If you are unfamiliar with the Avadhut Gita, you may peruse it here.
If you are unfamiliar with the Avadhut Gita, you may peruse it here.
..and Nisargadatta Maharaj and Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh and the Bhagavad Gita.
For the time being anyway.
After a year and a half of fairly intense seeking and transformation, I’m going on a spiritual diet. The realization of my oneness with the Absolute has been beautifully assisted by these teachings & teachers.. but enough is enough. At this point I am reading and hearing the same things over and over again. Now I simply want to live it. No guided meditations or videos or texts. No more crutches. Just this moment and the direct experience of the Divine.
Like my veganish, rawish, gluten-freeish eating experiment, I’m doing this without a set timetable or goal.
It’s become clear that all this spiritualizing is holding something up. What, I am not entirely sure. But I know I need to go these next few steps alone. As Presence.
“Your only problem is the eager self-identification with whatever you percieve.” – Nisargadatta
“One has to work in the world; naturally, carry on your worldly affairs, but understand that which has come about by itself -that is, this body, mind and consciousness–has appeared in spite of the fact that nobody has asked for it. I did not ask for it; it has come upon me in my original state which is timeless, spaceless, and without attributes. So that whatever has happened is doing this business in the world. The life force and the mind are operating, but the mind will tempt you to believe that it is “you.” Therefore, understand always that you are the timeless, spaceless witness. And even if the mind tells you that you are the one who is acting, don’t believe the mind. Always keep your identity separate from that which is doing the working, thinking and talking.” –
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “The Ultimate Medicine: Dialogues with a Realized Master”
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This is the fourth 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 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.
My life is not quite turning out as I thought it would. Prioritizing my spirituality wasn’t really at the top of my agenda when I finished graduate school a year and a half ago. I had a conventional idea of success. After the Ph.D., I thought I would singlemindedly focus my energies on research, publications, gaining my colleagues’ respect, perhaps even starting a family. I wanted to leave my humble mark on the world, gain recognition, make my mother proud, be a “credit to the race”, give back to my communities, build some wealth, win some prizes, become a prominent sociologist and a public intellectual. Oh yeah, and a wife and maybe a mother and blah blah blah.
And to a certain extent, some things have gone according to plan. I landed a fab job in a supportive department. I’ve won some prizes – most recently the APSA’s Georges-Lavau award for the best dissertation on contemporary French politics. I have had a steady publication record. My research program has developed. I’m not a total disaster.
And yet, I never anticipated that I would have an encounter with God that would swallow me -and my ambitions- whole. I always wanted to be “somebody” — I did not know I would come to recognize my self as Timeless Being.. that I would come to know that I am literally no “body”.
Living as “Timeless Being” is quite at odds with most everyone’s idea of the tenure-track. Junior faculty are almost always future-oriented — preoccupied with establishing a professional reputation and securing semi-permanent employment. Increasingly, I have found myself struggling to reconcile these two very different ways of viewing life — one anchored in the present-moment, one tied to a professional future.
Along the way, I’ve felt at turns liberated and appalled by two paradoxical sentiments. On the one hand, I feel liberated as I’ve come to care more about my spiritual life than anything else. On the other hand, I’ve been appalled to see that my ego still worries and despairs over the fate of my professional life — not to mention my material existence. I worry over what the future holds if I really surrender to the full embrace of my spiritual path. What will happen to me if I really offer up everything — the fate of my work, my projects, my income — to the Supreme? My inner wisdom knows that I have nothing to fear. And yet, the old egoic grasping, the doubts arise. To my chagrin, my attachment to professional success continues to manifest in my experience. Are these lingering ambitions standing in the way of my full reliance on God?
