7/31/16: My Life Philosophy (Or Lack Thereof)

I recently received a beautiful and thoughtful email from someone who came across an article of mine on Tiny Buddha. In conclusion to his email, he asked me, in reference to my blog and life: “Is the conclusion that you came to a focus on spirituality? Giving unto others? Maximizing pleasure? Finding a purpose that is specific to the individual? Just living life? Setting goals then attaining them?”

I read this question and immediately balked. Do I have a philosophy about how to live? Do I have a cohesive spiritual identity? Can I claim to have a personal mission, a mantra that guides my days and my professional, emotional, and social lives?

I realized that I write so many reflective pieces on this blog that purport spiritual understanding that perhaps it seems like I have a defined spiritual and philosophical path in life.

Ah, this could not be further from the truth!

I have yet to celebrate my half-birthday of my seventeenth year. Since my seventeenth birthday, I believe the most philosophically relevant thing I have learned is this: I still have no idea how to live my life best. And, even when I do have inklings, learning how to implement these philosophies on a day-to-day basis is its own battle entirely.

I will say that the idea of accepting the present moment and practicing non-judgmental awareness of my thoughts and feelings is my current spiritual focus. I try to recognize my thoughts and feelings as things that enter and exit my brain instead of identifying as my thoughts. In quiet moments, I search for the underlying awareness that is my Being, as opposed to my Thinking, and let the Being watch my thoughts come and go.

This is possible when I’m sitting alone in my room, but out in the world of people, I rarely inhabit the Being inside of me. I’m a thinker, a feeler, and I know that I unconsciously react to things often. It recently dawned on me how often I say or do things without really considering my options first. I also realized how often I go on autopilot- does anyone else ever completely forget the time they spend brushing their teeth?

A lot of the time, I find myself lost in thought. Sometimes thoughts turn into thought cycles, that feed and feed. Other times, I’m reacting to whatever happens around me, not at all sure why I feel or say the things I do.

I’m beginning to realize that people are only fully conscious and deliberate about life for a tiny fraction of the day. We rely on our subconscious and our habits to carry us through so much of our day, especially events that are routine. That is not to say we are robotic, but we know how to be efficient about our thoughts and decisions. After all, if we had to live each new day without any habits or tendencies to fall back on, we would spend our entire lives learning how to scrape by.

At the same time, there are moments that I wish I had lived more deliberately, with more attention to the present situation. There are times that I have resorted to habitual thinking when I could have improved my own life and the lives of others by pushing myself to explore new options. There are times when I’ve looked at beautiful sights and failed to see the full wonder of the world because I said to myself, “it’s just another sunset.”

So, I believe that my current path in life is learning how to strike a more fruitful and conscientious balance between habit and present attention. I want to choose more moments to fully engage with, and spend more time embracing the present than worrying about the past or future. This isn’t particularly original, but I do think we often forget how important habit and routine are to identifying with the present. The more stock we put in habits, the more time we have to think and worry about the past and future. We are designed to be efficient in this way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most enlightened or purposeful way to live. I want to end this post with a little quote that’s both simple and incredible, from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our day is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So, I suppose this is my current path: spending my days how I wish to spend my life. It is an overwhelming goal, but also so worthwhile that I cannot ever really turn away from it.

What is your path in life? Does it change often, or do you follow a core spiritual pursuit for years or decades? How has it changed over time?

7/3/16: What Makes A Masterpiece?

Anyone who considers themselves an artist- whether a singer, painter, poet, writer, sculptor, photographer, designer, or otherwise- has to discover what differentiates great art from average art. As creators, we must study the masterpieces past and present to inform our own artistic journey; every artist, no matter how revolutionary, can point to other works that influenced and informed their own style. We are shaped by our predecessors, our most valuable teachers.

I am primarily interested in creative writing, but I desperately want to understand the mark of great work in many domains of art: visual, musical, poetic, and photographic. To this end, I scour the Arts, Books, Fiction, and Fashion sections of the New Yorker and the New York Times, hungry to comprehend what makes art great.

In years past, I have struggled, along with many others, to see the difference between great modern art and amateur attempts at modern art. Two years ago I visited the Modern Museum of Art in New York City, and I walked away feeling less than impressed; couldn’t I too create a wall of monochrome green canvases? Couldn’t I also paint the “@” sign on the wall and call it monumental? It occurred to me that the only thing separating great art from average art was the repute of the artist in question. I reasoned that once a person reaches a certain artistic standing, they can call anything they do to a canvas or a wall or a box of paper clips “art” and sell it for substantial sums. As if their hands were the surrogate hands of God, and whatever their hands rendered was worthy of purchase and admiration.

