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.
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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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.