What Mindfulness Means to Me
A mental illness epidemic has broken out at universities across the country. With a family history of suffering and personal road to recovery, I am sharing my story as the first step to addressing this crisis on our campus. Here’s how you can help: www.balancehealthapp.com.
I grew up in chaos. My Dad, diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, was chronically ill-tempered and easily triggered. My Mom, diagnosed with severe Depression, was emotionally controlling and exceptionally provocative. Starting at the age of six, they would involve me in their fights — violent, verbal defamations of character with no limits upon what could or could not be said. There were no lines to cross, because there were never any lines in the first place; anything went.
Oftentimes, they would force me to take sides; expecting a child to justify adult actions and determine who was right and who was wrong. This essentially involved making sense, order, and logic out of an environment that was anything but. And as time went on and their arguments escalated, they began to blame me as the source of their problems. Over and over, I was broken into pieces emotionally and forced to rebuild before I showed any sign of weakness. In a home that was a breeding ground for malice, I trusted no one.
In search for something I could call my own amidst the chaos, I started my first business when I was twelve years old. Through running Supreme Tennis for the next seven years, I learned interpersonal communication, relationship building, conflict resolution, and many other skills never taught at home. I took full ownership of advancing Supreme Tennis as the one thing in my life I had complete control over. And the more the business prospered, the less my chaotic home life held me back.
When it came time to choose a college from those to which I was accepted, I picked the one furthest from my hometown. Upon arriving at the University of Michigan, I immersed myself in various communities on campus with the hope that I could finally escape the hostility of my origins.
In the Fall of my Sophomore year, I joined Awaken Ann Arbor: a student organization dedicated to practicing mindfulness meditation and strengthening one’s sense of purpose. While the community was motivating, the meditative concept of “finding stillness” felt foreign to me. After all, everything I had ever achieved was done by hustling. After a few attempts, I was about ready to give up on the practice of meditation altogether. But then a friend named Nate came into my life and provided the support and guidance I needed to begin to understand.
Through his unwavering eye contact and engaging presence, Nate showed me what it means to truly listen to someone — giving his full attention and consideration while locked in conversation. Through stories about his childhood obesity, he showed me the power of vulnerability in fostering relationships. And through hosting late-night Awaken Ann Arbor hangouts with a warm, friendly atmosphere of philosophical conversation, he showed me what it feels like to be part of a community with a mission bigger than yourself.
As the semester went on, I became more and more impressed at the level of consciousness and enthusiasm members brought to their daily lives. Gradually, my outlook toward their way of life shifted away from envy and toward a belief in my ability to do the same. On December 1st, I downloaded the Calm app and practiced my first fully-focused guided meditation. By no means was it an overnight change, but slowly Calm’s guided meditations talked me through the practice step-by-step, deepening the principles of mindfulness Nate had already instilled within me. By burning his own flame at it’s highest potential, Nate showed me how to kindle my own.
Soon after returning back to campus in January, things took a turn for the worse. As I enrolled in my first semester of Michigan Engineering, school was the last thing I was interested in doing, so I plunged into working on a startup project. Over the next two months, I spent nearly every minute I had juggling schoolwork and the startup, but no matter how much time I invested, I felt like it was never enough. I felt a desperate sense of urgency as I pushed myself to the edge to get immediate results… and in the process, my entire world started falling apart.
There were days when I could barely get out of bed; weeks where I questioned everything in my life. The less I was able to concentrate on my work, the more I isolated myself from those around me. Slowly, I lost interest in and no longer got fulfillment from all the things I used to enjoy: I stopped spending as much time with friends, frequently skipped the gym, abandoned my meditation practice, rushed my meals, quit journaling, played no tennis, and spent next to no time outside.
But instead of reaching out for help, I put on a strong facade and acted as if everything was okay. Growing up, I was taught that vulnerability meant weakness, so I refused to rely on others. It took until the middle of March before I even admitted to myself that something was wrong.
