At this sealing of another of Earth’s revolutions around Sun, let us recount what has been learned and internalized, and what remains to be done as the journey carries us forward together. It is always useful to delineate the various major events of the year and to see how they reflect common themes, and if there may be others that are equally influential that are in this manner revealed.
Much growth and maturation took place in this realm of my life during 2012. To begin with I was required to take two undergraduate level classes in psychology topics that I had never been exposed to before, in order to have fulfilled sufficient breadth to merit my qualification into the graduate program in this prestigious department. The first of these was Abnormal Psychology, which was taught in the winter quarter of my first year as a psychology graduate student. This class proved to be very interesting and eye-opening as regards mental disorders and helped to dispel many of the misconceptions surrounding these and to bring them closer to home. I found myself able to relate to a lot of the described aberrations, albeit in a much milder manner than what was described. In addition, it highlighted how important the care of our minds is and how devastating the consequences of its disregard are. Stress was nearly always implicated in the emergence of a mental disorder. However, somewhat surprisingly for me, social isolation and alienation were also mentioned as being responsible for many issues like schizophrenia, depression, and social phobia, among others. I had been operating under the assumption that I could lead a hermit’s life and be happy, and had eschewed many opportunities for social engagement on the premise that its influence was nearly always bad for me. But this class led me to take a closer look at this condition of my life and to find that while solitude is important, human connection and social integration are as well. I remember at this point making a conscious decision to overcome my slight social phobia by engaging society repeatedly and placing myself in these situations that I had a tendency to avoid, but would turn out enjoyable if only given a chance, and if only the fear of other people’s judgments could be transcended.
Playing right into these developments was a class in Social Psychology that I took in the Fall quarter of my second year in psychology. I should say at this point that was one of the best classes I have ever taken in my life, up there with “Neuroanatomy” and “Attention and Awareness”. It revealed how fundamentally ignorant we are of the forces at work within our minds that impel us to do the things we do, and how incredibly important social factors are in understanding human behavior. I loved his treatment of the fundamentally social nature of the self and how Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian captures this, and was inspired by his love for this and other philosophers. I loved how it revealed how manipulable we are, and how self-deluding at a subconscious level we can be to serve either our vested interests in maintaining a consistent story about ourselves, or our likability by others and adherence to social standards. As a result of this class I have become more aware of the situational factors that unconsciously guide people’s decisions, and more aware of the hidden forces at play in my own mind and interactions with others. These two courses together played right into the spiritual path in that they shed light on stress (dukkha) and delusions (moha), respectively. They have also led me to realize and to value my role as a component of this agglomeration we call society, and to do my best to be one of its uplifters and not one of its downdraggers. Finally, this class talked about the concept of “flow” as it is described in the psychological literature, which refers to the state of being totally absorbed in concentration on one’s work where time flows by unnoticed and one feels very good and productive. I relate this to the samadhithat we learn from meditation, even though concentration on the breath is samma samadhi whereas external objects keep one on the surface level of the mind. I have nonetheless found that my ability to concentrate keeps growing and that this yields benefits in all the areas of my life that require my productivity and focus.
Another facet of this academic maturation took place in May when I traveled to Napa, Florida for a conference for the Vision Sciences Society to present a poster on my research. This was a very important experience for me that left feeling yet another upgrade on the path to professionalism and that I had truly become a part of the scientific community. This was especially so when those who came to my poster and asked questions were surprised and impressed by my findings. But it was also apparent when I found myself able to give meaningful suggestions and comments on so much of the work I got a chance to see there. However, it was an exhausting couple of days of being continuously critically thinking and focusing and walking around, so that I felt totally drained by the end of the conference. Despite that, it was a very rewarding experience and gave me an insider’s view on the academic world.
Finally, I served as a Teacher’s Assistant for the first time in the Fall quarter for an introduction class on psychological biology for people not majoring in it, which included giving several review sessions as well as a guest lecture. This was a very pivotal experience for me in my progression on the academic career path. I got my first taste of teaching and was positively surprised at my latent abilities to get ideas across and to engage students, despite being slightly shy and hesitant at first. I taught one of the lectures, thanks to the professor’s generosity in providing this opportunity and it was a huge success and was very well received by the students. I got very good feedback from them and seemed to really inspire and kindle interest in this fascinating subject. The position of authority that I was placed in engendered the development of the assertive side of me, which forms a major theme of this year that I will return to. Having my work being taken seriously, and then being placed in a position of authority over 170 students together brought about a slow shift in my attitudes. In an effort to dissolve my ego, I had undertaken to be modest and reserved when I first started the path. However, this year has seen me learn to find a middle ground that combines being conciliatory and deferential with standing up for oneself and having courage to defend one’s views and to be authoritative about what one knows.
