Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Admit That the Waters Around You Have Grown

It has been a long time since the last post and it feels even longer with how much has been sandwiched in between (including but not limited to 2,000 old temples with my Dad and June, blue whale watching on the equator, my passport getting eaten by a feral dog, being visited by two lovely Belgium friends, joining a class on Yogachara Buddhism and Phenomenology taught by a Korean Buddshist, as well as deciding to change everything about my project, passion, and future goals. Sigh—the last one is a biggie).

I am writing after having just returned from the South Central Asia Fulbright Conference in Cochin India. It is always nice to plant feet back in the subcontinent, to see how it’s changed, remained the same, and experience its unique cacophony of smells, sounds and faces so akin with India’s “one in the world” personality. Fulbright, being the government funded program that it is, put all of us up in one of India’s finest hostels called “Le Meridian,” where we had two room bedrooms, all you can eat 5 star buffets, a three tier swimming pool, and a good dose of pomp and wine to act out the conference for the 3 days we where there. This, being my first conference of such nature, was a learning experience in it of itself about how these kinds of things work—the networking, the presenting, the conversations and friendships that can be established. I see why academics alike pay exorbitant amounts of money to join such endeavors. So that was all good a merry. But the real treat was being able to see my host sister, Aadithaya, who after 7 years flew all the way from Chennai for the one day she had off from the most prestigious Indian academic institution, IIT, to see silly old me. I felt very blessed to have had that time with her, catching up, reliving old memories, and realizing how much both of us have grown. Wow. Time is a tricky little beast.

At the conference I also presented my research, which was a very exciting opportunity (and one that I was quite vocally “frightened of doing”). In the face of some of the most worldly and brilliant people I was worried that I may not be able to keep up, being a novice undergraduate with a penchant for getting myself in over my head. I am not saying that didn’t happen, BUT I am very happy that I did present and once I got over the shyness, the many conversations that ensued were of immeasurable value to me.

Almost everyone at the conference was a scientist and an artist, a researcher and writer. Honestly, it was nice to be around such an eclectic bunch because it made me feel a little more sane (something that I have been questioning recently as the things I am reading and experiencing are frequently debunking the most basic truths that I’ve come to know). My talk was called “The Influence of Metta Bhavana on Interpersonal Perception: A Cognitive Analysis” by title, but was something rather different in practice. Being in Sri Lanka has been the first real opportunity for me to conduct a scientific study on what I have for so long been interested in doing. Interestingly, through this practice I’ve realized that although intellectually satisfying in many ways…it may not actually be what I want to do (gotta love the irony). There are so many reasons for this, all of which have been germinating for a long time now and are still quite fragile, so I’d rather not detail them all here in defense of this decision considering they might still change, revert, or solidify. But for now, I honestly am not sure anymore if science is the right track or method for me to examine what it is I am curious about: the mind. Science provides one lens (quite literally at times) to examine phenomena on a certain level in a certain magnitude. I am not sure if my interests can be contained in such a myopic way.

For those of you who don’t know alongside my original cognitive neuroscience work, I’ve been toiling with a contemplative photography project to get at experience and transformation of view from a different angle. Over one week I’ve been asking Buddhist monks, nuns and mediators to photograph what they see as being compassion with a disposable camera as a reflection of their lived, direct experience with this idea. Afterwards their top five favorite will be mounted on glass alongside a portrait of the photographer, definitions of the photographs, and displayed with a hand painted version of Ramon y Cajal’s original pyramidal neuron drawings using a traditional Theravadan ink technique. All of this will be displayed here and back home as a traveling collaborative art exhibit about perceptions of compassion in an attempt to blur 1st and 3rd person experience and challenge our current methods for measuring and communicating subjectivity. Part of fostering compassion is walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, or in this case, seeing the world from someone else’s perspective.

It is this kind of work I foresee myself doing in the future, not hooking monks up to EEGs and chugging their response time data through statistical analyses and spreadsheets. Perhaps it is the climate of Sri Lanka that has gotten me thinking like this, but all of that feel far too stifling.

AND alas, the whole world changes. My mind has wandered to the ideas of taking some more time off of school and learning more experientially about meditation in a Korean nunnery and how cultivated introspection may be a better way to approach all of this. I’ve also played with the idea about changing my career path entirely and taking off the white coat to play with paint and words by joining an MFA program where I could talk about contemplative science through a more vivid medium. I am not sure where the winds will blow. All she knows is the next few months will be of great interest and even greater impact. A time of true transit and transition. But I can tell you one thing: I’ve not felt this alive for a long, long time.

And for that I am thankful.


  1. -- Kelly, you are so talented and I hope you do realise that!! In Nigeria, they say "Na wow" especially when u r so lost of words. Gud to know that you are enjoying urself in ur adventures around the world. Best regards!! Henry

  2. Kelly, don't think of "hooking monks up to EEGs" as a dead end, think of it as a thread in a tapestry you're weaving. You need to go get some other threads, yes, but sooner or later you'll also find that you needed this one. Perhaps you'll be applying for another fellowship or auditioning for a play or writing a book of poetry or speaking at TED, but you'll suddenly find that you're the most qualified person to do it because of your experiences. Thanks for keeping us informed!!