Katy Meyers is an Anthropology PhD Student at Michigan State University and a founding editor of GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @bonesdonotlie.
My brother and I have always dealt with relaxation in very different ways. We're both graduate students, him in his second year, and me in my fifth year. When we visited my parents for breaks like Thanksgiving and the Winter holidays during undergrad, we had extremely different reactions to the free time. He read books, had extended lounging sessions on the couch, and would watch entire seasons of popular tv shows. I filled my time with friends, got back into my exercise routine, and was continually out and about. These methods had been fairly successful for us, even though they were different.
Last year was my brother's first year in graduate school, and in reaction to the increased stress he began reading about zen and meditation. The anxiety and OCD that had once plagued his actual school year appeared to lessen. When visiting home he didn't need those massive extended bouts of relaxation on the couch. He even took a day long seminar on meditation to improve his method.
During this time my stress was increasing and my methods were no longer successful. I was getting sick all the time, wasn't sleeping, and slowly became more introverted as the stress piled up. My grad school future became more vague and uncertain as a dissertation topic wasn't panning out, and I was obsessed over thinking about it. No matter how much I exercised or visited with friends I couldn't break through the anxiety.
My brother suggested that I start meditation.
When I asked him about his thoughts on meditation, this is what he said: "For me, meditation is about self-awareness in its most basic sense- awareness of your thoughts as thoughts, and your feelings as feelings. It may seem tautological, but these are actually really meaningful (and stress-reducing!) realizations. Thoughts and feelings don't have to control you if you don't want them to. As a graduate student, you have so much pressure on you at all times. And if you don't just sit and let yourself be aware of your thoughts, it's very easy to get caught up in them. This is where the stress builds, anxiety overburdens, and all your responsibilities overwhelm you. Take 5 minutes and just sit. Just breath. Feel all that stress, let your thoughts and worries go through your head. Don't try and solve them. Just let them be thoughts. See how they don't control your actions? See how you can just sit and breath? We don't want our thoughts and emotions and worries controlling us. Meditation is that little 5 minute window of time to remind yourself that everything's fine. Because it is. The work will get done. The projects will get finished. It is that simple."
Eloquently put little brother.
I started meditating with his method about two months ago. Here are some tips that made the technique successful for me and my brother.
1. Pick a space in your apartment or house that will be your meditation space only. It doesn't carry the stress or weight of other areas. All you need is an area to sit in a chair or cross-legged that faces a blank wall. Make sure there isn't anything too distracting that you can see in your periphery.
2. Set a timer for five minutes. You don't need to dedicate yourself to a long period of time- any amount of time you can spare will be worth it. It is better to have a dedicated five minutes than ten minutes where you're anxious.
3. Leave your eyes open and stare at a spot on the wall. My mind tends to wander when I close my eyes, so by having them open I can focus on the moment and be aware of myself.
4. The goal isn't to clear your mind, the goal is to be mindful of how you're feeling both physically and emotionally. The goal is to accept the things you cannot control, accept that there is uncertainty in the future, and understand that it doesn't control your happiness right now. Focus on being not on doing.
5. Make it a habit. Meditation is like going to the gym. You need to make it a healthy habit, and part of your life. Try to do it once a day at the same time, or maybe every other day. Mental well-being is just as important as physical health.
I can't say that meditating has relieved all my stress- it really hasn't. But it has helped me be more aware of stress cues, understanding what I can and cannot control, and I can slip into relaxation a little more easily. It's also completely relieved a pesky stress related stomach issue. For that final reason alone I'll continue practicing.
Have you ever tried meditation? Any tips for beginners?
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts