In the challenging time of doing your PhD, meditation may help you find a way of coping with stress, anxiety, and feeling lost. In this article, we put together everything you need to get started.
During your PhD, you might have the opportunity to attend soft skill training courses, such as ‘Effective Presentations’, ‘Scientific Writing’, or ‘Job Hunting’. I tried all of the above, and I encourage you to participate in whatever course you can, for they are usually worth it.
The story of this article starts in one of these seminars, one about ‘Mental Health’. In this seminar, I shared my positive experiences with meditation – and this is how I came to share it now with you.
Mental Health is a subject that some people react to with a defensive “I’m not crazy!”, while others consider it as utterly unimportant. But fortunately, times are changing, and people start to think differently. There is nothing weird about caring for your mental health. Quite the contrary, it’s weird that we’ve neglected mental health for so long. We care about our physical health, so why not do the same for our minds?
I’m a PhD student in physics at the end of my third year, and I started meditating about one year ago. So, obviously, I’m not a meditation expert. On the other hand, I know a lot about doing a PhD by now: As you might have heard, it’s a lot of work and involves plenty of stress, fun and frustration. This is why it is really beneficial to have activities that balance out the work load – music, sports, whatever serves you. In addition to these things outside your PhD, meditation can really help: It trains your mind towards more calmness, focus, and happiness.
Meditation is a practice known to almost any culture since ancient times. People have always meditated, and in many religions, meditation is contemplated as a path to wisdom. Modern psychology, neurobiology and medical science have started to dig into meditation as well: Many studies have shown that meditation aids to reduce depression, stress, anxiety, substance use disorders, eating disorders, psychosis and worry, and that it helps to enhance a healthy sense of self in terms of responsibility, authenticity, compassion, self-acceptance and character.
The kind of impact that meditation will have on your daily life will depend on you and the kind of meditation you practice. For me, doing my PhD, meditation is primarily about two things:
To get to know your mind
Getting to know your mind means to get to know yourself, which means to know your wounds – leading to acceptance, tolerance, empathy, and love, towards yourself as well as towards others. I believe that, in the long run, this chain reaction is essential to reach what we all crave for in life: joy in every aspect of humanity. (For further reading I warmly recommend ‘the book of joy’ by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.)
To feel your body with kindness and love
Meditation also means to get to know yourself through your body. Western medicine has separated the mind and the body for a long time, trying to treat each part without considering the other. Nowadays, however, a lot of research shows what other cultures (e.g. traditional Chinese medicine) have known ever since: Body and mind are highly entangled and influence each other strongly. For further reading in German I recommend ‘Was uns krank macht was uns heilt’ by Christian Schubert and Madeleine Amberger.
So, in the end, body and mind are just two sides of the same coin, and meditation focusing on either of the two will lead to very much the same result: Awareness, happiness, empathy, love.
How to meditate?
Have you ever listened to your mind? If not, try it right now: Close your eyes and observe. Listen to the thoughts that come to the surface.
How did it go? Was there silence for some time? Or did you start thinking as soon as your eyes were closed? – It’s hard not to think, and that’s fine. Meditation is not about not thinking, and neither is it about thinking. Meditation is about listening to your thoughts, and then letting them go.
Another important aspect is your focus. Were you aware about all the thoughts that came up? Or did you drift away? – Drifting away happens all the time, and that’s also fine. Meditation is not about forcing your focus, and neither is it about losing yourself in thoughts. It’s about noticing when your thoughts drift away, and then gently coming back to being aware.
These are the basics. There is no tension nor effort necessary. Be aware and listen with curiosity, recognize and acknowledge thoughts when they bubble up and gently let them go, and when you slip out of this state of awareness, simply come back.
This may sound straight-forward, but is actually hard to do. A common way to make it easier is to place the focus on your breath. Another approach is to physically feel the body, focusing on different parts of it. There are, of course, many other ways, but let’s stick to these two, because they are what I have experience with. In the following, I’ll give you a roadmap to both methods so you can try them for yourself.
Meditation 1: Breath
The following sequence can last for however long you want to practice it. Beginners often find it easier to start with shorter sessions. The duration specified for each part is meant to be a rough orientation. You can continue with the next step whenever you feel ready. Don’t count seconds or watch the clock, keep your eyes closed and concentrate on the meditation.
Prepare (30/30/60 s)
- Make sure you cannot be disturbed for the next 5/10/20 minutes.
- Sit comfortably or lie on your back. Your eyes are open.
- Take a couple of deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- With an outbreath, slowly close your eyes.
Arrive (30/30/60 s)
- Perceive surrounding sounds and smells, let them come and go.
- Feel your body weight pressing into the ground.
Body scan (1/1/2 min)
- Start at the crown of your head and slowly scan downwards to your toes. Feel the sensations in every part of your body. Are you tense, relaxed, warm, cold, comfortable, restless?
- Don’t try to change anything, just perceive how your body feels.
Breath (2/7/14 min)
- Place your focus on your breath and observe it.
- Feel the parts of your body that move with your in- and outbreath.
- Optionally, count your breaths from one to ten, and then start with one again.
- When you have drifted away, simply continue at the number where you have left off.
Let go (30/30/60 s)
- Let go of any focus, let the mind wander.
- If the mind wants to think, let it think.
Come back (30/30/60 s)
- Perceive again your surroundings.
- When you are ready, open your eyes.
As you can see, the focus of this meditation lies on point 4, the breath, where you stay for most of the time. Still, the other parts of the session are important as well in order to prepare and conclude the meditation properly, so don’t skip them. Furthermore, it really helps your practice to do these steps every time and thereby building up a routine.
