#stillness #awareness #beingpresent #flow
I’ve had what feels to be a very busy week. To the point where I feel almost perpetually exhausted. I think my brain has not had much stillness, so I ‘yearn’ for some peaceful mental stillness.
What stood out to me a lot from our conversation this past week was our discussion on what it means to be aware. Initially, I was thinking self-awareness is understanding ‘why’ you feel a certain way or do certain things. However, another perspective on it is seeing awareness as being tuned-in to the present, rather than being immersed in the past or future.
“Are you thinking about the piece of tangerine you’re about to put in your mouth, or the one that’s already in your mouth?” - Joi Ito
Last night, as I needed to complete some work, it occurred to me that thoughts (and especially worries) about the future can detract from focusing on what needs to be accomplished in the present. While it was at first difficult to settle down and focus, I eventually found myself in a state of flow. I wonder, does being in a state of flow overlap with being present? Or are they opposites? A state of flow is often described as a period of time where you lose your sense of self, time and space; does being present mean you have to be acutely aware of yourself and your present sensory experience?
On Thursday, I noticed that the moment I had to wait for something, I automatically found something to look at rather than wait and do nothing. I wondered why. Do our brains simply crave stimulation? Does society condition us to think we must always be doing something productive? Boredom, seems to be something that people generally find unpleasant. I think this may be part of the reason why people have the habit of checking their phones several times a day. The moment the feeling of boredom starts to creep in, phones offer an almost instant form of relief.
Some days I’m so focused on getting through my to-do list that it feels as though the whole day passes by where I’m just living inside my head. Now that I’m trying to be more present in my day-to-day experiences, it kind of happens in brief moments sprinkled throughout the day (but mostly when I’m walking between places on campus). I get a picture in my head of myself swimming and every so often remembering to lift my head out of the water to take a breath.
“Have a good day on purpose!” - Stephanie - ONTPD
I really loved this message that was posted by Stephanie Nguyen on our ONTPD channel. If I spend my whole day trying to get through a checklist, it often ends up not being that satisfying. I’m not sure why - shouldn’t it be, especially if I really finish everything I mean to? Perhaps this is because (1) my to-do list might be full of items to take care of for my classes or work, but doesn’t often include some activities outside of that which I might do for no other reason than it’s fun (2) there’s normally still more to do anyway #gradschoollife24/7. This quote reminded me that I can (and perhaps should) set aside time each day (on purpose!) to do something that truly makes my heart sing. Especially if I consider the idea that each day is a gift, and not necessarily guaranteed anyways.
2019-02-22 | #zoomingout #stillness
Today I went on a really interesting excursion to the MIT Museum storage facility. The conditions were mild and controlled to help preserve artifacts that were created before my time, with the intention that they will continue to persist for generations to come.
There was a sense of stillness that hung in the air. And with it, a sense of peace.
All these things, once born in the midst of inspired fervour - now sit quietly next to each other - meticulously stowed away upon rows of towering shelves. Artifacts of countless people who dared to dream, sit dutifully with a hushed kind of energy, waiting to tell stories of their creators gone by.
It triggered a feeling that is hard to articulate. It lended a zoomed-out birds-eye-view and perspective on a state of humanity. It’s easy to be caught up in the frenzy of day-to-day life, but at the end we all seem to come and go, and our stories, as rich as they are, still keep many secrets that seem locked away in the things we leave behind.
Last class, we were asked to reflect on whether or not we think every relationship is transactional. We were also asked to reflect on the I-It, I-You, I-Thou relationships. I had a discussion with a friend after class. My thoughts were leaning towards the idea that all relationships are transactional, stemming from what I consider to be at the core of a transaction - an exchange.
