Tag Archives: Learning

Learning to Meditate

One
The unpleasant feeling of being lonely hit me really hard kind of out of nowhere when I was walking home from the MRT. And then I thought about Sam Harris’s meditation lesson from yesterday: “That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not afraid.” As soon as I thought about that, and each time I went back to it in between episodes of masochism resulting from loneliness, the feeling went away. For a fleeting moment, but it went away.

And that amazed me because that, I think, is what it means to let the ego dissolve. Sadness is a sensation but I am not sad because there’s no I. Interesting.

Two
Tonight’s meditation about emotion, day twelve, came at a good time. Sam prompted recall of a situation that was unpleasant – something to leave you sad or anxious or upset in some way. Following his cues, the point was to notice first the thought itself and then where that unpleasant feeling lies in the body, giving rise to the emotion that we’d started with.

Sam went through the exercise three times, twice with situations that bring about negative emotions and once with a situation bringing about positive emotions. He then talked about emotions as just “patterns of energy” and about how powerful it is to recognize emotions in this way. Just energy in the body, like any other feeling. Sam used knee pain as an example and I’ll follow suit because it worked. It seems the idea is to see “the feeling of sadness” in the same way as “my knee is sore” but not let the self become the sadness anymore than the self becomes the sore knee, which is not at all.

During tonight’s meditation, as always, I felt the negative emotions in my chest. When I’m anxious, afraid, or sad, my chest tightens and it’s difficult to breathe. At least once during the meditation exercise I gasped and opened my eyes, certain I was going to cry. But when Sam prompted thinking about something positive, I felt the same clench in my chest. And it rose into my throat just like tears do, but this time the feeling manifested as what I usually call “a bubble of joy”. It was so interesting to observe the same sensation and label it with a different emotion.

At the same time, though, I also started to wonder what a person becomes without deep feelings. But it’s not a lack of deep feelings, is it? It’s a lack of attachment to them during a full experience of them. The purpose of meditation is to notice whatever it is I’m actually noticing. I realize this now, writing, but at the time I worried a little, worried just for a fleeting moment, about becoming an empty shell, something not quite human.

But now, reflecting, I realize that’s not it at all. Instead it’s being able to recognize what’s there with an open mind instead of judgement and have the experience instead of letting it pass by.

Three
With tonight’s meditation experience, I thought in a different light about an earlier conversation with a friend that really upset me. I was talking about how frustrating it is to want something that has eluded me and my friend asked if I ever meditated on letting go or living without. My immediate response internally was defensive outrage, but tonight it struck me that perhaps I can separate the feeling of wanting from that which is I. And if the feeling is just a feeling and the conscious mind is what processes the feeling, there’s no need to attach any of it to I at all. Because I is just a construction of the mind. But the point is, “I can walk away from the feeling because the feeling isn’t me.”

I’m not there yet. But I think that’s the point.

Four
I’ve been finding it helpful to focus on sound. Sound comes in and out of conscious awareness and there’s nothing we do to make that happen. It’s just there and then it isn’t.

It’s the same for thoughts, though harder to grasp because I don’t find myself beginning to have a thought; rather, I find myself when I’m already lost in them. But it’s the same thing. Thoughts just appear. Like sounds. We notice them and then they’re gone, too, and we don’t notice them anymore.

Five
Watching my emotions change over the last week has been really interesting. As best as I can, I’ve tried to step outside of myself and observe what I’m feeling rather than just letting it swallow me.

I went to the climbing gym twice this weekend because I disappear when climbing. As a friend explained once, “There’s no room for ego up there.” It’s easy to lose myself in my own head when I’m running but not so easy at dance or doing yoga or on the climbing wall. I’ve been trying to engage in ways that let me spend less time lost in thought, an experiment to see what happens.

And so far, I’m not too sure.

Six
I had a conversation today that indicated ego is alive and well. Frustration for other reasons bubbled up and got the better of me and I was defensive instead of open-minded. As I teach my psychology students, we are cognitive misers and it’s less taxing to rely on emotion than reason. Knowing the traps doesn’t mean immunity from falling into them.

I didn’t realize this conversation was still bothering me when I sat down to meditate tonight, day nineteen. But as soon as I turned my attention to the breath, I noticed an elevated heart rate even though I was breathing deeply without effort. For several minutes, I couldn’t slow my heart down even though I guessed its cause. So I observed that and tried not to judge it.

While I’ve been familiar with loving-kindness meditation for a while, Sam’s inclusion of it tonight was most welcome. In its full form, you begin thinking about someone close to you and wishing them well and then expanding the well-wishing, over the course of several stages, to the whole world. Tonight’s meditation centered on just one person.

