Shannon's Awareness Journal - Week 13, End
Week 01: 2018-02-16
In the winter I have a hard time getting out of bed when it's dark and cold. The first day I tried, I did not manage to get up in time to try qigong (from some YouTube videos) before coming into the lab. Next day I downloaded a qigong-Taichi app on my phone for a morning practice once I was up. It was difficult to follow along on a tiny screen that wasn't at eye level, and I was more focused on trying to see the details of hand and arm movements than relaxing my mind and meditating. It will take some time to first be comfortable with the movements before my mind will let its attention move inward though.
Third day I switched to an evening practice before bed to try quieting my mind and relaxing my body so I can fall asleep faster. It was still difficult following the app due to screen size but also the speed of practice (no controls to slow the movements down or repeat a section). The pace of the app does not let me sink into a stretch or focus on one part of my body before the transition to something new. In addition, the verbal cues for transitioning to the next form are not always clear, so I fall behind many times as I look away from the screen or close my eyes.
Next time, I'm going to try following a YouTube video on my laptop, which should be easier on the larger screen and I believe YouTube has speed controls. Also, I'm getting some books out from the library that will hopefully have good illustrations that I can photocopy and tape them to the wall at eye level. Then I can practice the movements at my own speed in varied combinations.
Week 02: 2018-02-23
I always thought of workouts as intense, and intensity was associated with the pace of motion and breaking a sweat. Now I’ve found the attempt to have fluid, slow, controlled movements to be surprisingly intense in their own way. In practicing qigong, I am trying to focus on my body but not be distracted by my muscles’ complaints over a foreign strain. When I’ve done yoga, I held positions and stretches, and when I’ve done Zumba, it involved constant motion to upbeat music. Now I’m learning how to have steady, unhurried motion.
In thinking of how I run my life, it feels like I’ve always swung between those extremes of fast movement and lengthy pauses. It will be good to learn moves situated in the middle ground that connects the extremes. Right now when I come to a still moment, it’s immediately out of a fast one and the stop can be whiplash-esque. Then I’m going 0 to 60 in a minute again, but I want a more gradual acceleration. To keep the car analogy, you can’t have a smooth change in speed if the car isn’t in good shape, so I hope qigong will help get my mind and body in shape to perform gradual transitions. I don’t always need to stop on a dime.
In the coming week, I’m going to try coordinating a time to practice qigong with a friend who has been practicing for several years. If possible, I want at least a single joint practice to be weekly for the semester. In addition, I will look into attending a qigong class. Right now the Tree of Life Tai Chi Centre only has a level two course offered in the winter, so I am looking into alternatives. The Sun Tai Chi Institute of Boston offers a fundamentals class now and is taught by an instructor who went through the training at Tree of Life. I will try that class tomorrow (2/24) if there is space.
Week 03: 2018-03-02
The beginner’s class I went to was a mix of qigong and Taichi, so I was still confused about the demarcation of the two practices, but it was still helpful to have an instructor explain how to do positions as we practiced and showed ways of doing certain movements while seated. Knowing what point of chi I was suppose to be unlocking helped my practice more so than seeing the movement, and the app I was using had not talked about chi flow (on top of being hard to see on a small screen). I judged if I was doing the form right by how my body felt instead of mimicking how it looked.
When I discussed qigong with a Chinese friend who has practiced that and other forms of meditation, she told me about Ba duan jin qigong since I was still confused about what movements were from qigong rather than Taichi. Part of my awareness task during practice is to follow my chi along the lines of movement, but I’ve also chosen certain knots to stop and focus on more intently. In our discussion acupuncture came up, which I’ve never done. I may try that to see what effects on my chi it has. I know when I was getting massages monthly it helped keep certain bodily tension under control.
Now I’ve stopped using the app and stick to the forms from Ba duan jin with an extra warm up, “Ringing the Temple Bell,” and end on wishing those I dislike happiness as Joi suggested in class. The latter part has now become the most difficult aspect of practice, though it has an internal gradient tied to how negatively the person impacts/has impacted my life. In a few weeks I’ll have the ultimate test of maintaining that wishful thought when face-to-face.
Week 04: 2018-03-09
This week I dropped the ball. In underestimating a project, I ended up sleeping only 3 hours one night. Interestingly, those 3 hours were really deep sleep and I wasn't groggy the next day. I thought I would be tired by early evening, too, but ended up going to bed very late after hanging out with friends. I'm back to the ~7 hours now. Not looking forward to changing the clock due to daylight savings and throwing my sleep off in general.
