Thinking through the Thesis

Thinking through the Thesis February 13, 2009

For those who don’t know – I’m currently working on my ph.d. thesis (gadzooks) in Buddhist Ethics. It’s an amazing, often odd process, certain to be different for everyone who ventures toward and through it. I have had amazing fortune thus far, with an amazing advisor, great help from friends and colleagues, and continued support from family and friends. Without all of this I know I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I’m in the ABD stage (All But Dissertation), meaning it’s all on me now. To just sit, focus, and write.

There is the constant tug of “more reading” and random internet stuff, and that’s just when I’m actually here, at the writing place… Beyond is a whole world of distractions and pleasures just calling out, well within grasp.

And yet there is an ever-clear sense in which we might say that setting all of that aside and focusing on the thesis is a duty. A duty not in the sense of puritanism – but in the sense of knowing that it is what is in accord with my very nature…

That sounds a bit odd perhaps. Maybe quoting Chögyam Trungpa’s teaching on vīrya (thanks to Danny for sending it to me) will help:

Whenever a person practices virya, he finds delight in it, becuase it is not based in painfully going on and on, but it is a way of seeing the joyous element, of seeing that energy does not have to be forced but that it develops spontaneously. This happens by not regarding things as a duty in the puritanical sense but doing them because one has already established the connection between the action and one’s being.

So I find what connects me, this me of the ego perhaps, to the greater me, or not-me/emptiness if you want to be all Buddhisty about it.

It’s a matter of separating out what the little-me, the ever-distracted, pleasure-seeking me from the greater me or selflessness which is my highest potential. In one paper I’m reading now, Kant vs Eudaimonism, by Allen W. Wood, we find Kant saying:

“This difference of the principle of happiness from that of morality is not therefore an opposition between them, and pure practical reason does not require that we should renounce the claims on happiness; it requires only that we should take no account of them whenever duty is in question” (KpV 5:93).

It’s basically the same thing. That’s why Kant and Buddhism is what I’m writing my thesis on. 🙂

Kant’s principle of happiness is essentially what Buddhism would call tanha (though I still have to get through this part of Dave W’s unreasonably-expenseve-morally-required-to-be-out-in-paperback-soon book, that’s for tomorrow), the all too human thirsting for objects or experiences in the world. The principle of morality is that elusive other source of motivation and energy in our lives.

People who are out of touch with their true nature (sense of duty, inner self – whatever you want to call it) quite often hop on the hedonic treadmill, chaising after possessions and life-experiences that provide transient pleasures. They are sometime easy to spot, oscillating between hyper-happiness (wahoo, I just got my x,y,z) and malaise.

Those who have a grasp on things aren’t necessarily happy all the time, but they are calm and somehow more at ease with themselves and the world. According to Kant, living in harmony with the principle of morality isn’t necessarily contrary to happiness, it’s just a different standard. When we live by morality we feel content, which is entirely different from the (always temporary) happiness we could gain by making lots of money at a job we don’t like and blowing it.

So that is where I am left, having tasted “the connection between the action and one’s being” in my thesis work, and truly in my studies for much of the last few years. There are bound to be tugs this way and that, but there is also the possibility of pulling the tugs into the realm of morality. That is, arranging my life ever-more fully around the thesis work and, eventually, teaching…

One example of that – trivial as it may be – in my own life has been buying a fancy new computer. It is primarily a tool to make reading and marking up hundreds of digital documents easy enough for my lazy disposition to actually get them done. Meaning it’s a tool that will get me to finish my thesis fast so I can get into the classroom full-time, which is where I am at my best as a servant to my fellow humans. But… the computer also makes me really happy. Hehe. So we can have both; we just cannot let the search for happiness be what leads us in our choices in life.

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