All in my head

Every so often, you find yourself in a clammy lecture hall saturated with the scent of body odor and a strange mixture of coffee and Windex, and your tobacco-breathed professor chuckles, grumbling something along the lines of “You guys are young – you can afford to pull an all-nighter or two.”

Breathe, you try to ease yourself, as your blood starts boiling, and you can feel the heat rising to your ears.

But you blend into the throng of chattering students flocking their way to the door, and a wave of vertigo hits. Suddenly, the laughter of your classmates seems miles away, and you find yourself back in the disgustingly white hospital bed exactly four years ago, the uncomfortably blinding fluorescent lights, a distant, raspy female voice screaming “Fuck you all, motherfuckers, I ain’t crazy,” and your racing, eighteen-year-old heart, your fluttering eyelids, as the same four words run over and over again in your head in a loop. Please end this pain.

Each of your legs weighs a thousand pounds, but you try to move them anyways and catch up with your peers as they yell over each other. “The midterm was so easy. I just showed up – I didn’t even have to study.” Your forehead crumples without your permission, and you quickly change the direction of your steps, knowing fully well that at any given point on the crowd, you’d be likely to overhear a conversation of a similar nature.

I wish it were so easy for me.

“Oh, stop it! Stop wallowing in self-pity. Listen to yourself!”

“Go away,” you mumble, and you speed up, trying to escape, knowing fully well that your efforts are wasted. “I’ve got enough to deal with as is without your shit.”

“As if,” she scoffs. “What, do you think of yourself as some war hero? Do you think anyone will buy that bullshit?”

You open your mouth, but quickly close it again. Her lips curl triumphantly, and she wraps a thin, icy arm around your waist. You begin to shake violently, and then your body freezes. You want to protest, but the waves of exhaustion are overwhelming, and every cell in your body is screaming, let it go.

She leans over, bending over you and moving her lips just above your ear, so close that each word leaves a burning kiss, branded onto your skin. “Just know that you’re never really alone. You always have…me.”

“Great,” you mutter, your low voice dripping with sarcasm, but your body has given up. Your legs give in, and you feel yourself sinking into the ground, into the depths of her cool embrace. Your chest heaves as sobs start to build from the pit of your stomach. You try to suppress them, but she rubs your arm, whispering, “No. Let it happen.”

And the inevitable happens. Eyes turn toward you, some with mild curiosity, some with a hint of pity, and most with impatience as they hastily look away, change direction, and rush forward and away to avoid the discomfort that you can’t seem to stop yourself from spreading.

“It’s best this way,” she whispers, still caressing your arm and shifting to allow your head to sink into her chest. “They’ll all see you for what you are,” and she dropped her voice to a low hiss, “Pathetic. Incapable of taking care of yourself. A baby. But at least you’re not living a lie.”

She ran her fingers through your hair, seeming to rejoice at your uncontrollable shudders. Then her voice changed, and her words had an almost deliberate hint of tenderness. “But you’ll always have me. Everyone else will come and go, but I’ll always be here.”

Your sobs become more and more violent, and you try to struggle, but she tightens her grip, squeezing your shoulders almost to the point of pain.

“But,” you gasp, and you take a deep breath. Then, you open your mouth, and whisper, “But they want to h-help me.”

“Help you?” She throws her head back with a raspy, harsh laugh. “Why would anyone want to help you? No one even knows I exist.”

You quickly look around in desperation, and her eyes flicker with amusement. Your arms are pinned down to your sides, frozen in her imprisoning embrace. You widen your eyes and scan, looking for someone, anyone, to help you break free. Help me, you plead with your eyes, knowing that your efforts are futile.

“Give it up,” she said dismissively, a small, wry smile twisting her face. “They barely even know you exist. And it’s better that way. Remember what happened last time you tried to tell someone?”

“But,” you gasp. But the color is returning to your face, and, miraculously, you have a morsel of strength remaining. But you know you have to save it for later. You have to catch her off guard. 

“But, what? They couldn’t handle you. But who can blame them? I mean, look at you. You’re a mess.”

“P-people like me,” you protest. The shaking is starting to subside, and your hands start to clench involuntarily into fists.

“Yeah, like you,” She scoffed, and her eyes glinted. “Have you noticed that the only people who still talk to you are the ones you lied to? If they knew who you really were, no one, I repeat, no one would want to deal with your bullshit. Who would? You’re a worthless piece of shit, and you’re lucky enough that I’m kind enough to stay-”

“I DON’T NEED YOU! If being with you is the only option, I’d rather be ALONE!”

You expect her to tighten her grip on you, but you suddenly hear a thump, and a second later, you feel a searing pain in your head. But you now have more control over your body as you pull your head off the concrete and gingerly peel your body off the ground, rolling up and looking around.

She’s gone.

But you begin to regain sensation in your legs, and the day seems a little less dim as you take a few steps and realize that you’re not completely incapable of walking. You quickly raise the side of your hand to your eyes to brush away the stinging tears, and suddenly the trees and buildings come into focus.

She’s gone.

But you don’t feel alone.

You begin to fixate on little things, like the way the wind rustles as it tickles your neck, and the birds are chirping a little louder, and the trees look a little greener than they did yesterday, and the sun seems to be visiting a bit more often these days. And for a moment, it doesn’t matter.

