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).’

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.

Cherry blossom and moon

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.

Beginnings

“Were it the case that a fly had reason and could rationally seek out the eternal abyss of divine being, from which it came forth, we say that God, insofar as he is God, could not fulfill or satisfy the fly. Therefore pray God that we may be free of God.”

– Meister Eckhart (1)

Quotes like these leave me with more questions than answers, and this is why I am starting this blog. I am a student of many things: spirituality, psychology, theology, social work, religion, geography, humanity. Whenever my inquiry takes me deeper into something, I often find both clarity and incomprehension at the same time. My questions are met by more questions and more questions. In the face of these questions, I often ground myself in practice.

And hence the title of this blog: Scholar Monk. There are traditions among world religions in which the stewards of the knowledge of a tradition are also dedicated practitioners (more on this in a later blog). They are both scholars and monks, intellectuals and priests, researching and studying their belief systems while ministering to others. I have long been attracted to the idea of the scholar monk, and, not surprisingly, have sort of become one.

I find for myself that knowledge and practice must go together. Too much knowledge and I become detached from reality, stuck in my head, intellectualizing everything. Too much practice and I lose touch with the world of space and time, a world in which egos often interact with each other, rather than souls. This is the world in which we live and work. In losing touch with this world, I lose my capacity to engage with it.

And so I will do my best to follow in the footsteps of scholar monks of old, engaging in the world of egos while remaining grounded in my knowledge and practice, and doing my best to serve truth along the way. As I undertake this life, I continue to find more and more questions along the way, questions that I will wonder at together, with you, through this blog. Questions that I don’t expect to find answers to, and yet I find value in the inquiry iteself.

In closing, Meister Eckhart seems to be a fitting person with whom to begin this dialogue, since, as Etienne Gilson put it, “One never feels safe in talking about Meister Eckhart. He seldom speaks twice un identically the same way, and the problem always is to know whether he is saying the same thing in a different way or if he is saying different things” (2). An appropriate guide, I think, for exploring the paradoxes of the world and wandering through questions upon questions. I ask that you join me in this space of inquiry, seeking understanding and a way to be in the world.

 

Notes

(1) As translated by Michael A. Sells in his Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1.

(2) Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Toronto, Ontario: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1952), 38.