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Thoughts on choosing a practice—
I’m considering a few options, gleaned from this lovely tree diagram that charts a few different approaches (no endorsement of the website overall, and perhaps some of the practices listed aren’t quite what we’re going for in this class, but I found it to be a helpful start)! I’m initially trying a multi-part routine throughout the day. I would like for the mindfulness approach to feel holistic and embedded into the fabric of my day—something I am pursuing with a heartfelt commitment, rather than a brief session everyday that becomes yet another task to complete.
In that vein, here is my initial foray into a daily mindfulness routine:
Morning: I already sleep well and regularly (which I am very thankful for), around 7-8 hours a night. I do, however, have a tendency to snooze my alarm and delay the start, which actually leaves me quite groggy and is generally accepted to do more harm than good (the few, fragmented minutes of sleep you salvage are not worth the interruption to your body’s natural awakening bio-processes). My goal is to wake every weekday at 7am, promptly, and get immediately out of bed, regardless of tiredness level. My hope is to eventually develop a sleep cycle habit and natural awakeness at that time (which has worked for me in the past). After waking, I plan to stand upright and still for five minutes and begin the day with a contemplative mind. I don’t realistically think I will pause for much more time than that, as once I’m up, I’m very much a morning person and tend to be very motivated to get going, get to work, use my best morning energy, make the most of the quiet time I get at work, et cetera. Knowing this about myself, I’m planning to save the prolonged period of stillness for later in the day.
Gym days: On semi-regular intervals, I work out in the mornings, and am interested to challenge myself to find stillness even in the intensity of a workout. I tend to use admittedly rather cliche upbeat music for motivation :), and while Tenzin mentioned that it’s best to develop the mindfulness focus independent of an “activity” (so that the brain is trained independent of context), I’m interested to see if I can find at least a fleeting sense of true calmness while working out. This is more of a side experiment…
Mid-afternoon reflection moment: Take a brief moment each afternoon to pause, wrest myself from email or whatever task is consuming my focus, and take a step back to contemplate the day—how it’s going so far, and where my focus and efforts should be directed for the remainder. This may become a source of my daily “awareness” posts, though they also come organically throughout the day.
Evening: This is when I plan to commit to a longer, intentional period of mindfulness. I already sit plenty during the day, so I would like to try 20 minutes of standing, silent meditation. I’m not planning to use an app accompaniment for now, as I like the idea of building the discipline to do it on my own and would rather have less tech embedded in this process. I am, however ,very open to reading about ideas for the type of mental approach for the mediation period…and maybe apps could come in as a knowledge source. The standing is also an important part, so that I am less likely to doze or fall asleep, since I’ll be doing this at the end of the day.
On a tangentially related side note (and I won’t post this as spam to the FB group), a work mentor once shared a great video with our team at the time. Some might find it cheesy, but I love the quotes and humorous/down to earth affect, taken apparently from Alan Watts. I’m not familiar with his other work, but he seems to have been a known entity in the Zen Buddhist world. I’ll be interested to hear the instructor and TA takes on his body of work. The message in this particular clip seems to align with Joi’s comment that simply “getting where you’re going” would be an odd goal to have, applied to a lifetime. He stipulated (and I would agree) rthat one would rather have a long, rich and invigorating life, than simply a short and “efficient” life.
Notes on the first week of meditation practice!
First, for some overall reflective thoughts. I have found myself feeling more fulfilled and my mind a bit more at peace at work, by making the mindfulness practice something that I do at various intervals throughout the day. If anything, it has just reminded me to actively make distance between myself and the many minutiae of a day (tasks, email machinations, fires to put out, et cetera), that can at times seem all-consuming but are perfectly manageable and more easily balanced with a bit more of a holistic perspective. Some of this sense of pleasant, slight detachment from the drama of each tiny thing might also be coming from new practices I’ve started in addition to mindfulness and awareness (though related): stricter protection of my own working time in the morning, taking less meetings each afternoon, and thus leaving myself time to accomplish concrete things each day (rather than a hefty amount of time spent on the meta mangaging and triaging of tasks throughout the weekdays, until I get a rare block of time where a whole batch of things get done).
