7 Mind Hacks To Stay Healthy (And Sane) During Your Online Studies
Rangjung Yeshe Institute’s Summer Intensive Program is already at cruise speed and I am learning that the “Intensive” bit really means it. While sometimes intimidated and overwhelmed by the pace and content, each day I become more aware of how precious and valuable this learning opportunity is.
On the very first day of the program I decided I was going to make whatever adjustments to my life were necessary in order to get the most out of the course without burning out after a few weeks. And the best part of it all?
I already knew exactly what those adjustments would be.
You see, last year I also participated in RYI’s Summer Intensive, but at that time I didn’t have the benefit of experience to know how to keep myself physically and emotionally healthy while applying myself to rigorous coursework (in Beginner Colloquial Tibetan Language, in case you’re wondering).
This year is different.
I can now observe with hindsight how I struggled last year and what patterns of thinking and behaving led me to that place to which I really don’t want to go back. In turn, I’ve now developed a new relationship to the course material and my own goals, expectations and emotions.
So what am I specifically doing that’s different?
I’ve laid out seven tips that I hope can serve you as well as they are serving me now.
Health disclaimer: the following content has been created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.
As a former slothful college student, I know how easy it is to slip into the inertia of keeping my body still as my mind races. Last year, I would go weeks without hardly leaving my desk chair or the meditation cushion. “I’m doing important work and practice! What could be more important than this?” I would tell myself.
Turns out there is something just as important: Exercise.
A year ago I began the habit of circumambulating my Dharma center’s main temple every day for at least 40 minutes after breakfast. And when I say “circumambulating” I don’t mean it in a relaxed, leisurely way, but in a vigorous, heart racing, droplets of sweat swelling at my pores
On the very first day, I immediately saw how much more efficient my time on cushion and at my desk became. After all, it’s not about the quantity of time doing the activities, but the quality of it. Another welcome surprise: just as working out in the morning charges your body with energy and your mind with clarity in the evening, it relieves stress. And no matter the time, it helps you stay healthy, active and more prone to easily falling asleep (more on this later).
It doesn’t really matter what you do to activate your body – jogging, running, hatha yoga, circumambulating your nearest stupa, chi kung or plain, good-old walking… It will all be warmly welcomed by your system as it was by mine
As the old Latin saying goes – mens sana in corpore sano (“healthy mind in a healthy body”).
- Keep your senses stimulated.
This one comes straight from the great yogis’ advice on how to do long, solitary retreats. Although I had heard this advice from my teacher several times in the past, it was not until last year’s Summer Program that I got to really understand its meaning and efficacy.
After having done nothing but memorize Tibetan words and grammar structures for most of the day for the whole week, I felt like my brain was getting drier and drier, slower and slower, dimmer and dimmer.
And then it dawned on me – My senses! I had forsaken my senses!
The bottom line is this: When we’re meditating or studying for most of the day, our formerly hyper-stimulated senses are deprived of their basic sustenance. When this is paired with the extraordinary effort we’re simultaneously carrying out with our mind, then we’re bound to get some serious inner imbalance.
Easy – keep your senses stimulated! Devote some time throughout the day to mindfully feed them with their respective objects. Here are some examples.
- Smell: incense, aromatic candles, smelling food before eating it.
- Taste: eat slowly, savoring each spoonful; drink lemon water and other tasty (non-sugary!) beverages throughout the day.
- Sound: listen to music, the birds’ songs…
- Touch: take a warm shower, massage yourself.
- Eyes: contemplate anything non-electronic, preferably in nature.
As for the eyes, there is also another topic that may as well deserve a separate section…
- Protect your eyes.
I’ve been shortsighted for as long as I can remember, so staring into a computer for many hours without losing even more eye power has become a major challenge. This was of course exacerbated for all of us since learning went almost 100% online overnight with Covid-19.
So far, the three best things I’ve found for protecting my poor, worn-out eyes are:
- Taking 2-3 minutes breaks every 20 minutes with apps like Eye Saver.
- Adapting the colors of my computer screen so that they’re not so abrasive with apps like f.lux
- Blinking as much as possible while working on the computer (and as much as I can remember to do it though).
Even if you don’t struggle with eye problems like I do, hopefully you can use my own experience as a cautionary tale and be mindful of caring for your eyes to prevent further damage.
- Allow yourself some mental space.
There’s a weird climatic phenomenon that occurs once or twice every year in the area where I live. The weather in the East Coast of Spain is pleasantly warm for most of the year, without peaks of heat or cold temperatures. There’s not much rain either. But when it rains, it does rain. Downpour-like rain. So literally, here: when it rains, it pours!
When that happens, the earth can only take up to a maximum amount of water, and then it gets saturated. When that occurs, the water starts flooding over the earth and it creates an extremely dangerous flood in steep areas like the one my monastery is located on.
Well, I discovered that studying non-stop is kind of like that.
By studying we’re narrowing our mind to a very concentrated focal point in a very effortful manner, and chances are you also have the tendency to want to stay narrow for as long as possible to savor, process and digest all the fascinating information you’re receiving.
