If you are an introvert, you know that conferences are hell. They are also wonderful, fascinating, and stimulating – which is why they are hell. Introverts tend to become over-stimulated more easily than extroverts, especially in constantly churning crowds of strangers. Yet conferences are very rewarding, which is why we still attend them. We learn new things, stay updated about our discipline, present and teach others, and make important personal and professional connections at conferences. And, if you’re an introvert like me, you also find quiet corners, take naps, and, at any given moment, may leave the convention center and walk as far away as possible, or at least feel the urge to. So, if you’re an introvert, here are my conference survival tips.
1. Stay in the conference hotel. While cheaper accommodations can often be found and they may only be a few blocks away, nothing beats the ability to zip up the elevators back to one’s (hopefully, private) hotel room. Even a ten minute escape can sooth frazzled nerves. A forty-minute nap can re-energize me for hours. Just the quiet and stillness is a relief. So, if you can, book early and stay in the conference hotel.
2. Plan you days before you arrive. Trying to figure out where to go next when surrounded by a swirling crowd is a stressor you don’t need. Read the conference program before you travel and plug all of your seminars and workshops into your phone, including their locations. This reduces decision paralysis and frees up your brain to just enjoy the ride and absorb the information. When you plan your days, identify necessary breaks. I like to take an hour or two in the early afternoon to recharge before late afternoon or evening sessions. This is important to my wellbeing so I put it on my calendar just like a meeting.
3. Leave time around travel. Airports can be even more stressful than conferences, so don’t rush from one to the other. Fly in the night before, if you can. Leave several hours between the last session and your departing flight. If you have time to kill, find a quiet coffee shop or a park to reduce your blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone) before you tackle that next hurdle – airport security.
4. Limit your poisons. Find a dependable source of caffeine, but don’t overdo it, and limit alcohol intake. For myself, I’m allowed to breach my daily two-cup limit in order to savor that third cup of coffee in the early afternoon. I cut off caffeine at 4 o’clock. By the same token, I impose a one drink limit and usually pair alcohol with dinner. Drinking without food or too late in the evening tends to lead to poor sleep and I need all the good sleep I can get. If you can, do continue your regular exercise, yoga, meditation, or whatever routine to help counteract the poisons and stay in good physical and mental health.
5. Stay connected with your loved ones. These people are part of your social support system. A daily ‘good morning’ text message or nightly call or video chat helps release oxytocin, which is an anti-stress hormone. You may be away and busy, but that doesn’t mean your connections are absent. Thank you, modern technology. Likewise, if colleagues or friends are attending the conference, make time to meet up with them socially, over lunch or dinner. You can help each other unwind and reflect on the contents of the conference.
6. Spend at least some time outdoors each day. Our bodies respond to natural light (even when it’s cloudy) and greenery. A terrace, patio, or park are ideal places to check email or just sit and watch the sky change. Walking out to lunch rather than eating in the hotel (or the conference provided meal) is another good strategy.
7. Most importantly, DO talk to strangers, but know how to socialize like an introvert. You have social skills, they’re just a little different.
For example, when I’m conferencing, I like to eat dinner at the bar in local restaurants. It is not hard to strike up a conversation with other solo diners doing likewise. While at first this might seem counter-intuitive (“I’m an introvert! People are stressful and you want me to seek them out?”) it is actually a good way to have a short, but meaningful, one-on-one interaction.
Introverts are actually just as social as extroverts, we just do social differently. We like face-to-face interactions with a small number of people, often just one other person on whom we can focus. Large crowds are draining because they send our focus in a dozen different directions. By chatting with just one or two other people over the space of lunch, we remind ourselves of the value of human connection – which is why we come to conferences at all! Then we can dive back into that exhibit hall or seminar with less trepidation.
Small talk is a meaningful skill, but most people at a conference will also share a strong bond over the topic of the conference. Those deeper discussions are what introverts prefer and they’re also much easier to find at a conference than, say, a random party. Learn the right questions to ask to get people talking about what they love. This will change based on the topic of the conference. As an introvert, these conversations tend to be more meaningful to me and often energizing.
