Reflections on 2015: Year of Callousing Skin

I’m going to try and keep this short this year. I have always found great benefit in this habit of eight years now, and looking back on all the previous reflections I am able to retrace my steps through the space-time continuum. However, this year has not revealed any kind of overarching theme as they usually do. Perhaps this is from lack of reflection but it is also possibly due to a shortage of time. I am now making the final preparations to begin my yearly Vipassana retreat that will take place through the Christmas and New Year holidays. I have been so overwhelmingly busy during this past year that I have literally only now just stopped working, on December 22nd, and will immediately proceed to a 10-day silent meditation retreat, after which I will be resuming my work flow without interruption. Perhaps, as I write this, I am slowly gaining a better picture of what this year has been all about. The predominant emotion that I can recall from these past 12 months is fatigue. Maybe an adequate image to bequeath to this year should therefore be that of the callousing of the skin of laborers. I have felt many a time as though I was hardening the proverbial skin of my mind. Whether due to excessive amounts of work or repeated failures and frustrations, both of which engender the hardening of the outer layers to protect against the wear and tear of more such episodes yet to come.

Professional Advancement: Among the many experiences that I have had this year, many seemed to involve my professional advancement, not least of all in so far as I have advanced to candidacy in June and am now what is referred to as ABD, or all-but-dissertation. Shortly thereafter, I traveled to Europe with Dorrie and met up with my family in Marseille, France, where we had a little reunion with my dad’s brother and uncle and their families and enjoyed a beautiful evening with them. After this we traveled to Nice and the Azure coast and spent four nights there. The other major reason for my going to Europe, however, was to present at the International Multisensory Research Forum in Pisa, Italy. I gave a talk there, a privilege usually only granted to postdocs and faculty, and made a big splash and received very good feedback. I also got an opportunity to practice “power mingling”, which is a term I only recently learned, where I made every effort to introduce myself to all the bigwigs present at this conference. I made some great connections and our recently published work was even referenced in the keynote speech at the conference, which was a kind of satisfaction I had never encountered before — the feeling of having contributed work that was deemed worthy of mention by one of the best known names in the field. Many months later, we submitted the new work that I was presenting at the conference, and we have just recently as of one week ago heard that it has been provisionally accepted. I have now published two scientific papers and may soon get a third before receiving my PhD, all of which has given me a renewed sense of hope for a successful academic career.

Mindfully: To continue the technology thread, I accomplished much in the way of Android development during this year. Notably, I finally finished my meditation app and posted it to the google play store: Mindfully. It unfortunately did not win the competition that I entered it into at UCLA but this was to be expected as I was working alone and did not have enough time or expertise to produce a high quality product. Nevertheless, I am very proud of my achievement and used it as a springboard to propel me forward should I choose to pursue a career with app development. That said, the heavy workload that I had this year prevented me from dedicating my full attention on this pursuit, which has resulted in my stagnating in the last few months as I scrambled to get my PhD work done and my career’s next step sorted out. Perhaps it is appropriate to say that my steady progression on the path of app development is on hiatus. Ironically, with regards to my progress on the path the much lamentable inability to maintain the practice continues to plague me. However, Mindfully did help somewhat as I had a few rather long stints of meditations on consecutive days thanks to the motivating aspect of the app.

