The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

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The Inner Compass (or: Feeling Better When Academia Disappoints)

We tend to rely on external events to determine how we are doing: we publish an article and we are up; the article gets rejected and we are down. The meeting with the boss goes well and we are up; they push all our buttons and can’t see our point of view and we are down. We have a productive day and we are up; we have an unproductive day, our computer freezes on us, the data don’t cooperate, nor does the photocopier, we are late for our meeting and down we go.

In terms of happiness it isn’t the greatest model. Seems fair to say that if we are going to rely on external conditions to make us happy, we are not ever going to get there. If we are in academia certainly this is a given.

There is a way out.
It is the inner world, the inner compass.
Attune to that, living inside-out instead of outside-in, and life flows.
We aren’t so easily seduced into misery.
We gain a sense of perspective.
And adventure. And possibility. And ease.
We laugh more and don’t take everything so damn seriously.
We become responsive instead of reactive.
Even when things aren’t going our way, we don’t get as frazzled, because we are more deeply anchored.

When you’re doing academic work this state of being isn’t always readily accessible, unless you have trained yourself to do so. As academics we are mind-centered, and if we don’t watch out we get stuck in our heads. When we do, it is oh so tempting to start believing our negative thoughts, in fact it is near impossible not to do so. We do not recognise them as conditioned thought, thoughts that are automatic and may or may not be true (hint: they are mostly not true). Instead we blindly believe them. We call it being realistic.

The alternative is to align with a deeper wiser place in ourselves, and let that wiser (and more fun) voice do our strategic thinking for us. You might call it using your intuition, or I have also heard it referred to as ‘the quiet voice’, your ‘inner guidance system’, or spirit. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, and words tend to fall short.

The key is in feeling here

Does this option or way of thinking make you feel contracted, small, scared, unworthy, really shit basically? Then you are probably engaged with your negative conditioned egoic mind.

(I am not being precise here in my terminology. It’s complicated. There are all sorts of psychological theories around ego and super-ego which I won’t go into here, because for this practice it doesn’t matter what you call it. It matters whether you can identify these states of being. Labels and theories are less important.)


Does this option or way of thinking feel expansive, fun, challenging-in-a-good-way? Does it make you feel free? Does it make you smile? Does it make you want to get on with things (even in a non-doing way?) Does it taste of possibility? Then you are tapped into that wiser part of yourself. Your true nature.

The difference between living in one or the other mode, is night and day

When things are bad, being connected with your inner self will make everything a lot more bearable, and you will find your right direction, even if it can’t lift you out of difficult circumstances in a flash. What it can do is give you a radical sense of ownership of the situation, and a sense of adventure and freedom. And nothing is more satisfying than that. The most daunting task becomes doable.

When things are good, though, that’s when the magic feels like magic for real. When things are going well, being connected to your inner self, makes them oh, so, super good. Not in a bi-polar high-then-crash way. No, in a stable way, in a way that you are doing the right thing, and going about it the right way, and the world is your oyster. In an almost-impossible-to-hide-your-smile way.

The challenges of academic life can easily pull you into a mode of defeat in which all your negative thoughts seem real. I have recently worked with a few people facing real challenges: supervisors running off with their data (How on earth am I going to continue to work with this person? Should I leave academia? I am so disheartened), supervisors and colleagues being so negative it saps all their energy (How am I going to cope with this negativity? Is this worth it? Is it always going to be like this?). The answer to how, most always lies in no longer focusing on the external, but tuning into the internal instead. It will give you the energy to handle the daily challenges, and it will give you a sense of direction, on what to do next. A sense of what is best for you. (Also gives you attitude. Strut!)

For me personally the difference between these modes is acute, and it reminds me of how much of our experience is determined by our thoughts – the negative or the more expansive. For the record, I believe the more expansive ones are the real ones, the reliable ones, the true ones. The constricted, negative ones are old, recycled, fear-based ones that keep us stuck. If I have one practice it is this: reminding myself to shift into ’true’ mode. Into expansive mode. Into magic mode.

How to go about this

The first task is to start recognising the old, negative thought patterns. Write down the worst ones. It helps to show you that these thoughts are nothing new, and don’t mean much. They are patterns on repeat.

So, for example, your negative thoughts could be:

I am not going to make it,
I need to get out of here (but can’t),
I need to get *there* before I can be fulfilled (but fat chance that is going to happen),
my work isn’t good enough,
I am not good enough. (Or some version of this)

Find out what yours are. Practice saying these thoughts, and notice what it does to how you are feeling. They probably make you feel really lousy. Shrunk and fallible. Notice what, specifically, happens. Now, when you are out in the world doing whatever you are doing and you start to feel this way: realise it is probably these old patterns playing their depressing tunes. Sometimes that realisation is enough to help shift you out of that state. You are no longer giving these thoughts as much power.

