Mindfulness meditation

Over the last month I conducted interviews with people from the Berkeley Lab meditation group that we started three years ago.

Mindfulness Meditation – An Interview with the LBL Mindfulness Meditation Group

The meditation group is quite diverse, from members of the National Academy of science to postdocs to building project managers, and it was a blast to get to talk to them and learn about how they see things and what they enjoy!

Here are the notes from these conversations:

Member 1

  • Professor of statistics on campus (EECS)
  • Started meditation a little before the pandemic (went there a couple times, on advice from Eva.)
  • Now more regular practice thanks to remote sessions. It’s a little deeper in person.
  • Meditation is a good way to reduce stress
  • It brings group support – It is nice to see a group of scientists doing it
  • It breaks the daily routine
  • My mind doesn’t stop, even when I walk – meditation brings your mind back
  • I was very impressed by Arthur, who shows how to look upon oneself – calm, peaceful, feeling of safety.
  • I used to sit on a futon, but now a chair will do
  • Mindfulness practice: walking, deep breathing; Qi Gong helps sleep
  • Nowadays, resources are limited we should seek more balance, not always growth
  • We should seek fulfillment, not success
  • Kids are on tablets, and this is bad for them. Even TV was better: it was a social activity.
  • Favorite meditations practice: using visual attention. The gong at the end feels great.
  • I like flowers – I have a garden. I like the smell of jasmine, and the color of magnolias
  • Everyone should take advantage of the generosity of Arthur

Member 2

  • Scientist at the lab and professor of Biology on campus
  • Started meditation 3 ½ years ago using the app Headspace, on the recommendation of a student
  • It’s very lovely to take the time and take a few minutes to disconnect – meditation is a treat
  • Arthur started the meditation group and I joined
  • I really enjoyed meditation in Perseverance hall.
  • You get so much more as part of a group than when you do it in isolation. It still works surprisingly well with zoom.
  • I meditate only during group sessions.
  • I always thought of meditation as a way of high level thinking, but it’s the opposite: mindfulness is observation, perception.
  • I like scanning, becoming aware of my body, sensing the organs inside me.
  • Even after the sessions, on my way back to campus, I had such a nice feeling. Once, I could feel my arms as a continuum, losing the feeling of my hands as independent entities.
  • I love the sunshine – stopping and lying down in the sun, concentrating on the feeling of warmth
  • Meditation is very forgiving. When I did yoga, we were instructed to free our minds, but I felt trapped in my thoughts, guilty of not being able of letting go
  • The pandemic has made everything the same: no meetings, no trips, and affected the way of life: much less “spice.”
  • But I live in a very privileged situation.
  • The passage of time has been deeply altered – days are short and long at the same time; the meditation sessions helps me get a sense of time
  • When I fly, I like to listen to relaxing sounds (rain in the forest, waves on the beach)
  • Certain things such as food are very comforting, almost meditative
  • I like to listen to the band The Church
  • I was very impressed by the last art exhibition I saw on Tissot – his paintings evoke an emotion.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a very nice movie, everyone seems to be floating, even though people are still very much aware of what’s going on – very meditational
  • I would recommend meditation to everybody

Member 3

  • Former postdoc at Berkeley Lab, now an entrepreneur with a startup working on pathogen detection in treated water
  • Meditation retreats being online went from 30 participants to 300
  • Biggest challenge: scientists know-it-all
  • There are many resources showing the effect on meditation
  • AM Introduced to meditation by Shinzen Young (author of the “Science of Enlightenment”; practice based on observing sensory experience
  • The retreats were 20 min away in Canada; tries to go once or twice a year.
  • Shinzen Young started studying maths after 20y of meditation, rapidly became very good at it.
  • Shinzen Young now a university professor at ASU, studying how ultrasounds induce states in the brain (Semalab)
  • Meditation resembles driving: at some point it becomes natural: you can choose what you bring to your attention. Sharp, laser-like focus
  • You can drop into really deep layers of your mind
  • It is important to establish a regular practice. 5–10 min a day is a good start, I wake up early and do ~1h in the morning. It becomes a pull after a while, like when playing guitar
  • Enjoys sitting and focusing on the fact that you’re there, now – the sense of presence, the seed of awareness
  • A cat, or even an earthworm would have the same experience; the alternative is watching your life like watching a movie (being reactive)
  • For some people, it seems that the pandemic has been a blessing: they get the time for introspection
  • Enlightenment: there is no longer a difference between doing something and meditation
  • The athletes experience something similar, in what is called “The Zone” – they get so good at what they’re doing they are no longer paying attention. If you think too much about how much you can screw up, you will most definitely screw up!
  • 3 main aspects of the practice: concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity
  • Writing in itself is a meditative exercise. Writing my phd manuscript was very meditative.
  • Playing tennis can bring me into the zone. Low making is an incredible meditative state!
  • The act of talking can also get you into the zone: when I move my lips words come out before I had a chance to prepare coherent thought.
  • I like classical music (Bach is divine), lyrics from songs for many different parts of the world.
  • The choice of words in literature fascinates me – reading about the life of authors and trying to imagine how the words came to be
  • Poetry: T.S Elliot, Rumi (the book of Shams), Fabrizio di Andra (Animus Salve), Hafiz
  • Books: Andre Mauroy “Le climat,” “An Art of Living.” He thought so deep, in solitude. St Exupery “Nigh flight.” Pinandello “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand.”