In recent months and weeks I have been trying to overcome this seemingly juvenile, unenlightened view of modern art in favor of a true artistic understanding. I regret to say that, after hours and hours reading and browsing art from the most selective newspapers and journals, I still can’t pick out a great work from a mediocre one. All green canvases look like green canvases to me. That’s not to say I don’t have a deep appreciation for certain pieces of modern art. I could stand captivated for minutes on end in front of Salvador Dalí’s work, for example. I simply have my preferences; certain pieces capture my attention and others don’t.

For a time, I considered myself a failure as an emerging artist for not seeing the complexity and depth of all artwork considered masterful. I assumed that the greatest writers and artists in the world had a sixth sense that I did not. How could I be a true creator myself if I did not appreciate everything considered great in the art world?

And then I realized something, reading a book on the writing life called Still Writing by Dani Shapiro: critics give mixed reviews. Critics have different tastes. Not all “great” works of writing and art are beloved by all high-profile critics, and not all reviews of “great” works are positive. That I didn’t embrace this fact sooner is rather silly, but after years of being made to think that certain books and artworks are objectively masterpieces, I thought there was a formula for the “objective masterpiece” that caused works to be universally revered by critics. Not so.

Around the same time, I read an article about a different book analyzing the origin and science of human preferences and tastes. The author examined just about every study conducted about human preferences in relation to genes, childhood, gender, race, ethnicity, hometown, etc., but could not find a reliable trend between identifiers and preferences. There is no formulaic coffee-lover, no gene to guarantee a love of dogs as opposed to cats. The science of preference is chaotic, infinitely faceted, and inexplicable.

With these two truths in mind, I have decided to approach art a different way. Instead of using the canonical opinion of what art is “great” and what art is not, I will simply listen, observe, and read each piece and see how it affects me personally. If I think it is beautiful, then for me it is so. If I think it is muddled and unintelligible, dull and boring, then for me it is so. This is how I will shape my own artistic visions, projects, and preferences. Not by absorbing the positive critiques in the New Yorker.

I hope that this approach to art, and especially writing, will leave me with a stronger personal foundation for writing my own pieces and creating my own art. I want to be inspired by the things I truly like, not the things I believe I should like. I believe this is the only way to keep the artistic fire lit.

And, in the future, I must remember: to hell with the critics. They have personal preferences, too. If I can affect others, make them experience beauty, emotion, and keep them up at night, then I have succeeded, regardless of whether or not I have created a “masterpiece”.

6/10/16: The Zen of the Mundane

For the past two weeks, I’ve been volunteering in St. Louis, Missouri, at my great uncle’s charter school. This particular school is located in a largely African-American, low income neighborhood, in a zip code with one of the highest crime rates in St. Louis (one of the most criminal cities in the U.S.). I think it suffices to say that I am in a very different world from my own here, and the experience is every day opening my eyes to the life of many Americans.

I asked my great uncle to volunteer at the school with the intention of teaching and aiding in the classroom. I did a small amount of tutoring this week, but otherwise have remained largely outside the classroom. The work I have done behind the scenes- stapling, folding, sorting, organizing, and labelling- is the topic of this blog post. Sounds fascinating, I’m sure.

Before this trip, I never would have considered myself engaged in the acts of folding paper, labelling bookshelves, and sorting books. Given my desire for intellectual stimulation, I used to regard such tasks as the bane of my existence, too mundane to bear. My worst nightmare has always been to end up working in a job that involves repetitive, mechanical tasks devoid of mental strain. It’s not that I felt above these jobs, but that my academic energy made me terribly unsuited to mundane work. I simply didn’t think I could do such jobs for hours on end without banging my head against the wall and giving myself a concussion.

I will not claim here that stapling has become my life’s new passion, or that organizing books will be the central tenet of my future career. I still want to pursue an intellectually vigorous job involving a range of tasks and problems to solve. However, over the course of my volunteer work, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the meditative quality of repetitive work, and for the first time I understand the Eastern teachings on the virtues of the mundane.

I will admit, I did not do the work in silence- I listened to podcasts and audiobooks as I progressed through the piles of paper and books, as I stacked and photocopied, which kept me great company. My brain was engaged in a form of intellectual stimulation while my body performed a task over and over again. The act of repetitive movement calmed me in a surprisingly profound way. Doing the work, I became a sort of machine, not in the emotionally cold or detached sense, but in the perfecting of my physical routine. The more I stapled, the more efficient I became at stapling; I learned where to hold the stapler and how to grab the paper to cut down on time and fumbling. This is not a particularly impressive feat, of course, but it inspired me to strive for perfection, not all at once, but over the course of time. I adapted gradually to the ebb and flow of my repetitive tasks, each time honing my technique subconsciously to make my life easier.

