The Meditative Scientist: The Nitty-Gritty of Cultivating Awareness
If you still struggle to approach meditation despite its rising popularity, you are not alone. Though, I am not here to sell meditation with a list of benefits, nor do I intend to advise you how to “do it right”. In my opinion, all of this will fall into place once you say “yes” to the essence of meditation.
The essence summarises my answer to what meditation fundamentally is: awareness. It is the key to dissolving the hurdle between you and your meditation.
I would like to be your humble guide and show you why and how you can cultivate awareness as a lab scientist.
Why on Earth Should You Be Aware?
I am not being rhetorical here. Before I answer the question for you, could you ask yourself: why do I want that?
Most of us go into science fascinated by the beauty of it. Our hearts skip a beat when we see cardiomyocytes beat in a dish. We romanticize the excitement of standing alone (most of the time with a couple of others) at the frontier of knowledge. What a glorious picture we paint. But when experiments Just Don’t Work and the pressure comes? We paint another picture of anguish and injustice.
My opinion is: both pictures are just pictures, created by the thinking mind. They are made of a collage of tiny pixels we call “moments”. A glorious bigger picture can be our goal, but it is not daily life.
Bringing awareness into each moment is learning to enjoy painting each pixel. Bringing awareness is pulling the attention back from the chattering thoughts to perceiving the happenings as of this moment. That is, live every bit of your work with immense attention.
What bigger picture you should keep in mind while painting your pixels is entirely up to you. You might say you want to cultivate awareness at work so you could one day harvest a masterpiece (e.g. the Nobel Prize). But dwelling on a glorious image of the future will not bring you there. Instead, when you enjoy and focus on painting each pixel, the colors you create naturally become more vivid, and so will your final picture.
The Nitty-Gritty of Cultivating Awareness: Start With Your Daily Routine
As scientists, we adore the thinking mind. It fuels our problem-solving capabilities. However, incessant thinking is like the never-ending radio playing in the background; it still occupies us.
The result is, we are constantly multi-tasking; attention wanders and mistakes come. Being aware is not to multi-task. Remember, we want to paint one pixel at a time.
There are many tasks we frequently do at the lab. Like brushing teeth, we just don’t “need” that awareness anymore. I invite you to take this opportunity and cultivate awareness in all of your daily tasks, including the most mundane work.
Whether it is Take #10 on Isolating-Primary-Stem-Cells after failing nine times, or casting the agarose gel so very casually, see if you can allow yourself to simply be there. You’ve planned your day. This is what you’ve chosen to do at this moment, so do it with full-hearted awareness. The mind might still wander away, no worries, catch it and pull it back.
I am always amazed by scientists who can do cell culture and simultaneously talk about their sister’s wedding. If that describes you, see if you can hold that topic off for later at coffee break. If you are the innocent colleague who thinks it’s rude not to react, see if you can politely ask to have all your attention to pipetting.
If experiments lead you to eat lunch alone (perhaps in the company of your timer), it’s another great opportunity for our practice! See if you can put your smartphone down while eating your sandwich. See if you can acknowledge your surroundings, the sound, the light, and the pure sensation of chewing. Maybe the awareness only lasts for two bites. That’s okay, it will be there for three bites tomorrow. It’s a practice.
Expand the Awareness: Do What a Scientist Does the Best and Observe Yourself
Now that you paint your pixels with awareness, one at a time, I would like to ask for a bit more effort from you. Direct your focus to the painter, a.k.a. the scientist that you are.
Imagine a dish of newly plated cells that is handed to you. You don’t know what they are, or what the experiment is for. The only instruction is to observe its changes every hour, and take notice. A piece of cake, right? What you do all day. Now imagine, instead of cells, this dish holds your state of being: your physical state, your emotional state. Can you still be the unbiased observer you are trained to be?
What I am proposing is: don’t end your awareness at the work, expand it to the scientist who performs it. Be an observer of yourself, your emotional and physical changes in the day.
If you have a headache at work, don’t just choke down an aspirin reflexively while your eyes are still on the screen. Take a moment to pause and notice that physical sensation, feel it. Give it some attention first. Maybe even see how long it lasts.
If you become upset after reading an email from the PI, take notice of the change in your emotions. Is there anger? Is there sadness? Perhaps there is even an unpleasant sensation in your physical body. Take note, observe how long that lasts. Don’t escape to that smartphone again.
I can assure you with my own experience, you will be surprised how long they do last. Sometimes, you even watch them disappear. And if they don’t, a solution will eventually come to you – better than the one you do as a reflex.
Above All, Breathe, Like Really Breathe
This is my personal refresh button, something you can test out right where you are. Take a deep breath to fill your lungs, hold it for a second, then watch the air slowly fall out. Close your eyes if you can and allow yourself to bathe in the process. If you are about to try it, don’t do it because some article says so. Own it, for your enjoyment.
Cultivating awareness is simple, but not easy – it’s a constant practice. Shine it on each of your pixels, shine it on the painter. If you are patient enough, you will soon see the vividness awareness manifests. Before you know it, the hurdle dissolves, and you are already meditating.
If you want more tips or information on how slowing down can help you in the lab, check out our on-demand tutorial ‘The Happy Scientist – The Art of Going Slow‘.
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