When in doubt, fake extroversion. It can be done. At this point, I am so adaptively extroverted that only those who know me well suspect I am by nature and personal preference an extreme introvert. Fake extroversion is a skill that becomes easier over time.
8. Finally, know your limits. I can manage about four days. Then I need to run away and recharge in the comfort, quiet, and solitude of my own home. I don’t feel too bad about that. It’s just me. I can absorb a lot in four days, enough to fuel my thinking for months. Afterward, don’t assume you’ll be okay to go straight back to work and dive into a busy meeting schedule. If it’s the weekend, great, but if you return on a workday plan to be a little less productive. Leave space to work from home, if you can, or don’t plan any meetings on the day you return from the conference. Take time to make notes and send emails from the comfort, and quiet, of your office. Your body and brain with thank you for it. It also helps you get the most out of the conference by planning how you’ll use what you’ve gained, rather than loosing it in a hectic work schedule.
I hope you find these tips helpful. For any extroverts reading this post, it may better help you understand and support your introverted colleagues. If anyone would like to write a counter-post for the extroverts out there, that would be lovely. For any extroverts who plan conferences, I know it’s tempting to pack every single second, but remember that a good portion of your audience just can’t be “on” for every single second. They’re going to skip out, so if you leave space in the schedule, you’ll have more control over when that happens.
Good luck at your next conference!
I stopped writing here. I never intended to do that. It just sort of happened. I didn’t even know why.
When I began bloggin in 2006 at Buddhist in Nebraska, it was a personal journal and a means for me to connect with other Buddhists who were geographically distant. I wrote from my direct experience and reflected on the teachings as I encountered them in daily life. This was very fulfilling and for four years I filled the internet with over 500 posts.
Then I moved to California to pursue Buddhism with even more intensity. I migrated and renamed my blog to its curent incarnation, Dharma Cowgirl. I also upped the ante. Although I still included personal reflection, I also began to write more scholarly articles on Buddhsim. I wanted to write less about me and more about things I believed my audience would value. This blog should be more of a teaching platform, I thought, less personal, less egocentric.
I am not certain if the quality of the posts improved, but over time their frequency dwindled. It was always the need to personally reflect, to think “out loud” in words on paper, that had motivated my writing. That motivation was slipping away, despite the fact that my teachers encourage the act of reflective journalling. They see it as both personally fulfilling and as an academically valid practice for a scholar and theologian.
Yet, I wrote less and less….and less and less I knew why. There is another thread here that must be pulled.
I have never been private. In person, I am often reserved. It is the ethic with which I was raised. One does not inflict one’s negative emotions on others. One does not even necessarily talk about them, so my emotional vocabulary is, in some ways, deficient, although it is growing. However, there is not much point in trying to hide what is happening from others. They will find out and then it will be the worse for having been secret. There is a certain ethic to living your life in a way that you needn’t keep anything private. Never act in a way you will regret and there will be nothing to hide, even when mistakes are made, as they inevitably will be. There are many things I do not tell because I feel it would make the listener uncomfortable, but there is no question I would not answer if you really wanted to know.
This has always been my ethic. It made blogging easy, natural.
However, this is not everyone’s ethic. Others need privacy to feel safe, secure. Others express their emotions freely, but trust those around them to maintain their confidentiality. Others see the world differently than I do. I can sometimes only guess why they do as they do, feel as they feel, think as they think, and I am constantly aware that my suppositions may be wrong, flawed, biased by my own lenses.
In the past few years, my life has become intertwined with the lives of others as it never has before. I gained a wonderful partner, whom I now live with. So much of my emotional process is now bound up with his. How do I write about attachment without writing about him and sounding like a sentimental sap? How do I write about aversion without writing about some annoying thing he did that I did not like and making him into the fool? How do I write about delusion without writing about the things I have learned in this relationship, often the hard way?
I do not know how to do this, so I stopped writing.
On top of the belief that my writing needed to be more academic, less personal, more “useful,” whatever that is, there was the need to respect his privacy in a way I never needed for myself. In addition, there is a third factor: I began my work as a chaplain.
I cannot tell you how much I have learned through the process of clinical pastoral education, the internship most chaplains go through. I have learned about others, about myself, and about the Dharma. I want to share so much what I have learned, but I must also respect as a binding vow that which makes it all possible: confidentiality. People share their stories with me because they know I will honor them with confidentiality. Aside from my chaplain supervisor and cohort, who are bound by the same confidentiality, I keep their secrets safe. I literally cannot tell you.