A few thoughts on each individual practice element:
The mornings are a partial success…I have been getting up regularly at an early time, though immediately standing for five minutes isn’t so tempting after all. :) I find that it’s more natural to wake-up, and sit up in bed and think for 5 minutes—this accomplishes the goal of overcoming the snooze button, without forcing a hard break to the sleepiness. As I progress through the longer standing meditation at night, and begin to find this restorative, I may revisit the wake-up&stand idea. My sleep cycle hasn’t completely shifted to feel natural at that time yet, but the ever-increasing sunlight levels in the morning are certainly helping (and such a welcome treat, to wake up to sun and have it still be early! Slowly emerging out of winter sunlight hours is the best).
For my side experiment, I’ve had a few moments at the gym when I’m still challenging some part of my body physically, but able to zone out and find a few moments of real stillness. I’m trying to distinguish “being in the zone” while working out (which I associate with a level of calm, determined focus that is easier to attain but not real stillness) from a more meditative/mindful state (which is my goal).
I really enjoy the afternoon reflection moment/awareness break, and this has contributed to a few FB posts gleaned from the immediate surroundings. I find this has also helped me with all the context-switching that goes on in day…a few moments with a calm mind somewhere around 2:30 - 4pm helps me catch up on the loose ends that have accrued from various meetings and things I’ve been working on, and reset on what my actual top priorities are for the afternoon and evening.
The standing mediation at night has raised several thoughts:
First, and somewhat ironically, my desire to keep track of all my reactions to the experience, to journal what is and isn’t working, had initially been distracting me from a calm mind. I was simultaneously trying to remember the 3…now 4….now 5 comments that I would record, only to realize that I was focusing on those thoughts, rather than emptying my mind. Two ideas…I could either start a recording session, and as one of these thoughts arrives just state it out loud and move on; or simply decide that I’ll journal with a different take on things, and let the thoughts go completely and see how I feel afterwards and what I remember only at the end.
The duration of standing seems fine so far. I like the 20 minute period, and have found it both feasible for sustained standing and still just enough of a stretch that I need to actively try to stay “mindfully engaged” for that full period. For example, the first time I tried it, I closed my eyes and stayed standing for a full 12 minutes before checking a clock. I’d like to get to a point where I stay standing naturally in this meditative state for 20 minutes before having a sensation to check the time, and then I’ll start doing it for 30 minutes, etc. I’m not sure whether I like the idea of setting a timer (which would solve the issue of checking to see how much time has passed), or continuing to mark time on my own, towards whatever feels natural.
I’ve tried two poses so far, and have liked them both. It has helped to switch mid-way through, though I also feel comfortable standing in a third position for long periods of time (something from another activity in my life, that I’m more used to). The two I focused on this week were the Yiquan standing practice (thanks to the suggestion from Joi last week!) and Parade Rest (from the military tradition, developed to allow soldiers to stand comfortable for a long period of time). The latter is something I know from my childhood with military parents :) I found I could close my eyes with Yiquan with little to no balance issues (compared with Parade Rest over minutes and minutes), as the bent knees helped create a more solid foundation.
At times when I felt my mind really wandering, I found that starting a mental muscle-relaxation routine helped. I know this one that I used to use before bed, where you focus on aspects of your body, from toes to head, telling yourself (often twice for each body part) to “relax the toes/XYX”. Then I focus on each of these body parts feeling heavier, and sinking into the floor (made me think of the “root” energy focus that Joi had mentioned) as I’m standing, and work my way up to the top of my head. I enjoyed trying this in vertical body mode, rather than horizontal!
Notes on the second week of practice (belated)
Catching up a bit late with my thoughts for last week, as I’ve been swamped with planning for an event at the Lab this coming weekend. Ironically, it’s busy times like these when meditation and mindfulness could be so helpful and restorative, and yet to be honest, I’m still learning to prioritize this practice when other priorities seem more demanding. I did still follow along with certain things, but to a lesser extent than I had the first week. I’m hoping to re-commit this week (even with Beyond the Cradle still on the immediate horizon).