Even if we do something subconsciously, such as twirl a pen in our fingers - we impart energy to the pen, and the pen provides us with some kind of stimulation or relief. Does that qualify as a transaction? Do both parties need to feel or benefit from an interaction in order for there to be an exchange? Between people and pets, we as people give our pets food and shelter, and in exchange we have their company and companionship. Between friends, we can consider our interactions as ‘transactional,’ whether we treat each other to coffees or get some emotional fulfillment through chatting. In class, we also considered the case of donating to charity: if we donate anonymously, such that we do not get a thank-you that we would get otherwise - does this make it non-transactional in nature? What if the person who provides the donation, still gets a good feeling knowing that they have done something to help someone else? I think that we as humans can often construct meaning from our experiences, and that if we reflect on our interactions with other beings, creatures and things in our world, we can often deduce that a transaction occurred, whether we were conscious of it or not.
I tried Qigong for the first time the other week (2019/02/26). I really enjoyed it. Through the coaching of the instructor, I felt more comfortable and in tune with the sensations of my body. In hindsight, I on one hand realized that I easily neglect the sensations of my body throughout the day (for instance, ignoring how I might tense up in my body when I’m working on something). On the other hand, I learned that for me, paying attention and not only really tuning-in to the sensations of my body but more importantly accepting how I feel is a very liberating experience, and one that can even give me a feeling of elation, gratitude, and connection/presence to the world.
I’m not sure how to neatly summarize or string together the take-aways I had from the experience; nevertheless, I hope to jot down at least some of the thoughts I had had from it:
I liked that we didn’t have to actively try to “correct” and “adjust” our bodies, but we could just listen to our bodies and “feel.” I think this was a real breakthrough for me. With other physical/meditative practices, I normally felt stressed or frustrated when I couldn’t move a certain way. But this was really embracing the state of my body, rather than fighting it. This really gave me a feeling of self-care.
I also appreciated that we didn’t need to move or do anything that would cause a scare for the body/mind. Instead we were to simply move in a way that we felt comfortable, in control, and in a feeling of trust with our bodies.
In the process, the instructor gave us some imagery that really helped me to ease into the experience. Early in the session, he asked us to imagine that our bodies, being composed largely of water, are hydraulic in nature. When moving and transferring our weight side to side, we should feel as though fluid is flowing through us, and we were told just to experience (feel) this sensation and transfer of mass.
Another image given to us was that of honey in a bottle. As we try to relax our whole bodies, we can imagine that our insides are almost like honey. I felt this imagery was particularly helpful for me to slowly work through the different parts of my body from head to toe, and really feel tension working itself out of me and being released. This also helped me to truly savour and enjoy the slow motions, with no feeling of needing to rush anywhere.
He told us to feeling ‘bouncy’ in our hips. This kind of made me laugh, because he also made us think of happy babies in jolly-jumpers. But it helps to be aware of the tension we may carry in our hips - not only our shoulders and necks.
The ground is not something we have to aggressively push away or resist. Rather, we can feel how it supports us. We worked to feel how we can root ourselves into the ground and in the process absorb additional stability and strength.
I’m easing into my practice of yoga. I’ve never really gotten into it before, so I thought that in this class I can give it a sincere go. I think what I’m carrying into it this time is what I picked up from Qigong - I am not going to demand better performance during the exercises. Rather, I’m going to focus on listening to the state of my body and generating a wholesome feeling.
I think in my few previous tries with yoga, I was often getting frustrated with my inability to achieve certain poses. But this time I’m just going to do and observe and adjust for what feels alright for me. I anticipate that this may be something that changes from day-to-day.
However, I do recognize that it’s difficult to approach an activity such as this without expectations. Is it even a good to try to do so? I think that this will make me embrace the activity more. I guess the quiet wish in my head is that I will see improvement in terms of my strength, balance and range of motion if I keep this up as a daily practice. How should one go about freeing oneself of such a wish? Is there ever truly a wish that is completely disentangled from expectation?
There were a couple of things that struck me this week. For one, the sun is shining and it’s finally starting to feel like spring is on its way. Even as I write this, the sun is shining on me and it feels like a warm embrace. I never really saw myself as one to have the winter-blues, but I suppose being in a ‘new’ place - away from the familiar company of family and friends, coupled with prolonged periods of dark, cold and slush - took a toll on me for the past few months. There was a moment this week when I stepped outside into the morning sun and I just felt so much joy in my chest. It’s like with the sun and warmth came some hope for many beautiful and cherished days ahead.
