17 July 2014

A mindful 35

So, the birthday post, albeit delayed. Having no internet at home can be a limitation! But traditions are useful, and this birthday memory is as important as the rest.

For the first time in my life, I was alone on my birthday. As in, no one to go out to town and celebrate with. Why? Because I am in a new country, new lab and new environment. Haven't been around long enough to make friends, and actually, didn't really feel enthused about gathering up a bunch of people to go celebrate. I felt quite at peace, assembling a dinner for myself, course by course and then, consuming it over 2 hours while watching "Breaking bad". 

The last time I was this way was during my first few months at Stony Brook, at the start of my PhD. But the big difference was I had family across the river and communication wasn't an issue. Back then though I really missed having company of friends. I had a lot of free time and didn't know how to spend it, except watching TV, cooking and eating. I had no other interests, and was far too careful because of my economic situation. I couldn't get around because I didn't have a car and it was a while before I discovered the wonderful opportunities of the public library system.

What's changed? I think in the intervening 14 years I have learned how to spend time alone. There's internet, yes, but there is also running, yoga, meditation; of walking, for no other reason but to walk. There is reading - reading for entertainment, and reading to think either professionally or personally. There is much stronger desire to keep learning. There is also a far greater ability to accept situations and know that there is a grand plan, only you never see it till much later, if at all, and not to think or worry about the grand plan; it is better to spend time living for the moment (with check-off lists and detailed plans!). Also, the economic situation is at a point where I think I have enough for my needs. Is this the wisdom that comes with growing older?

Mindful eating BTW is a spectacular failure. I can't seem to think long enough about how the cereal tastes, chewing, and then drinking tea or coffee. My mind wanders like crazy, with the most likely topic being what work I need to get done, and if I should stop at the grocery store. I don't read anything, yet the mind is far, far away. But, got to keep at it.

11 July 2014

Can you spend time alone, doing nothing?

I am in Germany for 3 months visiting another lab. So, after many years, I am living by myself, in a new culture and new work environment. After having the luxury of living 5 mins away from work, I now have to face a daily commute of 50 mins, providing plenty of time sitting on the bus, or sitting around waiting for the bus. This is also my first experience of living in a country where shops are closed on Sundays and most close by 8pm otherwise. Suddenly, activities like going to work or shopping has to work around timetables.

Consequently, a lot of alone time.

Last week there was a report in Science magazine, that if left alone for 6 -15 mins with nothing to do, human beings would rather give themselves electric shocks rather than sit around and think. Basically, we love a distraction!

I remember reading somewhere that it was a sign of deep happiness if you can be alone and not feel lonely. Which at least thus far, I do not. Yes, I do have time to ponder about where I am in life and all that, but it is hardly causing me heartburn. But I do feel that opportunities like these for self-discovery come rarely, so how best to make use of it?

One art which I want to practice is that of mindful eating. I came across this idea of "mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh, where you are urged to live every moment fully conscious of how you are feeling. A state of complete awareness. And one area where I want to do this is eating. If I am eating alone, I don't just eat, I have to read something while eating. It's a deeply ingrained behavioural circuit for me: shovel something into my mouth, while completely submerged in a text of some sort.

I am starting the mindful eating with breakfast sessions, because they are the shortest and it only helps if I finish faster, so I can catch the bus. Day 1 of mindful eating was interesting - after 5 minutes, I realized I was reading things on the milk and cereal carton, even though they are in German! So today, I had to clear the table of all reading material. I still haven't done any mindful eating though. I pretty much spent time thinking about experiments and "breaking bad", a show I am watching. But the intent is there - let's see if I can make mindful breakfast eating a routine.