I spent much of the past two weeks in Italy for a project our group is working on, which was an interesting exercise in trying to keep up my habit of daily practice as well as staying aware of the moment while very jetlagged and over-scheduled. I did find time here and there to do some “proper” meditation practice, but by and large I was having to find little bits of time throughout the day to try to be still and calm my mind.
I’m actually kind of glad that it was so hard to find a consistent time and place to meditate, because it forced me into the position of finding other ways to practice. By and large, I noticed that I was doing a better job of being aware of the current moment than I think I would have in the past. This was great because I felt at many times like I was really experiencing the trip rather than going through the motions and trying to capture it with photos and such.
On the other hand, this aspect sort of started to freak me out at the end of the trip when I realized that so much had gone by and that those moments were now gone and in the past forever. This seems like an obvious thing (and I think I’m partially just having trouble articulating the exact feeling), but there was something about engaging more deeply with each moment that made it feel harder to have those moments end. So I guess this is probably a good time to doing some meditating on impermanence, eh?
This is a long overdue update prompted largely by the discussion in our TA session this week. Now that we’re approaching the end of the course, it’s interesting to take stock of where I am now and how I’ve developed/changed and what I’ve learned over the past many weeks. What follows is a less-than-organized brain-dump of some current themes, thoughts, and feelings:
By far, the most important takeaway from the class thus far is how beneficial the daily practice of meditation is for me. And especially the daily part — which is to say that I’ve really appreciated being able to trace the ebb and flow of my practice, to see which themes and thoughts recur from day to day, and allow myself more room to have to have “good” and “bad” days with meditation without judgement or frustration. If nothing else comes of this class for me, I hope to continue the daily practice as long as I can (which will hopefully mean lifelong).
I have always been an anxious person and have struggled with more serious anxiety throughout my adulthood. Over the years, I’ve developed a variety of strategies for coping including regular exercise, journalling, meditation, quitting drinking entirely, taking medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy, addressing sleep issues, etc. etc. All of these have been helpful to a some degree and mostly I’ve been able to handle my daily anxiety through a combination of all of them. But the thing I’ve really noticed this semester is how the daily practice of meditation and inward reflection has allowed me to really start to get at the roots of those anxieties. All of the other things I’ve tried now feel like strategies for addressing only the symptoms of anxiety (which, just to be clear, is essential for living day-to-day life for me), but none have come close to getting at the things underlying those anxieties. In short, I feel like I’m growing a ton and confronting/addressing some things deep in myself that have clearly needed attention for a long time. This hasn’t always felt particularly good, but I can say for sure that I feel so much better/healthier/more whole than I did even a few months ago.
I’ve written about this before in this journal, and it has continued to be a big theme for me this semester. There’s a lot of different things tied up in this for me, but in short, I think it largely boils down to the fact that I’ve measured my self-worth based on how I’m able to perform in the eyes of others for most of my life. And ultimately, the thing underlying that is fear (of failure, embarrassment, etc.). This has affected most everything in my life from school to work to friendships and relationships. I think it really came to a head when I arrived a student at the Media Lab in that it was all too easy for me to fall back into a traditional “student” role of focusing on classes, getting A’s and such. Which is ironic considering that I came here to study alternative models of learning and education and that I largely don’t even believe in the traditional model of schooling. When I was a teacher, I used to work very hard to eliminate grading as a form of reward for my own students, and here I was falling right back into that trap myself. Over the course of the semester, I’ve done a lot of good work of focusing on what I really care about in my work and the things I want to do while here, and the intrinsic reward has already started to follow.
It’s interesting, as we approach the end of the semester, I’m feeling very torn about my own performance in this class. On the one hand, I think I’ve invested a lot of time and work into myself this semester, which is supposed to be exactly what the class is for, so I supposed I’ve “succeeded” in the course. But on the other hand, I think getting myself out of the mindset of perfectionism and focus on extrinsic metrics of success makes me think that perhaps the best thing that could happen right now is for me to get an F in this class and actually have to confront the reality of “failing” at school. I’m not even joking at all about this.