Another thing that I realized this week was how much I value and am driven by progress. Having been asked to reflect on what our values, drivers are, as well as what our emotional landscapes are like, it occurred to me that progress on its own is something I find very motivating, and something that can help erode anxiety. Of course it’s a great feeling trying something new and already feeling like I have a knack for it. But it’s also great when I know that I’m improving, and better yet, about as quick as I can. I think I’m pretty driven to strive for improvement in just about everything that I do, and I get a lot of joy to see efforts pay off. I wonder if other people are similarly hooked on this experience, or if its something particular I’ve adopted from my own set of prior experiences.
However, in the spirit of questioning things more deeply, what about those tasks in which improvement is not necessarily guaranteed, or something that can be measured or tracked? For instance, in many ways, research work invites a more ambiguous relationship with progress. As outcomes are not guaranteed, what is the healthiest perspective to adopt for such endeavours? For me so far, a focus on learning and skillset building has been fruitful in the face of anxieties about the potential extrinsic outcomes tied to academic work. Perhaps this is an attitude I adopt with everything - even if the extrinsic outcome is not guaranteed, there is some comfort thinking that in the end, the race is with myself.
I feel like the Media Lab is a great place to try to learn about oneself. Both inside this class and outside of it, I find that I’ve been forced to dig deep to try to uncover whatever it is I can call my core. The fact that there is so much going on each day forces me to prioritize, because there is simply not enough time to engage in every single thing that is going on at AND crush whatever it is I’ve “decided” my mission is (the quotes are crucial here). On one hand, I absolutely feel an immense sense of gratitude for the sheer number of opportunities that are abound. On the other hand, it also gives me the sense that I’m always missing out on something really important! Ok - so I just bothered to google this and this is definitely an existing concept - FOMO - fear of missing out.
In psychological terms, FOMO is a cognitive bias defined as the fear experienced by individuals when faced with the thought that they might miss out on a social occasion, a new experience, a profitable investment or a satisfying event (Przybylski, Murayama, DeHaan & Gladwell, 2013).
To navigate this landscape, I’ve both asked myself and have literally been face-to-face confronted with the question “Who are you, really?” A friend of mine said something that I found so hilarious because I felt it was so true - being here can be like a “second puberty”. Hello identity crisis, didn’t we just bump into each other the other day?
I’ve been having some really fascinating discussions with a mentor of mine. Today, I feel a bit of relief when we went through an exercise to try to temporarily circumvent the part of my brain that wants to rationalize or reason about things, to try to uncover what my subconscious may want to say. Ah, it is a very taxing exercise that made me break out into a sweat. But hopefully, I can exercise that muscle to understand what my actual wants are, and how to let them be a compass that can lead me to live a fulfilling life.
I’m trying my practice at different times in the day. Today, I did so in the morning, and I enjoyed greeting the day like this. The instructor said a few things that stuck out to me, and that I want to carry forward. The first idea is that I might as well start the day with moving my body to feel connected and comfortable in it, in a way that gets my blood flowing, and in a way that makes me cheerful and excited. Why just roll out of bed without feeling joy and excitement? Another thing is to take time each day to connect with my body, as much as I take time to do other things for my health - like brushing my teeth. Lastly, I resonated with the idea to set an intention for the day:
“The more you set your intention, the more your can manifest those good things into your life. Bring your hands to your head for clarity of thought, bring your hands on your lips for clarity of speech, and bring your hands to your heart for clarity of action.” - Koya
I took a moment to reflect on this. How many times do I go about my day on some kind of auto-pilot? I realized that many times, but perhaps especially in the mornings(?), I experience an anxiety build up in the pit of stomach. It doesn’t feel good. I then start to do things swept up in this uneasy feeling, and I think that this might take-away from how I engage with the people and things going on around me. I want to try to work on just engaging with life with open arms, and without so many bouts of stressful energy.