On the top of my mind is a sensory awareness experience from today. Remi shared daffodils with us for RAK week, and I was struck by headiness of the flower sent. That, combined with the very bold yellow under the bright ceiling lights, made for a really lovely, pungent awareness of the nearness of Spring. It’s been months since I smelled a daffodil—focusing explicitly on the experience of smelling the flower felt like its own mini-awakening to a new season. I also love the tactile difference between the soft, smooth petals and the rigidly supporting, creased, turgid stem. As a gardener and plant lover who spends quite a bit of time enjoying the minute growing details of my collection, it was a very welcome beginning to the session :)
As to my weekly experiences, the morning mindfulness and disciplined wake-up have taken hold. I’ve found that the light around 6:45am is now waking me up naturally and consistently each morning. I’ll expect this to push earlier as the sunrise timing continues to change. The notion of “waking up with the commitment of getting up”, tied to an intentional few minutes of mindfulness or reading (added the reading last week) has really improved my mornings and the mental approach that I begin the day with. It’s a combination of feeling accomplished (tiny victories!) and committed to the day.
For the longer, standing meditation sessions, I have begun relying on a repeated phrase or chant to help empty my mind of other distractions and direct my mind into a more focused mode. It has become something of a peaceful, internal chant and mindset, that also hearkens back to another hobby activity of mine where mindfulness and a set of calm, process steps are key. After a few minutes of the chant, I’ve been having better success at clearing my mind and focusing on breathing. There is sometimes a middle-ground where I’m able to simply enjoy the dance of phosphenes while my eyes are closed. I sometimes wonder if this is still too much “thinking about something” (enjoying the light patterns and “watching” them evolve), and other times I just accept it.
Something I read about the Chi Gong standing mediation has entered into my gym-stillness experiment. There was a note about avoiding resenting-of or focusing-on the physical discomfort that might accompany a certain position at first, and instead channeling this out of your body or relaxing those muscles and moving beyond it. When I hold certain poses for an ab workout, I’ve been thinking about this nuance of mental discipline in the face of discomfort—rather than simply breaking through it or suffering through it as a runner might do with the “runner’s wall”, I can feel it, note it, and actively re-channel it, or imagine relaxing that area of my body, even while the muscles are actively engaged.
As a final note for now, also inspired by today’s class, I’m thinking of adopting some elements of Hane’s piano meditation. Her comments today made me remember the sense of calm focus, almost detached focus and yet a simultaneously engaged mind that I used to feel during piano-playing sessions. There was something about the muscle memory and my fingers finding their own way (I was not mentally calling every note or every beat, the music would flow from somewhere else, and yet the process felt very “full-minded”), that appeals to me in this Awareness class context as a sense of embodied/physical mindfulness. I might begin trying to play regularly again this semester, and see what I find and feel in the mindfulness context.
Returning to journaling after a very hectic few weeks, but with much to report on the awareness front!
Rather than going practice by practice as I have for the previous few journals, I’ll focus mostly on holistic reflections today, and a few deeper awareness moments and experiences outside of the core practice (seemingly influenced by the cultivation of a more mindful existence throughout the semester so far).
Yesterday, I had an unusual and delightful chance to listen to Yo Yo Ma at the MIT Compton lecture. This was my first time ever seeing him in person. I had been rather unaware of his broader advocacy efforts, and knew him instead as the child cello prodigy and adult cello maestro. His talk about unifying culture, politics and economics was deeply integrated with an exploration of music. While in some cases, reading current social trends into a Bach prelude might seem contrite, it worked beautifully and meaningfully. He shared his personal handwritten annotations on the intonation and character of each measure—and then connected the drama and narrative of the music to the drama, narrative and cyclical nature of our current social challenges. And then he PLAYED. He played the piece that he had just given such deep context to—both personal and cultural—and left the audience with a compelling moment of collective stillness. For a brief moment after he concluded, and before the audience applauded, the room felt as still and silent as our group meditation in class. It was a moment of pure awe, no thoughts, just a fullness of reaction that’s so profound that nothing else happens in your mind for that fleeting slice of time. This moment meant more to me because of our class this semester, because I’ve come to appreciate moments of stillness, because I newly discovered in that moment that deep and genuine and all-encompassing awe might be a type of true stillness or presence. I feel that stillness and presence at times with nature, and in my moments of awareness when I’m taken aback by something naturally beautiful or serene. Sharing that moment of stillness with so many people, with an entirely filled Kresge Auditorium, was a uniquely collective mindfulness experience. And this seemed to be just what Yo Yo had been telling us to meditate on—a togetherness in our work of bringing “edge to center, and center to edge.”
