[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.