I took four months off from my graduate studies. I thought, and well, still do think that it will be rejuvenating in terms of my research and studies, which had gotten to be a wee bit stressful, as well as helpful in terms of figuring out the place of writing in my life (or whether there is a substantial place). And to those who I think need to be convinced that this summer off thing was a good idea, I mention this talk: “The Power of Time Off.” Of course, I haven’t worked for 7 years, but then again I’m not taking a whole year off either, so I think it still applies to my situation.
The purpose of this project has been to take a break from the race that our lives so easily turn in to at such a young age: you get into a good high school, then you compete to get into a good university, then you rush off to a good graduate program, and yes, you succeed but how much of it do you do because you’ve thought about it long and clear and not because you were expected to do it? It is certainly a privilege to be saying these words, and to be able to take time off (thanks to all of those who have supported me), so I do realize I’ve been very lucky so far in life. I am now a month and a half into my four months off, and the best I can do is make the most of the time I have left.
So, as a part of this break, which to me also encompasses figuring out how to have balance and calm in my regular life (so that it doesn’t go back to becoming a mindless horse race), how to increase productivity and efficiency, and how to overcome anxiety that often is a stall to efficiency, I attended a 4-day long Art of Living course in New York. This was an addition to my ongoing regime of daily exercising and healthy eating, and eventually meant that my daily it-will-be-like-brushing-your-teeth-after-enough-practice activities now add up to a minimum of two hours of my time.
It all happened very quickly. Last Friday, I went to one of their free meditation practices, which they hold twice a week. My plan was to go to these free practices every week. When I was there, however, I realized that these would be very similar each week, and that there wasn’t much room for advancement, or instruction on how to make meditation part of your daily life. I wanted meditation to become part of my everyday life because I had read all these scientific studies on the benefits of meditation when it is practiced regularly. I can’t say that I was impressed by the instructor during the free session, but I was still motivated and inspired enough to sign up for the 4-day course, which started right away the following Monday.
The course was from 9:30 am to 2 pm, which meant that, since I live in Harlem, I had to wake up at around 7:30 am. When you reached the fifth floor of the 5th avenue building where the center is located, you were asked to remove your shoes. The course took place mostly in the room to the right: a dimly lit room with faded green mats covering its hardwood floors, and the portrait of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar gleaming next to a vase of fresh red roses with a burning candle in front (the first day I wondered whether they changed the flowers every day, and found out the second day that they did, when there were powder carnations in the vase instead). We had two teachers, one a full-time teacher, and one a sweet nomad who kept moving because of her husband’s job but volunteered at the Art of Living wherever she went. I liked them both, as well as the rest of the participants. We were a very diverse group, which I find to be true for most endeavors I’ve undertaken in New York so far. We were diverse despite the fact that everyone else but me was of Indian origin. In addition to the breathing exercises, meditation practices, and yoga, the course included many conversations about life led by the two teachers, during which we shared life experiences, feelings, and reflections. Every one of us got to know each other in a way that people rarely get to know each other outside that room. I would have loved to share their stories in writing, but I have to abide by their trust.
To be honest, I haven’t yet figured out what the experience meant for me. Each day, I looked forward to going there the next day, and I felt calm and happy during and after. My favorite part was dancing as if no one was there, setting your spirit free and letting it follow the rhythm however it wishes. But I’m not a very spiritual person, so I don’t know if I felt a particular connection to the universe or something like that. I do know that, to see the long term effects, I really need to continue practicing what I learned. That’s the only way I will have given meditation a true chance.
Now, I also have to admit that I’ve been struggling with the whole no-routine thing that the break has caused. I wake up in the morning, and the day seems endless and overwhelming, though of course it’s not endless and there have been days where I finish one task all day. So, having to wake up at 7:30 for a few days actually felt really good. I had a concrete purpose. And now, after having done the course and not being able to spend a whole lot of time on other tasks, I feel like I can make more of the endless days.