First PhD Term, Complete

I took my thesis advisor’s advice and did little to no reading, researching, or writing this past summer after graduating from my masters programs. He recommended taking some time off in order to rejuvenate before jumping into the rigors of doctoral work. I traveled a bit, visited family and friends, attended a wonderful wedding, and spent time in the mountains.GoreTrail

When I began my first term as a PhD student in September I felt refreshed and excited. My classes were engaging and I enjoyed the discussions with my peers as I sorted out what this new beginning would look like. Perhaps most importantly, I provided myself with more structure so that my studies would not overflow into the rest of my life and take over, as they had periodically done during my masters work.

I fit my work into a 40ish hour week, making sure to knock off around 5 or 5:30 in the evening. I occasionally worked one weekend day, but tried to make that the exception rather than the rule, and kept the other weekend day free.

I also started training for a marathon the same week that the term started, and this provided a number of benefits. Training provided a counterbalance to my school work, so that school could not occupy the center of my world. I was not willing to lose sleep, eat poorly, or drink too much (caffeine/alcohol/etc.) because those behaviors affected my training negatively. I also found myself less stressed and more energized than during any other school term of my graduate studies.

Overall the term went well. My sitting practice suffered during the term, and that will be a focus for improvement during the upcoming winter quarter. I also plan to write more for Scholar Monk than I did this past term, and I look forward to engaging with you all!

Lessons from my Master’s Thesis

I submitted my Master’s thesis last week. The whole project unfolded over the course of about 15 months, with the most recent 9 months being markedly more involved. I learned a tremendous amount about how to do research, how to write, and how to manage myself. I also learned a lot about my topic, which included Neoplatonism, Dionysius the Areopagite, apophasis, theurgy, and Christian apologetics, among other things (1).

For a good chunk of that time, the angst that I wrote of a month back has been in play, with some ebbing and flowing. In fact, my reactions to doing the work played a larger role in how the work got done than any actual skills I had or didn’t have. This project was by far the biggest research and writing endeavor I have undertaken, and, it might be argued, my first product as a “scholar.”

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My desk

It is of course a beginning, rather than any kind of end. Many seeds of ideas were planted that I will cultivate, grow and explore in the future. I hope to present, publish, blog, and share my work in other ways. Dissemination and conversation are perhaps more important than the initial research itself.

Now that I am a week out after turning it in, I have a few reflections on the process that I’d like to share:

1) Work doesn’t come before family or spiritual practice. This is a guideline I set for myself a while back, and though I don’t always follow it, I had an opportunity to affirm it during my last big push. Instead of skipping dinner and working relentlessly away on the night my thesis was due, I chose to stop for a few hours, cook and eat with my partner.

2) After digging deeply into a topic for over a year, I feel I know less about it now than I did at the start. I’ve heard many variations of this realization before: the more you learn, the more questions you have, rather than answers (2). This seems like a good thing.

3) A nice side effect of #2 is that I feel like I can communicate the topic more clearly, with more precise language than I could before. And I’m not constrained to technical language only, but have a range of words at my disposal. Which is nice, if I want anyone to have a clue what I’m talking about.

4) Don’t take things too seriously. This is going to be a lifelong effort for me. Even though I enjoy humor and can be a goof, I’ve got a real serious streak that is pretty good at killing all joy. I love to read and research and learn, but when the serious angst sets in, it’s all killed. And this violates the first grave precept in Zen, which is:

5) No killing.

Notes

(1) Many of these terms may be unfamiliar, and for the time being I would recommend googling them for more information. I anticipate writing more on each of these topics in the future, and when I do, I’ll link to those entries directly.

(2) There is a great Michael Franti song that comes to mind: “I say hey, I be gone today, but I be back around the way; seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know.” From ‘Say Hey (I love You).’

To PhD or not to PhD…

That is the question I am currently considering. I received admittance to a doctoral program in the study of religion this week. I was delighted, to say the least, having considered long and hard whether this further educational commitment and career choice was the move for me to make. Working out my thoughts on Scholar Monk has been an important part of this process.

Many say that doctoral study will ruin relationships, take over your life, burn you out, beat you up. I am not interested in allowing any of this to happen. I see how academia encourages this sort of personal and interpersonal breakdown by putting the work before everything. There are so many unreasonable expectations placed on young scholars: publish incessantly, present papers at conferences all over, be educated in one place, do a postdoctoral fellowship somewhere else, and apply for a tenure-track position in an entirely different location, uprooting your life and family with each move. That is the only path to success.

