Academic Musings, Life Musings, Spiritual Musings

The Nondual Academic: Revolutionary Self Love

This is the 3rd post 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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Today’s post is about self care and self love.  It’s inspired, in part, by the FeministWire’s recent forum on Black Academic Women’s Health.  This isn’t a side issue without academic relevance: it’s fundamental.  Loving, accepting and caring for the Self is a prerequisite for my being able to show up in the world (and in my classrooms) with equanimity, peace of mind and strength.

To love one’s Self beyond the ego is a revolutionary act.  In the video, I share some of my tools and techniques for self-care as well as the nondual spiritual perspective that informs these “rituals of love”.  I cover everything from skin-care, hair-care, aromatherapy, body image, exfoliation, self-massage, make-up, meditation, supplements, working out, the whole nine yards.  I also touch on a common (and serious) physical ailment among many academics and working professionals: Repetitive Strain Injury.

I’m not so happy about how often my eyes roll back in my head, looking like I need a close encounter with the Exorcist, but hey, it is what it is. The really cool thing? You get to see me in a do-rag. (If you want to skip the beauty segment and hear my rant reflections on body image, spirituality and well-being, jump to 20:52.)

Some takeaways:

  • SELF LOVE BEGINS WITH SELF ACCEPTANCE: “Your body is the cloak God slipped into in order to know Itself.”
  • SELF MASSAGE IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT – I cannot recommend the Theracane more highly.  I’ve used it since graduate school to help with daily aches and pains from typing when getting a massage from a professional, or a lover/friend isn’t possible.  Yes, it looks like a sex toy and/or a torture device, but your back, neck and shoulders will be forever grateful.
  • SELF CARE DOES NOT HAVE TO BE EXPENSIVE OR TIME INTENSIVE: Many products I use cost $1-$5.  It takes me about 30 seconds to do my hair everyday and another 30 seconds to do my makeup.  ONE MINUTE.
  • SELF LOVE IS THE BUILDING BLOCK FOR LOVING OTHERS: “You find that there’s a beauty and a Godliness and a divinity and a sexiness and a sensuality and a gorgeousness about every kind of body.  Disabled bodies, broken bodies, big bodies, skinny bodies, big bellied bodies, flat chested bodies.  Look at the diversity of how God likes to cloak Herself.  It’s fucking awesome.  It’s amazing.  And so if you can show up in the world having laid the foundations of self acceptance, self love — projecting that same level of acceptance and okayness to everyone you encounter . . . can you imagine the kind of love we can all make together?”

As I say in the video, I feel pretty strongly that it’s absolutely pointless to go to the gym unless you fucking love yourself first.  Before you love yourself  you have to accept yourself.  In order to accept yourself, you must see yourself. So here’s a practice I developed to experience increased body acceptance, awareness and appreciation.

Body Love Ritual 

  1. Find a quiet, private, safe place.
  2. Take a chair and put it in front of a full length mirror.
  3. Get naked.
  4. Stand in front of the mirror.  Pay attention to your breath.  Without forcing, simply focus your attention on the inhale and exhale.
  5. Look at yourself.  Behold every inch of your body.  Observe the thoughts, critical and kind, that come to mind.  Let them be.  Don’t try to change them.  Just pay attention.
  6. Now sit down in the chair.  Keep looking.  How do you feel now?  Let your eyes roam from your toes to the top of your head.
  7. Now imagine your body is the Buddha’s body.  Or the Christ’s.  Keep breathing.
  8. Imagine God decided to craft flesh that looks exactly like yours. Let yourself absorb the reality that your body is already divine.
  9. Sit and breathe in the realization of your own divine perfection.  Revel in the awe at the fact that every atom in your body originated in the Big Bang.  Imagine everything in the universe that had to happen in order for this body to exist.
  10. When you’re ready, do something nice for your body (moisturize, stretch/yoga, self-massage) and put your clothes back on (or not . . .)
Academic Musings

My favorite colleagues

Back in the day when I was, myself, an egomaniac, I admired academics with impressive CVs, charisma and bravado.  But ever since the Universe bitch-slapped gently brought me down to earth, I now find myself gravitating toward colleagues for entirely new, less shitty reasons.

