Well I’ve now rewritten this first sentence several times… To be honest, the first thing that popped into my mind was “Creed Thoughts” linked below (if you’re not an Office fan then…maybe you should reconsider :) ).
In all seriousness though, I am looking forward to using this journal to document progress in my contemplative practice (yoga), thoughts on in-class discussion topics, and difficulties or insights I experience along the way.
First discussion: presence vs awareness vs stillness
The past few days I have been contemplating what these three words mean to me and how they differ from each other. While my understanding of these terms will probably evolve over the course of this semester, I decided to make my first post a brief informal discussion about my associations with each word. These include practices that I hope to bring into my own life.
Deep listening — being fully present (with respect to thoughts and body language) during conversations; listening without judgement; listening without butting in or assuming I know where the speaker is going with their next thought; listening without getting distracted by other people or happenings in the surrounding environment; listening without letting my mind wonder to what work I need to do
Mindful eating — enjoying each bite of food instead of rushing through meals or thinking of what tasks I need to complete afterwards (you might start to notice an obsession with work theme in this journal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
Mindful walking — noticing patterns, lines, contrasts in textures, and sounds in my environment; searching for new visual narratives or details, even during mundane routines such as walking between classes or meetings
Exercise/Yoga/Other Practices — I think my contemplative practice falls under all three words, but right now I associate it most with presence. During yoga, I am trying to keep my thoughts focused on each pose, noticing which muscles are working or where tension is in my body or how my breathe is moving in and out
Actions with intent — in general trying not to flow too much through life, but instead take time to question why I choose certain people or activities or actions and then take ownership of these decisions. This ranges from simple desires (e.g. do I eat a free pastry at muffin monday because 1) I want to and I will enjoy it or 2) fate has it such that I am a grad student and eating free food whenever it’s available seems like the thing to do) to more complex decisions about relationships and career paths.
Sense of identity — this can encompass many different things and will show up in many future journal posts (not going to get too philosophical for now). I think the above “actions with intent” (e.g. learning to own your actions and face them honestly instead of externalizing them) helps distinguish internal identity and values from those that are shaped or valued by our environment.
Sense of belonging — I guess this has something to do with how I understand my relations with other people and also how I see myself fitting into the larger population (define this as you will). Something I have been reflecting on recently is my confused cultural identity from growing up in several countries. I had previously heard about the so-called “Third Culture Kid” struggles, but have only recently realized how they affect my relationships with others and impact my thoughts on longterm plans.
Sense of purpose — becoming more aware of what fulfills me and what motivates me. This again will be explored more later on in other posts. So far I have found graduate school to be a double edged sword (though bent more towards the positive..so maybe like a pirate’s sword?) in that intellectual freedom allows to explore new topics that excite me, but also leads to decision paralysis and anxiety. This in turn leads to questions about how (and whether) to combine big picture ideas or hobbies that excite me (inclusive design, creativity, photography, meeting new people) with day to day work activities that stimulate me (coding mostly and mathematical derivations).
Quieting of the mind — I find stillness to be the most difficult to define. I think this is what mindfulness gets at…the ability to quiet the chatter or simply observe the chatter in your mind. Accepting thoughts without trying to interpret them or analyze them too much (I struggle with this)
Prayer — for me, I often find stillness through prayer. Maybe the best way to describe it would be internal peace or calmness, although it is often fleeting. I would like to work on letting go of control more and having this calm approach to life be a permanent part of me
Second discussion: Humor
This week I have been in an unusually silly mood. Or maybe lighthearted is the more appropriate term. I'm not sure if this has been brought on by my meditative practice (reducing anxiety so that I feel almost like a normal human being again) or if it is one of those unexplainable times where life remains the same but somehow my perception of it has shifted.
I've realized that if I can always find life as amusing as I have this week, I'm pretty set. I think this ability to find humor in oneself and at any particular situation is important. I tend to be perfectionistic, stressing at the most minute aspects of my life. One could say it's an addiction of sorts. However, the ability to be more lighthearted and not take things too seriously is a much healthier approach and, to be frank, a much more fun one.