I adapted this routine from the Headspace App, which is really helpful to guide you through your practice. In the free test version, you can try guided meditations that basically follow the six steps described here. If you enjoy having a voice guiding you through (I do), I really recommend purchasing the App.
Meditation 2: Body
I found this meditation in Peter Schellenbaum’s “The Wound of the Unloved”. The book is worth reading twice, and the meditation really astonished me the first time I tried it out. While the breath-meditation described above is about listening to your thoughts and getting to know your mind, this meditation is about feeling your body. It will literally make you feel better.
The basics I described above still apply, only slightly modified: Be aware and feel with curiosity, recognize and acknowledge the feelings in your body, and when you slip out of this state of awareness, simply come back.
Start with points 1 and 2 from the breath meditation described above. Then proceed as follows:
- Feel your hands, move your focus into your palms and fingers.
- Stay there until you start to feel a tingling, prickling, warm sensation.
- You might feel your hands pulsating or vibrating.
- It will feel as if your hands have come alive.
Getting to feel this sensation may take some practice, so don’t give up if you feel nothing at the beginning. Keep trying, it’s worth it.
When you feel your hands as alive and full of a prickling sensation as they can be, continue with the rest of the body. Move up to your arms, your shoulders, chest, back, and stomach, continue downwards until you reach your feet, then finish up with your head. Pay attention to any part of your body: The head, for example, may be further divided into neck, throat, jaw, mouth, nose, eyes, cheeks, ears, forehead, and scalp.
It will be easier to feel some parts of your body than others. In some areas, you might experience a certain numbness, and it will be hard to get to the tingling sensation. These parts may hold an underlying tension, fear, or trauma, and this meditation can help to identify and solve them.
Feel your body with kindness and love, and it will wake up.
In some parts, especially the chest, you may experience knots of pain. Meet them with openness and gentleness. Be kind to your body. The pain might go away, but it also might not. If not, do not press the subject further and continue with another part of the body.
Feel your body with kindness and love, and it will wake up. When you have woken up your entire body, finish up with points 5 and 6 from the breath meditation.
This meditation takes as long as it takes. Don’t rush through, stay in every part of your body as long as it feels right. An interesting alternative is the freestyle version of this meditation, where you don’t follow a specific order of body parts anymore. Rather, you are attentive to which part of your body wants your focus, and then you stay there until you feel it being awake or until another part draws your attention. It’s a more intuitive and natural way, but I recommend first to get to know the meditation by following the order above before you try the freestyle version.
When you are familiar with the sensation I described above and the way to get there, incorporate it in your everyday life. You can always feel your body – not only during meditation – and you don’t necessarily have to run through all body parts. Whenever you have a free minute, guide your focus to your hands, your face, your stomach or any other part of your body, and feel it. It really makes a difference.
There’s one more practice from Peter Schellenbaum I want to mention. It’s not part of the body meditation, but can be really helpful anyway. Close your eyes, breathe deeply in and out and observe the flow of focus of your mind during the breath: Does it go outwards, towards the world, away from you? Or does it go inwards, towards you, into you?
There are four possibilities: During in- and outbreath, your focus flows only inwards, only outwards, out- and inwards, or in- and outwards. If you experienced one of the first three possibilities, do the exercise again and this time synchronize your flow of focus with the breath: During inbreath, your focus flows inwards, during outbreath, it flows outwards. How does this feel?
Interestingly, when we live moments of stress, anxiety or depression, the flow of focus and the breath tend to be asynchronous, whereas when we are relaxed and positive, the two align. Knowing this, you can help yourself in difficult moments by making sure to synchronize the flow of your focus with your breath. This practice seems very simple, but has a surprising impact.
PhD meditation: Three pieces of advice
First of all, when you start listening to your thoughts, you probably will be surprised about what comes to your awareness. Some thoughts will be pleasant, some funny, some sad, some unpleasant and some frightening. That’s normal. Our human brains process a constant flow of all kind of ideas, feelings, whishes, or memories.
The trouble starts when we start to analyze all of our thoughts and form an opinion on them, from which it can be difficult to free yourself again.
Therefore, my advice is: If you encounter an unpleasant or frightening thought or feeling, consider it for about 30 seconds without judging yourself. It might be interesting. It might want to tell you something. Consider it with curiosity. However, do not question why you thought it. Just recognize the nature of the thought or feeling, and then let it go.
If you are really troubled by a thought or feeling which is hard to let go, recall that
You are neither your thoughts nor your feelings, you are what you do.
Don’t judge yourself for your thoughts or feelings.
Second of all, meditation can only have an effect in your life if you do it regularly. I warmly recommend a meditation app such as Headspace, which will help you to remember meditating and is packed with interesting and helpful meditations and information. Find a moment to meditate every day and stick to it. You’ll notice the benefits quite soon.
Finally, I recommend seeing meditation more as an attitude than as a practice. It’s not about the 10 minutes you meditate every day, it’s about taking the awareness you train during those 10 minutes into every single moment of your life.
And that is important because in the end, life is neither the future nor the past. It’s right here, right now. It’s the present. Meditation is a way to be present and to feel, so in the end, it’s a way to be alive.
About the Author
Nikolai is entering the fourth year of his PhD time in physics at the FHI Berlin and has recently started working on his thesis. Born in southern Germany, he moved to Berlin to fulfil his desire to study physics and to explore the academic world, where he specialized in the field of nanophotonics. Nikolai values a healthy work-life balance that creates enough space for personal development and mental health. Based on his own experience, meditation has helped him toward more calmness, happiness, productivity, and love.
What about you? Did you like our PhD meditation guide? Have you tried meditation or are you considering it? Let us know how it works for you and what advice you want to give others in the comment section below!