Well-Being//

I Burned Out in College

I've always been a hard worker, but I got to a point where I had to step off the hamster wheel of perfection and give my mind a break.

seb_ra/ Getty Images
seb_ra/ Getty Images

During my college years, I was afraid of missing classes. It was the most important thing on my mind: If I missed a class, I’d miss roll call, I’d miss the assignments, and then I’d miss the opportunity to earn the grade I wanted. On my first day of college I mixed up the location of one class with another and didn’t realize my mistake until the lecture had commenced. Rather than make a scene, I sat quietly, and embarrassed, in the front row of the wrong class.

It’s a scenario that transcends academia, akin to boarding the wrong plane to a similar sounding destination, and then being that person who makes the whole plane go back to the gate because Oakland just isn’t quite the same as Auckland. We’re all a bit hard-wired to avoid swimming against the tide. But just because a professor begins her lecture, or a flight attendant closes the aircraft door and announces the destination, doesn’t mean your world wants you to feel tight. There is always some figurative space to give yourself space more literally.

When I reflect back upon my own freshman year in college, I realize now that I couldn’t hear my sleep-deprived body telling me when I needed to be still. My mind was constantly going. I didn’t even know that I was breathing. I was basically just spinning. We’re trained from day one to show up in our lives in a certain linear way. We are all strongly influenced by social expectations. One of my college majors was Psychology, and I learned that deviation from the behavior exhibited by the majority of a social group is considered a violation of expectations. I was expected to follow a linear path through high school, then college, then a job or grad school. Implicit within each phase of these expectations is a whole subset of smaller circular social expectations.

Let’s call it life’s hamster wheels. In school, work, relationships or marriage, we often default into a repetitive sequence of daily rituals or habits. And we do them over, and over, and over. Again. We’re led to believe that showing up in these particular ways, these socially sanctioned but not always personally deeply examined ways, will give you happiness, that special job, the amazing spouse, the car or that prime piece of real estate. All of this is a fiction.

Sometimes we need to decide consciously to step off the spinning hamster wheel. Perhaps to observe it and watch it spin. Or even to turn our backs to it and ignore it entirely. Now you might be thinking, how does this guy just say this? Skip class; forget about grades; ignore work, or dating, or even real estate. Who is this guy? Is he being provocative? Is he being contrarian? Or, is he just trying to be funny? Maybe, he’s just awkward! Who. Is. This. Guy?

It was at this point in my talk that I reintroduced myself. There was the requisite throat clearing. There was the pregnant pause. And then the words started to really flow.

Hello, my name is Brian, and I teach yoga and meditation and have been practicing them with devotion, humor, and compassion for nearly 25 years. All situations have a beginning, a middle and an end, but we often attach ourselves to a specific outcome for each of these three segments. This always leads to suffering. Here’s a simple example that’s relevant to students specifically. You’ve enrolled in several courses this term; you’re probably somewhat attached to doing what it takes to earn good grades.

Is the pure joy of learning, or the camaraderie you may share with classmates as top of mind for you as it could be? What if the opposite of suffering isn’t getting that grade, that job, that spouse, car, or piece of real estate? Assume the opposite of suffering is space. If you think about the tighter times in your life, when you were stressed about something, or didn’t have enough sleep, or were having an argument, what would happen if you somehow injected some space into that situation?

When we don’t give ourselves space the spiral happens, and we’re on the hamster wheel again. More often than not, we don’t know we need space. What happens when I recognize I’m suffering and how can I be compassionate with myself? I’d like to introduce some tools for your ever-growing toolbox. Tools to help you live more spaciously. These tools will help you be at school and help you in being here in general. Sometimes giving yourself space is as easy as giving yourself permission to be absent.

It’s been years since you’ve needed a hall pass from your teachers. As new adults, you no longer need a note from your parents. It’s truly up to you. I’m not suggesting arbitrarily that you don’t show up for classes and other appointments. Rather, I want to give you some guidelines for how you can introduce space to even the tightest situations. Here are some specific tools you can use in what I call “The Practice of Creating Space.”

Observe your breathing. Rest in the breath by watching your inhalations and exhalations.

Cultivate mindfulness by observing discursive thought. Buddhists call this the practice of non-attachment. Become aware of thoughts that emanate from the past or point towards the future. These thoughts aren’t intrinsically bad; however, they take you out of the present moment. Being taken out of the moment in these ways shortens your life because the present ceases to exist.

Be in transitions. Movement can strengthen awareness and can also be a stronger navigator than the breath. Here’s an example: Don’t just move unconsciously from each point on campus to the next. When you move from dorm to class to the dining hall, take a compassionate look at your surroundings. Shortly, I will explain how to experience a different way to be in transitions.

In each of these three tools, I’m essentially talking about the idea of the “and” versus the “either/or” of any given moment. For example, no matter how intense or even mundane any particular moment is, there should be space to experience the moment but also to be aware of it, observant of it, too. These tools focus on the notion of “In addition to” versus “instead of.” They comprise forms of yoga. Yoga means union.

Let’s try a guided exercise. I call this practice the “360 Walking Meditation,” which can be done almost anywhere, even from your computer or phone.

1. Stand up from your seat. Your choice of seating can be limiting on your space; challenge yourself to see how your space in a different way.

2. Now close your eyes and observe your breathing. Watch the movement of your in and out breaths. You’ll start to feel both weighted and lighter.

3. Cultivate mindfulness, that is, practice non-attachment. Label your thoughts. While on the hamster wheel, it’s likely that you will gravitate to habitual thoughts, mostly about the past or future. While watching your breath, can you label these discursive thoughts and come back to the breath when those thoughts surface?

4. Be in transitions. Here’s the 360 part. Slowly open your eyes and “walk” slowly in place, by turning your body 360 degrees over the course of five full minutes. While “walking,” keep with your breathing and notice your environment without looking at it with any attachment. For example, as you “walk” you might see a baseball cap and then think about where you got it, then the game, then who you were with: Break the story line by just seeing the baseball cap, label the cap “thinking,” come back to the breath, and move on. Doing this will help you see your environment more fully, clearly, and presently and recreate a relationship between you and it. This can be done nearly anywhere.

5. Have a seat.

This exercise is intended to help you give yourselves space on physical, mental, and emotional levels. It should serve to help remind you in the days and years ahead that there is always space to be found, even in the most seemingly tight situations. After all, if we, collectively, were just able to momentarily transform this moment from a tightly packed, familiar space to a spacious, almost solitary refuge, imagine what each of us can do, going forward, to make our “space” spacious.

I can’t predict how your first week at school, or your new job or relationships, will unfold. But I can say with near certainty that there are unexpected encounters, potentially lifelong friendships, and amazing learning opportunities, swirling in your personal orbit but perhaps not quite where you expect them to be. Use the tools we have touched upon just now, to give yourself space.

It could be as simple as taking one minute of your day at a set time each day, such as when you’re brushing your teeth, as a reminder to find your breath.
If you’ve given yourself the space to experience, befriend, and learn, and the space to step off the hamster wheel when needed, you’ll be the beneficiary of countless joys as you both observe, and experience your life, with a new or renewed sense of union.

Originally published at The Good Men Project.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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