You can manage now.

You may never be able to prevent her from coming back, but you can manage. You can learn how to challenge her.

Her words are not always true. They are only true if you become them.

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Why? A question for office hours, but not for mental health

Almost seven years ago, I was a freshman in high school (and typing this makes me feel extremely old), and we were making our course selection for sophomore year classes. Although I was, for the most part, a diligent and hardworking student, I was by no means excellent, and although I enjoyed school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was taking regular classes, unlike most of my seemingly brilliant friends, who were taking honors classes and were doing math that I would only begin to dream about understanding in college.

But one day, to be precise, February 19th, 2010, everything changed. I was visiting my biology teacher, Ms. Wolchok, in her office to obtain her signature approving me for the regular Chemistry track. Being somewhat uncertain in my own abilities, I was slightly anxious that she would end up placing me in in a remedial class. This silly fear stayed with me as I handed her my course sign-up sheet, with a shaking hand, and she said, “Honey, I’m a little bit on the fence about you.” My heart dropped, until she said slowly “I’m considering putting you in the honors Chemistry track.” Me? Honors Chem? I thought it must be a joke, and I was waiting for someone to pop out and yell “April Fools!” But Ms. Wolchok continued to tell me that I had been doing very well in her class recently, and that she thought I was becoming more comfortable with science. She told me that if I wanted, I could do well in Honors Chemistry – that, because other students had more experience than I did, I might not end up with the best grade, but I would learn a lot.

Ms. Wolchok might not remember me, but her words of encouragement mean more to me today than she could possibly imagine. The fact that someone else recognized my ability when I couldn’t recognize it myself made me excited to learn science with an enthusiasm that I had not had before. Although the later years of elementary and middle school had squashed the fun out of science by introducing exams, in Honors Chem, I actively defied this mentality. I managed to regain my childish curiosity about science – I marveled at the beautiful colors and bubbling test tubes, tried my best to understand not only the what and how, which was required for exams, but why, why certain equations, laws, and predictions work, and where they came from. My free time became full of chemistry jokes on the internet and youtube videos of fancy chemists performing explosive reactions in fancy laboratories, and chemistry became the subject and inspiration of all of my drawings.

It also helped that my teacher, a young, enthusiastic, small woman who was extremely organized and hard-working, was remarkably similar to me aside from one key quality: confidence. Although I was extremely hesitant to acknowledge my own abilities and was often plagued with doubts, I admired that she seemed so sure of herself in every movement she made. Having her as a role model encouraged me to work harder in Chemistry, and I wanted to achieve the skill and confidence that seemed so effortless for her. I not only surpassed my own expectations in Honors Chemistry, but I went on to take AP Chemistry, which my school capped at 17 students in my year, and a senior directed study class in Chemistry called Molecular Gastronomy. When I started as a freshman in college at UC San Diego, I declared my major in Chemistry. Beginning in my senior year of high school, I tutored younger students in Chemistry for four years, and as my undergraduate experience is slowly wrapping up, my current plan is to apply to a graduate program in either Theoretical or Physical Chemistry.

It is somewhat strange for me to talk about high school this way, focusing on the positive side of those four years and being extremely grateful for the people who have changed my life forever. There was another side to my high school experience, a side that was extremely dark, extremely isolating, and extremely painful, and took over most of my senior year. But the fact remains that I have learned more from the experience than I can ever express. It gives me chills to think that I was so close to shying away from a class that changed my life forever, and if given the chance, I know I would not change my high school experience for the world.

Towards the end of my freshman year in college, I lost my motivation to do science. Somehow, a combination of the remnants of traumatic events from high school, my dislike for Organic Chemistry and Chemistry lab, the competitive, entitled, grade-obsessed and learning-phobic nature of most of my pre-medical student peers, as well as the UCSD Chemistry department advising turned me off from the subject. In high school, Chemistry was much more exciting, mathematical, and theoretical – qualities that made me rejoice in the subject more so than the practical components. I felt lost and scared, because I no longer had passion for the subject that was once the very center of my existence and was the reason I has the strength to wake up in the morning and work towards my dream. I didn’t know what my dream was anymore, but I knew it wasn’t medical or pharmacy school, or Chemistry research in a laboratory.

The next two years, I tried just about everything I possibly could within my limits as a college student, searching for something that somehow returned the passion I had once felt in high school. I went to Italy to attend a five week program about the Mathematics behind the architecture in Rome, followed by a semester in a new liberal arts college in India, where I took courses in History, Philosophy, and Literature. When I returned, I volunteered in multiple veterinary hospitals and non-profit organizations, and took classes in Biology, Statistics, Creative Writing, Political Science, Business Management and Accounting. There were classes that I found mildly interesting and appealing, but nothing sparked the passion in me. A couple of weeks before my third year of college, I applied to a small college of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and ended up getting in with a scholarship. I spend the entire year in art school, experimenting and toying with the ideas of pursuing with Drawing, Painting, Illustration, Animation, Design, Toy Design, Creative Writing, and Art History and Theory. However, nothing seemed to fit, and I was miserable. I felt more empty, alone, afraid for the future, and devoid of passion than ever before. And I was ashamed to admit that I felt this way, because I had risked everything to come to art school. Because I had changed my major so many times that I was afraid everyone would judge me. Because I was afraid that my depression was coming back, and I desperately wanted to escape its clutches.