And then another friend came into my life, this time in the form of a mentor. He broke down my walls as we talked openly about my chaotic home life, disingenuous startup motivation, and paralyzing depression. He identified that my need for independence comes from my childhood trust issues and helped me understand that it’s okay to depend on a support system through the good and bad. I never felt I could trust others to be there for me when I needed them, but he offered to do just that.
With the support of my friends and mentors, I started realizing I couldn’t do it alone — so I let those closest to me in on what was going on. They helped me take greater ownership over my mental health by asking for updates each time I played tennis, exercised, or spent time outside. Slowly but surely, over the next month and a half, I came out of my depression.
As the school year ended, I was determined to maintain my well-being going forward. So after my last exam, I set a goal to meditate everyday this summer, recognizing the positive impact the practice has had on me in the past.
So once per day, using the Calm app, I would pause and find a quiet place to sit; allowing my mind and body to relax, while remaining alert and attentive. Then I would close my eyes and breath naturally for 10–15 minutes. Contrary to the Western world’s stigmatized view of meditation, I did not wear any special outfits, sit in a funny position, or try to believe anything in particular. The only difference between meditation and the breathing every human being does throughout any given day is the greater awareness the practice brings to your breath.
As I breathed in, I was aware of breathing in. And as I breathed out, I was aware of breathing out. By silently recognizing each inhale and exhale, I was able to notice where my mind was… observing any thoughts, emotions, and sensations I experienced, without reacting to them. When there was a pull towards something, I would notice the pull, and then gently release the object of my attention — coming back to the breath, over and over.
A few weeks into the summer, the heightened awareness from my meditation practice started influencing other parts of my life. I read a book called “The Miracle Morning”, which led me to start beginning my days with a 6-step mindfulness routine called “Life SAVERS”. Each morning, I would wake up and — for 10 minutes each — meditate, recite affirmations, visualize my day, exercise, read, and journal. Less than a week later, I finally got into a consistent workout/eating/sleep schedule with my roommate. Every day after work, we went straight to the gym to exercise, came home to cook a healthy meal, and were each in bed in time to get a full 8 hours.
By way of a stronger connection to my thoughts, body, and emotions, consciousness translated into every area of my life. At work, there was a greater sense of focus, concentration, and creativity in everything that I did. I lowered the pressure I put on myself and actually became MORE productive as a result. Everyday activities, like finishing a work assignment, or going to the gym, gave me more fulfillment and satisfaction. Thus, I was able to express deeper acceptance, patience, and compassion to those around me. Through greater awareness came less judgement, and by learning to purposefully pay attention, I felt like I pulled myself out of autopilot.
Fascinated by the impact I saw habits having on my own life, I started researching the science behind it. I read a book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, which explained how habits work at the individual, organizational, and societal level. It got me thinking about my depression from the previous semester and the lack of consistency in my day-to-day life during that time. Looking back, I discovered that the biggest contributor to my own mental illness was an unbalanced lifestyle, brought about by not making enough time for the things I enjoy. Finding lifestyle balance through building healthy habits had become my natural medication for depression… and I wanted to share this gift with the world.
The Bigger Picture
I soon discovered that the issue of unbalance exists all across the world, but perhaps nowhere more widespread than on college campuses…
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 25% of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year. Moreover, according to the American College Health Association Spring 2015 Assessment, in the past year:
- 34.5% of US college students have felt so depressed it was difficult to function
- 56.9% have felt overwhelming anxiety
- 47.7% have felt things were hopeless
- ONE IN TWELVE have made a suicide plans
- 2/3 of students struggling do not seek treatment.
It was clear: a mental illness epidemic has broken out at universities across the country. And I decided I’d had enough — both for myself and my peers. I was fed-up with the hyper-competitive academic atmosphere that teaches students to put their studies first and bodies second. I was tired of the mental health stigma on campuses nationwide that keeps students from seeking help. And I was disturbed by Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) that makes students wait weeks and sometimes months to get an appointment even when they do reach out. I knew I needed to do something to help.
As I researched more, I realized the reasons behind the crisis are understandably complex. But based on my own experience, I theorized that college students face such volatile depression & anxiety because they live such erratic schedules. Every day is different, so our mental states become completely unpredictable. I believed the missing piece has been consistency — healthy habits — that ensure we get the daily balance we need.