Regarding meditation, I did three Vipassana retreats in 2012 – the last of these finishing just a few days ago – and I have received a huge boost of development and progress on my path and I am inspired and glowing in countless ways as a result. The first of these was a Sattipatthana Sutta Course in March. This was a very powerful one for me as it brought the Buddha’s words to life and made them specifically relevant to my practice by shedding light on how they directly refer to what we are taught there. I remember coming back from this experience feeling very inspired to continue to develop my awareness and equanimity, so much so that I got a tattoo to remind of this and specifically as it appears in the Buddha’s words: atapi smpajano satima (be ardently aware of the arising and passing away of sensations). This course was for serious old students and therefore was a different atmosphere in the dhamma hall, without the shuffling around and struggles of the newcomers. However, it only went on for eight days as opposed to the ten days I have gotten accustomed to, and I found myself wishing for 2 more days. But all in all, I returned from that feeling very light and clean and ready to start the new quarter.
My second course of the year was in summer and came at just the right time as it was sorely needed. I had been able to maintain the wave of dhamma that had carried me through from spring for some time, but ultimately succumbed to the anti-dhamma forces again as my meditation had begun to slip. This one for me was powerful in the level of concentration that emerged from my efforts. Also, this was the first time that I was seated in the front row of the dhamma hall, which I used as an opportunity to develop my strong determination as well as to be a good example to the new students behind me who may be on the verge of giving up but would gain renewed strength from my efforts. This was the first time that I was able to be exerting efforts for every single moment that was scheduled for meditation and this endless application of my mind to the practice resulted in a very strong concentration. I was able to go deep, and I was cleansed of so much on returning back to society. One of the big themes that emerged from this course was that of self defense. I remember picturing various scenarios of people threatening my loved ones and how I could respond in a harmonious way to neutralize the threat without animosity or anger and without fatal harm. This ties in to the development of my assertiveness and standing up for myself and for what’s right.
My practice was able to be maintained almost until the final course of the year which started the day after Christmas, though it had dropped to about an hour per day for the last month or so. I can attribute this mostly to the new relationship that emerged from the aftermath of the previous course. I met Emma by carpooling up to Joshua Tree and back with her. We began dating in August and have since founded our relationship on meditation. We sit together whenever we are together, but we also began doing weekly group sits with some friends. This was a tremendous source of motivation to continue the practice and provided so much calm and smooth sailing through most of the Fall quarter. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that the stresses began to pile on I was overwhelmed, and my practice began to suffer.
This last course was also very powerful, but can be distinguished from the preceding one as follows: my concentration was weaker but my equanimity was stronger. As equanimity is the true marker of progress on the path I was not disheartened by the greater degree of chaos in my mind but rather inspired by this very immediate lesson in anicca to “strive on with diligence”. I have just reentered society a few days ago and can already feel the encroaching of tension and anti-dhamma forces, but I have made a singular resolution for this year, namely to maintain my practice in full for the entirety of the year. I have intended for this to be a practice of vipassana for the whole year too, in contrast to previous instances where the practice eventually shifted back to anapana as I lost motivation to continue the inward search for sensations. I have learned that as long as the mind is equanimous and the application of effort is continuous, vipassana can be practiced in any condition, such as those that I experienced on this course where the mental chaos became tremendous and yet it remained possible to forge a path through that jungle.
In the realm of personal developments, dramatic changes and events took place this year. Let us recount these in order. Most of the important and notable events of the year 2012 happened during and after summer. Prior to this, it felt as though a cocoon was woven or an old skin hardened in preparation for molting. Some notable occurrences here, however, include dabbling in the LA culture of vinyasa yoga (flow). This is yet another instance of the theme of flow, where we are taught to flow fluidly from posture to posture pausing only ever so briefly to stretch out and open the various regions of the body. This turned out to be a very enjoyable and helpful adjunct to my meditation practice. Complementing this we began to seek out spots outside to sit and meditate in, and this too strengthened my practice. Also relating to this theme is my reentry into the world of rap music, and specifically my focus on the flow of lyrics and the rhythm of the rapping. I developed a true appreciation for rapping in really finessed ways and overlaid upon nuanced and interesting beats. In short, the aspect of music I delight in most, namely its rhythm and beat, took on a new angle and continues to develop. A good rapper is one that knows how to keep pace with, while elegantly navigating around and intertwining with, the crests and troughs of the musical waveform (s)he surfs, carving a masterful dance in harmony with that rhythmic pulse. To do so requires the cessation of discursive thoughts and reflective consciousness and a giving up of oneself into the moment in order to be carried through gracefully plugged into the constant flux of moments, syncing up with Nature’s eternal dance.