During my marathon to get work done, there were many frustrating moments. I took a couple of breaks, and when I did, I would do a short round of qigong in the living room rather than taking a walk outside, which is what I normally would do if I had the time and it wasn't the middle of the night. In paying more attention to my body, I had to frequently sit back, though not leave my computer, and take a deep breath to extract myself from the mental frenzy.
In helping decorate for a party the next evening, I inflated a lot of balloons by mouth. It was an opportune moment for awareness- I was taking deep breaths through my nose then exhaling through my mouth. I focused on the flow of my breath in and out. I was aware of the expansion of my chest as I filled to capacity and the tightening of my abdomen as I squeezed out all my air from the bottom up. Not sure if focusing on my body and breathing like that helped keep from getting light-headed.
In general, I am trying to take the opportunity to correct my posture and relax my shoulders every time I remember to focus on my breathing. I might start carrying a balloon around to help practice deep breathing, and I'd get to make funny sounds when I deflate the balloon. Hehe...
Week 05: 2018-03-16
I have always found nature to be amazing, and as I studied biochemistry in undergrad, I was further impressed at how few times things go horribly wrong in development when there millions of steps being coordinated in the formation of life. I spent the last two weeks trying to hatch eggs with an incubator. On the one hand I agonized over my inability to keep a steady temperature and humidity level, but then I thought back to how impressive nature is. When hatching day arrived, I was so surprised to find a chick sitting quietly in the incubator. I thought, “Well, I guess I didn’t mess up too badly.” After 36 hours and 50% of the eggs hatched, I thought, “Why did I ever agonize over this?!”
There’s still time for more to hatch, too.
Why did I start to doubt what I had held as truth for so many years? That “Life finds a way” (quote from Jurassic Park<- I think this movie is really where my belief started and college just gave me the numbers to back it up). I started off confident that I could hatch a few eggs, and it was in reading up on how to do it that I became worried. Every other site had a slightly different temperature and humidity range, and I’ve gotten so use to having precise numbers to two decimal points to follow when doing work. I should have taken that as a sign that nature still works in broad strokes if so many people can hatch eggs under different conditions.
This leads me to wanting a better balance between the comfort of precision and the comfort of letting go. Starting qigong practice took me a long time because I was hunting for better explanations and more precise instructions online. Once I stopped looking for concrete rules to follow and accepted the general principles instead, it made practicing easier. It’s extremely uncomfortable for now, but I’m going to keep trying to not think about the “missing decimal points” in matters that are not scientific research.
Week 06: 2018-03-23
Nowadays, more often I pause to take a deep breath and exhale some tension out. No matter how many times I remember to do this, I always feel muscles relaxing afterward. I don't know if that's the case because I didn't release all of the stress the first time or stress has creeped back in quickly but subtly between pauses. I’m paying attention to knots and pain throughout my body and attempting to stretch or massage them when I can. It’s a weirdly good distraction when I’m getting frustrated with work in front of me but can’t get up and walk away to clear my mind because worse distractions will pull me away further.
Getting to sleep quickly has always been an issue, so I’m using the deep breaths to help sink into a relaxed state in bed. Focusing on my body becoming heavy helps move my focus away from the long list of things I haven’t finished or other worries. It’s made me aware of how uncomfortable my bed can be or how I’ve slept in the wrong position, though, so I’m discovering other reasons for not falling asleep quickly.
Week 07: 2018-03-30
I made the effort to not avoid a person I intensely dislike. Everything was very civil, though there were moments of “awkward silence” when the conversation drifted to just the two of us. Not wasting the effort on avoiding the person let me use that energy to enjoy other activities more, which was great. I did find myself at times clinging to my hatred as I tried to let it go, like a part of me was confused as to what I would do if I actually released it all. However, since my hatred stems more from their treatment of someone I care for rather than their treatment of me, and the person I care for has continued to accept their relationship for 20+ years, I’m rationalizing away the “cling” with the fact that the person I care about isn’t changing due to my actions or feelings. (My dislike was never a secret to the person I tried to get to change their relationship.)
