Dear Andy — I heard you mention that you thought college was a particularly hard time for a lot of people. I’m currently in my final year, and I discovered Headspace about five months ago. Since then, I have been using it every day, working my way through both the Anxiety, Balance, and Stress packs. These have really allowed me to manage my anxious thoughts a lot better, and I don’t think of my anxiety as “me” anymore. However, there are still times when I really struggle with maintaining any sense of balance.
So, I was wondering if you had any advice in terms applying mindfulness to the stresses of college? At every available opportunity, tutors seem to be reminding us of how stressful we’re going to find this term. Plus, career talks make it seem like you should already have everything figured out, which not many of us do.
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Well, in the interests of full disclosure I guess I should point out that I felt so stressed at university that I actually quit my first degree halfway through to go away and become a Buddhist monk! Not that I’m advocating such a move, and the stress at the time was not really related to university life or study, but still, thought I should mention it.
Your question reminds me… not so long ago a friend of mine was at a family dinner party, sitting around a table with a number of other people. Stay with me here, this is more relevant than it may sound at first. Anyway, one couple were saying how stressed they were, they had just had a baby, were not getting much sleep and they felt more stressed than they could ever imagine. Another couple nodded but added that it doesn’t really get stressful until the kids are grown up and at school, experimenting with alcohol and drugs. This, they said, was real stress. A student at university chipped into the conversation and, without being rude, suggested that the real stress was not knowing where you were going in life, whilst mortgaging your life with a student loan and sitting through exams every day.
Needless to say, others had their own story of stress to tell, even a more elderly couple who are starting to experience decreasing physical health. The truth is, every stage of life has its challenges. This is part of living, part of the shared human experience. Nobody escapes from this fact. It’s easy to just nod our head at such an observation, but if we understand it, see it for ourselves in our own life and in the lives of those around us, then it will change our life forever, not just now at university, but at every stage of life.
Feeling stressed is often accompanied by a feeling of isolation. Although we know those around us might be suffering too, we probably “feel” as though the conditions are toughest for us personally. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, more often it’s the latter. The important thing is not the conditions, but rather how we perceive those things, how we react or respond to them and how we understand them in the context of that shared human experience.
So yes, absolutely, continue to use the app to help move the needle of perception and ensure meditation is part of your daily routine. But more than that, don’t look for an exit route, an escape from stress. Simply meet each new moment, each new situation, each exam, with the same steady awareness. It’s just one thing after the next, nothing more than that, moment after moment. Anything else is just thinking.
As for the lecturer’s scaremongering, sure it’s a stressful time (I went back to university and found out for myself), an important time, but it is highly unlikely to define our life. So treat it with respect while traveling lightly, not putting too much pressure on yourself. The truth is, none of know where we are going in life, and if we are lucky, then life will continue to surprise us in the direction we take for many years to come.
While I would never negate the importance and benefits of career planning, as it’s sometimes essential, I believe it’s far more important to head into life with an open mind, a kind heart and a willingness to embrace uncertainty, than to try and work it all out decades in advance and come up with a lifelong career plan. So focus on what you enjoy, what makes you happy and do what you need to do to make that part of your working life.
These are just my thoughts of course, but I hope they are helpful in some way and allow you to finish your degree with a greater sense of ease and enjoyment.