After the summer retreat described above, I flew out to Liverpool to attend my brother’s graduation and soon after we all traveled to Germany together and began a road trip throughout the country, stopping in most of the major cities and getting a chance to see the beauty and sloping innocence of its countryside. Most wonderful of all were the charming little villages we came upon nestled into their surrounding mountains. Beautiful an adventure as this was there was nevertheless a thorn of trouble embedded within it. This involved a stressful encounter with the rest of the family that evolved as a sort of mock power struggle as the group struggled to determine the optimal course of action. The trouble comes when there is a disagreement about what is the best way to spend a very limited amount of time. Occasionally this necessitated a splintering off of the five of us into various configurations. A few times it even led to full-on clashes and conflicts that left me in a very agitated state of mind and quickly drained me of my peace and harmony that I had worked so hard to accumulate in the preceding few weeks. Nevertheless, my meditation practice stayed strong. I took out the stress in the restarting, albeit only for a brief time, of my habit of smoking, especially as Germany contains a very pronounced smoking culture profuse with advertisements, cigarette vending machines, and people of all ages smoking in all places and at all possible times of day and night all of which served to influence me to relapse.
The theme from this time in my life emerges most profoundly during our visit to the Dachau concentration camp and our tour through it and its gas chambers and the ridiculously small barracks the prisoners were stuffed in like too much fish in too little tin. I had an intense response to being there and felt a tangible current of the deepest despair and anguish wash through me. It was as though the walls of the place had somehow stored the terrible miseries they had witnessed within their very presence; as though they radiated a palpable vibration of tears and toil, ready to bring any onlookers to their knees with the unbearable agony of remembrance. I found myself wondering how the guards that ran the place survived the nights they tossed and turned throughout, minds an indecipherable mess of screams and ideas merging and blending into a boiling sea of chaos I do not have the courage to even imagine. Witnessing this, I left the place with an aura of resignation and surrender. Its mark remains on me to this day, a constant reminder of the brutality that is woven into the very fabric of what is possible, and even necessary, in this world. I say it is necessary in the sense that the grotesque perversions of mind that led to these horrors are merely society’s expression of an underlying disease that is always present in every human heart and mind. In other words, the seeds of this behavior lie dormant within each and every single one of us, and it is only when these “sync up” with one another that large-scale acts such as these and others that always accompany war emerge. In every thought of ill will that I privately direct at others, I am committing no less offensive an act, merely one that is less apparent. So, I remembered the lessons I had previously learned regarding the impersonal flux of material that we call nature. I realized that there is tranquility in surrendering our illusory grip of control over these processes, and desisting from trying to fashion them in this way or that, according to this definition of good vs. evil or the other. When we go to a concentration camp and feel anger or hatred or any other negativity like that, we are reacting and are therefore in a very unbalanced state of mind. What we must learn is the art of sending compassion while remaining equanimous, understanding that the most horrific atrocities are constantly taking place, regardless of the scale of their damage, and that while we would do our best to prevent such from occurring, in most cases we cannot control the flow and must therefore go with it when this is so.
Upon returning from Germany, I received a text message from Emma inviting me to join her in weekly group sittings. I was intrigued that she had followed through with her promise to reach out to me upon my return and decided to pursue this connection that I had felt so strongly during our ride up to Joshua Tree a month prior to this. Needless to say, this rapidly turned into the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me. It began with a day that I labelled as among the most beautiful in my life, beginning with her response to my invitation to hang out on the beach, which read “let me know what’s in flow”. Her use of this word contributes one more facet of the concept of ‘flow’ that began to emerge during this year. We met at the beach and biked/rollerbladed on the trail from Santa Monica through Venice and coming to Marina del Rey. We navigated the maze of piers and marinas and enjoyed the amazing weather, then had a delicious bagel-crust pizza slice on Abbot Kinney. After this we went for a magical walk through the other world that is the canals in Venice and sat under a willow tree to discuss important things and unimportant things. Finally, we returned to Santa Monica and meditated and then went for a swim and ended this fantastical day that was very much unprecedented and full of joy and synchronicity. Throughout our discussions, we laughed as one, talked as one, and functioned so coherently as to make me really wonder whether I have not spent many lives with this person before. Indeed, it seemed like our connection vastly predated our apparent first meeting on that fateful beach adventure day with the beautiful angel of the ocean. After this, it has continued to unfold as a continuing adventure replete with greater beauty and connection than I had thought possible. Love kindled between these kindreds and is ever-deepening in the fulfillment of itself.