I have been reflecting on how to keep this calm demeanor and make it a more accessible part of me rather than something I stumble onto occasionally. I am pretty good at amusing myself (pictured below examples are self entertainment from a recent walk home), but I have difficulties transferring this to certain environments. Especially at MIT, it can be easy to feel inferior and feel pressured to achieve great success...and quickly too!
It's easy to approach life with a curious eye and an attitude of "what-can-I-learn-from-this" when things are going well. But when it's time to submit to a conference deadline and do my psets and study for midterms and..
damn I need to do laundry and find food to eat too...then all of a sudden that happy-go-lucky, I-am-here-to-learn attitude disappears, time seems to speed up at a most inconvenient time, and success seems to be the main source of happiness.
This might sound dismal. But after deep reflection, I am now coming to realize that this overly stressed culture of graduate school might just be the perfect grooming for my comedic career. Comedic material is often derived from pain or relatable struggles. Graduate school provides lots of these. Humor brings relief. As a grad student I need this.
I guess what I am trying to say is it has been a struggle for me between an I-am-here-to-live attitude and an I-am-here-to-achieve attitude. I don't think they have to be in odds with each other, and I am now thinking that humor and meditation are key ingredients for this balance.
Third discussion: Why Meditate?
Up until this year, I didn't really understand yoga or meditation. I didn't have the patience, and I didn’t understand what I would get back from the time I invested in it. Given the value that our society places in competition, it makes sense. This concept of our society's competitive construct has recently come up in many settings -- discussions with friends, our class, book by Lenny Bruce I am currently reading. I started thinking about how this competitive drive affects my own life. I tend to push myself to mental or physical extremes and then burnout. This pendulum of extremes is probably quite common in grad school, but it can be exhausting.
The other day there was a semi-annual sale at the Harvard Book Store Warehouse. There was the usual flash-sale frenzy of people clambering around tables and shelves of books. Despite the rather out-of-the-way location of this sale, I ran into several people I know from various associations. In each encounter, the first question to pop up was a fairly reasonable one: what type of books do you have there?
The answer should have been fairly straightforward for me to answer as I was holding a handful of books that I had just spent half an hour diligently reviewing and deliberating over. I answered some variation of "books about artists", which seemed to pass off fine, but it led me down a rabbit hole of thinking. My friend asked recently, why do you read? It isn't something I have really thought about before. Now after today, I've started thinking about why do I read what I read?
My answer to the first question was at first something along the lines of "to learn about new places and experiences". In the past few months I have experienced the apartheid in South Africa, the Chechen wars in Chechnya, the triumphs and trials of becoming first lady, the adrenaline of being a well-known surfer and environmental activist, the creative exploration of being a fashion photographer, the adventures of being a detective in Barcelona during the second world war, the frustration of being a misunderstood and disruptive comedian, etc. etc.
I haven't physically lived through any of these experiences, but in each of these people I see some part of myself. I think now my answer would be similar, but with an "and myself" appended. Reading brings up intriguing questions and allows me to broaden my way of thinking. Reading allows me to live in someone else's shoes for a little while. Is this a form of escapism? Maybe. Probably.
Just as thinking is important, reading is important. But both can be distracting and a rather convenient procrastination tool. Reading leads me to thinking about broader life questions about identity and purpose. Important, but distracting. Combine PhD work with solving the purpose of life puzzle, and you get one mentally exhausted graduate student. So I turn to other hobbies…
I enjoy sports a lot. Again, recently I have started questioning why do I like these activities?
I think I usually like sports that take total concentration because there is no mental capacity left to focus on other things. When you're doing a triathlon or boxing or playing in a basketball match, your mind is transported from work or from the dumb thing you said yesterday or any other thoughts to the present moment. Plus there is the added benefits of endorphins. I really enjoy outdoor activities for a similar reason. When you're skiing or hiking up a mountain, there is 1) usually limited cell service or opportunities to check social media and 2) an opportunity to engage with natural, non-made things that don't care about you and don't depend on you. It is nice to feel small sometimes and be reminded that life really does move on even if you haven't found the bug in your code or you don't understand your purpose. The Earth doesn't care.
