Elli Weisbaum

Mindfulness for Life

When I decided to pursue a PhD I was told over and over again that it would be overwhelming, isolating and painful. My response? No thanks! First of all, there isn't anything I choose to do in my life that I would describe in those ways. Secondly, the topic of my thesis is mindfulness - so pursuing a PhD on this topic with this framing just didn't make sense to me. But the more I was told this, the more it made me wonder what a mindful PhD might look like. Mindfulness is not only the focus of my research, but an integral part of my life. The practice is woven into the fabric of everything I do. For me, integrating mindfulness into the meta approach of pursuing my PhD seemed not only natural, but also ethical and imperative for my mental health. The aspiration behind this blog is to bring awareness for myself to this journey and to share the experience of attempting to navigate a PhD on mindfulness with mindfulness. This isn't to claim that I will never suffer or experience being overwhelmed, isolated and in pain during this process - but it is to set an intention to meet these feelings with kindness and care and to transform them so that I can also experience joy and happiness as part of this 5 year adventure.

Grant writing power up!

Calling on my Sangha* for motivation

*Sanskrit word for community

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Taking refuge in hundreds of people while sitting alone in the library...

I’m sitting in the library today and trying to get started writing a big CIHR grant... the first step always seems the most challenging. Once I actually start writing something it feels much easier to keep going.

So how to motivate myself to get started? I found the answer by listening to two "mindfulness practice songs" I had on my computer (“Happiness is Here and Now” & “Hold Me” —attached at the bottom of this blog post). "Practice songs" are part of the Engaged Mindfulness tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and are written to embody, or convey the essence of, mindfulness. Like many mindfulness practices or meditations, they support you to arrive fully in the present moment and to look deeply, or examine, yourself or a particular situation. 

The two songs I listened to today were recorded at Blue Cliff Monastery (my teacher and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice centre in New York) during Tea Meditations at the end of a Wake Up retreat. Wake Up is an international movement for young people interested in bringing mindfulness into their lives.

Wake Up Toronto is one of the core Sanghas (Sanskrit for “community”) that support my personal mindfulness practice. As I sat here listening—feeling my heart and mind expand with a feeling of love and support—I realized that the songs not only come with their own beautiful lyrics, but are also infused with the space and people with whom I recorded them.

 
As I sat here listening—feeling my heart and mind expand with a feeling of love and support—I realized that the songs not only come with their own beautiful lyrics, but are also infused with the space and people with whom I recorded them.
 

After listening, I took a moment to think about all the components that make these songs so powerful for me. They were performed by people who care deeply for me and whom I care deeply about. I realized that no matter where I am or what I am doing, I am not alone. I am held and supported by so many people.

This support allows me to experience joy and happiness in any moment. I do not need to leave this library to feel the love and playfulness of hundreds of people. I can just play two songs and allow all the "non-me" elements that are present in them to fill me with the love and energy I need to begin writing.  

Non-self, emptiness and interbeing

Seeing the "non-me" elements that make up who I am is a central teaching in Buddhism, sometimes referred to as the concept of emptiness or non-self. Thich Nhat Hanh often calls this notion "Interbeing."

He shares that if we look at a flower, we can see the sunshine and the rain because the flower could not exist without them. So the flower is full of the cosmos (in other words, all the elements that make the flower’s existence possible, but that are in-fact not actually the flower itself) but entirely empty of a separate self. The flower cannot exist alone; it needs the sun and the rain to exist.

As a person, I am also empty of a separate self: the essence of who I am does not exist without my mother, my father, my teachers, my friends, the sunshine, and the rain. So like the flower, I am full of the cosmos, but empty of a separate self.

 
This support allows me to touch joy and happiness in any moment. I do not need to leave this library to feel the love and playfulness of hundreds of people.
 

The nice thing about having an ongoing mindfulness practice is that I don't over-conceptualize the idea of emptiness or non-self. If I want to touch the wonderful support of my non-self elements, I just gently remind myself that they are there within me. This can help me to not feel isolated or alone as I work away silently in the library. When I hear these songs, I let myself touch the expansiveness of all that is within me and then I simply continue on with my day—energized and ready to start writing! 

 


 

Suggested Reflection Practice 

The reflection questions below are an invitation to bring some mindful awareness to your inner and outer support systems. You may like to just think about them or actually take a few moments to write them down as a journaling practice. 

1) What are your core communities that help support your motivation and resiliency? They could be a formal or informal community, a group of friends, or someone with whom you share ideas and feel supported by. If you do not have a community like this, where else in your life might you find this support? 

2) What are some "non-me" elements that exist in you that help support your motivation and resiliency? You might think of a teacher or friend who inspires you. When you think of them you feel energized or encouraged to start new projects or continue what you are working on. Becoming aware of the qualities this person encourages in you can help you to draw on them within yourself when you feel less motivated.

 

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