Thursday, April 19th

In the past week or so, I have really been reminded of the many ways in which graduate school can be challenging for individual mental health. A few of my peers are trying to graduate, and others are preparing for large deadlines. The impact on their personal lives and health is blatantly obvious. The combination of a fairly unstructured environment, constantly evolving goals, and emphasis on individual achievement (the myth of the sole genius) makes it hard not to fall into imposter syndrome and lose a sense of balance. But when thinking about a six year program, the idea of putting real life on hold or constantly living a sub-optimal life while in school just doesn’t seem reasonable or feasible.

I am in the process of learning a lot about the combination of perfectionism and procrastination. When I was first presented with the idea that I might have some perfectionist tendencies, I honestly laughed. I regularly produce things that I think are barely passable, and sometimes I take comfort in the fact that I didn’t necessarily put all of my effort towards something (i.e. if I had put 100% into it, it would have turned out better, right?). I definitely enjoy putting my full effort and enthusiasm into things more than doing things halfway, but it’s hard to manage all of the things I want to do at 100% all the time. Meanwhile, my room is often messier than I want it to be, I don’t cook as often as I would like, I don’t go to the gym everyday, etc. etc. So the idea of me being a perfectionist seemed ridiculous because there are so many small things that I don’t sweat every day. On the other hand, I feel stuck a lot, and with time I am learning that is stemming from a fear of doing the wrong thing. I’m super familiar with the idea of fear of failure, and to be honest I don’t think that bothers me so much because I know I can learn from failure and find resources to help me recover (I fail all the time - I’m over it). The idea of moving in the wrong direction, wasting others’ time or resources, or wasting opportunities, does bother me a lot. I also spend way too much time thinking about where I should do my work and if I can find the right lighting and the right size table, which is apparently also a typical perfectionist behavior. So, now that I have come to terms with the fact that this might be a cause of my constant procrastination, I’m working on fixing it.

Over the years, I have often struggled intensely to grapple with the immense potential and opportunity that the Media Lab affords. It’s such a unique and inspiring opportunity that it can often feel incredibly overwhelming and almost paralyzing. I find myself spending much of my time in a state of deep discomfort as I struggle to figure out what kind of project or thesis could live up to that kind of potential, which ultimately prevents me from a) doing my best work, b) enjoying the experience, and c) being a healthier person. I cycle through phases of intense engagement and satisfaction, and cynicism and lack of direction. Some important takeaways for me to continue processing are that my graduate degree is supposed to be the beginning of your life as a researcher and learner, and that ultimately right now I just need to learn how to learn. It’s about the process, not the project/degree/magical outcome that I’m holding my breath and waiting for. During my first two years, I remember repeatedly telling my classmates that we are the products of our graduate degrees, not our projects. Now I’m trying to remind myself of what that really means. This is something I might explore in my final project.

Step one of internalizing the fact that “a good PhD is a done PhD” is understanding that doing a mediocre job is sometimes the best move and that each step is just an iteration. Doing a “lame” job right now can ultimately help me break past my temporary sense of being stuck and help me move forward without losing momentum or getting paralyzed in the pursuit of perfection.

Tuesday, April 17th

Practice

I’m feeling incredibly grateful for the habits that this class has encouraged me to develop. For a while, my daily meditation felt like a chore (especially when it was the last step between me and sleep). Recently, it has felt a lot more like a way to give myself permission to be done for the day, regardless of the items left on my to do list.

Personally, I have found body scanning and deep breathing techniques to be the most effective for me. I am trying to incorporate that throughout my day more regularly to help me address and process more unpleasant emotions that could otherwise derail my day.

Reflection- Here are some reflections based on the discussion we had during our last gathering:

Layer 1- transient states

  • more aware of emotion, more able to remove self from anxiety

  • physical vs mental

  • less attuned to environmental toxicity

  • understanding what gives me energy/ not

  • distractions and levels of distraction - There are some seek them out and some that are forced upon me (i.e. I feel positively about distractions that stem from instragram and negatively about constant emails)

  • broadly happy despite not having time for many of the things I love/traditionally find make me happy- I think this may stem from a state of suspended reality as I wait for/prep for “big” milestone

    • basically means I feel a sense of purpose

    • can’t tell if I am actually being more productive because task is more nebulous

    • in a state of positive anticipation

  • I laugh every day- even if it is because I think something is absurd

  • I am happiest when I get to engage in physical actions like dancing and running and walking at least once a day

Layer 2- sense of self

  • Struggling with negative emotions that do no align with who I feel I am

  • I am feeling an absence of as much external guilt as before- I excused myself from many obligations for the past two months, allowing me to focus only on my own tasks. I excused myself from my other responsibilities, with the understanding of it being brief. BUT I am still doing a lot of the same things, so is it just a matter of mental energy? I’m spending less time thinking about those obligations, and framing them differently in my head.