I thought about a very dear friend. And that’s when I felt my heart rate slow down. I felt better turning my focus towards another person and wishing happiness, which really means sending pure love.

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.

Mindfulness is a journey to travel, a journey without signposts and without end. But even as a novice along the journey, I’ve had moments of utter simplicity where I’m left stunned by what is sometimes so easy and other times so challenging.

To be mindful is to be aware. Aware of what we see, hear, and think. It is to experience. It is to look outward and take in with an awareness of what we’re doing instead of just letting it happen. It sounds like doing nothing. But as I’m learning, it’s actually doing quite a lot.

Newport Beach
Newport Beach, California – December 2016

Learning to See

Whenever I travel, I bring a camera. Whenever I go out to do something potentially cool and photo-worthy (i.e. hiking or going for a stroll in a favorite neighborhood), I bring a camera. And whenever I bring a camera, I expect that I’ll be writing a blog post. This habit influences what I look for, which impacts what I see and subsequently write about.

And I know I’m not the only one. When I first moved to New York, I had coffee with a couple of bloggers (literally a blogging couple – what a dream!) that I met online and we talked about feeling pressure to document, write, and maintain readership. Crafting a good travel blog post, for example, involves some planning: What’s the story I want to tell? What themes do I want to capture? What feelings do I want readers to have? What do I want readers to see or experience or look forward to? As the post builds in my head, I document accordingly. At the same time, photographing and writing about my weekend wandering when I was living in New York gave me a sense of purpose when I didn’t have one.

I’ve learned some really valuable lessons throughout, like what makes a compelling photo. Seeking out those photos has encouraged me to stray from the beaten path, talk to locals, and simply to wander. But I’ve also learned that the minutiae of humanity are important to me. I spent a week in Europe in April and photographed every interesting doorframe I saw and then turned it into a framed poster when I got home. I have pictures of people’s laundry hanging up to dry from everywhere I’ve been.

Akko
Akko, Israel – July 2013

Some of my favorite photos are looking over the rooftops from a few storeys above the ground. But when I take photos like these, I catch myself wondering whether they fit into the story I’m trying to tell.

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Nice, France – July 2008

As I look around, I’ve seen beauty everywhere – in the sky, in the water, in urban and rural settings. Sometimes, it’s enough to be overwhelmed by what is everywhere while other times, it’s the focus on one element that quickens the heart. I take photos of sweeping landscapes and historic village centers but sometimes the ones that I like best are close-up shots of individual flowers, rocks, or flagstones.

DSC01252
Batemans Bay, Australia – October 2017

Visiting family in Toronto this summer, which I’ve done dozens and dozens of times, I did not bring a camera. I knew that we’d spend time walking around downtown, which I’ve rarely done because my time in Toronto is always spent hanging out with family. But honestly, I didn’t expect to see anything worth photographing. To me, Toronto mostly means the suburbs where my grandparents and some cousins live and the downtown residential neighborhood where the rest of my cousins live. I didn’t really think there was much to see. If there were, I figured I would have seen it by now.

Turns out I was wrong.

After brunch with our relatives, my dad and I wandered through downtown. We followed a guide my sister had written specifically for this occasion; she went to university in Toronto and has recently moved back there. She sent us on a walking tour of her favorite downtown spots, landmarking what we’d see with restaurants, little shops, and parks. She included anecdotes about some of her favorite experiences and suggested places to stop for food and drinks.

Turns out, I wished I had a camera. If I’d had a camera, I told my dad, I could have documented the day and written a blog post. He reminded me that I had a phone and that my phone has a camera. Oh. Right.

But then I realized something important. I realized that, in my irritation at not having my camera, I was forgetting to look around and actually see. And in that, I wasn’t present. I wasn’t experiencing what was right in front of me. My favorite experiences of all time are seared into my memory because I was present throughout; I don’t have any hard evidence to document them, but even writing this sentence has brought a smile to my face.

Had I become so focused on looking that I’d forgotten to see?

That thought disturbed me and I made a conscious effort to shift my perspective as we continued our stroll. Instead of documenting for my blog, I walked around downtown Toronto with my dad, pointing out what I thought was cool, stopping here and there to visit a shop or taker a closer look at a mural, a poster, a unique building. It was interesting to hear what he noticed and how it differed from what I noticed and it was relaxing to just take a walk without feeling like I had to tell anyone about it.

Over the course of that afternoon, I learned something valuable. I learned that while I enjoy taking photos and writing about my experiences, I don’t have to do that all the time. Sometimes, it’s enough to just be present wherever I happen to be, with whoever I’m with. And I learned that I need to balance documenting a place for others and being present for myself.