The second task is to start cultivating your inner world. Everything is already there, that’s not the problem, but we need to practice tapping into it. One way is by starting a meditation practice. It helps us connect to our more spacious self. Another is by noticing when you feel connected, and in high spirits. Anchor into it right then and there, and invite more of it in. Open up to this possibility. You can do this actively, throughout the day, by pausing at set times, and tuning in. In challenging situations, I sometimes use affirmation-type thoughts, such as: “I am willing to see this differently. Show me how to see this differently.” And I surrender the issue, and do my best to suspend judgment. Nine times out of ten something will shift. A better alternative will show up. And I know I am on track. It is an unfolding, and a really exciting one.

If you have never tried this you may be sceptical. I realise this may all sound a bit Pollyannaish, or NewAgey. It really isn’t. It is as real and practical as it gets, and it has nothing to do with positive thinking. You will notice that if you give it a serious try. This stuff is real! But yes, it does require a bit of an open mind and an experimental approach. And your egoic mind will tell you it is a load of nonsense and it is not going to work for you. Defy this voice. Best thing you will ever do. Give it a go. It will be worth it.

Have you ever practiced tuning into your intuition, your inner voice? How did that work out? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like to explore this way of being, but feel you need some help, I love working with people developing their inner world ‘muscle’. Check out my coaching calls (you get a discount if you sign up for my newsletter), that are stand-alone, or go together with the HappyPhD Course, in which using your intuition features prominently. If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Art of Focus

Are you in between?
At work, but not working?
At home, but not relaxing?
In bed, but not sleeping?

Drifting off into worry about whether your chapter, or paper, or outline will be finished in time, while the clock ticks and your cursor blinks?
Drifting off into ‘will this ever be good enough’ and ‘what am I doing’?
Drifting off into randomness, into plans and to-do’s, and overwhelm?
Drifting off into conversations in your mind?
Drifting off…

Do you procrastinate?
Do you wonder where the day went, and why you didn’t get done what you wanted to do?
Feel guilty about it?

The art of focus is an art you’ll need to master if you want to break the loop. If you want to break out of being torn and overwhelmed and distracted and not getting anything done. The answer is as simple as it is difficult to do at times: pay attention. Pay attention to what you are doing and see whether it is indeed what you would like to be doing. If not? Now is the moment to get back into the groove, and back on track. Yes. Now. Break out of the loop.

This, in a nut-shell, is the ‘secret’ of being effective at anything really, including being a prolific academic: paying attention.

A tool that helps immensely in doing this, in creating more mental control, as well as control over what you actually do in a day, is meditation. It is brain training. Or mind training. You practice your paying attention muscles and it does pay off. It will become increasingly effortless to stay on track: the track you choose. You gain control. So worth the investment, so worth the effort.

I started meditating by taking an 8-week mindfulness based stress-reduction course, a system based on the work of Jon Kabat – Zinn. That was back in 2008, quite some time ago! I was excited to start, until I found out it was actually quite hard: it was so much about unlearning to overthink. And think, and think, and think is what my mind so loves to do! Thinking about meditation, dreaming of its wonderful effects came a lot easier to me than actually sitting on the pillow and paying attention – which is all meditation really is – without adding all the layers of thought. Thought was entertainment. Stories, fantasies, worries, you name it I am addicted! And now I had to learn to drop it.

And it is all the mental buzz we need to drop. I know now, for a fact, that solutions to anything – from intellectual puzzles to personal problems – do not come from thought, as in actively thinking or ‘obsessing’. They often arise from a different space – one where I feel calm and grounded and content. That space, where peace and joy arise, where you find a different perspective, a perspective that is so much kinder and so much more fun, instead of the continuous reaching and pushing for answers, that space can be accessed through meditation. Yet we need to sit with our chaos for long enough to allow the dust to settle, and the cobwebs to untangle themselves.

In the mindfulness course I took, they used the metaphor of a lake with muddy water. By simply sitting and being, the mud would sink and settle, the water would clear. Overthinking muddles the lake, while paying attention and letting go of the storylines in our head allows it to calm and beautify.

