I love this time of the year! The time of the year when the leaves are changing to the picturesque yellow-orange-red gradient and there is a slight, crisp chill in the air. Like all good things that must come to an end, the characteristic “fall” time is only around for a few fleeting weeks. If you are not careful, you may even miss it! As young adults busy in school, the fall is the beginning of a new academic year and we can often lose ourselves to the hectic demands that come with it, forgetting to divulge in the beauty of the nature that surrounds us.
There are many tenants of mindfulness meditation and one of the key aspects is learning and practicing how to be present. This past week, I really found myself struggling to stay present. I am a creature of habit and not fond of my day-to-day routine being thrown off, particularly if it involves my sleep schedule taking the hit (I’m a firm 10 PM – 6 AM kinda gal), which was the case last week. I found myself struggling to focus and losing my concentration to memories of the past. Towards the end of the week, I noticed that I was simply going through the motions, including my mindfulness sessions. Upon this realization, I congratulated myself for “waking up” and did not let my brain waste effort on feeling bad for this little slip up. Instead, I turned inward to ask myself why this happened and reflect on what I could learn from it.
Life has a sneaky way of piling up everything at once and it is during these times that we may unintentionally seek escapes, even something as simple as dreaming of the future or longing for the past like I found myself doing last week. I currently have 3 large tasks that all require my full attention with similar and imminent deadlines, which means I’m trying to juggle all 3 simultaneously and maintain some semblance of a healthy work-life balance. During these times when I feel like I’m shouldering more burdens than usual, I remember that life doesn’t give us more than we can handle. I feel that the best way I can tackle these challenges is to remain present in every moment. To achieve this, I will continue my practice of mindfulness meditation and follow my personalized self-care practices. By maintaining my self-care practices, I’m slowly putting to ease the nagging part of my brain that has always felt unsettled by not giving 110% of myself to my research. Lastly, I will remember that I’m more efficient and better at work when I’ve properly taken care of myself.
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” — Buddha
Happy Mid-Autumn day everyone! Fall is officially here, and it has inspired this week’s discussion about creating balance during graduate school. Living in New England (and being from Michigan), I’m used to nature being balanced: 4 seasons, sunshine and rain, wind and humidity. This past week was very unproductive in the lab and left me feeling down and cranky with myself for “slacking off”. The change of the season, along with another birthday passing by, helped me realize that graduate school is a time when we should begin to establish balance in our lives. And yes, I am talking about work-life balance.
As a PhD student, I feel like there is always something I should be doing. I should be checking recent literature in my area, writing (there’s always something that needs to be written), analyzing data, or thinking about what I should do next. However, working all the time is a recipe for burnout and fatigue. Graduate school years typically coincide with the young adult years when people are busy beginning to live their lives. I feel that during graduate school, as we naturally age, we no longer see our PhDs as “school”, but as the beginning of our careers. If grad school is the beginning of our careers, then it is very normal to begin focusing on other areas of our life and create a healthy work-life balance.
Unfortunately, from my perspective it seems that academia (and perhaps our American culture sometimes) emphasizes a work/career-centric lifestyle, often making it difficult to establish a healthy work-life balance without extraneous feelings of guilt. My journey in mindfulness has helped me seek balance in my lifestyle. Does that mean everyday is a 9-5 kinda day, unfortunately no… However, for me it means that I find acceptance in some days being work-focused and some days being “life” focused. Also, it means that I have become appreciative of achieving smaller goals that can be accomplished in a normal workday. Employing a mindful perspective throughout my day enables me to focus my energy when I’m being productive while allowing me to be friendly to myself when things are taking longer than expected to be finished. Please remember, living life is not only about reaching your desired destination, but is also about being present on the journey to get there.
Failure. Bringing to mind the word ‘failure’ is enough to make my stomach turn and my neck and shoulders tighten, and I’m left feeling queasy and tense. How many of you experience similar sensations when thinking about ‘failure’? Have you ever stopped to wonder why it has to be such a dirty word? I felt inspired to write about failure after enduring one of the most difficult yoga classes I’ve ever attended. Two weeks ago, I went to my usual Saturday morning Kundalini yoga class. However, we had a substitute teacher and her style and pace was completely different from the usual teacher. I tried to remain open-minded and embrace the new challenges I was facing, but as the class went on I found myself struggling to even get into the poses… One after another, I couldn’t do them. I felt so bad, so frustrated and embarrassed. I kept thinking to myself, “the teacher must think I’m so lazy!” In those moments, I felt like a failure.
