Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
My life is by no means an exemplar for improving well-being. I work two jobs for nearly 80 hours a week; one of those jobs is a ramen line cook (if you know anything about the restaurant industry, you are well-aware that a kitchen is not a relaxing place). I go to sleep most nights at 1:30 am and wake up most mornings at 7:00 am. I don’t exercise. I eat ramen loaded with sodium and pork fat every single night. And I party hard. If I’m not hungover, I am just exhausted. But I tend to be both. On top of all that, my brother, only a year younger than me, is dying from a relentless neuromuscular disease. I should be a mess. And yet — I’m happy.
Almost two years ago during my freshman year of college, I enrolled in a Japanese Zen Buddhism class. I knew practically nothing about the subject, but I had seen how meditation made such a positive impact in my once very anxious father’s life and was intrigued to explore for myself. I found Zen to be inspirational in its philosophy and beautiful in its simplicity. I was immediately hooked. At the heart of Zen is the practice of “zazen” meditation. So I started to meditate.
As many mornings as I can, I take 10 minutes to practice zazen. I don’t use an app. I started my practice with one, but I found it to be unnecessary. Zazen has been practiced for more than one thousand years! For those 10 minutes, I sit in a chair with my eyes closed, my hands on my thighs, my feet on the ground, and my spine straight with a supported yet relaxed demeanor. I breathe as I would normally and focus my attention towards the feeling of the breathe on my fulcrum and nose. Thoughts come and go:
”What am I going to eat for lunch?”
“My foot is itchy.”
“Am I doing this right?”
I let these thoughts arise and dissipate naturally, and gently remind myself to return to the breath. It’s as simple as that. No guided walk through the forest on YouTube required.
I must admit that I’m not as strict with my practice as I’d like to be. Sometimes I’ll go three months with meditating every day. Sometimes I’ll go even longer without meditating once. For the stretches of consistent practice, however, there are palpable differences in my day-to-day life.
Most noticeably, I am more present. A striking majority of my life is spent either ruminating on the past or anticipating the future. With all those thoughts directed towards things that have happened and I can’t change or even have yet to happen at all, I often forget to acknowledge the here and now — the moment. Meditation brings me back to just that.
Perhaps no demographic needs a healthy dosage of presence more than college students. While I have been told countless times that these are “the best years of my life,” I have struggled intensely with anxiety throughout my college experience. The good thing is I know why: I’m not present. Usually, one uncertain thought triggers a cascade of insecurities about the ambiguous:
“I wonder if botched that test?”
“Will she want to go out with me again?”
“Why don’t I know what I want to be when I graduate?”
It’s incredibly difficult to be present when it feels like every lecture I attend, every exam I take, and every friend I meet is going to have a direct causative effect on my future. To make matters worse, I feel like so many other students seem to know what they want in life and what they need to get there. How many business majors and pre-med students can there be?! These thoughts can be crippling, but even as I write these reflections I can see how invalid they really are.
Indeed, there is a lot I don’t know about the future. I have no clue what I want to do for a career. I don’t know if I’ll be married. I’m not even sure how soon my brother is going to pass away. It’s easy to think the worst of these uncertainties (i.e. I’ll have a sh*tty job, I’ll be lonely, and my brother is going to die next year). But, because these are uncertainties, they can just as easily be thought of in a positive light (i.e. I’ll have a job I love, I’ll have a soulmate for a wife, and my brother is going to live late into his thirties). I don’t mean to say that you should view all uncertainty in a positive light. That’s unrealistic. What I mean is that acceptance of uncertainty, because of its potentiality for both good and bad, will bring some calm to your life.
I do not recommend that you work all day and night, eat like crap, barely sleep, and drink like a maniac. These are not ample ingredients for a healthy life. If you do, however, find yourself in similar circumstances, or any stressful times, I recommend you include 10 minutes of meditation in your morning routine. You won’t cure yourself of anger, sadness, and insecurity. You just might, however, find a little bit of inner peace.
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