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.”

Desk_cropped

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).’

Researching and Writing Angst

I am now writing my Master’s thesis, a project I have been working on for about 6 months in earnest. Today is the day I stop researching and begin the nitty gritty of putting all my thoughts and research onto paper. It hasn’t been easy to make the shift. I keep stumbling across footnotes, journal articles, and books that I feel I must read in order to bring them into the conversation. Lately I’ve felt like this:

Read_All_The-Things

Another take on a classic image (1)

But this level of zeal isn’t always good for my health. And anyhow, that process can be endless, and the time has come to stop jumping into rabbit holes and to start crawling back out of them.

I have been surprised at the level of angst this process arouses in me. I don’t consider myself a very anxious person, but when it comes to research and writing, I get gripped. I read and I read and I read, feeling like I know nothing. Then after a while, I start to get it and begin creating critical ideas of my own. This feels good, even groovy at times. Then I read something that has ideas similar to my own, and the groove is gone. Despair comes in: how have I been reading all this material and I still have nothing original to say??? So I dive even more fervently into reading and note-taking, until I start to feel alright again, and the cycle continues.

I have a hypothesis as to what’s going on here: I attach my self-worth to my work. If my work is good, then I am good. If my work is shit, then I am shit. Producing high quality work means that I am a worthwhile person, and so any inkling that the work is not perfect arouses anxiety. Of course, this paradigm is problematic in many ways. No amount or quality of work can ever repair a feeling of worthlessness. Feeling worthless is a delusion that must be worked through via other means.

One way I try to break through this angsty business is to keep a shrine righManjusrit next to my desk. The shrine consists of images of two bodhisattvas (2), an incense holder and a candle. The two bodhisattvas are Manjusri (3), the bodhisattva of wisdom who wields a sword to cut through delusion, and a second bodhisattva, whose name I do not know, who is sitting in steadfast meditation. Whenever I sit down to work, I light the candle, offer incense, and ask that I may cultivate wisdom, cut through delusion, and be steadfast in my practice. Building this ritual into my work is slowly transforming my work into work practice, in Zen called samu. Instead of multiplying my suffering through work, I am trying to understand it.

How do you deal with anxiety in your work, academic or otherwise?

Notes

(1) This image is originally from the fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half. I created this image with the help of Meme Generator.

(2) A bodhisattva is a being who has committed to staying in the world of suffering lifetime after lifetime until all beings realize their true nature.

(3) The image to the right is of Manjusri. I obtained this image from http://www.buddhamuseum.com/sm-manjusri_52.html