Koru: the mindfulness practice

Yesterday I finished a four-session workshop on mindfulness meditation organized by Duke Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). The workshop is the introductory part of the Koru mindfulness curriculum developed for college students and psychological services professionals. I have learnt a lot from this experience and want to share a few things in this post.

The class covered a wide range of meditation practices: belly breathing, dynamic breathing, walking meditation, gatha, visual imagery, body scan, eating meditation, labeling thoughts, and labeling feelings. We practiced these techniques in class and discussed about what occurred in our minds during the meditation.

I have learnt two lessons from practicing these techniques.

First, you have to make meditation a routine in your life, no matter how little time you devote to it or in what way you practice it. I allocated at least 10 minutes each morning (usually right after waking up and drinking a glass of water) for meditation, and have felt my resistance against it has slowly turned into acceptance and even a welcoming attitude.

Second, you need to figure out what works the best for you. During the group discussions, I noticed vast differences in the effectiveness of each practice across my group mates. Since the ultimate goal of meditation is to find peace and mindfulness in YOUR life, it is important that you choose whatever method that suits YOU the best.

Another great resource for meditation beginners is the book Whenever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It contains short sections summarizing the essence of the meditation and outlining common techniques for practice. The text is wonderfully written, rich and thought-provoking. Here is one of my favorite quotes:

… our feet find their own way. Watching my own, I am amazed at how many different places and ways I might put my foot down with each step, and how out of this unfolding momentary potential, the foot ultimately commits to one way, executes with full weight on it (or less if it is a hazardous situation), and then lets go as the next foot makes its choice and I move forward,  All this occurs virtually without thinking, except at the occasional tricky spots where thought and experience do come into play … … But this is the exception, not the rule. Ordinarily we are not looking at our feet and thinking about each step. We are looking out, ahead on the trail, and our brain, taking it all in, makes split-second decisions for us that put the foot down in a way that conforms to the needs of the terrain underfoot in that moment.

And here is another one:

By itself, meditation does not confer immunity from this pattern of looking elsewhere for answers and solutions to one’s problems. Sometimes people chronically go from one technique to another, or from teacher to teacher, or tradition to tradition, looking for that special something, that special teaching, that special relationship, that momentary “high” which will open the door to self-understanding and liberation. But this can turn into serious delusion, and unending quest to escape looking at what is closest to home and perhaps most painful. Out of fear and yearning for someone special to help them to see clearly, people sometimes fall into unhealthy dependency relationships with meditation teachers, forgetting that no matter how good the teacher, ultimately you have to live the inner work yourself, and that work always comes from the cloth of your own life.

I will continue the meditation practice and document my thoughts on this.

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Two iPhone apps for meditation

If you are looking for peace in a busy life, or simply want to set some free space in your brain, the following apps might be useful.

– Headspace: guided 10-minute meditations. Pre-recorded by a British young man. It has a ten-day trial period, but charges a fee afterwards.

– Insight Timer: provides free, pre-recorded guided meditation by famous meditation practitioners (Thich Nhat Hahn, for example). You can also share your life experiences and thoughts on meditation on a discussion forum.

The fun of delving into household surveys

In the week of the semester I was chatting with another grad student in our department. And he was curious about my research project.

“So what are you gonna do for your independent study?”
“Well, I plan to use some Chinese household survey data to analyze the consequences of China’s internal migration on the left behind children.”
“Sounds interesting! But where do you get the data?”
“I got the data from UNC. It’s a longitudinal data set and contains a lot of information that will be useful for my analysis. But I still need some time to clean it and make sure it’s up to the task.”
“Yeah… You can never predict what you can get from these data. That’s why I chose to write a theoretical paper.”

I have had similar conversations with other friends. While I agree that dealing with large-scale household surveys can be frustrating, I don’t think we should shy away from them for this reason. Household surveys provide rich information on the structure and operations of the families. By looking at real world household level data, you get a better sense of how households make decisions (both as a whole and as separate individuals bargaining with each other). You also become more aware of the reasons why some variables can never be measured and why some values are always missing. This is extremely evident in time-use data. Response rates for “yes or no” questions are much higher than questions that asks for a specific number of hours spent on a particular activities. This is hardly surprising given the difficulty of keeping track of time use. Even if we have statistics about how much time mothers spent caring for their children, these are subject to severe measurement errors.

I am using China Health and Nutrition Survey, which contains a variety of questions about household structure, employment decisions, time use, and health and nutrition. It’s been widely used in public health research, but economists can answer interesting questions based from this as well (here and here).

Busy and exciting new semester

After my three-week recess at home, I feel energetic and prepared for my third semester at Duke. Although I know many New Semester Resolutions end up unfulfilled, I still would like to make a few points about what I want to achieve in the next few months.

First and foremost, survive the PhD classes and learn the important stuff. I will only take PhD macro and PhD econometrics this fall. Duke is strong in econometrics so taking a course before I leave cannot be a bad choice. Overall, coursework will not be as intense as the last semester (I was DYING then), but it will involve deeper thinking. I hope to enhance my ability to put down my thoughts in a logical and sophisticated way. Economic intuition is important, but technical tools are also essential in doing research.

Second, build up my skills as an economist through independent and faculty-guided research. I am writing a China-related paper based on my term paper written last year. It will be completed in the form of either a thesis or an independent study project. I am lucky to be picked by Prof. Daniel Xu as his research assistant. And we will work on some China-related projects starting from this semester. I am already getting excited about this! I might also start working for a professor at the public policy school who specializes in development economics.