The last theme I’ll bring up is my relationship with my own past self. This is actually deeply connected to the perfectionism thing I wrote about above, but feels important to address separately. A major insight I had this semester was that I have always felt embarrassed and ashamed about the person I’ve been in the past, which is actually a form of self-hatred. Through daily meditation practice, I’ve started to develop a much healthier self-compassionate attitude toward the person I was in the past (which, somewhat obviously, is the person I still am and will continue to be in the future). As a result, I’ve started to feel more integrated as a person and that I can carry all of the different parts of me all the time and not feel bad about it. In fact, it’s made me feel much more unified, grounded, and generally happy (for lack of a better word). This alone has been a majorly important outcome of the course for me, and I’m eager to continue to explore it both now and beyond the timeline of the class.
This afternoon, I tried to find a space to meditate at the MIT chapel. We had just finished teaching our last session of Learning Creative Learning here at the Media Lab and I was tired, but had an hour of unscheduled time on my calendar, so I decided to wander over and sit in silence there for a while.
When I arrived, there were just a couple of people in sitting inside, so I found a chair and tried to settle into silence. A few minutes later, what appeared to be an entire photography class wandered in and various people started snapping pictures every few seconds, the shutter sound reverberating through the space. I could. not. concentrate. at. all. Every time I tried to close my eyes, another shutter would sound and jolt me out of it. Part of my frustration was simply the noise, but also the idea that I might end up in someone’s photograph in a place and time that I didn’t necessarily want to be photographed.
So I was presented with this dilemma: Do I call it quits knowing that I’m not going to get into a settled state? Or do I say something to the photography students? Or do I take this as an opportunity to practice accepting the world as it is and try to meditate despite the distraction?
I decided I didn’t want to say anything, mostly because it was my first time there and while I did find the noise distracting (and even borderline disrespectful of the space), who was I to police a chapel I’ve never been to before? Maybe this photography thing happens all the time and it’s a totally acceptable use of the space?
So I was left with either sticking it out or leaving. Some folks did stop taking photos after a few minutes and sat down to draw instead, so there was a calmer atmosphere for a little bit. I was finally able to settle into a semi-restless silence for a few minutes, but still didn’t totally feel okay with the noise and people moving around everywhere. What was most interesting was that this gave me a chance to look at myself and think about why I was so frustrated and why I couldn’t just accept it, or even laugh at my own uptightness about the whole situation!
After ten or so minutes, the photos started back up and I decided I had had enough and left. Surprisingly, as I walked back to the lab from the chapel, I noticed that I actually did feel a bit calmer and more grounded, in spite of a meditation session that felt highly non-calm/grounded.
So now I’m just sitting with all of that. How to be more accepting of what the world is like but also how to take these types of situations as learning and growing moments.
I found that I struggled with my practice this past week. I think this is mostly related to what I was writing about last week in terms of finding a good time and place to meditate each day. I tried meditating in the evening one day early in the week, which only further confirmed my suspicion that evening meditation causes my sleep to be really light and unrestful. I’m still kind of confused why that would be, but it seems to be true at least for the moment. So since then, I’ve tried to find some other times over the course of the day that work for me to meditate but I haven’t settled into a routine with that yet. And in fact, I didn’t really practice at all (at least, in any substantial way) over the past couple of days.
I’ve been a little bit frustrated at myself for falling off the wagon so quickly and not making it a top priority to practice each day. But on the flip side, I do think it’s given me a sense of how useful I’ve found daily meditation to be. Which is to say, thinking back over the past few days I can definitely see how I’ve been less aware of myself and my environment and how I’ve been feeling some low-level anxieties that I haven’t felt in recent weeks. So if anything, my lack of practice has only shown me how important it is for me to keep it up and how I really want to make this practice a long-term endeavor, far beyond the timeline of the class.
Moreover, I’ve been thinking about all the different ways I’ve been trying to incorporate introspection and awareness into my life lately. I actually started doing a bunch of things when I got back to Cambridge in January, well before the class even started. Specifically (and in addition to daily meditation), I’ve been
Walking back and forth to the lab each day while trying to remain aware of my surroundings and without ever looking at my phone
Writing three-ish pages of freeform/stream-of-consciousness text first thing every morning
Set aside time each day for more focused journaling/idea capture/drawing/etc.
