This publication can be found online at http://awareness.media.mit.edu/pub/eva-breitenbach.
Eva’s Journal
Eva Breitenbach
4/29: Environment
I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between meditating on my retreat, and meditating at home. One significant difference is the degree of variance. While some of my meditations here in Cambridge are peaceful and focused, many more are essentially me sitting on a cushion and mentally running through my to-do list for 45 minutes, with periodic realizations that I am supposed to be meditating.
I think some of this is simply the reality of my life - there are many more things on my mind here than on retreat. I shouldn’t compare the two experiences, but should rather think about how to improve the experience of meditating here. I want to begin to experiment - so far I’ve realized that meditation is better when I don’t check my phone beforehand, when I am sitting in a space specifically set up for the purpose, and when I am not rushed for time. Would be curious if others have found other “hacks” to support their meditation practices.

4/26: Sense-Making
During today’s class, I was particularly struck by our discussion towards the end about how the suspension or delay of sense-making is key to experiencing non-duality. However, as Joi noted, the ability to sense-make in a skillful and appropriate manner is key to ensuring that the experience is more than simply a one-off occurrence. Without this ability, one can neither integrate insights from the experience into one’s everyday, nor communicate these insights to others.
This fascinated me - it hints at the idea that the real challenge is not actually in experiencing non-duality. As a relative novice in the world of meditation, I had sort of assumed that this was the goal - that I was trying, through meditation, to be purely present, to shed my thoughts and my emotions and simply exist. As we discussed, though, this is relatively easy, and can even be achieved on demand by the use of LSD.
Instead, perhaps it’s more challenging to leave these moments than to enter them. This makes a lot of sense to me. Normally, sense-making entails labeling an experience, putting it in a category predetermined by previous experiences. When I hold a baby, I associate this with all of the other times I have held a baby. I have never held a crocodile, but if I were to do so, I might link it to baby-holding as well as to visits to reptile houses at the zoo as well as to touching a cactus. However, an experience of non-duality is far more dissociated from other experiences than is crocodile-holding. I could say that it is like the happiness you get from holding a baby, but this would mean sacrificing specificity and nuance in the interest of comprehensibility. To really make sense of non-duality, I must be awake enough in the moment to explore all corners of it, particularly the unfamiliar ones, and then must describe it in an incredibly careful and nuanced manner. It’s almost like poetry or art - the need to use words or images in a creative and measured way to reliably create a sensation.
I wonder if it is my ineptitude at sense-making that has prevented me from integrating my experience on the retreat into my life more fully.

4/21: Embodiment I just returned from a five-day meditation retreat in Barre, MA. The experience was rich, complex, and confusing enough to take a novel to describe it, so I’ll try to stick to a single aspect for today’s journal. As a reminder to myself of things I want to write about in entries to come: the experience of reentering my normal life after the retreat’s conclusion, the feeling of living without others’ expectations, doing away with narrative, the different types of meditation and their effects.
During the retreat, I became increasingly aware of something I’ve thought a lot about lately - the degree to which our mind and bodies are connected more deeply and intricately than we would ever imagine. A theme that came up repeatedly during the retreat was the way in which being present in the moment, open to reality, is essentially the experience of actively and aware-ly inhabiting your body.
Each morning on the retreat, I would wake up, meditate for 45 minutes, eat breakfast slowly and mindfully for 45 minutes, practice qi gong, and then go on a 45-minute walk in the woods. At each step of the process, I focused on my body as a whole, not allowing myself to venture up north into my mind and lose myself there. When I meditated, I focused on the sensation of my breath in my belly, my knees on the floor, the sense of sleepiness or alertness as it manifested itself throughout me. While I ate, I saw, smelled, and tasted each bite, feeling it fill my body and understanding precisely when I was full and should stop eating. As I did qi gong, I felt my body continue the process of waking up, digesting the food I had just eaten. I walked in the woods and was aware of how the muscles in my legs pulled and pushed as I took each step, of how my legs swung from my hips and shoulders.
I left the retreat feeling much clearer, lighter, and more grounded; there are many reasons for this, but being physically present was a huge part.

