Zen and the art of doctoral research

by Diarmuid Hester

This is not a story about Zen Buddhism per se but about meditation, the part of Buddhist practice that has been most beneficial to me. It’s a story about how spending a few minutes each day in mindful reflection helped me to cope with the daily stresses of doctoral study and the extraordinary strains of a life in contemporary academia.

It all started in September 2012, adrift on the island of Mauritius. A year after completing her PhD, my partner had finally found an academic job on a branch campus of a British university there and, desperate times calling for desperate measures, in less than a fortnight we upped sticks, sold, donated, and left by the bins our life in Brighton, waved tearful goodbyes to friends and family, and boarded a twelve-hour flight to the other side of the world. We knew it was going to be hard: in addition to the usual problems that go with moving abroad (adjusting to a new language and culture, the packing and unpacking, the interminable loop of hold music as you wait to speak to someone from the utility company), one of my biggest worries was the effect it would have on my own PhD.
Entering the second year of my PhD in English literature, I was going to be far from the resources of the British Library – or any library in fact – and without the moral support of my supervisor and other doctoral students. Nonetheless, I’d worked at the University of Sussex library for a few years and had become pretty good at finding electronic versions of books and journal articles. Sympathizing with our predicament, my supervisor had also suggested regular PhD supervisions via Skype and warmly wished us bon voyage. My concerns somewhat allayed, we dreamt of all that Mauritius had to offer: sun, sand, and reading Sontag by the pool.
It went pretty well at first: my partner found us a lovely flat in a new complex (with a pool) and I worked out the details in French with the landlord and the energy companies. Neither of us drives so she had to endure an extremely circuitous trip to work every day aboard one of Mauritius’ garishly personalised party buses, while I walked a couple of sweaty miles in the tropical heat to get groceries at the nearest supermarket. We also quickly realized that Mauritius’ reputation as a honeymoon paradise is one put about by rich tourist resorts, which have annexed the most scenic parts of a country plagued by uneven development, poverty, and corruption.
But we thought we could manage. Unlike the previous year in the UK, which found us living very modestly on a combination of my small PhD stipend and money from her occasional associate teaching work, at least here she had a full-time job and we could afford to live. Plus, I was making great progress on my thesis and she’d even got a contract for her new book.
I suppose I felt the isolation first and probably felt it most keenly. I’ve moved around more than most, having lived for a number of years in France and England after completing my first degree at home in Ireland, but this was different to anything I’d ever experienced. Each day my partner left for work at the university and when I kissed her goodbye, the protracted sequence of silent minutes that would eventually bring her return stretched out before me, as oppressive and inevitable as the warm wet air that plastered our house inside and out. I had some acquaintances – mostly South African contractors I shared a few pints with on a Friday – and a handful of very close friends whose long, loving emails I read over and over, but most of my time was spent quietly alone reading, writing, and, increasingly, staring into space.
Maybe that sounds wonderful to you – a nice peaceful place to hole up and do some thinking – but just imagine living in a foreign country, thousands of miles from everyone you’ve ever known or cared about, not even an expat community to help alleviate the isolation. How long do you think you could do that for? A week? Two weeks? A month? Imagine the ringing silence that has you fleeing to the grocer’s just to interact with another human being, in a language that’s not your own. Imagine feeling this and knowing there’s no escape in sight.
Things were getting bad. I stopped reading. I became irritable and bucked at the burden of the daily shopping-run. Resentment crept into my day: “I never wanted to be here!” The worst was I started to lose sight of the difficulties my partner was facing: surrounded by co-workers who mostly spoke a different language to her, wondering if her academic career had ended before it had even begun, her boredom, her loneliness…
Help came, as it usually does, from a friend. Putting on a brave face, I tweeted a picture of our sun-kissed veranda to which my pal Bobby replied, “Could be a meditation retreat.” I remember hearing the familiar midday silence descend all around me as I watched a lizard skitter across the top of the garden wall for the umpteenth time and I knew I had to do something. Bobby’s a long-time student of Eastern thought so I asked his advice about how to go about meditating. He came back with three tweets:
easy:pt1:sit comfortably; close eyes, notice breath as it enters/leaves nostrils, count breaths,1-10
pt2: if mind wanders , return to breath, start count again from 1.
start with 5mins. The aim: calm mind and all sorts other health stress relieving and seratonin boosting things + enlightenment (!)
There wasn’t much to report at first: I spent a lot of mornings half-asleep, counting breaths, in-1-out, in-2-out, losing count, starting again. For the longest time I forced it a bit too, desperately struggling to think about nothing and failing over and over. Yet I kept coming back to it every day. Why? Because it felt like I was learning something important. Paying attention to the simple, repetitive act of breathing had started to change something deep and indefinite about the way I perceived the world. The stability, the reliability, the embodied-ness of breathing was my oasis on an island that was not of my making; it was my antidote to feeling utterly powerless and at the whim of economic necessity.
The effects rippled outwards. In my relationship I was kinder and more compassionate. I developed a reflex while mediating of being able to observe thoughts as they surfaced in my mind and now I could recognize frustrations and anxieties for what they were: not things inherent in her or me but passing symptoms of an intolerable situation.
In my doctoral work I was calmer and quicker. As weeks of meditation turned into months, slowly the realization dawned that it wasn’t about clearing your mind, it was about being okay with the mind’s natural turbulence. Within the cacophony of competing demands I could now hear my breath, steady and reassuring: bit by bit the research, the writing, the emails, the supervision meetings, the article deadlines, the conference organization, all of that seemed to be placed at arm’s length from my quietly thinking mind.
Finally I found that in addition to the noise, I could also cope with the silence: meditation made the hushed expanse of time take on another hue or textured it differently. I now approached silence, not as something foisted upon me, but as something within which I could occasionally find some agency. Meditation was a kind of silent alchemy – or an alchemy to be performed upon silence.
I’m not going to tell you meditation is going to solve all your problems – it’s not a panacea (my partner and I have since amicably parted ways, for instance). But I really believe that it saved my ass out there in the Indian Ocean and I’m still benefiting from it in innumerable ways: it reduces the ongoing stress of PhD study, relieves the tension of teaching, and markedly ups my serotonin levels. I feel happier and more capable of dealing with life’s stresses and strains.
So if someday you feel inundated, if you’re struggling to deal with the demands of academia, if you feel your hold on things starts to slip, start with 5 minutes. Sit comfortably; close your eyes, notice your breath as it enters/leaves your nostrils, count your breaths, 1-10. If mind wanders, return to your breath, start count again from 1.

I’ve yet to find the enlightenment that Bobby once promised, but I’ll tweet directions when I do.

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