After spending the first two months of summer thinking about, reading into, and experimenting with healthy habits, I reached out to a few close friends for their thoughts and feedback. Along with my research, I presented a concept I had in mind: a service that helps college students treat and prevent mental illness naturally by building healthy habits to maintain a more balanced lifestyle.
All three replied back enthusiastically, expressing interest in the idea. I found out later that each had a history of depression and/or anxiety, so the problem hit them close to home. The next weekend, all four of us met up in Ann Arbor for A2HealthHacks — a health hackathon focused on disease prevention — to start working on the idea. And over the next 24 hours, we built the first prototype of a mobile app called Balance.
In deciding which features we would prioritize, we referenced the “The Power of Habit”. In the book I had read about habit-changing organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and movements like the Montgomery Bus Boycott in great detail. Whether it was the ties of friendship found in AA sponsors, or the connection of acquaintances found in Montgomery’s black community, I found something really powerful about communal experiences creating change. As the author explained:
“for most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities — sometimes of just one other person — who makes change believable.”
Thinking back to my depression the previous semester, I realized that, for me, that community was my mentor who provided the support I needed, and my friends, who encouraged me to exercise with them. All three of my teammates had similar stories of accountability partners who had helped them overcome their respective illnesses. So we decided that Balance would have a focus on community, and the core component would be the “sidekick” feature — which allows two close friends to build habits together and earn more rewards than either could do alone.
Throughout the hackathon, we were blown away by the level of support we received from mentors and mental health professionals. From a recreational therapist who emphatically told us he would use the app to monitor his patients, to a clinical psychologist who texted me minutes after the final presentation saying “I would consider quitting my job to support you on this”, the encouragement was completely overwhelming. The entire team was astonished at what we were hearing, but ultimately one thing became very clear: we were onto something.
An Adventure of a Lifetime
After evolving Balance throughout the month of July, a teammate and I took off for Europe to backpack for 30 days with no plans other than a starting flight into London and departing flight out of Rome. We had no idea where we’d go, what we’d find, or who we’d meet.
With the mantra of “wandering but not lost”, we avoided touristy destinations and instead took an adventurous approach: exploring residential areas, speaking with locals, relaxing in parks, and trying different cuisines. We were in search for a deeper understanding of the cities we visited, compelled by the belief that the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
For a month, we practiced the principles of mindfulness in our everyday lives and we were amazed at what we found. Continuously throughout the trip, the most meaningful moments occurred when we had no plans or expectations. From aimlessly walking the “wrong way” into Switzerland’s paradise of green hilly countryside, to laying under the stars after failing to find nightlife in Venice, over and over again the most magical moments happened when we were completely, 100% present.
Balance’s Alternate Universe
On the plane ride home from Rome, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. In the final nights of the trip, I realized that the “different future” I hope to build with Balance goes beyond solving the mental health issue on college campuses. That is, I believe that nearly all issues on campus — violence, sexual assault, drug abuse, racism, gender equality, suicide — are rooted in students’ mental health… because the way a person treats themselves and others is inexplicably linked to their own sense of self; the level of awareness they bring to their daily life.
With the understanding that a person is what they repeatedly do, Balance seeks to help students deepen their sense of self and heighten their level of awareness through the lens of habit-building. It’s about helping people lead healthier and more fulfilling lives; become more intentional about making time for the things that matter, and not get caught up in the delusional “rat race” of always chasing and never having enough.
I envision a campus of more conscious students, better equipped to handle the ups and downs of life through maintaining a consistent routine of daily habits. I foresee students overcoming their mental illnesses naturally through a more balanced lifestyle, just like I have. I imagine a community where people live more alert and alive; more in touch with themselves and the people around them; more accepting of different people’s ways of life… Because building healthy habits is not just about improving individual’s’ physical and mental well-being; it’s about altering how those individuals interact with others, and therefore changing their community and society as a whole.