Money Grows on Trees: As regards the anxiety-fueled career building activities that I engaged in this year, much progress has been made. Realizing that the relative comfort zone of my PhD was nearing its completion, I began pivoting towards post-graduate school concerns, dramatically improving my CV, creating a LinkedIn profile and beginning the interviewing process with several startup companies to test the waters. The other major theme of the year is that of financial insecurity. I became highly interested in budgeting and began religiously entering my every transaction into my budget app. But in addition to this, I also became very anxious about my prospects for financial health. In particular, I began to be very stressed out regarding what to do with my life after that fateful piece of paper is handed over with the required signatures. I vividly remember an episode on the plane from Italy to Paris where I was discussing this with Dorrie and where I calculated just how comfortable I would be with a salary of $80,000. This was the point at which I decided that I wanted to leave academia and pursue a career in the business world. This has only recently began to waver, as with all things that oscillate. Reinvigorated by the publication of my second paper, I have decided to at least apply to a few key postdoctoral research positions with preeminent professors at the top of their field from whom I feel that I can learn much and from whose connections and networks I can benefit. As Brian often says, a really good postdoc can still save the sinking ship that our graduate school experience has often seemed like. So, I am willing to reconsider my decision to leave academia on the condition that I am making no less than $45,000 and working with top notch computational neuroscience researchers. At the same time, I will also continue to apply to industry jobs and to try my luck in the wild west of intelligent mobile technology that is experiencing bewildering exponential growth.

Sapling Nursery: While we’re on the topic of jobs, I took my first job this year, which also represents the manifestation of a latent wish of mine of several years. I worked part time for a non-profit SAT tutoring company that offers heavily subsidized tutoring to high school students of Latin American descent, courtesy of the Mexican government. This was a fairly easy gig that paid quite well and was all in all a very rewarding and enjoyable experience, apart from the early Saturday morning timeslot, waking up for which was always a challenge. I have wanted to do part time tutoring on the side for quite some time now, so I naturally took the opportunity as soon as it presented itself. That said, however, this contributed to making me more fatigued from work than I have ever been in my life, as I was simultaneously juggling this with my normal TA job at UCLA, research, and STATS200A, one of the more difficult classes I have ever taken, and which I needed for the computational cognition minor that I was petitioning to add to my PhD. As if that wasn’t enough, the TA position that I was employed in during this last quarter, Fall 2015, dealt me my most severe challenge I have yet faced in the three years that I have been a TA. The professor that I was teaching with suddenly fell severely ill, necessitating that I cover for him. I ended up teaching three lectures on visual neurophysiology and had to deal with innumerable situations that arose as a result. Luckily the other two TA’s I was working with were enormously helpful and competent and we all pulled through and made sure that the class was not derailed for the nearly 300 enrolled students. My students seem to unanimously voice their support of my teaching abilities and this is yet another motivating pull into the academic world, for the love of education. Dorrie and I have discussed at many points during this year our dream of building a new kind of school together someday, where our curriculum would be designed for the modern world, emphasizing both technical skills as well as the arts and not forcing students down any one path against their will. I wish to revive Plato’s Athenian Academy that taught many successive generations the love of knowledge, which we know today as philosophy, and natural science and mathematics.

Cozily Tenured: With regards to the statistics class I mentioned, one thought should be noted, and that is that I take solace in statistics and the beauty and rigor of mathematics. This is yet another major theme to emerge from my experience this year, namely the frustration with science as it is currently practiced by the university professors, cozily tenured and with little to no oversight as they flounder along in their ocean of incompetence. This had been another main reason for my disillusionment with academia and my desire to seek out an industry job, aside from the aforementioned financial reason. However, taking the graduate level advanced statistics class reminded me of what it is that I love most about science, and that is its rigor. The extent to which a theory conforms to a mathematical framework constitutes its rigor. But too few scientists that I encounter are motivated by the same appeal to mathematics. Therefore, my immersion in the often mystifying world of statistics and probability theory, and only in so far as I remained submerged until I had apprehended the underlying form, offered a ray of hope for the aspiring scientist within me, that I might still decide to continue on the path of science, but only if the route I chose was constrained by the unyielding formal structure required by the mathematics.