However, there was one thing that kept me going. When we had to complete a research project on any possible topic in my Art Theory class, I chose to research science textbook illustrations. My instructor, who was usually extremely harsh and critical, thought my project was brilliant, and she used my paper as an example for the class. One day, after class, she sat me down and said, “Paheli, this is a wonderful college, but it’s not for everyone, and is certainly not going to give you the preparation in science that you want and need. Honestly, I think you would be much better off in a large research university.” My first reaction was indignation. I knew it wasn’t preparation for science – that wasn’t why I had come. That wasn’t what I was aiming for anymore – was it? But how else could I explain how I dreaded doing my homework for all my classes in art school, but I spend hours developing lessons for the high school students I was tutoring in AP Chem, and going over the practice problems to make sure I understood them before tutoring sessions? How could I explain why I’d signed up for an informal online course in Physical Chemistry, and worked on the practice problems in my free time? Finally, my parents, who had long recognized my dissatisfaction, although I was too afraid to admit it, asked me if I wanted to return to UCSD to complete a degree in math or science. They assured me that they would help me find an apartment off campus but close enough, and my mother was considering applying for a job in San Diego so that she could stay with me more often and support me in the completion of my degree – after finishing my degree once and for all, I could think about jobs or possibly grad school – since I knew I had not learned enough science to function in the real world.

I initially looked for a program at UCSD that would be easiest to complete a degree in, and that was similar to what I had already done. I found Earth Science, which was one of the two undergraduate majors at UCSD offered by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The main appeal of this major was that I had flexibility to take electives in Chemistry and Physics, and there was no Chemistry laboratory requirement. However, the upper division coursework in this major required a lower division Earth Science class, as well as one additional lower division Physics course that I had not completed in freshman year during my Chemistry major. In addition, if I wanted to graduate on time (2017), I would need to take two general education classes over the summer. So I decided to take both of the two summer sessions offered before restarting in the fall.

My first summer session, and first session back at UCSD, seemed extremely daunting. My schedule was 9-5 every day except Friday, with a couple hour break in the middle, and the material would be extremely concentrated, smushing a ten week quarter’s worth into five weeks.  As if that wasn’t enough, before returning to UCSD, I had to go back to my high school to attend my younger brother’s graduation, which sent me on an unexpected spiral of depression against my will. I had no hope of re-sparking my passion for science during the first five weeks for sure – I knew I just had to get through it.

But somehow the spark happened when I least expected it. The first day, my morning Earth Science class was cancelled, so I had an extremely frustrating time trying to set up a meeting with the campus counseling services (as a safety measure), to no success, since I hadn’t paid the fall quarter fees. I began my afternoon physics class extremely flustered and anxious. Since there weren’t many professors willing to lecture over the summer, many of the courses, including this physics course, had grad student instructors. Surprisingly, my instructor was a female grad student – I had grown to expect male professors and TAs when it came to Math and Physics, and, to some degree, Chemistry. About halfway through the lecture, when she was explaining units of pressure, she told a physics joke about the scientists Newton and Pascal. It was a small moment, but it was just the spark I needed, as it reminded me of the countless times in my sophomore year of high school, when I spend hours looking for chemistry jokes on the internet.

Later, when I was feeling anxious about the class and the weekly quizzes, I went to visit my instructor’s office hours, and I told her that I enjoyed her joke. She went on to tell me a popular joke about a spherical cow, and then began talking about her own research, which was about physics applied to neurons, and that she was basically assuming a spherical neuron (in order to simplify calculations). She seemed very excited to talk about what she was working on, and her enthusiasm was infectious. When I left office hours to grab some lunch before class started, there was a new spring in my step – although talking to people in general requires a lot of effort for me, I felt as if I had just taken a shot of five hour energy – I can’t explain it exactly, but I had more motivation to learn than I had since high school.

Although I hadn’t expected to get much out of these summer courses besides prerequisites for my fall classes, I ended up learning a lot. I made a couple of friends in my physics class, one of whom was a math major, and she used to ask “why” questions a lot. Her questions reminded me a lot of the questions that I used to ask in high school, a method which I had quickly abandoned when I began at UCSD, as people told me that I would never pass my classes if I tried to learn everything. Moreover, I had become discouraged and convinced that it would never work, and no matter how much I learned, it would never be enough and would not help me succeed in exams. However, seeing my classmate’s success at asking “why” questions convinced me that it was worth it to adopt my previous method. I saw immediate results, and found that not only did I learn more and perform better in exams, but I felt more fulfilled about what I was learning – it was important material, not just things I was learning to spit out on a piece of paper and forget immediately afterwards! In addition, my instructor’s approach to physics was extremely fitting for my brain’s needs – she combined the right amount of conceptual and intuitive explanations, attempting to bring relevance to concepts in the context of real life, and mathematically based proofs, explaining the origins of the equations we were dealing with. And again, just as in high school, I saw a little bit of myself in her, which encouraged me to further explore the dormant grad school dream I had since I became interested in Chemistry – if she was doing it, and we were somewhat similar in personality, perhaps I had the capacity to do research as well?

