Friday, 31 January 2014

Day 22: The research begins

What went well? 
  1. I'm really appreciating my TA for my Intro Buddhism class. She's really engaging and knowledgable, and has a good sense of humour (e.g. playing Justin Timberlake's "What goes around comes around" & Alicia Keys' "Karma" to show that the idea of karma has come up in the West too).
  2. Had a really great conversation over lunch with a new friend who's in a couple of my classes. It's always a pleasure to connect with people who have different and interesting perspectives and yet similar interests and values, and most importantly, are genuine and open.
  3. Finished coding half of the qualitative data on what some non-Western participants think wellbeing/happiness means to them. It was actually really interesting and uplifting to read through them all.

What did I learn? 
  • Stigma against people with mental illness is tied largely to perceptions of dangerousness.
  • Genetic arguments about mental illness either absolve responsibility or heighten perceptions of threat, depending on the kind of diagnosis (depression/anxiety vs schizophrenia). So biological arguments are a double-edged sword.
  • The Buddhist concept of rebirth is very complicated. Unlike the Hindu idea of reincarnation that involves a soul being passed on, Buddhists don't believe that a soul or self exists. So what exactly is being "reborn"? I'm extremely fuzzy on this, but it's something to do with karmas, the effects of your actions...
  • The acoustics in pretty much all the music practice rooms are as dead as a doornail. The effects of soundproofing...I found that the classroom wasn't as bad though, so I'll probably just use music classrooms when they're empty.
  • Qualitative data coding is a pretty subjective process. I didn't always trust myself on the decisions I made. Hence why there are several coders so we can see how much inter-rater reliability there is.

Miscellaneous thoughts
  • Things that work well for effective teaching & learning (a student's POV):
    • Setting clear time limits for discussion ("Ok, now discuss for 60 seconds...")
    • Answering questions or taking comments, but limiting the number ("last question..."). If there are more questions that are getting in the way of delivering content or moving onto more productive discussion, it would be fruitful to suggest that the student send them through via email or visit office hours.
    • Using relatable analogies to engage students and help them understand otherwise esoteric ideas.
    • Probing students to justify their opinions/statements, playing devil's advocate, challenging them to really think about what they're saying so they'll provide high quality answers.
    • Asking students to interpret graphs in class instead of just telling them directly what it means.
  • On politics: I read this article today, and a quote in it, "We have all of this rising inequality, and it’s not just because of market forces. It’s because governments favor rich people over poor people", reminded me of one of the ideas that came up in our profound conversation last night. Money corrupts and distorts the very idea of democracy, because rich people hold so much political power in funding elections and essentially buying the policies they want passed (usually to make them richer). Poor people have no true voice and hence this perpetuates inequality. Man, so many of the things we talked about last night just made me think: "...'merica." I was enlightened.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Day 21: Best conversation ever

What went well?

  1. Found out some details of what I'll be helping with for positive psychology research. One project is to do with coding qualitative data from Malaysian participants as to what happiness/wellbeing means to them, to see how valid the PERMA measure is across cultures (i.e. building from the ground up rather than just imposing a theory onto a culture), and the other is to help actually design the methodology for testing a new positive psychology intervention! And there'll be more as the semester comes along.
  2. Had the best conversation ever this semester at the Philomathean Society event this evening with just a few people. Topics included:
    • US politics...& drones
    • Human rights
    • Language & thought (psychology)
    • Values in education
    • Just omg. These people are so deep and thoughtful...
  3. Found the multi-purpose room at the gym. I had been wondering where the medicine balls and normal straight pull-up bars were. FYI, 2nd floor, past the basketball court. There's also a couple of punching bags behind this picture.
  4. Made a healthy dinner.
  5. Broccoli-spinach-chickpea-sweet-potato power bowl, inspired by Thrive.

What did I learn?

  • Issues in the US are more serious than I imagined (e.g. drones, poverty, healthcare)
  • There exists something called the "Rainbow Family" which is basically a hippy organisation that I probably resonate with quite a bit :P
  • Bilingual children get a lot of cognitive advantages, including self-regulation. To be cited...

Happy Chinese New Year!!!