However, forcing ongoing focus without refreshing your mind (aka let the rain stop for a while!) has the opposite effect – you don’t absorb more information or discover anything new, but became overwhelmed, tired and agitated (aka, you flood). At least I did.
It wasn’t until I understood the importance of this “accoredian” effect of allowing the mind to focus in then letting it expand out, that I discovered how much more effective and valuable the focus time would become.
The two best, most accessible ways I’ve learnt so far for this are:
- Look at the horizon – as silly as it may sound, it is extremely effective.
- Meditate – chances are that if you’re reading this, you already know what I’m talking about. (And if you don’t, here’s a wonderful 5-minute introduction by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche.)
Also, sharing some quality time with friends and family, and taking a walk in nature, work like a charm.
- Stay joyful.
While being shortsighted is my #1 physical handicap, having a neurotic personality is my #1 psychological handicap. That means that if there’s something that doesn’t fit my rigid, well-crafted expectations about how things/people/anything should be, that event will trigger a merciless waterfall of thoughts and emotions that will not stop until it ruins my day.
And it all happens automatically, without me even deciding to experience it.
As you can imagine, last year that issue got to a whole new level during the Summer Program, and made me seriously question whether I wanted to keep having that kind of inner operating system. Coincidentally, a few months later I received The Seven Point Mind Training teaching (lojong dondunma), a brief collection of in-your-face aphorisms that dystil the essence of the Buddhist teachings into easy-to-apply instructions for meditation and daily life alike.
One of them goes like this:
Always maintain only a joyful attitude.
(ཡིད་བདེ་འབའ་ཞིག་རྒྱུན་དུ་བསྟེན། in case you’re also a Tibetan language nerd).
There is a lot of meaning and application behind those words, but the gist for me in this particular context was this:
Don’t wait until you finish your course, or receive and A mark, or get your personality traits changed overnight, or understand whatever your teacher is trying to explain to you for the third time in a row for you to feel happy. Do it now. Feel happy, just because.
The more you practice it, the more energized, optimistic and radiant you’ll feel regardless of the situation – and that’s something that is useful for studying, working, raising a family and striving for the perfect, complete enlightenment of all sentient beings alike.
That joy is already inside you, so why not start exercising it at will?
Ok, I have to confess: this is the hardest one for me. Sometimes I get so enthused by the topic I’m studying that I just can’t let go. Or sometimes I don’t allow myself to go to bed till I have completed every single (and unrealistic) objective I set at the onset of the day.
Well, that’s extremely ineffective in the long term. That’s what I discovered last year, when I was talking for the third day in a row with one of my Tibetan Assistant Language Instructors.
The previous day the conversation had developed fairly well (aka from time to time I was able to articulate two or three coherent sentences in Tibetan). The next day, however, that progress seemed to vanish. Why? Because the last day I had slept two hours less because I wanted to memorize that day’s vocab list.
Next morning, neither the vocab nor my brain power were available.
I’m sure you know why, right?
When studying, our brain is our main tool, so taking care of it should be one of our main concerns. And that’s where sleep comes in. Not only does it replenish our energy levels, it also helps us assimilate all the information we absorbed throughout the day, as well as a myriad of other amazing things.
My recommendation for getting the most of your sleep? Well, besides practicing sleep hygiene, I recommend you to not use an alarm for waking up in the morning.
At first it sounds crazy (“I’ll sleep for 12 hours!” is also what I thought the first time), but after a few weeks you’ll find that you can sleep for a reasonable amount of time (6 to 9 hours, depending on the person) AND get however much rest you actually needed AND be so fresh you may not even need to take that pitch-black coffee right after lunch.
(Also, practicing some deep breathing for relaxation before sleep works like a charm.)
- Remind yourself of your motivation.
Again, chances are that if you’re reading this, your studies are part of a larger, altruistic project.
Most of us are investing so much time and energy in getting educated because we want to help our teachers, learn something valuable we can later share with others, deepen our spiritual practice or simply become better human beings.
Whatever your reasons may be, remind yourself of them at the start of every study day. In my case, before each class I remind myself why I’m studying Tibetan: because my teachers want me to be able to translate and interpret for Tibetan teachers, and so be able to better share the precious Buddhadharma with Spanish- and English-speakers.
Remember why you’re doing this and how much benefit it’ll bring in the long term to others, whether directly or indirectly. And if you feel comfortable with it, pray to your teachers and the buddhas so that they may grant their blessings for you to be successful.
And when things (inevitably) get tough and you feel like you want to give up, also remind yourself of your motivation, but now 10x harder and it’ll soon be OK. The more I practice it, the more I’ve come to realise that neither I nor any of us are alone in this, and that help is always there for us.
That being said, I can only finish this piece by wishing you the very best in your studies. I hope you find these hacks useful, and that they help you as much as they have (and still do) help me. May you have a wonderful, enriching and healthy online learning experience, dear friend!