As I noticed myself getting inspired and enthralled with the study of physics and its uncanny similarity to the parts I liked about chemistry – the theoretical, mathematically based part, rather than the lab aspect – I kept reminding myself to keep focused on the goal, which was to graduate by the end of the year and get a degree. But what use is a degree if I’m not doing what I love? All the senior earth science majors had the same pitch for the major: you get to go out into the field instead of sitting in a classroom all day and learning theorems. But I knew I was not the target demographic for this pitch because I actually enjoyed those theorems and the classroom.  I ended up considering and reconsidering switching my major to physics several times over the course of the next couple of months, until an advisor finally confirmed my fear that it was way too late for me to declare the major. However, instead of taking the general education class I needed in the next summer session, I ended up taking an extra calculus course, which I didn’t need for chemistry, but was a requirement for any upper division physics courses. After my physics course, I contacted my physics instructor, Sasha, and I told her about how much I had enjoyed the course, and that the stuff she had been saying about her research interested me. She ended up explaining what her research group does to me in person, and she told me that her advisor is willing to take undergraduate interns during the year.

In fall, I was taking two Earth Science courses, and chemistry electives: Inorganic Chemistry and Physical Chemistry, and a Physics seminar. I was excited for Physical Chemistry – I had been interested ever since my high school Chemistry teacher told me that it was the most difficult course she had taken in college, but that it was worth all the hard work. At the beginning of the quarter, it was an extremely difficult and stressful class, and I seriously considered dropping it, because I didn’t believe I could handle the workload.

In addition to my courses, I contacted Sasha’s advisor. His research is on nonlinear dynamics, and he looks at nonlinear systems that range from neurons to geophysical fluid dynamics. In particular, the group is looking at the neurons in this bird called the zebra finch, which is a song bird. They look at the region in the bird’s brain that relates to song production and they have these computer simulations that try to imitate the results from experimental data, which helps model how the neurons are connected mathematically. This has implications in understanding how other animals’ brains work, and also has potential medicinal applications, since they are looking at neurons that are involved in Alzheimers. The work that they are doing is very cool and relevant to almost everything, but it is extremely complex and difficult to understand. Most of the math, physics, and computer/numerical analysis stuff that they discuss at the research group meetings is way beyond me. However, the difficulty makes it very rewarding when I actually understand anything, and I enjoy the idea of being behind the scenes of what seems like such an important and relevant (to many different fields) project. Also, after the first group meeting, almost everything they said went completely over my head. Although Sasha had told her advisor that I was a good student and good at applying math to physics, apparently, I wondered if she had somehow got the wrong idea about my abilities and the scope of my math knowledge. I ended up emailing her and asking how she knew I was “good” at math, since I hadn’t actually done that much math. Her response was the following: “Being “good” at math doesn’t necessarily mean that you know a lot of math or that you even have practice doing it. It’s more of how you approach problems and think about things. You, as a student and budding scientist, ask “why” questions a lot and you want to get to the root of things and figure out where they come from. That’s the right way of looking at things and thinking about things to be good at physics and math. So, embrace it! You might not have a ton of experience, but you are thinking the right way.” (I did copy and paste this from the actual email). It was extremely helpful for me, because it gave me the courage to believe in my methods, even though they are somewhat unusual amongst my peers, and it influenced the way I approached my classes during the quarter.

And boy, am I glad that I did not end up dropping Physical Chem, for multiple reasons. First of all, after the first couple weeks, which were mostly review of the summer physics class but in more detail, we started getting into extremely interesting topics relating to kinetics, equilibrium, entropy, and statistical mechanics, which further confirmed the extent to which I enjoy the mathematical aspect of chemistry topics. Also, my professor mentioned his work in theoretical chemistry in the context of the Nobel prize winners in Chemistry, so I decided to ask him about it after class and during office hours. He ended up giving me some helpful tips about theoretical chemistry – basically, he said it is essentially physics under disguise, but it is sometimes nice because it is less populated than equivalent physics fields (condensed matter physics), so one has more flexibility to choose research topics to work on (in condensed matter, there is pressure to jump on topics that are related to what Nobel prize winners are working on). He also said he regretted not getting more of a foundation in physics, which is influencing me to take more physics classes if I get in (there is limited enrollment), and/or try to learn more physics through the research group and independently. Also, in office hours, my professor worked with me on proofs, and even tried to answer one of my questions through a proof, and gave me the project of finding a counterexample if possible. I liked the fact that he was giving me things to work on that weren’t just for the exam and seemed to genuinely care about my academic career and giving me genuine advice. Just as I had experienced in the summer in Sasha’s office hours, going to his office hours, as well as my Pchem TA’s, gave me a surge of energy unlike any other social interaction. And as a cherry on top of an already beautiful cake, my result for PChem ended up being the best result I’ve ever gotten. This has made me not only more confident in my abilities and the fact that I can achieve what I want if I just put in time and dedication and endure even when it seems extremely difficult, but it also further confirmed that the “why” method actually works!

I ultimately decided to try to apply for a major in Math/Applied Science (I have to apply next quarter), for which I will have to take seven upper division math courses (Math Reasoning, Real Analysis, Complex Analysis, Numerical Methods, and Differential Geometry) and any calculus based physics courses I want, and will have to take an additional year for. I am going to try for Physics (Mechanics), Physical Chem (Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics), the final part of the Inorganic Chemistry sequence, and Biochemistry. I also would like to take less courses per quarter and spend more time learning and working on research things. As I said, I’m planning to apply to grad school in Theoretical or Physical Chemistry, which seems most realistic and appealing to me at the moment.

