Academic Musings, Race & Ethnicity, Spiritual Musings

The Nondual Academic: On Racism, Inferiority and the Self

My research is about the subjective dimensions of racism and inequality. To wit, I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing blacks in the U.S. and France about their conceptualizations of ethnic and racial identity, their views on racial history (e.g. slavery and colonization) and their experiences with racism and discrimination. Some of this work has already been published in a variety of scholarly journals, including Ethnic and Racial Studies, the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race and Poetics as well as chapters in several volumes. I’m currently writing a series of theoretical and empirical articles based on my interviews with French Caribbeans and African Americans as well as a book, which I plan on finishing this year.

On this blog, however, I have very rarely written about race. Partly this is so because I have endeavored to carve out space for the exploration of my spirituality and creativity, in a way that does not constantly foreground my professional life. And while my racial identity has continued to play an important role in how I understand my place in the world, I have also come to see very clearly that I am not defined by any of my identities, nor am I defined by any ideas (good, bad or otherwise) that I or anyone else has about those categories.

For a long time, I struggled with figuring out how to integrate my abiding concern with racial inequality, my interest in social justice and the continuing significance of my ethnoracial heritage with a spiritual path that was leading me further and further away from the confines of particularism. Over the past year, I reached out to many other people – including some other scholars of color – to discuss precisely this question. How do we integrate spiritual universalism with the realities of group-based conflict? How do I make sense of my experiences as a black woman when I am also coming to know and and understand that who I really am cannot be reduced to my skin tone, my ethnicity, my gender, my sexuality – or any aspect of my socialization? I knew that such preoccupations had drawn the interest of others before me, so I had no pretensions of re-inventing the wheel. Through my own meditations, readings and conversing with a variety of people – some black, some brown, some white – about these questions from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Jewish perspectives, something approaching a coherent understanding has begun to reveal itself.

Of particular interest to me has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s lovely book “Together We Are One: Honoring our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection” – a collection of essays that are explicitly about what it means to be a Buddhist and a person of color.

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I love that Thich Nhat Hanh – the well known Vietanamese Buddhist monk – has not avoided the issue of race of social justice in his work. Indeed, his major theological contribution is his concept of engaged Buddhism — a kind of practice that emphasizes our need to be involved in actively promoting social justice and compassion through the way we live our lives. It is a Buddhism that is conceived for living in the world – not just meditating in a cave (though, if you feel compelled to meditate in a cave, more power to you).

Anyway, I also love that he not only identifies as a person of color, but he has also organized retreats for other Buddhists of color to explore these issues. More recently I’ve also been intrigued by bell hooks. I’m currently reading her latest: “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice”.

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I was informed that hooks describes herself as a “Christian Buddhist”, which (if true) very much resonates with my nondenominational nonduality. Mooji has also been highly influential in reconstructing my understanding of ethnoracial identity and the spiritual path. While he does not often talk about race explicitly, he is Jamaican and his emphasis on accepting one’s ethnic appartenance while also transcending it makes total and complete sense to me.

Over time, the boundaries between my spiritual work and my academic work have slowly eroded. This integration has happened naturally, as I’ve progressively contemplated the various dimensions of my own egoic identifications in the light of my experience with nondual truths in Hinduism and Buddhism. As my scholarship and spirituality increasingly inform each other, I now find myself ready and able to discuss and write about these topics holistically.

What has become clear to me in this time is that the pain of ethnic and racial exclusion is real and must be confronted. But in order to confront it, we must be courageous and brave enough to delve deeply and consciously into the experience of traumatic exclusion, denigration and devaluation. It is only through this sustained attention to the subjective dimensions of our own experiences with feelings of inferiority and superiority that we can begin to untangle the egoic web of delusions and misunderstandings that allow us to remain ignorant to our own unchanging perfection.

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In the beginning, we were whole and we had no doubts about our wholeness.  We did not pop out of the womb wondering if we were good enough, pretty or handsome enough, smart enough or worthy of being alive.  We did not know anything about “good hair”, colorism or being inferior or superior to anyone else. We felt entitled to love and attention. All of spirituality is about returning to this original state of wholeness–our natural state of freedom.

Over time, through socialization, we began to learn about human difference and ideas about what those differences mean. We became exposed to rankings of inferiority and superiority.  As children, we may not have known that these ideas about difference and ideologies of human worth were arbitrary social constructions that vary across cultures and historical eras. We absorbed stereotypes and even developed metastereotypes – expectations about how we imagine others view “people like us”.

If we were lucky, we had parents or members of our community to teach us that all human beings are equal. And yet in everyday life, we are still confronted with a barrage of images telling us that not only are some human beings better than others, all human beings are flawed. Our media industrial complex produces inferiority complexes, constantly informing us that we are not enough. We must look a certain way, have a certain lifestyle, say the right things, gain particular markers of success and conform to the societal mold in order to be accepted. We are fundamentally unworthy – but we can feel a little better, be a little more popular, be a little more happy, if we just buy one more widget or read the latest issue of Oprah magazine.

