Enlightened?—How can we all achieve well-roundedness and find contentment?

By Maxwell James

In the last three years I’ve spent at UCLA, I now know the good and bad changes I have experienced have contributed to an overall image of how to be the best student and person I can be.

But I always have struggled with the “how.” It seems near impossible to stay “well-rounded”—a healthy body, mind and spirit seems rather to just be a working, changing and endless goal. And for starters, this struggle has expanded, flip-flopped, gone dormant and shifted throughout college.

I also admit that I get anxiety in the constant awareness of what I am not doing. It’s all so hard to stay balanced and excel through. Demands. Demands. Demands.  It’s a never-ending cycle of rewritten iPhone calendar alerts and reminders.

So what I created for myself in an attempt to stay balanced and sane—to be completely honest—is formulating a schedule where physical, emotional, mental and spiritual exercise work in near perfect concert. A red flag goes up when I know my time spent studying at Peet’s coffee shop exceeds 5 hours or on the other hand, when a full-length novel is unread and way overdue.

My day-to-day fluctuates between daily meditation, physical exercise, academic work and social interaction. I rarely am able to perform these in equal doses but I make the intention to keep my life well-rounded between my mind, body and spiritual health.

Although meditation, exercise, eating healthy, etc. are all not groundbreaking lifestyle choices by this decade, meditating regularly, personally, has helped build my self-esteem.  I can attest to how a lack of self-confidence enables my entire day to just plummet. I even react physically—slacked shoulders, tense muscles, and uneasiness throughout my whole body.

To counteract this, I integrate meditation at the start of the day, around when I wake up: every morning, I sip on my cup of coffee and spend about 30 minutes meditating before I begin the adventures and even perils of the day. Even the space I designate for my mediation resonates with tranquility and positivity. It’s discipline and learned, but I ingrain meditation into my daily life. It has allowed me to connect with myself for a small block of uninterrupted time, without inner and external distractions immediately chipping away at my feelings, thoughts and behaviors for the day.

UCLA’s MARC center continues to do incredible research and active work in establishing the benefits of mindfulness meditation, including improved immune-system functioning, decreased stress, improved awareness. And studies also prove how brief meditation can improve academic performance.

However, my initial question when I first started meditating is how the hell am I supposed to turn off my thoughts?! Text messages sent, even flirtatious texts received, Facebook status alerts, the oh-so-frustrating-career changes, family obligations, oh my god—do I have to go on further? I literally googled how to meditate two years ago. Then I googled how to stop thinking while meditating. I thought maybe I am not cut out for this. But my interest was piqued by the not-so New-Age world beckoning for me to experience the apparent wonders of meditation. I wanted immediate results though.

Then it finally started to click. I still struggle. But the affirmation of “I’m going to set aside time for myself” is what counts. Even if my 30 minute meditation is spent just focusing on my breath, I find gratitude in the intention, in the moments of just “being.” Instant gratification gives way for the experience of patience, gratitude and contentment invested in stillness.

Last weekend, I attended a yoga class in downtown Santa Monica at Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga studio.  Of course, my slight tardiness—obviously traffic induced—results in my awkward entry; as I knock over candles and step over yogis’ mats while the class is silenced in downward dogs, I manage to settle in, yet cursing myself for running late again.

Yoga is supposed to eliminate stress? Right. So I straighten out my yoga mat and look around to mock what pose the class was following.  I straighten my arms, curve my back and stagger my feet, left, right, left, right. I take my first deep breath in the class—inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth, “ahhh.”And silence.  Just breathe, Max.

The yogi leading the class, Dan, walks around in between mat spaces, casually guiding us into complex core poses but simultaneously, he inspires. His humor and modern insight on what it means to be mindful in this crazy, brave new world makes the class so less intimidating but a chance to transition and stop.

“Instead of reaching or straining, just be. Sometimes we can’t always be what we want to be, but it’s trying, it’s showing up that makes the difference.” His words resonate with me. It’s not about achieving perfection. The intentions make a difference.

I can empathize with the “strive for perfection” and the near-always let down. It’s impossible to do everything. And we all know that, but there’s this part of me that adds too many goals to my weekly agenda and of course, I fail in keeping up with all these demands. What results is this semi-toxic, unsettling feeling that even a pint of Ben and Jerry’s is unable to subside.

Instead, I’ve learned that the authentic  me is the one making that transition from stressful appointments, study dates, thoughts, and text messages into purely being—whether that be yoga, class, or even work.

To be mindful is not about an enlightened Zen-like achievement but merely showing up, completely late, tired, grumpy, upset, disappointed, or angry. These negative emotions are part of us all, but it’s the coming-into-the-experience, with full recognition that we are flawed, that makes the moments real and “well-rounded.” That first breath I took at yoga this weekend became that instant where I was able to transition from the ego part of myself into the authentic me—eager and excited to learn but also tardy, a little frustrated and embarrassed.  Immersing myself into yoga encompassed the whole 100% of me.

My spiritual journey as of yet keeps diverging, twisting and changing paths, but it’s been a learning process centered around the knowledge of how to be mindful and balanced in what I am. I know I cannot achieve perfection in school, physical health, work and my social circle. Yet, I set priorities for myself—what do I need for myself right now?

This tuning into my “needs” has been one of the most powerful life lessons I’ve discovered so far: stay true to who you are. I eliminate the negative, admit the good, and accept the beautiful.  We are always learning, but this process of “tuning in,” in itself, is an incredibly valuable tool in making the best you.

-Maxwell James is an undergraduate student finishing his final year as an English major. His interests include mindfulness meditation, consciousness awareness, transpersonal psychology and mind/body health. He is also a member of Innergy and is actively practicing yoga. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact him at maxwellajames@gmail.com.

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