Morning yoga followed by a few minutes of sitting in silence before leaving for the day
So I feel like I’m in a place where I’m feeling the need to strike a good balance of most/all of these things but am currently feeling like I’m trying to do too much and all of them feel a little diluted. The daily meditation seems essential at this point, and the writing practices have been especially helpful as well. At first, the walking practice was wonderful and afforded a really nice transition between work and home, but I feel like I’ve been losing sight of that lately, especially as I’ve fallen into taking the same route every day. Still, the time outside is nice and I don’t think I want to give that up yet. I’m excited to try Qi Gong this week in class and see how that might fit into my life as a movement practice (maybe instead of the yoga and/or walking). But I guess no matter what I do, I want to keep that same feeling of intention that I think I had when I started each of these.
This past week, I experimented with the when of my daily practice. After last week’s struggle with sleep, I first tried moving my practice to the morning. Overall, this worked better and my sleep seemed to go back to normal fairly quickly. I found it especially nice to come home in the evening and not feel like I still had an obligation on my calendar (which I think was part of the reason why I was feeling so amped up when trying to sleep shortly after). I also tried some standing meditation in the mornings which was an interesting changes since I found I was much better able to focus on my body and breath. On the flip side, my mornings are often so packed already that I could tell that it would be harder for me to commit to finding time each and every morning to meditate — though, that’s probably an even stronger reason to do so!
Over the weekend, I tried moving my practice to the afternoon and this was far and away the best time I’ve tried so far. I didn’t feel the pressure of the morning (nor the grogginess of my brain pre-coffee, nor the overstimulation of my brain post-coffee), nor did I feel the concerns about sleep. Rather, I found I was able to sit longer (nearly an hour) and clear my head much better than I have at any other point this semester. I’m not entirely sure how to find afternoon time during the weekdays since I’m almost always at the lab during that chunk of time, but if possible, I think it would be a huge help to my practice.
In terms of developing awareness/insight, the thing that I kept returning to this week is my tendency toward perfectionism and how strong of a driver it’s been in my life. It’s been interesting to try to peel apart the layers of that and see it for what it is. I’m realizing that my perfectionism is especially insidious because, in a way, it has kind of “worked” for me (in that, it’s been a strong motivator for me to do work that I’m proud of). However, I can also see the negative consequences of operating this way: (a) judging myself based on external validation from others (b) persistent low-level anxiety that I’m not reaching my full potential (c) fear of taking risks or trying anything that could result in “failure” (d) etc. etc. (none of these are surprising, but it’s been helpful to contextualize them in my own life). Also unsurprisingly, the thing that seems to underlie all of this is fear (of failure, embarrassment, rejection, etc). So now the question I’m sitting with: how do I face fear?
The main thing I’ve noticed this week is a change in my sleep. I really don’t know if this is related to the class/my practice, but it’s been very apparent that my sleep has been much lighter than normal. I keep waking up directly out of a dream state which is very unusual for me (I almost never remember my dreams in the morning and I’ve been remembering them nearly every day). If it were just the change in dreams, I wouldn’t mind so much, but unfortunately, I keep waking up feeling exhausted despite getting my normal number of hours (7-8). I do wonder if this has to do with the fact that I’ve been meditating each night shortly before falling asleep, which maybe is affecting how my brain is working during the night? I think for this next week I’m going to try switching to meditating in the mornings to see if anything changes.
In terms of my meditation practice itself, I feel like I’ve reached a nice spot in which it’s relatively easy to calm my brain and mind-chatter down (except that one day I drank coffee in the late afternoon!). I tried to do some more experimenting this week with different visualization techniques, breathing, question asking, and such which has been a neat sort of process of trying things out and seeing what is generative and what isn’t. I don’t feel like I reached any sort of additional “insight” this week, but I think I’m reaching a point where I’m not that worried about it. Instead, it’s just nice to do the practice for its own sake and to simply give myself the space and conditions where calmness and insight could come.