This has been very much my experience. About six weeks into the course – six weeks of chaos on my meditation pillow – I noticed that when a particularly distressing thought came up during the day (was dealing with freaky scary health/ money stuff) I could just let it be. Didn’t cause me to panic, didn’t cause me distress. Not as much distress anyway: the thought came up and I noticed myself thinking: “I am not going to entertain this particular train of thought today. I just can’t be bothered to think all those stressful thoughts. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, now please let me sit with the sun on my face with a cup of tea, unworried, thank you!” And instead of shaking me, the stressful thought just came and went. The lake was clear.

Did it stay like that? No! The mind is a muddy lake, at least mine is, and I expect yours to be too. But we can learn how to move out of chaos quicker. That is my experience. You still get into it, but you have tools to get yourself out of it. To calm the waters.

I still meditate, though a little more free-flowing than in the early years. I have become quite proficient at moving into calmer, and more loving, states of being, on the meditation pillow. It really does turn the joy up, and the worry down. Applying the same techniques in daily life is an ongoing practice.

What about you? Do you meditate? Would love to hear what it does for you. If you’d like to learn how to meditate: creating a meditation practice is an important part of the HappyPhD Course. It has meditations by Bodhipaksa, as well as my own. The HappyPhD meditations I designed specifically for the PhD life of us Overthinkers Anonymous. They help you switch off, after a day of thinking (no more obsessing about the PhD!), as well as shift towards a more joyful, sparkly way of being, when you are worried). As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Building Momentum: Cultivating Sparks and Getting Things Done

Before I presented my first HappyPhD seminar I booked a coaching session with a public speaking coach. We talked story-telling technique, commanding the energy in a room, and we brainstormed about some aspects of my workshop. The conversation meandered and we ended up talking about creativity, and how to bring your work into being. At this point in the conversation she drew me a stick figure:


She told me there are basically two ways to get stuck when you are creating something (and in life. It was that kind of conversation).  You may have no ideas, or no inspiration. You feel limp. You have lost your sense of wonder. Life is a drag. That’s when the vertical arrow gets blocked. Or, you may have problems implementing those ideas: translating them into reality and communicating them with other people. That’s when the horizontal arrow gets blocked. Releasing these blocks means momentum is restored.

(If you hadn’t noticed yet – this is a bit of a ‘spiritual’ post. No academic references here. Think metaphor, think model. Don’t take it literally.)

Translated to academia it presents a rather fabulous model for building and sustaining momentum.

We need the muse: the being enthralled, the giddiness of ideas and the excitement and thrill when inspiration strikes.

But we can’t stop there.

We need to capture those thoughts and ideas, order them, structure them, put them onto paper, fine-tune, fine-tune more, and present them to the world.

Moving ideas into form (and publication).

I believe the vertical arrow to be responsible for the spark, in our work, in our eyes, in our life. It ensures quality and originality. We cultivate it through feeling and noticing: we need to notice what uplifts us.

At work, we need to notice which ideas speak to us, which words need to be written, which argument needs to be explored. Even if the (desired) outcome is intellectual, the process is one of tuning into our feelings, navigating on inspiration.

More broadly, we need to notice what makes us come alive.
Where does excitement live?
And nourishment?
These aren’t fixed entities: what is it you need right now?

For sparks to show up on a regular basis you need to pay attention.
You need find out where they like to hang out;
they are not that visible to the untrained eye,
and if you get too caught up in the stresses of things (the deadline, the difficulties, the expectations, everything that doesn’t seem to go your way) they fade.
Or we think they do.
We fail to notice them, even if they are still there.

I believe the horizontal arrow to be the motor behind ‘success’. It is the ‘showing up and getting things done’. For academia:

It is the sitting down to do research or write when you do not feel like it.
It is ignoring the inner critic.
It is setting yourself a challenge. It is meeting that challenge.
It is thinking strategically about your work and how you want to position yourself in your field, and in the academic community.
It is being professional and engaged in your work relationships.
It is stretching beyond what you think you are capable of, beyond what you think you are ready for, beyond…
It is being courageous and bold.
It is joining the academic community by participating.
It is, as my mentor Gordon Smith would call it: ‘getting on with it’.
It is coming out of your shell and showing up.
Show up. Show initiative. DO something.

I believe there is great value in learning to tune into what we need: do we need to show up and get things done (horizontal arrow), or do we need to let go, surrender and allow things to happen (vertical arrow)? Do we need to put ourselves out there (horizontal arrow), or do we need to soften and pay attention to inner needs (vertical arrow)?