In the last few months, I’ve had the chance to finally make connections with more scholars at my university and in the larger NYC metropolitan area.  Last year, when I was new to campus (and to the professoriate), it was all I could do to simply keep my head above water.  Now that I’m entering my second year on the tenure track and I’ve started to get a lay of  the land, I’m finding the bandwidth to branch out.  In so doing, I’ve been meeting some junior and senior colleagues, some of whom have impressed me greatly.  A few have even become fast new friends.

Many of these colleagues do, indeed, have formidable CVs. But that’s not why I like them.  I’ve noticed that they share a few characteristics that I find incredibly attractive:

  • They are positive.   The colleagues I have in mind struck me immediately with their upbeat attitude and optimism.  These folks run the gamut: male and female, white, people of color, gay, straight, tenured and tenure-track.  What they share, however, is a positive outlook.  They don’t bitch and moan (too much) about the profession.  Somehow they have faced challenges, encountered difficulties and overcome hardships in their personal and professional lives without warping into bitter, downtrodden shadows of themselves.  They inspire me – and their happiness resonates with my own.
  • They take an active role in being of service.  When I meet a scholar at a soup kitchen where we’re feeding the homeless, or I learn that someone was active in the Civil Rights movement or created programs to help thousands of minority students enter into STEM fields, I instantly know that we share common values.  By the way, I’m pretty sure being of service is a large part of the reason why these colleagues are happy.  Finding manageable ways to contribute to the community (without being overloaded and overworked) not only helps those around us but contributes to our own sense of well-being.
  • They have an almost childlike enthusiasm for their research.  I love talking with people who are excited about their own work. Their enthusiasm is contagious.  There’s a difference, though, between relaying your work in an arrogant, egocentric way, and discussing it with a natural, unaffected manner that simply conveys your own genuine interest.  I much prefer the latter.
  • They can explain things in clear, down-to-earth language.  The best colleagues are able to talk about research without getting too jargony.  This is probably why they’re also often very good teachers.
  • They are unpretentious.  The best colleagues are folks that don’t care about prestige or their academic pedigree even if they are, of course, interested in producing good work.  They may have an impressive resume, but they don’t brag about it.  And they don’t think their degrees, publications or honors make them better or more important than anyone else.  No one likes pretentious people.  Believe me, as a formerly pretentious person, I know.
  • They have a fantastic sense of humor.  I like to laugh and I like people who laugh at my jokes.  My favorite colleagues don’t take themselves too seriously.
  • They are socially adept.  Academics are known for being rather awkward.  I’m pretty sure that has a lot to do with the super-sized egos.  It’s easier to get along with people when you have nothing to prove.  My favorite colleagues are friendly.  They smile.  They can have a conversation about anything.  Preferably over wine.  Or whiskey.
  • They are generous.  Given what we in the social sciences have learned from exchange theory, it is perhaps not too surprising that I’m attracted to colleagues who are generous.  If someone offers to help me with a grant proposal, read a chapter of my manuscript, introduce me to an important contact or otherwise hook a sista up, we’re probably going to get along famously – and of course I’ll be repaying in kind.  I’ve noticed that my academic friends are kind and generous – not overly concerned with defending their turf or enhancing their own reputation. Very attractive traits indeed.
  • They are spiritual – or at least philosophical.  The more I’ve taken my spirituality into the public sphere, the more I’ve been blessed to encounter other academics who are also on a similar path. They may or may not meditate and do yoga.  They might be Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or atheist – but in any case, they think deeply about important life questions and our conversations are often animated by existential concerns.

All of this to say: the more I become the kind of person and academic I want to be (less egocentric, more service oriented, driven by inspiration rather than aspiration, rooted in my spiritual life) the more I naturally find myself meeting, forming friendships and building community with folks of a similar feather.

Academic Musings

The Nondual Academic: 5 Keys to Stress Relief

[Author’s note: This post is written from a theistic perspective but feel free to substitute the word “God” for “Life”, “The Universe”, “Stephen Colbert” . . .  whatever works for you.]

