Academic Musings

The Nondual Academic: Ex Uno Plures

This is the second in a 12 week series of essays on doing academic work from a nondual, spiritual perspective.  The idea is to open up a new conversation about academia, social responsibility, compassion and the ego.  Most Sundays, I’ll share my reflections on a variety of topics related to writing, researching, teaching and mentoring in the light of teachings from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christian mysticism as well as my own experiences.   

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One of the core tenets of nonduality is the notion that the boundary between self and other is illusory.  What separates me from you is a thought — specifically, the thought of distinct, individualized personhood.  From a nondual perspective, no object or person is really disconnected from anything else.  All things are not only interconnected – they are are aspects/manifestations of the Self. Rather than e pluribus unum, it is ex uno plures: out of One, many.

As boundaries between self and other burn away, attachment to the ego dissipates.  For me, this has had a direct impact on my attitude toward teaching.  My primary motivation for getting into academia was always research.  And, while I was surrounded by professors who were deeply committed to teaching at my liberal arts alma mater, Wellesley College, I spent 7 years in graduate school being trained by high-profile Ivy league academics whose primary interests were research and publishing — not teaching, and certainly not undergraduate teaching.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t encounter some incredible educators at Harvard–I did.  But, like many research universities, Harvard attracts academics who emphasize scholarship and graduate student mentoring above all.

Since the dawn of my spiritual “awakening” last year, my attitude toward teaching has shifted dramatically.  Whereas before, I saw myself as separate from my students, nondual spirituality has tempered my egoic identity.  The lessening of my ego allows me to cherish my students, to respect them more than ever before, to care about them and their concerns.  In the past, I was stricter and more authoritarian.  Nonduality has loosened me up (a bit).  I still have a reputation for being a hardass because of my expectations and high standards, but my students also know that I am ultimately on their side.

With less ego, I’ve also been able to approach teaching with more humility and grace than before.  As a new professor, I used to be more concerned about my ‘presentation of self’ (to throw a little Goffman at you).  Now, I feel I have less to defend and less to worry about.  True, this might not be nonduality per se, but simply the result of being more experienced, but I do see this progression through the lens of my spirituality.   I have an easier time admitting when I do not know something, because I do not pretend to know everything.  I see my Self in my students and so I have compassion for their circumstances and challenges.   This compassion, in turn, allows me to appreciate their brilliance, their contributions and most importantly, their presence.

Speaking of presence, nondual spirituality has also allowed me to stay present while teaching.  Because of my regular practice of present-moment meditation, I am now able to remain aware of what is happening in the moment.  This means I am more attentive to class dynamics, more in tune with what my students are saying and more capable of adjusting to the demands of whatever is happening as it emerges.  Teaching in the “now” also forces me to slow down, take stock, allow for silences, breathe.  This is advantageous not only for me, but also for my students.  It isn’t rocket science to know that they learn better when their professor is attentive and compassionate.

In next week’s entry, I’ll write about how nonduality is changing my attitude toward work-(and especially research)-related stress.

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