Another thing I have realized is that at some point I will have to let go of the idea of learning everything there is to learn and just start doing research, and learn as needed, along the way. That is a scary prospect for me, but I’ve realized that just because someone doesn’t have good grades doesn’t mean they will be a bad researcher, and just because someone has good grades doesn’t mean they will be a good researcher. While classes are about learning things in detail for the purpose of solving problems on exams, research seems to be a completely new, scary ballgame – solving real problems that have no solutions manual – but it’s a risk that I’m willing to take.

For a couple of weeks before the winter break, I noticed myself feeling both anxious and down. I kept trying to think about why, and explain it way. It was because school was stressful. It was because I don’t have that many friends. But soon school ended, and I had people I could talk to every once in a while. And the feeling still wasn’t leaving me. I was feeling extremely disappointed in myself – why is this high school depression coming back now? It will ruin everything! What it the source? How can I fix it? What do I need to change? How can I explain to others how I am feeling?

And just recently hit me that while this “why” method might be helpful for me for academics and trying to understand concepts in classes, it is not necessarily the way to go about emotional things. Sometimes, when I am feeling off, it doesn’t mean I need to change anything. Sometimes there is no reason, or no important one, why I’m feeling down and off. Sometimes, I just need to wait it out until it gets better.

It has been extremely challenging for me to manage college, growing up, responsibilities, schoolwork, and my mental illness. I think many times, people around me underestimate what I am going through, partially because I don’t want to give too much importance to it. I desperately just want to be normal, have a normal life, and I don’t want to be a burden on the people around me. I want to be grateful and focus on the wonderful and beautiful things in my life – the people (and dog) who have stayed with me, the awesome things I’m learning and being exposed to in school, the helpful and inspiring mentors I have, and the privileges I have to live where I live, go to school where I go to school, have a roof over my hear and have the security that I will be able to eat meals every day without insecurity. But sometimes I’m swept over by extreme negativity. And I need to work on shifting away from trying to fix the negativity by changing things and towards sitting through it and keeping my eyes on what is important.

Although I have been feeling down, it’s not the same emptiness that I felt in senior year of high school, freshman year, or in India, or in art school. Although I have a significant amount of anxiety about my untraditional undergrad path, I know that I’m where I’m meant to be and I’m doing what I love most – I have come a full circle and have come back to my first love. I’m now more aware of the specific parts of the subject that I like more and want to focus on, and it feels right. I might be feeling a little off, but I think this is just a passing feeling, and that my enthusiasm from the summer will return soon. I know that I will need to keep working on developing my skills, my persistence, and my self-confidence, but at the moment, I am content with where I am.

This blog post is dedicated to my amazing cousin, Aniket, who told me to keep updating my blog, and would have turned 22 on the first day of the new year. He still inspires me and helps me put things in perspective. 

On Buddhists and Tattoos

As a child, the idea of a tattoo was unspeakable. With an inescapable association to convicts and rebellious teenagers on motorcycles, tattoos represented, for me, a disrespect towards the natural order of society and a disregard for the purity of ones own body. However, as I grew older, I began to view tattoos with a sense of curiosity, even fascination. After emerging from a series of painful emotional experiences in high school, I began to seek refuge through storytelling. Tattoos finally made sense to me on a personal level. Whether they were meant to make a statement against undesirable societal norms, an illustration of a personal narrative, or a marker of ones identity, tattoos spoke to me on a much deeper level in my adolescence.

At the beginning of the semester, I was assigned to read an article called “Ironic Bodies and Tattooed Jews,” by Heather Joseph-Witham, an exploration of the relationship between Jews and Tattoos. Although Jews are traditionally opposed to tattoos, the article interviewed a few individuals who use their bodies as canvases to tell stories about their Jewish ancestors. This article made me curious about the relationship between Buddhism and tattoos.

My parents identify their religious affiliation as both Hindu and Buddhist. Although I grew up reciting sanskrit prayers that were meaningless to me, when I was eight years old, I declared myself an atheist. College was the first time when I began to explore religious philosophies, and Buddhism spoke to me on a personal level. Most of the principles are difficult for me to incorporate into my life, but many of my core values align with Buddhist philosophies.

Last year, I had the privilege of studying abroad for a semester at a liberal arts university in India. One of the people who took me on my first tour of the campus was a member of the  university’s outreach team, Nikita Samanta. Although she does not consider herself a religious Buddhist, she incorporates Buddhist philosophies into her life. She was born and raised in Hyderabad, a city in the southern part of India, and she was first introduced to Buddhism by her sister at age twelve.

When I asked Nikita about her take on Buddhism and tattoos, she said that under the broad umbrella term “Buddhism,” there are many sub-religions. While some sects of Buddhism are highly religious, she interprets Buddhist philosophies in a fairly liberal manner. Using her interpretation as a guiding principle, there are no real restrictions when it comes to sex, alcohol, or even tattoos. She says that people can interpret Buddhism in a way that makes sense to them as an individual, and they need not subscribe to a strict doctrine.

