Researcher Life: Mindfulness

I am in the final stages of my PhD work. This, for me, means unstructured work hours, writing multiple articles parallelly, and job hunting. I knew it would be a hectic, chaotic 2019; and I pride myself at being organized and well-prepared for such a feat. As 2018 was coming to an end and I saw 2019 looming before me, I could see my mind struggling to keep up. Around the same time, I started using Headspace, an app for mindfulness training. I instantly loved it and got an end-of-year discount on my subscription for 2019. So started my New Years Resolutions for 2019 – be more mindful.

In this post, I first chalk out how my experience with mindfulness and the Headspace app has been, and then invite you to join me as I try to close this year, as well as I started it – with many mindful moments each day.

(Disclaimer – although I used Headspace, this is not a promotional post. I happened to like the app and happened to get a discounted subscription for the year. The pictures below are screenshots I took from the app.)

What is Mindfulness?

Simply put – staying in the moment.

While this sounds clichéd, it is anything but. More often than not, our thoughts are engaged with things in the past, or in the future. These could simply be thoughts about things that just occurred or are going to occur, or events from a decade ago and scenarios that haven’t even happened yet. My mind (and I guess yours too?) loves making to-do lists, imagining different scenarios, wondering how things would have played out differently, or simply worrying if I switched off the stove before leaving home.

While I am not particularly bothered by my mind making elaborate dreams with dragons and unicorns, I am bothered when it uses its imagination to paint anxiety-causing pictures for me. Being mindful refers to the ability to stay in the moment, engage with the task at hand, for e.g. walking, eating or just focusing on your breath. The result is that you train yourself to observe your thoughts from afar, without engaging with them.

Mindfulness has been studied so extensively that I’m genuinely confused about what to link here. I will say that Ted talks are a good entry into the subject, Netflix’s ‘The Mind, Explained’ has a very comprehensive episode on it, and the app I used, Headspace, also publishes research articles on its website. If you are interested, I really recommend engaging with this content.

An analogy I particularly like, that has been referred to in many of these videos and talks, is that of the monkey mind. This is a metaphor comparing the mind to a monkey that wants to constantly swing from one branch to another, jump around all the time. When we are mindful, we train the monkey to calm down and sit still.

You already know what this feels like.

You may never have been in a meditation session and all the above may sound too philosophical to you. Yet, I can guarantee, that you have at some point experienced what it feels to be mindful. Do you have a hobby? Do you dance? Do you go rock climbing? Do you paint? Do you enjoy gardening? Do you enjoy cooking? Have you ever had really good sex? Have you spent an hour at the gym that left you aware, energetic and calm all at the same time? If you’ve had good experiences with even a few of the above, you know what I mean.

The feeling when you are one with the activity and every element in it. You are aware of the sights and sounds and how your body feels. If there are thoughts, they are pertaining to the activity at hand. Like, when I’m trying to create a recipe. Even if I’m just adding leftover things from my fridge to mix into pasta, my mind is completely focused on how to make this dish the tastiest it can be. Will the leftovers go best with roasted garlic, or should I add some rosemary and put it in the oven?

My experience with Headspace.

I diligently started my mindfulness training on 01.01.2019 and did it every day till the end of Feb. Sometimes multiple times a day, for around 7 weeks. In fact, I had set myself a 100-day milestone and I’m pretty sure I still used it regularly for the first 100 days of the year.

I started with their basics course, but quickly moved on to courses on focusing better, finding appreciation, better sleep, patience, managing anxiety and so on. The good things about these courses are that they introduce a concept (such as ‘monkey mind’) or a technique (such as ‘body scan’) and help you master these over the course’s progression. Some courses are a few days long, others a few weeks. Some even combine different techniques and build on each other. All of them start with a guided part, but as you move on, they let you spend more and more time alone with your mind.

Apart from the courses, you can do daily meditations focused on different topics. I enjoyed their sessions on mindful eating and walking. I also used sessions on mindful presentations, listening to people and conversations when I was at conferences. And finally, the app sends you notifications in the form of mindful moments reminding you to be mindful throughout the day. These are usually really good, not clichéd, one-liners to bring you back to the moment. Recently, you also have the opportunity to join live sessions with dozens if not hundreds of people from across the world.

In all, using the Headspace app, I’ve completed 190 sessions and mediated for 47 hours since the start of this year, until writing this post on 31.10.2019. While this may feel a lot, let’s keep in mind that this was across 300 days.

My consistency with mindfulness

I hope it’s clear by this point that mindfulness exercises really helped me. Here comes the conflict though – I reduced the exercises considerably from March on, and haven’t used the app at all from July to October. Why was this?

At first, it was because I was travelling for a lot of conferences this year, starting end of Feb. I lost the discipline I had instilled early on. This wasn’t too bad since the intense 7 weeks at the start of the year had made me mindful enough to realize when my mind was being a monkey, and when I needed the app. This meant that I was still using the app before my talks, during travel, when I felt under the weather, or particularly anxious about something. Like I said earlier in the post, the first 100 days of the year was still pretty regular. Without the pressure of the 100-day mark or that of my established routine though, I quickly fell out of my newly acquired habits and went back to letting my mind jump around.

Once I stopped completely, I quickly noticed an increase in periods of rumination and a decrease in productive focus. I’d like to note here that this isn’t particularly bad. I’m still as organized and productive as I was before I started the mindfulness training. I’ve submitted two articles and written the draft for a third one in the time where I wasn’t using Headspace. But the benefits I felt in the early months of 2019, quickly went away once I stopped. It’s the same with any other skills and benefits too. As long as I do yoga regularly, I definitely feel its benefits on my body. If I stop for a few days or weeks, the benefits may stay but I would start to notice strained muscles. If I stop for months, I can feel every muscle in my body cringing and crying. This doesn’t mean my muscles are worse than if I would never have done yoga. It just means my awareness of how bad they anyways would have felt, has increased.

Now that I have explained my 10-month long journey with mindfulness, I would invite you to join me in the second goal of this post. Just as I started 2019 with intense mindfulness training, so would I like to end it.

I want to engage in mindfulness practices every day from 1st Nov to 31st Dec 2019. I invite you to join this journey with me.

  • Pick a time of day that works every day for the next 8 weeks.

You could say something like just as soon as you wake up, or before going to bed. Or you could connect it with an activity like after brushing your teeth or after breakfast. I am not travelling much during this time and I will be flexible enough to be able to set my routine. I will do this every morning before starting work, and if possible, another 10-minute session at the end of the workday as well.

  • Decide how you will do it.

You could use an app you like or just videos online. If you’ve had previous training with any form of meditation, you could try that instead. Or you could simply try and be mindful of your breakfast each day (how your food smells, tastes, feels in your mouth). I also like the advice I got from one of the Headspace videos – do an activity with your non-dominant hand once in a while. I tried brushing my teeth with my left hand once. It was such a foreign experience that I had to really connect to it to be able to do it effectively. Another exercise is to realize when you are ruminating and start naming things you see around you to stop the rumination and bring your mind to the present again. You can pick whatever works for you.

  • Do it!

You can be assured I will. Get in touch if you’d like to form a system with more accountability.

I’m sure it’s been a long and eventful 2019 for you as well. We deserve to give our minds a little treat each day for the rest of this year. Let’s commit to making the monkey calmer for the last 8 weeks of 2019.

5 Comments

  1. It is never too early to make new year’s resolution, so why not start today?! This blog is going to make me accountable.

  2. A small kiddo have known has matured and how !
    Time for this old monkey to learn a few life lessons from her !!
    Will definitely try to work on it…
    Proud of you my dear !!!

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