I recently went on a four-day silent retreat at an abbey in Kentucky. Retreatants are given a simply furnished room to sleep in, and every day monks prepare three humble, plentiful meals for the guests. What excited me most about this abbey retreat is that guests have access to hundreds of acres where they can roam the beautiful hiking trails (right after I left, the grounds were officially designated a “Registered Natural Area”). Because of the abbey’s philosophy of hospitality, stays are completely donation-based.
Earlier in the semester, I had imagined that late November/early December might be a paradoxical period of relief and anxiety, so I decided to schedule some self-care in advance. By the time the retreat dates arrived, the semester had just ended and I had also just submitted all of my academic job applications for Fall 2019. This is how I wound up celebrating the end of the semester by taking a break all by myself in the middle of nowhere to reflect and recalibrate.
For each day of the retreat, I committed to not doing some things. I wouldn’t speak (unless absolutely necessary), I wouldn’t work, and I wouldn’t use any devices for communication purposes (I took my phone on hikes for safety and to listen to talks). I also committed to doing some things. I would read a book on spirituality, listen to dharma talks, and go on hikes to motivate the equanimity I was trying to cultivate. I would also meditate several times a day to have a look at what thoughts came up, which ones repeated themselves, which ones caused me stress or joy, and use this examination to get a better look at my state of mind in this transitionary phase. Angela and Tanya recently wrote on maintaining an exercise (and writing) routine by showing up and doing the damn thing––it’s the same with meditation: repetition and endurance are key, even when you aren’t seeing immediate or measurable results. So, I wanted this retreat to remember this and strengthen my practice.
Before I went, I wondered if not talking for four days would be difficult. Being a quieter person, I actually loved not talking! But I learned something from being silent. So often, I say things to fill the space or react out of a sense of obligation––without really thinking about why I was saying what I was saying––rather than sincerity. After I left the retreat, I started to accept and even enjoy moments of silence and pauses in conversation, and felt that this pause actually conveys a desire to communicate with greater sincerity and sensitivity. (I think writing can feel this way, too. Writing out of obligation can feel uninspiring, while writing out of sincerity and a desire to tend to an important issue just feels more enjoyable and more satisfying.)
But this retreat reminded me of a greater wisdom: I am not defined by my work and can find fulfillment no matter where I am. I am holding tight to this nugget as I move forward in the job search, now with a little more levity! But just because I feel better able to accept what the universe puts on the table in the coming months, doesn’t mean that I don’t desire to land a certain type of job. It just allows me to not cling to it so tightly or define myself by what I produce intellectually or where I work. And it also allows me to stay present in—and try to savor—my current position and its temporary nature, rather than constantly running toward the future wondering what the next stage of my career might look like. Ultimately, taking time away—completely away—at this turning point has allowed me to accept whatever might come my way. At least for now. I realize that I’m feeding off of the energy of “revival,” and that feelings naturally flux when you step back into the “real world.” But I’m trying to hold on to these lessons learned the best I can. And, perhaps oddly, holding my work a little more lightly makes it easier and more enjoyable to do it. (For instance, I’ve been having a great time this week preparing for a documentary interview on the Medusa next week, when in the past I might have been a ball of nerves.)
It’s easy in this profession to feel like you are not productive enough or that your work isn’t good enough or that the odds are against you even if it is. I want to curb (at least these first two) lines of thought by, instead of listing the things I’ve done as markers of the year’s success, reminding myself to place value on all the ways in which I’ve grown as a whole person, and not just as an academic. Because, yes, I’ve continued to do some nice things for my career, but I’ve also established great relationships with colleagues at my current institution. And I’ve started recycling more, finally gotten to therapy, and prioritized spending time with friends. Remembering all that 2019 has brought reminds me that the priority is to enjoy life and to pursue joy in my work (to the greatest possible degree), rather than just get things done out of a sense of obligation to be productive. Instead of posting writing goals for 2020, I instead want to commit to continue pursuing joy and equanimity in the coming year and to see how that inspires all aspects of my life, both personal and professional.
Cheers to you and yours, reader, and I’ll see you again in 2020!