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Blossom Moonlight by Megan Morris (1)

I say, “no thanks.”

Even though my spouse and I have discussed the possibility of further education, I knew once I was admitted that this would have to be a family decision. And it has prompted a wonderful discussion between us regarding our near-term goals, visions for our family and our free-time, and perhaps most importantly, to set our intentions.

I intend to root my work and study in practice. The slope can get slippery and it can be easy to fall into the “work-first” mentality. It is clear to me that of all things that would come first, scholarly work is not it – family and practice stand out as two very clear alternatives.

Clear and critical assessment is undoubtedly necessary in coming to a decision about doing a PhD. But ultimately, I feel that it is my job to get out of my own way and be open to the unfoldment of the universe. Thinking has its limits, and at some point the time to think through things has come to an end.

So, do it; don’t do it. Does it really matter? Or as the eminent martial arts master, Oogway, has said,”Noodles. Don’t noodles.” (2) Give up the past and future, along with cognition, and allow yourself to be.

Notes

(1) This Cherry Blossom Tree Art Print by Megan Norris can be purchased in various formats at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/cherry-blossom-tree-art-print-megan-morris.html.

(2) The full quote is “Quit. Don’t quit. Noodles. Don’t noodles. You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There’s a saying: ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present.’ ” From the film Kung Fu Panda.

The Benefits of Being a Monk

There is a New Year’s sesshin each year at Hakubai Temple in Boulder, Colorado. A sesshin is an intensive practice period that mimics monastic life and involves a lot of sitting and walking meditation, work practice, eating practice, chantings, and dharma talks. Dharma talks are given by a teacher, in our case the abbot of the temple, Hakubai Zenji, and cover various themes, including Buddhist doctrine and how to live in the world.

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The lotus pond at Hakubai in summer

The theme of this year’s sesshin was “how to make meaning in a purposeless universe” and the dharma talks followed this thread. The benefits of being a monk came up a couple times in our talks about worldly meaning. I found both references to be puzzling, though relevant to our discussion on this blog, and so I am sharing them with you here in order to think through them.

First, Hakubai Zenji talked of someone slapping you in the face. If you’re a monk, he said, that’s great! You think: look at this, they’re slapping a monk in the face. I took this to mean that since you are a monk, you don’t care what other people think of you, because you are not attached to your worldly person. Of course, this is easier said than done! It may be easy to not get ruffled when someone you don’t know says something nasty to you, but a slap in the face is a bit more intimate.

One of the currents of our talks over the course of the sesshin was that meaning may not be important in the realm of the absolute but that it is important in the relative realm. In Zen, it is said that there is no birth, no death; no beginning, no end; no meaning, no meaninglessness. But clearly in the world of objects, the world of space-time, beings are born and die, things come to an end, and people constantly struggle with meaning and meaninglessness.

When we talk about scholarship, this is an activity of the relative realm. Conceptual knowledge and discourse requires a subject and object, observer and observed. And therefore it would seem that making meaning is also something worth considering in the world of the scholar.

When a scholar is slapped in the face, how do they react? With polemics? A nasty review of the slapper’s next book? From what little experience I have, the Academy cultivates bloated egos, and bloated egos tend to burst when they are slapped. Would the reaction look different if the scholar was not attached to their scholarship? I think so. But getting to that place in an academic ecosystem of intense attachment and identification takes work.

The second statement: one of the benefits of being a monk is that no one expects anything of you. Later on, Hajubai Zenji added that when you are sitting all the time, doing nothing, people think you’re crazy or useless. As I get ready to launch myself into further academic work, I find I keep falling into this pit of other people’s expectations. Publish like a mad person! Sacrifice your marriage for your PhD! Present papers everywhere! I don’t care about any of this stuff, nor am I interested in playing these games. Yet I get sucked in time and time again to believing that the expectations of others are my own. They’re not. I’ll just keep on sitting, doing my best to do nothing, if that’s what needs doing.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a scholar” – thoughts from the American Academy of Religion National Conference

I am in San Antonio, Texas, for the national conference of the American Academy of Religion, and had the pleasure to listen to Cornel West speak on a panel this morning. When a question was asked about the academy and the role of scholars of religion, West had this to say:

I’ve never thought of myself as a religious scholar. I’ve been fundamentally called to be a lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy. I engage with ideas and scholars to do this, but the fundamental question for me is the kind of witness you bear. (1)

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Cornel West is sitting second from the left.

