Healthy Living

Backpack Buddha: Mindfulness practices to steer you through the school year

Photo by Zak Neumann

One day Ajahn Chah and his students were walking through the Thai forest and saw a boulder on the path. The monk asked his students, “Tell me, is that rock heavy?”

Eager to demonstrate how observant they were, the students replied, “Yes, it’s very heavy.”

Ajahn Chah, who had a reputation for mischief, smiled. “Not if you don’t try to pick it up.”

As a new semester gets under way, many students can be seen lugging backpacks loaded with textbooks as they criss-cross campus to and from classes. Sadly, some baggage in life is inevitable.

But we often take up burdens that aren’t necessary or helpful, including regrets about a past we can’t change and worries about a future that hasn’t arrived. We want to succeed — get good grades, ace the test, get the internship — and so we worry, which fuels stories we tell ourselves about the many ways things might go wrong. When life doesn’t go as planned or hoped (say, we get a B instead of an A on an assignment), we fret more, which creates a feedback loop of negative thinking and anxiety that weighs down our hearts and saps us of energy.

Mindfulness practices can show us how to step off the frantic gerbil wheel of thinking that can sabotage us and drag us down.

Meditation, yoga, centering prayer and similar mindfulness practices can show us how to step off the frantic gerbil wheel of thinking that can sabotage us and drag us down. To be most effective, it’s ideal to commit to a regular practice with a group that can support you.

In reality, though, you can practice mindfulness anywhere, anytime. A short meditation (even five minutes) can immediately calm your “monkey mind,” center and refresh you, and expand your capacity to navigate the seemingly endless push-and-pull of academic life.

Here are three options:

Five-Minute Meditation

  • Find a relatively quiet and secluded place to sit and set your phone’s timer (use a soft chime to alert you when the time is up).
  • If you’re on a chair, place your feet flat on the ground and rest your hands palm up or down on your knees. If you’re sitting on a floor or the grass outside, fold in your legs as best you can if you can’t manage a full or half-lotus, with ankles over opposite knees; the goal is to be stable and centered.
  • Sit with your back straight, eyes closed or barely open and softly focused eight feet or so in front of you. Relax and soften your body, from the top of your head to your toes.
  • Follow your in-breath and out-breath without forcing it, using the breath to anchor yourself and remind your body that you’re safe.
  • Lightly notice what’s happening inside and outside of your body: sounds, sensations, thoughts — whatever comes up. Rather than attach stories to them, just label them: sound, feeling, thinking. Then imagine them drifting off the projector screen of your mind.
  • When you become distracted, notice that too, and gently return your attention to your breath.
  • Be kind to yourself. Meditation isn’t about being perfect, but about being more at ease with life however you find it, with all of its 10,000 joys and sorrows.
  • Gathas

    Gathas are short poems or mini-meditations you can memorize and recite silently to help set your intention, calm yourself and bring present-moment awareness to whatever you’re doing.

    Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written dozens of gathas for every occasion, from washing dishes and eating food, to walking slowly in the woods — even talking on the phone and driving a car. Here are a few:

    Waking Up
    Waking up this morning I smile
    knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
    I vow to live fully in each moment,
    and look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

    When Feeling Anxious or Scattered
    Breathing in, I calm my body.
    Breathing out, I smile.
    Dwelling in the present moment
    I know this is a beautiful moment.

    Calling, Texting, Snapchatting, etc.
    Words can travel thousands of miles.
    May my words create mutual understanding and love.
    May they be as beautiful as gems, as lovely as flowers.

    Try writing some gathas of your own, perhaps about studying for a test, walking to class or having a difficult conversation with a professor. A quick guide, based on the often humorous gathas of the late Zen teacher and writer Robert Aitken may offer some helpful tips.


    Sometimes when we’re anxious or afraid, a hug or the loving touch of a friend or family member can put our bodies, hearts and minds at ease. Even if no one is available, we can offer ourselves our own loving hand. Metta, a Pali word (the language in which the earliest Buddhist teachings are recorded) meaning loving-kindness, takes the form of a useful meditation practice (Jack Kornfield offers one variation). Another, simplified version is this:

    • Stop whatever you’re doing.
    • Place your hand gently over your heart.
    • Enjoy three deep, mindful in-breaths and out-breaths.
    • Recite, aloud or silently, the following two times (or however many you wish):
      May I be free from harm.
      May I be happy.
      May I be healthy.
      May I live with ease.

    Along with all those heavy textbooks, commit to carrying with you one or more of the practices above and you should find your burden just a little bit lighter this semester.

    Stephen Pradarelli is founder and co-facilitator of the Iowa City Sangha, a meditation group based on the teachings of Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that meets Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church.


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