A Beginners Guide to Mindfulness in Academia

by | Feb 14, 2017

The term “mindfulness” has been increasingly thrown around in recent years. It get attached to everything from meditation to work life balance to self-care.

But what does mindfulness actually mean? How do you put it into practice?

According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Center, “mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” Mindfulness implies an attentiveness that is grounded in the present moment and yourself within it. It is the simple idea (yet challenging act) of being here now, of acknowledging what that looks and feels like without judging those reflections.

Mindfulness as a practice is intimately related to Buddhist meditation. It this sense, it is intentional, something that you do purposefully. It is about focusing your attention on where you are right now and how you’re feeling, gently but consistently returning your thoughts to this place if they wander (as thoughts often do).

Mindfulness has also been incorporated into Western psychotherapy to help people cope with anxiety, improve their memory and focus, reduce reactive responses, and encourage “cognitive flexibility,” or the ability to develop new, more productive ways to dealing with stressors.

Greater focus, peace, and self-awareness are powerful tools in an academic culture of late capitalism that increasingly demands more of our labor, time, and attention. Mindfulness can help fortify us physically, mentally, and emotionally in times of great personal and social distress, and help us cope with activist burnout by encouraging us to make a concerted effort to check in with ourselves patiently and diligently. In other words, mindfulness, like any mode of intentional self-care in a time of great bodily and intellectual demand, can be a radical act.

So how can we practice mindfulness amidst the hustle and bustle of academic life? Mindfulness is a highly personal endeavor; it is about facing yourself with honesty and compassion. That said, there are some specific things to keep in mind as you begin to develop a mindfulness practice of your own.

Put it on your calendar

In our hectic days full of competing priorities, it can be especially challenging to fold in something new. Carve out space for mindfulness on your calendar and commit to it during that time.

If you can, schedule daily time for mindfulness. If weekly or monthly is all you can manage, that’s fine too.

Try scheduling your mindfulness practice at the beginning or end of your day to either prepare yourself for or place some distance between you and the fast pace of the workday. If that is not possible, reflect on what hour of day you tend to feel most alert and present, and see if you can book some time for mindfulness then.

Find a quiet space without distractions

Once you’ve set aside the time, decide where you will practice. You can technically practice mindfulness anywhere, but if at all possible, try finding a space that already brings you calm, that is not somewhere you work. Ideally, it would be a place that you can access regularly, bringing consistency and stability to your practice.

Don’t overdo it

Setting aside time for mindfulness doesn’t have to mean blocking out hours of your day. Meditation is challenging, especially at the beginning. Set approachable expectations at the start of your practice; For example, capping it at 5–15 minutes is a good place to begin.

Showing up matters

Mindfulness is not about success or failure. Remember, your thoughts will drift, your mind will wander. When it does, nudge it gently back to the moment at hand, without judgment. Acknowledge to yourself how important it is that you showed up.

Break it down

Mindfulness at its core is about being aware of yourself in the present moment, but what does that actually look like in practice?

Once you’ve found a time and space in which to be mindful, place yourself in a comfortable but aware position. Whether sitting or standing or something in between, be intentional in how you place each part of your body. Notice how each part of your body feels, whether there are passing sensations or discomfort that lingers. Acknowledge too the emotions that your bodily sensations bring up.

Next, try focusing on your breathing. You don’t necessarily have to count your breaths in and out, but pay attention to how it feels to breathe. Be aware of how your environment is shaping your mindfulness practice, but if you have set a timer, make sure you are not just waiting around to be “saved by the bell.”

It will not always feel good

Just as mindfulness is not something you succeed at, it is also not something designed to make you feel good. The purpose of mindfulness practice is to come as you are, to access whatever you’re feeling in your body and mind at this present moment. Be honest with yourself about the sensations you encounter, and don’t try to change them. Exist with them, acknowledge them, then let them pass.

The goal is not increased productivity

Mindfulness has also taken ahold of the American workforce, with many workplaces incorporating mindfulness exercises and practices into their day. Academic spaces in particular can make undue demands on our time and effort, pushing us to “publish or perish.”

Although schools or businesses making structured mindfulness time during the day or offering guided meditation can on the surface help reduce office stress, mindfulness’s incorporation into professional spaces can be a double-edged sword. Try to resist approaching mindfulness as a tool to help you become a better, more focused worker. Instead see it as a tool to help you become a more attuned version of yourself.

It may not be for you (and that’s okay)

As we’ve explored here, mindfulness can be a tool to help replenish you amidst the stress of daily life. But that doesn’t mean it is an approach that works for everyone. Some people have reported headaches, tension, and increased anxiety after practicing mindfulness.

Remember that being mindful requires awareness and honesty about how mindfulness as a practice impacts you personally. Trust yourself; if something is off, stop.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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