Academics are a thinking bunch. Most of us spend hours sitting at a desk, thinking deep thoughts on our specific topic area. We are planners, thinking ahead to our next research paper, our next lecture. We think back to our previous papers and lectures. What went well? What did not go well? Often, we worry. Will we get tenure? Will we get that grant?
For as much thinking as we do, we are rarely self-reflexive or self-examining in the present. We rarely live in the current moment. For many reasons this is problematic.
First, as Socrates declared at the trial which lead to his death, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living‘. That might be drastic, but there is some truth. What is life (or academic life) if it is only worrying and moving from one thing to the next without any deep reflection? Why are we doing what we are doing? How are we making a difference?
Second, burnout in academia is not a secret. For some, only a few years in academia has one running for the door. Others find themselves 40 years old going on 70. Should we really feel like cashing out mid-career? Third, we continually find ourselves distracted, uncentred, and anxious. All emotions or characteristics that have negative health outcomes – and sometimes don’t make us the best people to be around.
There might be a way to lead a more peaceful, impactful and fulfilling academic life. While this certainly entails many practices and, likely, several changes, I would like to introduce one – the practice of everyday mindfulness.
Mindfulness is not just meditation, and that must be understood from the beginning. Mindfulness can be practised and integrated into every aspect of life. It is noticing the present moment. This philosophy comes from Vipassana, or ‘insight’ which is the crux of the Buddhist Theravada tradition. You do not have to be Buddhist or adhere to any specific religion to engage in mindfulness practices.
I often hear from colleagues and others that they ‘do not have time for mindfulness or meditation’ That signals something very off to me in the first place. But I get it: I fall into that exact same trap. But the good news is that being mindful does not require massive amounts of time or energy. And mindfulness has been scientifically shown to reduce anxiety and stress; it can also increase psychological functioning, self-control and social connectedness.
Given my typical academic life, I wanted to share my mindfulness practice. In no way am I saying that I am an expert in this area nor is this intended to be medical advice.
First, start off the day with a 10-minute mindful meditation before heading to campus or beginning your work at home. You can spare 10 minutes. There are many good apps that can help you begin your mindfulness journey.
Start your work more focused and centred; you will notice it after a while and you will get more done. During lunch (or snack) – and please don’t forget to eat, it is good for you – practise mindful eating. Notice the taste, smell and texture of your food. Concentrate on eating and not on everything else around you or everything else going on inside your head. Just eat, and appreciate it. Be mindful of where your food comes from and how it got to your plate. Eat with a colleague or student when you can. Food is intended to be enjoyed with others and an office (whether at home or at school) can become a lonely place even for introverts (like me).
In the afternoon, try a mindful walk. First, energy tends to dip around 3pm. Exercise during this time is great physically and mentally. Second, it is another time to practise mindfulness. Notice the world around you. Notice yourself within your environment. The walk does not need to be long: try 10–15 minutes. Try walking with a colleague or student. Tell them about your mindful walk.
Finally, close the day with mindfulness meditation. Again, this does not need to be long. I suggest at least 10 minutes but recommend 20 or more. This allows you to settle into the night. Instead of one more episode on Netflix, scrolling through unimportant work emails, or conducting a thorough review of your Facebook wall or Twitter feed, how about a 25-minute meditation?
Use a guided meditation or, when you feel like it, a self-guided meditation. There is no wrong meditation. There are no wrong thoughts to have during meditation. Just pay attention. You might add another 30 minutes to your day to partake in all of these mindfulness practices. I have come to see this as a very small amount of time to dedicate to this lifestyle, and the benefits outweigh the ‘costs’.
A mindful lifestyle and meditation have differential success across the population, not everyone responds the same. But, the science is behind it. There is now a substantial knowledge base that mindfulness practices can have significant benefits to people – and academics are no exception.
Chad Posick is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia Southern University. He co-authored The Criminal Brain.