Wednesday, November 24, 2010


My advisor and I are starting to build a rhythm to our conversations. We talk about the advisor-student stuff, then future stuff, then personal stuff, and finally always end the conversation with me asking “anything else you need from me?” and him recapping the conversation, and mirroring the question back to me- “do you need anything from me?”. Today, I said, I didn’t think so, but could I get back to him later. See, I’ve just spent the last couple of weeks entirely mentally engaged in finishing a really complicated thesis chapter. (And by finishing I mean writing a complete first draft. Yet to be commented on by my supervisors. So not finished at all.) I am only just now coming back up for air and starting to think about my final PhD study. My supervisor said, yeah, it’s a funny thing about research, you’re always in the past or in the future. You’re never right now. I laughed, but that really struck me as a profound statement. You’re either writing up what you’ve already done, trying to defend it, or thinking about what you’re going to do next, trying to avoid the pitfalls that will inevitably be there.

I think this observation, about always living in the past or future might be inherent in the way that society works today. Society and culture don’t lend themselves to being in the moment. You need to meticulously plan and be very deliberate in your actions to be successful. Forget ‘to be successful’. Just to have enough money to eat! A heavy societal premium is placed on those that can anticipate possible problems and account for them before they happen. Simultaneously, we are anchored (a psychological principle) in our past. We are who we are because of what’s happened to us. The way humans perceive the world is based on their point of reference. This isn’t just a philosophical argument, either. It’s how the brain works- short term memories are the most easily accessible, therefore are used when making decisions. Long term memories are deeply ingrained in our neuronal patterns (long term potentiation). Plus, because humans are cognitive misers (not using more resources than required) we seek out patterns that are familiar or confirm our hypotheses about the world around us. So truly, we are physiologically and psychologically stuck in either the past or the future.

Yesterday evening I got the opportunity to go to an advanced yoga class. I haven’t done real yoga in a while (the crap they do at the gym- fitness yoga- doesn’t cut it. Not to sound like a yoga snob…  wow. I am a yoga snob…) and it felt amazing. The teacher said something that I remember my first yoga teacher always saying at the beginning of class- “let your mat be your island. This is just you and your practice. Let everything else go and focus on where you are right now.” I tried to breathe, and focus only on the now, how my feet felt on the floor, how my back expanded with each breath, how my arms were positioned… eventually I was able to pay attention only to my practice, but it took a little while.  I kept inhaling and thinking “breathe innnn (oh my god did you send Tim that email about the simulation on Thursday), breathe outttt (shit, no. it’s ok, just do it when you get home. Oh crap you didn’t look up the bus) breathe innnn (schedule, oh well you can drop by tesco on the way home and grab milk) breathe outttt(and maybe some chocolate. you are doing yoga right now, so eating chocolate is totally ok)” and so on…  It’s almost like the devil in The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. The book is beautifully conceived as a collection of letters from a senior demon to one of his demons in training, who is also his nephew. The henchman is always asking questions about how to bring his human over to the devil’s side and away from holiness. Screwtape, the demon, tells Wormwood (henchman in training) to distract his Patient (the human), to interrupt his prayers with mundane thoughts, to undermine the Patient’s faith using the treasured tools Doubt and Loneliness.  Sitting there, trying to breathe and be in the moment, I kept getting distracted by my own Wormwood, who had built a little nest on corner of my mat.

It’s really counter-intuitive to live in the now! How do you pay attention to now without judging it, comparing it to previous experience, thinking about what could happen next, planning the next position, the next class, the next the next thenextthenext… Eventually, through the class, I was able to focus only on my world on the mat, and gradually Wormwood moved and sat right outside the door waiting for me. After the last pose, corpse pose, I felt renewed. Like there was fire in my muscles and I’d been wakened.

As I left class, my advisor’s earlier quote came back to me. Initially, my brain greeted this statement with an automatic anxiety response, tensing my shoulders and frantically scrambling around in the dusty mind grapes trying to remember what I have to do when I get home tonight to be ready for tomorrow. I took a deep breath. The breath reminded my body of where I had just been. Not frantic, not anxious, just patiently existing on my own mat. I tried to reframe my thinking about tomorrow and instead of anxiety, think about the opportunity.

It’s just interesting the juxtaposition between past, now, and future. It’s essential to attend to all three, but impossible to do so.  Or at least, I haven’t figured it out yet.

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