  • I get really excited about possibilities (I.e. following down a rabbit hole of reading papers), but not about the process of executing it.

  • Dependencies on others- I often become most aware when I have to articulate things to my friends. Also, I get sad when I go for long periods of time without seeing people.

  • wondering how much of my identity is built around projections of what others think of me

level 3-

  • We talked a lot about confronting our past, but I am more worried about confronting the future - coming to terms with the people who will exit my life, with slowly losing some of the ambiguity (and thus some of the possibilities) in my life, finally making serious decisions (some of which are irreversible), etc.

  • Thinking about what gives things meaning

  • Tension between producing and thinking - very media lab problem

Other

  • Recently my thoughts and my work have felt like a swirling thought pool that sometimes gets clear and sometimes is murky 

    • Getting to a smaller blob but still a blob - the lack of clarity and shape makes me uncomfortable and guilty.

Tuesday, March 20th

I’ve been logging notes in my phone as thoughts come to me over the course of the past weeks, rather than actively sitting down and scheduling time to maintain this journal. This is something I hope to work on soon. In the meantime, here are some categories I considered since I last wrote something here.

Practice

  • Importance of phrasing - awareness from internal reflection vs. friends calling out my tone (sometimes the language you use for yourself is different than the language you use for others)

  • experimenting with different times for meditating - different needs in the AM vs PM. In the morning I need to quickly get motivated and gain momentum, in the evening I need to shut my brain off and relax.

  • Transience of negative feelings- able to move on more quickly from disturbing or heavy feelings than I have been in the past, at least in the context of small annoyances during the day (not necessarily with larger ongoing issues that I tend to consider before I fall asleep)

  • Able to relax my body more easily, or at least more aware of when I am holding myself tensely

  • Adding in new techniques in guided meditation

  • Increasingly recognizing lots of stressors in this environment - noticing which interactions make me feel more exhausted, and which make me feel inspired and hopeful.

Reflection

Research related: I have still been exploring questions around how to ensure that your work has impact. I’ve recently been fortunate enough to talk to some individuals that I deeply admire, and hearing about their own process of finding meaning (and questioning their impact, even when it seems extremely apparent to me) was comforting and a bit unnerving. I still often feel a tension between developing a well-crafted set of deep technical skills and actually influencing real people and real issues, even in an environment that is more conducive to this than most. This is something I am sure I will continue to evaluate during the rest of my time at MIT.

On the other hand, not “knowing” where my project is going or what specifically it is (or at least not having the vocab to properly describe the intersection of my thoughts yet) really forces me to introduce myself to others in the context of all the other aspects of my life that I value. I instead have to explain what I care about, what I do with my time, who I spend that time with, and what I think about. Clearly this is something we all do, but sometimes it seems easier to talk about our “work” as an abstraction rather than really delving into who we are at our core. Even though I frequently agonize over the ambiguity of the current stage of my research (it makes me so, so uncomfortable half of the time, and so, so excited the other half), perhaps this forces me to continue to cultivate the other aspects of my life. I spend a lot of time in grad school thinking about being a “whole” person and considering the factors that seem to contribute to a culture in some programs and places in which grad students pride themselves on working 24/7 and neglecting other aspects of their lives. The ambiguity also leads me to consider the relationships I hope to build and preserve, and to build my life around that instead. Along those lines, I have definitely found myself to be more motivated by deadlines to which I impart emotional weight, which typically stems from having others involved and team members I’m trying to work with, as opposed to deadlines for individual endeavors. In some ways, this is great, but I’d love to work on sticking to my own timelines and maintaining an inherent sense of motivation, even when I’m feeling somewhat confused or lost. Karthik and I recently discussed the importance of finding mentors and advocates, and I have found myself focusing on that thought a lot over the past few months.

We also discussed the important of balancing physical intelligence with cognitive intelligence. Most years, I run one or two half marathons. This semester, I’ve tried to switch out my usual running routine with more social gym schedules- when I run, I almost always choose to run by myself, whereas if I decide to lift weights I almost always do so with friends. I have found that a) running is actually important “alone”/ “me” time that I have not replaced with an equally fulfilling or refreshing task (though I do sleep more now), and b) having to coordinate with others about gym time actually just gives me an excuse to not go by pointing to mis-aligned schedules. As a result, I spend 90% of my time in my head (or listening to/read/consuming products of other people’s heads). I hope to make more a conscious effort to walk, dance, run, and do yoga in upcoming weeks. Being (physically) still all day is lame and I feel tired all the time.