Ha! I didn’t expect to talk so explicitly this class about the different aspects and layers of the self which I think is exactly what I accidentally encountered this past week. This process of introspection and peeling back the layers of the self feels like a good one for me to continue to explore over the next weeks. It also feels relevant to remember to engage in the process in not only an “intense” way (which the post below seems to reflect), but also to be open to the playful and outright funny parts of looking at one’s self, which was brought up in class as well.
One of the reasons I wanted to take this course was to provide myself a structure for developing a habitual meditation practice. When I was younger, I went to (and later worked at) a Quaker summer camp for many years where I first encountered daily meditation of a sort. One of the primary practices in Quakerism is sitting in silence (usually in a group, but also alone) where the purpose is simply to open oneself up to listen (i.e., to listen to one’s deep self/the divine/the “inner light”/or whatever one may call it). I found this practice both useful and deeply meaningful during my time at camp and so I’ve been trying to work it into my day-to-day life and I thought the course would be a great way to make sure I was consistently doing so.
Ironically, for the first few days of the course, I actually found the course structures to be hindering more than helping. I first encountered this in my sleep. Years ago, I learned that having consistent sleep is super important to me and so I initially didn’t think anything of the 7 hours a night requirement. And yet, the night after the first class meeting, I woke up in the middle of the night and starting having trouble falling back asleep partly due to worrying about needing to get 7 full hours. In terms of my meditation practice, I found my mind more full of chatter than normal the first few days I sat down in silence. I had a hard time clearing thoughts out and started to get into a bit of a vicious cycle where anxiety about clearing my head only made it that much harder.
On the third day, though, I had a relatively intense experience while meditating, which was completely unexpected. I realized that part of what was happening was I was feeling blocked by the need to meditate “correctly” for class. Moreover, I realized that a lot of my persistent thoughts were about wanting to seem successful to the people around me in my life. I remembered a good visualization technique I’ve used for clearing thoughts out of my head: I imagine I’m sitting in a grassy field and watching a train pass by in front of me. Each time a thought pops up in my head, I imagine putting the thought onto one of the train’s boxcars and then watching it travel away out of my field of vision. Should the thought return, I simply put it onto another car and try again. The train visualization helped me package up those thoughts and people and send them on their way.
After a while, they stopped coming back and all of a sudden, I was left with just myself. I felt suddenly confronted with some fundamental questions: when nobody else is looking, what it is that I really care about? What are my values? What feels like success to me? What do I want my life to look like? And most fundamentally, who is the “I” I keep referring to?
I sat with that last question for a while and tried to draw awareness to the different aspects of “I” that I knew of. I focused attention on my body and how it was feeling as well as my mind (disregarding if those two are really separate or not). Finally, I tried something I had never done before and attempted to see if there was any other part of “I” beyond my body and mind. Using the train again, I tried to put my body and then my mind in turn into boxcars and see what I was left with. I found that I wasn’t left with nothing, but the self that I was left with seemed…and this is the only way I can describe it in words…tired and neglected. I felt tears in my eyes as I saw this part of myself that I’d been ignorant of for a long long time.
After opening my eyes from that session, I felt just a little bit freer. The major thing I saw/learned was the extent to which I seek and need validation from those around me (as evidenced by the external voices that were so persistent my first few days of practice). But in discovering that deeper inner self, I understood that this isn’t the only way I can be. There is a fundamental part of myself that I can access and develop that knows what it wants and needs and through that inner self, I can learn to be more sure of my actions and choices in general. Clearly, this isn’t something that is going to change for me overnight, but in finding that inner self, I almost feel like I can finally see a light at the end of a tunnel i.e., that it is possible for me to live a more grounded and self-assured life.
Since then, I’ve continued to keep this inner self in mind both while meditating and while going about my day. I’m eager to keep exploring this idea. It feels right.
One other thing I thought about over the course of the week was Tenzin’s provocation last class about whether living with awareness was “hard work.” At the time, I wavered back and forth between raising my hand or not but since then, I think I’ve decided on “no.” What I do think is true is that developing awareness takes practice, intention, and time, which I think are all requirements of the things that we generally call “hard work.” However, over the week I’ve felt that moment-to-moment awareness is already coming more naturally to me without having to think explicitly about it. The analogy with swimming is a good one and I’m ready to continue learning how to swim.