The Nondual Academic

Photo Jan 22, 1 57 36 PM

I’ve launched 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, 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 Advaita Vedanta (Hinduism), Buddhism and Christian mysticism as well as my own experiences.   

* * *

Something totally unexpected happened after I completed my Ph.D. at Harvard University and started my job as an Assistant Professor in 2011.  Suddenly – and to my great surprise – I found that the things I thought would make me happy (e.g. success, recognition, a long-term relationship I had been in for many years, etc.) could never actually bring me durable joy.  More importantly, I realized that my ego – that individualized sense of self, along with all its attachments – was the source of my unhappiness.  Due to a confluence of events (including an incredible trip to Israel) my spirituality became the most important thing in my life.  In the wake of so many life changes, I found myself asking: How can I approach my research, teaching and mentoring in a non-egoic, spiritually centered way?

Tenure-track professors at Research I universities are expected to publish prolifically (primarily out of fear of unemployment) while building a reputation 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 knew I didn’t want to live that way anymore.
  2. No amount of professional recognition will ever be enough to satisfy my ego.  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.
  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. 

These revelations were both liberating and worrisome.  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 the universalism of my spirituality with my own collective identities and the particular concerns of the minority groups I study?  When would inspiration come?  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.  Finally, they’ve 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.

26 thoughts on “The Nondual Academic

  1. Pingback: The Nondual Academic: Revolutionary Self Love « Aware of Awareness

  2. Ditto. The academic rewards are not enough, or cannot even come near to the pure joy that comes from seeing a student’s enthusiasm or awe when they get it, or knowing what you have been led to do, be, go is exactly the right thing and place because spirit, God, presence covers and guides you in amazing, no other explanation ways. You and others too are blessed. Working late to attain a set goal just cannot compete.

  3. I came for the yummy recipe but stayed to read this. So glad I did. Your essay reminded me of a staple from the Course in Miracles. Ego’s imperative – seek but never find.
    Thanks again for the wonderful recipe.

  4. Wow! Wow! Wow! I read this page sl-o-o-o-wly. I quit my full-time corporate job as creative head for 20th Century Fox Studios in India a couple of years ago. And a lot of my reasons, which I could not put into words then, were the same as you have put above…

    Keep writing! Looking forward to reading more from your blog.

  5. I just posted this on Facebook as my “jam.” I cannot tell you how timely your words are. I am in the midst of my PhD work and coming to realization that I will only be continuing to be on the same merry-go-round I’ve been on for some time. Now, I’ve begun unpacking some of this on my own blog (which you are welcome to check out, link to), http://www.sensingplace.com/2013/04/what-radicals-and-progressives-of-faith.html Specifically, what it means to be Christlike (courageous in speaking and being our truth). but more broadly the need to meld spirit and work life is an all consuming pursuit. Ive been doing a little tactical spiritualism in academic rather than nondual academic work and am looking toward personifying the later state of being. it is nice to see someone else well along on the same path. your writing is truly inspiring.

    • Hi Andrea – great to connect with you here.. I’m glad this post resonated with you. I look forward to reading your blog 🙂 I would love to know what you mean by “tactical spiritualism”.. tell me more!

  6. So, tactical spiritualism…hmmm…well it might be the equivalent of what we often do in academia, finding the “hook” as if we are producing a hit song. academia forces us to make what is intrinsically contemplative and slow going into a hit we can dance to. I have been trying to determine how I am going to integrate my subjectivity, black radical subjectivity with a heavy dose of the sacred into my planning PhD research and I’ve come to realize that the competitive nature of pursuing the PhD, trying to make my work sexy, just makes me sick. I don’t know that I’ll ever really be savvy enough to tactically integrate the spiritualism. but I am at a tier one university, so the proof (research results that can do something concrete) is in the pudding.

  7. I in the final final moments of finishing my dissertation. I know Andrea and saw this on the Facebook page and how timely it was to come form a five hour work session with my chair to wrap up loose ends and read your post. I am 56 years old, and passionate about teaching, community work and my research but it has not been an easy ride for me at a R-1 university as a trail blazer and artist who does engaged work. My students blog as part of the class and it is amazing – I have been blogging with them and feel free to visit my blog. I am in the process of seeing where I go next and some days I am totally terrified and on others confident it will all work out. Anyway, I am looking forward to staying tuned and sharing as well. My professor blog: http://enagaingcommunity.blogspot.com/ and my personal bog that is long neglected: http://newgirlintownaustin.blogspot.com/
    ps – been to Israel many times over the past 36 years…

  8. Pingback: Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia | my sociology

  9. Very interesting. Just came across this page looking to see what was happening with nonduality in academia.

    I first thought of being involved in meditation and research when I was 17 (1970). I was on a track to be a composer (music school and all that) and ended up waiting 20 years to start psych grad school. By then, meditation was being taken a bit more seriously, but even in the 1990s it was still a bit “woo woo” for academia. By chance, my dissertation advisor was intrigued by my proposal to look at how cognitive flexibility makes a difference in the extent to which people are able to use mindfulness to decrease pain – she tried it out on a headache and the pain went away!

    By 1999, I had completed a dissertation, and shaped it into an article ready for publication. The problem was, by that time, I realized I could work within academia for another 40 years and it would barely make a dent in the overwhelming physicalist/naturalist attitude among psychologists (it’s worst in the social sciences but still awful in the life sciences and only very slowly changing in physics).

    I was trying to figure out what to do, when out of the blue (literally – it had never even occurred to me to contact a foundation) I got an email offering me a considerably amount of grant money to do what I really wanted to do. The anti-academic gods had answered my prayers and I never went back to academia (having taught music at several colleges and being in some kind of academic setting for about 30 of my 50 years at that point). My wife and I spent the next 5 years writing a book on what psychology would look like if it had a truly spiritual foundation (“Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity”) and I also managed to get a number of articles online – probably garnering a larger audience than if they were published in prestigious journals (especially my favorite, “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor”, which continues to provoke mostly positive comments).

    Jan and I are now at work on a site on neuroscience and meditation (www.remember-to-breathe.org) and within 2 years, expect to go back to the main themes of our book – challenging materialism (the site will be something like “Beyond the Matrix NOW”) and finally, an extensive website detailing how psychology (and evolutionary biology and physics) would look with a truly non-materialistic foundation.

    Yes, going through grad school does have a way of transforming the way you see things – if you’re lucky enough to be as open as you apparently were about it.

    Congratulations. And yes, teaching is a joy, isn’t it?

    • Hi — Thrilled that you found my blog. Intrigued about your story – I’d love to know more about you, your wife and your work – especially the grant you received. I’ll check out the blog – also feel free to email me if you want to connect further.

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