“I have two tattoos myself,” she admitted, “one of the Buddhist chant that is the core of our practice.” Above is an image of the design of Nikita’s tattoo. The scripture contains the following phrase: “Nam myoho renge kyo,” which is Japanese (derived from Sanskrit) for “I devote myself to the mystic law of cause and effect.” This phrase describes the karmic law of the universe, one that has been adopted in American pop culture and persists in our everyday language.

When I asked Nikita what connected her to the phrase, she said that it is less about a personal connection to the specific phrase and more a commitment to Buddhist philosophy. “It, unlike any religion,” she explained, “places the power and responsibility in my hands for my life and everything that happens in it.” The concept of karma, a key element of the Buddhist philosophy, gives her a sense of agency over her own life and keeps her grounded.

Nikita acknowledged that not all Buddhists are as liberal as she is when it comes to the concept of tattoos. While it has become a trend among some Buddhists to get a tattoo of the head of Buddha, in Sri Lanka and Thailand, such tattoos are not encouraged. Nikita does not view Buddha as a deity, but Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhists worship Buddha. With some research, I learned that a British tourist with a tattoo of the Buddha was denied entry to Sri Lanka, and there have been similar threats in Thailand to outlaw tourists sporting tattoos with iconographic Buddhist symbols (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 171). According to Timothy Willem Jones and Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things, the mass reproduction of Buddhist images is not the issue, as tattoos are not unique to modern westerners, but it is more a failure to adhere to the conventional rules of tattoo placement. Based on the Tibetan rules, tattoos must be placed above the waist. Placement on the feet, for instance, shows a disregard for Buddhist customs (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 172)

David L McMahan’s Buddhism in the Modern World discusses the twofold debate about tattoos in the Buddhist community. While some people view tattoos as a permanent marker of their Buddhist identity and a commitment to the practice of Buddhism, others dismiss tattoos as an insufficient substitute for hard work towards the noble path to enlightenment (McMahan 2012: Section 20). While there are undoubtedly some people who get tattoos of Buddha’s head without understanding the implications of their actions, I believe that there are enough people who have informed themselves of the traditional connotations of the symbol, and are reshaping it to fit their contemporary sensibilities.

One of the main ideas behind Buddhism that attracted me was that the root of all suffering is attachment. I think that this is an incredibly powerful insight, for much of the anxiety I face on a daily bases stems from fear of losing what I am attached to. In my first year of college, my roommate identified Buddhist philosophies as guiding principles in her life. “Change is the only constant,” she would repeat to me, chuckling at the irony of the phrase. Nothing is permanent, including the body and the illusion of a sense of self that an individual might face. Impermanence is key to Buddhist philosophy (Gowans 2015: 20). The very idea of a Buddhist tattoo, a permanent brand of one’s identity, is riddled with irony.

Works Cited

Gowans, Christopher W. Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

McMahan, David L. Buddhism in the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Willem Jones, Timothy and Lucinda Matthews-Jones. Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Letter to Aniket (1995-2016)

Dear Aniket,

Logically I know that you won’t ever read this but somehow in my heart, I still feel like you’ll see this and respond with the good humored, supportive note you always carry with your words.

I’m so in shock and there are tears streaming down my face as I write this. It just seems so unfair that such a kind, supportive, curious, empathetic, beautiful soul could just be taken away so suddenly. That I won’t be able to wish you a happy birthday every New Year’s Day, and I won’t be able to read your response and your wishes for my birthday two days later, that I’ll never be able to read your encouraging words about my writing.

I feel so guilty for taking all your kindness for granted and not talking to you more while you were still here. I just wish I would have gotten to know you even better, because during the few deep conversations we had, it was always so easy to talk to you and you had a sense of maturity and awareness far beyond our years. I have a lot to learn from you.

I just hope that you know how much our whole family appreciates and loves you. I’m starting a new writing project, and because of your encouragement I want to try to write more often, because I feel like if you were still here you would want to keep reading it. I don’t know what else to say but even though we lived miles apart, nothing will ever be the same without you.

Denial: Reflections on the Freeway

You’re just a glimmer on my ring finger.
From the sea of red and white lights flying past me on the 134,
all I see is a glimmer, a sliver of what came before.
Shining modestly through the darkness,
beckoning me forth with a suggestive glance,
breaking through the barricades
I’ve spent years reinforcing to shield my heart from your destructive blades.
I’m gliding past all the glaring headlights but unable to remove you from my line of vision. You’re a tough stain on a white carpet that no amount of whiskey and tears can wash away. You’re in every face I see, your light shining through the eyes of strangers, a chronic reminder of the broken promises and the stories that ended mid

CWC Slam Poetry Night

Hope is a dangerous emotion. Hope has the power to lift you up to unimaginably lofty heights, but the trouble is that there is never a safety net to catch your fall when hope deserts you.

I stumbled upon a little corner of hope on the third floor. Full of plush green candy apple coloured chairs surrounding smooth wooden tables shaped like guitar picks and the smell of coffee wafting through the air and colourful paper star crafts. But beneath the warm smiles, there was a suffocating sense of strain, a dark cloud looming above and growing and growing until it exploded, burst into flames, crashed and burned and blew up into smithereens.