In my own life I find there are often subtle shifts I can make to restore momentum. When I am being too controlling, when I am too invested in an outcome, I remind myself to let things happen in their own time (vertical arrow). I step back. At least I try. At the same time, I work at those things that require my energy. I determine what my priorities are and I take action if I can (horizontal arrow).

These days I am pretty in tune, in the sense that I at least recognise when I am ‘in the flow’ and when I am firmly out of it. The two feel completely different, and I am highly sensitive to the difference. If I push too hard, for too long (and I tend to, still) everything comes to a halt very fast. So I reconnect, and figure out what I need to allow things to happen more effortlessly.

The vertical connection comes relatively easily to me – I seem to always have ideas and a little sparkle going on somewhere. That said, when I am being too goal-oriented, or if fear gets in the way, my inspiration gets cut off and I am absolutely gutted. I feel hollow and drained. I NEED the muse by my side to feel like myself. And I need to be in tune to work and create. I cannot do the go-getter thing. When I trust I don’t have to, my best work shows up.  Opportunities show up. (And, distinctions and good reviews show up). The horizontal connection for me means doing my work (whatever that may mean in the moment), and putting it out into the world (who knows, someone may enjoy it!). I have become a huge fan of simple routines to ensure I indeed do so, no matter the circumstances.

Establishing momentum in this inside-out manner has been key to finishing my PhD, and I imagine it will be key in anything I do from here. Why it works, is because it isn’t imposed. It is not about forcing myself to do things. It is more about alignment, than effort.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me, but I have no idea whether it makes sense to anyone else? Can you relate? How do you deal with horizontal and vertical challenges? Would love to know. If these ideas do make sense to you: could you share this post? As always, it is much appreciated!

Getting Unstuck

The vertical arrow is about spark and inspiration, for which we need to be open, curious and playful. It is about being connected to our inner world and working from there.

The horizontal arrow is about achievement (in an effortless way), for which we need to be committed, grounded and courageous. It is about our connection to others and our contribution in the world.

If you are vertically challenged right now, start creating space for sparks to show up.

Some ideas:

  • Brainstorm creative ideas for the chapter or paper you are currently working on – pay special attention to how each option makes you feel. Use your intuition to make work decisions. (Scary. Exhilarating. Powerful.)
  • Read your favourite scholars (or novelists), and let yourself be inspired.
  • Take time off to do nothing.
  • Take time to consciously stop achieving. Being is enough. You are enough.
  • Start a meditation or yoga practice (resets the brain for creativity, contentment and joy).
  • Notice what you want to do instead of what you ought to do. Do what you want to do.
  • Ask yourself: what do I need right now? Listen. Act on it.
  • Allow things to happen.
    Sit back.
    Be receptive.
    Loosen up, lighten up, relax.
    Be still and listen.
  • Pay attention to the small pleasures. And the big ones.
  • Let yourself off the hook:
    You don’t have to do anything right now.
    You don’t have to get anywhere.
    There is nowhere to go! You are already there.
  • Read, dance, eat, go to the cinema or theatre, see friends etc.: do anything that uplifts you.

Whether at work or outside work, the key to more spark is listening in, instead of pushing forward. It is about noticing joy, and following its path. Effortlessly.

If you are horizontally challenged, take action.

Some ideas:

  • Set up work and writing routines and stick to them (I recommend working in intervals)
  • Set yourself a work challenge that stretches you, and go for it. Maybe it is getting your paper written, maybe it is getting your paper published. Maybe it is trying something new, like leading a workshop or organising a panel at a conference. Maybe it is speaking up more in seminars, or presenting your work. Get excited about it and do it.
  • Think strategically about where you want to go next, work-wise. Plan for it. Act on it. Become the person who can do, and simply does those things.
  • Forget about failure. Failure is inevitable and it doesn’t matter. Just keep trying.
  • Ignore the inner critic. Ignore the inner censor. Be fearless.
  • Put yourself and your work out there.
  • Be open to criticism, instead of being defensive. Connect.
  • Take charge. Take a stand. Become visible.
  • Ask yourself how you could contribute. If you were one step ‘ahead’ of where you are now, what would you be doing? Do it now. Don’t wait until you are ready.
  • Set up self-care routines for exercise, diet etc. Don’t do so because you feel you ‘should’. Only make those changes that feel empowering.

Whether at work or outside work, the key to overcoming horizontal challenges is action and engagement. Show up. Your contribution is welcome and needed.

Sometimes we are challenged in all directions. In that case start anywhere. These approaches beautifully complement each other. Inspiration will help lift yourself above your fears and worries and into action. Action, engagement and movement will help you out of any slump and reignite your spark.

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