Monday, September 24, 2012

Extremes to Balance: Yet living on the edge

The background

The past five years have seen me go from an extreme living - an unbalanced life to a more balanced living. Let me explain.
Entering grad school in 2006, I had trouble adjusting to my program and doing research I was being asked to do. I was pulling all-nighters left and right, would work very hard for a few days and slack-off big time a few days later.
My eating habits were also on an extreme - I was subsisting on the same meal 3 times a day.
Granted, some of these experiences everyone does undergo in the beginning phase of grad school - However, even my mental states were teetering on extremes - Very happy one day to depressed the next day.
It was a period of high stress and many highs and lows. It was a period that wouldn't have been sustainable had I maintained my extreme schedule and state of mind.

A new beginning 
However, things started to change a couple of years later - I left my program, I started taking courses that were challenging yet I loved them. I found a new advisor and joined a new program. And sometime before these changes actually began, I started meditating on a regular basis.
It was my solace from all the chaos around me, all the uncertainity around me (at this time in 2008, I had no advisor to guide me - I was just following what seemed exciting and intersting).  Meditation gave me stability - It made me realize how volatile my mental state was - A continuous flurry of worries, emotions and fear I observed during my meditation process (I was doing "Observation meditation") - I even felt an extreme fear of going insane during these periods. However, I asked myself a question:
"Would I be ok if for some reason my mind went out of control?" - It was tough, but my answer was yes  - And that was when things started to change.
If I am not afraid of losing control of my mind - Then there is nothing else to be afraid of in life - And nothing much to worry either. "Nothing matters" was my realization and mantra at that time - It made a whole lot of difference to my mental state - My worries about the future gradually went down, I was less tense, and through all of this, I kept my meditation steady and saw that the fog was clearing up - Life was going to become more smoother - All because my perspective and my state of mind were changing for the better. Instead of a "flight or fight" response I had during the high-stress phase, I was starting to tend towards a "deliberate and calm" response.

These changes have occurred in phases and yet there has been a steady progress.
There was a time when I thought, would I every glimpse "inner peace" on a continual basis? And yet that very idea has taken shape. It's an inner flowering to a more peaceful state of mind and meditation has been a constant companion in stimulating and easing through these changes.
To give a concrete example: There used to be a time when I used to get very perturbed by missing a bus. Now, there are times when I miss two buses in a row and I am fine with that. And that's how it should be - What does one gain by making a big fuss of it, getting annoyed, frustrated, etc? Nothing!
What would be more useful is a calm analysis of what just happened. Why am I missing the bus or the boat (this literally happened recently), so to speak? Perhaps because I don't give myself enough time to get to the bus stop - Perhaps its my drive to be more efficient and to make the most of every minute that sometimes gets me into these situations.
Recognizing this and understanding this is a more useful thing to do than getting "annoyed", however natural it may seem. Indeed, it seems natural since it has become ingrained in the neuronal circuitry by repetitive behavior.

Infact I have tried to think of a situation in day-to-day life where it is actually useful to lose one's calm.
Can you think of one?
I can think of none - I think that there are always ways to address tough and adverserial situations "more effectively" by keeping ones calm.

The balancing act

Through my 5 years in grad school, I have realized the import of having a good work-life balance.
Although this might seem intuitive, in practice, balancing has been tough for me.
Don't get me wrong - I love physical activities, I love meditation and ofcourse my research. However to be able to balance these things on a continual basis, one needs to prioritize ones' tasks effectively - Something I am still figuring out.
I have always been a person who gets easily excited about things that come my way, so much so that I lose track of my priorities. A person who sticks to his priorities is more consistent in "the balancing act" than one who is not.
Example: Someone invites me for dinner, I stay up late at their place playing games, having fun and sleep in so that I miss a running race the next day (this has happened to me more than once) - When did my "immediate environment" become more important than my "long-term balance"? It's precisely when I decided to ignore my priorities or became less aware of my priorities.

On the other hand, there are people who are very clear about their priorities - However their priorities are all related to work. So their balance suffers.

What we need is a mix of the two qualities - An understanding of the importance of balance in one's life and the means to execute this in real life through effective prioritization.

Balancing yet Living on the edge
The next paradigm that I would like to explore, now that I have made progress on the basics (more inner peace and stability, more balance) is the idea of living on the cutting edge.
What do I mean by this? I am referring to the idea of being open to the opportunities, both planned and unplanned that come into our lives and seizing them immediately: We often hesitate when life throws an opportunity our way. What we plan for, we are ready to execute. But what of something that's unplanned but sounds great? We should be equally ready to recognize such an opportunity and change plans accordingly. How quickly can we adapt to these changes and re-plan our path - That is the crux of this idea I would like to explore.
As an example: I recently had an opportunity to do a good internship that would have helped my career - However I hesitated in my decision as it was not in my current plan. And a few days later it was gone.

I am also referring to the related idea of converting road-blocks and obstacles that come our way into a play-ground for exploring creative solutions. How awesome it would be to say - "I am stuck at this point in my work and not able to see any obvious solutions. How wonderful! This is an opportunity for me to exercise my creative muscles. Perhaps the solution would be innovative. That's even better!". Now take this idea and extend it from work to every aspect of life. One can even come up with creative ways of dealing with people.
Indeed, some people are natural at this. We call them "good managers".

Summing it up
To sum-up, let me humbly tell you that I have had a great time in grad-school so far and have learnt quite a few lessons, both academic and non-academic. There have been great many ups and downs that I have been through - But more recently I have noticed that I don't get fazed by either the ups or down. I stay more grounded and try to focus on the big picture. Example: Yes, its great to have this paper accepted, but I have quite a bit of work to do before making an impact in my area. Example: It's unfortunate that some-else proved this conjecture, yet I will have more conjectures come my way - so not to worry.
I see more and more, the importance of balance in both the quality of my work and the quality of my life. Balance gives me a win-win in both my research and in my life. I meditate -> So I more calm and can take set-backs more easily -> So I am more persistent in getting solutions to research problems instead of just getting frustrated and doing nothing -> So I am more productive and publish more quality papers. I invest daily time in physical activity -> So I am refreshed in the evening -> I can still get work done later in the night with a fresh mind -> I have more quality time for my research.
There is a certain synergy that happens when I integrate meditation, physical activity and research into my daily life. I love each of these three activities and one helps the other, and I love that synergy too.

Ofcourse, balancing is not easy and effective prioritization is something I am working on for better execution of balance. Finally, I like and am exploring the idea of living on the edge, which is embracing uncertainity and recognizing the opportunities both planned and unplanned, welcome and un-welcome that come our way and seizing them immediately and being creative in over-coming any obstacles for a more fuller, harmonious, exciting, peaceful and enjoyable life!