Somehow I think I need to find a balance that sits somewhere between setting an intention for what I want my day to be like (e.g. positive, bright, with love, laughter and good will), and also embracing that there will always be things popping up; even though everything might seem like an emergency or worrisome at the time, what I’ve worried about usually has a way of working itself out in time. Can I just learn to roll with the waves, rather than being gripped by stress or anxiety when they come my way?
I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be working from home this week. It’s been filling my soul so much. I realized this week that I am so grateful to have a “home base” - a family to go home to. Now that I’ve been living on my own for a while, I realize just how BIG the “little things” are. After waking up the other morning, I noticed a plate was left on the kitchen table for me - breakfast - a slice of bread with jam and butter. As a kid, I took this for granted. However now the sight of this made my heart swell with such love and gratitude. I am so, so lucky.
It’s so easy to get caught up in thoughts about the future and the past. It’s like if you sit in front of the television screen on a sleepy day, and you close your eyes for a moment — when you open them again, something has switched the channel on you — except you don’t really feel the need to protest, you just kind of find yourself engrossed in the next film flickering in front of your eyes. Sometimes I imagine that leaving the brain on auto-pilot is akin to this, whereas working on being more aware is like building up the curiosity to ask who’s in charge of the program and eventually realizing you can even get up off the couch.
Sometimes, I think it’s so silly that you could be in the same chair, typing at the same laptop but the feeling you have in your chest is a world apart depending on what you think will be happening somewhen in the future. The term “Sunday Blues” comes to mind, when a good 50% of the weekend is semi-spoilt by the fact that Monday comes afterwards. How great would it be to be so engrossed in the present that you can just revel in the gorgeousness of this very moment. This would mean thoroughly enjoying 100% of the weekend and would be a big gain!
In the past month or so, I’ve been trying to catch when “I’m making” my body uncomfortable. There’s this term that’s been bouncing around in my head - “being a head on a stick.” I’m not sure why, but I’m a little bit wary that I may indeed be going about my day like a head on a stick. Living life all in my head?
So far, I’d describe my experience here as being a bit of roller coaster. There’s been plenty of ups and downs, surprise turns, and external forces pushing and pulling me in all sorts of directions. I think this metaphor is appropriate, because I’ve been noticing every so often how I can get physically tense when I’m thinking of or doing things that “stress me out” as I go about my days.
It’s got me thinking - life will always have surprise twists and turns. So perhaps it’s my choice how I’m going to deal with it. Gasp and laugh with my arms in the air? Or barrel down with white knuckles on the lap bar? When I’m on a rollercoaster, it’s definitely more fun to just roll with the ride - screaming and releasing tension when I get that-stomach-feeling, and turning to face into the curves - rather than using every muscle in my body to sit still and resist all the forces. Frankly, the picture I have in my head of someone trying to sit rigidly in their seat on a rollercoaster makes me want to laugh. So how laughable is it to be doing that on the rollercoaster of life?
Maybe it has something to do with the idea I have that I have control. I suppose if I thought I need to steer the rollercoaster, I would absolutely be gripping the bar rather than leaving it up to chance whether the cart will derail. So I wonder, how much control do I actually have on the “rollercoaster” of life? Based on experience, some things I’ve had “some control” over, and others, I have not. How does one walk the line between steering v.s. feeling the wind trace through one’s hair and fingers?
I was so captivated by the tales of the guest speaker Nainoa Thompson who joined us during our last classroom session. His stories invoked in me a feeling so reminiscent of my childhood wonder…
One particular thought he left us with, and which my brain has been trying to process was understanding when to look away. He had mentioned that sunrise is a very difficult time of day for him - that looking at the sunrise too long makes him tired. My brain first glossed over this, but then it sunk in. Reflecting on these words, I realized that I too, feel a wave of tiredness wash over me when trying to take in certain views, such as the early morning sunrise, or a vast landscape. Prior to hearing this, I had always assumed that this had to do with a flaw in my sleeping patterns or circadian rhythm. However, this thought triggered me to reflect on my physical experiences not from an angle of resistance or self-judgement, but rather from an angle of genuine curiosity and acceptance, almost like a third-party observer.