There have been moments in graduate school where I have felt these same emotions and where I have been fearful that I would ‘fail’. Honestly, graduate school has not been a perfect, easy-going experience and I wonder if it ever is for anyone! For instance, I even received a “conditional pass” on my preliminary qualifying examination and had to re-do my thesis proposal and present my work a second time to my committee. Despite concerns of self-inadequacy, I am grateful for the challenges I have had to face during graduate school. These challenges are a bit like that substitute teacher led yoga session mentioned above where I am completely removed from my comfort zone and tossed into the metaphorical deep end. Being outside of my comfort zone is naturally helping me learn and grow. In my opinion, it feels like much of graduate school is spent immersed in the realm beyond what you are comfortable with and over time you begin to dominate again.
I feel that there is a crucial element all graduate students need to not only help them cope, but to thrive outside of their comfort zone, and it is proper self care- including a healthy work-life balance. Graduate school is all about developing our technical expertise in areas of interest and gaining critical thinking skills. However, it is easy to become personally invested into our thesis projects and develop an unhealthy attachment which leads us to feel that if our projects fail, then we fail, too. My practice in mindfulness meditation has led me to feel more at peace with exploring the world outside of my comfort zone and has helped me cultivate a sense of acceptance towards the uncertainty of graduate school. It is easy to let our “working mind” run away with ourselves and be concerned about achieving the tangible markers of a successful PhD, which at least in STEM is marked by high impact factor 1st author publications. Yet in my experience of developing my “being mind,” I’m able to extract myself a tiny bit from my projects and remember that even if my projects fail, I’m still successful because I’ve learned valuable skills and will be able to demonstrate what I’ve learned when the time comes (and hopefully my committee will think the same 😉 ). My main take away message is that I feel like failure is only a matter of perspective; the sun will always rise tomorrow and there will be bigger, better things waiting for you if you have the mindset to see them.
This past week I found myself settling back into my daily grind after having visited my friends and family in the lovely, serene area of rural Southwest Michigan. I’ve been living in Cambridge, MA for three years now, and returning from my Michigan trip this time really had me feeling like I was coming home. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always consider SW MI to be my home and I always feel some sadness (and maybe guilt as I touched on last week), when I leave MI. However, it was incredible to feel that sense of belonging and comfort in the city life that I made for myself and to think of it as home, too.
Change is inevitable in life. Growing up amongst corn fields and dirt roads to living as a young adult in an urban area walking 10k+ steps daily and eating kale & quinoa veggie bowls for lunch. Wow. Life can become the unexpected! Visiting friends and family this year made it apparent how we all walk our divergent paths, but can all come together to share our lives and stories. The love never goes away. I think this is important to recognize for first generation college students who go on to pursue higher education. First gens may feel disconnected from everyone around them… from family members and childhood friends who haven’t chosen similar paths to colleagues in their field, in part, due to imposter syndrome. As a first generation college student, I have certainly experienced this feeling of disconnect for the longest time. For me, I think my enlightenment and acceptance of the differences between me and others (particularly my family and friends) was brought about by my practice of mindfulness meditation. I’m constantly in awe over the ways mindfulness has permeated my life and brought fresh energy & perspective with it.
My trip home not only gave me clarity on the changes that my life has taken, but provided a healthy dose of inspiration- one I hadn’t realized I was in the need for at the time. I always visit my middle school science teacher when I’m in my home area. She was my first cheerleader to encourage me to go into science, and she was there to guide me with the necessary advice about undergraduate majors & doing research throughout college. I was beyond ecstatic to show her my first, first authored publication (for which I’d received the final print notification that week)! Her delight and encouragement reminds me that I can do it (even though it’s really, really freaking hard sometimes).
Fate smiled upon me on my travels back to Boston, and I crossed paths with my undergraduate research mentor at the airport! Seeing her filled me with a sense of purpose and confidence, memory that she taught me how to conduct basic chemistry research and she nurtured my passion for science and research when it was most important. Those two women will forever be my inspiration to carry on in graduate school when the times get tough. May you all remember your own inspirations and call on them in moments when you need it the most.