Turning About Once Again

I only have one more day in Bodhgaya, after which I fly back to Kolkata for the book fair; and it’s been absolutely delightful to be here. I’ve just been pedalling around, making the most of the local food, meditating when I feel like it, sleeping when the mood takes me, making new friends, sitting and thinking, reading things that come my way, and feeling pleasurably purposeless.

There is, however, one problem: in theory, I am in Bodhgaya do research. Before coming here, I filled in research proposals and even managed to get a modest amount of funding for this trip. These proposals were tied to a couple of book projects that I’m working on at the moment, both of which have some kinds of interesting connections with Buddhist themes, ideas and history. But as the days have passed, I have begun to realise that it doesn’t particularly look or feel as if what I am doing is research. Not only am I spending more time at tea stalls and in temple meditation halls than in libraries, but I also have to confess that I’m not even thinking about these books very hard.

This is, or should be, a problem. Had I filled in my funding proposal and said, ‘Look, I’m just going to meditate a bit, borrow a bike, cycle about, eat some food, read a bit. Does that sound OK?’, I would have not sounded very convincing. But on the other hand, that is precisely what I’ve been doing. Looking at it like this, it all seems pretty shameless, even fraudulent.

And yet… something is happening here (even if, as Bob Dylan might add, I don’t know what is is), and this something seems to me to be intimately connected not only to my practice of writing, but to these two works in progress that I’ve spent the last few days happily not thinking about.

Let me tell a story about this ‘something’… Yesterday afternoon, I headed up to the Japanese temple to join their evening service. The sun was already sinking in the sky when I slipped off my shoes and went inside. A number of meditators were already there. I took two cushions, bowed before the shrine, and joined them, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I could smell the scent of burning mosquito coils. Slowly, a few others came into the temple and took their places. There was the sound of wooden clappers, heralding the start of the service, followed by chanting. After that there was silence: just twenty or thirty of us sitting in the hall, as the sun set outside, and the mosquito coils put up fragrant smoke into the air.

At the end of the meditation, I massaged the stiffness out of my legs and then I left the temple. By now it was dark outside. I walked down the steps and put on my shoes, and then I collected my bike and unlocked it. I started to push it through the temple courtyard, back into the street. Then… well, then this something happened. Pushing my bike through the dark, I found myself suddenly choked with emotion. I had to stop to catch my breath and to wipe the tears away from my eyes. It was not that I was upset by anything. Nor did I have anything much on my mind. In fact, I’m not sure I had anything at all on my mind other than where I was going to eat dinner. But just at that moment, it was as if—how can I put this?—I was overwhelmed by the sheer fullness of existence.

I stood there for a few moments, allowing the experience to pass. Then I wiped my eyes a second time and wheeled my bike to the gate. I pushed the gate open and closed it softly behind me. Then I climbed onto the saddle and rode back to the guest-house.

As I rode home, it struck me: this was what I had been missing over the past months, whilst turning future projects over in my mind. This kind of quiet revolution in my sense of life, this anchorage in a deeper sense of things, was exactly what I was waiting for so that I could better know where I should go next. And, yes, if research is, in etymological terms, a kind of re-circling, a “turning about once again”, then this was the moment that I knew that this research trip had been worth making.

But none of this is really how research is thought about in universities. Nor is it anything like what I said on that damned research proposal. I’ve written before on this blog about the strangeness—perhaps the impossibility—of trying to square the circle of fitting what writers do into the standard definitions of research used in universities. But when it comes down to it, what many writers do isn’t anything like what universities think of as research, even if many of us pretend it is. In our armoury we have various forms of low cunning — we talk about “practice-based research” and so on — and we use these to justify what they we up to. I too sometimes find myself spouting this kind of nonsense. But my heart is not really in it. When I talk like this, I smell bullshit. I don’t believe a word I am saying.