This seemed to draw a parallel to a conversation I had had with a mentor of mine. She explained that for certain kinds of texts, trying to read them makes her feel sleepy. I’ve experienced this before, but before she had told me this, I thought something was pretty off about me! She went on to explain that with the unique structure of our brains, certain types of topics or content may cause the brain to light up with activity, while other types of content may not trigger as much of a reaction, making it difficult to focus on it for long…
Frankly, this realization feels very liberating, like it has opened up a whole new world for me. It’s as if I now have permission to accept how I may be, and actually try to tune into myself with curiosity, self-love and acceptance. Understanding and accepting oneself can be key to performing at one’s best. It’s a breath of fresh air.
You become the wave.” - Nainoa
His words took us down a fascinating path of discussion on the concept of knowledge. To “become the wave” - is this a state few of us will ever come to relate to? Or can it be interpreted as a form of intuition? Through an accumulation of experiences, we can develop an intuition for things — a type of knowledge that we can rely on, but cannot necessarily put into words. We were told tales of a navigator who as a child was subjected to many forms of water. Water was a medium he grew up with, and in time, he could understand the wave to such a degree that it needed no further explanation, as if the separation of “I and it” had collapsed into one.
For the rest of us who have not grown up with such intimate ties to Nature, could it mean that we lack such depth of intuition? I like to think that we all likely have some inner knowledge and intuition that we may not be conscious of, which can be seemingly as mysterious and magical to an outsider as the Navigator’s knowledge is to me.
If that is the case, what is my medium? Can it be generalized — that growing up in the wave of “digital and social media” has made it the medium I have come to know and be fluent in? Somehow it seems plausible, but the idea doesn’t resonate with me. Computing came to me at a young age, but it wasn’t quite there at the beginning. Early forms of social media reared its head when I was a child in school. I wonder whether it’s different for people who have really never known a world in which people could not always be contacted via smartphones, or that calling a person and browsing the internet were mutually exclusive options at any one time. It’s amusing to consider.
I think I draw my greatest understanding of tacit knowledge from my experience playing sports. I can interpret where I need to be, how to angle my body, how to strike a ball - but it is not something I can easily verbalize, if at all. Professional athletes often learn from a young age, and even when they’re on the world circuit, it’s not easy for them to pass over their knowledge to another. Coaches can do a wonderful job in helping someone acquire the intuition to excel at a sport. Nevertheless, it takes a good coach as well as true hands-on experience to ever really understand how to play.
Nainoa mentioned the reverence students held for their mentors, who often relied on raw experiences (rather than reduced the knowledge through symbols) as a means to transfer such tacit forms of knowledge. I appreciate my mentors so greatly as well, who have guided me through various in-the-dirt experiences. However, this seems to contrast against the backdrop of more formal academic school systems. We have a hard time explaining how our body should move, and yet we have some physical understanding of the laws of physics that govern the world. So what place does our education need to take to make the most of the tacit and explicit knowledge that the human race has come to bear?
It’s interesting to think of how tacit knowledge passed on through tradition fits into our world today. It seems as though the landscape in which we live in reflects a colourful kaleidoscope of beliefs and practices, ranging from “pseudo-science” to the “scientifically sound”. Sometimes science must advance to unearth a truth, and other times certain practices should better remain a thing of the past. So what should we do when we cannot prove something? And what should we make of things when we must acknowledge that even our models and formulas have their limits?
I’ve had a number of thoughts swimming around in my head:
Does tradition become less impactful when the world is quickly changing? Can it be that older knowledge becomes less applicable with each new generation in a digitally-augmented age?
Except in more liberal domains such as the arts, our culture appears to crave answers and closure, and is less comfortable with the unknown. Perhaps this ties into a broader human condition.
Should we make an effort to preserve certain practices when there is no clear scientific evidence for them?
