Academic Musings

Academia is Not a Meritocracy

Academia is not a meritocracy.

 (And here’s a dirty little secret : Neither is any other professional field).

You would think that smart people – especially social scientists – would have internalized this rudimentary kernel of truth.  But we haven’t. Continue reading “Academia is Not a Meritocracy”

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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”

* * *

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, Life Musings

The Room Where I Will Write My Book

This is the year that I must finish my book — and this is the room where it will happen.


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I moved into my place almost exactly a year ago – and it has taken all 12 of these months to figure out what to do with this space.  It has built-in book shelves and a lovely window – so I always knew I wanted it to be my office, but I could never pull it together.  The room was difficult to decode because of its unwieldy dimensions: one side of the ceiling is slanted at a steeper angle than the other.  For a long time – indeed, right until a few weeks ago – I despaired that I would never be able to make this room work, much less work in it. When I first moved in, I tried having the desk in front of the window.   But I would bump my head on the ceiling if I moved too much to the left or the right, and that’s just . . . awkward.

Arranging my home office — and finding a resting place for my desk — had been the bane of my existence in this otherwise lovely home.  I must have moved my ergonomic-height-adjustable desk up and down the stairs 3-4 times.  A strong, muscular friend initially put it in my upstairs room when I first moved in.  Then I got frustrated with the room and moved it down the stairs — myself — to the room that’s now my bedroom.  But having an office in that room didn’t feel right.  So — in an exercise of terrible judgment — I decided to try and move the desk back upstairs on my own.  Somehow I was able to do it, but ended up with a crick in my neck and terrible back pain for about 2 weeks.  Do you know what it’s like to have a crick in your neck for 2 weeks?  I couldn’t move my head to the left or the right without searing pain.  On the upside, I learned an important life lesson: Never do stupid shit like that again.

So, I had two different friends help me at various points in the year move the desk up and down the stairs as I tried to figure out where to set up an office.  For most of the year, I ended up using my living room as an office — books and files piled up everywhere.  I felt like a bootleg professor, working on the couch with papers scattered on my coffee table.  Over time, the upstairs room devolved into a hot mess.

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You cannot imagine the unspeakably terrible dungeon this room was before the revamping took place.  It was full of boxes, piles of paper, all manner of random junk and crap scattered across the floor.  Zora’s litter box was perched sadly in a forlorn corner.  There was another curtain hanging up, but it was tattered from the cat’s frenzied clawing and the curtain rod was broken.  It was a shameful.  A travesty.

Finally, the Spirit of Getting-Shit-Together swept over me right around the holidays and I resolved to go up to the room and simply ask myself: “What can I do with this space?”  I took a few minutes, did some conscious breathing and just “listened” to my intuition as I looked around.  Suddenly a bunch of ideas started flowing.  I began to get energized about organizing the boxes and storing them in the attic.  I vacuumed furiously, cleaned the carpet.  I already had my desk and an office chair, but I realized that I needed a long table to lay out my papers and files, as well as a few other items to make the room functional. I went to some second-hand furniture stores and thrift shops.  I found a used printer/computer stand for 8 bucks that matched my desk and bargained with the manager at one store to sell me a simple folding table for $12.  The table was ugly, however, so I knew I’d have to cover it.  So off I went to K-Mart for a few decorative items: a beige, natural fabric curtain that I cut and used to cover the table, a little library lamp, a small picture for the wall, a curtain rod and a red floral panel that would match some of the red accents.  I had a bunch of things already at home that I had previously purchased for the office but never had been able to put to use given the defunct status of the room.  I realized that it was best to keep the desk on the side of the room with the higher slope.  Now bumping my head on the most important side of the room isn’t an issue and having the desk where it is now is perfect because I can just swivel around in my chair and I’m facing the bookshelf without having to bend over or hit my head on the slanted ceiling. It took me about 2 days, but I finally got everything cleaned up, organized right before New Years.

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It’s a simple office – nothing fancy.  But it’s mine.  And pretty.  And functional.  I absolutely love having a cozy, beautiful, dedicated space to get my work done at home.  Finally!  At long last!  I now feel a bit more like a “real” professor.

Zora’s definitely a fan, though she doesn’t seem to understand that the ottoman is for me to kick up my feet while I’m sipping tea and reading — not a velvety throne for her royal highness.

 

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An unexpected surprise the next morning was finding the room aglow with beautiful red light, sun rays streaming through the curtain.

*Joy*

*Happiness*

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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.

Life Musings

Acts of kindness

Kind things I did for myself today:

– made a cup of keurig coffee in the morning

– paid a bill

– took out the trash

– cleaned up apartment so things would be neat when I returned home

– styled my hair the way I like it (as I do everyday..)

– conscious breathing and meditation throughout the day

– packed a full day’s worth of nutritious meals and snacks to take to work

– drank several cups of raspberry tea for medicinal purposes instead of coffee while in the office

– paid attention to moments of anxiety and relaxed

– crossed several things off my to do list

– wore a fabulous outfit.. and topped it all off with a very sharp black leather jacket/boots/gloves/attache ensemble

– morning, afternoon and evening aromatherapy with ylang ylang and eucalyptus essential oils

– 20 minutes in the sauna after work

– drank water

– took my supplements

– called my grandmother and my actual mother

– laid out my lovely new Christian Dior robe so it was waiting for me to slip into when I got home

– remembered to affirm acceptance of my body throughout the day

– kept my hands/body moisturized

– spruced up my office

– washed and dried a load of laundry

– made my bed

– organized my remaining blocks of work time for the week

– enjoyed hot chocolate and a delicious brownie after a long day

– self massage

Life Musings

This is how I love..

I come home after a very long day of teaching back-to-back classes, followed by mentoring a black women’s student group.  My commute is 45 minutes.  When I look at the clock, it’s well past 9 pm.

Weary, I make my way up the stairs. My eyelids are heavy.  I’m starving – and running on fumes.

And then, to my great delight, I find:

– a clean apartment

– my favorite satin pj’s arranged on my bed, waiting for me to slip into their luxurious embrace

– a gourmet dinner, ready to pop in the microwave: homemade mango sticky brown rice with organic sirloin stirfried with onions, bok choy and garlic in a wickedly decadent teriyaki glaze

– my favorite trashy, mindless Monday TV show (90210) recorded on the DVR, waiting to be played

And now I recline by candlelight, blissed out, nibbling on one of my favorite goodies — milk chocolate studded with almonds. All of this, courtesy of Crystal-of-Sunday-Past.. thoughtful gestures of my prior self to my current self. 

There will be a foot massage happening any moment, then some aromatherapy, conscious breathing, a little Mooji and reflection on the day ahead.  A good night’s rest and an early morning that will start with meditation, perfectly brewed keurig coffee, a workout session, hydromassage and sauna before heading to the office.

God, I love myself..

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

This Week’s Academic Goals

  1. Revise paper to send to colleague for writing group
  2. Read and comment on colleague’s paper for writing group
  3. Continue revising book proposal
  4. Submit IRB package #1
  5. Begin process of compiling IRB package #2
  6. 5 hours of library research for French Project
  7. 5 hours of library research for Fancy Theoretical Framework
  8. Identify grants for BHM project
  9. Grade Theory Quizzes
  10. Upload grades to Blackboard
  11. Review work of RA #1 and #2
  12. Assign work to RA #2 and #3
  13. Grade extra credit assignments for HDST
  14. Finish developing final for CT
  15. Finalize REI Workshop Reading List
  16. Finalize itineraries and paperwork for upcoming conferences
  17. Send material for ACJ
  18. File second ACJ report
  19. Review proofs for forthcoming chapter
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. 

* * *

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.