This post is by author, editor, writing coach, dissertation nurturer, and spiritual counselor, Dr Noelle Sterne, who has published over 300 writing craft, spiritual, and academic how-to articles and stories and essays in print and online venues.
With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Her handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but extremely important nonacademic difficulties. This post is adapted from Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). You can reach Noelle via her website
You may not have thought about applying spiritual principles or practices to your dissertation or thesis. I can hear you snorting: “What! Academics and religion/spirituality, like ice cream and boiled kidney, don’t mix!” This is your right, of course.
But . . . as you wrestle with your Major Work, do you crave less anxiety, more confidence, better work flow, even real answers to all those knotty quandaries?
In my academic coaching practice, I’ve found that many dissertation/thesis candidates “use” the spiritual to help them through the Purgatory of dissertation/thesis writing. And I encourage them, primarily in two ways, meditation and mindfulness.
If you don’t like the term meditation, call it My quiet time or Resting without snoring. Whatever you call it, please consider it. Why?
Today regular features on the Internet, popular articles in online publications and magazines, and many scientific publications are full of reasons backed by studies that attest the benefits of meditation. They’re physiological, psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual.
In the 1970s, meditation was sanitized for the West by the courageous Harvard MD Herbert Benson (1975) with his groundbreaking book The Relaxation Response. He documented empirically with laboratory techniques that meditation can lower blood pressure and the tendency to hardening of the arteries and stroke.
Benson virtually started mind/body medicine and demystified meditation for Westerners (Mitchell, 2013). In 1988, he founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School and in 2006 the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (Emory, 2011). He republished the original book, with many subsequent variations, and a host of other relevant publications, both scholarly and popular.
Meditation is widely accepted and even prescribed by enlightened physicians and other healthcare professionals. The practice doesn’t need to connect to any religious movement or set of dogmatic statements. Nor does meditation have to be mysterious. You can practice at home, in the library, at the bus stop, on the checkout line, and even in church. Books, articles, blogs, and videos on meditation continue to proliferate, but the basic technique is quite simple—as you will see below.
Mindfulness is meditation’s fraternal twin, and sometimes they are used interchangeably. Mindfulness too has received increasing attention today, and numerous definitions and distinctions have appeared to distinguish between the two. Without becoming embroiled in the minutiae (reminiscent of scholarship!), I refer to Daly’s (2014) basic difference: meditation involves a conscious choice to repeat certain words, phrases, or sentences. Mindfulness means simply becoming acutely aware of what you are experiencing right now, in any way. I like meditation because it requires more conscious mindfulness (oops), or deliberate application, and gives me something to hang onto. So . . .
How to Meditate
Sit in a quiet place (sorry, park your tech appendages out of thumbs’ reach). Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Then silently say a word, phrase, or sentence that means something to you (“Peace,” “Ah,” “All is in order,” “Chocolate”). Or use a positive statement, an affirmation
(“I have all the answers for Chapter 3 now”).
Just keep repeating your chosen words.
One of the most recommended stints is for thirty minutes, but I can never last that long. At about four minutes, my to-do lists start knocking at my head. Start with two, five, or ten minutes. Set a timer, and if you peek at it before it bongs, no one will know.
A warning: If thoughts come in, and they will—we all are plagued by them—you may find yourself veering off into last night’s television plot, your sweetie’s sudden text-messaging silence, the tuna spoiling in the fridge, or a thousand other things. As soon as you catch any of these thoughts, don’t condemn yourself as a failed meditator. Just come back to your chosen words and keep repeating them.
Gradually (very), those intruders will quiet down and may even cease for long periods.
Be patient with yourself. There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. The
important thing is to keep at it.
What Are the Benefits of Meditation/Mindfulness?
Eventually, your mind will grow sharper and you will feel rested. You will feel more aware and appreciative of your surroundings. More powerful and on top of things. Even answers you’ve chased will start coming. (I’m talking to you, Review of the Literature.)
You’ll experience likely unaccustomed calm and peace. Or you’ll feel a lifting that is suspiciously like joy and not just a caffeine rush. You may even look forward to your next session.
Why You Don’t Meditate or Mind Your Mind
What? You say you have no time? Too busy? Too stressed? You tried it and it didn’t work? Too much like New Age (perceived) hooey?
Corporate training consultant Karen Exkorn nailed these five big excuses for not practicing meditation or mindfulness and suggested how to overcome them.
“No time” means you haven’t made the time. Even three minutes works (your timer again).
“Too busy” means you don’t have to add special time for the practice. Use mindfulness and just do what you’re doing more consciously (dishes, diapering, working).
“Too stressed”? Focus on doing one thing with full consciousness. Exkorn used eating Hershey Kisses. You can use anything—a banana, coffee, lunch, driving, or the laundry.
“Tried it”? For how long? Give it a fair chance, like any new habit.
“Too New Agey”? As Exkorn pointed out, mindfulness was featured on a January 23, 2014, Time magazine cover and in a New York Times article, and has been praised and practiced by actors and professional athletes. Mindfulness and meditation are used by staff at Google, General Mills, and Twitter.
If you need additional bolstering, buy and soak up the easy-to-read Meditation for Dummies (Bodian, 2012), or its cousin, Mindfulness for Dummies (Alidina, 2014). Both are legitimate excuses for not working on your dissertation or thesis.
Please seriously consider meditation or mindfulness (or both). Once you get in the habit, you’ll see that they are your friends. You’ll appreciate their benefits, look forward to your next session, and may even become addicted. At the least, you rest your eyes from that blinkin’ cursor.