What is our responsibility to others, when our practice involves one body of knowledge, yet our beliefs lie with another? It’s alarming if the “models we sell” are things that we don’t necessarily believe in and practice on ourselves (e.g. a doctor who practices modern medicine but still chooses to use alternative forms for him/herself). Perhaps we should be particularly wary when there are potential conflicts of interest.
I’ve become increasingly attuned to how I feel to live alone. I realized I had become so accustomed to having company to go home to, that the difference is pretty palpable. I don’t know what it is about it. Even if we don’t talk, the sound of clinking plates or the murmur of a conversation coming from another room had a soothing quality to it. Why do I miss it? Is it my brain stem telling me I’m safe in numbers? Is it simply because my norm has been disturbed?
Every so often I ponder the concept of change. It seems to me that it is a human condition to largely dislike uncertainty. Therefore, we spend a vast and almost excessive amount of time in our lives trying to make things certain. Since we can’t actually ever guarantee that anything will happen for sure, we just try very hard to increase or decrease the probability for things to happen. When something had once worked, but doesn’t work again, it can be very jarring.
We should “save for a rainy day” but we should also enjoy the moment. Where does it make sense to draw the line between the two? Is it even necessary to draw a line, or is that an illusion? To me, it seems that the more earth rotations I experience, the more applicable the saying “everything in moderation” seems to be.
Where does this fit in though with the concept of mindfulness? I find that if I’m not paying attention to my thoughts, it’s easy to slip into some kind of probability-mode way of thinking — the one that is trying to manage uncertainty. What do I need to do? When must I finish that by? What will happen if I “mess that up”? Will it work? Such thoughts seem to be fairly practical when it comes to working in a high-pressure environment. However, I think that it can easily become a habit and develop into a taxing background process that flies under the radar while consuming lots of energy.
I think a big part of mindfulness is discovering those background processes. However, is it also part of the mindfulness exercise to gain some control over which ones are running? Or is the will and effort to control it yet another background process?
Tending to worry is the brain-equivalent for being the very hungry caterpillar. The brain can go around, eating through many various thoughts. However at the end of the day, it’s pretty exhausted and still feels very, very hungry. Except — I’m not sure if a metamorphosis results from this activity as it does for our classic caterpillar friend.
There are plenty of interesting sayings that float around on the topic of worry. I’ll offer a sprinkling of quotes that are at the very least amusing to read:
“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”
– Swedish Proverb
“That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”
– Chinese Proverb
I noticed that things that are in hindsight small, can at times have a way of growing in size and scariness as my brain attends to it. If I dwell on it too much, it has the ability to puff up and make itself seem more dangerous than it is. It’s almost like a bird of worry indeed builds a nest in my hair. Some days, I swear I can see this nest when I look in the mirror. It’s a great exercise then to challenge myself with this:
“If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.”
– E. Joseph Cossman
Honestly, many times not even two weeks has gone by before I have completely forgotten what I was worrying about, but instead, I’m completely aware of what is a troublesome thing now!
“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.”
– Dale Carnegie
Undoubtedly, some degree of thinking into the future is practical and beneficial. However, perhaps there is a fine line between having your brain in careful-planning-mode and versus worrying-mode. I think worrying-mode can be characterized by exhaustion that comes with simulating future possibilities and fixating particularly on what could go wrong. Not only is it exhausting, but it can steal joy from the present moment. So how does one avoid crossing over into that territory while at the same time trying to be responsible?
It reminds me of the discussion we had had in class about the difference between shame and guilt . While shame in one religion is considered to be “virtuous,” guilt on the other hand (defined as dwelling in shame) is not. Similarly, the story we were told of the warrior shot by a poison arrow comes to mind. The warrior could certainly ask in that moment - “What type of wood and feathers is the arrow made from? Who shot the arrow? Was the person riding a horse or was he or she on foot?” However, in that moment not all these questions are helpful. Worrying takes on a similar tone wherein the brain can be active, but it might not be asking the right questions.