Roxanne Leslie, IESE MBA Class of 2020 discusses the importance of taking a breath during the MBA and shares some useful tips for students to cope with stress.
As I write this, the IESE MBA Class of 2020 is wrapping up orientation week, and we are a bit overwhelmed by all of the information we have been presented with. From talking to a few of my fellow students, we are all very stressed – and yet, classes haven’t even started yet! I believe the source of our stress is worrying about the future – how difficult the case method will be, what type of summer internship we will get, whether we will forge long-lasting friendships.
I have been listening to the podcast “Vedanta and Yoga” from the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston. In particular, the episode “Self-Renewal” seemed particularly relevant to the stress we are facing now. In this podcast, Swami Tyagananda talks about how we can constantly renew ourselves by staying focused on the present moment. The best way of remaining fresh and new is being in the moment.
In general, we either cling to the past or the future. Think about your last few thoughts – were you ruminating over some memories or worrying about the future? Swamiji says if we can loosen the hold the past and future have on us, we will be the happiest people on the planet! So how can we get started on this happier path? The first step is to cultivate a “mindful mindset” – that is, really be present and savor each moment.
How to be mindful in stressful situations
At IESE, we prepare 15 cases per week, in addition to group projects and exams. Not only are the academics intense, but many students also participate in student clubs, as well as search for that perfect summer internship. Since we are so busy, we need to prioritize and learn to say no to things we want to do since we just don’t have enough time. Nonetheless, this stress can take a toll on us MBA students.
When I am feeling stressed, I first see if I can remove myself from the situation temporarily. I find a quiet place (it can even be a bathroom stall!) and sit and close my eyes. I bring attention to my breath – if I’m stressed I’m usually breathing very rapidly – and consciously try to slow down my breath. For a few minutes, I just focus on my breath and slowing it down. I generally feel a bit better after that and can return to the stressful situation.
If you can’t remove yourself from the situation – for example, you are in a team meeting – you can still bring yourself a moment of calm. Do the same thing – focus on your breath – either with your eyes open or closed – and try to slow down your breath. You can even suggest to your team to take a 5 minute break if things are getting particularly heated.
What’s important after the stressful situation ends is to let it go. Many of us (myself included) can hold grudges and let past negative experiences with a person taint future interactions. We must fully “digest” the experience – analyze it if we want, but ultimately let it go – or else it will keep bothering us. A negative experience can continue to haunt us long after it first happened. Memories drag us into the past and do not let us live in the present moment – ruminating over an argument your team had will not allow you to see how your relationship has improved now. Practicing a bit of forgiveness will go a long way in terms of your own happiness.
How to be mindful in positive situations
Now, the MBA is not all stress! Actually it is a lot of fun – for me, meeting 350 new classmates is an exhilarating experience. I am meeting people from all over the world and learning a bit of their culture as well – I now know how to say “cheers” in Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese! At the beginning of the MBA, everyone is in the same boat and very eager to make new friends. We have organized countless group outings to explore our new city of Barcelona together.
How can we extract maximum happiness from positive situations? You guessed it – by being mindful! If we experience the positive moment and then let it go, we may develop a memory of it, or it may leave our minds altogether. To be more mindful in a positive situation, first I recommend putting away your phone. This can be very hard to do, but if you are out with new friends and on your phone the whole time, chances are you won’t develop very strong friendships! Second, you can really focus on the person you are talking to and concentrate on what they are saying. This means controlling your mind a bit and not letting it drift off into thoughts of the past or future while you are talking to someone! Finally, taking in all of the details of the moment – using all five senses to take in the sights, sounds, smell, taste and touch – will allow you to really savor that moment and feel joy now as well as in the future.
Simple mindfulness practices to take with you
As I mentioned above, the simplest mindfulness practice you can do is to close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. Focus on your inhales and exhales and how they affect your body – especially your mouth, nose, and belly – your belly should expand with inhales, and contract with exhales.
During this breathing practice it is important to practice “mind control.” This doesn’t mean emptying your mind of thoughts completely – that is in fact, impossible! What it means is not letting your thoughts control you. As you are breathing and a thought enters your mind, acknowledge it, and take it only at face value. You can say to yourself – “this is just a thought. It is something my mind has created. I will let it pass now and come back to focusing on my breath.”
I leave you with a quote from Swami Vivekananda – “time is but a method of our thinking. We are the eternal present tense.”
Thank you Roxanne for the excellent tips!
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