When I recall my favorite travel experiences, there are no cameras. The travel moments that I  treasure the most – telling stories during long road trips after dark; utter chaos at dinner in the middle of a city; stopping at a farmer’s market to buy food for a picnic that we prepared in the trunk of the car; drinking jugs of sangria outside in the winter; tasting spicy cocktails in a restaurant that looked like a forest – are documented through my memory of smells, sounds, mental images, and feelings of warmth. There’s likely something scribbled in a journal, too, and I expect that my memory and the moments themselves differ.

So while I love taking photos, telling stories, and sharing them, I’ll be doing that with a different mindset. I’ll be looking, yes, but the goal will be to see.

Cordoba
Cordoba, Spain – December 2014

Creating Hospitable Spaces

I love books. I love books and independent bookstores and used bookstores. I love reading and learning. I love being challenged by what I’m learning, or feeling my horizons expand. I love getting so deep into the notes and references and traveling wherever they take me, to other books and other authors. I love when books I’ve read are sources for other books, when writers I respect mention other writers I respect.

It was that love that drew me to BooksActually last weekend, one of Singapore’s independent bookstores. BooksActually is particularly special because it also operates its own publishing house, making it the go-to destination for books that are truly Singaporean and might not have a significance audience elsewhere. This is where I found I Will Survive, an anthology of stories from Singapore’s LGBTQ community. While much in the book touched me, it was a line in the foreword that first got me thinking. Juliana Toh writes, “I was left thinking of Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out, in which relationships are viewed as contexts for the creation of hospitable experiences.” This particular way of defining relationships was new to me and I found the idea of “hospitable” really compelling. Maybe it was because we’d just started school and my students were on my mind, or maybe it was because I was reading about LGBTQ young people, but I immediately extrapolated from Toh’s statement and began to wonder what our schools would look like if we moved from creating “safe spaces” for young people to creating “hospitable spaces” instead.

Defining
The word “hospitable” has two definitions:

  1. friendly and welcoming to visitors or guests
  2. (of an environment) pleasant and favorable for living in

It seems reasonable that a hospitable space would inherently be a safe one because anywhere that is “pleasant and favorable for living in” implies safety. I think this idea fits really well in the context of school settings. After all, school is where young people spend most of their time and we know that we all do better when we feel comfortable.

Take a moment to consider what we want for the young people in our care. We want them to learn, to grow, to explore. We want them to feel good, at ease, and valued as individuals. We want them to connect to each other, to create, and to become their best selves. We want them to see and care for those around them and we want them to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

Doing this work requires that our students feel more than safe, which is currently what we tout as a goal for our schools and classrooms. A learning environment in which the above aims can be realized would be closer to “pleasant and favorable” than safe.

Rethinking
In my eight years teaching, my classroom has always been a place where students wander in and out during breaks and before school and where they stop by after school to chat about a variety of things. Like the rest of us, students spend time in places that they enjoy, places that are welcoming and pleasant and where they feel affirmed, or perhaps part of a community.

So what would schools look like if we explicitly focused on creating hospitable spaces rather than safe spaces? The biggest difference, I think, would be in the ways we approach students as individuals. The goal of safe spaces is to provide a protective, inclusive environment that embraces diversity on a range of levels. I wonder, though, what would happen if we started emphasizing the need for welcoming, pleasant spaces instead of merely safe ones. A space can be safe without being welcoming, pleasant, and favorable, but places that are favorable to us, places we want to be, will more than likely also be safe.

Imagining
As a reader, I’m a believer in the power of language. George Orwell’s 1984 does a better job illustrating this than I could, so I refer you there. Now, let’s pretend “hospitable space” was a common phrase used to talk about schools, an idea accepted and embraced by the school community.

Creating hospitable spaces would require all involved to treat one another, at the minimum, as individuals with dignity. It would require authentic communication and connection, which would foster an environment in which adults and young people work together towards common goals and in which each learns from and guides the other. A hospitable space would be positive, energizing, and a place where we all enjoy spending time. It would be flexible, open-ended, exploratory, creative. It would be a space where we grow as individuals and as a community, a space where we’d recognize first our common humanity and then the diversity that makes us each who we are.

Imagine the learning that would happen in this hospitable space.

Moving Forward
Of course, not all of us work in school and with students. But we all develop relationships with others, whether friends or colleagues or romantic partners. We all want to feel loved, affirmed, and valued. We want to grow and help others grow, to become better tomorrow than we are today.

All relationships take on colors, flavors, and textures. All relationships are built inside a metaphoric space. So let that space be hospitable. Let yourself be open to others. All of our lives are better when we can take a breath and know that someone else is doing the same.