This represents a paradigm shift in my life. Entering into a relationship has broken that cocoon that I had fashioned for my protection five years ago. It is the doffing of the old and hardened exoskeleton and the exposing of the fragile and sensitive skin underneath, revealing vulnerabilities and allowing new growth and maturation. This signals the arising of a new aspect to my personality that I referred to earlier, namely the emergence of an assertive side to me. This was necessitated by the process of making myself a part of something bigger than myself. It created the need to assume a certain role within the relationship and to stand up for what I believed and to be honest about my thoughts and strong in my ability to face the other, and by extension, the world. Previously, I had proceeded in a mostly secluded manner and tended to avoid overt engagement with society, out of a fear of their influence on my, but also a deferential attitude and a desire to dissolve the ego as fast as possible. However, I now realize that part of the path involves acting rightly, and isn’t all about abstaining from acting wrongly. As the mind grows and gains in purity, it must also gain in strength to play its role in the world and become a tool in the hands of the eternal Dhamma, a vehicle for the collective evolution and propulsion of this mass of suffering beings.
Our family trip in Germany was another event that contributed to this realignment in that it made very apparent the trouble that occurs when everyone assumes a deferential attitude. Decisions become hard to arrive at as people try to do what the other wants, and nobody owns up to what they themselves actually want. Another event that made this lesson very clear and finally brought it to the surface was Sami’s visit to LA to get his UK work visa sorted out before he started his new job at Airbus in Bristol. All in all, this was a very enjoyable visit as my quarter had not yet started and so I had a lot of free time to spend with him, going to dinner parties, hanging out with Emma and my friends, playing starcraft, showing him around my lab, and other fun outings. The one issue though, was what I perceived in him to be a weakness of character, which in fact turned out to just be a projection of this very trait in my own personality, reflected in him in order to become apparent to me. I remember advising him that “It’s time to man up!” and later realized that this was in fact self-directed, and finally integrated this lesson and grew more assertive and self-actualizing. In short, many events in this year together pointed me in the direction of cracking through the barrier of isolation I had built for myself and finding a source of inner strength and confidence to be my own unique person in the face of everything the world throws at me, standing my ground yet remaining compassionate.
The second of this year’s lessons was what I have referred to as “learning to go with the flow”. The main event that symbolizes this is my introduction into the world of surfing, initiated by Nicco’s move to Santa Monica and our impulsive decision to buy a quartet of lessons on a whim. Surfing is the perfect exemplification of synchronization with Nature’s sublime flow as it requires a deep appreciation for and understanding of the awesome forces of the ocean and a graceful harmonization of one’s actions to that giant orchestration. It is the subtlest balancing act, in all its facets, from intuitively reading the waves, to paddling at the right moment and with the right force, to standing up at the exact moment and with finesse and coordination, to finally gliding fluidly on the momentum of wind and swell. The routine of waking up before dawn, meditating an hour, and then surfing has become a cornerstone of stability in our lives. While we are still very much beginners in the art of dancing on waves, I have learned patience in meeting this incredible challenge and my very sluggish pace of development, as with anything of sufficient difficulty.
Along with all the other instances where I have been taught to sail smoothly with the current of ongoing life processes, this represents the second of the two major themes I have collected from the scattered debris of an arbitrary quantity of time. Moment to moment, there is a rhythm that all of Nature’s constituents sing and dance along with. There is an overarching Story that we are all microscopic characters of, and at every twist and turn of the Universal plot, we must be deft enough to play along, without ceasing to play our parts. There is an underlying vibration to this Reality, that we must tune our minds to, and dance in time with. For this coming year, I hope to integrate these lessons, and live in accordance with them, in harmony with all. But above all, I intend to maintain my practice in its fullness, in order that the channel to these messages remain open and my receptivity to Life’s guiding hands continue to grow. May I become more and more an agent of Life’s hidden aims. May I be utilized in all my capacities for whatever role I am here to play. May I realize my own happiness and aid others in their quest for such.
May all beings be happy!