Reflections on 2009

So it’s that time of year again and, as convention would have it, a convenient moment for reflection on the events of the previous year in the hopes of understanding what has been learned so as to determine what still needs to be learned. This is a habit that has developed over the past three years as it was 2007 which first gave me incentive to reflect and upon doing so I realized that that had been my year of CHANGE. That was the year where I first began to realize that something was desperately wrong with life as a whole and that there was a serious need to try and understand that. This set the stage for the event in 2008 which catalyzed the beginning of the greatest thing that has ever happened to me: the discovery of meditation. This event started a chain reaction which began to take a life of its own and continues to take a central role in my life today. For this reason, I labeled that year as the year of my spiritual awakening, or rebirth (I prefer to avoid using the word awakening as that has connotations of having finished the path whereas the truth of the matter is just the opposite). And now, as I stand on the cusp of this passing decade, at the end of the year 2009, I crane my neck in an effort to integrate all the experiences that I have had during this year into a general theme and to fit this, like a piece of a puzzle, into my overarching path in order to better understand where I actually stand as I venture out into the new decade. The year began with the second term of my third year at UCL, that year presenting for me the greatest academic challenges of my life. This saw me back to my unhealthy habits of smoking and drinking which at the time I was resigned to as the pressures and the stresses of my workload at university offered a semblance of justification for the turning to these substances. University had begun to take on a much more serious role in my life and I was surprised by how much I was growing in response to this. I was starting to develop the habits that would lead me to the successful completion of the year and the successful start of the next academic year. These included spending an average of 5-9 hours a day (more or less) at the library and expanding considerably my work ethic. However, in response to this I required something to offset the stresses incurred in such a lifestyle and this came in the form of substance-taking at night. My days became colored by work and stress and exertion as I really pushed myself to do a good job; and my rewards for those exertions were my relaxed and chilled out nights at home smoking joints or drinking wine. I found this double life that I had begun to lead enormously helpful as it offered me direct incentive to work on the one hand, while at the same time giving me time to wind down and take a break from the exertions of the day and allowing my mind to regenerate for the next day. And, in fact, I found myself fully enjoying both aspects of my lifestyle: the morning was characterized by a refreshed mood of excitement and readiness to work after the lethargy of the previous night, and likewise was the night characterized by tiredness and readiness for chilling after the full day’s work. By far the most important thing to happen to me this year, and arguably one of the most important in my life, was my participation in a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat in Hereford, UK as taught by S.N. Goenka and his assistant teachers in July. At the time of completion of this retreat, I remember thinking to myself that it was the most difficult yet the most important thing I had ever done in my life. The sheer difficulty of it is truly inexpressible and arises from the fact that so many different forms of pain are brought to the surface just by being utterly silent and still for 10 whole days. Physical pain was there in the form of back pain and leg pain which at times would spread into a haze encompassing the whole body in its throbbing and its pulsing, but the mental pain was far worse. This came in the form of intense desires, ugly memories, violent bouts of anger, frustration, anxiety, and pretty much every uncomfortable mental state imaginable. In the midst of all this, it did not feel as though I was doing something helpful at all but I was convinced that this was so by faith alone. The remarkable deepening of my spiritual practice was revealed only after the retreat was over and when I re-entered the world of people. This was when I realized how much more peaceful and at ease I had become. One example of this benefit came the very same day when I left Hereford and returned to London. I had arranged to stay at Carol’s place which was empty and she had left her keys for me with her neighbor. Her neighbor, however, was not at home when I arrived. The time was 9pm and I had nowhere else to stay in London, and this was a situation which would have normally sent me into a fit. Where is she? What am I supposed to do now? I literally had absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go, so I decided to just stand there outside her door and just wait. I didn’t know when she was going to come back, if at all that night. However, it was strange to note how calm I remained the whole time as I just stood there with my bags just waiting around doing nothing. After all, I had been doing just that for the past 10 days. Eventually, she came back after about two hours and gave me the keys and that was the end of that. Another crucial experience which happened to me this year was my journey around the UK which I embarked on immediately after term ended in June with my friend Umeed. We travelled together from Edinburgh to Newcastle to Leeds to Manchester to Liverpool and finally to Cardiff. And we did all that in less than two weeks. At this point he had to leave and travel back to Spain and I continued on my travels for another 10 days or so, travelling from Cardiff to Bristol to Bath to Oxford and finally to Hereford where I sat my 10-day retreat. This journey represented to me my opening up to society and I have a strong feeling that is the fundamental achievement of this whole year, the greatest lesson learned therein. At the start of the trip, I was hesitant to talk to strangers and found the usual shyness and social anxiety creep into me whenever occasion for such socializing arose. I tended to stay very close to Umeed’s vicinity and restricted most of my socializing to him. Or, if chance brought about an encounter with others I felt far more comfortable chatting as a group with Umeed. However, as the trip progressed and our travels took us from city to city, I began to notice the fundamental humanity of all of