Yo Yo’s performance also reminded me of my goals for the piano meditation. He talked about the mindset he enters while playing (an intentional settling of oneself into a particular mindset, rather than falling into one), and described this as a bridged state of consciousness and unconsciousness. He is rationally awake and aware, but also deeply intuitive and guided by something not easily described or circumscribed. This appealed to me as another way to think about the detached focus and yet a simultaneously engaged mind, a full-bodied (full fingered?) mindfulness that I feel when I am playing a piece I know well. I am again inspired to rededicate myself to piano playing and savor the mindfulness of it.
And a final note on Yo Yo—he was so funny! He seemed to have a light and happy spirit, even though he’s known for such precision and deep concentration. This reminded me of Joi’s comments about having a good sense of humor about the ups and downs of various human endeavors, like meditation :)
To round out today’s post (back to nature, of course), I’ve found a new walking path to MIT from home. Rather than simply taking the most time efficient course— skipping slow traffic lights, using those unguided cross-walks, taking hypotenuses over right angle street layouts (ingrained in me since high school geometry class)—I’ve been charting a path via my favorite trees! I have a few that I’ve found on my way that fulfill some sense of aesthetic tree beauty, either a really graceful trunk and branching structure, or a surprisingly close adherence to a formal binary tree (this one is actually on MIT’s campus, which seems quite fitting), or they generate some other intuitive reaction that calls me to them. This has led to a more thoughtful walk to work each day, and is something that I’m looking forward to even more as spring finally arrives and brings new canopies to life!
April 3rd (and expanded upon April 8th)
Since this class started, I’m finding myself asking more questions about what I fundamentally enjoy doing…as opposed to what I do simply out of discipline or a sense of having to keep extrinsic commitments. Joi and Tenzin’s comments about happiness being more than just a break from misery/drudgery really struck me. I’m seeking something, or a collection things, that I am truly fulfilled by, particularly in the context of day to day experiences that build a career. What is the difference between my primary vocation and many avocations? I’m often more at peace and happy when doing my hobbies…but if I switched my life’s work to be one of these hobbies, I’m afraid it would quickly become unsatisfying.
I’ve started to notice, through the practice of mindfulness at night and the little moments throughout the day, that what I really crave is deep thinking time, time for my brain to be fully engaged and stretched by new ideas and whirled up into creative thinking. As helpful as the stillness sessions and clearing-of-mind has been, these respites from an otherwise very busy, task-driven day are actually reminding me that what I used to have time for and still love are hours of deep, intellectual focus. An empty mind and the associated mindfulness is helping me realize that what I want is more time for a full mind and the associated flow and creative energy. For the setting, hours spent in a quiet library or some little nook of nature appeal to me most. For the activity, hours spent jotting down ideas in a notebook, or writing an analytical essay about a stirring movie or political situation (just for my own refinement of opinion, not for publishing), or reading to savor bits of new knowledge, appeal to me most.
The reflective thought that this class encourages is now helping me better prioritize. While there are many tasks that could and should get done, I’m working on protecting more time each day for deep thinking, reading (my general exam preparation—which is actually a treat so far!), and creative, generative work. It’s been too easy lately to get bogged down in emails, or event planning logistics, or other tasks that, while important, do not necessarily a happy life make. This class is teaching me to take a step back and actively observe my own life and daily experiences. I feel like I have more agency again, through this awareness, to make each day into more of what I would want it to be. I’m not looking for hedonism, and I’m determined to still put my nose to the grindstone on unpleasant tasks when needed, but I’m looking forward to consciously reshaping more of my day.
I would like for this regular check-in with the character of my days to continue past this class. I’ve been thinking about ways to “Make it So” as Jean-Luc Picard would say, and while routine mindfulness will help, I think something as simple and concrete as a calendar reminder to re-assess the current status of my work every month, or two months, could help too.
And on a closing note for the progress with my practice, I’m finding that the standing sessions are feeling more natural. My body position feels gradually more relaxed, and less strained. I had been having some neck pain recently, and discovered that extended standing did not actually exacerbate it and sometimes gave more relief than laying horizontally with a pillow. This has reminded me that my posture at my computer during the day isn’t great, and I’m planning to use a standing desk more often. I’m not always keeping to the full 20 minutes lately, and will try to recommit to a longer, more regular practice. I have been using the standing meditation in other contexts than just pre-bedtime though, and am finding this helpful.
