Today marks the beginning of the third (and hopefully final) year of my PhD in mindfulness and movement. And of course I had to write a blog post in honour of this day. If you would like some more context, feel free to check out some earlier posts dedicated to my PhD journey (or in fact all previous posts in this blog, as I started Maybe Mindful in the first year of my PhD!). I have written about the problems of mindfulness as a research area, being too busy to write, what doing a PhD in mindfulness has taught me about doing a PhD, and, most recently, about the terror that is the second year of a PhD cycle.
Today, I want to appreciate how far I have come, but also acknowledge the long road ahead. Today I am looking forward. Most importantly, today I am setting my intentions for the following year.
While “finishing my thesis”, “publishing a paper”, and other such tasks are fairly obvious in terms of what I want to achieve this year, my intentions are quite different. I encourage other PhD students (and even non-students) who are reading this to join me in setting our intentions for the year (or decade) to come. For some, a year starts on the 1st of January; for me, a year starts today!
Intention 1 – Breathe in, breathe out
I believe my meditation and mindfulness practice has gotten me this far, and I intend to maintain it for the foreseeable future (which is really to say from day to day). Sometimes, all we need when are stressed or anxious are a few minutes in which we can reconnect with the breath, relax, and return to the present moment.
To start, try this breathing meditation practice from Mindful.org.
Intention 2 – Gratitude goes a long way
I have written about gratitude over and over and over again in my blog. But for the final year of my PhD, the practice of gratitude seems essential. It is easy to be grateful for the good things, especially for things that we work very hard to achieve (like getting a paper published, finishing a thesis chapter, or getting accepted for a conference presentation). But it is also easy to get caught up in accomplishments and achievements, rather than being grateful simply for what is. And I intend to be grateful for things that are beyond my control, that are not dependent on my achievements – things that simply are (like my family and friends, getting a day off, or “simply” being alive).
There are many great gratitude journals out there, which may help you with you gratitude practice, for instance My Gratitude Attitude Journal.
Intention 3 – One foot in front of the other
All too often, we fail to appreciate that small steps mean progress, too. Sometimes one foot in front of the other is better than a double-legged leap to the finish line (this is a lesson I bring to my yoga practice every day!). Even more often, we forget that standing still can be important for progress as well (a lesson I learned through my driving practice). And we almost never see that taking a step back does not always mean backtracking. Progress is not linear; progress is up and down, left and right, forward and backward. More than anything else, progress is standing still, staying with the present moment, and appreciating where you are at this point in time.
Ultimately, progress is limiting, while intentions are expansive, so learn to focus on intention rather than progress.
Intention 4 – Present mind, happy life
Speaking of being in the present moment, it is equally important to be present in your mind. Which simply means being attentive to what you are doing and doing only one thing at a time. How often in the last two years of my PhD have I checked my emails every time a notification popped up, only to realise that I have not made progress on the paper I was working on by the end of the day? Worse still, how often in the last two years have I had an evening at home with some good food and a movie, only to be distracted by work tasks? Maybe “the best of both worlds” is actually a flawed and unattainable concept and instead, we should aim for “the very best of this world”, by focusing on (and enjoying) one thing at a time.
To practice staying with one task, try the Pomodoro Technique.
Intention 5 – I’m only human after all
A PhD is challenging, rewarding, difficult, exciting, and, if you love the field you are in, absolutely fascinating! But we are not robots. And success does not always look like a 12-hour day in the office crunching stats. Sometimes, it is going home early, taking time off, sleeping in, having a long lunch break with colleagues, or taking regular breaks throughout the day to eat, drink, meditate, nap, socialize, or simply rest.
Check out the Headspace app for some short meditation breaks.
Intention 6 – I can go with the flow
And when things do get difficult (which they will), turn out differently than I plan (which they do), or even seem hopeless (which they never actually are), I will simply go with the flow. Humans are nothing if not adaptable, despite how much we sometimes fear change and the unknown. But life is not ours to control. Life is to live, explore, experience, and celebrate, all of which requires some degree of flexibility. The easiest way to surf is to ride the waves; the easiest way to kill a fire is to let it burn itself out; the easiest way to win an argument with a stubborn person is to just let them talk; the easiest way to succeed is to not be afraid of failure; and the easiest way to enjoy life is to go with the flow.
Read the 12 Practical Steps for Learning to Go With the Flow from Zen Habits.
On a final note, I want to acknowledge Lindsay Taraban, who has summarised PhD life flawlessly:
“Graduate school is hard. There’s no doubt about it. We are overworked, underpaid, constantly pushed outside of our comfort zones, desperate for the approval of our advisors, disappointed in data that didn’t pan out and stuck inside writing on a Saturday afternoon when we’d much rather be at the park.”
But maybe with a little bit of mindfulness practice, some intention, and loads of gratitude, we can learn to actually enjoy the challenge! 🙂