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Thesis Defense as Practice July 4, 2012

Posted by Living Abundance in Uncategorized.
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I recently had to prepare for and complete my master’s thesis defense/ oral examination. I had a good friend of mine say to me how much they were anxious and worried about the defense, so much so that they were unable to even think about the future event. At the time I was talking to my friend, I had a few pieces of advice. But I wanted to write up a more complete account of how I used my mindfulness practice, and all of the tools I’ve been developing these past few years, to get me through the event.

From the beginning of my preparations, I had quite a bit of fear, stress, and anxiety about the defense. As much as I could, I tried to cultivate self-compassion toward myself  for experiencing these unpleasant, and even at times painful, emotions. I tried my best not to judge myself for being afraid or anxious, or to tell myself that I shouldn’t be experiencing these emotions. I have been practicing lovingkindness daily toward myself and others, so I spent my usual time practicing lovingkindness to instead cultivate a lot of self-compassion: “May I know freedom from fear…anxiety…stress…worry”

The fear that I was experiencing around the anticipation of the defense was quite constricting, I could feel myself closing up and shutting down (“I don’t want to do this, I want to get as far away from this as possible, I’m sick of this…”). What I tried to do was act out of love, not fear. Instead of motivating myself from this place of constricting fear, I tried my best to act out of love and abundance, telling myself that I would succeed, and that there are many people supporting me and wishing me the best.

One practice that I try to use as much as I can (but really have a difficult time with) is non-attachment to outcome. I try to work on a task just for the sheer joy or satisfaction of putting my effort into it, with no (or as little as possible) expectations for what will be the results of my efforts. I tried not to place attachments on the success or failure of my thesis defense. In other words, I tried not to say that my happiness will only be possible if I succeed at this task.

Another tool I found particularly useful was practicing non-self, or trying to see how there is no permanent, separate self. A phrase came to me that I remembered from a similar situation a few months ago: “This does not contain me.” I realized that who I am is not contained in my success or failure of a master’s thesis defense. In other words, my identity as a master’s student was not my complete identity.

If someone were to describe me by saying that I am a master’s psychology student, it cannot come close to capturing the totality and complexity of who I am, of my being. Instead, I realized how much bigger I was than this single event in my life, and how many other parts of myself are still present in me, and will continue after my defense.

My usual lovingkindness practice towards others was targeted specifically to the people involved in the event. I cultivated lovingkindness to the professors who would be examining me and to everyone else in the room. I tried my best to imagine the situation with as little hostility or judgement, and instead with a calm and peaceful atmosphere. This is a practice I have found really useful applying to my situation at work, so I thought it would help for this specific event.

Finally, I felt quite a bit of social pressure to perform perfectly, or to the best of my ability, for the sake of everyone there (my supervisor/boss, my professors/ instructors, my classmates, my friends and acquaintances). I felt quite anxious about being judged by others as being incompetent, or not as smart as they might think I am.

I remembered a phrase that one of my dharma buddies uses and who has passed it along to another friend of mine: “The people who mind don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t mind.” If people want to judge me for not trying hard enough or not meeting their expectations, then that is fine, I probably wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them. And their judgements don’t concern me, I know how hard I worked at it so that is all the information I need to evaluate how I will do. If they truly are my friends, they will still be my friends even if I fail miserably and make a fool of myself.

These are all of the tools that I can think of, but I am sure there were many more that I wasn’t aware that I was using at the time. I still found the event quite stressful and anxiety-provoking, but I managed to get through it. I’m happy to say that it was a success, I did very well and managed not to make a complete fool of myself. Everyone who was there complimented me and said I did a really good job.

All I can say is a phrase I have heard my sangha members say time and time again: Thank goodness for the practice!

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