Yet there are lessons embedded in my experience of CPE over the past two years that I can share without details of the people involved. Just as there are lessons from my relationship that I can reflect upon while maintaining the trust of my partner. And perhaps, just perhaps, the need to write in a “scholarly” way is just an excuse for not talking about the things that really matter because I’m afraid I don’t have the words anymore.
Other people have found ways to blog in relationship, to blog with a caregiving practice, to reflect personally as academics and theologians. I also want to find a way.
I miss writing. I don’t want to stop.
A while back, I wrote a literature review about “Buddhist Practical Theology?” with the question mark in the title. This paper summarized and critiqued the very scant number of articles and books on the topic, only two explicitly so and a few other tangentially related. I followed it up here with a discussion of Buddhist theology, which is a tricky enough topic on its own. I’ve continued to muse on the idea of Buddhist practical theology and come to the conclusion that such a theology is inherent to Buddhism, we simply know it by another name: The Four Noble Truths. Let me explain.
When the Buddha first uttered the Four Noble Truths in the deer park at Varanasi, he laid down an eminently practical theology. Of course, he did not call it that, least of all because Shakyamuni Buddha did not speak English. As Buddhists attempting to remain true to his teachings twenty-five hundred years later, we may find the term ‘practical theology,’ a very odd fit. Adoption of this term is not terribly important, but it does offer methods for analytical reflection to align our thoughts, words, and deeds more fully with the Dharma.
So what is ‘practical’ about Buddhist theology? Within Christianity, practical theology is a recognized as “a general way of doing theology concerned with the embodiment of religious belief in the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities,” according to Bonnie Miller-McLemore. As an academic subject and theological method, it can easily be applied to Buddhism (for it is already within Buddhism). Much of the existing Christian scholarship can be adapted, especially as most of the methods employed are drawn from secular social sciences.
Practical Buddhist theology can be tentatively defined (from my earlier paper) as a theological discipline within Buddhism that uses empirical description and normative construction in a dialogical relationship with lived experience to study, understand, and beneficially transform human activity. In other words, when we study the Dharma, it changes how we live our everyday lives. And the way we live our everyday lives changes our understanding of the Dharma. Practical Buddhist theology is concerned with this relationship.
The simplest possible practical theological framework is that of action-reflection-action. One does something, observes and reflects upon the outcomes, and adjusts one’s actions accordingly. In the Sona Sutta (AN6.55) the Buddha likens practice to the strings of a musical instrument, a vina, asking if the instrument was playable if the strings were too tight or too loose. Just as a musician tunes his instrument by tightening a string, listening for the sound, then loosening it again, we employ action-reflection-action to bring ourselves more in tune with the Dharma. In the case of certain forms of meditation, this framework may be slightly reversed and described as reflection-action-reflection, but the basic formula remains and can be applied on a moment-to-moment daily basis.
A more formal method for practical theology is described best by Richard Osmer in his book Practical Theology: An Introduction. This method has been widely adopted by practical theologians because of its very pragmatism. Osmer admits he did not ‘invent’ the method, but he does an outstanding job of explaining and applying it. Osmer’s four-part method, or the Four Noble Truths method, if we wish to claim it for ourselves, can be employed for more deliberate reflection. Osmer describes his method thus:
Over the course of this book we explore four questions that can guide our interpretation and response to situations [within our religious communities]:
What is going on?
Why is this going on?
What ought to be going on?
How might we respond?
Answering each of these questions is the focus of one of the four core tasks of practical theological interpretation:
– The descriptive-empirical task. Gathering information that helps us discern patterns and dynamics in particular episodes, situations, or contexts.
– The interpretive task. Drawing on theories of the arts and sciences [or Buddhist psychology or philosophy] to better understand and explain why these patterns and dynamics are occurring.
– The normative task. Using theological concepts to interpret particular episodes, situations, or contexts, constructing ethical norms to guide our responses, and learning from “good practice.”