Now I feel a bit agitated at wasting so much energy over avoiding the person in the past few years, which negatively impacted my time overall. I’m working on letting that go, too, since I can’t change the past. I wish I could transfer this start to release of hatred like handing an envelope over as I know another person could greatly benefit from diverting the energy inward instead. But it feels a bit weird to tell someone to try letting go of their hatred when the reason I tried it was a combination of a class discussion (I can’t really replicate for them) and knowing it wouldn’t be a big sacrifice to try one time. It’s like a small trowel starting to uproot a big oak; that shouldn’t work so easily.
I’m still confused when I stop to assess my feelings, as theirs a fundamental piece of me at this point that defaults to hate with a mental cringe when I think of the person, but decades of growing that tree is going to take more than a couple of days to dig out. I’ve never thought of emotions or perceptions as knots in the mind like knots in the body, but that’s what this is for me. The hatred formed over time, and I definitely remember the period when the hatred was more painful to experience before it settled in deeply and the rest of my mind began to work comfortably around it, just as the body compensates for knots and other dysfunctional parts of a body. I don’t think I’ll have to pay anyone to massage my brain, though, but after the semester is over and no more class discussions to keep me on track, it’s going to be harder to keep loosening those mental knots.
On a separate note, the section of “Destructive Emotions and How We Can Overcome Them - A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama” describing the study of focused meditation vs full awareness meditation has inspired me to take on the challenge of memorizing certain photos in full detail. The book briefly described how high level practitioners could instantly recall very intricate images, and I want to be able to do this with photos of my family. As my grandparents and others gain more aches and pains, I want to be able to remember them as they were during better times and have something joyful to recall whenever I need.
Week 08: 2018-04-06
The week following a vacation is more stressful than the weeks prior to taking a vacation. This week was filled more with Martin Buber’s “I-It” moments than “I-You” as I kept my attention on all the work due on the same day. There wasn’t a sense of losing myself in my work as if it were an enjoyable process of creation. Instead I was acutely aware of the minutes ticking by, especially whenever I made a choice to try and do something a bit extra for the assignments. I still haven’t found a good marker for when to call it quits on non-essential things such as detouring for 4 hours before deciding I couldn’t make something better work. I can definitely tell when an obsessive component creeps into my work flow, but it’s hard peeling myself away when I think that tweaking one more thing could solve it. This seems like a destructive scenario of my outlook not matching reality, but I don’t know how to get a reality check.
In the lab, I’ve also been confused as to when you call a train of thought a dead end since there seems to be infinite ways to try debugging bioengineering problems, and I’m not suppose to be in the business of debugging. It helps to be trying things in parallel and compare how each method is progressing, but what is suppose to inform you on when to give up on that method? When it has failed in 20 distinct ways? I feel some of my projects have split into many projects of equal size, but if just one works out, it’s going to be so exciting and then in retrospect I’ll say it was worth it, but was it?
Week 09: 2018-04-13
In considering what I would write about for this week, my mind wandered over to the nerve-wracking feeling that’s been creeping in over the last two weeks but hasn’t yet managed to take hold. It’s like the feeling is on the other side of a glass wall, so when I look up I see it’s there but it’s not touching. I don’t know if this is really more denial as I am stuck in a mode of getting everything done but cutting it close and doing it only in the order that it’s due. Thus, I have a sense of can-do attitude but it’s juxtaposed to “I keep doing everything last minute! How can I keep this working for 2 more months?!”
I was at a TA session early and was asked if I had started on the final project. I answered, “No, but will next weekend after an exam in another class.” Even though it was perfectly fine to answer as such since the due date is a month away, in that moment I felt a pang of worry as if I should have started that project instead of trying (and failing) to get to studying for my exam that’s in a few days. Failing to get to studying has been due to putting other things in front of it that have a high priority but vague timeline. If I know something’s important but a set number of days away, I will budget for it, but the tasks that are important but either without a deadline or I’m creating the deadline tend to interfere with the first kind of tasks. I’m taking the vague ones and shoving them to the top of my to-do list either inadvertently to procrastinate without feeling as guilty or out of fear that leaving them in the middle will lead to them falling to the bottom where they’ll be out of sight, out of mind until too late.
I’m managing to not become stressed out to the point that my body reacts negatively as it is wont to do sometimes, but now I really need to fix the underlying problem of how I’m organizing the mixed bag of top priorities. April has been the worst month for a variety of reasons for five years so far, and it would be great to break that cycle.
