By Gigi Falk, Duke Student
As my first blog post began to disseminate through the news feeds of my friends, family, and beyond, I was soon met with eager responses from a range of individuals, each with a unique story and a distinct way of connecting with my message of mindfulness. I was elated and humbled by the opportunity to discuss a topic so close to my heart with those that shared my feelings of dissatisfaction with. and curiosity about, the world we live in. But more importantly, through this dialogue, I am beginning to better understand why our culture is in such desperate need of contemplative practice and why we have not already adopted such philosophies.
When I reflect on how my understanding of the world developed to where it is now, to where I have decided to devote my summer to spiritual pursuit and personal growth, I realize that over the past few years I have had the unbelievable fortune of happening upon a very specific series of documentaries, books, and individuals that profoundly impacted the way I view myself and the world.
"...Through this dialogue, I am beginning to better understand why our culture is in such desperate need of contemplative practice and why we have not already adopted such philosophies."
Following my discovery of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I stumbled upon a documentary called I Am that dared me to question Western materialism, helping me recognize the overwhelming difference between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of capital. Around the same time, I read Don Miguel Ruiz's The Four Agreements, which provided me with my first glimpse of spirituality and an unorthodox view of creating fulfillment and joy. Next, I found David Brook's The Road to Character, which reaffirmed my intuitions and gave me the confidence to embrace and cultivate values greater than those on our resumes. And Chade-Meng Tan's Search Inside Yourself tactfully integrated emotional intelligence with meditative practice, all imbued with the science-based research and pragmatism of a Google engineer. This series of books and films eventually inspired me to enroll in a course at Duke on the history and psychology of Buddhist mediation, which infused my passion in this field with widespread literary, historic, and scientific knowledge. While this collection of material explores highly disparate topics, ranging from neuroscience to ethical inquiry, their combined message afforded me a fuller understanding of the human experience and the pursuit of our noblest intentions.
I will be forever grateful for the course of events that slowly opened my mind in this way, but I recognize that most people won't have the luck or the time to happen upon the knowledge that transformed my thinking. And while there is no magic formula for transcending the personal beliefs that have guided our behavior and defined our concept of the self, the powerful voices and opinions I have heard in this field over the past two years profoundly influenced my idea of how my own life should be lived. For those that resonate with the doubts and fears addressed in my first post and that are searching for remedy or change, I have attempted here to explore the three greatest lessons that influenced me the most in the past few years.
"In a world that encourages infinite to-do lists and unrelenting working habits, we are rarely given the opportunity or the encouragement to simply reflect."
First, I have come to realize the overwhelming importance and power of my thoughts. In a world that encourages infinite to-do lists and unrelenting working habits, we are rarely given the opportunity or the encouragement to simply reflect. Most of us grew up with grades, awards, and praise serving as concrete proof of our achievements and efforts, causing us to undervalue actions that don't provide us with immediate and tangible results, such as our own thoughts, opinions, hopes, and fears.
But, by paying attention to our thoughts, we may come to recognize that they are not as grounded in reality as we once believed. By acknowledging our opinions, we might realize that they are not totally our own. By contemplating our hopes, we may come to better understand our true aspirations. And by recognizing our fears, we may be able to accept them rather than suppress them. The first greatest lesson I have learned this year is that thoughts should be valued above all else because our thoughts define and create our reality.
The remarkable and exquisite consequence of nurturing an appreciation for our thoughts is that we naturally begin to reflect on them. The second greatest lesson I learned, which grew out of the first, is the importance of self-reflection. Examining our lives gives us the gift of lucidity, helping us see with clear eyes rather than through a lens of past experiences and exposures. With this, we are able to cultivate the clarity to identify and the confidence to pursue paths that inspire and energize us, while letting go of futures that no longer suit our intentions. As Socrates declared, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
"The remarkable and exquisite consequence of nurturing an appreciation for our thoughts is that we naturally begin to reflect on them."
By examining my own life, I have begun to refine and redefine my values in a way that deeply aligns with my personal vision of success, as opposed to my parents' or culture's. I recognize now that it is incredibly easy to go through life following a path of others' expectations, but deceivingly difficult to establish our own standards of success. To me, a successful day is not one spent tirelessly working from morning until evening, even if I finish my most challenging assignment. It is one in which I feel a sense of inspiration from, and pride for, my work. It is one where I am present enough to enjoy the warmth and comfort of my morning cup of tea. It is one where I have time to practice yoga in the evening and appreciate the endless flow of conversation with my sister over dinner. Thus, the third greatest lesson I would like to share is that a truly successful day is one infused with the joys that make us human and that make life worth living, not one with the most checks off of a to-do list.
We must honor our thoughts. We must continuously examine our lives as they are now and as we want them to be. And we must define success for ourselves and have the audacity to believe in our definition. At first, it takes courage to shift our priorities in what initially feels unorthodox and even wrong. In our culture, it sounds foolish, or even lazy, to prioritize a yoga class over an extra hour of studying. But just a few steps back and a bit of confidence can help us realize that our existence is greater than the assignments, deadlines, and expectations that we agonize over and sacrifice our daily lives for. Through evaluating our motives and seeking to redefine our priorities, we can slowly become the people that we want to be, living the lives that we truly want to live.
Gigi Falk, a sophomore at Duke University, is studying cognitive neuroscience with a focus in contemplative sciences. She is interested in exploring the intersection of mindfulness and neuroscience, in order to foster a deep and thorough understanding of meditation as mental training for a more fulfilling life. By exploring happiness and fulfillment as something that is internally driven and supporting such claims with science-based evidence, she hopes to contribute to the dialogue surrounding western meditation with a distinct voice.