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Better Than Caffeine

July 21, 2017
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‘Borobodur 4’ by Hartwig HKD via Flickr.com

July has been a month of cognitive overload. I’m working on three highly creative, analytical, and energizing projects simultaneously. As much as I told myself architecture school was tough, I couldn’t have done this six or seven years ago. Even though I worked through my entire sentence in Arch Hall, it was usually on one major design project, a couple of boring part time jobs, and a one night a week at the student newspaper.

This month, I’m teaching an intensive summer class for three days each week in 2.5 hour morning blocks, with afternoon labs where I make cameo appearances to return graded work, give instructions to my TA, and basically provide comic relief. I love it. I love all 19 of my students and sincerely want them all to pass, even the ones who are failing right now. But it’s a constant performance, writing the script as I go with barely enough time to memorize the lesson plan and grade the papers in between. Luckily, it’s a class I’ve taught before, though not for a couple of years. The students finish their projects next week and I want to celebrate with all of them.

Amid that, I’m collecting and analyzing data for my dissertation. This involves 90-minute intensive interviews with fellow Buddhist chaplains. They’re a humorous, poignant, and enlightening bunch of folks. As this is a grounded theory study, between interviews I’ve been conducting continuous data analysis, reading and coding thousands of lines of text, writing hundreds of words of memos and notes. Questions and hypotheses proliferate like dandelions. There’s no time to slow down, because each interview must be coded and analyzed before the next. I’m sitting at ten interviews in the past six weeks with at least two more to go.

Then there’s my third baby. In February, my boss launched a major creative project at work and asked me to do two things as part of a taskforce of ten. First, I keep the team organized and on track. That’s mundane, sending meeting reminders, putting together agendas, checking in with folks. The second part is the more challenging bit: take what those ten people produce and synthesize it into something coherent and persuasive to present to the Board of Trustees.

We spent the first month just figuring out what our job was and the next four evaluating our options. This month, we’ve been working on designing something truly beautiful. Everyone has made a major contribution and it’s up to me to make sense of it. That’s okay, it’s what I’m good at. I’ve done it with accreditation reports, strategic plans, learning outcomes, and a dozen smaller projects. In all those instances, I had good relationships with open communication among the parties. This project is going to the Board, though, whom I know far less well and are often opaque in their intentions (at least to me).

I’m coping with some major transference. It’s like architecture school all over again. I fear I’ll pour my heart and soul into something beautiful that never gets built. This appeared as sad dreams and low energy in early June. Once I identified the source and worked through some of it on a weekend meditation retreat, the depression receded and I got back to work. Now as the deadline approaches, I am once again experiencing mild exhaustion and a strong impulse to retreat into Netflix and napping. Thus far I’ve held it off by focusing on being highly productive as early in the day as I can for as long as I can and resting in the evenings, without guilt tripping myself too much. I’ve even given up on walking the dog in the summer heat until this is complete. He’ll make do with weekends.

Thankfully, the end is nigh. With the end of July, the class, the interviews, and the project presentation will all come and go. The dissertation and project will continue, but move into different phases with extended deadlines. I plan to take at least two days off in the following week, which my boss heartily endorses. I could not have done this in the College of Architecture. Even as recently as three years ago, I don’t believe I could have done this. So what changed?

I started doing something different. Though I do very little meditation, maybe ten minutes a day on a good day, meditation does me a lot of good. It focuses the mind wonderfully. I noticed the difference on my recent meditation retreat. It was the first one I’ve ever attended from which I didn’t want to run screaming at any point. I believe this was partially due to it being a small retreat with people I knew in a mostly deserted retreat center. We cooked for ourselves and looked after ourselves. We interacted as equals, though we all looked to Venerable Guan Zhen as our senior, our teacher. No one gave me any advice or grief about my unorthodox meditation posture. No one tried to ‘fix’ me. (Buddha bless chaplains!) But also, I meditated.

I mean, really meditated. Not for ten or twenty or thirty minutes, but hours. I loved the silence and stillness of my squirrely mind. I’m sure that sounds like a paradox because it is, but there is a beautiful calm in letting the mind be squirrely without letting it make you run laps around the room. And I spent an entire day barely talking at all. What a relief that was!

Ten minutes of meditation most mornings are enough to help me concentrate and focus when I need to, let go of worries and ruminative thoughts when I need to, notice when my mind gets discursive in meetings, listen to my body when it says it’s tired, ignore my body when it wants five more minutes of sleep it doesn’t need, and have just the right amount of self-compassion, minus just the right amount of self-indulgence. Then there’s five years of audio books about social science, psychology, and Dharma. Back that up by two years of teaching a class about willpower while trying not to be a hypocrite. I guess teaching really is the best way to learn.

The people around me are also different. In Arch Hall, I felt a keen isolation. Here, I have ten other professionals on my design team, an entire support staff shepherding these 19 students through the summer program, and three dissertation advisors who actually reply to my emails once in a while (which, I’ve heard, is not that common among dissertation committees). Years ago, when I emailed my thesis chair for help with burnout, my message went unanswered. I also have a supporting partner, who obligingly asks “Should you be writing?” when I’ve spend more than an hour or two on the couch and makes me the best ever baked potatoes for dinner just because. Today, when I ask for help, I get help.

On Wednesday, I taught class in the morning like normal, had lunch in the dining hall with coworkers, and then retreated to my office to grade papers, answer emails, and write a summary of my upcoming presentation. A few minutes past three o’clock, I wandered over to stick my head into lab, where my students should have been working on their final project proposals only to find they were all gathered in Locke Hall.

A student who’d come through this very same class with me three years ago was there, holding these baby freshmen captive while she read them the riot act about stepping up, paying attention, showing respect, working hard, and using this opportunity to pass so they didn’t have to take this class all over again. “You don’t have to go to college,” she reminded them. “You chose to be here.” Some of these kids, ahem, young adults where freshmen at her high school when she was a senior. She took no prisoners, while the staff stood back and watched, some with stunned looks, others with barely concealed delight. Later that day, two students came to find me in my office for input on their projects and an unprecedented three of them emailed me with questions or completed work two days before deadline. I found our fierce lecturer before I left and gave her a hug. (Brainwashing works!)

I couldn’t have done this six years ago. I couldn’t have done this without good teachers leading me through, a sangha all around me, and the Dharma at my back. I don’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, but I think it shows what training the mind and the right environment can accomplish. The Three Jewels are better than caffeine, it turns out.

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