The insider's guide to the Jerome Fisher Program at the University of Pennsylvania

The Road to Mindfulness: Taking my Dual Degree on a Unexpected Journey

Recent graduate Nico Kage Akiba shares how he moved from Microsoft program manager to mindfulness teacher, following the Jerome Fisher Program spirit of innovation and risk-taking all along the way.

When the clock struck midnight to welcome 2017, I counted my many blessings. I had a good job with a supportive team, a loving partner, a cozy home in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and an abundance of friends to play and connect with.

Beneath the surface, though, something was amiss. I’d had severe insomnia since high school or earlier, and needed drugs to reliably fall asleep. I tensed up from simple activities like cooking, driving, and social interaction, leaving me frequently exhausted and grumpy. I was constantly self-critical and struggled to make any decisions. Life had become a series of problems to be optimally solved instead of a mystery to be explored or an adventure to be enjoyed. Often I would need to go to extreme measures to unwind and reset. To most of the world I appeared chill, but internally my nonstop worries kept my nervous system on a constant high alert, and when my stress burst to the surface it could take hours or even days to pass.

But the truth of all that hadn’t sunk in yet.

Meanwhile, I was considering guiding meditations again for the first time in five years. As homework for an online Masters in Education I needed to design a short curriculum, and there was only one subject I wanted to teach: mindfulness. My interest was jump-started by a free ten-day silent Vipassana retreat I’d attended in Canada two years after college. I didn’t expect much from it – after leaving the orthodox religion of my youth as a Penn sophomore, I was highly skeptical towards anything spiritual. But, two close friends told me how meditation helped them, and I figured I might finally learn how to sit on the ground comfortably.

Something much more magical happened instead.

At the retreat, I learned how to pay attention to the world of sensations inside me and let them flow. For the next month after, my whole body was buzzing with energy, joy, and love for the world. I started leading meditations for my friends in New York, and asked my favorite professor, Adam Grant, if he could connect me with researchers looking into how meditation improves performance. I figured empirical research could convince more people and organizations to try and experience this magic.

But soon life gave me some curveballs and the buzz was wearing off – my plans to dedicate my life to meditation were put on hold. For the next five years, I meditated on my own, often reactively to get through stressful days and long sleepless nights.

Eventually, I responded to my nagging thoughts on mindfulness by leading some teammates and my manager at Microsoft through the hour-long “Mindfulness at Work” curriculum I created. They received it well, but I was still hesitant to dive into teaching. I soon discovered Google had been teaching mindfulness at work for years and got funding from my team’s training budget to attend one of their “Search Inside Yourself” seminars in Portland. There I saw for the first time how effectively the Buddhist ideas and practices that helped me could be taught in a completely secular way. I found a colleague at Microsoft who had already developed and led an 8-week Mindful Growth course, and suddenly it became a realistic possibility that I could teach mindfulness at work one day a week.

I signed up for another retreat, and three days in the lightness I left on my first retreat was back again. A close friend once told me that if you want to make a serious change in your life, often it’s not enough to tinker around the edges – you need to center your life on your goal. That week, I rediscovered my commitment to a life centered on meditation.

I quit my job and dedicated myself to make these practices accessible to all, particularly those who couldn’t afford expensive mindfulness classes or were put off by the religious overtones of the free Buddhist trainings. With this new mission, I requested to join the teacher-training program and was welcomed with open arms by the cohort that would become my mindfulness family over the coming year.

I was in flow. I sent out an impassioned e-mail announcing my decision and mission to over a thousand colleagues, and dozens volunteered to join the effort. I met two of my favorite meditation teachers as well as heads of the Self-Compassion, Compassion, and the Growth Mindset training and research institutes (via Dr. Grant), and enlisted their support.

I started teaching more at Microsoft, at a friend’s startup in San Francisco, for students at Penn, and even in Tokyo and Nagoya. I connected deeply with incredible new friends wherever I went, including falling in love with Yorie from Japan at a Nonviolent Communication “Awakening to Life” retreat. And, finally recognizing the truth of my internal suffering, in over a thousand hours of meditation I opened up to the fear and trauma that were stored inside me, forgiving the pain and letting go into acceptance.

In November, I joined Yorie in Tokyo to begin our life together. My body has finally softened enough to sleep naturally, and I’ve found myself living more mindfully – experiencing, allowing, and appreciating more of the full richness of each moment, more present and open to myself and those around me. I still get narrowed and contracted from all sorts of things, but I can catch myself and recover far more quickly and smoothly, and am committed to letting go more each day.

Now, Yorie and I are embarking on our adventure, launching a new project called Komorebi – Peace, Ease, Release to share these techniques and more with others who also want to free themselves of unnecessary suffering and open up to more connection with the world around them. Komorebi 木漏れ日 is the interplay of light and shadow as the sun shines through a tree’s leaves, and represents our union: Nico 日光 means sunlight, Kage 影 is shadow, and Akiba 秋葉 means Autumn Leaves.

Before leaving Seattle I also finally incorporated Mindful Meetups, the non-profit I dreamed up last year on retreat. Five fellow mindfulness teachers have already joined me on the board, and we welcome any feedback from people interested in forming small local mindfulness communities – more info at www.mindfulmeetups.org

I am so grateful to all of the friends, family, benefactors, and teachers who have brought me to this point – I couldn’t have made it without you.

-Nico Kage Akiba

 

Nico is a 2010 graduate from the Jerome Fisher Program, holding a B.A.S. in Computer Science from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and a B.S. in Economics with concentrations in operations, information, and management & entrepreneurship and innovation. He is now a mindfulness teacher and meditation champion working to build a global movement for universal access to mindfulness and compassion training.

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