Relearning to Breathe @ “Intro to Meditation”

When I first wanted to establish a meditation practice, I thought a Cornell PE class would be a great way to learn. Last semester, Introduction to Meditation did not fit my schedule, so I took the “Meditation and Relaxation”.The class met once a week, on Tuesday evenings, for about two hours. In retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t see why it was a bad idea. Every prelim for my CS and Math classes was on a Tuesday. And getting to Teagle Hall took a long, twenty minute walk through wintry Cornell. After three weeks, I stopped going to the class.

Although I received a grade of “Unsatisfactory” on “Meditation and Relaxation”, I still did want to establish a meditation practice. So when Intro to Meditation fit in my schedule this semester, I added it. The class meets for 50 minutes, twice a week. It has only been one week so far, but I know that this is the right class for what I want to learn.

On the first day of class, we talked about what meditation meant to each of us, individually. My response in class was somewhat incoherent. I often find myself being anxious about little things I have no control over. Mostly, these thoughts are repetitive. Maybe I have to print something for my Spanish class but my printer is malfunctioning; I decide to go to the library early next morning and print it before class. But it doesn’t end there, I’m not even fully aware of how many times the thought of printing my homework crosses my mind after that. Supposedly, on an average, a person has 60,000 thoughts per day and over 90% of them are exactly the same. (I haven’t found the study which proves this, but it sounds believable to me.) I want to have power over the way I think and feel and that is my motivation to meditate.

Then we read a list of twenty quotes on meditation. Each person chose what resonated most with themselves and meditated on it for ten minutes. There were some fantastic quotes on that sheet, but I chose something simple which gave me an action to do – focus on my breath – while meditating.

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.  – Thích Nhất Hạnh

I had my second class today. After a few yoga poses, we tried two introductory meditation techniques which focused on breathing. I like what was called “counting meditation”. You focus on and count each complete breath you take, but as soon as your thoughts stray, you must start from zero again. If I am honest with myself, even ten is a difficult target right now. It’s also funny that my stray thoughts are about how I’ll brag when I’ll be better at meditation.

At the end of the class, everyone received a personal journal to write in. My journal entry prompted me to write this blog post. The reflections in my journal seem to be the most enjoyable part of this class for me. It’ll be interesting to read it at the end of the semester.

Notes –
Introduction to Meditation is offered by Cornell PE.
And there is also a free, mindfulness meditation series on campus on weekdays.
I loved Robin Sharma’s –  “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari”.

On A Tapestry of Possibilities

Last year, I had watched Tapestry as a freshman. It was a mandatory theater show on social justice and I was ambivalent about it. From my first week on campus, I had not gathered much about the differences in the Cornell community and being new to the country made it worse. Although I was missing the social and cultural context of the skits, the universal elements of the show made it relatable.

At the end of the show, I remember being clearly impressed with it. I went to up to one of the cast members and told her that although I didn’t have any acting experience, I would like to be a part of the troupe – Ordinary People. As the semester progressed, Tapestry had faded into oblivion. When Ordinary People announced the auditions, I had gained some confidence as an actor, owing to the Introduction to Acting class. So I auditioned and was pleasantly surprised to receive the “Welcome to OP!” email.

Ordinary People grew to be a significant part of my freshman experience. I looked forward to our Friday meetings where we didn’t just play theater games, but also found the time to vent about college and have fun. But given the sensitivity of the topics we were working with, there were differences in the way we approach them, considering that troupe members have varied backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, we work through our differences (which make OP what it is), to staging effective shows.

This fall, I came back early to campus to rehearse and perform Tapestry. Rehearsals were exhausting eight to twelve hour ordeals, but the end product was worth all of our efforts. At first, a production of this magnitude seemed daunting – especially because this would be my first official work as an actor.

Kiplinger Theatre - where magic (and tapestry) happens.

Kiplinger Theatre – where magic (and tapestry) happens.

Over our five days of intense rehearsals, I came to embrace the stage. From being someone who only liked to dance in the privacy of her room, I went to being someone who was learning to do the hip roll on stage. During our 11 performances of Tapestry, I was elated each time we had a full house. The energy of the audience makes the stage all the more inviting.

Our audiences seemed to enjoy the show but were less enthusiastic about the discussion that followed. The facilitated discussion has always been the highlight of OP shows for me. The audience is mostly passive in traditional theater, so I believe it’s in these discussions that we really think about the questions raised in the skits.

The conversation is even more productive when two people have differing opinions. There are few platforms for two conflicting parties to just sit and talk about their differences. In OP, we acknowledge that an engaged conversation may not  ease deep discomforts between two groups. Instead, we seek a connection between the two groups which may have gone unnoticed.

For instance, when I watched Tapestry as a freshman, I remember that affirmative action was a contentious topic during the discussion. On one hand there are minority communities who believe that affirmative action only compensates for the societal/institutional/economic disadvantages they must cope with; on the other are students from majority communities who think it’s unfair that a peer with comparable qualifications may get access to a resource that perceived to be better. OP facilitators began the conversation by connecting the two conflicting groups on their value for fairness and equality. They wanted to explore the meaning of fairness in an absolute  sense and use that to connect conflicting individual definitions. This conversation wasn’t meant to remove the differences, but to understand them from a wider perspective.

The cast of Tapestry 2014.

The cast of Tapestry 2014. (much love <3)

This approach to conflict resolution inspired me and I signed up to moderate a Tapestry discussion this year. Having 300 people in the audience and only 30 minutes of discussion time makes it hard to have a conversation as engaged as we would have liked. But the experience of moderating Tapestry seemed surreal to me. A year ago, I had been a clueless freshman in the audience. The year leading to Tapestry was a journey of immense growth and discovery for me, and that realization happened on the Tapestry stage.

