do I get to be more mindful? And, most importantly, why would I want to be mindful about something that objectively sucked (difficult emotions, challenging situations, pain of any kind, etc)? 

The most frequent path to mindfulness 

The first, and most common, path into mindfulness is some kind of attention to the breath. Lots of us have (probably) been told to take a deep breath at some point in our lives, often as a remedy to an overwhelming situation. It is no surprise, then, that many mindfulness practices take the breath as the starting point. We breathe all day and all night with little to no conscious intervention - like blinking - but we can also choose to breathe on purpose. Long, slow, deep breathing has also been shown to slow stress responses, and by paying attention to the breath, one can shift towards a longer, slower, deeper breath. For me, at least, the breath is helpful because it is always there, and I can always choose to pay attention to it, or not. Even a few seconds of breathing in and out can help me get out of my head as it spins in a thousand different directions and focus back on the task at hand. And if I wander off, I can check in on my breath again with no one around me being any the wiser. 

Common places/activities that can benefit directly from a mindful breath:

  • 30 seconds during a writing break
  • Yoga 
  • Before bedtime
  • Cardio activity
  • In transition points between activities
  • Any time you feel stressed or anxious 

Why would I want to be more aware of things that are unpleasant?

This continues to be my most vexing question about mindfulness. It seems counterintuitive to pay attention to how your body and mind feel and react during stressful or unpleasant situations. Everyone has their own experience, but I have absolutely found that mindfulness has helped me work with/around my anxiety. 

I have a few physical giveaways that I am feeling anxious. I start to fidget, I pull on my left thumb, I start to tense up in my shoulders and back. I can also start to have headaches, or stomachaches, or even nausea. Before a more conscious mindfulness practice, I would surface from a day of writing or teaching feeling physically drained, sore, and not hungry at all. Despite those symptoms lasting for a good part of the day, I was only aware of them after the fact. I literally wouldn't notice what my body was doing, or how I was physically feeling, until after the period of stress or anxiety was over, or had abated a little bit. 

Mentally, it was much of the same cloud. I would be working on something but my mind would be wandering. I would sit down to read a book and all the sudden remember that I hadn't planned dinner, and off I went. Or I would be writing, and feel so anxious about the writing that before I knew it, I had responded to every email in my inbox in excruciating detail. I wasn't disassociating - I knew that I had switched to email, or I knew I was surfing for recipes, but I wasn't always aware of the choice I was making to switch tasks, or how long I had really spent on any task. 

Mindfulness gave me the tools to stop myself and say "okay, how did you get on to Twitter again?" I would notice that I was on Twitter, and stop myself to say - what made me open the tab? Did I have a research question I needed to answer or was writing starting to feel uncomfortable in some way so I switched tasks. Or, if I found myself tapping my leg, I could take a few deep breaths and say - "what is making you feel anxious right now?" To be perfectly clear, I still feel anxious sometimes. I'm just getting better, through mindfulness, of noticing the concrete symptoms of my abstract mental rhythms, and adjusting my behavior more quickly than I would have before. Rather than avoiding my anxiety, or pretending it didn't exist, I am more familiar with it and its rhythms, letting me recognize it, and deal with it. 

Are you mindful? 

There's a great measure that I have been given in various therapeutic settings to measure mindfulness. I am NOT offering this as a diagnostic tool - only medical professionals can do that - but as a way to check your own practices. Here's the link to the study about its effectiveness as a tool, and here's the sheet itself for you to fill out. 

If you find that you're circling a lot of low numbers on the sheet, I encourage you to think about incorporating some mindfulness into your routines. 

  • At the bottom of this post you'll find some (disclosure: affiliate) links to some of my favorite books about mindfulness from a variety of viewpoints. 
  • Follow me and Rebecca Enderby, of Enderby Yoga, as we talk mindfulness on Twitter every other Monday under the hashtag #MindfulPhD . We start Monday, 8/7, with a day of questions, conversation and resources! 
  • Or enjoy this desktop background that I made with a quote about mindfulness from one of my favorite teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh - sometimes simple reminders to slow down and be present do wonders!