3/31: Motivation
In class yesterday, we were discussing the elimination of all extrinsic motivators. When we don’t feel the need to meditate because it is our homework, because it is “good” for us, or because we should, the idea of meditating is much more appealing.
Since class, I’ve thought about this a lot – the way in which our sense of obligation and/or duty distort our actions. I think this happens in both directions. I desire to do certain things because I have decided they are pleasurable – I eat ice cream or stay up late because I believe these actions are enjoyable. I go to class and make my bed because I feel that I need to. When I’m able to break out of these classifications, to ignore the labels of “fun” and “duty,” I am often surprised by what I do and do not enjoy. Eating ice cream often makes me feel sick. Making my bed is often quite satisfying.
For the past few months, I have very much wanted to write, to the degree that I have turned writing into an obligation and a duty. I have listened to myself make more and more elaborate excuses not to write. I worry about the feasibility of writing professionally. I tell myself that there are better ways to use my time. I spend my time dithering over what I should write about. Because I have labeled writing as a “should,” I have managed to turn it into an undesirable activity and a source of guilt. When I have free time, it is infinitely easier to read, to listen to music, to exercise. I even find it easier to draw, something that takes an equal amount of creative effort but that I am worse at.
Ideally, I would simply sit down every morning and consider whether or not I want to write; since the act of writing does bring me genuine pleasure, I would like to think that I would frequently choose it. However, I have found time and time again that this is not the case.
I want to give myself the freedom to listen to my intrinsic motivations, to stop living under clouds of “shoulds.” I worry, though, that given this freedom, I will simply fritter away my time. Do I need to resort to routine and scheduling, which is in some ways the exact opposite of listening to intrinsic motivation? If I schedule time each day when I have no choice but to write, I know that I will succeed in writing more regularly.

3/15: Detachment
Over the past weeks, I’ve noticed that I am much less caught up in my emotions. My feelings still run their usual gamut, from contentment to anger to joy to anxiety to exhaustion, but I see them from more of a distance. I am not as helplessly swept by their waves.
I am also more aware of the inputs into my different moods. When I feel a negative emotion, I know - and believe - that it has a great deal to do with my lack of sleep, caffeine overdose, and/or the pint of ice cream I just ate. This seems to neuter the emotion in a way. If getting 6 hours of sleep makes me see my failure to finish some homework as a disaster, perhaps that disaster isn’t as complete and total as my emotions would like me to believe.
I want to attribute this to meditation and mindfulness - I am curious to see whether this trend continues.

3/13: Being on the Ground
I love lying on the ground. It doesn’t matter whether I’m sprawled on the floor of my apartment, or lounging in the grass in the park near my house - being on the ground centers me. I am aware of the physicality of my body as its whole length contacts a surface, I can move any way I want without restriction, and it frees me to take myself a bit less seriously. It’s a very different way of existence for me.
I was reminded of this today when, at the top of a hike, I spent a good half hour lying on my stomach on a huge rock. I was surprised by how cool the rock’s surface was - it radiated this sort of earthily damp chill that I found incredibly soothing. I generally think of rocks as hard, uncomfortable surfaces, but my body molded itself to the rock and I was quite cozy. As time passed, I realized I had been playing with the soft tufts of moss at the rock’s edge. I was running my fingers over them, feeling them spring back after my hand passed, the tall green hairs flipping to cover the shorter, softer brown ones.
I am generally quite dependent on my sense of vision, and I got a great deal of pleasure from discovering something through my sense of touch instead.

3/10: Self-Destructiveness and Narratives
Yesterday, I found myself responding to a negative event by falling into a bit of a destructive spiral. I had a nearly overwhelming urge to do things that were bad for me but would bring pleasure. I knew exactly what was happening, but the spiral in and of itself brought some degree of hedonistic, devil-may-care pleasure - I didn’t want to stop it.
The funny thing, though, was that I was running from a past source of pain by pursuing future pleasure. I was afraid of the negative event - scared to think about it, process it, move past it. However, none of the things I was doing were actually bringing me pleasure in the moment. I wasn’t fully experiencing them or paying attention to them, but rather continually planning for the next thing I would do, taking pleasure in the grease I was putting on my downward slide. No part of me was present or aware - I was caught in this bizarre interplay of past and future.
When I realized this, I was able to snap back into myself. I walked home, enjoying the sunshine, and ate some vegetables, taking pleasure in the crunch of the cucumbers. After regrounding myself in this manner, I realized I had been creating pain for myself. My narrative of the past (“This bad thing happened, and it is linked to all of the other bad things that have happened and will happen”) was leading me to fall into a narrative of the future (“I am going to treat myself in this way and this way and this way, and I don’t care if it’s bad for me - it doesn’t matter”).
I wonder if my tendency to narrativize my life is opposed to presence, awareness, peace, or if there is some way to co-opt it to bring me happiness.