whom we were brought into contact with. I began to soften up and trust utter strangers much more and began to refrain from negative judgments. And, I found the correlate of this softening on my part in the likewise increased friendliness and kindness in those people with whom I allowed myself to open up. When Umeed left, having to travel without a friend made it even more of an imperative to socialize with people as I no longer had a comfort zone traveling with me. Eventually, towards the end of the journey and after I was left to finish my travels alone, I had learned so much about how to interact with people in a genuine and human way without being intimidated by fears and insecurities. In short, I overcame a large barrier that had existed in me with regards to social situations because of prior life experiences which had molded me into the semi-outcast that I had felt myself to be. One place that this lesson made an impact in my life was my summer in Lebanon in August. It lubricated the many stressful societal interactions that had been required of me there and allowed for a relatively smooth and comfortable summer in the mountains of Lebanon. Many of the strained relationships I had had with members of my family began to even themselves out and settle into easy and civilized versions of their previous states, especially so with my parents. My relationship with my Dad evolved from the ego-rivalry that used to dominate our interactions into a civil and respectful and gentle relationship as we both softened our mode of dealing with each other. This lesson showed up again later when I moved into my new flat in Marble Arch in September with three complete strangers as an easy and comfortable development of a sincere and tender bond of friendship with all of them. October and November were dominated by a reversion to the pattern developed in the previous year of working fiendishly during the days and relaxing and chilling out during the nights. However, one crucial difference between the two years was the sense of an academic upgrade that I felt had taken place. I was being treated by my lecturers and other staff members as a researcher and no longer as a reckless and irresponsible undergraduate. There was a definite change of atmosphere around UCL with regards to my status as a student. Evolving out of this sense was the powerful motivation to enter into academia as a PhD researcher contributing to the field of regenerative medicine, my interest in which was suddenly and greatly provoked. This led to the decision to apply for PhD’s in California for stem cell research and the stressful resultant process that saw me take an exam, scramble about for recommendations, fill out applications, request transcripts, among other things and all within a one-and-a-half-month timeframe. Part of this year’s lesson was the important idea that one does not have to go and enter into the monastic lifestyle permanently in order to attain spiritual awakening. I had been clinging to that idea because of a misguided belief that staying in society was going to become impossible for me because of the impossibility of my being able to communicate and socialize with everybody else. However, after my journey in June and my retreat in July, I realized that it is entirely possible to stay, at least for a little while longer, and that in doing so it would be possible to meet new people and cultivate beautiful new friendships and potentially learn so much from these interactions. So I replaced my fear and distrust of society with a more open and forgiving and loving and accepting attitude, and this led to my decision to pursue a career which would at least be a noble one, even if not as noble as that of being a mendicant. While keeping with the academic subject, it is perhaps worthwhile to note another important discovery that I made recently as of this writing, in December. This pertains to the discovery of Schopenhauer’s philosophy which has radically changed the landscape of my intellectual pursuits and galvanized the intense interest and my re-entry into the world of philosophy and the possibility of philosophy clarifying thought and yielding truth. The amazing thing about Schopenhauer and his philosophy is the remarkable affinity it has with my own intuitive and latent beliefs about the world and about truth. What has been so empowering for me is that his philosophy presents an organized and coherent integration of all of these in my mind which had up to that point been scattered about and without any lucidity or congruity. In order to weave all of this together, it suffices to say that this year represents to me my year of opening up to people. I have within me now a newfound appreciation and even love for people that transcends all of my and their insecurities and allows for meaningful and genuine connections with them. This has deflated some of the problems that it had seemed my life was full of in considering how hard it was going to be to remain in society and relaxed the tensions that existed in me because of that. Where does all of this leave me as I approach this coming new year and new decade? One thought that I want to carry with me as I make this crossover is that perhaps acceptance is all that is really needed. Too much stress and too much suffering seem to come about with the application of so-called effort. I have reached the stage where I’m not sure if I even believe it is in my power to exert willful effort freely. It is better that I let go of these notions of “how it should be” and “how I should act” and just surrender to the will of God, and let His holy grace fall upon me when it will. This whole path that I have been walking for the past two years has progressed by its own power, something outside of my control, and from the start has assumed a life of its own. So, perhaps I should learn from this and just finally and fully surrender to life, nature, God, the Universe, and what powers that be that guide the flow of our interconnected lives and just LET IT BE. Too much stress is generated otherwise and this has been the fundamental difficulty of my path so far, this so-called balance that needs to be struck between Acceptance and Effort. My mind has always insisted to me that these two are mutually exclusive and contradictory and there is no balance to be struck between them. It is one or the other, make your pick. Well, I am picking now and I hereby choose for this coming year, for better or for worse, to finally surrender myself and to just accept absolutely whatsoever happens to come my way. That is my only intention, for to claim any others would be hypocrisy.

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