“Zen” Research Retreat

A few weeks ago my group and a couple of intrepid souls went on our “Zen” Research Retreat – each day we spent 6 – 7 hours in complete silence dedicated to personal research. In the modern world, few us have the opportunity for (or perhaps the discipline to create) the uninterrupted time and space which is so important for creativity and solving hard problems which, after all, is what academics are supposed to do! (See John Cleese on this point and on the danger of interruptions and perhaps this timeless classic by Seneca which includes the wise words “the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply…There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.”).

I am a somewhat ardent critic of the standard academic workshop and love experimenting with ways to improve on the old designs.  We developed the JEDI workshops to enhance knowledge transfer, to teach real skills and to create lasting friendships & a sense of community. But the JEDIs are very intense and tiring (not unlike TED events) and so they are not really balanced. The “Zen” research retreat was an experiment to provide both a bubble of uninterrupted time and space but also to be more balanced – a yin to complement the JEDI’s yang, as it were.

We wanted a space for people to be able to think long and hard about difficult problems that they normally would not have the chance to do because of interruptions. As Pico Iyer puts it “So, in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still

What follows is a brief summary of my experience and impressions of the retreat.

First we encouraged everyone to switch off email, Facebook and their mobile phones and to be very intentional about how they would use the silent time, which was jokingly dubbed “Nobel silence” and which usually ran between 10am-1pm and 2-5:30pm.

So what worked on this experimental workshop?
  • A little surprisingly perhaps, people wanted more silence, not less. Next time we will probably have at least one entire 24 hour period of silence.
  • During the workshop people mostly worked physically separated from each other but on the final day we all worked in the same room. Being in the same room but not talking had an energising effect on most people who reported being more effective. Perhaps this is not surprising – academics often spend lots of time silent when working alone. Working in silence together was the novel part.
  • On the last day we had silence during lunch as well, and that was generally enjoyed by everyone. In particular, people commented that it was an interesting and valuable exercise to be in an environment where standard social cues push one to talk, while the rules of silence forbid it. This contributes to putting participants into the altered mental state needed for creative thoughts.
  • We held the workshop at a peaceful, beautiful venue which allowed participants to run, go for hikes, swim, do yoga and otherwise sit under trees while thinking and working. In the evenings we sat around a big fire talking about how the day went for us, the problems that were holding up our research and of course, big philosophical questions.
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In summary I would say that the retreat was very successful, but in quite a subtle and gentle way. Silence is a powerful tool both for research and reflection on one’s own life and the connection between the two is something researchers do not often consciously think about.

I found that the spirt of the workshop stayed with me quite a long time after we had left the venue. I was struck by how relaxed and happy everyone was during the retreat, while still having achieved significantly more than we would have had we been working as normal in the office. In addition, I think the group bonded over the experience and as I learned early in my career, long-term friendships with other academics are crucial for success in academia. Sure the workshop raised some eyebrows among the administration, and 50 years ago it would probably have been completely unnecessary, but in a world relentlessly pushing academics (and everyone else) to be more and more productive, we need to find ways to retain the true essence of what academic scholarship is all about.

I recommend anyone with a research group to try it out.