I don’t know what I’ve been doing lately. In the past few weeks, numerous people have casually asked what I have been up to, and I have found the question surprisingly difficult to answer. I have been trying to focus on a few big tasks for the next month/two months, so it’s easy to feel like the days blend together. I have broadly been very content, and generally have many positive experiences and conversation each day, but I have been struggling to discretize these experiences. In the past, I would write down every exciting/happy/interesting thing that happened over the course of the year, write it on a slip of paper, and place it in a jar. At the end of the year, I was supposed to open the jar and read the slips (I only did this one year. I still haven’t opened the 2017 jar, nor have I started a 2018 one). I started doing this in 2013/2014, and I noticed that I felt much more positive about the year 2014, even though there were quantitatively more pieces of paper in the 2015 and 2016 jars. This year, I stopped logging these experiences in the same format (for no particular reason) - though I have developed other logging techniques. Perhaps the absence of logging has made it more and more difficult for me to actually remember how specifically I am allocating my time now that my schedule is less dominated by meetings and discrete tasks.

Environments and Situations

Comparisons, while difficult to avoid, can be really detrimental and seriously disrupt my peace of mind. Hanging out with friends can be stressful when they want to discuss progress and compare results and I want to focus and do my own thing. Sometimes it is hard to say that, hard not to internally draw comparisons, and hard to tell when someone just needs to vent (and really isn’t trying to compare anything at all).

I am acutely aware of the importance of space and silence and not having a sense of obligation to anyone in at least one physical space, so that then when you are in situations where you are responsible to others, you can do so with enthusiasm and joy and purpose. There was a time when I used to feel strange and sad whenever I “had” to spend time by myself, and while I still consider myself to broadly be an extrovert, I also cherish unstructured time to have complete control over my own direction. It is in that time that I do my primary introspective activities, and I typically feel mildly out of it or off balance if I am not able to find that space and time.

Family and Identities

Recently when reflecting on identity, I realized that I think first of my family. I do not explicitly feel very similar to my parents or my brother, but as I grow more and more into my “adult” self, I am acutely aware of the way their decisions and lifestyles have shaped my personality and choices. As we have aged, my brother and I have started to look incredibly similar. He has very, very similar mannerisms to me even though we make decisions very differently and view the world differently. It’s funny to attribute so much of who I am to my family, for I spent a fair amount of time when I was younger actively noticing and cultivating our differences and placing direct value on “being independent.” 

Awareness, I think, includes a knowledge of your personal culture (however you define that), and your history, and the history you carry with you. Along those lines, I have been thinking about the tension someone may feel when they come from one culture but affiliate or find home in a culture that invaded, oppressed, fought against, or is at odds with your culture of origin. What are the tensions in that? That maybe sounds a little heavy for this particular forum, but I’ve been reading The Namesake and thinking specifically about Indian families raising American children, and more specifically, what it may have felt like for my mom to grow up in England. What aspects of my cultural identity are hidden because my mom grew up in a time and place where she was encouraged to hide her own? I asked her about this (for the first time as far as I recall), and she mentioned that her teachers told her mother and father not to speak Bengali to her because it would “mess her up.” I, in turn, understand Bengali, but I don’t speak it - and this creates serious barriers for my relationship with some of my extended family. It made me think of the idea of carrying multiple identities. (Aashka and I actually ended up talking about this today after class, and thinking about how funny it is that we both feel more comfortable speaking Spanish than the language of our grandparents).

Friday, February 23

Here are some things I thought about while meditating this week:

  • Recently, I have been thinking about purpose and motivation (Why do I do what I’m doing? What should I be doing, how can I be doing more?). I believe this generally stems from the fact that I’ve gotten to the point in graduate school where I am asked about my research every single day. This can be exciting, but based on where I am in my personal intended trajectory, I often find other topics way more interesting to discuss with others. I am typically a very motivated and enthusiastic person, so when I feel stuck or demotivated, I often wonder if I am on the right path. I have found that this is typically exacerbated by external influences, though these moments never come as a full surprise.

  • In those moments of moderate panic and introspection, part of me wonders if I am really even passionate about anything. Before I start meditating, as I try to quiet my mind down a bit, these types of questions will sometimes bubble up to the surface.