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Day 20: Crashing faculty meetings

What went well?

  1. Got my paperwork in for music lessons for credit 2 hours before the deadline.
  2. Intro to Buddhism lecture. I think this is going to be a regularly recurring WWW, but seriously, it's that good. e.g. to illustrate the concept of "karma" as simply meaning chains of effect and causality, the professor suggested all the possible effects if he punched a student in the face: he'd probably get beaten up by his friends, get fired, students would post on twitter, it would get in the news, etc etc.
  3. Caught up with a new friend for coffee today, had a lovely chat, and it turned out that I was going to audit the lecture she was also going to afterwards.
  4. That said lecture was for positive psychology, and the professor was super efficient and absolutely clear even while talking super fast and going super fast in general. I think it'll be a great class to audit.

What did I learn?

  • Double-check anything you're putting into your calendar. So I turned up to the Solomon building (where the Psychology department lives) this afternoon for a colloquium, found the room, and was about to take a seat when I was informed that it was a faculty meeting. Checked the event page and turns out it was on Monday. WOOPSIES.
  • Religions edit their scriptures all the time to take out the bits they don't like, and Buddhism is no different. But with all the edits they did, they never removed the gruesome details about the Buddha's death - namely, getting food poisoning from eating rancid pig, getting bloody diarrhoea, and then dying from that. No wise and impressive final words, just deliriousness. Man, that is a depressing story. So why keep it? To show that the Buddha was a human - just like everyone else, he got old, got sick, and died. He was born a man, and died a man.
  • There's a U-shaped distribution for life satisfaction, declining from 18 years, at its lowest at 50-53 years, and then life gets consistently better from then onwards! You hear that, mum & dad? You can expect good things from now onwards! ;)
  • Graph from Stone, Schwartz, Broderick, & Deaton (2010)

Miscellaneous bits and pieces

Lecture hall for Sociology of Mental Illness.
Just FYI, it's ok to wear gumboots on campus. People do that here. I wasn't sure before I started seeing them everywhere, hence why I ended up buying better boots for the snow. But if you have tramping/hiking boots, you can wear those too! People do that too.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Day 19: Neurolaw is fascinating but singing is better

What went well? 

  1. Found out that I can take singing lessons for credit after all. Melbourne uni has approved it as a breadth subject, as well as my Ancient Voices ensemble performance subject, so together they'll count for 1 credit unit. Looking forward to having the opportunity to continue developing my voice, especially since I'm singing in an early music choir this semester. Not that choral singing is bad per se, but when it's not balanced out with lessons at the same time, the voice does find it difficult to switch back to solo mode. So, I'll be dropping Neurolaw (but continuing to audit it because it's actually really interesting, but I'd rather not have to actually do the work with all the other classes & research I'm doing :P).
  2. Finally went to my first Neurolaw seminar (it was cancelled last week due to snow day). Was amused when the professor told us that this was meant to be our "fun elective" by design, and basically that we don't have to do the readings. So tbh, the workload wouldn't have been that onerous - just a 30 minute presentation and a 10-page paper.
  3. My new singing teacher was able to fit me into her schedule (and even shifted around another student to do so).
  4. Went to a Speak-EZ meeting. We practiced impromptu 1-minute "toasts" or "roasts" on a random topic we drew from a box. I think it's going to be a great forum for developing my public speaking/thinking on the spot skills.

What did I learn? 

  • Melbourne Uni will approve practically anything as a breadth subject on exchange, and it's AWESOME!!! So much freedom to choose. Thanks, UniMelb!
    • The embedded lesson is: JUST ASK. It never hurts to ask. The reason why I took so long to act upon this whole music lessons for credit thing (and the deadline was the next day) was because I was sure they wouldn't approve it so I didn't ask. But then I did, and they approved it. Anyway, the worst they can do is say no! So when in doubt, ask.
  • The Neurolaw professor is amazingly accomplished, she has both an MD and JD because she couldn't decide what she wanted to be! (and now she's working at the intersection anyway, as a psychiatrist, as well as lecturing in criminology and doing stuff in neurolaw) Super impressive/scary.
  • There's a reason the acronym for high intensity interval training is HIIT. It hits you!! Did my first class today at the gym and boy was it painful. I was dying of tiredness before (after a 3-hour long seminar) and dying even more of tiredness after but am now cheerful :) Well, no pain, no gain, and at least it was short and sweet (30 mins)!
  • The people at Speak-EZ are really friendly, and it's a really welcoming environment.
  • Apparently, I used really effective gestures during my 45 second vendetta against cornflakes (& corn in general). Here's the thing: I had no idea I was even gesturing!! Lesson: Sometimes you really have no idea what you're doing when you're doing public speaking. More mindfulness :)
  • As David Cain suggests, I've never regretted a workout. So I should stop arguing with myself "I'm tired, I could go tomorrow..." and just GO. No negotiation. Period.