I regularly experienced high levels of hair-pulling, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night, heart-beat-racing stress and anxiety before I discovered nondual spirituality.  When I was in graduate school, panic attacks and emotional breakdowns were the norm not only for me but also almost everyone I knew.  Part of this had to do with the fact that I was in a competitive department in an ivy-league university known for attracting type-A egomaniacs.  But this wasn’t just the norm in my immediate circle: the more I talked to friends and mentors at a variety of academic institutions, the more I ascertained that extreme stress was considered routine not only on the tenure track but also well beyond it – especially for women of color. (For more on this theme, check out the Feminist Wire’s recent forum on Black Female Academics’ Health).

Nondual spirituality has, among many other things, radically lowered my level of work-related stress.  Below, I outline five principles that have allowed me to approach teaching, research and mentoring with greater peace of mind and lower anxiety.

1. Most, if not all, work related stress stems from egoic identification. 

We worry about work because we feel pressure to meet certain goals, put food on the table, improve our reputation and otherwise fulfill the expectations we have for who we think we are in relation to our work-related roles.   Nonduality teaches that we are not the thoughts we have about ourselves. Stress increases to the extent that we identify with our role expectations.  As often as I can, I remind myself that I am not my professional identity.  I execute work – I am not defined by it.  Taking this insight seriously has had a variety of consequences.  On the one hand, dis-identifying with with work reduces stress because it put things in perspective.  But it goes both ways: it also means that I don’t passively derive egoic “goodies” like self-esteem and pride from my work either.  I find myself far less interested in getting “props” for my accomplishments than I used to be in the past.  And when I do see my ego getting a little kick out of someone calling me “Dr.” – I remain aware that it’s happening and this witnessing allows me to know that I am not this silly aspect of my professional identity either.

2. The key to reducing work-related stress is to consciously pay attention to it.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to deal with stress is to face it directly rather than surpressing/denying/ignoring/dissmissing it.  Much of nondual/Buddhist/Hindu (Advaita Vedanta) spirituality is about mindfulness: paying attention to one’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions.  Mindfulness is also a component of (good) psychotherapy.  Nonduality made me more aware of my work-related stress.  When I realized the extent of its depth and breadth in my life, I decided to take it on with a two-pronged attack of meditation and therapy.  I found a therapist who was both an academic and familiar with mindfulness practices.  Sessions with the Doc allowed me to talk through some of the limiting thoughts I’d developed about my work – and to confirm, with a rational person who understood the profession, that many of these ideas were simply untrue.

With regard to work, I began to monitor and unpack the precise thoughts that caused me to worry.   Usually they were perfectionist crazy-talk like: “I’ll never meet this goal.”  ”No one will take my work seriously.” “My ideas are not good enough.” “I have to out-do/compete-with person X.” Some of the thoughts were about practical issues I could actually address, like: “I need to get more organized.”  ”I feel overwhelmed with this pile of reading I must complete.” “I am behind schedule with this project.”  And so on and so forth.

By paying attention to the actual stressful thoughts that were bumping around my mind – rather than just feeling the diffuse sense of panic and dread that often accompanied my work – I began to slowly differentiate between those thoughts which were helpful and those that were not.  As a type-A perfectionist, I had always used my mind to terrorize me into high-performance.  Even as I won awards and developed a strong record of publishing, I still punished and motivated myself with a very harsh inner critic.  Therapy – and meditation – allowed me to unveil that critic for what it was: an unnecessary figment of my imagination.  In so doing, I learned that I can be productive without berating myself into submission.  Along these same lines, Kerry Ann Rockquemore has an excellent piece on taming one’s “inner critic”.

As I faced my stressful thoughts directly, I took action where I could and realized the crazy-talk was just my ego.  But I could not realize it was “just” my ego until I began to consciously identify with the presence within which those thoughts were arising. In other words, it was not enough for me to just think “Oh, those silly thoughts are my ego.”  Instead, I had to begin to actually experience that sense of separation between my Consciousness – my Being – and the thoughts that arise within that space.  That experiential knowing — really getting on a deep level that I am *not* my thoughts, and certainly not my stressful ones — reduced my stress enormously.