  • Ultimately, this kind of spiral ends with me wondering to myself “how did i make it this far without building a compass or a roadmap?”

  • I also wondered whether I should be doing more for the immediate community or on social issues, or if it is more worthwhile to spend more time honing my specific skills and working to apply those.

    • Other have advised me to “put on blinders” and focus on my own goals, but this feels deeply at odds with my sense of duty t0 (and engagement with) the world around me,

      • however, doing so would allow me to avoid the negativity that comes from comparisons and from exerting energy on problems I am in e in no position to solve/change/comment on (due to lack of knowledge of the problem, lack of power, lack of involvement, whatever)

  • How does my energy impact those around me? How am i influenced by those around me?

    • As a first year grad student told myself I would not get cynical, but as a fourth year it’s hard not to lose sight of why this is an amazing opportunity, even though I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to be here and frequently tell others that.

  • I noticed that thinking too much about my breathing inevitably makes me feel like I am breathing shallowly and quickly snaps me out of a state of calm.

In terms of my process itself, I am experimenting with some adjustments. I’m working on building a more regular nighttime ritual. I’ve tried adding candles or incense and meditating in softer lighting. I have also tried meditating while sitting in comparison to meditating while lying down. This week I am sad to admit that I fell asleep twice during my meditation session. On the other hand, I found it way easier to calm myself down enough to sleep properly after meditating. I hit snooze a lot in the morning. I know this is something lots of people think is a bad habit, but I really enjoy those moments between my alarms. I actually find those moments to be very calming and meditative, as long as I don’t let myself become overrun with impending to-do lists or residual stress from the day before. During those morning pauses, I’m often much more acutely aware of the temperature around me, the bright sunlight in my room, and the comfortable sheets around me.

As part of this week’s meditation, I tried some thought labelling. I noticed that I often get obsessed with a thing, whether positive or negative (often songs or sounds or images or people) and think about it repeatedly constantly and without discipline. I would like to work on this for the rest of the semester.

The other day I found myself trying to perform a fiddly task that required a lot of dexterity. I knew there were better ways to approach the task, but I did not have the time and resources to set that up, so I proceeded with my method. I found myself getting increasingly frustrated and terse. I really dislike feeling like that, so I tried to take a step back. Instead, I focused on the fact that this task is part of a broader project that is really fun and that I am really excited about (and that I couldn’t really have done anywhere else), and that months ago I wouldn’t even have known how to do the silly fiddly task. People constantly talk about pausing, reflecting, and taking a step back - usually I understand this cognitively and struggle with it emotionally, but this time it actually worked. I have also been trying to determine the root of what triggers specific negative emotions or why I find specific things frustrating and annoying. I have been slowly trying this for years, but I am starting to recognize patterns. Recently, I’ve been wondering if I should do the same with positive emotions. For now, I feel an inherent resistance to digging that deeply into the root of my positive emotions, but I don’t yet know why.

In other news, I am still spacing out a lot. I don’t entirely mind this though - to me it sort of feels equivalent to sprinting for bits of time and resting for other periods of time. Physically, I’m a distance runner and I prefer moving (relatively) slowly for longer amounts of time over racing quickly over short distances, but perhaps mentally I enjoy taking breaks.

Friday, February 16, 2018

For the past two weeks I’ve been trying to regularly use Headspace to meditate. I have been trying to convince myself to make meditation a regular part of my life for a long time, but I’ve never been systematic about it. Ultimately, I’d like to meditate without the use of tools, but for now Headspace is a really good way to focus my attention and structure my sessions.

When I first started trying to meditate, even sitting through five minutes was extremely difficult for me. Sometimes that’s still the case (like in class- 15 minutes feels like ages!), but sometimes I really enjoy the feeling of being mentally “carried” and having the narrator (Andy) set the stage.

The “basics” set in Headspace increases in time every week - for now it’s 10 minutes. It also adds new techniques periodically. This week’s task was visualization, which I have found to be pretty calming and fun so far.

Ultimately, I want to add morning meditation to my daily routine as well, but I’m not entirely ready for that yet. Right now it feels like building up momentum in the morning is already difficult, and I’m hesitant to jump straight into adding another step (on top of my existing routines) between waking up and getting to lab.