Here's a random photo inside the Fisher Fine Arts library from a couple of weeks ago. I don't think I shared it, so here it is!

Monday, 27 January 2014

Day 18: Really good news!

What went well? 
  1. Ok, so this is a huge WWW for me: I'll be starting as a research assistant at the Positive Psychology Center next week!! I am super duper excited and really grateful for this opportunity to gain some real research experience. I'll be spending at least 6 hours a week getting involved in the various projects (this awesome social media project is one of them), and am really looking forward to it. Did I mention that I'm excited?!?!
  2. Ancient Voices rehearsal reminded me of how therapeutic singing can be. I think it produces a comparable endorphin/dopamine rush to exercise, for me anyway :P
  3. My Intro Buddhism lecture was really engaging and interesting again. The professor taught us about the early life of Gottama the Buddha, and he really told it like a story, filled with hilarious modern-day analogies, dramatic reenactions and exaggerations, and gruesome details. This professor seriously has talent in engaging (and even entertaining!) his students.
  4. Got a couple more parcels in the mail, and enjoyed mindfully popping the HUGE bubble wrap.
  5. Started the morning with a group meditation session that a classmate organised.
What did I learn? 
  • Schools are seen as both a scapegoat & saviour for societal problems (e.g. obesity, poverty, violence), and this tendency is particularly strong in the US.
  • Ascetics back in ancient India sure engaged in some weird practices in their quest for spiritual salvation. Like, holding their arms above their heads until the blood drained out and the muscles died, tearing their eyelids out and staring at the sun until their retinas burned out, repeatedly running themselves into a stake...super weird.
  • Society really doesn't like it when norms are broken. My professor for Sociology of Education told us a story of how for a sociology assignment, he had to go and break a societal norm (not a law). So he went and tried to pay more for an item at a store (e.g. insisting on paying $5 instead of $3.50). The shopkeepers were at first confused, then just bewildered and uncomfortable, and then completely pissed off upon finding out that it was for an assignment, and basically told him to get out. Uncomfortable!! People just don't know how to react when norms are broken. Another suggestion for the assignment was to ask someone on a plane if you could finish their unfinished meal. Hahahaha. Imagine the would you react? Anyway, the point of the story was that Durkheim, the father of sociology, argued that though we may claim to be individuals, in the end, we're all conformists, and it's a good thing (otherwise how would society function?)!
Miscellaneous bits & pieces

I think the pavement on 37th street, between Spruce & Walnut Streets, is petty neat because it's paved with Benjamin Franklin's sayings. Here are some:
"Lost Time is never found again."
"Little Strokes Fell great Oaks." I LOVE this one. A simple reminder that even the most onerous tasks can be broken down and conquered by constant, persistent small steps and efforts.
"Genius without Education is like Silver in the Mine."