What, then, do I believe? I think that what I believe is simpler and more basic than this. I believe that writing is indeed a practice that can help us “turn about once again”, and that can thereby help us get to grips with the fullness of existence. I believe that this turning about is something that cannot be programmed or anticipated in advance. Instead, it is something that necessarily involves a degree of wandering and purposelessness, a looseness of relationship to existence that leaves space for the unexpected to emerge. I believe that if we want to do our best to write things that matter—and to encourage others to do so—we need to keep open a space for this wandering, this purposeless and this looseness. And I believe that these projects on which I am currently working will somehow—even if I am not yet sure how—be better and more substantial for having come here to meander repeatedly between temple and tea-stall.

Comments

Bill Herbert
Reply

I very much enjoyed this post: it crystallised something I’ve been thinking for some time, that the theoretical underpinning everything requires in universities to be regarded at all as ‘thought’ not only denies the experience of creative engagement, with its procrastinations and – occasional – epiphanies, it actively militates against it.

The dilemma as you describe it doesn’t actually belong to the individual: though we generously feel guilt, it nonetheless belongs to the institution.

Any creative writer knows that the artwork requires the procrastination as part of its process, but not all writers are made to feel guilty about taking exactly as long as the work requires. The choice is to be poor or guilty, and often we are both.

The arbitrariness of such constraints is a kind of negative grace: it visits us whenever we don’t feel the fullness, the blessing, you describe.

Dmitry
Reply

I have only one thing to respond with to what you, Will, and what the comment by Bill Herbert above say. Aha! That is to say, exactly!
So, what’s the plan? You don’t feel that something must be done with the theory-and-research bullshit?

kathz
Reply

The trouble is that we need a sense of how creative writing and, more widely, thought can actually happen – and this meandering process is exactly how they work best. Knowing this accurately and expressing it honestly is a means of enabling others to engage in the same process. But the form-filling and box-ticking, which looks like such a useful way of buying time, works against the revelation of that useful truth. It lacks integrity and forces us into collusion with a system in which we don’t really believe. And because the system is so widespread, we depend on it for those little times which let us write and think – and we can’t escape it except by acquiring an independent income, which almost certainly leads to another lack of integrity. So we are mostly cut off from that sense of the fullness of existence which would enable us to write and think more usefully.

This could be a call for a revolutionary (but non-violent) change. It could be a suggestion that we all become wandering poets and scholars, relying on the charity of others. Or it could just arise from gloom at the end of a cold and the beginning of a chilly weekend. Enjoy Kolkata!

Will
Reply

Thanks, all. I agree, Bill, that the dilemma does ultimately belong to the institution—because despite all this, institutions want and need writers who actually write stuff: that is what draws in students, and makes the discipline a living discipline.

Dmitry — the revolution will not be accomplished overnight. I have multiple plans, some of which may work out, some of which may not. And, of course, universities are not the only places that writers can work and flourish, so even if it turns out to be a system that cannot be resisted, there are perhaps other paths that can be taken.

Kathz, what you are suggesting is like a poet/scholar version of the early Buddhist sangha. We could equip ourselves with robes and alms-bowls, and go from door to door, asking for donations. But those early Buddhists were in India, where sleeping at the foot of a tree was an option (even if there was a risk from tigers, snakes etc.). In the UK, on a cold and chilly weekend, it is less appealing…

kathz
Reply

It’s snowing again. W.H. Davies may have sold his poems from door to door but, according to Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, he also took advantage of kindly police offering a comfortable prison cell. And his poetry is decidedly mixed.I think I shan’t leave home and possessions behind and go on the tramp today. But the compromises and semi-falsehoods that academia requires (not uniquely – it’s usual and increasingly pervasive in other institutions too) become increasingly intolerable and inimical both to writing the truth and enlightenent.

Anupama Bhattacharya
Reply

Hi Will!
You know what, even I break into tears when I visit a church and see Jesus on the crusifix. The effect is that of catharsis. And it makes me feel purged.

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