Additionally, I have noticed that there are occasional times during the day when I feel overwhelmed by some negative emotion (stress, imposter syndrome, anxiety, exhaustion). In the past I have tried to a) ignore these feelings or b) distract myself (typically by finding a friend and chatting with them). This week I tried taking a break and meditating during those periods. Headspace has some cool modules for specific emotions/goals, so it has been fun to test those out. I’m excited to see if this helps me developed a stronger toolkit for processing difficult situations.

Finally, I have a really good friend visiting this week, and I noticed that it is significantly harder for me to practice when others are around. This is a completely self-imposed problem: I haven’t told her I’m trying to do anything, and she would absolutely give me the space and time to do so if I articulated that intention. Sometimes, though, it is difficult for me to make that a priority.

Friday, February 23

Here are some things I thought about while meditating this week:

  • Recently, I have been thinking about purpose and motivation (Why do I do what I’m doing? What should I be doing, how can I be doing more?). I believe this generally stems from the fact that I’ve gotten to the point in graduate school where I am asked about my research every single day. This can be exciting, but based on where I am in my personal intended trajectory, I often find other topics way more interesting to discuss with others. I am typically a very motivated and enthusiastic person, so when I feel stuck or demotivated, I often wonder if I am on the right path. I have found that this is typically exacerbated by external influences, though these moments never come as a full surprise.

  • In those moments of moderate panic and introspection, part of me wonders if I am really even passionate about anything. Before I start meditating, as I try to quiet my mind down a bit, these types of questions will sometimes bubble up to the surface.

  • Ultimately, this kind of spiral ends with me wondering to myself “how did i make it this far without building a compass or a roadmap?”

  • I also wondered whether I should be doing more for the immediate community or on social issues, or if it is more worthwhile to spend more time honing my specific skills and working to apply those.

    • Other have advised me to “put on blinders” and focus on my own goals, but this feels deeply at odds with my sense of duty to (and engagement with) the world around me. However, doing so would avoid the negativity that comes from comparisons and from exerting energy on problems that I am in no position to solve/change/comment on (due to lack of knowledge of the problem, lack of power, lack of involvement, whatever).

  • How does my energy impact those around me? How am i influenced by those around me?

    • As a first year grad student told myself I would not get cynical, but as a fourth year it’s hard not to lose sight of why this is an amazing opportunity, even though I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to be here and frequently tell others that.

  • I noticed that thinking too much about my breathing inevitably makes me feel like I am breathing shallowly and quickly snaps me out of a state of calm.

In terms of my process itself, I am experimenting with some adjustments. I’m working on building a more regular nighttime ritual. I’ve tried adding candles or incense and meditating in softer lighting. I have also tried meditating while sitting in comparison to meditating while lying down. This week I am sad to admit that I fell asleep twice during my meditation session. On the other hand, I found it way easier to calm myself down enough to sleep properly after meditating. I hit snooze a lot in the morning. I know this is something lots of people think is a bad habit, but I really enjoy those moments between my alarms. I actually find those moments to be very calming and meditative, as long as I don’t let myself become overrun with impending to-do lists or residual stress from the day before. During those morning pauses, I’m often much more acutely aware of the temperature around me, the bright sunlight in my room, and the comfortable sheets around me.

As part of this week’s meditation, I tried some thought labelling. I noticed that I often get obsessed with a thing, whether positive or negative (often songs or sounds or images or people) and think about it repeatedly constantly and without discipline. I would like to work on this for the rest of the semester.

The other day I found myself trying to perform a fiddly task that required a lot of dexterity. I knew there were better ways to approach the task, but I did not have the time and resources to set that up, so I proceeded with my method. I found myself getting increasingly frustrated and terse. I really dislike feeling like that, so I tried to take a step back. Instead, I focused on the fact that this task is part of a broader project that is really fun and that I am really excited about (and that I couldn’t really have done anywhere else), and that months ago I wouldn’t even have known how to do the silly fiddly task. People constantly talk about pausing, reflecting, and taking a step back - usually I understand this cognitively and struggle with it emotionally, but this time it actually worked. I have also been trying to determine the root of what triggers specific negative emotions or why I find specific things frustrating and annoying. I have been slowly trying this for years, but I am starting to recognize patterns. Recently, I’ve been wondering if I should do the same with positive emotions. For now, I feel an inherent resistance to digging that deeply into the root of my positive emotions, but I don’t yet know why.

In other news, I am still spacing out a lot. I don’t entirely mind this though - to me it sort of feels equivalent to sprinting for bits of time and resting for other periods of time. Physically, I’m a distance runner and I prefer moving (relatively) slowly for longer amounts of time over racing quickly over short distances, but perhaps mentally I enjoy taking breaks.