Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Ahhh, vacation! The 'grass is greener' side of Academia

(in reply/continuation from my last post and its comment from Dorian) In a certain Buddhist sense, and Sartrean I think as well, Hell is what you make of it. In my own view, Hell is whatever is extremely unpleasant, like academic life at times (woe beit to those who attempt graduate school). But what kind of life isn't extremely unpleasant at times? And what good would it be if life was pleasant all of the time?

My thought turns first to those in war-torn Iraq, to Sudan, to other places ravaged by violence, hunger, and the rest; places for which Hell takes on a very real meaning in the daily lives of all of the people. For me, Hell is deadlines, further applications and my dept. How petty compared to the Hell of watching loved ones die before you! It is in this sense that Hell, my Hell, is not so bad after all. And for those brave few who can overcome the Hell of disease, poverty, and violence, their Hell, too, becomes not so bad. There is a sort of transcendence, a 'getting over' the immediate conditions which can take place for any of us. And it is when we overcome our own extremely unpleasant situation, however petty in the greater scheme of things, that we can be creative world-changing individuals.

The mistake is seeing life 'as Hell' - thinking that our unpleasant situation is all that there is - a very narrow view. Here we sink into self-absorbed depression. But if we can see that our own 'Hell' is merely a situation, a particular instance in the totality of existence, then we can rise out of it, not by abandoning it, but by seeing it from a new perspective. We are no longer determined by a narrow view, we are unbound, still working in our little corner of the world, but seeing it as it is, just one little corner. I imagine someone staring at a great painting, just two inches from it, completely confused as to what they are looking at. It isn't until they step back that they encounter the beauty of the wholeness before them.

And so on to the original topic of my post: vacation. A time to step back. And luckily in academia, in England especially, vacation seems to be a major component of life. Of course, we are sternly urged, and correctly, to work throughout the vacation, but our work takes on a new character, a freer, more dynamic and creative character. So vacation is not the type imagined by the overworked masses (a week or two to do 'nothing' or 'see things/travel' before going back to an overworked existence. Vacation in academia is work-time, insofar as one has taken on the virtue, in the Aristotelian sense, of an academic (one may live in academia but still not live as an academic in this sense). It is sort of like a 'working retreat' for the mind.

I am on vacation now; stepping back a bit. I read Donald Lopez's "Prisoners of Shangri-La" yesterday - a MUST for anyone interested in (or in my case infatuated by) Tibetan Buddhism. He takes a sledgehammer to our most common misconceptions, and I found myself learning a lot even after two-thirds of a Masters Degree in Buddhist Studies here in Bristol. I'm working on a paper called "Who or what is a Dalai Lama" which should provide another wrecking-ball for my misconceptions.

My presentation at the conference went ok. I'm not terribly satisfied with the paper I delivered, but the experience of giving a paper to 20-30 academic-types was important and useful. The idea of 'presenting' my work to people, some of whom know the material far better than me (and as in the case of my tutor, Paul Williams, might disagree with me) really forced me to think hard and question my own ideas. Painful, but good.

So - back to work! And my own personal motto for the time-being: Let truth be your beloved.

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