My first paper was challenging and exhilarating
Event details: SOAS CYS Post-graduate student conference, 2021
Event recording: YouTube
This post written by: Scott Lamps
The opportunity to present a 15 minute talk or ‘paper’ at SOAS’s Post-Graduation Student Conference was my first such experience. I have presented and taught in many other disciplines, but the scholarly format and audience were new for me.
I am a longtime practitioner of yoga. In the premodern texts of yoga, the concept of samādhi has great importance. It is best known as the highest of the 8 auxiliaries/limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. For my research, I wanted to look into how different traditions — including the Brahmans, the Buddhists and the Jains — explained samādhi. Gradually, my scope narrowed, and I zeroed in on early texts of Buddhism and Brahmanism, the period before samādhi had even entered the yogic lexicon with any specificity. I call this ‘Early Samādhi’, which became the title of my dissertation.
The greatest challenge in presenting this paper was, unsurprisingly, whittling down an entire dissertation of research. I decided to present the large, overarching conclusions of my dissertation and explain them as best I could. This, I hoped, would show the broadest and most important discoveries about samādhi, and roughly explain how I reached each judgment.
For my 15 minute paper, I chose to define what ‘Early Samādhi’ means in both Buddhism and Brahmanism. As simple as it sounds, it was a difficult task. The Buddhist and Brahmanic traditions both require a little background historically and linguistically. After giving the bare minimum of introduction to the topic, I had only about five minutes to talk about each. So my formula was straightforward: define ‘Early Samādhi’ and then present two or three fundamental textual pieces of evidence that led me to the definition. I did this for both Brahmanism and Buddhism as the core of my paper.
In hindsight, this approach has obvious strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths, I think, are clarity and logic. I defined my terms and provided evidence, and I am confident that the main points were conveyed lucidly. The weakness of this approach is that it is overly broad in scope, and thus has to be quite general in its explanation, almost like a survey of the topic. It was impossible to provide much specificity or depth in any single area of the argument. For this reason, I worry that my paper lacked a certain fascination that comes from exploring the rarely-trod alleys of research.
In future papers it will be more compelling, I think, to traffic in greater specificity but smaller scope. I will choose a smaller portion of the topic at hand, which will allow for more subtlety, depth and evidence. This will perhaps not be quite as informative in a broad sense, but more compelling and off the beaten path of yoga, Buddhist and Brahmanic research.
The experience of presenting the paper was surprisingly nervous! Since I have experience talking in front of people, I expected to feel calm and collected throughout. But the moment they said, “Over to you, Scott”, my mind went blank and time seemed to stand still. Luckily I had prepared my remarks and written them down, so I only needed enough presence of mind to read and recite.
The other big challenge was answering questions on the spot. One can never be quite sure what will be asked, and it was difficult to ascertain what exactly each question was getting at. Normally we might have the ability to converse a little to tease out the dilemma precisely. But in a Q&A format, the question comes out in a first draft, and we must try to comprehend its essence quickly. I found that surprisingly difficult.
All said, it was exhilarating to prepare and present a paper in this format. I look forward to doing it again. I will certainly submit again at the earliest possibility.
Scott Lamps is an independent yoga scholar, Head Teacher of Ghosh Yoga and a music composer. He earned his BM in Music Composition from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, followed by an MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS University of London.
Mr Lamps has published five books which are practice manuals for yoga āsanas and exercises. He is a contributing member for several yoga teacher training programs, specialising in anatomy and history. As a composer, he has produced dozens of musical compositions and recordings, including the score for the Emmy Award winning short film Kindred.
For the post-graduate student conference, he offered a very well-received paper entitled: Early Samādhi: Evolution & Meaning in the Nikāyas, Upaniṣads & Mahābhārata, which you can watch at the YouTube link above. Here is the abstract description for that paper:
Samādhi is a technical term that has come to great prominence in spiritual traditions of South Asia. In the earliest sources, it lacks much of the clarity and specificity that develops later. The Buddhist and Brahminic texts of the pre-Gupta period explain samādhi as a ‘collected state’ defined by two characteristics: tranquility and non-multiplicity. Buddhist early samādhi is ‘unification of the mind’, a mental state free from discursive thought. It is accomplished through the practice of the satipaṭṭhānas. Brahminic proto- samādhi is a calm, non-dual state that arises from knowledge of ātman. In this paper I will argue that in pre-Gupta sources there are two samādhis, one Buddhist and one Brahmin.