Doing a mundane, physical, repetitive task for an extended period of time sounds about as enlightening and enjoyable as getting a tooth pulled, but the task can become its own sort of meditation if you are willing to persevere. A special kind of relaxation comes with repetition; you find yourself coming closer and closer to a perfect ebb and flow with the outer world. Repetition makes you value time and makes you realize that time and practice cannot be bypassed on the route to great work. You learn to move with time, allowing it to whittle away at the rough edges of your work and smooth your process. You learn to mechanize yourself in a harmonious movement of the body.

I believe these virtues can be learned through repetitive pursuits such as playing musical instruments and sports, but I encourage you to shoulder the “burden” of a truly mundane physical task. Explore the process and the gradual uptick in efficiency that comes with time spent immersed in routine. Allow yourself mental stimulation like I did, if you wish, or enjoy music, the sounds of nature, or the sound of your own thoughts.

What have you learned from a repetitive routine? Do you use physical repetition to calm down, meditate, and explore your physical self? How?

 

Here is a picture of the library!

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5/12/16: We are Only Now

I wouldn’t call myself an anxious person. I manage the stress of life- school, projects, college prospects, fitness, relationships, etc.- without much outward strife and struggle. In other words, I don’t seem “stressed out” all the time; no hair has been ripped from my head over the anxieties of life.

At the same time, I find that as I age and become engaged in more activities that have more serious aims and scopes, a low-level stress has begun to pervade my waking hours. At every moment, I seem to be thinking about what happened yesterday, what I need to be doing in five minutes from now, and how my current actions will impact my future in months and years from now. This moment is so often a means to an end for a future self. If I only do X now, I will achieve Y later, and it is the Y that I value, regardless of the stress and burden of X.

Additionally, this year has not been an easy one for me. I’ve had significant social ups and downs, which have damaged my self-confidence to a small degree. I’ve also become more attuned to my own perfectionism and the amount of pressure I put on myself has led me into some negative behaviors, like obsessive exercise and intense workaholism. I still love life, but the present moment has become somewhat less precious- I seem to focus only on a bright future, not on the brightness of this moment.

In times like these, I must remind myself: there is only now. I am now. You are now. We are all now.

At first the concept is simple: of course I am the person I am now; I exist, after all, in this moment, and I’ve never disputed that fact. But think about it more deeply and the truth behind this realization is transformative. I am not the person I was a moment ago. I am not the person I will be in a moment from now. I can never live in the past or future, only in the exact moment that I am in. The past and future are truly illusions. They do not exist. The only thing that ever exists is here and now.

I don’t have many enlightening words to say on this subject (if you’d like to have your mind blown, read anything by Eckhart Tolle), but I want to leave you all with a friendly reminder to embrace the present. I know, “live in the moment” is everywhere and certainly not original, but I hope you can approach this statement in a slightly different way today. Remember that the future you are working towards is just another now that hasn’t happened yet. Remember that each “now” is as valuable as each other “now,” and that a life lived for the future exclusively is a life unloved. If we always live for the future, and the future is just an eventual present, when will we ever get a chance to enjoy it? Never, until we can enjoy the now that the future brings us.

This is not, of course, to say that preparation for the future is pointless or futile. It is only to say that we all deserve to participate in activities, relationships, and practices for the purpose of reveling in the now. I just started doing yoga and an associated boot camp program, and the presentness of exercise has never felt so rewarding or invigorating. Come summer, I will begin to cook again, fully focused on the work in front of me. I have also been invited by the athletic trainer at my school, who is my dearest friend, to ride one of her horses on the trail with her this summer. I can only imagine what kind of mental and spiritual developments will occur out there in the wilderness on horseback, and I can’t wait to share thoughts and potential photos.

What do you do to stay in the present? How do you remember that you are now? Do you have a little saying or practice for remembering that only this moment is reality?

You are now. Whoever you were a moment ago, let them go. Whoever you will be in a moment from now, let them come, but do not worry too much about who they will be. Be the best you in this moment, and the best you will always follow. And, for goodness sakes, let yourself have a moment of respite from the stress of life. It is in respite that you will truly, presently live, and you deserve that pleasure at every moment, in every single now.

