Reflections on 2011

It is the 31st of December, according to human convention signifying the final day of the year 2011 and offering a fitting moment for reflection on all that has taken place during these tumultuous 12 months. This exercise has proven to be a fruitful one to perform at this time. It consolidates the major events of the year and records these in a systematic manner, which allows for an extraction of general themes and lessons that the Universe may have been guiding me towards. 2007 was the year where a powerful internal force reared its head and began to catalyze my inner transformations. 2008 was the birth of the spiritual side of me. 2009 was the year that opened me up to society and rekindled my inner love and trust for people. 2010 was the maturation of acceptance into equanimity. It appears that the major overarching lesson of this year is two-fold, or perhaps only appears to be so, being unified in the underlying core. Let us take a brief look at the various notable events and experiences that characterize this chapter of my life and see if we will be aided in the task of extracting and understanding the lesson I am intended to learn.

The year started off under severe duress regarding my uncertainty about transitioning into the psychology degree and working with Ladan. I was at that time attending her lab meetings and trying to get a foot in the door but all the while hesitating due to feelings of inadequacy and insufficient background knowledge. I had submitted an application to the extremely competitive psychology PhD program at UCLA in order to be able to join Ladan’s lab and secure funding from her but had yet to hear back from them. Soon enough, however, I received news that I had been accepted, and I rejoiced. This was the first indication that my desire to pursue psychology was not foolhardy. Immediately following receipt of this news, Ladan officially welcomed me to her lab and provided me with an office space amongst the other graduate students. These two events together gave me a much-needed external verification for my ability to undergo the transition that I sought.

The following few months were characterized by my finding myself getting more settled in to my new work environment and status as a graduate member of the VMP lab. I remember the first task Ladan gave me was to use my engineering skills to do some research and come up with a shopping list for several items of hardware that we intended to purchase, including a TV, a printer, a computer, and so forth. I remember finding this funny as people seemed to assume that engineers were all electrical engineers or somehow all had technical knowledge regarding electronics, which couldn’t be farther from the subject matter of what I had studied in biochemical engineering. Despite that, I did the task fast and to the best of my ability and promptly sent back an organized and ordered list of items I had found and considered to be good buys.

Finding out that I had been accepted into the psych program led me to start to take some classes that would count towards my psychology degree, including Neuroanatomy and Perception. The former of these I found especially enlightening. In fact, this had been a class that I had wanted to take for a very long time. It was such an exhilarating feeling for me to finally be learning about all the different parts of the brain in a systematic manner from a professor that was so remarkably adept at the task of teaching this vast subject in such a short amount of time. I can say that it was probably the hardest academic course I have ever taken and simultaneously the most rewarding. It was a truly amazing period of time where an internal flame that had been recently kindled seemed to burn joyously at the study of a subject I so deeply respected. I was astonished at how voraciously I consumed the material I was assigned and how easily I committed it to memory. It seemed as if I had been born to study the brain, and still does. May it continue to be so!

Riding the apex of this euphoria and finally feeling the fulfillment of studying a subject I loved, I celebrated the spring break with an old friend from Lebanon, namely Mark. I had felt burned out at the incredible fast pace of the material of the quarter I had just finished and needed a way to defuse the inner turbulence. Unfortunately, though the manner of my celebration is what many would consider to be the optimal and ideal way to end the quarter, it represented for me a large hurdle along my path and ended up doing far greater harm than good. He had decided to fly over to LA from Boston to meet up with me and take me along for a drive to Las Vegas to party for a week with his brother and a large group of his friends. This ended up being a week of constant intoxication and gambling and general debauchery, all of which sent me back to the Stone Age as far as my spiritual path is concerned. The primary trouble I felt during this trip was an inability to relate to the people with whom I was sharing my time. I continuously felt like a stranger, unable to participate in conversations that didn’t interest me, unwilling to make small talk or gossip, and never using the tone of voice that imparts the desire that others listen that is required in order for people to even take notice. In short, this was the first realization that I am better off alone than spending time with people with whom I cannot relate and who will be bad influences on me, despite my being fairly well shielded against such influences.

The following quarter in school proceeded much like the previous and culminated in my having to write several very challenging papers as the final assignment for the classes I had enrolled in. I remember being extremely stressed out by these and having to upgrade my time management skills in order to cope with the workload. The end result was three very polished and well-composed papers that I am very happy to have written and received high marks for. Two of these required me to propose experiments and the process of thinking through these turned out to be a very big aid to my research, which had been stagnating due to my lack of success at coming up with an idea for a project that my supervisor was satisfied with. In addition, this was the first time that I was taking classes with my lab-mates and this was a very powerful bonding experience for us to be sharing classes and working through assignments together. It made me feel like I was really a part of the team.