As I sat listening to this engaging panel, I was struck by West’s response, especially within the context of my wonderings on this blog about what it means to be a scholar who is rooted in practice. Rather than a scholar, West is a “lover of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy.” This language reminds me of philosophers as lovers of wisdom and mystics as lovers of God. I also think of the school formed by Claudio Naranjo called the Seekers After Truth, which began in the 1970s with an influential group of spiritual teachers.

The love of truth, love, goodness, beauty, holy leads Cornel West to engage in ideas and with scholars. Scholarship here appears to be a vehicle for witness, for the living out of a love of truth. The identity of scholar is not important. Perhaps more of a role to play, or a hat to wear, than an identification to take into one’s personality. I do not take him to mean that the identification or role of scholar should be discarded, but rather that it has not been part of his paradigm, merely a sphere he inhabits while he lives out his love and witness.

Surrounded by almost 10,000 people this weekend who generally call themselves scholars, this is an important shift, I think. It begs the question: are “scholar” and “monk” merely spheres we inhabit while we live out a love for truth? A loyalty to truth? Also, West described himself as a lover of truth, not of knowledge. Is the love for truth inherently practice-based, whereas the love for knowledge is not? What role does the love of love/goodness/beauty/holy play for the scholar?

I’ll be checking in with more as the weekend unfolds and I continue to learn from my colleagues in this rich setting.

Notes

(1) I have not captured the precise wording of what Cornel West said, but I have done my best to retain its original structure and essence. For this reason, I have not put it in quotation marks.

Concerning Scholars, Part 1

A basic definition of a scholar is one “who has engaged in advanced study in a special field.” (1) It’s pretty simple. Study something long enough and hard enough and you’re a scholar. But wait… what constitutes a “special field”? Say, for example, that you have spent a lifetime learning the nuances and intricacies of torture. Are you then a scholar? Or just a sadist? Or perhaps your object of study is yourself. Are mystics, meditators and contemplatives therefore scholars as well? Mmm… not so sure.

These examples cause me to question the sufficiency of this definition, even though I’m quite fond of its brevity. It seems that there are other attributes required of a person to be scholar that are not covered by Merriam-Webster. Clearly learnedness is one. But what else? Does a scholar need to be dedicated to the common good? Dissemination of knowledge through writing and education? Engaging the public? Is there a moral or ethical component of being a scholar?

To sort this out, it might help us to step back a moment. Let’s take a look at a bigger picture and try to get some context, with the caveat that I am speaking from within the United States and from that perspective. Scholars are often also called academics, and together they make up what is called the Academy. This isn’t the Academy of Plato in Ancient Athens, the Greek name of which gives us our modern term “academia.” We’re not talking  about a specific place or group of people. The Academy is more like an ideal, a conceptual place where scholars and knowledge comingle. It can have a sort of lofty, ethereal feel to it.

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Raphael’s School of Athens (2)

But that’s not the only way people talk about the Academy in the U.S. A common metaphor for it is the Ivory Tower, a place where elites funded by the public write a bunch of stuff that nobody reads and have esoteric discussions on stuff that doesn’t matter. This description contains critiques of elitism, power, privilege, and control. It also contains a kind of expectation that the Academy do something that matters to people.

For the work to matter to people, it seems to me that they need to be able to engage with the work  in some way, which leads us to the problem of access. Most academic work (at least that which is most highly prized by the Academy) is published in academic journals which generally have absurdly high subscription and purchase rates, or in very small numbers by university presses. The highest quality teaching (informed by that work) is becoming increasingly inaccessible as tuition for higher education climbs.

This leaves us with a few closing points to ponder. Basically, a scholar is someone who studies something and knows it well. But in the U.S., there is an expectation that the scholar actually DO something with that knowledge, ideally something that benefits the many and not just the few. Scholars on the whole value this ideal, and strive to achieve it, but often get stuck in the mechanisms of the Ivory Tower.

Questions to keep considering: what is a scholar? what are the attributes of a scholar? what kind of product or outcomes are expected of a scholar? is there a moral or ethical component of scholarship? what is it? where does it come from?

Please respond with answers and comment! Next time we’ll turn our eyes toward monks and see where that takes us.

Notes

(1) “Scholar.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scholar.

(2) Wikipedia. Stitched together from vatican.va, Public Domain. Accessed October 20, 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4406048