Mindfulness to Me
Today I have meditated for 139 consecutive days, and I can confidently say it has changed my life more than anything else I’ve ever done. Developing my own interpretation and practice of mindfulness through daily habits has enabled me to naturally overcome my depression, bring greater consciousness to my day-to-day life, and discover a deeper sense of self.
To me, mindfulness means the opportunity in every moment to overcome the madness that has plagued my past. It means separating what happens to me with how I choose to react to it, pausing to appreciate all the small gifts life presents me everyday, and choosing to view every challenge I face as an opportunity for growth.
I’ve realized that the goal of mindfulness isn’t to control my thoughts; it’s to stop letting them control me. When building relationships, mindfulness has meant giving whoever I’m with my full attention and listening to them with openness and acceptance. When in a disagreement, mindfulness has meant seeing the totality of the situation or person instead of adopting my one limited perspective. And when going through my days, mindfulness has meant making that one decision to be present in the moment over and over again until it’s become natural to live in such a way.
My ambitions have not dwindled; they’re just coming from a deeper place now. Thinking about addressing the issue of mental health on college campuses, I realize I have never felt so passionate and personally invested in anything else in my entire life. I know this is the problem I want to solve; I know this is the battle I want to fight. And with every ounce of my being, I believe mindfulness is the key.
What Does Mindfulness Mean to You?
I believe mindfulness is in all of us, and whether or not we realize it, we’re all after it. For friends, mindfulness is “the peace” you find when spending time together. For athletes, mindfulness is “the zone” you feel when locked into your favorite sport. And for writers and artists, mindfulness is “the flow” of effortless control you feel when you lose yourself in your work.
But just as no one can tell you what it means to live a fulfilling life, only you can determine what it means to be mindful. I wholeheartedly believe that there is no “absolute truth”, but rather each individual’s’ “truth” is unique to themselves. So in the same way that religious teachings represent signposts to assist in spiritual awakening, the practice of mindfulness is not “the truth”; it can — at best — point to the truth. No one can tell you your “truth”; you have to find it yourself. And for me, that’s what mindfulness is all about.
In the words of Janusz Korczak:
“The road I have chosen toward my goal is neither the shortest nor the most convenient, but it is the best for me — because it is my own. I found it not without effort or pain, and only when I had come to understand that all the experiences and opinions of others, were misleading.”
What mindfulness means to me is not going to be what mindfulness means to you. For each individual, it will necessarily be different. For some, it may be achieved by playing a sport, exercising, cooking, journaling, or reading. For others, it may be by spending time with a loved one, immersing in nature, practicing yoga, or playing an instrument.
That is why Balance’s message is non-dogmatic: I’m a firm believer that “mindfulness” can be achieved through practices other than meditation. In answering the question, “what does mindfulness mean to you?”, Balance is not about providing you with the answer — it’s about equipping you with the tool to find it in yourself.
The Road Ahead
Openly telling my story is not easy, but I do it for those of you who are still in that place. I do it for my friends, who have reached out and shared their stories of depression & anxiety. And I do it for my peers, whose urgent needs have not been met by current university resources.
With Balance, I know I want to address the issue of mental health on college campuses by helping other students develop their own practice of mindfulness through daily habits. But there’s still so much to learn… and here’s how you can help…
We need to better understand the problem by speaking with:
- Students who have struggled (or are currently struggling) with anxiety or depression and are willing to talk about their experience.
- Wellness Experts who promote health and prevent illness on campus through a student service or medical practice.
- Advocates who are passionate about this cause and interested in supporting our efforts.
If you meet any of the descriptions above, please reach out via our website: www.balancehealthapp.com. Of course, everything we discuss will be kept completely confidential. We’re here to help, but before we can, we need to hear your story and learn from your experience.
Lastly, I ask that you please share this post with your network and especially friends who may meet any of the descriptions above. My hope is that my story will inspire others to reach out for help. There are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses each year — the more people that read this, the more of a chance we have to lower that number.
I fully recognize that tackling such a widespread issue will require immense patience. Results will not come overnight. But with my family history, my friends’ suffering, and my own story in mind — I am determined to make a positive impact on students’ mental well-being, one person at a time. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. So let’s find your surf, whatever that may be.