By: Niki Fritz
When I was sitting at Starbucks chatting with Antonina, a woman came up to us, apologized for interrupting and then told me with straight-forward-earnestness that Antonina was “one of the most beautiful and inspiring people that you will ever meet.”
I looked over to see Antonina’s expression. She was slightly blushing and shaking her head. But the woman insisted, saying Antonina was a special kind of human being. Antonina and I had only been talking about an hour but I could see what this possibly-highly-caffeinated woman meant. Antonina was a rare academic who was both kind and calm while being insightful.
For Antonina, it has been a long journey to get here, to get to that one moment of stillness and mindfulness. Antonina was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine until she was 15. Then she immigrated to the United States, where she landed as a sophomore at James Madison High School, the only high school in Brooklyn that, at the time, had a program for Russian-speaking students who have just moved to the United States.
“When you have no language, you just try to survive. At times, I felt I was bumping into walls,” Antonina explains. “At some point I realized my mind was super hectic. I noticed it was going in circles.”
Despite the enormous hurdles she faced, Antonina graduated from high school and started college at NYU. For four years, she says she continued to just survive until a semester abroad in Florence, Italy woke her up. After college, Antonina continued to explore the world; traveling, working and continuing to look for her own belief system.
Then one day, she chanced across Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now.”
“I just found so many answers [in Tolle’s book.] He spoke about meditation and watching your mind,” Antonina explains. “I thought to myself: ‘What is watching your mind?’ Then he gave an analogy. Imagine your thoughts are like clouds floating through the clear peaceful sky. You can watch your thoughts just like you can watch clouds.” Antonina says this analogy just clicked in her mind. This is what meditation became for her.
Antonina thus began her journey into mindfulness meditation. She also made the decision to leave NYC and go to law school at IU. It was while pursuing her JD as well as her MA in Russian and East European Institute (REEI) that she began to see academia as another possible space to practice mindfulness.
“While working on my area studies degree, I started learning about myself and my conditioned self from the Soviet Union,” Antonina explains. “It was as if I was studying myself from the perspective of an anthropologist. In an unexpected way, my academic program made me more mindful of my own self.”
Antonina is now studying the way our virtual communications impact the expression of self and the creation of our individual life stories, as well as rapidly-changing notions of privacy in Internet age. She is certain that mindfulness will serve her especially well as a social scholar.
“I think mindfulness is a necessity to scientists; I mean to be aware of your own bias,” Antonina explains. “Many social scientists have their own personal biases, simply by the virtue of being human. As a result, they must work on consciously weeding these out on a daily basis.”
For example, Antonina explained how if you examined everyone who walked through the door at Starbucks for one hour, you might notice 5 behaviors about 20 people; but many more behaviors have actually occurred for each person. The behaviors one person observes are based on observer’s own biography and life experiences. Antonina believes mindfulness is the only way to detect such possible discrepancies in our perceptions.
“I know I’m biased and I start from there. I use mindfulness to be aware. I’m subjective. I think when people say they are objective, it is because it makes them feel secure; it gives them a familiar mask,” Antonina says. “I think scientist have to put special awareness in this. It may be different in case of artists who are creators, and have the urge to simply express themselves. On the other hand, scientists are engaged in a never-ending dialogue about truth. One must be first of all truthful with oneself in a dialogue of such caliber.”
The idea of truth is one hotly contended in academia. Antonina says mindfulness allows her to get glimpses of the truth, and to detect where her personal perceptions and projections interfere.
“I see truth as something we get closer and closer to,” Antonina says. “If you practice mindfulness, this path becomes more unhindered. I must constantly ask myself not just what I am seeing but also what I am not seeing, what is said and what isn’t said. According to one philosophical statement, silence is a part of conversation, full of meaning. Only paying attention to silence and what is absent can we attempt to construct the whole picture.”
More than just aiding in her academic pursuit of truth, Antonina shows how mindfulness can help academics in other aspects of their lives, particularly balancing all the demands of academia and home life.
“I used to be a perfectionist but it was not good. Perfectionism is one of the worst ‘socially-acceptable forms of self-abuse.’ It is the same with academia. Sometimes when I’m resting I feel guilty,” Antonina explains. “Mindfulness makes you prioritize. When you have a lot of things to do, you have to question yourself about what is important and trust yourself and your decisions.”
As for her mindfulness routine, Antonina treks to yoga at least five times a week and tries to incorporate intention practices into her mornings. However, she assures me that mindfulness, meditation, and basic awareness doesn’t necessarily take a yoga membership but just some time each day dedicated to observing those thought clouds.
“The mind works all the time when one is an academic. You always ask questions and do research. People question you. Sometimes I feel as if smoke is coming out of my ears!” Antonina exclaims. “With mindfulness you help your mind and make it work for you. Mindfulness is a must and a privilege … [because] the craziness of life never ends. Many times, we are just surviving. Mindfulness allows one to make choices and live fully, while teaching us be aware of each moment. It allows us to become fulfilled.”
For those scientists out there who want “proof” of the benefits of mindfulness check out Dr. Siegel’s website here.
And if anyone wants to start their own mindfulness practice, IU Health offers daily sessions, or check out the video below, or better yet, just chat with Antonina!