Busy No More
After thinking about it, this constant wavering between examining the mind and trying to escape from it seems like a motivating example for meditation. Rather than constantly running from something, I can just exist. I recently finished a book by Soseki called "To the Spring Equinox and Beyond" and one of the translators wrote about a character trying to go "from the introvert's eternal problem of self-identification through logic to the outward observation of things as they are without thinking about them". To me, this describes mindfulness. Trying to find peace by observing instead of constant internal chatter or constant external exertion. This practice of rest seems productive to me.
Fourth discussion: Social boundaries and communication
Yesterday in class there were a couple of points that stood out to me. Or not at first, but as I have been reflecting tonight, I have come back to these points and have brought them into a context that makes sense to me. The first is Buber's categorization of I-it vs I-you vs I-thou relationships and the second is the limitation of language.
I am usually a pretty easy-going person, but recent events have made me feel anger and frustration. This week a family member in critical care was treated with negligence in the hospital, worsening their condition.
I still feel anger when thinking about it, but after today's class I have also started thinking of it in terms of these social boundaries we talked about. When someone close to you (an I-thou relationship) is harmed by someone in an I-you or I-it category, it makes you further objectify people in the other category. Whether negligence in the healthcare system or bullying in school, it is easier to feel anger at the people that hurt you or a loved one. It's harder to view them (or want to view them) as someone going through something.
It can be a bit disrupting to step back and look at societal structure as being made up of humans who have flaws and insecurities and ulterior motives. A bit like the reveal of Santa Claus, it can be jarring to realize that the doctors and nurses or professors or policemen -- people who are supposed to help you or teach you or protect you -- actually have their own agendas and get tired and are not superhumans. This might sound juvenile and obvious, but when faced with a situation where you are dependent on them and the expectation is not fulfilled, it can be demoralizing.
As far as morality goes, I'm not sure whether this objectification is good or bad. There is the old saying about turning the other cheek. There is an argument for not judging someone at the surface by their actions (maybe their parents are going through a divorce, maybe their child is really ill and they are just working to make it through) and understanding that their actions are probably not driven by an inner mal-intent but rather driven by situational context. There is another argument that people should own up to their actions even if they are going through something else.
In trying to be more self-aware, I am attempting to recognize when I feel these feelings of anger or hurt and identify 1) where it is coming from, 2) is it justified, 3) is it doing any good or only further harming me, 4) are there any concrete steps I can take to rectify the situation. I'm also trying to learn how to cope with these feelings through meditation. My first instinct is to go outwards… get rid of the energy through exercise (boxing is especially nice) or try to run away from it… any method to escape physically or mentally. I am trying to learn how to instead exist peacefully with these feelings and not let them dictate my mood or thoughts as much.
The second point that stood out to me relates to social boundaries and the limitations of language. In class, someone mentioned how it is interesting that sometimes we connect more or feel more closely with animals than our fellow humans. After thinking about this, again in the context of how I have been feeling, it sort of makes sense.
First, on the ability to relate better to animals or music or nature than to humans… I think in part it is because we can project how we feel and then feel validated in return. I feel close to my dog and think she is adorable. She might be a complete bitch in the eyes of other dogs, but to me she is the best. I feel the same about music…I often see my current feelings reflected in the music I listen to and it makes me feel understood. It's a bit like being "blindly in love". You see what you want and overlook reality.
People on the other hand, have the potential to go against your mind's image. If I talk to my dog, I feel I get a good listener. If I talk to people, there's the chance they misunderstand me due to my communication, their listening, or some pre-existing context in the relationship. There's also the chance that they do understand and don’t respond how I want them to or expect them to.
