Zen and the art of being a bag lady

More food for thought from Joko Beck:

We have to be open to the transformation that life wants us to go through. I have to be prepared for the possibility that I will become a bag lady, for example. Now, I don’t really want to be a bag lady. We fantasize that when we practice, we’re going to be comfortable with ourselves and life is going to be very smooth. We think we’re going to be wonderful versions of who we are now. Yet true transformation means that maybe the next step is to be a bag lady. (203)

Every now and then I toy with the idea of an alternative career, even though currently mine as a bona fide academic has barely begun, and only recently have I given any thought to the distinction between career and vocation. As I understand it, a career suggests outward, external achievement, while the notion of a vocation signals an internal aptitude or desire towards the suitability of a particular profession. Numerous self-help books are directed at advancing one’s career, not enough at helping one identify one’s vocation, I don’t think.

I once believed academia was my vocation, but the increasing marketisation of higher education has left me with no illusions about the so-called ivory tower of academia, nor with the nostalgia for a past glory. There are possibly few other endeavours as eviscerating to the human spirit as the pursuit of a doctoral degree in the humanities. Finding no material justification in an age obsessed with learning outcomes and statistical targets, the motivation for a humanities degree must largely be self-generated. While personal interest and the ‘love’ for the subject may provide sufficient impetus to begin the project, like fossil fuels, I find that its reserves are finite. There is only so much one can compensate for the nauseating ills of bureaucracy and technocracy pretending to function as a meritocracy.

The blogosphere is littered with stories of casualties, which run a narrow spectrum from despair to sheer relief . Make no mistake, these people haven’t given up on the subjects they love. They have simply given up on conventional academe, within which the environment necessary to support and sustain the passion for ideas and debate is no longer to be found. I could even live with that if that same environment isn’t also tearing out its own insides on a daily basis and feeding them to the crows. I recently read of a brave soul who is going to try and establish his own ‘learning community’ modelled on Plato’s Academy; for our collective sanity, I hope he succeeds. His reasons are reported but only available in the subscriber’s section of the Times Higher Education Supplement, so I’ve extracted them here:

“People say ‘this is bad, we should make education aspire to higher things than this’ but they tend to say ‘in the real world it’s unchangeable’.

There’s something to that, but it doesn’t mean I have to be part of that system.

“People have said that the system needs people like me to question things but, I’m sorry, I’m not into masochism,” he jokes.

“University should be really exciting and brimming full of ideas and creativity,” he says. “But there is a ridiculous amount of bureaucracy and frustration. People don’t have excited looks on their faces anymore.

“All of the interesting, creative people who really inspired me were all getting old and there didn’t seem to be younger people in academia who inspired me.

“As you look further down the age spectrum, you get less and less evidence of thinking outside the box and being zany.

“It’s not because they are any less intelligent, it’s just that it’s all dictated from above. There’s no real time for academics to do the creative brooding.”

This mismatch between what individuals want and the way people work, their aspirations and what society offers generates unhappiness, Dr Evans says.

“There’s a real mood of pessimism and you see this in academia as well, with the lack of autonomy and everything pinned on learning outcomes. I don’t know why academics feel the need to ape this audit culture that has come into universities from the business world.”

In my case, I was lucky enough to get a university job before graduation and the state of the profession is such that I then feel guilty for thinking of leaving it. How else was I going to justify the past 10 years of intellectual, emotional, not to mention financial investment (some would say, waste) in the pursuit of this thing called a PhD? ‘PhD?’, a wise woman who was the secretary of the department I worked for once declared, ‘Permanent Head Damage, if you ask me!’ She should know — she sees enough of them. What is it really but a piece of paper that has driven at least one holder to plumbing (nice to know even the sciences are feeling the strain). But pursue it I did; so how else was I going to justify the projected loss of earnings I have inflicted on my parents in the past 10 years, who to my mind deserve much better?

That is the trap of the narrative loop though, which I have realised does nothing but feed my self-loathing. In recent months, through my (intermittent) practice, I have more or less made my peace with the job and the life, at least for what it is worth now. I’m learning to drop the refrain of the lost past and the bleak future, and live in the now, not hedonistically, but responsibly, and simply doing what must be done — writing, teaching, dealing with budgets and bureaucrats … Curiously, in dropping the resentment, I am rediscovering an old love for writing and thinking I’d given up for lost. I don’t feel like Sisyphus pushing that rock up that proverbial hill anymore. The old fears bubble up from time to time, but they don’t hang around for as long as they used to.

I don’t know when it happened. When I was writing up, when I submitted the thesis, or when I returned home from submitting, I don’t know, but it dawned on me when reading Joko Beck last night that I’m actually quite happy to give the ‘career’ a go for now (considering the thesis still hasn’t been examined), for whatever it is worth to myself, my parents, my students and the community at large — for the moment. How a simple practice — and I don’t sit on my own for more than 20 minutes a day — can effect such a gradual, but profound, transformation, I can’t explain. I only know I feel different, and yet, much more myself these days.

I would be lying, though, if I said that there are not also days when I feel like not much more than a bag lady rummaging for scraps.

Charlotte Joko Beck. Nothing Special: Living Zen. Ed. Steve Smith. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
Anthea Lipsett. ‘When utopia beckons: profile of Dylan Evans’. Times Higher Education Supplement (21 April 2006).


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