Regarding my stagnation concerning research, I had been brainstorming a lot during the time since I joined the lab, but nothing that I came up with had any experimental value. Despite that, I tried many things and experimented with a variety of research options. I finally settled on what is known as the rubber hand illusion, which I am currently working on. I succeeded in inducing this on my lab-mates in a makeshift setup that I contrived out of bits of pieces that I found lying around in the lab, along with a rubber hand that I purchased online. However, this was a mere replication, so I began to think of new and innovative ways to study it that had not been attempted yet. In addition to this experimental side, I also wanted to do some modeling work and so I came up with an extrapolation of Ladan’s causal inference model that extended the mathematics to both time and space, in a manner that made it directly relevant to the rubber hand illusion. The only problem was that there were too many free parameters and not enough data points to constrain the model. Therefore, it was no more than a castle, albeit an elegant one, floating in the air. As summer started and I prepared to devote myself entirely to research, I began working on a design for a box that would allow me to achieve better control and rigor in my version of the rubber hand illusion.

However, summer had come and with it the time for renewal and deepening of my path. So, I took some time off and did my annual Goenka retreat in the newly opened center in Joshua Tree, a beautiful desert landscape surrounded by jagged edge mountains, some of which are snow-capped. The whole area is secluded and wide open and is the perfect spot to have a meditation retreat. This proved to be a very powerful one for me, especially as regards the law of impermanence. I felt myself getting closer and closer to a true insight about this law that I have known intellectually for some time now. The other main thing I remember taking away from this retreat comes from having grown so much in my neuroscience knowledge and how much this complemented my meditation practice. I was interpreting all of the teachings and practices from the point of view of the brain and what regions in the brain were involved, bringing my newfound neuroanatomical knowledge to bear on the issue of what meditation does in the context of the brain. I came away from the retreat a completely renewed and rejuvenated person. I was recommitted to the path and the intention to sobriety and the continuous perfecting of sila, samadhi, and panna. My intoxicating habits withered away and remained so for quite some time before resurfacing as they always do. Another powerful result of this retreat was that I was able to sit the one-hour morning and one-hour evening sits that my teacher instructed me to for a good amount of time following the retreat, about a month or so. After this, my sits began to gradually get shorter and shorter.

After the retreat, I returned to my daily lab routine for a few weeks until my parents visited me with my brother and sister, which was very nice as I had not seen them in over a year. While they were around I balanced out my work with spending time with them by working half days and touring the city with them afterwards. Still enraptured by my meditational serenity, I was all of the sudden inspired to get a tattoo that would serve as a reminder to meditate daily. However, I knew that this would not receive my parents’ blessing so I decided to do it while they were visiting in order for them to witness my seriousness about it and be convinced that I was doing it for a good reason. I think they still have their misgivings about it, but they eventually acquiesced and accompanied me to the tattoo shop where I got it done. Part of the reason for the decision came from a deeper appreciation of the law of impermanence. One of the main arguments people always make against tattoos is that they are permanent, whereas the truth is blatantly the opposite of this. Recognizing the impermanence and ever-changing phenomena of this world leads one to stop getting attached to things being a certain way. People are generally resistant to change on a subconscious level and that is what repels them from the whole idea of a tattoo. Nevertheless, there are also potentially unwholesome reasons for getting a tattoo such as wanting to beautify the body and attract the attention of others, making an ego-building game out of this. My fear that these may have been my true subliminal motives was what prevented from getting a tattoo prior to this year, even though I have wanted one for a long time. But, it was the firmness of my intention to meditate and have my tattoo be a cue for such that facilitated my transcending these fears and following through with it. In fact, my detachment and indifference towards the world of matter is evidenced by my complete impulsivity as regards the actual picture I wanted imprinted into my skin. It was the second or third version of my first instinctive sketch that I drew that I settled on without much thought at all and virtually no hesitation. A previous version of me, one far more attached and vain would have pondered for hours on end and considered many different drawings and ideas before settling and would have been distressed by second thoughts and regrets.

