Powerlessness is pervasive. On those days where you feel like you can only exist in the spaces between meetings, appointments and lectures, the world seems like it moves too fast to find meaning in anything. Especially when coupled with burnout, a painful reality for many students, reclaiming a sense of control in the rush of the world becomes very difficult.
If this sounds like you, you’re not thriving. You’re just seeking self-preservation. It is far too easy to get lost in the motions of life and much harder to make sense of reality when your grasp on your surroundings is weak.
In a 2005 study by the University of California, Riverside professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues proposed that overall happiness is determined by three primary factors. Beyond a “genetically determined set point for happiness,” a biologically determined and fixed limit, our happiness is measured by external circumstances as well as relevant activities and practices that make us happy. According to their work, about half of the variance in our happiness relies on choices we make. The central idea of the study, however, is contingent on the idea that humans have free will. Thus, we can acknowledge that difficult situations harm our happiness while also recognizing that our actions can change our outlook, however small they may be. One such choice that we can make is mindfulness.
When my days seem to blur and my ability to deal with run-of-the-mill challenges becomes compromised, I often realize that my sense of powerlessness often stems from a lack of mindfulness. The word gets thrown around a lot – a simple Google search reveals millions of results in a matter of seconds – but to me, it means simply being present in whatever I’m doing. I often find my mind wandering or becoming preoccupied with issues not relevant to what I am doing at that moment. When I find myself losing touch with the present, I ground myself in my surroundings. It can be something as simple as noticing how your clothes feel against your skin or indulging in the sensation of a cool sip of water during a study break. I use this technique when the stress of the incessant to-do list plays in my head on repeat to the point where I cannot fathom starting it. This physical sense of awareness allows for a sense of connection beyond the physical; it reminds me that I must also check in with my mind and spirit, which allows me to move forward. In these moments of presence, I experience life beyond an endless to-do list, and I am able to flourish.
Mindfulness gives life meaning. In his magnum opus “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, drew on his experiences as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp to devise his own theory of the meaning of life. His experiences led him to the hopeful conclusion that humans can find meaning in the most abhorrent, painful circumstances. Frankl’s hope in sharing his story is that the reader apply his philosophy of finding meaning throughout life, and try to make a sense of meaning out of their own. And even though you may feel like you have a broader objective that you’re working toward by enduring four arduous years at college, it becomes incredibly easy to lose sight of why you’re working hard in the first place. So, we must find a new way to make meaning as we work toward our objectives and be mindful through every moment. By embracing college as an experience and not as a forced stepping stone on the path of life, we are able to reclaim autonomy over even the most difficult parts of it.
Along with a sense of hope that came when I first read the book, I felt a sense of dread. The idea of finding meaning seems like one big, lofty goal that often takes the form of academic or professional achievement as college students enter a cutthroat workforce. We can get lost in the process of navigating lofty goals, whether making sure we ace our next test or finding our next internship, objectives which often have no clear cut paths The mission of finding meaning through our accomplishments becomes so large that instead, I find that focusing on the smallest parts of my reality and perception. The purpose of life, then, becomes savoring the full range of human emotions and experiences which are at our disposal at any given moment instead of unnecessarily focusing on aspects of a future that we are already working toward.
My defense of mindfulness as a small practice with a large impact does not come from a place of minimizing other stressors in life. Rather, it acts a tool that better equips us with the fulfillment to better tackle them. It allows for life to be experienced more richly, and helps me reclaim experiences that I feel often get lost when life begins to move too fast.
Check in with your surroundings. Are you really there?
Dani Parra del Riego (25C) is from Miami, Florida.