The pandemic has caused isolation and grief but has also given us time to pause and reflect. Here are 3 free online courses that have helped me through this past year.
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“Change is situational, transition is psychological.”
My heart was pounding out of my chest. I wasn’t being chased by a lion or going on stage for a big presentation. I was sitting in my kitchen, dialling into a company-wide Zoom social event. My heart kept racing for no reason over the next three weeks and my EKG results seem completely normal.
“It’s probably just stress.” The doctor’s conclusion puzzled me. I’ve been in more stressful situations and never had these symptoms. This and several other experiences during the outbreak have given me a chance to re-evaluate many aspects of my life. I went through over 60 books and 25 online courses with the aim to become less anxious, more mindful, and happier. Along the way, I stumbled upon three online courses that have made me see life differently.
Professor Ed Batista has been teaching “The Art of Self-Coaching” at Stanford Graduate School of Business for years. Last year, he experimented for the first time teaching this course online and opened it to the public. Professor Batista blended authentic personal story sharing with lectures, researches, and coaching conversations. There are also lots of reading materials and exercises for people who aren’t satisfied with 90-minute weekly webinars.
Students are suggested to find partners to have coaching conversations together. Personally, I think these conversations are really the meat of the course. Even if you don’t have a partner, I’d still recommend going through the prompts by yourself (e.g., Traveling back to a source of suffering, what did you learn? What are the things you worry about right now? Think about something worse that might happen to you? And something even worse?). These questions will help you put things into perspective.
I also found the assigned exercises helpful. Two of my favourites are 1) activity fit diagnostic from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness: this exercise helps you discover what activities (e.g., gratitude, relationship, and savouring) most effectively help you boost your happiness, and 2) VIA survey of character strengths: character strengths are positive parts of your personality that make you feel authentic and engaged. This exercise is not about your talent or skill but helps you uncover your likely sources of meaning and purpose. I took the same survey two years ago so I got to see which of my strengths stay consistent while others changed. For example, “love of learning” has been consistently one of my top signature strengths. I often seek learning opportunities to increase my happiness, reduce anxiety, and build meaning and a sense of purpose. What are your character strengths? And how will you use your strengths to build a better life?
“What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck.” ― Pema Chödrön
I was sceptical at first. I Thought Buddhism and science are almost mutually exclusive. But if the pandemic has taught me one thing, that is to do things that the old me wouldn’t do. And I am glad I did. Professor Robert Wright made a compelling case that Buddhism and science are deeply compatible, as the Dalai Lama once said.
As he carefully examines the Buddhist descriptions of the mind and human condition in light of evolutionary psychology, he unpacked some of the deepest questions in life. I had to contemplate some of the highly counterintuitive claims including “the self doesn’t exist” and “much of perceived reality is in some sense illusory” for weeks. You don’t have to agree with him to benefit from thinking deeply about these fundamental questions about life.
Professor Wright uses both ancient wisdom and modern psychology to remind us what truly matters in life: The impermanence of everything teaches us to be present. Just because there’s no single author of our actions, that doesn’t signify that life has no meaning. It simply tells us: there’s no part of our minds that we need to own. We can let go of anything. No self is the most empowering message to us. We can still fully enjoy our journeys even if there’s no single driver in the driver’s seat. If you are curious about how no self and other claims are proven by scientists, check out Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain or Introduction to Neuroeconomics on Coursera.
I like his narrative contrasting Darwinism with Buddhism — Evolution has programmed us to be biassed, distorted, and dissatisfied. And he considers Buddhism enlightenment a solution to these flawed human features. This has made me wonder: why do we do the things we do? To look for the answers, I turned to one of my favourite professors, Robert Sapolsky.
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”
This course was at least 10-year-old but the contents are refreshing and more relevant than ever. Watching the introduction, I was immediately captivated by Professor Sapolsky’s breadth of knowledge, humour, and wisdom. He went through factors that influence human behaviours through the lens of neurobiology, endocrinology, culture, evolution, and beyond. His book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, is the most fascinating book I’ve read in years. It’s a crash course of neuroscience, biology, and life.
In this online course, Sapolsky covers various buckets (conceptual filter) of science that apply to human behaviours, examining how they are interconnected. For example, he investigates how emotions impact body reactions and vice versa. Because of the complexity of human behaviour, we think about things in categories and therefore suffer from limited and distorted thinking. He demonstrated how our viewpoints change as we look at a topic from a different lens and warned us about the dangers of getting too wrapped up in preconceived notions. This course doesn’t just teach you about biology and neuroscience. It will also change the way you think. As Professor Sapolsky urges, “Resist the temptation to think only within one bucket or to look for the answer. There are no real buckets.”
“When you’re focused on the categorical boundaries, you don’t see the big picture.” — Robert Sapolsky
Before you go, I am super curious about what you are learning or reading every day and how it changed you? So leave your comments below and share this newsletter with friends who might find it helpful. I look forward to hearing from you.
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