3/3: Being Busy vs Being Alive
Yesterday, I heard someone say that they were so busy that they didn’t have 15 uninterrupted minutes all day. I hear this so frequently at MIT – many of my classmates talk about how they don’t leave campus between 8am and 11pm, how they don’t have time to exercise or cook or even sit and think.
I used to be a lot like this, and business school exacerbated these tendencies. I would make lists of all the things I needed to do, and stress out about how to fit all of them in. I felt crippled by the obligation to make the most of my time in school, of each day and each hour. I was very tense - but every time I didn’t have anything to do, I would get anxious and worry that I wasn’t using the time well.
Being diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy made me realize that I needed to reduce my stress. Things had reached unsustainable levels, and my body couldn’t take it any longer: I had pushed myself to the edge. I drastically cut back on my commitments, forcing myself to say “no” to social invitations, to do the minimum needed to complete my homework assignments, to not cram as many activities and errands as possible into a free couple of hours.
I certainly believe that people are made differently – I fall apart if I routinely get less than 7 hours of sleep, and can’t have more than two cups of coffee without feeling quite jittery and uncomfortable – but I have noticed that having more time has made me more mindful. When I can banish worries about what I need to do next, I free up my mind to escape from the labyrinths it builds for itself, and to engage with and experience the world.
I still get antsy frequently. In fact, this post was inspired by a restless morning in my living room where I switched between homework, reading a novel, cooking breakfast, and considering career options, without really sinking into any of them. However, I’ve begun to realize that the secret for my happiness is focus, whether it’s on something I am writing, a conversation I’m having, or on the sights and sounds of the world around me. This focus is diametrically opposed to busyness and to-do lists, which tend to fragment my attention and awareness. I’ve found that trying to make the most of each hour leads me to not actually be alive during any of them.

3/1: Physicality
I’ve noticed recently that as I meditate more regularly, I become more connected with my body, with the way I feel. I realize that my tension is manifested physically in a knot between my shoulderblades. I notice how my body feels weighed down, clogged, or sluggish when I eat unhealthy quantities or qualities of food. I can feel my awakeness and alertness when I don’t wind down before transitioning from work to bed. It’s almost as if I become more aware of the negative effects of all of my small bad habits.
I suppose this makes sense - meditation involves a focus on the sensation of my breath in my body. For the fifteen or twenty minutes I meditate, I live in my body and realize that my existence is premised on my physicality. I am always shocked to realize how rarely I do this. I live almost exclusively in my mind.
I wonder if a practice that is even more centered in the physical body, like qi gong, would increase either the intensity or the longevity of this effect.

2/26: Looking Sideways at Ideas
This morning, I sat to meditate. My living room was lovely and still, and my mind was awake but not yet cluttered or fragmented by the day. Right in the middle of my meditation, an idea flitted into my brain - I’m taking a class on printmaking, and I suddenly knew just what I wanted to create in my next class.
This is the second time I’ve had the inspiration for a piece of art come to me while meditating - the other was during our qi gong session the other day, when an image also appeared, fully fledged, in my brain.
I don’t tend to have ideas come to me in this manner in my daily life. I think it’s something about giving my mind the space to wander, to synthesize, to exist without a goal in mind, that makes meditation such a fertile ground for ideas. I almost feel like the ideas need a gentler place to grow, and my normal mental space is far too closed and inflexible for their germination. I can’t look at them head-on, but have to just look sideways at them and let them slowly morph into their final form.

2/24: Anxiety
Before meditating today, I was caught in the web of some obsessive thoughts - nothing new, just an old hamster wheel I am very familiar with. I sat down and hoped that meditating would help me recenter myself, or at least regain a bit of perspective.
It didn’t, really, but it did give me a bit of a break from myself.
After this break, I began thinking about the extent to which I am caught up in narrativization. Most of my obsessive thinking stems from interpreting events in a particular way, from fitting what happens into the preexisting pattern of my fears. It’s a kind of solipsism - I convince myself that others’ actions have much to do with me, vs stemming from their separate realities. And in so doing, I sometimes manage to make my fears come to life.
I waste so much time and energy reacting to and running from these fears and obsessions. I want to find a way of coexisting with them, of accepting their existence but refusing to help them manifest.

2/23: Qi Gong
At the start of December, I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, an odd neurological disorder that results in paralysis of one side of the face. At least in western medicine, the cause isn’t really known, and there is more or less no treatment.
I’ve seen many doctors since my diagnosis, and have been frustrated and disillusioned. No one has any answers, any suggestions. Very few even treat me as a human, with thoughts and emotions - I often feel like a cadaver being visually dissected.
During today’s qi gong practice, though, I felt very vividly how my body was a single system, how my “juices” flowed around my ankles, through my neck, down my back. It seems to me that this is such a healthier and happier way to think of one’s body. I feel intuitively that my facial paralysis must be related to stress in some mysterious, indirect way, and I hope that qi gong may be an antidote.

