Mid-terms this week have seen a surge in half-joking threats from myself and my friends to drop out of school to pursue a lifestyle that is more fulfilling and true to our passions. It’s easy to justify dropping out: the longer you stay in academia, the more deeply entrenched you become in the system, the more investments in time and money you make, the harder it is to take a year or two to go live in a communal hippie utopia on the beaches of Thailand or to become a ski bum in Whistler. University, on the other hand, will always be here to return to.
However appealing it may be to ditch school in favor of an alternative way of life, most of us, including myself, have already bought in to the system to such an extent that we won’t so readily follow through on our stress-induced daydreams. Until that changes, I find that one way to keep things in perspective and beat back the stress so inevitably associated with soul-destroying examinations is to meditate.
To take even five minutes a day to try and clear your mind from the incessant thoughts that cloud your consciousness can be enormously beneficial for concentration, communication, a healthy perspective, and general well-being and happiness.
To just “be,” free from worries about the future or regrets of the past, is a liberating, if elusive feeling. One way to do this is to just sit and focus on your breath, observing it. Whenever you find that you have been carried away by thought, return your focus to your breath. This is actually enormously challenging — I can rarely get through more than two or three cycles of breath before I find myself swept away by thought once more.
The discovery of how difficult it is to remain “in the moment” and free from thought even for a few seconds is in itself beneficial. When you become aware that you are constantly constructing narratives, plans, worries, regrets, fears, hopes, and so on, it becomes possible to gain control over them. If our constant stream-of-consciousness remains below our consciousness, we are powerless to them.
Especially during exam times when stress levels are high, this awareness and associated control can be very helpful indeed. It can help us recognize absurd stories we are subconsciously telling ourselves that are exacerbating the stress, and correct them.
As the Dalai Lama puts it, it “enables us to see thoughts and emotions as mere thoughts and emotions, rather than as ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ [Then] we begin to have choices. Certain thoughts and emotions are helpful, so we encourage them. Others are not so helpful, so we just let them go.” For instance, worrying and stressing about upcoming tests does not help us perform well – becoming aware of how we are creating those barriers to success allows us to stop creating them altogether.
From my experience, the academic benefits of a clear and conscious mind are just scratching the surface of how meditation is conducive to a better life. Give it a try and see for yourself.