Also, here are a couple of things I find weird about American culture:

  1. When you say "thank you", sometimes they'll respond with "uh-huh" or "mmhmm".
  2. It's very common to eat in class. Not like eating in class is expressly prohibited in tutorials (the no-food rule & norm is pretty strong in lectures), but most people don't eat in class in Australia. But it seems like it's totally normal and ok to do so here. I still find it weird though.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Day 17: Egypt Tour at the Penn Museum

What went well? 
  1. Visited the Penn Museum. I was extremely impressed by the size and quality of the collections, and am grateful that I can go back whenever I want because entry is free for all PennCard holders (students, staff, faculty)! Enjoyed the guided tour through the Ancient Egypt exhibits. Here are some scenes from the museum:

  2. In the China gallery. 
    The second-largest crystal ball in the world. It's just so perfect...
  3. Found out that Icebreaker Merino upholds really high animal welfare standards (thanks to An Ran for bringing this to my attention!!). I feel a lot better now about having bought their merino thermal leggings which I've been wearing every day since I got here. Good thermals are definitely a necessity here, and I'm glad that they can be obtained through relatively ethical means.
  4. Finish reading The Loss of Sadness (Horwitz & Wakefield 2007) for my Sociology of Mental Illness. I can honestly say that this book, much like Anatomy of an Epidemic, has been a game-changer for my views about how we should conceptualise, diagnose, educate, and treat depression. It was surprising, disturbing and utterly compelling. I'll probably write a book review about it for my other blog, but have a look at these Amazon Reviews. I highly recommend it for mental health practitioners, physicians, policymakers, researchers, and laypeople alike, because we all have a stake in this issue.

What did I learn? 
  • The Penn Museum is just awesome. It's huge - I think you could definitely spend a couple of days there - and incredibly well-resourced. Fans of the ancient world and archaeology in general should definitely check it out.
  • Bits and pieces about Ancient Egypt.
    • It took 70 days to mummify a body.
    • The Egyptians were very literal about things. For example, they decorated the floor of the throne room with the faces of their enemies, so that whenever they walked across, they'd literally be stepping on their enemies.
    • They liked symmetry in their architecture, because it gave them a sense of order/security.
  • It is easy to fill your schedule up with events! There are so many opportunities to be engaged here. Next week, as well as class, choir & gym, I'm going to a student-led morning meditation, auditing a lecture, going to two psychology talks, going to a public speaking meeting, a philosophy club (Sermo Humanita) meeting, two Philo events, and an exchange student event. Look:
Oh, and just as an aside, since my friend Andy wanted to know more about the dorms, here's some preliminary thoughts about Stouffer, one of the many College Houses here. So far, my impressions have been that it's quiet and a great place to study, though a little bit unsocial. It doesn't have quite the same feel of community as my college back in Melbourne, probably because it's 3x the size and I'm new. However, I have also met some really nice people here (like that GA I mentioned a few posts earlier, and the guy who helped me open that can!). What I like best about Stouffer though, is that it offers a lot in terms of events and activities. There is something on nearly every day, whether it be home-made cookies at the Faculty Master's apartment, movie night, more food at another Fellow's place, free yoga starting next week, outings, Fellow's night (informal dinner and conversation with a Professor)...Like anything in life, you get out what you put in. Here's what Stoufferians have to say about Stouffer, when asked to describe Stouffer in three words:

And here's a photo of the Section E lounge, where I spend most of my time because it's generally very quiet and perfect for studying:

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Day 16: More research, more snow

What went well?
  1. Woke up to an invite to an Art Initiation run by the Penn Art Appreciation Society:
    • For two weeks, PAAS has been preparing the very first meeting of her new members. During this 45-minute session, we wish to usher you into the world of great art and endow you with as much as art knowledge as we possibly can. Submerged in a relaxing atmosphere with music and tea, we will settle in an art salon and talk about what we see in two interesting paintings. Then we will gather in the Academia of Art in nineteenth century Paris to learn an important and pleasurable painting style. In the next 10 minutes, we will turn through the pages of Art History 101 and 102, travel across time and space to witness all major art movements from ancient times all the way to the contemporary.
    • It was meant to be tomorrow, but got postponed due to snow - still, am really looking forward to it when it happens!
  2. This video of Renée Fleming's appearance on the David Letterman Show made me laugh so much. Really looking forward to watching her perform in Rusalka at the Met in 3 weeks!!
  3. Managed to sort through all the journal articles I downloaded for relevance & topics they address.
    • But I am tearing my hair out at the moment trying to find "the gap." There's actually been so much written on this topic (how modern day mindfulness relates to Buddhism - I have over 60 potential references), it'll be a challenge to find out what original contribution I can make to the discussion...
What did I learn?
  • When in doubt, wear snow-appropriate boots. I made the horrible mistake of wearing my runners to the gym (novel idea, right?), even while aware that it had been snowing all day and there was slush and snow all over the ground. Plus, these runners are the kind with "ventilation" in the bottom. So I worked out with completely soaked shoes. At least they dried in no time on top of the heating grill in my room.
  • The definition of mindfulness is a highly contested topic. No psychological operationalisation can really capture everything it embodies.
  • Saw this on Facebook. ....'Merica.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Day 15: First Philomathean Society Meeting

