It’s the beginning of the end. My final semester at U of T has begun, and this fine 2 a.m. on the first Wednesday back at school I sit here hacking away at my blogpost. Which is due tomorrow. Clearly I am already in fine form for the semester.
As always but particularly this week, I have a great excuse for this: my last first week of school. This week has already involved ice skating, martial arts, dance, a poetry reading, a meeting of a student council I’m part of, too many free waffles, two writers’ meetings, a debate, a film screening, a community kitchen, and dropping by some of my favourite offices and unions on campus. I don’t want to miss a thing. Or any of my seven classes.
What I really need is balance. I’m adventurous. I like to play, and travel, and audit grad-level seminars in things I don’t major in, and buy books about five times faster than I can finish them. I’ll admit that I’m scared to leave university because this place is my nerd-vana. I know very well that cramming 12 or 13 extracurricular commitments into my already densely-packed timetable is probably a terrible idea, but completely exhausting myself and my opportunities is one of the only ways I really know how to finally be still.
That, and meditation.
This week I began a 10-week meditation workshop series under one of the psychology professors here at U of T. Meditation, coming from the same etymological lineage as “median” means “to find one’s centre.” Part of this involves the integration and understanding of how our minds can stress or liberate our bodies, and conversely, how our bodies can initiate pain or bliss for our minds. Thus, it is truly special to have the opportunity to cultivate mindfulness under the supervision of someone who is not only an advanced meditator, but also a passionate scholar of the mind. I’ve had a steady meditative practice for about two years now, but still find this introductory course to be very valuable. I’m lucky, I think, to attend huge lectures listening to someone lay out crucial scientific progress in the study of the mind, only a day or two later to practice and cultivate these very qualities with this same instructor in the informal, small-group nature of a meditation and tai chi class.
There are compelling reasons to cultivate mindfulness through the practice of meditation. Scientifically, as discussed in courses like Introduction to Cognitive Science and Positive Psychology, advanced meditators in fact have radically different brain activity than people who do not meditate, which has been cultivated over years of disciplined cognitive work. On a more personal level though, this was best expressed by our professor in the workshop by saying: “Meditation leads to insight, insight to wisdom, and wisdom to freedom. Freedom exists for its own sake.”
We learned in the first class that meditation has three components: posture, attention, and attitude. One might like to think of posture as what you are physically doing, attention as “being present” by cognitively attending to that which you are doing, and attitude as the outlook and feelings you have surrounding the entire practice. We were reminded of the absurdity of trying to make someone calm down by yelling, “calm down!” – and such is also the case with the mind.
We learned that coming out of a meditative state is just as important as the meditation itself – I choose to think of this as a means of living deliberately. It is not just about what you do (posture), but the way you approach doing it (attitude) and the degree to which you engage with it (attention). Thinking in this way, some of the chaos of trying to grab onto as many life experiences at U of T as I can begins to subside. I’m going to instead try to pick a few disparate goals, frame them in terms of action, attitude, and depth, and savour each and every one of them. In the intensely stimulating university environment, it is essential to find a place to stop, be still, and just breathe.
This semester, know thyself! Start here: