On Sunday night my husband and I returned home after a 10-day trip across South Korea and Japan. At just under one thousand pictures across six cities and two countries, the trip was incredible—but also exhausting. With an itinerary full of hikes, sightseeing, early train rides, and the inevitable jet lag, we arrived back home more or less worn out. There were times on the trip, especially our long 21-hour travel day back home on Sunday, when I thought to myself “Why don’t I take more relaxing holidays?”
Halfway through our trip, we flew from Busan at the very southern tip of South Korea to Kansai airport in central Japan. A 6am taxi pick-up, followed by a 1 hour drive across town, followed by queueing for check-in, security, the border control, and finally the plane ride, left us feeling a bit exhausted by the time we made it to Osaka. But a comfortable express train brought us to one of my favorite places in the world: Kyoto. The soft October sun and the touch of red in the maple trees greeted us to the city and I soon forgot the exhaustion required to get there.
Our first stop was Kennin-ji, my favorite temple in Kyoto. It’s a large complex that sits in the middle of the city. Despite a busy day with swarms of tourists wandering all over, the temple itself was rather quiet. It felt like we had the 800 year-old wooden hallways and painted panels all to ourselves. My husband and I scuttled around in shoeless feet with the scent of incense and a warm autumn day surrounding us.
The temple was in itself another moment to reflect on the trip so far, of the incredible moments instead of the exhaustion or the travel details. The breathtaking mountainside temples just outside of Seoul, the relics of the Silla dynasty in the 1500 year-old capital Gyeongju, and the sunny beach-side breezes while walking in Busan. And of course all of our adventures (and misadventures) were followed by warm nights spent outside while enjoying spicy soups and delicious barbeque to refuel after long days of walking.
Many of the places we visited on the trip were Buddhist temples. Buddhism includes a range of sects and branches, many of which were hard for me to keep track of after the numerous temples and shrines we encountered. Zen Buddhism was popular in both Korea and Japan and emphasizes the importance of hard work to its followers. They see hard work as a path towards enlightenment, and had the foresight to bring over tea from China to help give their followers the energy they needed.
A job as a researcher involves a lot of work, and at times a lot of stress, but it also brings great reward. The elation we feel when our work is finally published comes from the knowledge of what it took to get to that point in the first place. The joy we share with our colleagues when we get a significant result after weeks of troubleshooting comes from the journey we took to get that result, not just the result itself. And as much as I enjoy the more relaxing parts of a holiday or the end of a long a work day, I can see where those Zen monks are coming from—there’s a lot of joy to be had from knowing a good day’s work has been done.
I’m certainly not yet a Zen Researcher and am still looking for ways to achieve Research Nirvana instead of feeling weighed down by the long days or the stressful moments. I’m also certainly not a Zen Traveler either, as I still get stressed out by early morning train rides and rainy days on my holiday. But what I do try to do in both my career and my life is to enjoy the rewarding moments as they come, to focus on them instead of the stress that led you to them. Let the joy of a well-earned view on a hike, a hidden mountainside temple, or an accepted paper provide the fuel you need to keep working towards the next milestone.
For me, achieving Zen as a researcher is a constant effort to find the balance between work, life, and everything in between. Since finding a balance requires knowing how much weight to put on either side, I encourage you to weigh the rewards and the challenges of your own hard work, however large or small they might be. And just as the monks saw the value of tea for their efforts, don’t forget to include a bit of caffeinated assistance as you continue on your own journey towards achieving your goals—although we might recommend coffee over tea for a stronger effect!