The Gospel of Bernie: Finally, how can I end this reflection without mention of Bernie Sanders? This has been the most dramatic theme of the year and corresponds to my nascent desire to learn more about politics and public policy, and to be a more active participant in the democratic process by which we the people are supposed to wield our power. Bernie has inspired me, and many millions more besides. Even if he is not able to win, he will have revealed latent forces within all of us, that we wish to be governed by a transparent power appointed and approved by us, that we wish to end the silent class war that has been raging for at least forty years, that we are a new generation of American citizens with our own sensibilities and norms, which our government ought to conform to, and finally that we wish to rail against the cynicism and hopelessness that crushes us and our aspirations for the future. I have become an information junkie, voraciously consuming news stories and reading the opinions and columns of the pundits. It’s hard to maintain a sense of hope in the face of so much corruption that is endemic to the system, but Bernie springs eternal — that we wish he was. So strongly have I embraced this cause that I can scarcely be heard speaking of anything else lately. I blog and tweet about it constantly. I often say that this is the last time that I will yoke my hopes to a politician, disappointed by the too conciliatory Obama as are many others, no doubt. But beyond the physical manifestation in the human form of Bernie Sanders, the principles he stands for emanate from the people whose collective voice and will animate him to fight the good fight. Though not nearly as charismatic an orator as the current president, he promises to rectify what he perceives as Obama’s greatest mistake: that he failed to involve the movement he created while campaigning with the governing actions of his administration. Instead of getting paralyzed by hopelessness and depression, we can at least strive to do better: this is the strongest lesson of this year. That there will be pitfalls and though life be imperfect and noisy, we play our part and throw in our contribution to the communal pot to be measured by what is higher. It is simultaneously a lesson in humility and grandiosity — the former is to temper our expectations and the latter to strengthen our faith in the immense power we can each wield. It resonates with the lessons we learn from Vipassana, where the gritty raw reality of the act is more like learning how to gracefully fall than learning how to walk on water. I should explain that last image a little more. When people first learn about meditation, they imagine it as some sort of placid state of mind unperturbed by any thoughts or emotions, that one can reach by reciting some magic formula or other. Too frequently are these overly expectant fellows turned away when they come to realize what meditation actually consists of. Their expectation can be likened to the miraculous act of walking on water, whereas the reality of it is something more akin to walking on solid earth, which is a perpetually avoided tumble into gravity’s embrace. It is like a dance we do, constantly readjusting our muscles to keep ourselves upright, overcompensating perhaps and leaning too hard the other way, necessitating yet another readjustment which brings us one step forward, and like this on and on until we reach our destination. It is difficult, laborious, and on the whole mundane and oh so earthly. And this highlights one of the fundamental psychological problems most of us face: that we have too idealistic a view of the world, which can also be stated as that we are not attuned to the nuances of the world. To return to the topic of President to be Bernie Sanders, supporting him represents my realization that I must strive in the face of this difficult to ken reality. Just as we slog endlessly through our internal cacophonous swamp without thought or expectation of outcome as we strengthen our intentions to continue to do so, so must society as a whole continue to strive to better itself in the face of extreme adversity and uncertainty, whether this will yield results today or many days in the future. Bernie is just the superficial sign of this society’s striving, and that makes him a harbinger of a better tomorrow. And for that you have my pen, President Sanders.

Sunward Growth: Finally, as I yearn for a direction for my rudder, I can take no better a target than the fusion reactor that has been glowing in the same sky since the first bacterial division. I can feel myself headed towards a year of destiny. Though its shape is still obscure and its trajectory unknown, lifelong decisions of consequence will be made during its time. I have now before me a seemingly infinite array of possible directions to proceed towards, but life can carry me towards only one eventuality. It brings me no small amount of anxiety to ponder the course my river will run, but I should rather be innocently jubilant. My dad always tries to calm my nerves by telling me to let go of my desire to control and to allow the flow of life to do as it does, which is much easier said in so many words. Given that this is so enshrouded in a mystery no amount of contemplation will resolve, I resolve to take his advice and retain my youthful suppleness so that the currents may drag me frictionlessly. I feel myself about to be called to a higher purpose and I wish myself to be ready, able and willing. I yearn to contribute something of substance to the world and to convert my efforts into tangible betterment, whether for the few or for the many. To that end, I dedicate the upcoming retreat to the well being of the universe. May all beings be happy!

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