Ali breaks through a tackle on the HKIS rugby pitch in a match against International School of Beijing during APAC in October.
The final papers from this past semester’s “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class produced a bumper crop of self-reflective pieces. First, I shared Sandra’s recovery of her Larger Self through re-discovering her innate love of service and spirituality. Second, Sharon explained how she was able to discover the nearly unheard virtue of letting go – and how this new attitude dramatically shifted her experience of the first half of her senior year. And now we come to Ali, who shares in this essay that he not only found out more about his personal identity – the fundamental task of adolescence – but also how to support this new self-understanding through a better diet and spiritual practices. All of these essays suggest that so many of what are considered unavoidable and intractable adolescent struggles can be significantly improved with relatively simple life choices over a period of several months. Please enjoy Ali’s essay!
Ali Taha Brown
Service, Society, and Sacred
December 14, 2017
Self-Discovery: Becoming a Healthier Me
Over the course of my time in the high school, I have been seeking ways to make myself healthier. Ranging from Humanities I in Action to Peace Studies, I have taken classes that have improved my knowledge of how to be mentally healthy through service and learning about peace. I vividly recall the first day of this class. I transferred in late to the class, and I literally laughed out loud after Dr. Schmidt gave us our first handout, titled, “Out of Our Heads,” which covered the brain in the belly. I was immature and disrespectful, and thought that I knew it all. I looked at these new ideas with amusement, thinking that they were crazy. I prize myself as someone who is open-minded, yet at the beginning of this course, I was completely unreceptive to these new concepts. Little did I know that taking SSS would have been one of the most profound learning experiences of my life. Through exercises such as the enneagram, breath meditation, and “be healthier today,” I have realized my identity and found ways to improve my physical and mental health.
Be Healthier Today Project
The “Be Healthier Today,” project that I did was about diet change, and the project was instrumental in improving my physical health. The project involved me, Rohaan, Victor, and Andrew drinking smoothies in the morning instead of what we usually had for breakfast. I used to always eat some sort of sugary cereal for breakfast, and while it would give me an immediate surge in energy, the effect of the boost would last for around an hour. Afterwards, I would feel lackadaisical and tired, and my performance in school and sports suffered as a result of my diet. My breakfast during the project consisted of a smoothie with blueberries (sometimes added strawberries and/or raspberries), whey protein powder, and extra probiotic yoghurt. This smoothie provided me with a long-lasting boost during the day, and I genuinely felt an improvement in terms of how I felt.
Not only did I drink smoothies for breakfast, but I also changed my lunch and dinner meals. Whereas I would previously eat cafeteria food for lunch, and unhealthy snacks in between classes, I began to eat chicken breast with brown rice for lunch, and monitored the unhealthy foods that I was tempted by. This project genuinely improved me physically. I felt stronger, more fresh, and it more alert in every aspect of life, ranging from conversations with friends to reflections in class. My commitment to this project was displayed by my efforts when it was over. With other projects, I may have stopped when the due date was, but for this, I felt that it was in my best interests to continue, and so I did. In fact, I still do. While my diet has got worse a bit recently as I’ve been really stressed out and binge eat a lot, whenever I’m really tired or just feel horrible, I grab a bunch of fruits, yoghurt, and protein powder, stick it in a blender, and make myself a smoothie. While I don’t want to sound too cheesy or hyperbolic, the immediate effect of drinking a smoothie is extremely profound, as I feel less tired and more alert straight afterwards. The “Be Healthier Today” project was notable not only for its immediate benefit to my physical health, but also because it made me realize that what I learned in this class could genuinely improve me. I was excited to explore different topics.
Spiritual Practices Project
The spiritual practices project that I undertook benefited me greatly. I partnered with Andrew and Victor in a project that used breath meditation and brain yoga as methods to improve our reaction to triggering moments. What we all had in common was a hot temper; whenever something happened that wasn’t to our liking, we would react emotionally, and thus irrationally. Ranging from the sports field to arguments at home, there have been many occasions where my anger has forced me to speak and act in a manner that I regret greatly afterwards.
While brain yoga was interesting as it looked strange but had a scientific basis to it, breath meditation was much more effective. My first experience of using breathing as a way to calm myself down was when I was ten years-old. I was playing soccer, and got extremely frustrated at how the game was going, and when someone fouled me, I got up and threw the ball at them. My dad immediately took me off and yelled at me to go for a walk and take some deep breaths. I complied, and after taking those breaths, the anger completely subsided and I felt embarrassed at how I had acted.