After my parents left, I began to finally settle on a concrete idea for a first project to perform in the VMP lab involving a very straightforward application of the rubber hand illusion with a minor difference designed to reveal something of fundamental importance, which had nonetheless been overlooked in the literature. Meanwhile, before the summer ended and the fall quarter of the new academic year started, I decided to serve a three-day course in the Joshua Tree meditation center. I had never before served and so thought that this would be a good opportunity. It truly was and definitely taught me the value of serving as my path was strengthened as a result and my diligence and discipline grew. Also, a spirit of humble service was born within me that helped tie my lofty pursuits to the earth and deflated much of the ego that had been unduly generated out of the practice. This was the mark of one more lesson, though minor, namely that I am here to serve. All my efforts are ultimately for the happiness of all beings.

Impermanence, however, takes center stage as the major lesson of this year and manifested itself primarily in the death of two of my friends. First was the death of Paz, a friend from college with whom I had not been terribly close, but still shared many memories with and news of whose death came as quite a shock. More difficult, however, was receiving news that Simba, by beloved friend and cat, had been hit by a car on one of his nightly prowls and died. This was very hard for me to bear, especially as I had been looking forward to the winter break when I would see him again and had forged a very deep and powerful love bond with him when I had last spent time with him. This dealt such a heavy blow that it triggered a relapse into my intoxicating habits and as a result made my meditation suffer enormously. I am still in the throes of the trough that I sank to since hearing of his passing and have only just started to rise up again as of a few weeks ago. It was a bitter potion that taught me a violent lesson about the way of the world and the law of nature. “Impermanent, alas, are all formations”. Another manifestation of this lesson comes externally from the winds of change that have blown suddenly and unexpectedly through the Middle East and have toppled regime after regime via the revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring. Finally, towards the end of this year, my vision has begun to worsen, noticeably blurring at long distances. I got this checked out and was very depressed to learn that I had developed a deficit of half a degree in each eye, myopia in the left and astigmatism in the right. I had a hard time accepting this especially as I have always had eagle’s eyes and could always see farther then anyone else with great lucidity. That this was deteriorating now was a sobering mark of the passage of time and the steady march towards death. So much drastic change is taking place all around us and we had better come to terms with this sooner rather than later. This is the bitter potion that I have reluctantly had to swallow from the scorching bronze cup that Nature’s loving hand brings forth for my betterment.

As the new academic year started, I was thrust forcefully into many social situations designed to lubricate the entry of the incoming graduate class in the psychology department. I was officially a first-year psychology graduate student, but was in my second year of graduate study at UCLA. So, I found myself in a unique situation, but decided to give social life a chance. It was slow to start but I eventually ended up making many new friends and had several outings with them, which I found very enjoyable. During this time, Seto visited me for a week and it was a great pleasure to see him again. This upswing in my social activities was another hurdle on my path as it encouraged more substance abuse and discouraged solitude and tranquility. This reinforced the secondary lesson of the year, namely that I am better off alone, and need some time for my practice to grow steady and unwavering and for the soft-stemmed plant that trembles at the slightest fluttering of a butterfly’s wings to grow hard and rooted. Therefore, it requires a thick concrete shielding and a secluded spot in the sun, both of which I can provide by dedicating myself to my work and my newfound hobby.

This last refers to my getting completely absorbed in the world of Starcraft 2. I have steadily risen in the ranks and have grown to love my nightly practice sessions. As well as playing the game, I have grown to love watching the professionals compete in tournaments and stream their ladder games. While playing this does generate anger and frustration when I lose, I take this as the opportunity for a powerful personal lesson involving the transcending of this petty anger, a relic of childhood competitions between my brother and me. The emergence of this as a replacement for the prior deeply established habit pattern of nightly intoxication following a hard day’s work represents progress along my path. I have noticed a marked reduction in the amount of this substance abuse from a frequency of being utilized nightly to weekly, aided by the fact that I cannot play SC2 under the influence and therefore have a strong motive to remain sober.

In short, I have learned this year that all is impermanent. With this understanding as a foundation, there is no sense in getting attached to anything at all. Therefore, I must remain aloof and solitary, though not forsaking my natural friendliness and warmth, until such a time that I can withstand the powerful anti-dhamma currents that pull me every which way in this tortured world of ours. Despite this, I have learned the value of service and have recognized that I am here to serve and that I must devote time each year for the direct aiding of others in need. For the coming year, the only message I wish to leave for future versions of me is this: remain true to your heart, in tune with spirit, disenchanted with the whole world of mind and matter, but steadfastly committed to the realization of the Truth.

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