There are two sides to a story and I can only relate to one. Because when you run from Delhi to Sonipat to Panipat and back, collecting furniture and decoration to bring to life the dream that you have been conceptualizing in your head and on computer sketch programs for months, and you put in your life, your soul, your blood, sweat, and tears into your project, and you create something wonderful from absolutely nothing, you inevitably develop a huge bubble of hope in your heart. And each time they burst your bubble, you emerge with another bubble of hope…until hope deserts you.

There are always two sides to a story, but when good people get hurt, good places get crushed, and those menacing motherfuckers try to snatch away my only corner of happiness, I don’t fuck around. I vote with my feet.

Tribute to Alana

On what seemed like a highly typical Tuesday afternoon, I unloaded my backpack and plopped down on a plush bean bag chair at the CWC. Ever since the first week of the semester, I had spent almost every morning, afternoon, and many evenings and nights there. At first, I had used the center merely to sit down quietly and finish my numerous reading and writing assignments, but soon, I began to prefer the writing center over my dormitory room as a place to relax and unload my stress. In spite of the fact that the CWC is a place full of ambitious, intellectual, and extremely talented minds, there is something about it that makes it a comfortable, home-like place. The chairs in the room are bright and candy-green-apple coloured and it is sprinkled with art projects; there are multicoloured paper stars, paper-machet trinkets, drawings, scrap pieces of paper, and an unfinished mural that a few students have been painting. In just a few months, the CWC has already become a meaningful space to many students, but it continues to bloom and grow every day. It is an unfinished story that is just waiting to be fleshed out.

I had scarcely started on my usual de-stressing routine, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and recovering from the long day of classes, when I heard one of the tutors call me.

“P-dog!” Lauren, my teaching assistant who also worked as a tutor at the CWC leaned out from the news room, a room in the center separated by a clear glass window and a set of glass doors. “Can you come in here for a second?” She looked to the other end of the room and called another girl who visited the CWC regularly. “Uttara, can you also come in here for a second?”

I hesitated, and possibilities started to fill my mind. Was something wrong? Was I in trouble? Why would she want to talk to me? And if she did want to talk to me, why would she call the two of us in private? We were friendly with each other, but we had virtually no connection aside from our frequent hours spent at the CWC.

I scarcely had time to think as I stepped into the newsroom and spotted another girl, Manisha, who looked as if she was about to burst into tears. My heart started to race; whatever it was, it definitely would not be good.

Lauren could probably sense my apprehension, as she took a deep breath and said, “Don’t be worried.”

Manisha started to wipe her eyes, and even Lauren, who never seemed phased by anything, looked tearful. “I just wanted you guys to hear this from us before someone else tells you. Alana has resigned.”

Everyone started to wipe their eyes feverishly, including Lauren. At the sight of Lauren’s tearful face, I felt my eyes stinging, and tear poured out before I could stop them. Lauren’s face crumbled, uncomfortable with the outpouring of emotion, and she buried her face on the table. I couldn’t say that it was completely unexpected, but it was extremely upsetting, no matter how foreseeable it might have been.

I had always loved to write and read, but I had never considered studying it before the summer when I applied to the university. I had spent most of the summer furiously scribbling down anecdotes, personal reflections, and streams of consciousness in my journal. I had completed a study abroad program in Italy, and I brought my journal with me almost everywhere I went. It was what helped me get through the stress of the experience, and I started to consider the possibility of becoming a professional writer. When I heard about the description of the CWC, I was extremely excited at the prospect. My previous university had a writing center, but it was a small, windowless room, and my experience with the tutors had been overwhelmingly disappointing. I had the feeling that it was a half-hearted project, set up in the university almost as an afterthought. Based on the description, the CWC seemed to be quite the opposite. It seemed to be an extremely important element of the vision of the university, and it seemed that the director of the center, Alana, had been through painstaking efforts to make it an intellectually stimulating environment. Alana then interviewed me for the admissions process, so I got the chance to ask her about it face to face, albeit through a Skype window. I was extremely surprised to learn that she had read my favorite book, Veronica Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho. She is the only person I have met who has read it so far, as it is one of Coelho’s less well known novels. I remember that she asked me why, in my admissions essay detailing my favorite book, I had not included one crucial element of the book, as she believed it was one of the most interesting parts of the story. This launched us into the topic of relative thinking, and how different people might read the same story and have different ideas about which elements are important.

During the first week of university, I came to visit the CWC before my morning class. It was my first time visiting, and I walked slowly and deliberately, unsure if these were even the hours during which CWC was operational. I inched closer to the door, peering in, when I spotted the opening to Alana’s office, just outside the center.

She waved when she saw me. “Hi, Paheli.”

“Hi,” I said cautiously. “I was wondering if I would sit and read in the writing centre?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, smiling. “We’re not open right now, but you can still sit there. I’ll tell the tutors you’re there.”

She led me into the room, and I sat on one of the light green chairs and began to focus on my work, drowning out the chattering noises as the four tutors began to settle into the room. Then, slowly, Alana approached me. “Do you have a minute?”

She introduced me to the four tutors: Susannah, Lauren, Katherine, and Nina. She told them that I was from the United States, as were three of the tutors. She and Katherine pulled up two plush green chairs to sit next to me. They began to ask me about how I was finding Ashoka so far. “What do you miss?” Alana asked me, and there was a genuine sense of curiosity in her bright blue eyes. I almost wanted to spurt out all out all the difficulties I had with food and adjusting to the culture, but I hesitated. “Well, I don’t want to be negative…”

“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “This is a safe space.” Somehow, her words stuck with me, and I soon began to see the CWC as just that. A safe space.