4/29/16: The Road Less Traveled

As some of you may remember, I applied to college as a junior this year, in an effort to move from my current school (with its academic and social limitations) to a new environment and academic experience. The good news is that I got accepted to 2 very prestigious American universities. The bad news is that neither felt quite right. One is very rural and revolves around Greek life (and I’m certainly no party animal), and the other is very technology and science oriented in such a way that humanities are viewed as somewhat inferior on campus. As you can tell, I’m rather attached to writing and the humanities at large, and being in a place where the humanities are stigmatized is not my ideal university location. Plus, two semesters of physics are required for graduation… shudder…

As a backup, in case I wasn’t accepted to college, I applied to two boarding schools and Stanford Online High School, an online platform that offers Skype-based classroom instruction and clubs. In a stroke of potential madness, I have elected to join Stanford’s program.

I never envisioned myself following this path next year. I imagined myself at college orientation, immersed in a college social life, balancing classes with time to explore my new home (which would have been the East Coast). Turning down 2 very well-reputed universities seems illogical if not preposterous. But so does going to a school in which I do not fit the mold and don’t feel quite “right.” If I’ve learned anything from this process, it is that intuition is capable of overriding logic, facts, analogies, personal stories, and just about every other piece of empirical data available. Whether or not intuition should reign supreme, I don’t know; but today, I am trusting it.

So I will be a high school student online, and that will take up about half of my time. It is what I plan to do with the other half that I want to write about, for it could very well be the experience of a lifetime. Perhaps you all can be my beta-testing crowd (more details to follow).

I’m a bit of a neuroscience junky, if such a passion can be combined with the word junky at all. In my free time I read psychology and neuroscience books aimed at explaining human behavior on a day-to-day emotional and mental level. I would consider this and writing to be my academic niches, though I enjoy a wide range of subjects.

Unfortunately, there is not much accessible (by which I mean comprehensible) literature about the neuroscience of adolescence. In my experience, there are very few resources for teenagers to explore and learn about their brains and psyches from a scientific and humanistic perspective. There are even less resources for teenagers struggling from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other adolescent problems to understand the neurological underpinnings of such conditions and disorders. Most information about such topics is dense, academic, and virtually incomprehensible to the average person, let alone the average fifteen-year-old.

An understanding of neuroscience and psychology is invaluable to the modern teenager. For the first time in history, we can begin to describe the physiological basis for mental illness, addiction, sexuality, social behavior, and puberty. We are starting to grasp the changes that occur in adolescence and the science behind why teenagers can be so intelligent and yet so irrational. This knowledge is not only good information to have on hand; it can literally change a person’s outlook on life. If you’re depressed and associate that with your personality, you may begin to hate yourself and see your life as unsalvageable. If you can see depression as a neurological condition, a chemical imbalance brought about my both circumstance and genes, then the future doesn’t appear so dark. Mental health issues and every aspect of life can be converted from personality and spiritual defects into physiological ailments with cures that include medication, but also mental tools such as meditation, socialization, attention to the present, positive habit-building, exercise, and increased personal reflection. We have the science to back these methods of healing now, but we fail to explain to the greater population of teenagers that the science is there.

This coming school year, in collaboration with my current school (who has generously offered up the sponsorship of a new faculty member who studied at Stanford’s adolescent brain research institute), I am going to build a Youtube channel and website with video and written content bridging neurological advancements with the everyday lives of teenagers. My goal is to help teenagers understand their brains, not in an impersonal way, but in an empowering way. Goodness knows our generation has healing to do, and we can now ground that healing in physiological science. That’s pretty exciting.

My website will likely be up and running sometime in August, and I would love it if you would all help me by spreading the word when that time comes. Perhaps you could watch a video or two and send your comments and healthy criticisms my way.

 

Pertaining to this year as a whole, I will only say this: For the first time I really am walking the road less traveled. Does it scare me because it presents somewhat of a risk? Yes. Is it worth it? I cannot say yet, for time will tell, but I have a strong intuitive feeling that it will be.

 

3/17/16: The Things We Auto-Know

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to anyone who celebrates! (Any Irish followers out there?)

I recently got a job at Mathnasium, which is a US franchise that functions as a math tutoring center for kids who are both behind in math and passionate about the subject. As a teenager, I work with the youngest kids who come into the center, generally from 2nd-5th grade.

Most of the students I’ve worked with are struggling with their math classes at school, and I often have to work with them through problems of simple addition and subtraction. These are skills I internalized about 10-11 years ago, and are the most basic arithmetic taught to elementary school children.

Yet, when I work with a struggling child, it often eludes me how on Earth to teach them to add two numbers together. How do you explain the ideas of mental math to a child? How do you transition them from counting laboriously on fingers to recognizing simple facts like 7+7? One girl I work with has immense difficulty adding 10 to other numbers half the time, and half the time she knows instantly. How do I teach her, when sometimes she knows the material perfectly, and other times she appears completely lost in the sea of numbers swirling around in her head?

