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Can spirituality help you with school?

At first flash, spirituality and graduate school may seem to conflict. School requires your intellect; spirituality requires your surrender of intellect. School subsists on logic and realism; spirituality survives on faith.

I used to hold fiercely to these assumptions. Spirituality and school were completely contradictory, I thought, or at least separate.

Privately, though, I’ve often applied spirituality in my longtime academic practice of coaching and advising doctoral candidates wrestling with their dissertations. Spiritual practices have helped me forgive an ornery client, receive internal guidance for the next step on a daunting project, access the right assuaging words before a difficult meeting, and many other quandaries.

But I hadn’t come across any public acknowledgment of how spirituality can help graduate school projects (and later ones) until I did research for my book, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

In a particularly provocative scholarly article, Sheryl Cozart, Ph.D. (2010) examined her struggle between spirituality and academia. She came to a reconciling definition of spirituality: It is “inner submission to my God consciousness. This definition is not meant to refute other definitions, only to add location to my relationship with my God consciousness. I acknowledge thatI cannot live within my own power but through the power of my God consciousness” (p. 257).

I admire Cozart, especially in a scholarly journal (and the journal for publishing her piece), for such frank use of the phrase “God consciousness” and her recognition that her “own power” was insufficient. In my work with graduate students, I’ve found too that reliance on my own power does little good. Rather, when I’m stuck, turning to my God consciousness (or intuition, inner guide, voice, inner light—your choice) gives me answers that prove to be the best ones, often with astounding speed.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh sure, I go to God for my health, for my brother on drugs, for money, for world peace. But school? Uh-uh.” Well, if you’re grappling with a dissertation, a graduate school paper, a research project, or any other type of writing, here are some suggestions for using your own God consciousness for a major issue many writers experience: the dreaded writing.

As you begin, two techniques are essential. These are meditation and affirmations.


Meditation was sanitized for the West by the courageous Harvard M.D. Herbert Benson in his 1975 groundbreaking and evidence-based book The Relaxation Response. Today meditation is widely accepted, written about, studied, and even prescribed by enlightened physicians. You can meditate at home, in the library, on the checkout line, waiting in your major professor’s office, even in church.

Books and articles on meditation continue to proliferate, but it’s really quite simple and you don’t have to take a course. Sit in a quiet place (park your tech appendages out of thumbs’ reach). Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Then choose a word, phrase, or sentence that means something to you (“Peace,” “Ahhhh,” “All is in order,” “Chocolate”). Silently, keep repeating your chosen words.

One of the most recommended stints is for twenty minutes, but I can never last that long. At about four minutes, my to-do lists and client projects start knocking in my head. I often set a timer (highly recommended) for five.

Be patient with yourself. All kinds of thoughts will intrude, but just let them run through your mind, and keep coming back to your favorite word or phrase. Your mind will grow sharper, you’ll feel rested, and you may even look forward to your next session.

Now, to apply meditation to that fearsome writing: First, recognize and admit your anxiety. My dissertation clients have blurted, “I can’t write a thing.” “Sure I knocked out those doctoral course papers—and got As. But now, with the dissertation, I’m paralyzed.” “I sit and stare and the time drains away and my stomach sinks.”

To meditate, go sit outside, or to a comfortable chair, away from your computer. Breathe deeply. Follow your breath or repeat that favorite word. Your anxiety should lessen, even melt.

In your meditation session, “ask” yourself for the best place to begin. Or pose any other question about where you’re stuck. Listen. You will (amazingly) receive answers.


Popularized by Shakti Gawain (2002) and Louise Hay (1987), affirmations too have filtered into popular consciousness. They are positive statements for anything you desire, dream of, and don’t yet see in your present perspective, including progress on your dissertation or another writing project.

Create and repeat affirmations in the present tense, with fervor. Writing them down is ideal. Describe clearly what you really want—the end goal—as ridiculous or impossible as it may seem at the moment. Affirmations are based on the principle that as we change our thoughts, we change and refashion our experiences. When you try affirmations, probably to your shock, your mood will actually lift and your stalled place in the project won’t look as hopeless.

To apply affirmations, in your quieter state during or right after your meditation, choose one or more of these affirmations, or create your own:

  • I have all the courage I need to plunge in.
  • The answers are here.
  • I did it before (remember that first frightening undergraduate paper). I can do it again.
  • I act as if I can do it (Hamlet, Act III, iv, 161).
  • I listen to my Inner Mentor for perfect guidance.
  • Every idea flows to me in perfect order.
  • Every one of my sessions is productive.
  • I’m stronger than this stack of paper/notecards/journals/books/outlines/scribbled notes.
  • I stick with it, I Stick With It, I STICK WITH IT.

Now that you’ve established your base, to actually start writing, answer these questions (with suggested responses):

  • What do I want to write? “I now write Chapter 4.”
  • How do I want to feel writing? “I now feel clear, sharp, joyful, and flowing writing Chapter 4.”
  • How do I want to feel after writing? “I now feel satisfied and eager to begin Chapter 5.” See also Chlup’s (2016) excellent suggestions for writing, especially this: “Set an intention for how you want to feel while you create” (p. 6).
  • Where should I begin now? (“Why I became interested in this topic,” “The project’s significance for clinical practice,” “Recommendations for future research”).

Clients have often told me of “messages” from their inner voice. After feeling miserably blocked, when they asked questions and repeated affirmations, they suddenly knew where to begin. Some thought of former class notes, an article, or an old paper that helped them. One felt a strong inclination to change her topic sentence, and another to reverse his entire premise. Another abruptly thought of the perfect title that capsulated her topic and got the professor’s attention (and a strong pass, by the way).

By practicing the meditation-affirmation habit, you’ll find it gets easier. The truths of your affirmations will inexplicably seep into your mind, calm your nerves, and rebalance your stomach. Your questions will become more specific, and you’ll pay greater attention to your inner guidance.

As you use your developing spirituality in these and any other ways that surface, your anxiety about writing will diminish and your pages will mount. You may also find yourself using these techniques repeatedly. They work not only with your academic writing but also with other problems in your graduate school projects, dissertation, scholarly research papers—and every other aspect of your life.


Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Chlup, D. T. (2016, Summer). From blocked to breakthrough: The art of stress-fee creating. Academic Author [Textbook & Academic Authors Association], pp. 5-6.
Cozart, S. C. (2010). When the spirit shows up: An autoethnography of spiritual reconciliation with the academy. Educational Studies, 46 (2), 250-269.
Gawain, S. (2002), Creative visualization: Use the power of your imagination to create what you want in your life. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002. Originally published 1978; anniversary issue 2016.
Hay, L. (1987). You can heal your life. Carson, CA: Hay House.

© 2019 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site:

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at