2014 Annual Review
​I left my annual review to the last minute this year. To some degree, I've been avoiding it because of the deep introspection it requires, and my reluctance to do so when I'm in a bit of a mood. I think my reluctance to pen this year's annual review also stems from knowing that it will be read by others. In what has been a difficult year, I have often found it challenging to write during its harshest turns. So to write about it under the perceived spectre of readers? It stops me in my tracks. I guess this is what writers and artists of all kinds struggle with: the imperative to write for yourself.

Crucially, I need to remember why I do these annual reviews in the first place. Last year's review came together so easily because it was no chore to reminisce about what was an overwhelmingly fun, fulfilling, and enjoyable year. So am I just doing these reviews to re-visit and catalogue the good times? Is there anything wrong with that? Do I lose something in wilfully turning my attentions away from the hard times?

I can't be too hard on myself - it's only human to want to avoid discomfort. But I think the value of this process increases with my willingness to write mindfully and honestly about the highlights and lowlights of any given year. The benefit comes from the grounding it gives me; I've re-visited my 2013 annual review several times in 2014, each time reclaiming some perspective and balance in my current situation. Ultimately, if I am committed to living a full life, then I need to consciously walk towards the things that make me apprehensive, with just as much purpose as I might walk towards adventure and the joyful times.

What went well this year?

​Running. This year has been peppered with accomplishments. The first notable event was completing my first half-marathon race at Run Melbourne, but I also consider all my training leading up to it to be a massive success. I actually got to a point this year where I really enjoyed running! This was completely unthinkable to me before, and it only came about from the act of doing. I still hated running in the first few months of the year - still hated how clearly unfit I was, hated how I found it so difficult and even unnatural - but I persisted. I learned to love the solitude. I learned that running, especially long runs, opened up a part of my brain that was like a sanctuary, a safe space for contemplation. Running came to be an opportunity rather than a burden.

When aunty died, I centred myself by going for a run. The intensity of that day was so much to handle, and I wanted to escape. In a collision of lessons from this year, I got home, put on my running gear, pressed play on a podcast (Neil Degrasse Tyson, interviewing Ann Druyan), and ran. For around 45 min, I was free. Free of sadness, free of worries, free of regrets. Free to absorb the awe and wonder of the universe, as soundtracked by Ann Druyan's poetic view of the cosmos. And I think these experiences, every run, adds up to a transformation. I am still reluctant to say I'm a runner, but I run and I (sometimes) enjoy it. So some of the lesson is in not writing myself off, in understanding my abundant capacity to do and to be in so many different ways.

Karate trip to Japan. A massive highlight from this year was travelling to Japan. I left for that trip feeling deflated by some awful things that had happened in the days and weeks prior, including the death of my aunty, a death in the family of a very dear friend, and my ongoing financial struggles. I remember that night at the airport, fighting back tears and shame, exhausted from the strain of a difficult fortnight, isolated from my closest friends at a time of great need.

I didn't want to go.

I think about it now and feel so grateful for that trip and its precise timing, because it was uplifting in just the right way. The people were kind, the hospitality was exceptional, the culture so rich and expansive. And then, to have the unique experiences of meeting and spending time with karateka from all around the world - especially the Japanese and the Mauritians - was awe-inspiring and unforgettable.

At a time of such personal turmoil, the trip to Japan taught me about so many ways to commit to being. Karate in Japan is an intergenerational pursuit. Through karate, you learn how to live. In karate, there is no end-game - even the best among us, the masters, strive to do better and to be better. The Japanese way rewards longevity, in life but more importantly in your dedication to a cause. Take, for example, the singular focus required to learn and then refine a kata for one decade, two decades, three, four... But the value is not only in having a certain stick-to-it-iveness. It is in getting better. Only better is better. The more advanced you are, the more you should be able to execute the simplest techniques near-perfectly, while still imbuing your movements with your own interpretation, your own self.

I learned, too, that karate does not exist only in the dojo. While this is something I knew intellectually, it was made clear to me, viscerally, in the way we were treated by the Japanese, by the Mauritians, and by the Ikeda family. The way you treat people - with care, respect, gratitude - is ritualised in the dojo and provides a blueprint for every interaction. You should strive to practice with clear intention and maximal effort, to do justice to your own skill level, to test its boundaries, and to show care for your opponent's growth, by giving them the opportunity to test their skills against the best of you.

Displays of respect are most visible in bowing to your Sennsei, to your seniors, to your classmates, to the space. So much bowing! To a Western mind, it is peculiar. But in these rituals, respect and gratitude are intertwined. Bowing to the space is a small but conscious action to be grateful for a safe place to train and learn. Bowing to your Sensei is to show respect for the years of dedication they have committed before you. It also shows your gratitude for their willingness to share what they've learned and to help you as you walk your own path. Bowing to your classmates is about being grateful for the shared opportunity to learn, grow, and challenge each other. And the fact that everyone bows to everyone - no matter their rank - demonstrates that everyone deserves respect.