3. Trade aspiration for inspiration.

In French, the word inspire (inspirer) still means to breathe – and more precisely, to inhale.  I learned this years ago while taking yoga classes in Paris.  “Inspirez . . . expirez . . .” our instructor would tell us and she modeled breathing in and breathing out.

Inspiration is about being in the flow of life.  It is about being receptive to energy, invigoration, breath, light, ideas – and sending that energy out into the world.  Nondual spirituality has taught me to trade aspiration for inspiration.

The ego not only generates identities for us, but it also creates an endless list of goals, ambitions and tasks that we feel we must fulfill in order to be good/happy.  As you loosen your identification with ego, you automatically become less ambitious.  This may sound odd, given that I am a tenure track professor with the ostensible goal of gaining tenure, producing high-quality research and being an excellent teacher and mentor.  So what could I possibly mean when I say that I am no longer “ambitious”?

Ambition is what a particular person does in order to reach certain goals.  It is an effort to fulfill the ego’s demands, wishes, hopes and dreams.  Ambition is about you.  But when you no longer identify with your own self-image as a “person”, you can no longer pretend that there is a solid entity in the driver’s seat running your life.  Instead of being ambitious, I’ve found myself surrendering to my higher purpose.   It is not my responsibility to generate my own ideas, to assure my own success or to manage my reputation. Rather, I allow God / the Universe / Presence to provide and produce whatever is necessary.  It isn’t about me anymore – at least, not like it used to be.

This was a very scary transition from me.  I despaired – wondering how I could ever be productive if I did not identify with my small-ego.  Yet, slowly but surely, I found myself becoming a vessel for creative intellectual activity, sans the stress I was so accustomed to experiencing.  Projects progressed as God provided new, sometimes surprising insights and ideas.  I made important decisions about my research agenda — but it no longer felt like I was making the decisions, so much as I felt compelled and inspired to do certain things — even things that I never had the courage to do before.  I began to set professional boundaries, pursue opportunities that appealed to me and say no to requests/situations/demands that no longer felt appropriate.   The more I surrender to this Universal flow, the more I grow in faith and assurance that everything is happening as it should.

The other component of inspiration — that is, breath itself – is my go-to strategy in my arsenal of happiness.  Conscious breathing is one of my favorite spiritual practices. Whenever I feel the physical sensations of stress (muscular tension in my shoulders or a tightening in my chest) I intentionally remind myself to pay attention to my breath.  I could be having a difficult conversation with a student or colleague, or dealing with a stressful situation in the midst of teaching – and instantly tap into my inner-zen with mindful breathing.  The point is to use conscious awareness — either of my breath or of any kind of sense perception — to bring myself back to the present moment.  Check out Eckhart Tolle on this topic.

4. Wait – attentively.

Robert Boice, author of the incredible primer “Advice for New Faculty Members” has a rarely heard kernel of wisdom for academics: get comfortable with actively waiting.  Boice distinguishes between passive waiting (wasting time, procrastination) and active waiting (setting aside time to play with ideas creatively and reflect before a project’s dimensions are clear).  For me, one of the most frustrating things is dealing with a lack of clarity at the beginning of a project — a new book, a new grant proposal or a new syllabus.  I also typically experience stress (like most academics) due to not making the kind of progress I would like on a project (or several).  Rather than berating myself, nondual spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation have allowed me to cultivate moments of quietude and stillness.  These moments, in turn, create space for new ideas and solutions to emerge.

I’ve also learned to surrender my expectations about productivity and to patiently and attentively “wait” through periods of lowered productivity.  Like everyone else, I go through cycles where I am more or less efficient with my writing and research.  As nondual spirituality requires attention to living in the present moment and accepting whatever presents itself in that moment, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of surrendering to the “Now”.  If right now I lack motivation or clarity with a project, I don’t beat myself up about it — I fully accept my feelings.  If the Now presents me with a fear about completing a certain task, I don’t allow my mind to terrorize me anymore.  Instead, I observe the fear, inquire into its source, and figure out if there is any practical action I can take to move forward.

