Saturday, September 21, 2013

Zen Sabbaticals

I've just finished reading Natalie Goldberg's 1993 memoir "Long Quiet Highway".  It focuses on her intertwined paths into writing and Zen, exploring the idea of writing as a form of practice (in contrast to traditional seated meditation).  Natalie's writing turns me inward, and perhaps not surprisingly, it brought my attention to sabbatical.

Fundamentally, sabbatical is about focus.  More importantly, the practice of focus.  Throwing oneself into just a single project isn't necessary (though the time to do that is nice).  Sabbatical is a logistical clearing of the clutter: no committee work, meetings, appointments, or grading.  It's a great justification for postponing reviewing work and other forms of service that slice and dice the days and weeks.  Your time becomes your own, and you're expected to do something significant with it.

And it can all go to waste if you see it more as losing others' demands on you without confronting your own time-wasting demands on yourself.  For the moment, I'm thinking mostly of distraction.

A true, internalized embrace of sabbatical would see me deeply exploiting my right to push the world away.  I'd read the university mailing list much less frequently, hugely slow down my response to email, and really reflect on (rather than simply check-off) things I was reading.  Then, the work would start. I'd pay attention, let distracting thoughts bubble up and float away, and look for the deeper insights that lead to great research and learning.  In other words, I'd approach academics as a form of Zen practice.

"Long Quiet Highway" brought this point back home: the real practice is in how you work and live.  If you can't practice focused attention when given the institutional sanction and support, how can you expect to do so once sabbatical is over and the flurry resumes?  Sabbatical is a sesshin (long sitting period) in disguise.  Make the desk a cushion.

Time to close the email.  Gassho, Natalie.

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