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Use meditation and mindfulness in your major project

Use spiritual principles or practices in your important academic project. “What!” you cry, “Academics and religion/spirituality don’t mix, like ice cream and boiled kidney!”

But . . . as you wrestle with your Major Work, do you crave less anxiety, more confidence, better work flow, even real answers to all those knotty quandaries?

Meditation and mindfulness can help. In my academic coaching practice, I’ve found, to my surprise, that many graduate students in their dissertations and professors in their articles use spiritual methods to help them through the Purgatory of academic writing. And I encourage them, primarily in two ways—meditation and mindfulness.


If you don’t like the term meditation, call it My quiet time or Resting without snoring. Whatever you name it, consider it.

Regular features on the Internet, popular articles in online publications, cover stories in print magazines, and many scientific publications trumpet reasons backed by studies that attest the benefits of meditation. They are physiological, psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual (for example, Chopra, 2020; Denning, 2018; Good News Network, 2022; Harvard Health Publishing, 2014; Mayo Clinic Staff, 2022; Melnick, 2013; Seppälä, 2013).

In the 1970s, meditation was sanitized for the West by the courageous Harvard MD Herbert Benson (1975) in his groundbreaking book The Relaxation Response. With laboratory techniques, he documented empirically that meditation can lower blood pressure and the tendency to hardening of the arteries and stroke (Mitchell, 2013).

Benson virtually started mind/body medicine. In 1988, he founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School and in 2006 the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (Emory, 2011). His original book has been republished many times, with numerous subsequent variations. Other relevant publications, scholarly and popular, are now available.

Meditation is widely accepted and even prescribed by enlightened physicians and other healthcare professionals (Mayo Clinic, 2014; Mayo Clinic Staff, 2022; National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013). The practice doesn’t need to connect to any religious movement or set of dogmatic statements.  Nor does meditation have to be mysterious. You can practice it at home, in the library, at the faculty meeting, the bus stop, and even in a chapel.

Books, articles, blogs, and videos on meditation continue to proliferate. For an introduction to both meditation and mindfulness, see two excellent books: Meditation for Dummies (Bodian, 2016) and Mindfulness for Dummies (Alidina, 2020).


Mindfulness is meditation’s fraternal twin, and sometimes they are used interchangeably. Mindfulness too has received ever-increasing attention over the past decade (e.g., Bertin, 2013; Time Magazine’s 2016 special issue “Mindfulness”). There are even books for kids (e.g., Sherman, 2020). Like meditation, mindfulness doesn’t have to be anchored in any religious/spiritual belief (see Smith’s [2021] appealing title: Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads).

Various definitions distinguish between the two, and without becoming embroiled in the (scholarly) minutiae, I like Annie Daly’s (2014) simple explanation of the basic difference. Meditation involves a conscious choice to repeat certain words, phrases, or sentences. Mindfulness means simply becoming acutely aware of what you are experiencing right at this moment.

Dr. Mark Bertin (2013) explains a number of definitions of mindfulness and references to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the first mindfulness program in the 1970s, based on concepts of Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and has published many books (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 2005, 2016, 2018). Bertin asks us, finally, to bypass all definitional convolutions and simply practice. Both meditation and mindfulness do require practice—and a few instructions.


Here’s what I do. Away from everything, I sit in a quiet place (all tech appendages out of thumbs’ reach). I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths.

Then silently I say a word, phrase, or sentence that means something to me (“Peace,” “Ahhh,” “All is in order,” “Chocolate”). Or I repeat a positive statement, an affirmation (“I have all the answers for the Discussion section now”). I keep repeating my chosen words.

One of the most recommended stints is for thirty minutes, but I can never last that long. At about four minutes, my to-do lists rear up, so I start with two, five, or ten minutes. I set a timer, and if I peek at it before it bongs, no one will know.

A warning as you practice: If thoughts come in—and they will; we all are plagued by them—you may find yourself veering off into last night’s junk-television plot, your sweetie’s sudden text-messaging silence, the chicken spoiling in the fridge, or a thousand other things. As soon as you catch any of these thoughts, don’t condemn yourself as a failed meditator. Just allow them without cursing, watch them go, and come back to your chosen words. Keep repeating them. Gradually (very), those intruders will quiet down and may even cease for long periods.

Be patient with yourself. There’s no right or wrong way to meditate, and twenty minutes is no holier than two. The important thing is to keep at it.

Minding Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not for multitasking but monotasking. I use mindfulness when I’m especially anxious about the ever-proliferating impossible-to-do list or an impending client deadline. I focus on the thing I’m doing (being mindful of it) and push aside all those other things clamoring for full-blown entry into my mind. Sometimes I focus on my breath—in, out, in, out.

To further suppress anxiety, I turn my attention to the physical sensations of, say, typing. The subtle tactile and physical motions of my fingers tapping satisfy. The muted clacks are percussive music. I feel my chair and its support of my back. I see the words appearing on the screen and sense my power to add, delete, change them. I feel my mind thinking about what I’ve just typed or want to type. I am in the moment—mindful.