2/21: Engagement with Life
I took advantage of the beautiful weather last night to smoke a cigarette on my back porch. [Disclaimer: I rarely smoke.] I was alone, and was thinking of how similar the act of smoking alone is to meditating. Both involve a degree of focus on the breath, a total acceptance of just being present in the moment, and a slowing down. While smoking, though, I looked at the stars, admired the beautiful willow tree arching over my head, stretched my legs, smelled the night air, and appreciated all the sensations of being alive in that moment.
One thing that I occasionally consider is that meditation involves some degree of disentanglement and detachment from the world around me. Sometimes this is very helpful and even necessary, in order to slow down and then be able to reengage with the world in a more mindful way. But if the end goal [as I say this, I realize that there shouldn’t really be an end goal for meditation] is this more mindful, more present, more aware interaction with life, I wonder if it’s sometimes better to take a shortcut and dive right in to the world around me. I suppose it’s all about finding the balance between these two modes.

2/18: Establishing a Practice
I hate and have to admit that I haven’t meditated every day over the past week. I was thinking this morning about what has prevented me from doing this, and I think there are a couple of things.
First, I sometimes meditate as a form of stress relief. This tends to lead me to think of meditation as medication - something done on an as-needed basis. I want to instead start to think of meditation as something pleasurable, a treat I am giving myself - like the cup of coffee or tea I drink every morning.
I suppose that leads into the second point, which is that regular timing will help me a lot. One or two years ago, when I meditated every day, I did it right after waking up, as part of my morning ritual. I want to try to reinstate this, and start baking 20 extra minutes into my morning timing.

2/16: Meditation and Introversion
After 28 years of being in denial, in the past couple of months I’ve begun to come to terms with just how introverted I really am. Business school will do that for you - being around true extroverts has made me realize how much I dislike crowded bars. I’ve begun to notice that if I spend too much uninterrupted time around others, my brain turns to scrambled eggs, and I lose focus, perspective, and productivity.
Since starting this course, I’ve been meditating more frequently, and have realized that it is a great counterbalance to socializing for me. Meditation rejuvenates me, giving me time (and probably also an excuse) to just be myself, not noticing or engaging with others.
I was especially aware of this over the past weekend, when my boyfriend and I went to Vermont with three other couples. Spending time in an AirBnB house with people I didn’t know . On Sunday morning I woke up, felt distracted and fragmented and antisocial, and vanished into a spare bedroom to meditate. I felt an immediate sense of relaxation and peace, and afterwards was able to rejoin the group and enjoy their presence.
I would be really curious to hear from extroverts what their experience with meditation is - does it serve similar purposes, or is it very different?
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Joichi Ito 4/23/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
Selection made on Version 14
4/21: Embodiment I just returned from a five-day meditation retreat in Barre, MA. The experience was rich, complex, and confusing enough to take a novel to describe it, so I’ll try to stick to a single aspect for today’s journal. As a reminder to myself of things I want to write about in entries to come: the experience of reentering my normal life after the retreat’s conclusion, the feeling of living without others’ expectations, doing away with narrative, the different types of meditation and their effects.
I just returned from a five-day meditation retreat in Barre, MA.
Was this an organized retreat or something you did by yourself?
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Eva Breitenbach 4/27/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
An organized retreat through Insight Meditation Society. Would highly recommend checking them out.
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Joichi Ito 4/29/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
Cool. Thanks.
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Joichi Ito 4/6/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
Selection made on Version 13
I would be really curious to hear from extroverts what their experience with meditation is - does it serve similar purposes, or is it very different?
curious to hear from extroverts
Would be interesting to see how many we have in the class.
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Joichi Ito 4/6/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
Selection made on Version 13
I was reminded of this today when, at the top of a hike, I spent a good half hour lying on my stomach on a huge rock. I was surprised by how cool the rock’s surface was - it radiated this sort of earthily damp chill that I found incredibly soothing. I generally think of rocks as hard, uncomfortable surfaces, but my body molded itself to the rock and I was quite cozy. As time passed, I realized I had been playing with the soft tufts of moss at the rock’s edge. I was running my fingers over them, feeling them spring back after my hand passed, the tall green hairs flipping to cover the shorter, softer brown ones.
lying on my stomach on a huge rock
I like to imagine this as “hugging the earth.”
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Joichi Ito 4/6/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
Selection made on Version 13
I want to give myself the freedom to listen to my intrinsic motivations, to stop living under clouds of “shoulds.” I worry, though, that given this freedom, I will simply fritter away my time. Do I need to resort to routine and scheduling, which is in some ways the exact opposite of listening to intrinsic motivation? If I schedule time each day when I have no choice but to write, I know that I will succeed in writing more regularly.
I want to give myself the freedom to listen to my intrinsic motivations, to stop living under clouds of “shoulds.”
We “should” talk about this sometime in class. (pun intended) The psychology behind it is, as you point out, very intriguing and counter-intuitive and it would be interesting to explore ways around it. I do think that “presence” and being aware of our own motivations and conditioning at any given moment helps counter the unintended effects of “shoulds”.
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Eva Breitenbach 4/27/2016
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Private. Collaborators only.
Agreed. Being aware that the conditioning exists is a big step.