Carving out space for meditation: looking after yourself in a Cambridge term

Illustration by Jess Beaumont

When you’re scared of your own mind, you very quickly develop a deeply ambivalent relationship with respite. Through my last two terms in Cambridge, respite was something that I simultaneously coveted and feared. I felt I was swinging between extremes: on the one hand, I was drowning in all the extracurriculars I had overcommitted myself to and wanted to sleep the rest of the term away; on the other, I was genuinely scared that free time meant sitting in my room with nothing but my thoughts keeping me company.

This was the state of mind I was in when I decided to give mindfulness a shot, even though I was sceptical about how effective it would be. Meditation felt like something that traditionally only the religious did and I didn’t want to jump on a bandwagon, treating it as just another temporary fad.

But after trying the guided meditations offered by the Headspace app, I realised that a much less intimidating way to think about mindfulness is to simply see it a curious but calm exploration of my own mind – that seeks to rebuild a healthier relationship with myself and, by extension, with respite.

It can be incredibly easy to feel guilty for taking a break in Cambridge, but the Headspace meditations helped me enter a time and space where I could take a break without feeling guilty. The advice in each session suspended my daily worries and anxieties, kept them at bay for just a bit, and allowed my mind to enter a state of rest, even if it was only for 10-15 minutes each day.

The meditations aren’t always easy: when all falls silent and I am left with just my mind, it is easy to overthink and get anxious about whether I am doing meditation “right” and consequently, whether even these short 15 minutes are best spent on a meditation. I try to convince myself that this is essentially a 15-minute “sunk cost” and so, rather than worrying about how it might be a waste of time, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts. And more often than not, the meditation is useful and even enjoyable: as it encourages me to focus on the sensation of breathing – something we constantly do but always take for granted.

It also recommends, for instance, thinking about meditation like watching cars drive by on a busy road – just as we don’t normally brood about whether we are watching the cars in the “right” way and simply just watch, we can also simply pause and be present.

To say that mindfulness has helped me cope with the intensity of Cambridge life is not to say that onus is therefore solely on individuals to figure out how to cope: if reports about how millennials are the “burn-out” generation and frequent calls for the University to review its term structure are anything to go by, the underlying causes of these problems are clearly systemic, and concerted effort is required to build ecosystems that better support our mental health. But in the process of seeking long-term change, it can be easy to feel helpless as an individual caught up within these systemic problems, and I am thankful that mindfulness has helped me find my own peace of mind.

There is a visualisation in Headspace which I particularly like: it uses the sky and the clouds as analogies for our minds and our thoughts and feelings respectively. Mindfulness isn’t about creating a new state of mind but about rediscovering that clear, blue sky which has always been there at the back of our heads, as long as we allow the clouds to roll by. What I have learnt from mindfulness is to trust my own mind: to understand and keep faith that this clear blue sky does exist, even during times when it may be temporarily clouded over by thoughts. Mindfulness is about building a positive relationship with our minds in the long run and it isn’t meant to be a quick fix. But I’d like to think that it is never too late to start developing what could hopefully become a lifelong habit: a habit that grants respite within the space of my very own mind.

A note: For those interested in exploring mindfulness, I personally think apps and websites are easily accessible ways to explore mindfulness. But if you are looking for something more structured and intensive, the University runs mindfulness courses every term and the Cambridge Buddhist Centre also runs drop-in meditation sessions. There is also the Cambridge University Mindfulness Society, for those who would like to practice mindfulness together with a group of friends!