Member 4

  • Construction project manager
  • Learned about Mindfulness meditation sessions from lab newsletter Elements
  • I prefer meditating in groups (additional groups on Wednesday and Sundays)
  • Meditation sessions bookend my week (Monday and Friday)
  • Most of the work I do is planning, so covid hasn’t impacted my work too much, but meditation gives me an anchor
  • I am a catholic, and I do find center in prayer, sitting with the divine.
  • Initially learned about meditation in college and went to a retreat with a priest who eventually became a zen master. That’s where I learned to sit.
  • I like how Arthur combines meditation with science, putting religion aside. This makes it a lot more concrete, and I am now able to focus.
  • When I go on a walk, I don’t bring my phone or wallet
  • I like to go hiking; in 2016 I went on my own on the Camino de Santiago (500 miles for 40 days), and it was a very interesting experience. You get to meet people there, and make friends.
  • I love yoga, Qi, and I go to the steam room and the jacuzzi at the YMCA
  • Any activity, like singing, can be done mindfully
  • I want to encourage people to find out – it brings us back to our body, to the present
  • Nowadays we plan a lot of things ahead, and we forget to look where we are.

Member 5:

  • I work in procurement for major LBNL projects (quantum computing, ALS-U)
  • Started meditation 20 years ago, with a co-worker, but not much after that
  • Five years ago, I took an intensive meditation training (8 weeks) provided by Kaiser, dealing with the various styles of meditation
  • I join the sessions when I can, it’s important to have something to put on the calendar
  • Dealing with covid was hard, life brought an extra layer of difficulty (care of elder dependents)
  • Meditation helped handle the additional stress
  • There’s no need to be a perfectionist with meditation
  • Arthur mentioned an interesting story, how he was impatient to read a book and decided to learn alphabet at to do so – and how meditation is similar in a way, in that you need to learn to focus in order to achieve happiness
  • Meditative activities: I like walking along a labyrinth, like the one in the Grace cathedral in San Francisco
  • I have a daily writing exercise (described in the book “the artist way”), where I try to write 750 words in the morning, ideally handwritten
  • I love listening to music, especially the datils – musicians in the studio, when they breath or knock their instruments. Oh and the Buena Vista Social Club!
  • I like the art of Van Gogh (the Almond Trees) and I enjoy William Haskell who paints desert landscapes

Member 6:

  • Postdoc
  • Started meditating on her own before covid, but not regular practice
  • Since the beginning of the shelter in place, I replaced commute time by meditation session
  • I try to bring mindfulness in daily routine, when I fold my clothes for example, and try to see everything as if it was new – the same way my young daughter looks at things in the world: with curiosity
  • This is true when I go on a walk, or enjoy a shower even more
  • I used to go to my daughter’s bedroom to meditate, I was delighting in the sound of birds chirping (at the beginning of the pandemic the street were very quiet)
  • I use the STOP method (Stop, Take, Observe, Proceed)
  • With proper focus, it is amazing to see sensations like mild pain sometimes disappearing!
  • I use meditation to reduce the stress related to the situation (MBSR), trying to sort out ideas and realize that there are still many things going for me.
  • Meditation can help fight back impostor syndrome, by focusing on all the things that are going for us
  • Meditation is not a tool, you cannot use it to fix specific things, but it’s a skill, in that it helps you frame things before you can act upon them
  • I’ve turned to poetry to find solace, from the love poems of Neruda to writers from my native West Indies, such as Derek Walcott
  • I lost someone during covid, and when I was meditating, my thoughts came in poems, I could say this and that, and somehow these thoughts came in Creole.
  • Poetry is a description of the thoughts, and it leaves room to express something

And here are some useful references:

Benefits of meditation:

Mindfulness can change you brain:

Mindfulness in Berkeley:

Don dePaolo: “Many people in academia are driven, but this drive often comes in pair with depression — I’ve been there. Scientist should never hesitate to do therapy in their (early) career, it will help them and their career (Twitter)

Breaking The Stigma: Cultivating Mental Health as an Academic (with Schekman)

A Scientists Primer On Mental Health (Dragon Fly Mental Health x Berkeley Lab)

Méditation : science sans pleine conscience ? – France Culture

Pandemic burnout is rampant in academia (Nature, March 2021)

Clinical depression as the sports injury of academia