I am sitting cross-legged on the bank of a river. I am surrounded by grand, serene trees. The light is diffuse. I am watching the river flow past as I take slow, calm breaths. Sometimes the water lazes by, sometimes it turns into torrents.
This is what I visualized during a guided meditation with psychiatrist Dr. Holly Rogers during the BME PhD Peer Mentoring Program mindfulness workshop. Dr. Rogers shared a definition of mindfulness with the 30 attendees: non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Using a metaphor, Dr. Rogers suggested that rather than being swept away in the turbulent flow of the river of our thoughts, we should each climb onto the bank of the river so that we could observe our thoughts without judgment.
Being a graduate student carries many challenges: the persistence required to conduct research; the juggling of responsibilities beyond research, such as TAing, conferences, seminars, and writing; the pressures of making important life and career decisions. Developing a practice of mindfulness can help create a lens through which you view your life – its joys, its challenges, and everything in between – with more clarity and less judgement. Living mindfully does not aim to eliminate stressors. Rather, it provides tools for noticing your mental, emotional, and physical states. By stepping back and taking a more mindful stance, we can see our situation with more understanding and clarity, and thus, can better see how to move forward.
Dr. Rogers, who works at Duke’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), shared her story of discovering mindfulness over two decades ago through the book Mindfulness in Plain English. She was due to move back to North Carolina from New Zealand, where she was completing her first job as a psychiatrist, and was experiencing significant anxiety about the move. Through the book, she realized that her anxieties weren’t stemming from the looming challenges themselves, but from the way she was relating to these challenges. More importantly, she realized that she could change that relationship. In that moment, she began to develop an ability to step away from a challenging situation and see it with more clarity, with more mindfulness.
Dr. Rogers has since co-developed and co-founded the Koru Mindfulness program, designed to teach mindfulness to young adults with various approaches, including meditation. Thus, she was perfectly poised to discuss the challenges of developing a practice of mindfulness with our academic audience. She asked us what we would do if we had to bench-press 200 pounds to graduate with our PhDs. We wouldn’t simply go to the gym and start with 200 pounds; rather, we’d start with a low weight and gradually work our way up. Similarly, we need time, patience, and persistence to build a practice of mindfulness: we shouldn’t set personal expectations to sit still for 15 min and meditate with perfectly calm focus on the first try.
We discussed some reasons to have a regular meditation practice:
- Mental and physical health
- Increased productivity
- Better decision-making
- Improved quality of life
We also discussed reasons we might not practice mindfulness regularly and ways in which we can reframe our perspectives around these challenges:
- Time cost. We are constantly deciding how to spend our time. Although it can be challenging to take time to meditate, the challenge is largely a mental barrier rather than a true lack of time.
- Fear of sacrificing success. Anecdotally, Dr. Rogers has not found that people become unsuccessful or unmotivated by becoming more mindful, although some believe that they’ll lose motivation with lessened anxiety.
- Lack of belief in the potential of mindful meditation. Mindfulness-based stress reduction skills have been documented to improve mental and physical health (Chiesa 2009, Grossman 2004, Hofmann 2010), including specifically in the university student population (Regehr 2013).
As a yoga instructor, I have discussed and practiced meditation and mindfulness in various capacities, allowing me to become more aware of myself, my environment, and my situation, as well as the impact of my actions on my environment. I practice being in the moment, being present, with the ability to step away from persistent worries about the past, the future, and potential failure. Continuing to explore different resources, be it books or workshops, is an important part of my mindfulness practice, as I deepen my understanding and broaden my perspectives. Next time I find myself stuck in circling, anxious thoughts, I’ll try taking a few breaths and stepping out of my turbulent river, onto the bank.
You can watch a recording of the workshop here.
I organized the workshop with three other biomedical engineers: PhD students Rob Morhard and John Gilbert, and postdoc Amy Martinez. We founded and launched the BME PhD Peer Mentoring Program in Fall 2016, matching first-year BME PhD students with senior student mentors. The mindfulness workshop was an end-of-year event open to all BME PhD students, postdocs, and faculty. We would like to acknowledge generous funding support from the Duke University Graduate School Professional Development Grant, which provided lunch for the event, and from the Duke University Graduate and Professional Student Council, which provided copies of Wherever You Go, There You Are (by Jon Kabat-Zinn) and fidget toys for the attendees.
- Chiesa A, Serretti A (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. Journal Alternative Complementary Medicine. 15(5):593–600.
- Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S, Walach H (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 57(1):35–43.
- Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 78(2):169–183.
- Regehr C, Glancy D, Pitts A (2013). Interventions to reduce stress in university students: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders. 148(1):1–11.
PhD candidate, Biomedial Engineering
Nikki Pelot is a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering in Dr. Warren Grill’s neural engineering lab. Nikki studies the mechanisms of action of vagus nerve stimulation through computational modelling and in vivo experiments. Nikki also teaches yoga at Wilson Gym and is the Curriculum Chair for the BME PhD Student Association.
Professional Development Tag
- Professional Development Grant