Submitting my PhD thesis. That's all, that's all.

What didn't go so well this year?

​Regrets. Looking back on 2014, my first thoughts are of the things I regret. I have regrets about how I treated people, and how long I allowed myself to be treated poorly by others. I regret the times that I lost sight of myself and let my impulses justify other people's behaviours. As proud as I am to be essentially done and dusted with my PhD now, I regret the way the last two months of how my PhD travelled. I regret my disconnection with my family, and the ridiculous circumstances that that disconnect has put us in this year with instances of serious ill health being left uncommunicated between family members.

In amongst these regrets are lessons. I learned a lot of things about myself, a lot of unpleasant things that are both galling and humbling. I learned that I can be made to roll over quite easily, to accept defeat when I've been beaten down. I learned that I operate very differently when driven by desire. I learned that petty emotions - jealousy, judgment, selfishness - are not far from the surface. I learned about grief. I learned about my own destructiveness, the way I indulge and even pursue the darkness.

I wonder sometimes about how many of my behaviours are things I claim to be characteristic, to be part of who I am. And also how I might do that rightly and wrongly. We tell stories about ourselves, and in their telling, we believe whatever the plot line says about us. For instance, I'm tempted to say that my focus on regrets and mistakes is a reflection of my tendency towards a darker disposition. It makes me wonder whether I might ever be one of those people that seems to carry a perpetual sunnyness in their demeanour. Is that even possible for someone like me? Is it healthy?

My focus in recent days has beeen on how hard this year has been, but I need to push myself to recall the joys as well. As I continue to learn more about what it is to be vulnerable, I have come to realise how we diminish our own experiences of elation to steel ourselves against future disappointment and hurt. But joy is protective. I need to remember that and choose to embrace it, to be ruthlessly happy.

The journey towards submitting my PhD thesis. Having had such a chaotic and work-focused finish to 2014, it's little wonder that dropping straight into holiday mode on Dec 22 was nearly impossible. Even when the speed of life seems unbearable, even when it feels like things are spiralling out of control, you get used to the stress, the relentlessness of daily life. And so, faced with an abundance of time and an absence of deadlines, the unhurried holiday pace is uncomfortable. In the first week post-submission, I felt ungainly in my own life, as my mind raced onwards despite lacking any need to be so harried. To get so wound up is a process over time, gradual and insidious. It is not a mindset I wish to experience again. So in the regret I carry from the final two months of my PhD are more lessons. I learned that I have the capacity to focus my energies on a single work project at a time, and in doing so, I can make rapid and meaningful progress by steeping myself in the work. But as enthralling as it was to mull things over constantly and finally reach some key "Aha!" moments, this kind of obsessiveness had significant downsides. My social engagement dropped away almost completely, which is no good for the extraversion in my personality. Having a singular focus on my work made me think and act in selfish ways, across many areas of my life. And putting all my effort and desire into one project made any and every delay seem far more important and earth-shattering than it really was.

What am I working towards?

​Regular rest and repose. As I write this now, I'm sat down at a restaurant on January 1, 2015, soaking up the easy pace of life that only exists on this one particular day each year. It makes me wonder why I've finished up 2014 feeling exhausted, and how I can go forward with greater respect for the regular need to rest and recharge. Since September, I've attended two conferences, travelled to Japan, and prepared then submitted my PhD thesis. I'm tired and now recovering from working flat chat on my thesis since late October, taking only one day off in that time. I want to make a note now to think more deliberately about how I ensure that I get enough opportunities to rest, at frequent intervals throughout the year. Is it something I should schedule? A part of me is reluctant to schedule in rest periods, but now I think it should be because my capacity to ignore those needs is, unfortunately, strong.

Overseas travel. By mid-year, I'd like to have saved enough to go to the UK, Europe (hopefully for ECSS), and the US.
Looking forward, I have very simple ideas about the next steps on my own path to "better":- Be mindful of the expectations I place on others, and try to let go of them.- Resist the temptation to rush. Be deliberate, thoughtful, measured.- Be more willing to voice my opinion clearly and honestly, rather than choosing to be polite all the time or waiting for "the right moment".- Maintain training consistency year-round.- Give more to others. (I think that many of the struggles I had in 2014 came about from what was largely a self-centred year.)

I really just want a simpler life. I want to work hard, be humble, be kind to people, be gentler with myself.
​I can't say that 2014 was an enjoyable year, but I hope it is a year that helps to give me perpsective. It has certainly been humbling. Although 2014 included some major accomplishments, I leave it behind feeling unsatisfied and hoping that 2015 is a better year. What 2015 has going for it already is a looseness of time - I have the freedom and responsibility to do what I please, and largely on my own terms. That in itself is daunting but exciting, to leave behind the sense of belonging that comes with being a PhD student, and to step forward into...who knows?