PhDs and the Art of Zen

I could have called this post “Zen and the art of PhDs”, discussing spiritual philosophy and how you can apply it to improve your practice of studying for a PhD. But instead I am going to focus on how you can develop a useful practice that can be applied to your life through the necessity of managing PhD study. And while it’s called an ‘art’- you don’t need to become a master- it is a practice in progress.

So here are 3 tips to help you develop a practice of Zen that you can take out into your PhD life and beyond. They may sound deceptively simple, but be warned: it is not as easy as it sounds!

1. Don’t forget to breathe.
Breathe in. Now breathe out. Drop your shoulders. I bet you didn’t even know you were tensing them!
Being busy creatures we often forget to do the most simplest of things- breathe. I don’t mean that we stop breathing completely (fainting is a fairly efficient way to make you remember to breathe). What I mean is that we often forget to do the deep breathing that provides oxygen to your brain and nourishes your internal organs– not to mention calming your nervous system. Most of us these day are shallow breathers, when we breathe in our chests expand, but our stomachs don’t. A good deep breath right down to your belly can change your physiological reaction to just about anything. Upcoming Research Progress Panel meeting? No problem, breathe. Conference presentation? It’s all good, breathe. Looming thesis submission deadline? You guessed it- breathe!
In fact there is nothing that you cannot handle, if you can just focus on your breathing.
I like to think of this as Buddha breathing- not only will the act of deep breathing help you to calm your mind, but you’ll feel sufficiently zen by imagining yourself as a Buddha. Give it a try- go on, imagine you are a Buddha, with a big smile and fat belly. Put your hands on your stomach and breathe in all the way down so that your breath moves your hands by pushing your belly out.
By focusing your energies on breathing, you may just find yourself letting go of unhelpful thoughts, and instead allowing room for thoughts that can inspire you. In this great TED Talk on breathing, Brad Lichtenstein points out the connection between breathing and inspiration (both derived from the same word for spirit), and its link to health.

2. Be mindful.
I am a multi-tasking champion and have been known to be reading and note-taking, making dinner, and supervising children’s homework all at the same time. However, it’s not an ideal situation and usually involves me having to re-read the article, burning the dinner, and getting yelled at by one of my children for not understanding the maths question. This is when I remember that it is important to be present in the moment and give your full attention to whatever you are doing.
Mindfulness can be thought of as just being present. This means being attentive in both body and mind, and focusing on the circumstances before you. It means being where you are right now with acceptance, without judging, or controlling, or trying to be somewhere else (or do something else).
For me, this means reminding myself (at least 10 times a day) that I need to breathe deeply (see my first point), that though mind wants to race ahead, I don’t have to be doing anything else than what I am focused on right now. Everything else can wait at least for the moment.
Some people call this meditation. And if you have the time, sitting quietly for even just 10 minutes a day and focusing on the moment has a load of benefits, such as helping to reduce stress and increase positive thoughts.
If that is not enough to entice you to do it, then maybe the incentive of more brain power will. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of mindfulness as a practical form of mediation, has been researching its benefits at the University of Massachesuts Medical School for some time now. Apart from the previously mentioned stress relief, practicing mindfulness can also increase the brain’s density in areas linked to learning and memory. Not to mention regulating your emotions, boosting your immune system, and improving your relationships (I don’t want to argue now honey, I’m meditating!)
So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by theories, methodologies, ideas, the demands of work, children, relationships, or pretty much life in general, just stop and sit for ten minutes and just be.

3. Get out of your head.
Reading, writing, and research are hard work. It is also mental work. When I say mental, I mean that you’re always in your head- but you can also read mental as crazy, too, if you like 🙂
Spending a lot of time thinking and usually sitting is all work that can make Jack a very dull boy (one who probably ends up with a sore back from sitting at a computer and neck strain from hunching over one too many books). The best way to combat this is to balance yourself by getting back into your body, and by this I mean exercise.
My preferred choice of exercise is yoga. Yoga is great for stretching out those muscles that become tense when your main activity involves sitting in front of a screen. But yoga also builds strength, uses the breath, and you guessed it- is a form of active meditation. In fact, just 15 minutes of yoga is enough to take me from feeling ‘blah’ to feeling like I can tackle the next challenge.

So, as I go off to do some Star Wars Yoga (I’m not joking- see below), I’m going to leave you with the words of the famous Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Follow your breathing, dwell mindfully on your steps and soon you will find your balance”

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