As enjoyable and a great learning experience as Tapestry was, I was relieved when it was over. Twelve hour rehearsals, classes during the day and three performances each night was an exhausting schedule to be on. Working for intense periods with the same group of people also led to personal tensions, even for a group of students who were so aware of conflicts and  their resolution. But we survived it all and produced a brilliant show (Seriously, it was fabulous).

If you watched Tapestry and wanted to be on that stage, or if you just like Ordinary People’s work – show up for auditions later this month. For details, get in touch with troupe members or find us at clubfest or look out for posters and quarter cards. Or if you just liked the moderated discussions and want more of it, on 9th September (Tuesday), OP will be conducting a post Tapestry discussion at the Cornell Cinema at 7:00P.M.

Note: Views expressed in this blog post are personal. Ordinary People and Tapestry are not affiliated to this.

Performing The Vagina Monologues

In November, several students from my theatre troupe (Ordinary People) were going to audition for a play which is produced annually by the Cornell Women’s Resource Center. I decided to audition as well. Although the play is very well known in the United States and has been performed for many years, I had never heard of it. It’s the episodic play “The Vagina Monologues”, written by Eve Ensler.

It’s not surprising that I had never heard of it before. In India, as in many other regions of the world, the word Vagina cannot freely be used in public. There’s a lot of shame, hesitation and embarrassment associated with it. In a place where the very word is taboo, I cannot expect an entire theatrical performance about Vaginas.

Last year, women from Beijing Foreign Studies University performed the Vagina Monologues in Beijing, China. They adapted the play to make it locally relevant. They were slandered on the internet and were threatened. “How could BFSU admit such vulgar girls?” and “If my daughter did this, I’d slap her across the face,” had been some of the least misogynistic responses online.

Most of the people who posted these comments probably did not even know what the play was about. The title was enough to awaken the moral police in them. I do not know if anyone has ever tried to perform the Vagina Monologues in India. But if there had been any public performances, I would expect a similar reaction to it in India.

Growing up in a different generation and environment, it’s easy for someone like me to label these people as ‘narrow minded’ or ‘conservative’. But I acknowledge that the context of their opinions and the experiences that have led to them cannot be explained by one label. So it’s completely acceptable for someone to not approve of the Vagina Monologues, but what I would ask of them is to read or watch the play, to understand its purpose before judging it.

Personally, I appreciate the Vagina Monologues for starting the conversation on women’s issues. But there are many aspects of it that I don’t endorse. So performing one of the monologues at Cornell this year is an experiment for me as well.

When I was talking about the play to my fall ’13 FWS instructor, she asked me what I’d told my family about the play. I said, “Hmm … I told them it’s about women’s empowerment.” She asked, “You did not mention the name?” I shook my head and we laughed.

What’s a better way to break the news than a comprehensive blog post?

P.S.: If you’re in Ithaca on March 7th or 8th, come watch the show and find out what this play is all about!

Some Jewels of Cornell’s Endless Course Catalogue

The power to choose my classes is what most appealed to me about college in the United States. At Cornell, the selection of courses to choose from is so wide that pre-enroll can be the most confusing time of the year. Perhaps the simplest way for Cornell students to procrastinate is by browsing the Course Catalogue which contains about 4,000 courses (That’s the number from Wikipedia, but I feel there’s more).

90 pages of course listing. You get the idea.

90 pages of course listing. You get the idea.

My personal list of classes to take is not something static. It evolves along with my interests or I find more interesting classes. There are so many classes that I want to take – ranging from Expository Writing, Introduction to Evolution, Nation and Nationality in India, Introduction to Wines and Vines (that one is probably on everyone’s list) to Introduction to Art History: The Classical World in 24 objects.

Although I have only spent one complete semester at Cornell yet, I already have two classes that I recommend to almost everyone who talks to me about courses.

1) PMA 2800: Intro to Acting
Many people assume that one must already have experience to get the most out of this class. But as the course title says, this course introduces you to acting, so no experience required at all! In fact, when I took this course in Fall 2013, I had had zero theatre experience. Being open minded and engaging yourself in the class and outside alone is more than enough to enjoy the class. Last semester was an immersion into theatre for me: I watched several performances on and off campus, auditioned for a theatre group and made it (and loving it! Shout out to Ordinary People). This class added a new aspect to my life.

However, I did not take the next course in the sequence: Intro to Acting I because that probably more serious about the techniques of acting. I only intend to be an “appreciator” of theatre who occasionally takes part in it. So not only do I get to choose my courses, I also choose in what capacity I pursue them.

P.S.: I am yet to reveal the best part of Intro to Acting: No prelims or final exam! You do a final scene study instead.

2) ENGL 1167: FWS Great New Books
This recommendation is for incoming freshmen or anyone who has to take a freshman writing seminar. When I was choosing my FWS, I was told that classes in the English department tend to be tougher than those in most others. But unintentionally, I ended up with this class (it’s a long story). 

Basically, we read recent, acclaimed, fiction books, discussed them in class and wrote essays about them. One of our readings was a graphic novel titled “Fun Home”. After reading it, I get enraged when anyone refers to graphic novels as “comics”. Keep that in mind if we ever have a conversation about graphic novels.

While I enjoyed the book club style of our classes, my writing also improved greatly. This is the perfect FWS for all book lovers!

My list of classes to take and classes to recommend will keep growing and changing. When some college seniors complain about not having enough time to take all the courses they would like to, to study subjects that interest them, I can easily imagine myself in their shoes three years from now.