What went well? 
  1. Had some pretty deep & meaningful conversations with people at the Philo meeting. Also enjoyed the novelty of the experience as a whole.
  2. Got a really nice lunch from the Magic Carpet food truck
  3. The check-out guy at Fresh Grocer let me through even though I didn't see the sign that said 10 items or less :P
  4. The pull-top came off my can, and my can opener failed, but a guy at my dorm helped me to stab a hole into the can with a knife.
What did I learn?
  • The lifetime prevalence of mental illness in the US is close of 50%. i.e. almost half of people in the US will experience some kind of DMS diagnosis in their lifetime. This finding has led to criticisms of the validity of the DMS's diagnostic criteria.
  • So, I can't apply to be a member of the Philomathean Society after all, since I'm only here for a semester. At least I can still attend most of their events though :)
  • And the Philos are actually a thriving organisation. There were about 35 attendees at their meeting tonight, on a Friday night.
  • The Philo meeting was a bit bizarre. That is the only word I can describe it with. Bizarre. It was simultaneously ceremonial and chaotic, intellectual and flamboyant. They are all very friendly, interesting and engaged people though.
The Philo library. Was in here for their weekly tea with a professor event.
The Philo meeting room. A bit like a courtroom? 
Ordaining people.
The lecture on "Violence is the Answer" happened at about 11pm, presented by a Senior at Penn. People were still engaged at that point! I was impressed.
Grocery shop. This stuff totalled about $48. Probably a bit expensive, but that's the price you pay for whole foods (aka real food) + convenience.
I know this looks highly unappetising, but it actually tasted pretty good :P Quinoa, beans, capsicum, mushroom, onion, garlic, cumin.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Day 14: Back to Class! (finally!!)

What went well? 
  1. Started building up my research matrix*, going through books/references one-by-one to decide which ones are actually useful and for what topics. Managed to eliminate 6 books!
  2. Read this heartwarming collection of random acts of kindness. It made my week.
  3. More packages arrived from Amazon. It's just a good feeling getting mail :)
  4. Signed up for the Penn Art Appreciation Society Listserv! I've always wanted to learn something about art so that I can better appreciate it, so I'm looking forward to getting involved with their excursions and other events :)
What did I learn? 
  • These microwavable meals are actually pretty healthy and decent for instant food:
      Some, but not toooo many dodgy ingredients.
  • If I stay in my (very warm) room, I am 99% guaranteed to be unproductive. I pretty much wasted my evening away in here, doing god knows what! Oops.
  • Watched a Mindful Schools In-Class Instruction. The future of education!
  • Most of the rush activities were open. I should have gone to some just to experience what sororities are like! Haha. Also, there is a sorority that's basically for Asians.
Also, a couple more snow pictures:
Snow makes seat cushions...(+ spot the snowman in the corner!)

And bin lids!

*A research matrix is a way of organising your research. I learned this technique from this guide, shared by Katherine at Research Voodoo. This is what mine looks like at the moment (it's very incomplete and just has some references at the moment, will have content when I start actually reading and filling it in).

