In his recent address to Congress, Pope Francis talked about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who became a celebrated spokesperson for solitude and the contemplative life. Merton was a prolific writer and thinker, and his books about monasticism and the spiritual life are classics. In college, I was made to read the Seven Storey Mountain, but at the time I didn’t think much of his work. I had not lived nor experienced enough trouble or suffering to connect with the mind and life of a man who made it his personal journey to map the territory of the human spirit.
Years later, I find myself returning to Merton’s writing, and referring to his insights and contemplations about the solitary life. Not because I yearn for a life of solitude or contemplation, but because—in a way—solitude has been thrust upon me.
I’m no monk, and I’m certainly no saint. A month long retreat in the mountains of Vermont took care of any hope or illusion I had about becoming a recluse, spending my days sitting on a cushion meditating and contemplating the meaning of emptiness. Rather, I discovered my lust for the secular and profane, and while I still aspire to some semblance of enlightenment, I have a feeling nirvana will escape me after yet another lifetime.
Still, as of late, I feel like a monk living a sequestered life. My days are spent sitting at my computer, reading acupuncture texts, reviewing class notes, and answering questions on mock exams I’m not sure about the answers.
In the state of Florida, acupuncture and Oriental medicine graduates must take and pass four board examination in order to be licensed. The examinations cover Oriental medicine theory, acupuncture practice, western medical practices, and herbology (Oriental medicine). Anyone who has taken a board exam knows that board examinations are set up to make it difficult for the student to pass. The “adaptive” format of the computer generated exams finds the test taker’s weaknesses and exploits them. Passing is difficult if one does not have a strong foundation on the material they are being tested on, or if they happen to err in one question and cannot regain their footing on a similar subsequent question.
As such, most of my time after graduation has been spent reviewing, relearning, and picking up information I’ve either forgotten, neglected to study, or was not taught in school. Every day after the morning coffee and catching up with news and e-mails ritual, I sit at my computer, surrounded by textbooks and notes, going over all the slides and documents I created while in school. Later in the day, I spend a few hours taking sample examinations and going over sample test questions I didn’t get right, looking in the textbooks for information that I don’t know or remember. At my age, my brain has become fond of translating and processing information that doesn’t quite match what the textbooks say, so I’m left to relearn and reprogram information that doesn’t quite get me the answers and scores I should be getting in order to feel confident enough to take one of the four exams.
This period of learning has left me feeling stuck as if in a limbo between being an active student and a professional. I’m in an in-between stage I can’t quite explain to family or friends when they ask me why I’m not practicing acupuncture.
“But, you’ve graduated, right?” they ask.
Yes, I say. But I’m not licensed yet. So as much as I’d like to be able to treat and help you with your belching and rebellious Stomach Qi, I’m quite unable to do so at the moment. Give me a few more weeks (or months), and I’ll be more than happy to help you eat a balanced and nutritious meal.
Study days are boring, lonely, and long. There are days when I miss the structure of the classroom, the camaraderie of fellow students and friends who were in it with me and knew what we up against. While I do have a study partner and fellow graduates who are in the same limbo as I, we don’t study together or review the way we used to before a final or exam when we were in school. Some of my friends have returned to work; others have given up passing the boards entirely; others have decided to move to other states or move on to other ventures. Studying has become a solitary endeavor—one in which I’m learning to tame and train myself to do every day.
Normally, I spend a few hours in the morning reviewing, reading, or taking recorded online courses that help me learn the new material. In between chapters or subjects, I take breaks to fill a cup of tea, catch up on the latest news breaks, or rest my eyes and mind with eye-candy. More often than not, I fill my Apple wishlist with items I’d like to reward myself with once I pass any of the exams.
There are plenty of distractions to keep me from studying. [….] Just now, in between sentences, I started a new load of laundry, wrote this blog post, and downloaded Jim Butcher’s new steampunk novel to my Kindle. Already, I’m looking forward to lunch when I get to break for an hour to watch last night’s Late Show, while trying to decide if Trevor Noah is a worthy successor to John Stewart. Just about anything is fair game, and more pleasurable, to studying.
This limbo, or bardo as the Buddhist call the space between incarnations, I know will not last forever. It may feel as such now that I’m in the middle of it, but as my friends and family keep reminding me: “This too shall pass.” Sooner than later, they promise, I’ll be back practicing acupuncture, mending bodies and spirits, working at something I enjoy. This is but an obstacle I must overcome and pass, just like any other.
I smile and agree with them. Yes, I say. You are right. All I need is a few more weeks to study, build up my courage and self-confidence, and try my best at the next exam. But in between, there are the long stretches of solitude and sequestration where, not unlike the old masters of Oriental medicine, I toil and learn the classic texts so that one day I may pay homage and inherit the treasury of knowledge they left behind.