This fundamental question — of how to live in the world as your worldly desires wane — is quite common for people on a whole variety of spiritual paths. Mooji has a great teaching on this topic that you can check out here. His basic insight – echoed in the quote by Nisargadatta above – is that, despite appearances to the contrary, we are not the “operators” of our own lives. The sense of doership is itself an illusion. (This is a tricky subject, given the emphasis I place on agency in my social theorizing – a topic for another day). In any case, the basic teaching of nonduality (that we are one with all there is) asserts that Consciousness/God – indeed, the entire Universe – acts through ‘us’. Fully realizing this truth requires giving up all of our concerns – including our need to know how the future will work out – to the Supreme. It means realizing that personal ambitions are the egoic projections of the mind — they do not define who we really are. From this perspective, what ultimately matters is surrendering to God’s divine will, allowing the flow of life to have its way with us, as Spirit sees fit.
It’s a terribly frightening predicament for the ego — the small ‘self’ — because it frets over how to provide for our material existence, how to strategize for success. But the ego-mind doesn’t exist (Mooji likes to say that “the ego is a ghost afraid of dying”) and since it doesn’t exist, it obviously is not in control of our lives. And if it isn’t in control, what is? Ah.. the Beingness. God Herself. So the process is one of allowing egoic ambitions, striving & anxieties to increasingly give way to faith & total reliance on the All-There-Is. And the vexing truth is that this is not something one can try to do — it simply happens naturally in the process of awakening.
So where does that leave me? I haven’t the faintest idea. But, I wanted to share these ruminations with you, as this is the primary concern I face at intersection of my professional life and my spiritual practice. These days, my intention is to simply allow Consciousness to guide me in whatever direction It sees fit. We’ll see how it goes.
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.)
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
Here’s Mooji explaining in a very subtle and lovely way what happens when we observe the ego:
I really love, in particular, how he points out that any observation of the ego that is interested (not indifferent) is still the ego.
Eckhart Tolle on the difference between the “real” I and the fake (egoic) “I”:
Everyone’s talking about “the conflict” in Israel and Gaza. Meanwhile, most of us struggle to resolve the largely insignificant conflicts in our everyday lives. I always see what’s going on “out there” in the world as a reflection of what’s going on “in here”. Gaza is a mirror. If we can’t assert compassion, love, acceptance of self and others on a daily basis when the stakes are low, how can we ever expect entire nations to make peace when the stakes are perceived as incredibly high? If we are ever-ready to defend the microscopic terrains of our little egos, why do we marvel and scratch our heads when groups of people feel compelled to defend their land and their dignity, no matter the cost? I’m simply amazed that folks who can’t get along with their in-laws nonetheless feel justified in getting on their ideological soap-box about politics and war.
It’s hard to believe, but I was actually in Israel and the Palestinian territories almost exactly a year ago. I traveled to Jerusalem as part of a research team of sociologists studying stigmatized groups in the U.S. (African Americans), Brazil (Blacks) and Israel (Ethiopian Jews, Arab Israelis and Mizrahis). You can learn more about that on-going project here and here. This was my first trip to the Middle East, a voyage that changed me in ways I’m still processing.
As I reflect on the harrowing news coming in from the region – a familiar and in most ways unsurprising story – I know for sure that there can be no lasting peace in this world unless we all figure out how to make peace in our everyday lives. This is not an abstract or philosophical point. Nothing could be more pragmatic than your commitment to practicing peace. I’m not saying that one must be the Buddha in order to have a political opinion, engage in activism or resist domination or violence. But we have to be just as committed, indeed more committed, to creating peace in our individual lives as we are to bringing about justice and reconciliation. For me, peace-making has been an integral dimension of nondual spirituality. Pre-2012, my life was full of drama. Because I was (unbeknownst to me) entirely identified with my ego and sense of individuality, my overall perspective was quite negative. My greatest source and repository of drama was a dysfunctional romantic relationship that I finally ended after years of deeply unconscious, mutually-traumatic conflict. But there were also many other little pockets of discontent. I was easily offended and often angry. Someone was always getting on my nerves. My shit list was maxed out. I frequently spoke ill of others and had frenemies who enjoyed gossip. It was a pretty awful way to live, but at the time, I didn’t know how things could be otherwise.