Third, go to seminars and talks and INTERACT with people there. Prof. Duncan Thomas, a development economist at our department, suggested me go to International Population, Health and Development Lunch (IPHD lunch). The subjects of the talks are extremely appealing to me. DuPRI also has a seminar series related to population, and they invite researchers from different disciplines to present their work. I have been going to seminars but rarely interacted with the speaker or the audience. And I definitely need to improve on that.

Fourth, apply PhD programs seriously and strategically. Now that I have a better idea of what I want to do and what I am good at, I can target the schools which are best fits for my skills and passion. The application process will still be tedious, but I am more confident than two years ago.

That’s all about academics. In terms of extra-curriculum activities, I was planning to take vocal lessons at the music department and went through an audition today. But sadly Duke places priority on its undergrads and I am not able to get enrolled in the class. It’s really frustrating when I mustered up courage to pursue something I love and then get rejected. Maybe the school also thinks graduate students should focus more on academics. Regarding sports, I was planning join the Duke Running Club in their running practice on campus, maybe three times per week. Hopefully a large enough group can give me a stronger motivation to do exercises. Update: I ran with them yesterday and they were too fast for me. I think I’ll stick with individual exercises. It will be an intense semester, but life is much more enjoyable once you know what you truly love.

The five powers of life

This semester has been challenging for me. Thich Nhat Hanh’s celebrated book The Art of Power gives me much useful advice on dealing with pressure. Here I want to share some of the main points in his book.

Thich Nhat Hanh advocates us to develop the five powers — faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and insight — progressively to achieve and maintain happiness. “People who have faith can move mountains”, he says. I am starting to realize the power of determination as I challenge myself.

Concentration is beautiful because it gives us a feeling of “in the zone”. An athlete who trains all day long are less likely to get the most of his training than one who regularly takes breaks to reinvigorate himself. Studies have shown that working in 90-minutes intervals is the most productive. When we relax, we should relax completely — an often neglected aspect of concentration.

Insight requires substantial accumulation of knowledge and proactive thinking. Novice Kung-fu fighters only see the acts and marvel at their sophistication; Kung-Fu masters have their philosophy in mind and responds to each situation with ease.

It is all too easy to get blown away by the difficulty in the process of challenging yourself. Just remember to be like water — flow at your own speed, carry your poise, and reflect things as they are. If you want to start your own mindfulness practice, Deer Park Monastry has a great guide here.

Lessons from Tuesdays with Morrie

It took me one hour and a half to finish this little book, but its thought-provoking impact lasts. The book teaches some of life’s most meaningful lessons. Interestingly, I have found a resemblance between Morrie’s ideas and the Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness. Here are some insightful quotes I jotted down as I was reading:

– Making a culture of your own: “The culture we  have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”

– Uncertainty of life: “Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.”

– Living a meaningful life: “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

– How to deal with sadness: “I give myself a good cry if I need it. But then I concentrate on all the good things still in my life. On the people who are coming to see me. On the stories I’m going to hear.”

– The importance of reflecting on one’s life: “We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks — we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?”

For a complete story, please read the original book by Mitch Albom.

Partrick Sharkey on the impact of community violence on children

This afternoon I attended a seminar by Patrick Sharkey, associate professor at NYU. The name of his talk was “the effects of community violence on child cognitive skills and academic performance”.

His research measures the impact of neighborhood violence on children academic performance. he uses”coincidence” estimation. Within each neighborhood, he argues that the relative timing of homicides and interviews produces exogenous variation of timing. He interviews a child four days after a homicide happened in the neighborhood, and sees if her test score changes relative to children who are unaffected by homicides. He measures “neighborhood” using block group, census tract, and neighborhood cluster. Note that this method only picks up short run effects. Sharkey emphasized on the importance of evaluating how kids are functioning on a DAY-TO-DAY basis (e.g. mindset) because it is those incremental changes that lead to differential personal development in the future. His methodology is novel in two aspects: First, he employs the different timing of violence as exogenous variation and measures its impact on the test scores of school children. Second, he targets on specific incidents, e.g. homicide in the Chicago data, instead of the aggregate crime rates. This breaks down the impact of violence by category so that we can get a better idea of whether a particular type of violence affects children’s cognitive ability and extrapolate the mechanism of the impact.

However, this method is not free from flaws. African-American children are overrepresented (nine times the number of white children), and this weakens his later argument on the comparative statistics between white and black children. Furthermore, there may be a systematic difference between treatment and control group children since an interviewer might not want to go to the same neighborhood until some days after the interview is done.
The results are consistent with his hypothesis that neighborhood violence does affect a child’s academic performance. His paper on New York City public schools also found that black students are affected more by the violence in the community. Students who have experienced violence in the neighborhood are 1.13% less likely to pass the exam, and the reduction is 3% for black students. These results imply that violence has a long reach. It also suggests tha violence may be a central mechanism by which neighborhood disadvantage affects child development (cognitive skills and academic outcomes) and other health outcomes in adulthood (e.g. the feeling of safety).
There were a lot of insightful comments from the audience in the Q&A session. One professor suggested that parenting strategy might play a role in determining the level to which children are affected by local violence. Someone suggested finding news coverage on local violence and assess whether the widely covered events affect people only in the neighborhood or the whole city/state. It might also be useful to look at whether the victim is in the network of the child and control for this variable when running the regression.