Maintaining mindfulness

2 March 2023

With the assessment and exam period coming, continuing religious and spiritual practices can be helpful.

Person wearing headphones sitting with legs crossed and eyes closed

The exam period can be a stressful and hectic time, and it can be helpful to continue with religious and spiritual practices, whilst for some, it may be fruitful to adopt a new habit. While there are many opportunities of respite, places we could visit, things to eat, fun things to do, and wellbeing activities, I would like to offer some novel suggestions borrowed from Buddhism of engaging and giving your mental activity some awareness and attention.

Often, the notion of mindfulness and meditation is exclusively associated with religion and spirituality, and for the secular, one may be inclined to just engage in deep thought or concentrated activity, like painting or jogging. But perhaps a playful direction of your attention is something worthwhile we all can try, regardless of our individual beliefs.

Physical Mindfulness

In Buddhism, mindfulness can take place in physical activity, especially chores. It helps to clear, focus and calm the mind when one is focused on a physical task. But where Buddhism offers something different, is the notion of keeping the attention on the task, in the present, rather than just mechanically going about it. There is an inherent satisfaction in having an organised, clean, calm, physical environment and atmosphere, but when your mind is here, you give it the opportunity to take a break from everything else that might be going on.

Relatedly, you may find introducing nice smells, through incense and candles, or nice sounds of nature, music and chanting, may help with creating a more relaxing environment. Dāna, or generosity and charity, is an important notion within Buddhism. I’ve noted doing something good and being generous to yourself so far, but one could also provide for another, whether by volunteering, or doing a friend a favour.

Mental Mindfulness

Moving onto more mind-based awareness, being mindful or one’s body or breath plays a significant role in meditation for Buddhists. Breathing has a surprisingly close relationship with our mental states. We breathe faster when we’re anxious or excited, slower when calm and relaxed, we hold our breath when afraid, and exhale to relieve stress and tension. And yet, we often do this without much thought or awareness of this. I recommend, perhaps during a walk or while doing your chores, or even before you sleep, being aware of your breathing. Most usually focus on the inhale and exhale (or both), as they are active aspects of our breathing, and some count them as a means of remaining attentive. However, what’s interesting is the possibility of noting the lack of activity, the pause and gap of between inhaling and exhaling. When we breathe faster, the gap is shorter, when we take our time, we can extend the gap. Give it a go! Could help with relaxing and relieving some tension, or a good night’s sleep. If nothing else, it can't hurt to get some oxygen.

Perhaps it’s also worth being mindful of how wonderful (or not, sometimes) this bodily system is. Again, upon going about our daily lives, we can marvel at the minute and the explosion of sensations we are bombarded with at any given time. Isolate each one, and we can notice that they often arise, persist for a while and cease. Some last longer, some only brief. Some nice, some not so much. We are a miraculous panoply.

We could even watch our thoughts play. Sometimes for no apparent reason, a random thought pops into our heads, something catches our attention, a noise makes its way into our consciousness. Similarly, we may watch the process of them coming into the theatre of our minds, having their moment on the stage, and taking their leave. If we don’t deliberately hold on to a particular thought, it’s truly fascinating how erratic our heads can be, thoughts and ideas whizzing in and out, popping on and off. If you’re struggling with a creative block, this could be a good way to just leave your mind to play. You may be surprised at what you may find.

Maybe you’ll find something interesting, maybe you won’t. Perhaps you’ll “see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” However, I think it’s worth acknowledging, you are a gift of the universe. Mindfulness is one of the ways that proves, we are enough, and absolutely awesome. I shall end with some lines from the loving-kindness meditation:

  • “May you be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May you be safe and protected.
  • May you be free of mental suffering or distress.
  • May you be happy.
  • May you be free of physical pain and suffering.
  • May you be healthy and strong.
  • May you be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.”

If you’d like to join us, the Buddhist society runs a weekly meditation session every Tuesday at 7pm at the B2 meditation room in the Student Centre, a weekly discussion, occasional trips, and bi-weekly social dinners. Look for the UCL Buddhist society on Instagram for more details!

How UCL Student Support and Wellbeing can help

If you need counselling, support, or just advice make an appointment with one of our caring wellbeing advisers or, if you are living in UCL accommodations, speak to your Student Resident Adviser.

Dylan Ngan, Final Year MPhil Stud in Philosophical Studies