– The pragmatic task. Determining strategies of action that will influence situations in ways that are desirable and entering into a reflective conversation with the “talk back” emerging when they are enacted.
Osmer’s book is well worth a read in its entirety by any Buddhist teacher or clergy involved in caring for a sangha or counseling fellow Buddhists. It is relatively short and easily accessible, even for those relatively unfamiliar with its Christian applications.
An example of practical Buddhist theology in action is provided by Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, an American Buddhist nun and doctoral candidate at Claremont School of Theology in California.
A Buddhist meditation teacher is teaching her students how to generate a meditative state of altruistic compassion. She conducts a guided meditation session on the topic according to typical traditional theological guidelines. After the session, she reviews the session using Osmer’s [practical theology] framework:
Descriptive: from student feedback, she learns that many students found the meditation difficult to follow;
Interpretative: the meditation guidance was perhaps too long for the students to digest fully in one sitting;
Normative: more time should be given for students to learn and understand the meditation procedure;
Pragmatic: next class, she will read through an explanation of the meditation with students before conducting the guided meditation
Bhikshuni demonstrates the application of Osmer’s four-part method for practical theology in a Buddhist context. Osmer is a Christian theologian and, until now, practical theology has largely been a Christian discipline. However, this framework also happens to exactly parallel the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. This is not coincidental, but rather further evidence of with wisdom of the Buddha in providing a universal path.
According to Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, Buddhism needs a practical theology “…because Buddhist congregations, clergy, religion teachers, etc., have the right to benefit from critical, normative, and pragmatic reflection on praxis.” Thus far, English-language academic literature on Buddhism has largely lacked such a dialogue due to the dominance of Buddhist studies over Buddhist theology in the academy. In her papers, Bhikshuni applies methods developed by several Christian theologians, who do not suffer such a lack, in various Buddhist contexts and concludes that practical theological methods are entirely suitable to Buddhism. In fact, Osmer’s framework is precisely the same framework provided by the Buddha in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.
We need only return to the Four Noble Truths to find that the Buddha himself was an eminently practical theologian (in the broad sense). The First Noble Truth is that of suffering. It describes our everyday experience. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. It interprets experience to get at the heart of the problem. The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering. This is a normative judgment about the best possible outcome. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way out of suffering. It is a pragmatic prescription for what we can do to realize the outcome we seek, liberation from suffering. The Four Noble Truths and the meditation example above follow the same pattern as Richard Osmer’s methodological framework for doing practical theology, described below. This reflection-action framework can and should be explicitly adopted by Buddhist teachers and leaders who seek to apply the Dharma in ever-changing modern contexts.
[NOTE: This post is adapted from a forthcoming chapter on Buddhist practical theology in a book edited by Nathan Michon and Danny Fisher. For more about how to apply Buddhist practical theology in various contexts, please look forward to the upcoming volume. I will post an update when it is released.]
I’ve written before about how I don’t do resolutions based on the arbitrary mathematics of the calendar year. My four standard resolutions continue. Sometimes I fail (okay, most of the time) and sometimes I succeed. The tactics change a little. I’ve been listening to audio books about psychology, will power, and habit formation lately. I’ve had a modicum of success as a result.
However, since the New Year has just come and gone and as I haven’t been blogging much lately, I thought I’d return to my lately forlorn habit with one of my favorite exercises: gratitude. Here’s what I’m grateful for during 2014.
I am grateful to my teachers, particularly my professors at Claremont School of Theology. This historically Christian seminary didn’t bat an eye at enrolling a Buddhist Chaplain in their Practical Theology program. My advisor, Dr. Duane Bidwell, has been a real resource. Not only do I feel welcomed in my classrooms, but valued as a source of new knowledge into a different religious tradition. Sometimes, this can be daunting. “So, Monica, what do all Buddhists everywhere think about this issue?” Okay, they don’t say that, but I occasionally feel that’s what I’m representing and I go out of my way to name the particular Buddhist viewpoint from which I’m speaking and discuss how other Buddhist traditions may handle things differently. Nor do they expect me to learn all things Christian by default just for being enrolled. They’re helping me learn about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and certainly my beloved Buddhism and giving me the space and support to study what is truly important to me.