Week 10: 2018-04-20
This will be a much shorter post than the last few:
Have continued getting 6-7 hours of sleep and maintaining around the same bedtime/wake-up. With exams, homework, final projects, and final papers starting to line up like dominoes, I’m trying to set a reasonable pace for myself that accounts for breaks and doing fun things with friends. It may be helping that the weather is being reasonable so taking long walks are more refreshing (I want to shift to doing qigong outdoors, too). I can burn out some of the nervous energy or lull my procrastinating mind with a walk, but I have to be careful when I return to my computer that I jump straight back to work (checking emails is one of the worst time sinks because it legitimizes as work so easily).
Four more weeks to the end of the academic year!
Week 11: 2018-04-27
This week I have been thinking about what we’ve been learning in class in the context of science-fictional literature, TV, and movies. When we discussed the topic of self-compassion, one strategy is to imagine your past self as another person, and then it’s more like “regular” compassion which can be easier to do. A sci-fi TV show I watched in the 2010’s (won’t mention the name as this is a spoiler) involved a father saving his son’s life in an alternate world, but does so by kidnapping him and not returning him, which causes anguish for the alternate world version of himself (and a lot of trouble for everyone). It’s an interesting way to consider compassion versus selfishness. He could have saved his son but returned him, and then one version of himself would have avoided anguish and grief. I think it could have even helped to relieve the grief the first version was already feeling.
One wouldn’t have had a TV series without that happening, but I wonder if the fiction is more reflective of how American culture does treat itself or if it’s more of a storytelling device (man vs self, man vs nature, etc). Whenever there is a sci-fi story depicting a race that has mastered designer babies; genetically engineering a chosen amount of intelligence, strength, agility, etc; the backdrop tends to be a dystopia (or slips into one). Is there a story where the people design self-awareness and compassion instead? With the current understanding of biology, it would be just as difficult to engineer intelligence as self-awareness without making them a neurosis, but I never hear of designing a more compassionate, aware race. Teaching kids to be nicer to each other, sure, but not genetically engineering babies to be compassionate when they grow up.
I’m realizing more so that the conflicts in science fiction tend to stem from issues of compassion and awareness between self or groups of people, but neither the conflict or the solution are usually shown in the light of those topics (or as the main topic, or maybe I just didn’t read deep enough into it when I was younger). It sells better to have flashy fights and wowing displays of intelligence? How many times do the words “compassion” and “self-awareness” come up in fiction TV series, movies, or books? In going back to the aforementioned TV series, the solution in the end actually was compassion. And as much as I enjoyed analyzing that show and trying to figure out how it would resolve when it was airing, I never looked at it from the perspective I’m now discussing. I feel like re-watching it and a few other series by the same director; maybe over the summer I’ll do a bonus post with episode-by-episode “analysis”…
Week 12: 2018-05-04
I have been pondering over the way relationships are partitioned into ones that I want, need, or deserve compared to other things, like food. It’s easier to reflect on how I place food into those three categories and my actions based on their categorization than it is with people. I mostly think about the kinds of people I want in my life in terms of general happiness and fun, whereas I consider who needs to be in my life in terms of formal education or self-advancement, like I need a mentor in X in order to improve a skill. In terms of food, I actively recognize when what I want is going to negatively impact my health if I keep eating a lot of it, and I’ll eat something I need but dislike just to keep a balance. I’m not sure that I keep such a tally with relationships and worry I have a habit of pushing ones that fall into the “need but dislike” category away too quickly. I might try drawing a web diagram of relationships and seeing if too many fall into one category or were short-lived.
Week 13: 2018-05-11
Last post for the academic year!
This class’ homework has helped to make self-reflection and general awareness a daily practice for me. Now that I’m feeling out all the tension in my body, I can attempt to track down the cause and change my routine. While the actual meditation practice has been hit or miss, I am at least keeping my mind open for opportunistic moments to squeeze in qigong at work, which is helping my body unwind.
As for mental tension, it’s been uncomfortable realizing certain negative habits I’ve taken on partially out of necessity to stay afloat in the past 9 months and partially in response to fluctuation in where I live. Their impact on my well-being seems obvious now, and I don’t want to stay on that path. I’m still trying to figure out how to reverse many of those habits in the long run as so far, my attempts have come in bursts. I hope the summer provides me 3 months to form strong, good habits that will survive another 2 semesters of classes+research and then whatever comes after that. On top of my list is to stay in touch with as many fellow classmates as possible after the semester is over and get to know my year’s cohort better.
Thanks Joi, Tenzin, Karthik, and Andre for teaching/guiding this amazing class!