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Mindful : February 2016
Chris Tralie, 26, is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineer- ing at Duke University, where he also serves as president of the campus meditation community. He discovered meditation during his sophomore year at Princeton University, after a period of depression and anxiety. In g raduate school, he’s continued to sit daily for 20 minutes after breakfast. The practice, he says, gives him a chance to probe his emotions and relationships with more self-awareness. What were you like in high school? Quite a nerd—super into coding and math. I was raised Catholic and grew up not questioning things much on an existential level. I love my parents, but each was the first and only person the other ever dated. I assumed I would marry the first girl I ever dated. I was sheltered, before I got to college and to some degree in college. College must have been a shock. Yes. During my freshman year, I was confronted with a bunch of things. An aunt I was close to died suddenly. I had a friend who was an evangelical atheist. I was in a relationship with a girl who had some problems, and I had never been confronted with mental health issues and I felt help- less. Religion wasn’t working—wasn’t giving me what I thought I needed. And I’d taken on too much work and began to struggle academically for the first time. By the summer of my fresh- man year, I was depressed. I’d been this joyful person and I had never experienced such a prolonged lack of joy. I spent the summer interning as a software engineer, working 40 hours a week in a cubicle. I’d come home and play video games. I tried music and skateboarding, things I’d loved, but they didn’t help. I was anxious all the time. What did help? A friend from high school suggested meditation. I was still kind of reli- gious and afraid of what I would find on the other end, but when I was home for fall break, feeling a lot of anxiety, I decided to sit down, stare at a wall for a few minutes, and count my breath. And I was able to get to the other end—and feel better. I kept it up and that spring was one of the best springs of my life—discovering that I don’t have to be afraid of these feelings seemed to be enough for me to become completely myself and completely in the moment. How have you changed? I’ve always loved learning. I’m an inquisitive, goofy, bubbly person— those are core parts of my personality that I cherish, but with meditation I am more open—more open to new experiences, to new points of view, to admitting mistakes, and to taking a cold hard look at myself, at other people, and at my life. What about graduate school? Perspective is easily lost in grad school. You’re working on a very specific problem that very few people care about and there’s a lot of pres- sure: Get this paper out, get this grant, get this job, get this recognition, get this award. It can be cutthroat. Med- itation helps me notice when my ego is flaring up and to laugh at it and put it aside. For example, I recently found out that a fellow engineering student I had had a conversation with was using an idea of mine—about self-sim- ilarity in time series—and I thought, “Oh, crap! He didn’t even tell me!” But I took a moment to understand why I was feeling that way: This is a freak- ing stressful environment. I realized, hey, it’s a minor idea and I want peo- ple to use my work—I am glad it’s out there. Eventually, I approached him, we discussed it, and now we’re going to work on a paper together. Finding balance sounds tricky. I’m still a workaholic, but I notice when balance is lacking and I try to remedy it. So many academics get entrenched in the work and the politics and the fundraising—they get isolated. I value people who are not in academia—I train myself to notice everybody in the world. At what cost academically? I tend to take on riskier, more inter- esting challenges, and I’ve had a much richer time with my research, instead of reaching just for low-hanging fruit. I’ve paid a price, but it’s not a price I care about. I care about the work and not necessarily promoting myself. I’ve missed opportunities to monetize my work because I’m satisfied with the income I have. Mindfulness has made me aware of things I need to work on—that’s not a bad thing—and it’s made me more open to how awesome other people are. How has your family responded to the new, mindful you? [He laughs.] I spoke to my mother this morning, and she said she thought she might try meditating. ● Graduating from Anxiety By Victoria Dawson Photograph by Aaron Canipe 28 mindful February 2016 meet the meditator