Side thoughts on the importance of a routine—
In a recent conversation with Karthik, we were discussing a prominent doctor’s recently discovered correlation (not clearly causal, but intriguing): all the prominent examples of centenarians (those who live over 100 yrs) were notable for their commitment to daily routines of eating and sleeping. They ate and slept at the same time every day, for years and years. Karthik connected this to the growing knowledge about the importance of circadian rhythms across all organs, and that these two key biological inputs (sleep and food) are critical in regulating the rhythms and contributing to healthy biological function. As someone who usually values flexibility and adaptation to changing circumstances over routines and rigid personal regimens, I’m finally sufficiently motivated to try a bit more of the latter. I already have in some ways, with the standard wake-up time as part of my practice, but there’s more to this than just waking. I know I should go back to the full 20 minute practice each day, at around the same time before bed, and will try to add a more regular dinner schedule to this. I’m not yet committed enough to do this for Breakfast and Lunch, quite frankly, as each day usually poses entirely different constraints on those two. But I’ll keep an eye on it :)
April 27th - May 3rd
I had a much-cherished chance recently to spend time out at my family’s rustic mountain cabin in California. There’s no electricity, and it’s quite a far drive from any large city. I ostensibly was traveling to help my parents with some work that needed to be done on the property, and yet any visit to the cabin is a treat and I was feeling a mix of excitement and relief to be back out there. This place is my most calm and comforting respite. I grew up traveling to the cabin several times a year as a child, and we do all the building and property improvement projects as a family with a few local friends (rarely hiring any outside help, as we embrace being the building crew and can lean on the construction expertise that my parents and local friends bring). The cabin therefore has a combination of the feeling of a home you’ve built yourself and poured yourself into, and the feeling of a peaceful, remote family vacation in the woods.
Before knowing anything formal or historical about mindfulness and the meaning of being fully aware, I’ve always felt elements of mindfulness at the Cabin. It’s where my mind is most open, and rejuvenated by being surrounded by nature. Many of my best ideas have come to me at the Cabin—removed from the pressure of churning out creative work, it simply flows.
This trip, given the influence of our class, I took a few moments to focus explicitly on awareness—on fully experiencing and perceiving the forest and all its flora and fauna inhabitants. I noticed new things, from a particular bird call to how certain meadows have changed, to how my sense of perceived scale at the cabin has evolved from being a small kid running around dwarfed by big trees to being an (only slightly larger :-) ) adult taking more time to take things in. This ability to find newness after 25+ years of living and being there feels meaningful to me. As I add new perspectives throughout my life, like the new take on mindfulness from this class, I look forward to bringing these perspectives to the cabin and seeing how my experience of the place is changed. The cabin also offers a natural quiet place to reflect on the life I lead day to day somewhere else—currently in Cambridge—and I enjoy this time for personal reassessment of whatever I’ve been working on.
May 17th - Closing journal entry.
While most of my holistic reflections on the class are in my final project, I’d like to share one final vignette—what it felt like sharing minutes of meditation with a full class of people all together in a room. This is something I’ll miss most about the class, and is less easily replicated on my own once the class ends.
At first, it was a bit challenging to buy into the calmness and trust in a situation where I would usually be fully aware of who’s there and what’s happening visually. Having the influence of a military family, we often talk about levels of situational awareness—White, for when you’re at home or entirely safe and can relax without constant vigilance; Yellow, the state you should always be in if out and about in the world, with a sense of engaged perception and awareness of what’s going on around you; Orange, if you’re beginning to sense a threat and are ready with heightened awareness; Red, if you’re actively dealing with an unsafe situation. Yes, it might seem odd that this is threat-based, but hey, it’s about personal safety, and the key is actually the Yellow phase: being fully aware of your surroundings without any worry, but ready for things good and bad. Agreeing to close my eyes when surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know, in a fish-bowl room in a very public building, was not initially a situation I could relax in.
And yet, I bought into the experiment, and learned to love it. I enjoyed the ritual of meditating together—knowing this would be how we start every class, I came to look forward to it. Learning to communally-relax with a group of people and all approach mindfulness in sync had a wonderful community feel and energy to it—something like being in Church, but in a different tradition. I could sense the difference in my body and level of open mindedness before and after the session, and felt that it was a wonderful way to refresh ourselves before diving into philosophical topics. I hope Joi and Tenzin continue to keep this as a core experience of the class.
Thank you, again, for a particularly meaningful course, and best wishes to next year’s cohort!