Fast forward a year. I’m far from perfect, but the experience of peace in my daily life has gone from “almost never” to “the vast majority of the time”. This does’t meant that I’m constantly singing Kumbaya or that I never get into arguments or fire up with anger. But arguments and strife are fairly rare occurences for me now. And when they do happen, the key difference between then and now is that I see the ego. I sense (and sometimes laugh about) my mind’s urge to be right, the desire to be noticed, admired, the ego’s need to feel superior. In the past, I was so wrapped up in the ego that I did not even understand there it was operating in my life. [See Eckhart Tolle chit-chat about this aspect of the ego here]. I felt totally identified with my thoughts, my emotions and my narrative–the story of “me”. My transformative encounter with God and conscious experience of nonduality has allowed me to identify with the presence, the space, the no-thing-ness within which my existence (and everything else) unfolds. As a result, either in the moment itself, or immediately thereafter, I am able to observe my thoughts and feelings rather than become fully absorbed in them. Not only does this create peace in my life by reducing my stress and lowering the volume of mental noise, but it also spontaneously produces compassion for everyone else as I consciously realize that the boundaries between us are illusory.
Now when someone upsets me, I express whatever feels appropriate in the moment — but I don’t do so with the unmitigated and unapologetic cruelty that I used to feel justified using in the past. An angry, unconscious ego always feels justified. Now, when I feel wounded, I notice the feeling. I know that I am not the feeling. I may hurt and suffer terribly. My ego may feel that I’ve been terribly wronged, disrespected or mistreated. But now I am not automatically driven by the pain or the anger. The reaction is not quite so knee-jerk and automatic. There is greater space, more distance — an observation of what is happening as it happens. When negative thoughts arise about someone, the very awareness of those thoughts also dissolves the self-justification of the ego. When I think of that guy who treated me poorly, the thought might come: “Wow, what a jerk! I hate him.” But as I notice that happening, that very awareness itself serves as a wake-up call. It’s as if the awareness sets off an alarm: “Ding! Ding! Ding! Your Ego’s showing its ass again!” And, as Eckhart Tolle and Mooji and everyone else who knows this truth says: once you see the Ego, it ceases to really be an ego. That is, the Ego only really functions as such by fooling you into thinking you are it. When you see that it is just an illusion (when you experience the truth of this) then it loses its power. I might still tell that guy to never talk to me again, but something in me also asserts compassion and love for him, knowing that he and I are really one – and we’re both just doing our best.
I’ve also been making peace in very small ways. I used to be terrified of all bugs and insects. I would kill them (or, more likely, enlist someone else to kill them) with impunity. It first occured to me that there was something wrong about this when I started attending Buddhist meditation classes. But nothing changed in my experience – nor the experience of the poor unfortunate insects who dared cross my path – until I really began to feel more presence and stillness in my life. I didn’t make a decision to stop killing insects. It just happened. One day I woke up and found I was no longer afraid of them. And if fear did arise, it still didn’t have the kind of hold on me that it used to. Instead of squashing spiders and insects, I save their lives and liberate them, assuming Zora doesn’t hunt them down first.
You can’t make peace if you aren’t at peace. For me, that means cultivating full, total, radical acceptance of my Self. Accepting my Self means letting go of the illusion that I’m the little story, the illusory narrative, that my ego has contrived. In so doing, I generate compassion for myself (the suffering of this imagined ego) and compassion for all living beings. Awareness — conscious attentiveness to the present moment — inevitably leads me to see that we’re all the same. When I hurt, I am reminded of the hurt I have inflicted on others as well as the universal pain we all feel when we forget our own Divinity. What I know now, for sure, is that awareness is a pre-requisite for peace. The first step is always consciousness, whether it’s in the Middle East or the middle of your daily crisis.
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.