I’m learning techniques, of course- subtracting or adding ten, then adjusting from there- but it’s left quite an impression on me that I am sometimes incapable of transmitting the basics of arithmetic from my mind to that of a child.

This is a post about first impressions, and surely I’ll have a much deeper understanding of pedagogy as it relates to math in the coming months. Right now, all I can think about is how strange it is that there are people, albeit young people, who can look at an equation like 10+7 and be lost. That’s not to criticize these children, or make them inferior, or put myself on any kind of pedestal. Really, I just feel baffled: how is it that these equations come so automatically to us after only a year or two of practice? How is it that once I see 10+7, 17 immediately pops into my head? I literally cannot look at 10+7 without seeing 17 in my mind’s eye. The knowledge is just there, appearing before me, without even having to think about it.

The same applies to reading, of course. I cannot look at a word in English without immediately knowing what it is and thinking about it. There is no way for me to separate myself from the knowledge of English, no way to interpret letters as mere sketches without meaning and phonetic principles. Put me before a page of words and I am a slave to it. I will read it because that is what my eyes and brain do.

It is this quality of the human mind that amazes me so much, working with these children. In a relatively short amount of time, we go from conscious thinking about math and reading to an entirely unconscious process. We accumulate knowledge so deep in our minds that it is literally ingrained in us. Each of us carries in us the English language and the laws of mathematics, the names of famous people and the ability to match spoken language with objects and words. These bits of knowledge are just as much a part of us as our personalities and preferences, and perhaps even more so- they simply exist, unaltered, always immediate and full of meaning.

I know how often I end posts with messages of gratitude, but I truly feel so grateful to be so automatically receptive to thoughts, language, math, and people. People especially; we are so fortunate as a species to have a built-in ability to detect emotion and thought in other people (which is such a broad topic that I will not even begin to delve into it here). I’m constantly astounded that we as human beings have become such advanced creatures that to read, write, and listen to words requires nothing more than presence.

I hope the kids I work with internalize math in such a way that they may seamlessly match answers to their addition and subtraction problems, and I am confident that they will. In the meantime, it is fascinating to watch the processes which occur unconsciously for me happen consciously for them. It makes me realize how much is going on in my head every time I open a book, turn on the radio, or do something as simple as read my alarm clock every morning. The things that happen each instant in a human brain…

 

3/2/16: A Little Thought on Empathy

I’m going to keep this brief, partially because I think there is value in brevity, and partially because the message I want to share it just short. Besides, I think too often in school we are encouraged to add fluff to our work, seemingly important sentences that only repeat our previous points, so that we may write five or ten page papers. So here’s to the brief, the short, the small bits of wisdom that are often the best!

I’ve been having a rather metaphysical, existential week, considering what it means to be human, alive, free, etc. (These are weeks that I have fairly frequently, but usually leave me more confused than enlightened!) I began the week, going through a thought that has plagued, amazing, and inspired me for such a long time. It goes something like this:

We all feel like selves, distinct creatures wandering around in space. But what if the space we occupy is really more of a fluid? Atomically speaking, this makes more sense anyway- there is no emptiness, there are just patches of more and less dense stuff. Imagine the world, the galaxy, the universe is just a big ocean of stuff, all part of a fluid that flows and changes.

In this fluid, everything is always in contact with the things surrounding it. Physically, we are never distinct from our environment; as our feet touch the ground and our skin touches the air, we are connected to those things. On an atomic level, my feet are really no different from my socks or my shoes or the ground below them, and though we are not bonded we are nonetheless just a bunch of atoms all pushed up against each other. So what makes me distinct from my environment? Why am I not the ground and the air that touches me?

Because I cannot feel the air. I cannot feel the ground. The only sensations that I can feel are those of my own body, mind, and spirit.

Or am I? What happens when I feel the emotions of others, when I am so connected with their joy or strife that it becomes a part of me? What happens when tears come to my eyes as I watch someone mourn the death of a loved one? What happens when I cringe, physically experiencing pain, as I watch another hit their thumb with a hammer?

This is called empathy, and I believe it is the end of the self. It is the spiritual blurring of the distinction between you and me, between us all. So though we may not be the atoms of air around us, our ‘spiritual atoms,’ so to speak, are more fluid, interchanging, and self-less than we may think.

Remember, then, that the lines we draw between our own souls and those of others may be crossed, or sometimes disappear altogether.