Buddhist Perspectives
Western Psychology Perspectives
Definition of meditation, mindfulness (operationalisation)

Kabat-Zinn 1990; 2003
Description of the technique - how is it taught? Early Buddhist guidance? Contemporary Buddhist guidance?
Anālayo (2006) [ch. 11 in Buddhist Thought & Applied Psychological Research]
Bucknell & Kang (1997): Pali Sources pp. 14-30
Sobti (1992): Sutta translations: pp. 14-44. 
Shankman (2008): Samādhi in the Pāli Suttas pp. 3-32; Jhāna in the Pāli Suttas pp. 32- 52; Samādhi in the Visuddhimagga pp. 53-76
Shaw (2009): Chapters 2-4
Kuan (2008): Chapter 2, 3, 4, 5
Bucknell & Kang (1997): Classical Masters pp. 43-65, 69-80
Bucknell & Kang (1997): Contemporary Masters pp. 85-158
Sobti pp. 59-92, 99-119, 138-147

What are the different approaches to Buddhist meditation? What traditions and techniques has Westernised mindfulness drawn from?
Shaw (2009): Chapters 5-12
Bucknell & Kang (1997): Pali Sources pp. 14-30
Mindfulness is a key tenet of the Theravada tradition.
Tori (2006) [ch. 11 in Buddhist Thought & Applied Psychological Research]
The purpose of meditation and how it has been portrayed to the public
Bucknell & Kang (1997): Pali Sources pp. 14-30
Kuan (2008): Chapters 1, 5
“Vipassana should not be used merely for curing physical disease, otherwise it will lose its value. Everybody is sick at the mental level - the impurities of the mind should be removed, and Vipassana is for that purpose.” - S.N. Goenka, p. 97 in Vipassana: Its Relevance to the Present World. Also see pp. 99-103; 117-120
Shaw (2009): Chapter 1
Flanagan (2006) [ch. 8 in Buddhist Thought & Applied Psychological Research]
The advantages of secularised contemporary mindfulness practices

The disadvantages of secularised contemporary mindfulness practices

What has contemporary psychology & neuroscience contributed to mindfulness?

Validating its effects and effectiveness
Encouraging patience
Dow (2008) - chapter 6 of Brilliant Sanity
And what has it taken away?

Dow (2008) - chapter 6 of Brilliant Sanity
Buddhism & Science
Wallace (2003): pp. 1-86, 261-284
Lopez (2008): 105-152
Wallace (2012): pp. 15-71, 158-193, 231-240
Lopez (2008): Introduction; The Meaning of Meditation pp. 198-210; Conclusion
Wallace (2003): pp. 1-86, 261-284

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Day 13: Snow Day!! (again...)

So classes were cancelled again today due to the "inclement weather conditions". Boo! Again, snow is a BIG DEAL over here. Anyway, it was way too cold to venture outside for long today (it was between -16°C & -10°C), so I mainly stayed inside. Did a lot of reading because I am paranoid about the impending avalanche of work (this must be the calm before the storm!). Also went to the Biomedical Library, where I saw this:

Too cute.
I'd planned to do a grocery run, but it was literally so cold that I could feel my face freezing and was feeling like I was getting brain freeze just spending five minutes outside, so I decided not to make the 15 minute trek to the bank (to get cash out - card hasn't arrived yet) and then 10 minutes to the grocery store then 10 minutes back. So I did some singing practice instead.

This evening, I went to Fellows Night, where one of the College House Fellows hosted Prof. Cam Grey, an Associate Professor of Classical Studies, over an informal dinner & conversation. It was definitely the highlight of my day, just soaking up the passion for academia. I think my favourite quote was: "I think the worst day of my job would still be better than the best day at any other job."

Got back, and did some more research for that Buddhism x Mindfulness paper:

I think I might have enough sources now... ;)
Looking forward to resuming class tomorrow (finally)!

What went well? 
  1. Seeing the snowman. Also, appreciating the beauty of snow sparkling in the air as it gets blown around by the wind.
  2. Great conversation and enjoyed just hanging out at Fellows Night.
  3. I'm well on track with the huge research paper already (due in 12 weeks). Found a lot of really useful sources and am ready to start reading (aka skimming to see what to actually read) tomorrow.
What did I learn? 

  • Probably don't text when in freezing weather. My fingers went numb when I took the tips of my glove off to just write one text!
  • Education has always taken different forms and served different functions depending on the society and context. Durkheim argued that the role of education was to develop the characteristics in the child that would be required to function effectively in their social milieu.
  • Cats are evil when pretending to "play". Don't trust them!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Day 12: Snow Day!!

