By Jaina Kelly, Contributor
There’s a reason why being a student is often listed as an occupation: it’s a full-time position. At the peak hours of due dates and midterms, it’s difficult to have a moment of peace in between studying and writing essays. Add a pile of separate responsibilities—jobs, relationships, friends, clubs—and our minds become constantly weighed down by thoughts of ‘to-dos’. Not to mention, our generation is ceaselessly plugged into social media. It’s a wonder we can stop thinking at night enough to fall asleep. Practicing mindfulness—the act of slowing the mind to focus entirely on the present moment—has a calming, grounding effect on the body and mind. I’ve experienced the benefits of this simple, Buddhist-based practice to help me through anything from end-of-semester-meltdown-mode to the daily bite of existential dread (why are we heeere?!).
Mindfulness is unique because it requires no money, resources, or background knowledge. It simply requires bringing attention to your thoughts and observing them without judgment. There is already a part of you which is able to sit quietly and observe the world, without the chains of incessant inner chatter. This practice allows you to zoom into that serene, peaceful place. Start by actively observing the thoughts taking up space in your mind. Becoming an awakened observer of your internal conversations allows you to view thoughts as passersby in your mind. It allows you to pick the ones that make you feel good over ones that cause anxiety. It seems simple, right? Ironically, the simplest solutions are the ones we generally overlook while continuing to feel unhappy or stressed on a day-to-day basis.
Mindfulness can start with simply noticing what types of messages you’re sending yourself. This may give you an idea of why you feel unhappy. For example, if you’re thinking “I have so much work! I’ll never get it all done on time,” you are setting a negative intention for your study session. By instead allowing this unhelpful thought to pass by, with no more emphasis on it than a cloud in the sky, you are letting it go with the active acknowledgment that negativity will no longer take precedence over positivity in your mind. As you let these negative words leave your mind, take a moment to set a positive intention instead, such as “I have enough time to finish my assignment and I will do my best.” This is mindfulness: being aware that your mind is yours to control and, therefore, allowing space for unwanted thoughts to pass through.
Eckhart Tolle, a mindfulness advocate and inspirational speaker, notes in ‘A New Earth’ that anxiety is borne from our tendency to emotionally connect with all our inner chatter, leading us to feel invaded by a seemingly incessant force of negativity. Identifying with a thought is to believe that because it’s inside your mind, it defines you or your circumstances. Yes, our thoughts are inevitably contiguous; we can’t control their flow. However, we have the capability to select which ones serve us well and give them our energy. A lot of times people can’t believe it. How is thinking (or not thinking) supposed to translate to success and happiness in life? In a nutshell, this can be traced to the Law of Attraction—what you send out into the world, you get back. By taking back our mental space and de-cluttering, we’re giving energy only to the self-talk that will bring positivity and growth into our lives. It is possible to develop new, positive conceptions of yourself. Destructive thought patterns are not just ones we conceive, but they can also be the thoughts of others around us. Social media bombards us with expectations, images, and propaganda that can bear an influence on our self-esteem, especially if we can’t determine whose thoughts are directing us.
Whether you are skeptical of this practice or you’re ready to dive in, allow the underlying message to sink in: the present moment contains all of the power. Humans like to create problems that don’t exist by painstakingly recounting past mistakes or future obstacles. By practicing mindfulness you can recognize that both past and future stress need not dull the beauty of the present moment. In fact, you can cultivate new thought patterns to help every moment to feel like a gift. As Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, once said: “There is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.”