I think language as a tool for connection can be limiting. Sometimes I feel too much and don't want to try to label it or contextualize it or figure how to express it. This is also why maybe sometimes music, dance, or other things in the creative realm are nice. These too of course have their own limitations, but its nice to tap into inner energy sometimes without having to find words or concepts to describe it. I am finding this same benefit in yoga as well.
Fifth discussion: Layers of Knowledge and Experience
Today on a plane to Seattle, I talked for a long time with the person sitting next to me. He works on merchant ships and has been all over the world. After our conversation, I started thinking about layers of knowledge and experience.
I have a tendency to make lists and only feel accomplished when I’ve crossed off items on those lists. But am I really experiencing? It seems more like racing to the next thing. Which places have I been to? Which books have I read? Which events have I attended? Everything, if I’m not careful, can be turned into a task — something to add to the books, something to document, something to be conquered. But what does it mean to really know something or someone? What does it mean to experience a place or an event?
I know what an orange is. I could identify one in a lineup. But I don’t know what it is made of. I can’t tell you much about how it interacts with my body except that it has vitamin C. I don’t know why the outside texture is so different from the inside. Why it breaks into pieces. But do I need to?
I’ve traveled to a lot of places and lived in several places, but I always get antsy when people ask me detailed questions about the healthcare system or government policies in these places. Sure I’ve lived there or been there and have my own personal stories and associations about them. Food I miss, people I’ve met, random corners of the city I’ve explored. But have I met the criteria of “experiencing” the places?
And people… there’s people we’ve talked to for years. People at work that we spend the better part of our day with, but how much do we know about them? Or how they feel or where they come from?
And the real question is, does any of this matter? I’m not sure. I just find it interesting how I can spend all of my days somewhere or with someone or with something and know so little about them. Even my own motivations can be foreign to me. I don’t always know how my body operates or why I do certain things.
Today I watched a sunset with brilliant colours and there was also a dark gray cloud shaped sort of like a lightning bolt in the edge of my view. I haven’t seen a sunset that beautiful in a while and although I was fascinated by the array of color, I couldn’t keep my eyes from focusing on the grey cloud. (btw while writing this, I’ve noticed I’ve used both “color” and “colour”, “grey” and “gray”…why? I don’t know).
I sometimes wonder if life would feel richer if I slowed down. Instead of trying to “pack in experiences”, lengthen my list of “have-dones”, and checking off my list of “to-dos”, if I slowed down and reflected on fewer things more deeply, would that be more fulfilling?
In class, we have talked about the “beginner’s mind”. I think it is important to remember how much more there is to be learned. In PhD and research, we are constantly reminded of this, but I don’t always think about how much I have left to learn in my day-to-day life. Even about the most mundane of things. Things that have been familiar since year one like an orange. I think it’s important to constantly treat myself as a novice in all areas of life and look to learn. To be curious and seek more knowledge, more understanding, more observation, and more depth. To not take an answer and be satisfied with it. To keep asking why?
Sixth discussion: Priorities and Societal Structures
I think the best word to describe my current stage in practice is discomfort. Not physically, but mentally.
I had office hours with Joi Ito yesterday and as I was preparing, I was forced to start verbalizing and constructing these thoughts and feelings into words. Some of the questions that have been floating in my mind:
When is meditation productive and when does it become a procrastination tool? How do I know how much meditation is reasonable for a busy lifestyle where everything feels urgent? How do I understand my own reasonings for meditating? To what extent is finding purpose meaningful versus an escape from the real world?
There is an argument for putting your head down, working to make a living, and just trying to find joy where you can. Maybe some view finding purpose or meaning in your work or in your life as an indulgence of some sorts. I am very fortunate to be where I am and cannot pretend otherwise. But somehow I have a lot of inner conflict…I don't think I am far enough in my practice to articulate it much, but can only describe it as a discomfort.