I am grateful to my coworkers at University of the West where in June I became the full-time Institutional Effectiveness and Planning Officer. I feel like my work is valued. I’m able to contribute to projects I enjoy and frequently given the opportunity to learn new things and try what I’ve never done before (also daunting). I enjoy the challenge and the community feeling I have working here. The university has come a long way since I showed up on it’s doorstep in 2010 and I am proud of what we accomplished, but by no means fooled about the work we have yet to do. They also let me teach, which I enjoy immensely.
I am grateful that I was able to spend time with my family this year, first when they came out to California in May and then when I went home to help my parents move into a new house in August. I have always been close to my family and living so far away has been challenging. I am grateful that we are all in good health, of sound mind (mostly) and body (also mostly), financially secure, and able to travel and see each other regularly.
I am grateful for my new family here in California, particularly my partner, Colin. He put up with a particularly hectic schedule on my part this fall and supported me through some stressful work, conferences, and final papers. I am particularly grateful that he is always willing to hang in there for the difficult conversations when I feel like a lot of other people would either check out or freak out. He and his family have done everything to welcome and integrate me into their extended California clan and include me in their many celebrations and travels. Together, Colin, Archer (dog), Isis (cat), and I make a fun little DINK nuclear family that enriches my life.
Thank you. Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!
I just completed the busiest semester I’ve had for several years, perhaps ever. Thus, the dearth of blogging.
In June, I achieved my first full-time job in ten years. In a way, it felt anticlimactic. After all, I have always worked, except for the nine months just after I moved to California. Even then, I rebuilt a student government to keep myself busy. My full-time position is simply an upgrade of the 30-hour per week position I already held, so the transition was seamless. But it was now a stronger draw on my time.
The university where I work is growing and the single undergraduate class I teach needed two sections this fall instead of one. In compensation for the larger work and teaching load, I only enrolled in two classes instead of three, but that’s still two doctorate-level classes, with all the work that entails.
Finally, in addition, my clinical pastoral education unit started meeting in October. Functionally, this is a third class, including homework in the form of periodic clinical case presentations and reading assignments.
Essentially, I was working full time, attending school full time, and teaching two classes on the side. Something had to give. Mostly that was blogging, exercise, and, to my partner’s patient dismay, time together as a couple, particularly in the evenings. I would frequently be away from home for 11 hours a day or longer during the week.
Next semester will be easier, but not by much. I am taking one less class and teaching one less class. My partner and I will get our weekly date night back. I will restart my morning routine of yoga and meditation. And, hopefully, there will be one or two posts per month here on the blog.
In the meantime, everyone is looking forward to the holidays, winter break, and some vacation travel. We will with my partner’s family for a few days, then home a few days while the university is closed, then flying off to Florida to spend ten days at Walt Disney World.
My partner and his mother, for whom this is a regular family trip, are looking forward to visiting one of their favorite places. I am a bit more reluctant. Theme parks were sometimes (not always) fun when I was a child, but as an adult, I find them somewhat overwhelming. Nevertheless, things will be fine overall. I’m sure a lot of it will be fun, and when I do get overwhelmed, I have been promised a lovely hotel room with a jacuzzi tub to retreat to whenever I like. The food will be good and company outstanding.
I hope all of you have a similarly lovely holiday. For those who do not, I wish you the compassion and equanimity of the Buddha. Take care of each other, stay safe and warm. Cheers!
Two and a half years later. A friend said so today. Is it really? Two and a half years since I shared a joke with you? Two and a half years since you made me think? Two and a half years since the text message came that told me you were gone? Yes. It is two and a half years later.
Your friend died. We memorialized him today. Forty years your elder and yet he outlived you. We remembered you and thought what you might have said or done. I was sad. I knew him less than you, but I was sad because I know you would have wept. And joked. I was sad because I missed you.
Your picture is in my office, on a shelf. You’re smiling. You’re in other offices, too, all over this place. I would say “like a guardian angel,” but no one who knew you would call you that. Maybe you’re our guardian devil, or our trickster at least.
I hope you would be proud of me. Proud of all of us. I’m still working on the questions you made me ask myself when I met you, four and a half years ago.
It seems like a gyp when I think about it now. I only got to know you two years. How unfair. How wonderful. Because I got to know you at all.