First snow storm. Class got cancelled! So what did I do instead? Facebooked, blogged, and played in the snow, obviously :P. Also booked a tickets to see two operas - Rusalka & La Sonnambula - at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February & March.

What went well? 
  1. Had a lovely conversation over lunch with a new friend.
  2. My kettle arrived from Amazon (I am actually loving Amazon so much) so I am now drinking my first cup of tea in nearly two weeks!
  3. It was actually pretty exhilarating being out in the snow. The air was so fresh and everything was so pretty.
  4. Played Cards Against Humanity with some Australian exchange students. It was hilarious, I laughed so much. Highly recommended (as long as you can handle that kind of humour, lol)!

View from the library, 9.45am - 12pm

A couple of pictures of the 6th floor of the Van Pelt Library:

Possibly my new favourite study spot. 

What did I learn? 
  • Snow day is a BIG DEAL over here. Classes cancelled, the University's "suspended normal operations" from 2pm, lots of ambulances and sirens around, traffic moving at a snail's pace...
  • I get REALLY REALLY excited about snow!!
  • Opera star Renee Fleming is singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl this year!!!! She'll be the first opera singer ever to do so. Really exciting. I'm actually going to watch it.
  • From The Loss of Sadness: With the DSM-III (1980), depression, for the first time in history, became defined by a list of symptoms with no consideration of context (apart from a brief bereavement exclusion). Greater reliability may have come at the cost of validity (i.e. everyone getting it wrong together).

Monday, 20 January 2014

Day 11: Martin Luther King Day

Today was Martin Luther King Day, so I joined a few people from Stouffer College House on a trip organised by a GA, to a celebration at the African American Museum.

He said, "Beat me at Connect 4 and you can choose anything from this table." I lost.
Artwork by Ellen Tiberino. This one's called "Health Care." I found her work really disturbing, shocking and therefore powerful.
Another one by Ellen Tiberino.
We watched a Civil Rights Hip-Hop performance at noon. I waited too late to get a free ticket from the front desk, so the GA very kindly insisted on giving his to me! But in the end, he was allowed in too, after they checked to see if the auditorium was really at capacity. It really illustrates the way that giving isn't always zero-sum and can expand the pie. I was glad that we both got to see it, because the performance was really powerful. I thought it was a really effective way of communicating the messages of oppression and protest.

So much cuteness! Check out those pigtails. #awwwwwww. BTW, all of these kids could dance 200% better than me. A few of them could legit breakdance.
When we left, the line was even longer than this. Hence why we got there before it opened in the morning!

This evening, I went to my first Ancient Voices rehearsal. Everyone was really friendly, and the group stayed in tune really well. I think I'll enjoy being a part of it. I can also get 0.50 credit units for singing in the group (won't count towards my degree at UniMelb, but I'll get an extra grade on my transcript).

After rehearsal, I spent the next 2.5 hours at the library, arming my academic arsenal with books for that 6000 word paper. I think I am now well-equipped:

I think I cleared the shelves of anything to do with mindfulness and Buddhist meditation.
They even have mini shopping trolleys at the library for ridiculous people like me. It was pretty embarrassing checking all the books out. But at least I've basically gotten the (physical) resource-accumulation phase of research out of the way. More journal articles to download!