I could (and maybe should?) go along with life, work how people are supposed to work, and try not to think about this. Maybe part of my exploration is just my skepticism of authority.. when people assertively tell me something must be this way or you must do something, I automatically start to question. I might end up at the same answer, but I want to think and reason about it for myself. When writing this post, I thought of a quote from one of my favorite movies, Polina: “I'm sick of mindlessly executing other people's choreography. I need to learn to look at the world”. It references dance, but I think it applies to all areas of life. There is a lot to learn from people with more experience or knowledge than myself of course, but I also want to have space in my life to learn my own views and make my own mistakes.
I think part of the reason this questioning is uncomfortable and this uncertainty of how much meditation/self-care is reasonable (should this even be a question?) is because it is never taught or discussed early on in our life.
When I tell people I am taking an awareness class as a graduate student, most people kind of laugh or are confused. It is understandable…if it were an optimization class, there would be no reaction because a maths or a cs course is what is expected in a Computer Science PhD program. I wish this wasn’t the case though. I think it would be productive to have mindfulness, meditation, or some other sort of self-care (outside of PE classes) that are built into the education system. When you take courses on photography and learn how to use a fancy camera, you also learn how to take care of the equipment. It’s an important part of the process… if you spend a lot of resources on something, you should take care of it.
The mind is no different. From a young age, we are taught to sharpen the mind. We should also be taught how to take care of it. I think it is strange that self-care and good mental health is often thought of an indulgence or is maybe not thought of much at all.
Seventh Discussion: Shame and Guilt
In our last class, we talked about shame and guilt. The two words are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct. We learned that in Tibetan culture, shame is viewed as a positive quality because it means that you are observant and reflective on your behaviour. This feeling should be transient though. Guilt is when you wallow in shame. It is counterproductive and doesn't do anything to change the situation.
Our discussion seemed to focus more on our actions towards other people but I am also curious about shame with respect to people's actions towards us and how they change how we view ourselves.
Recently I have had conversations with professors and students about guilt related to mental health and micro aggressions. It makes me sad that mental health is still often a stigmatized topic of discussion and even more so that it causes guilt. It's something that I am working to change, but that will be a topic for another blog post.
With respect to micro aggressions, the recent discussions made me realize how easy it is to mix up anger with guilt and shame even when the wrongful actions are not my own. For example, some of the discussions were with other women about harassment and how even if we don't have any part in the bad action, we tend to apologize or feel guilt in addition to anger or frustration. Even though logically it doesn’t make sense, I think it is a common reaction. I think part of it, especially related to sexual harassment, is the feeling that this shouldn't happen, but somehow it did and I was a part of it. This causes guilt about it having happened and about it having an impact on me.
It's something that meditation and reflection has made me more aware of…how certain things that have happened accumulate if you don't take time to acknowledge them and release them. Even little things that maybe on their own are not a big deal, build up when there are too many of them.
I think a common link between guilt in mental health and in micro aggressions or harassment is a fear of showing weakness and causing disruption. At least for me, I think the guilt comes from letting things impact me mentally and letting them effect my work or relationships. I think sometimes I have a hard time letting myself be human, and I feel guilty when I feel emotions that prevent me from being productive. This is a silly way to approach life though (I know this logically but have a hard time actually embracing it). I think this class is helping me to take time to reflect and be more in touch with how I feel. It is also helping me to develop a healthier relationship/mentality with work. I think it is healthy to take time to unpack things when they happen and acknowledge the feelings involved rather than wrapping it in guilt, burying it away and ignoring it, and trying to get back to work as soon as possible.
Eighth discussion: Branches and Roads
To be honest, I don’t remember what I had in mind when I wrote the discussion name a couple of days ago. I will go with it though…
Recently I have been noticing an overwhelming desire to slow down…and yet I continue to commit to things and push through work at an unnecessary speed.
From taking this class, I feel that I have branched off into two conflicting versions of myself and can’t quite figure out how to merge them (git it? :P). Warning: I was just using git and now I am thinking of git…this post is about to git cheesy.
git checkout calmkatie : this class has taught me useful techniques, but more importantly it has changed my mindset. I feel that I am getting better at (or at least more comfortable with the idea of) taking time to take care of myself even when work is overwhelming. I am realizing more and more that physical and mental health are not things to overlook or take for granted. It takes time, patience, and care to invest in them properly. It can be easy to do at a superficial level, but I have noticed there are many patterns in my life (e.g. reactions to stress, insecurities, causes of stress) that keep resurfacing. There aren’t quick fixes to get rid of these. These patterns can be painful to acknowledge and unpack. It can also feel like pointless at first since there is no concrete measure of progress or success.
