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.

Program Advisory Committee: Integrating mindfulness into our meetings

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Meeting spoilers: 

Yesterday was the first time that my program advisory committee (PAC) met! This is the committee that will oversee my PhD experience, from program design, to research study and thesis defence. From the outset of my PhD, I have been thinking about how to integrate mindfulness into my PhD—not just as a topic for study—but into my daily, lived experience. 

I am happy to give a spoiler right at the beginning of this post to say that my proposal to integrate mindfulness into all aspects of my PhD was supported by the whole committee. After we met, one member of the committee shared—with a big smile on her face—that she had never been to any meeting like this. She said that she felt energized and refreshed.

In case you want to try bringing mindfulness into your next meeting, I've shared some bullet points at the bottom of this post outlining what we did.

 
From the outset of my PhD, I have been thinking about how to integrate mindfulness into my PhD —not just as a topic for study— but into my daily, lived experience.
 
 The calligraphy at the opening of my slide deck for our first PAC Meeting.

The calligraphy at the opening of my slide deck for our first PAC Meeting.

Lead up to my first PAC meeting: a culture of stress & fear

Your PAC has huge sway over the direction of your thesis. The lead up to my first meeting with my PAC was an interesting example of the negative framing and worry/fear-inducing culture that seems to exist at graduate school. I really like talking with people (I'm a pretty classic extrovert), especially about areas that I am passionate about. Therefore, of my own accord, I never would have considered that meeting with my PAC might be scary or painful.

The lead up to my first meeting with my PAC was an interesting example of the negative framing and worry/fear-inducing culture that seems to exist at graduate school.

But in my first semester, I started hearing "horror stories" about students who had their research totally derailed or pushed in a direction they hated by their committees. Each time a faculty member or peer would mention our upcoming PAC meetings (each student at IMS is required to have their first PAC meeting within six months of starting the program), there would always be some kind of doomsday sentence tagged on, often said jokingly, like, "The first meeting is often terrible but it gets better." Or, "Try not to be too afraid going into the meeting, they can tell."

 
Without my mindful awareness, these suggestions could have easily built up in my subconscious to make me nervous or even scared. Instead, I noticed how these concepts impacted my mind and body and actively decided to put them down
 

Without my mindful awareness, these suggestions could have easily built up in my subconscious to make me nervous or even scared. Instead, I noticed how these concepts impacted my mind and body and actively decided to put them down.

Not all stress responses are bad. The one part of the feedback from these statements that I decided to keep was the concept that this meeting was important. From this, I reasoned that the PAC meeting would be a scenario that I would want to enter with as much presence and personal stability as possible.

Clearly, it had the potential to be intense and overwhelming. If you stop to reflect on this, it makes a lot of sense. This meeting is about your hopes and dreams! I have total compassion for anyone who has felt overwhelmed during a meeting with their supervisor or committee. These meetings are intense. And while they are framed as a "professional" space, it is important to acknowledge how personal discussing your research truly is, as it is likely tied into your livelihood and aspirations for your life. 

 

 
These meetings are intense. And while they are framed as a “professional” space, it is important to acknowledge how personal discussing your research truly is, as it is likely tied into your livelihood and aspirations for your life.
 

Going into the meeting I was aware that I was pitching a bigger idea than I would ever have time to do within the scope of a PhD. But I had received some great advice that your PAC's job is to guide and focus your research, so I decided to trust the process. 

To prepare for the meeting, I prepped a slide deck, which I reviewed with my supervisor and sent out to the PAC a few days before the gathering. The slides included not only a proposal for my research, but also a proposal for how we might integrate mindfulness into our meetings. I figured, if my thesis topic was on mindfulness and I was planning to practice mindfulness personally as part of this journey, then it was also imperative that my committee integrate mindfulness into our time together. 

I am happy to report that my PAC was incredibly supportive of both my research aspirations and my proposal to integrate mindfulness into our sessions together.

 Me right after the meeting!

Me right after the meeting!


 

Suggested Practice: Practical Application 

How we integrated mindfulness into our first committee meeting

  • Begin the meeting with a five-minute guided meditation 
  • Allow all committee members (including supervisor and student) to have a 2-4 minute mindful check-in to share about themselves (what brought them to this committee and how they were arriving in the space that day)
  • Discuss the intentions behind including mindfulness practices in our meeting to ethically reflect the intentions behind our research 
  • Open and close the slide deck with a calligraphy from my mindfulness teacher, Zen Master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh 
 

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