That experience is perhaps why I was so eager to practice breath meditation for my spiritual practices project. Over the course of the three weeks that I practiced breath meditation on a regular basis, I felt a significant improvement in my ability to keep my temper in hot situations. There were numerous occasions over the time period where I could’ve lost my temper, but I didn’t. I was calm, and I sensed that other people appreciated my newfound peacefulness. The worst thing about my temper was the judgmental looks that I would receive from others, as they were astounded that I could get so emotional over something so apparently trivial. By practicing breath meditation, I was able to keep my emotions in check, thus making myself more calm and healthy. Breath meditation is something that I will definitely continue to do in the future, as I know that it’s very beneficial to my mental health.
Identity and the Enneagram
I had always struggled with who I was. I felt that at times I exhibited traits of a type 7 or a 3, but at times was a type 4. I felt that at different times in my life I would display a different set of emotions that could have fit anywhere from type 1 to 9. When I was with a person that I loved, I would have the personality of a 2, and when I was with people that I didn’t know, I was more of a type 5.
However, after taking many tests, reading the description of each type, and asking friends for their thoughts, I finally settled on type 8 as the set of personality traits that fit me the most. Like a type 8, I feel that I am a leader, powerful, feel a desire to prove my strength, and like to take control. I feel that I am naturally like this. Whether it be on the sports field or while talking to friends, I take the onus upon myself to make a change. As a captain of two sports, I see it as my responsibility to ensure success, which is characteristic of an 8. I don’t like to leave the outcome in other people’s hands; I want to be present and take charge of proceedings. This falls in line with the basic fear that type 8’s possess, which is the fear of being controlled by others. I don’t like being told what to do by others, and like to think and act for myself. I am comfortable with the responsibility and pressure that comes with being a leader, and would rather take charge, fail, and receive the blame than stay in the periphery of proceedings and wonder what could have been. The basic desire of an 8 is to be in control of one’s own life, and I completely relate to that. Of the regrets that I hold in my life, many stem from the times when I didn’t take control of a situation. I want to be bold and daring, and don’t want anyone to control my destiny. The realization that I was a type 8 was incredibly satisfying. I have suffered mentally for years as I have wondered why I would act in a certain way. Whenever I play soccer in a crucial game, I find myself yelling instructions at everyone during the entire match, and afterwards, I would get told that I was really loud. I would go home and get really stressed out, as I wondered why I acted like that. I wondered why my personality was so intensely focused on being in control. By knowing that I am not alone and that my actions are normal, I feel confident in that my struggles are shared by many. I was always afraid that my actions were weird, but through the enneagram, I now feel content in that many people are like me.
Listening to Victor and enrolling in “Service, Society & Sacred,” has, without a doubt, been one of the best course choice decisions that I made. While other humanities classes that I have taken, such as, “Humanities I in Action,” and, “Peace Studies,” have taught me to look outward and focus on how to improve society, taking this class taught me to look inward. Before I focus on fixing societal issues, which I am extremely passionate about, I must concentrate on bettering myself both mentally and physically. As a result of the “Be Healthier Today” project, my spiritual practices project, and learning about the enneagram, this course has given me the perfect platform to make myself healthier. For this, I am forever indebted to Dr. Schmidt and his teachings, as I am sure that they will have a great influence on how I decide to live my life.
This semester has added more evidence for me that today’s students are hungry for attention to aspects of themselves that they have lost touch with; and so, I draw two lessons from Ali’s well-articulated essay. First, personal growth is far better sustained when the physical body is given what it needs to become stronger, more alert, and more capable; and second, simple spiritual practices, like focused breathing, enable the body and heart intelligences to assert themselves in daily life, resulting in more measured responses to emotional triggers. Both areas of growth involve paying attention to the most basic aspects of the physical body that most students take for granted: food and breath. Through paying attention in a new way to these daily activities, Ali tapped into the vast bodily energy of the 8, termed “The Challenger,” in support of his physical and emotional health, all resulting in a better understanding of his identity.
Given Ali’s essay and stories from other students last semester, I am looking forward to beginning again next week with a new class, confident that the body-mind-heart framework has much to offer students.