And so it is that we unconsciously absorb the idea that we must do something to become someone else — someone better. Even if we reject the notion that there is something wrong with being black or brown or Chicana or a woman or gay or trans or working-class or disabled or short or fat, quite often we are only able to generate a kind of self-esteem crutch – a wish – a hope – that we are not inferior.  We may think that we have overcome our programming, only to boil with anger when someone says something mean about people like us.  We may believe that we have left negative ideas about our self worth behind, because we celebrate our identities.  But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right.  Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.

What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.

When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.

People call racism “ignorance”, but all that matters about any ideology of human ranking is that it isn’t true. It’s a lie and it only works – it only hurts – if you choose to believe it.  If someone called you a polar bear, or a giraffe, would you feel hurt? You might find it perplexing, frustrating or amusing. But painful? Probably not – because you know it isn’t true.

We hurt when people think badly of us only in moments when we forget our intrinsic and inalienable worth. But the awesome thing is that even when we forget how worthy we are, we are still infinitely worthy.

Even our own doubt and feelings of inferiority cannot change the fact that we are always and inherently whole. When you remember who you really are, you transcend the sting of racism and other ‘isms’ because you recognize it for the bullshit it really is. It’s just a simple misunderstanding. You think I’m a polar bear. I am not a polar bear.

We sometimes give lip service to rejecting the ideology of racism – yet we are still hurt by it. We’re offended when someone makes a disparaging remark about our group. We are upset when we see unflattering images of people who look like us. We feel angry when someone says that we are less than, unworthy–inferior.

But as soon as you realize that you’re fundamentally whole, then you also understand that any “ism” that defines people as “less than” cannot be true.

Many people who belong to groups that have been historically oppressed have no idea that they think they’re inferior. That’s how racism works–not only do you not realize that your inferiority is untrue, you also fail to recognize the extent to which you’ve internalized this silly belief about your supposed inferiority.

Even people who understand that their “conditioning has been conditioned” nonetheless often find it difficult to step outside of their programming.

There is a difference between hoping to be whole – trying to prove that you’re whole – and knowing that you’re whole.  Returning to your natural state of wholeness is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a matter of bolstering your self esteem. It’s not an idea that you can simply latch onto like a magical mantra: “I am whole. I am great. I am wonderful.”  No, it is something you must directly experience in the marrow of your bones. In this way, encountering your wholeness is a lot like encountering God. When you have experienced the Self beyond the egoic-self, the Consciousness that abides in and through you, this knowing becomes a certitude. It’s no longer a matter of faith. It’s your existential reality. With wholeness, as with God, we can’t simply talk about it. We must be about it. And the good news is that we are already It.  Becoming grounded in our Beingness – in what we already are – is the path to transcending the fiction of our inferiority. This is why meditation is so useful: it allows us to create moments of stillness in our lives so that we can directly experience our wholeness.  Meditation and conscious breathing allow us to know who we are beyond the mind, beyond thoughts, beyond conditioning.

Wholeness means understanding that you are not defined by what anyone thinks about you. And the incredible thing is that you’re not even defined by your own thoughts about yourself. When we are pained by another’s denigration, it is only because we slip into believing that our value depends on their approval. It doesn’t. We’re programmed to think we need social acceptance. That’s what thousands of years of evolution has produced. But biology is not destiny.

The pain of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and ableism must first be acknowledged before it can be transcended. There are no shortcuts.  As long as we operate with faux-self esteem and false group pride, the wounds fester. The pain transmutes into stress, anxiety, fear and anger.

When we live mindfully, we pay attention to our thoughts and emotions. We notice the moment when we begin believing that we are inferior. We don’t feel bad about feeling inferior. We simply notice it. We observe. And in the witnessing itself, we realize the lie of inferiority cannot be true. We find freedom in the truth of our inherent worth.

Every human being, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or body type must confront their own self loathing. It is the universal human condition. You are taught to believe that there is something wrong with you. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to realize that this is a lie.

But basking in your beautiful wholeness requires deeply experiencing and accepting the part of you that feels inadequate, flawed and ugly. Most people are too afraid to closely examine the painful self loathing that lurks beneath the surface of their egoic personas. But the dirty little secret is that seeing your wounded self clearly is the gateway to healing.

Embrace, accept and acknowledge your wounded self with compassion. We embrace our wounds with non-judgment and love because we understand they stem from a misunderstanding–a kind of spiritual amnesia. There’s nothing wrong with feeling inferior. Of course you feel inferior at times. You have an ego. Welcome to planet Earth.

The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.

Superiority is as much a fiction as inferiority.  Both complexes produce a hell of our own making. Whenever I see someone who thinks they are better than others, I know that in this particular moment, they don’t really love themselves. And they do not love themselves because they do not know themselves. To know the Self is to love the Self and to love the Self is to love all-there-is. When you move in love, you cannot feel inferior or superior to anyone else.

Love is the great equalizer.

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Academic Musings, Spiritual Musings

The Nondual Academic: Timeless Being.. or Tenure-Track?

“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.

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: 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.

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.