I think what I have gotten most from my practice and this class is the ability to value and be at peace with longterm investments, not just immediate satisfaction. I have started going to yoga, building in time for meditation and sleep, going to physical therapy (something I’ve been putting off for a long time), and going to actual therapy for stress management. These are all longterm investments that won’t get me praise from my advisor or any awards. Nevertheless they are important. Spending time on these things helps me create space from my work environment and the fast pace of the world. It helps me look at the big picture instead of getting lost. However…
git checkout stressedMITkatie: environment still has a large influence on me. Meditating gives me peace and perspective. It doesn’t make the deadlines, meetings, work, and other commitments go away though. I still let other people’s emotions and feedback impact my mood too much. To pick up on the “roads” part of the title… it sometimes feels that when I take time to meditate and take things slower, I am like a car driving way below the speed limit…with lots of caffeinated, anxious drivers changing lanes to speed past me. In a fast moving environment like MIT, it can be hard to have “mindfulness endurance”. Right now, meditation and mindfulness are still just tools for me. I try to use them but they are not a permanent part of my lifestyle. I find that I go through periods of “relapse” where I get overwhelmed with work and all of my mindful self-care thoughts are tossed away. I find that setbacks like not being able to sleep or eating unhealthy or feeling behind with work trigger these “end-of-the-world” feelings. I am getting better and taking a step back to meditate and put them in perspective. It is difficult sometimes though…especially when most of my identity and perceived value of myself up to now has been about academic success. Being a more calm and present person is something that I want, but it is a larger transformation than it sounds like. I sometimes feel like Bruce Banner in Avengers: Infinity Wars (0:38).
I never turn green… but I feel the same kind of struggle trying to go from stressed out, never sleeping but always achieving person to someone who is more calm, takes things as they come, and values longterm health.
Ninth discussion: Explore STEAM (ESTEAM)
As I explained in my final project, this course has caused me to reflect on what mindfulness in the education system would look like. It is easy to point out faults in the current education system, but mending it requires effort, collaboration, and thought to change (a difficult task for sure!). I don’t have the answers, but I have some thoughts… which I will share…
School places focus on the acquisition of knowledge and on grades. When kids are most impressionable, we teach them that there are right and wrong ways to think. Grades are tied to identity and used to define how “smart”or “hard-working” students are. Acquisition of knowledge is important and unavoidable. I think it could be supplemented with focuses on mindfulness, mental health sustainability, creativity, and independent thought though.
As I went through this course, I became more confident in discussing mental health and mindfulness with my friends and colleagues. Through these discussions, I became cognizant that self-doubt, difficulties with identity and purpose, and lack of healthy stress management techniques are widespread. These struggles impact our productivity at work, our views of ourselves (which in turn effects our relationships with others), and our general wellbeing.
With this motivation in mind, my friend at Google and I are developing a series of workshops called ESTEAM (Explore Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) for high school students. We plan to launch a pilot program in the Fall. These workshops aim to breakdown the “academic” approach to STEAM as the only mold for students interested in STEAM. ESTEAM will frame STEAM in the context of personal development. It will encourage STEAM as a creative outlet and emphasize the importance of creativity, independent thought, mental wellbeing, and confidence. ESTEAM is mainly geared towards high schools students with potential and interest who are still finding themselves. There are many people I know who are brilliant and creative that feel demoralized by the system. I hope that ESTEAM can give students that feel this way encouragement and mentorship. I want to emphasize that everyone has something to contribute and introduce examples of creativity in STEAM. I hope to help the students develop techniques to harness and direct their internal energy and ways of thinking towards something they are excited about in STEAM.