Benefits of Meditation/Mindfulness

As I have found, eventually your mind will grow sharper, and you will feel rested. You’ll be more aware and appreciative of your surroundings, feel more powerful and on top of things. Even answers you’ve chased will start coming (I’m talking to you, Review of the Literature).

You may also experience likely unaccustomed calm and peace, and somehow you’ll know what to do next in your dissertation chapter or article section. Or you’ll feel a lifting that’s not just a caffeine rush but feels suspiciously like joy. You may even look forward to your next meditation/mindfulness session.

Why You Don’t Meditate or Mind Your Mind

You say you have no time? Too busy? Too stressed? You tried it and it didn’t work? Too much like New Age (perceived) nonsense?

Corporate training consultant Karen Exkorn (2014) nails these five big excuses for not practicing meditation or mindfulness and suggests how to overcome them.

  • “No time” means you haven’t made the time. It’s your choice. Even three minutes works (your timer again).
  • “Too busy” means you don’t have to add special time for the practice. Use mindfulness when you’re doing what you’re doing, only more consciously (dishes, diapering, grading papers, listening to a colleague’s droning at a meeting).
  • “Too stressed”? Focus on doing one thing with full consciousness. Exkorn uses eating Hershey Kisses. You can use anything—a banana, driving, absorbing an article abstract, listening to a student pleading for an extension.
  • “Tried it”? For how long? Give it a fair chance, like any new habit.
  • “Too New Agey”? Mindfulness is ubiquitous. As Exkorn points out, it has been featured on a Time magazine cover and in a New York Times

Mindfulness has also been regularly practiced and praised by actors, professional athletes, sports teams, and business leaders. Mindfulness and meditation are used by staff at Google, General Mills, Twitter, and many corporations. A PBS special was titled “Mindfulness Goes Mainstream” (Adams et al., 2017), with Kabat-Zinn and other experts, and testimonies by executives at several large companies.

Granted, the popularity of mindfulness has turned it into a lucrative business, with all kinds of apps, courses, magazines, websites, videos, and t-shirts. See Gelles’ (2016) New York Times article “The Hidden Price of Mindfulness Inc.” But, as Gelles reminds us, the paraphernalia isn’t an instant remedy. “It’s not enough to buy into mindfulness. You have to practice it, too” (para. 22). And you really don’t need any of the stuff. Just do it.

* * * * * *

Once you get in the habit, you’ll see that meditation and mindfulness are your friends. You’ll appreciate their benefits and how they help you crawl through your dissertation or article. You’ll look forward to your next session and may even become addicted. At the least, for a few minutes you’ll stop battling that blinkin’ cursor.


Adams, A., Donnelly, L., & Stein, N. (Producers). (2017). Mindfulness goes mainstream. WGBH Educational Foundation.

Alidina, S. (2020). Mindfulness for dummies (3nd ed.). John Wiley.

Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response. HarperCollins.

Bertin, M. (2013, June 29). Mindfulness means nothing: Lose the word, find the habit. Huffington Post.

Bodian, S. (2016). Meditation for dummies (4rd ed.). John Wiley.

Chopra, D. (2020). Total meditation: Stress free living starts here.  Harmony Books.

Daly, A. (2014, September 12). What’s actually the difference between mindfulness and meditation? Women’s Health.

Denning, S. (2018, February 2). The benefits of meditation in business. Forbes.

Emory, M. (2011, December 15). Dr. Herbert Benson on the mind/body connection. Brain World.

Exkorn, K. S. (2014, February 22). The top 5 excuses for not practicing mindfulness and how you can do it anyway. Huffington Post.

Gelles, D. (2016, March 19). The hidden price of mindfulness inc. New York Times.

Good News Network. (2021, September 9). How meditation can help you make fewer mistakes.

Harvard Health Publishing (2014, July 16). What meditation can do for your mind, mood, and health.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are (10th ed.). Hachette.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2016). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment and your life. Sounds True.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018). Falling awake: How to practice mindfulness in everyday life. Hachette.

Mayo Clinic. (2014, July 19). Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, April 29). Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress.

Melnick, M. (2013, April 30). Meditation health benefits: What the practice does to your body. Huffington Post.

Mitchell, M. (2013, May 29). Dr. Herbert Benson’s relaxation response. Psychology Today.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2013). Relaxation techniques for health: An introduction.

Seppälä, E. (2013, October 17). Benefits of meditation: 10 science-based reasons to start meditating today [Web log post]. Emma Seppälä, Ph.D.: The Science of Happiness, Health & Social Connection. science-based-reasons-start-meditating-today-infographic/#.VCNhbPk7tr8

Sherman, H. (2020). Mindfulness workbook for kids: 60+ activities to focus, stay calm, and make good choices. Rockridge Press.

Smith, C. (2021). Mindfulness without the bells and beads: Unlocking exceptional performance, leadership, and well-being for working professionals. John Wiley.

Time Magazine (2016, September 2). Mindfulness: The new science of health and happiness. Special issue. See also paperback:

Adapted and updated from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

© 2022 Noelle Sterne

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 700 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 third novel. Visit Noelle at