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The Doctor Who Sat for a Year by Brendan Kelly

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Brendan Kelly © 18 March 2019.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Memoir · Non-Fiction ).

Meditating, Writing and the Wisdom of Confucius

Writing about meditation is a little like dancing about architecture: you can certainly do it, but what exactly does it mean? And, for that matter, does meditation have anything to offer writers in particular?

In 2017, I decided to meditate every day for a year and to keep a diary as I did so. I coupled the meditating with journal-writing for a very specific reason. In the past, I had often tried to establish a meditation habit and failed. My lack of success had many roots. Distraction was the main one and I felt a diary would help me focus.

More specifically, I decided that coupling meditation with a daily journal would appeal to my obsessional side and increase my chances of success. This apparently simple undertaking led to my book, The Doctor Who Sat for a Year (Gill).

Meditation is a tricky business. On the one hand, we need to focus on the task at hand in order to make sure we meditate in the first place. On the other hand, craving success – even success in meditation – is unhelpful and unskilful in Buddhist tradition. ‘Craving’ is one of the habits we seek to break through meditation.

In many ways, we spend all of our lives craving for things: more money, more success, more quietude and – for some people, including me – more meditation. This situation is a paradox but luckily Buddhism is very good with paradoxes. In Buddhist tradition, paradoxes do not need to be resolved. We can simply sit with them and let them be. Solutions will silently emerge. Or, more likely, the paradox will simply pass. Everything passes. All is impermanent. This is a fundamental truth that we need to understand.

I’ve always liked the Buddhist emphasis on ‘understanding’ and ‘seeing things as they truly are’, two ideas which have much in common with good writing.

For the meditator, these ideas are centred on the Buddhist teaching of ‘dependent arising’, which is the idea that all phenomena arise, abide and pass away because of specific causes and conditions. As a consequence, everything is dependent on everything else and nothing has autonomous, lasting substance on its own. All phenomena are ‘empty’. This includes the ‘self’, which is also without substance, permanence or independent existence. ‘We’ are intrinsically networked phenomena, presences dispersed across a system, ghosts in a machine.

In other words, for every phenomenon (including the self) there is a collection of causes and conditions that give rise to it. These are in a state of continuous change. Therefore, there is no fixed or identifiable self, only the passing, changing impression of one.

Buddhism does not exactly teach that there is no self. Clearly, I myself am typing these words and you yourself are reading them. Rather, Buddhism teaches that the idea of ‘self’ has an illusory fixedness about it, a misleading appearance of substance and permanence that leads us to believe that the ‘self’ is an autonomous, lasting, defined entity. It is not. Like everything else, the ‘self’ is dependent on a range of other circumstances and conditions in order to exist; it is constantly changing and therefore lacks the substance that we routinely attribute to it.

This is a very optimistic teaching in Buddhist tradition. Change is the only constant so the problems of today may well be gone tomorrow and the positive actions of today can influence the future in a positive way (karma). In addition, the suffering (duhkha) that one ‘self’ experiences is continuous with the suffering of others, because we are all a single, unified phenomenon, without distinction between artificially constructed ‘selves’.

This is a powerful argument in favour of compassion towards all, including one’s ‘self’. Your suffering is continuous with mine – and so is your happiness. This is quite a profound message for writers, centred on the idea of writing for, within, and as part of a community of practitioners.

The simple perseverance required for meditation is another aspect of the practice that will ring true for many writers. In the words of Confucius: ‘It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.’

According to Buddhism, cultivating this kind of mental discipline and a habit of self-reflection does not just lead to happiness; it is happiness. All the great philosophers agree. Confucius again: ‘The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large.’ Aristotle: ‘Happiness depends upon ourselves.’ Plato: ‘The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, not upon other men, and has adopted the best plan for living happily’.

This is key. Contented absorption in meditating, just like getting lost in the flow of writing, creates the conditions for happiness to make a silent, powerful appearance. Thoreau: ‘Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.’

(c) Brendan Kelly

I am Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and Consultant Psychiatrist at Tallaght Hospital in Dublin. I am interested in mental health care and the law, and the history of psychiatry. In addition to my medical degree (MB BCh BAO), I have masters degrees in epidemiology (MSc), healthcare management (MA) and Buddhist studies (MA); and doctorates in medicine (MD), history (PhD), governance (DGov) and law (PhD). I have a cat, Trixie, who loves ice cream.

About The Doctor Who Sat for a Year:

As a psychiatrist, Brendan Kelly is used to extolling the benefits of a daily meditation practice, but following his own advice is a different story. Finding the time to sit quietly every day isn’t easy when you’re already trying to juggle a stressful job, a busy family life, a cinema addiction, a cake habit, a high-maintenance cat and low-level feelings of guilt over an unused gym membership.

But this is the year he is going to do it.

Can he improve his life by meditating for 15 minutes every day? Will it improve his relationships with his family and patients? And will he ever be more Zen than Trixie the cat?

The Doctor Who Sat for a Year is a funny, thoughtful and inspiring book about embracing both meditation and our imperfections.

An excellent introduction to the path of meditation … The author describes both how difficult meditation can be in the face of daily distractions and, ultimately, how easy it becomes when simple choices are put in place. Michael Harding

Order your copy online here.


I am Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and Consultant Psychiatrist at Tallaght Hospital in Dublin. I am interested in mental health care and the law, and the history of psychiatry. In addition to my medical degree (MB BCh BAO), I have masters degrees in epidemiology (MSc), healthcare management (MA) and Buddhist studies (MA); and doctorates in medicine (MD), history (PhD), governance (DGov) and law (PhD). I have a cat, Trixie, who loves ice cream.