During the first month, Alana was always extremely present in the CWC and in student activities. At our first student newspaper meeting, she was there, beaming and stealing photographs of excited students. She organized for us to come and paint the wall in the back, turning it into a mural. She and the tutors stayed in the center until as late as ten o clock at night so that we could work there. She also made sure that the wall was a group effort, and that no one student would become too dominating. I had been thinking about starting an animal rights organization on campus, and she was very excited about the possibility. She sent me links about interesting dog-friendly initiatives in other countries, and she told me that she would help me with what that she could. She organized for fun workshops at the CWC, and each night, one could find her meticulously hanging carefully selected posters on the walls. She was nailing them into the wall all by herself, refusing help from anyone who offered. She was absolutely devoted to the CWC, and she was an active, independent, and consistent presence there.

Not only was she devoted to students’ intellectual and artistic enrichment, but she was also very open on a personal level. She insisted that everyone call her Alana, rather than the more formal Professor Sobelman. It took me a while to get used to, and I went through an intermediate phase of calling her “Professor Alana.” During the first few weeks, she invited me to go on a walk with her around the campus in the early morning. It was very pleasant; the weather was subdued, the birds were still chirping, and on the way, we met two friendly stray dogs. Since we were right near the faculty apartment building, she ran upstairs and brought some bread for us to feed the dogs. I remember marveling at the precious experience, as I could never imagine connecting with the daunting faculty members at my previous university on such a personal level. I also confided in her about a personal issue I was having regarding rude comments that a staff member had made, and she was incredibly supportive. She struck me as an extremely sensitive and caring person.

She even offered to make food for me once, as I was struggling with keeping up my vegan lifestyle. “I make a killer vegan chilli,” she had told me. “I was able to get tofu from some of the more bourgeois markets in Gurgaon.” I truly admired her for her sense of adventure and fearlessness. The fact that she had been to the Haryana village markets to get vegetables completely on her own, as a foreign woman, not to mention the underlying fact that she had come all the way to India on her own, encouraged me to venture into the city to obtain food for myself. I ended up buying a lot of material to make meals for myself, and the first thing I did when I returned was send her a long, proud email about my adventures on the Delhi metro and at the crowded and unfamiliar markets. “Congratulations, Paheli,” she had responded almost immediately. “You are officially a traveler, rather than a tourist.”

During the next month and a half, Alana was still there, but she was less present within the center itself. She was always slaving away at her desk with her copious pile of work, or attending one of her frequent and never ending meetings. I remember feeling confused, because she was less responsive to emails and appeared more distant in person. Previously, she used to greet me cheerfully every day in the CWC with a conversation, a pat on the shoulder, or at least a wave, but now she seemed hassled and preoccupied. For a while, I wondered if it was something I had done- had I said something too personal? Did I make her uncomfortable? Was my constant presence at the CWC annoying? Such thoughts nagged the back of my mind for weeks, until one day when I left the CWC to go to lunch at around the same time when she was leaving her office. I walked down the three flights of stairs with her. She had certainly changed. She seemed distant from the conversation, and her responses seemed delayed. She had always been graceful with all of her movements, but something about them now seemed lethargic, almost robotic. What struck me the most were her eyes; they seemed distant, glossed over, and it seemed as if she could barely keep them open.

“Are you alright?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “You seem really tired.”

“Oh, I’m so tired,” she said, and a grin started to spread across her face. “But my husband’s just moved in, and my cat, finally, so I’m very happy.”

I smiled, and felt an overwhelming sense of compassion. Even though she said she was happy, I couldn’t get over how drastically the exhaustion had changed her appearance and interactions. I didn’t know what was keeping her so busy, but whatever it was seemed to be beyond me. I decided to leave her alone for some time and try to give up my pride. I felt silly for thinking as if I were important enough to instigate such a huge change. I could try to figure out some of the difficulties with the animal organization on my own; it wasn’t necessary to add to her already teeming plate. At the time, I thought that everything would die down and she would soon return to the normal, bright and cheerful, caring, helpful, and adventurous figure that I had come to admire so intensely.

There is no doubt in my mind that she has thought through the decision to resign carefully, and she must have truly believed that it was the best option. She is a go-getter; she was extremely devoted to her project, and she is not someone to just give up without an extremely good reason. It is incredible how she was able to touch so many people, in such a profound way and in such a short amount of time! I know so many students who made the tough decision to come to this university because of her, and everyone who has interacted with her and experienced her kindness will be extremely sad to see her go. The tutors, who are taking over her responsibilities at the center until they hire a new director, have not been themselves this week. They have still been diligent about their teaching responsibilities, but there is an underlying sense of gloom in the center. Alana was was the one who gave birth to the CWC, which had become a favorite haunt for an increasing number of students. The university has lost an extremely valuable asset to the community, but she will certainly not be forgotten. I believe that she has left behind an amazing legacy in the CWC and in everyone who knew her. This legacy will certainly continue to shape the culture at the university.

While I am sad to see her go so soon, I truly believe that her adventurous, go-getter attitude will encourage me to explore more, and venture further out of my comfort zone. It will continue to impact me wherever my life takes me next.