Anyway, here's where I'm at with the topic I'm planning to explore. As I wrote to my professor:
"After some reflection, I remembered that it was Western psychology (I'm a psych major), and in particular, a mindfulness meditation course, that drew me to Buddhism in the first place. So I'm thinking about investigating how Western psychology has drawn from Buddhist teachings to form secularised mindfulness practices, as seen in programs like MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) and (MBCT) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. I might consider how modern day mindfulness differs from the way that traditional Buddhist meditation is described and portrayed (i.e. how it's been interpreted through the lens of Western psychology), and what is lost and gained by this approach. I've started gathering some sources and there seems to be a decent amount written on this topic (but I'll need to identify the "gap")."
What went well? 
  1. The GA giving up his ticket for the Civil Rights show so that I could have the opportunity. It was such a kind act, and it ended well for both of us!
  2. I was looking for a particular book on the shelves of the library, and couldn't find it. Just as I was searching for it in the catalogue on my phone, the library assistant walked by with it since she was in the process of re-shelving the books.
  3. My professor likes the topic that I'm planning to explore in my research paper. And he replied really quickly (10 minutes). People are ridiculously efficient around here.
  4. The security guard at Stouffer buzzed me in since I was carrying a huge stack of books. Usually you have to swipe your PennCard and enter your pin number to get through the barrier, so that was really nice of her.
What did I learn? 
  • Hip-hop is actually a really effective and powerful way of communicating ideas, especially to a young audience.
  • I get way too enthusiastic/ambitious about research.
  • The photocopier can be really annoying when trying to photocopy big books, and tell you that it can't detect the right size. To avoid this, a more effective way is to centre the book in the middle, rather than in the corner.
  • The photocopier is still annoying regardless, because if you're inactive for even 5 seconds it makes you reswipe your PennCard.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Day 10: I found my dream club...

This morning, I did some reading and also admired the architecture around the Quad:

In the afternoon, I went to the Student Activities fair, where all the student clubs were advertising their clubs and getting sign-ups. There were SO MANY CLUBS. They took up 3 floors of Houston Hall.

Just a snapshot of the action.
I was so pleased to discover the Philomathean Society, which I am definitely keen to join. It's basically the dream club for students who are actually intellectually engaged, love learning, believe that learning should take place outside the classroom, and enjoy talking about things that actually matter.

It's also pretty exclusive (elitist?), with a strict admissions process (but anyone can attend most of their events). You have to complete three steps:

  1. A 4-6 minute oral presentation on a topic of my choice.
  2. An informal, one-hour round-table-style interview with members of the Society.
  3. Submit a work of creative/critical value. No constraints on form, it just needs to fit through the door.

Here's their brochure:

I think I'll present on mindfulness or positive education, but I'm still deciding on what to submit. I've narrowed it down to:
  1. My blog post, Reflections on Meditation Boot Camp
  2. A sociology essay reconceptualising the idea of "Adulthood"
  3. A sociology essay discussing structural challenges for young people's mental health
  4. My Sunset Haiku from first-year psychology
So I have a question for anyone who's reading this - which one of these do you think is most interesting/creative/critical?

What went well? 
  1. Discovering the Philo society and getting really excited about the prospect of joining.
  2. A bunch of exchange students randomly congregated at the activities fair so we just chilled together for ages.
  3. Still appreciating the total silence of the Fisher Fine Arts Library.

What did I learn? 
  • Man, I am so out of shape for yoga. I just went to my first class in two months (it was a free trial class at the gym) and it was surprisingly intense.
  • Probably not much from my speed-reading efforts (using fingers to pace, moving eyes down page as fast as possible) of my Intro Buddhism textbook. The instructor's assigned 125 pages of reading just for next week, and I sped-read about 100 pages in two hours, but I think my comprehension would be about 20% if I'm generous. But hey, since I'm doing the research option, that's all the time I can afford to spend on the reading, since I need to spend extra time on research.
  • From a mindfulness reading, This is your brain on mindfulness (Baime 2011): There are two distinct neural networks that contribute to our experience of a self; one that contributes to a descriptive narrative, consisting of thoughts about what is happening and what we are; the other underlying a more direct experience of sensation and emotion in the present moment. These two areas are linked, such that activity in the "present-moment" awareness region activates the storytelling region, which explains why beginner meditators constantly and reflexively shift to thinking just as they've experienced a fleeting moment of mindfulness. This shift is literally built into the nervous system. The good news is, mindfulness practice enhances the ability to disconnect these two regions to reduce the likelihood that a mindful experience will automatically be followed by a self-centred monologue. Even the habitual patterns that are deeply built into the body can be changed with practice. The changes that happen at a neural level with mindfulness practice are significant and fantastic.
  • Thoughts after speed-reading sections of my Intro Buddhism textbook: I've realised that it's probably a mistake to want to say, "Buddhists do X", or "Don't Buddhists do Y....?", or "Buddhists believe Z". I now realise that there is so much internal diversity within different Buddhist schools, and they all vary so much in what they believe and what they practice.