5. Pay attention to your physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

I am a happier, more focused and effective professor, writer, teacher and mentor when I make time for regular, quiet meditation, eat healthy delicious meals, exercise and pamper my body, listen to music I love, spend time with friends and loved ones, give back to the community, nab a $200 suit for $1 (yes, $1) at my favorite thrift store, enjoy the beauty of nature, engage in creative activities like singing and songwriting, and so on and so forth.  All of these happy-activities began to emerge for me spontaneously as I paid more attention to my heart in the present moment.  Nondual practices (like meditation, conscious breathing and self inquiry) naturally encourage me to notice what feels right in the present moment and to become increasingly aware of those things, people, places and activities that bring me joy.

I hope these tips resonate with those of you seeking to experience greater happiness – both in and outside of the office.  Feel free to add to this list and share your strategies for transcending stress.


Academic Musings

The Nondual Academic: A New Series

This blog is the first in a 12 week series of essays on doing academic work from a nondual, spiritual perspective.  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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The Spirit of “Getting-Shit-Together” is moving swiftly and deeply in my life after a prolonged absence.  While this year has been incredibly transformative and productive in terms of my spiritual growth, creative expression and general happiness, I’ve been waiting patiently for inspiration, organization, clarity and focus to return to my work life.  The time has definitively come.  As Madea would say, Hallelujerrrr!

I’m not terribly into astrology, but I do like to check Susan Miller’s monthly forecasts from time to time.  Sometimes I look retrospectively at the past month (without having seen it first) to see if her predictions were correct.  I went ahead and checked what she said about October and couldn’t help but note a few uncanny truths:

“You ended September on a troubling note, as the monstrous moon of September 29 was not likely an easy one. It lit your house of romance, so you may have seen a side of character of someone you are dating that you found troublesome . . .”

Mmm hmm.  Something like that.  Now onto the important stuff:

“Now Saturn moves into a very gentle place of your chart, your twelfth house, a place of privacy and rest. I feel that Saturn in this house is the very best you can have to work behind closed doors to see impressive productivity. If you do research, are working on a thesis or grant, write, edit, create computer software or apps, or are a scientist that needs quiet time to experiment, this is precisely the place you want Saturn to be to excel. You will have Saturn here for three years, until September 2015.”

Great.  Looks like Saturn got moving just in time for me to get my tenure dossier together over the next few years.   I’ve been more productive with my research in the past two weeks than I have since I joined the faculty at my university last year.  And, for the first time, oh, ever, I am finally working from a place of joy and inspiration rather than the crushing stress, professional paranoia and competitive drive that I absorbed in graduate school at Harvard.

One of my on-going life projects this year has been figuring out how to do my research, teaching and mentoring in a non-egoic, spiritually centered way.  I reached out to colleagues who are also spiritually inclined and spent a lot of time simply figuring out the kind of life I want to live – getting my priorities in order.  In the winter of 2011, after turning 30, I realized my relationship with God had always been on the back burner.  Due to a confluence of events – and grace – my spirituality (a mix of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism) became the most important thing in my life.

With my spiritual allegiances clearly staked, I  found that I simply did not care about work in the way I used to.  While my research on racism was always motivated by my desire to expand the opportunity structure, reduce inequality and promote harmonious intergroup relations, there was also a hell of a lot of ego involved.  In the past, my benevolent intentions were also contaminated with an obsessive need for recognition and prestige.

I felt both relieved — and troubled — by my new priorities.  While I was very happy to have let go of so much of my competitive narcissism, I was also worried about what this would mean for my career.  Tenure-track professors at Research I universities are expected to both publish (primarily out of fear of unemployment) and studiously maintain a presentation of self as a Serious, Important and Knowledgeable Scholar.  And while I do feel that my work is important and that I’m knowledgeable about my humble domain of inquiry, my spiritual path has also led me to realize a few things:

  1. Setting goals and reaching them will never make me happy.  I discovered this after finishing my Ph.D.  – my life long dream.  And while I was temporarily thrilled, I saw quite clearly that the path ahead of me was filled with people with Ph.Ds who were miserable — even after tenure.  For the type-A perfectionist, success is a moving, unattainable target.  I wanted to find a non-egoic way to plan and execute my work.
  2. No amount of professional recognition will ever be enough.  And professional recognition for the sake of recognition is ultimately useless, given that I will, sooner or later, die.  Can’t take anyone’s opinion with me into the hereafter.
  3. No amount of knowledge will ever be enough.  Even if I spent every waking hour of the rest of my days becoming increasingly knowledgeable, whatever I will learn will only represent about .0000005% of all there is to know.  I could not justify feeling proud of attaining specialized, academic knowledge – or feeling inadequate for my ignorance.  There had to be a middle way.
  4. Doing research for the purposes of distinguishing oneself is a shitty reason to be in this profession.  It doesn’t feel good and no longer fits within my lifestyle.
  5. Identity politics and social justice, framed in a narrow way, are also insufficient motivators.  The extra-scientific import of this work can’t just be improving conditions “for my people”: nondual spirituality is all about the interconnectedness of all things.  This kind of universalist humanism – which co-exists with, but ultimately overrides, the particularities of my collective identities – calls for a different kind of scholarship than I imagined doing in the past.
  6. I simply do not care enough about what anyone thinks about me to do be engaged in something for any other reason than the fact that I want to do it.   You know why I’m in my office until well past dinner time these days?  Not because I give a fuck about my professional reputation, but because I have that much work to do.  And if I decide to work from home half the week at some point, I’ll gladly do that, too.  I simply refuse to unreflexively do things for the sole purpose of being professionally strategic.
  7. There are plenty of non-egoic reasons to be productive.  The intrinsic joy of qualitative research and analysis – talking to people about their lives and making sense of empirical reality – really lights me up.   Helping bring attention to important, understudied social problems is rewarding.  Crafting an original theoretical framework to improve our understanding of social phenomena is exciting and stimulating.
  8. Though I got into academia in order to do research, I was surprised to learn that I deeply enjoy teaching.  Inspiring my students, seeing them make connections, introducing them to new ideas and perspectives and getting them to laugh uncontrollably during lecture is a high unlike any other.
  9. Happiness, fulfillment and joy can only be found in the now–not later.  The future-oriented stress, neurosis and worry associated with the tenure track simply don’t jive with nonduality’s focus on deeply and consciously experiencing the present moment.  I had to find a way to acknowledge, dismiss and ultimately transcend such anxieties.
  10. There are other academics – and folks of all walk of life – who share my passion for approaching work from a spiritual perspective.  

The centrality of the ego in academia (as personal identity and professionalism, but also, more subtly, as collective identity) is usually taken so taken-for-granted that it is almost never publicly deconstructed.  Yet, I found myself increasingly unwilling – and finally unable – to even pretend to view my work in the same way as many others in the world of academic research.   As my personal, spiritual and creative life flourished, I began to despair about my professional prospects.  How could I get any work done if I no longer cared about it from an egoic perspective?  What would it mean to approach scholarship as an outpouring of my spirituality, rather than the Center of My Life?  How could I reconcile my spiritual universalism with my own ethnic background and the particular concerns of the minority groups my work concerns?  When would inspiration come again?  Would that be in time for me to get tenure?  And if I didn’t get tenure, would I even care?

I continued teaching and working at an excruciatingly slow pace as I waited patiently for these answers.  In the meantime, several of my articles and book chapters were published and I won a dissertation award, buying me a little time to figure out my next steps.  Finally, the answers have come – and my productivity has never been better – or more enjoyable.  I’ll be sharing my experiences and reflections with you over the course of this series and would love to hear your thoughts and reactions along the way.

Academic Musings

God, I’m so excited about my work right now

Haven’t experienced such an outpouring of productivity, creativity and motivation in my scholarship since I completed my dissertation over a year ago.

There’s this intuition and confluence of ideas, clarity and intellectual energy that’s just pouring forth.  And the best part: it’s not driven by the kind of egoic, recognition-seeking, status-obsessed mania that is so characteristic of the tragic reality of human existence in general, not to speak of the tragic reality of academia.  There’s just this clear, calm, confident flow going on that is unencumbered by the doubts, confusion, anxiety and stress that crushed me during graduate school.

Long days, long nights.

And it feels so good . . .