Category Archives: ponder

June posts at Five Tattvas

I received a request to highlight posts I am making at Five Tattvas here. Below is a digest for the June posts so I can share some of those thoughts here.

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In an earlier post announcing my work with Five Tattvas, I described my first post, but I’ll re-summarize here. “I’m not there yet” focuses on lengthening the space between stimulus and reaction. Though the title could be read differently, I am thinking of that “there” space as less of a specific goal to achieve and more as a process to appreciate. Part of this process is noting the gains I have made thus far in my efforts to be less reactive.

Here’s an excerpt:

But the man who is self-controlled,
who meets the objects of the senses
With neither craving nor aversion,
Will attain serenity at last.
                      – Bhagavad Gita 2.64

I like this passage from the Gita. It’s aspirational in a way that seems out of my grasp, yet reminds me, at the same time, to not be so grasping. Even to “like” it, is to fall into the very response that it warns against: craving (raga) and aversion (dvesha). Just envisioning what this would be like is difficult for me. What would it mean to meet each sense object, each next thing, each past thing, with equanimity?

I’m not there yet.

Read the full post here.

My second post “Strength in the Broken Places” focused on working with an injury, especially one incurred during yoga practice. I got quite a good response on that one, which I was surprised about as it was such a personal story of my own journey through injury. Goes to show you never know what experience may connect with, and help, others.

Here’s an excerpt: Continue reading June posts at Five Tattvas

Five Tattvas

Just before I started my year of no, I committed to joining a great group of yogis in writing for a new online project, Five Tattvas. As described on the site:

Five Tattvas recognizes the need for what we call embodied philosophical living.  Embodied philosophy is not philosophy of the intellect alone, but is an integrated, non-dualistic living wisdom. It is a decision to live with mindfulness, insight, attention and intention – one day at a time. Drawing on the perennial wisdom of the wider yoga and wisdom traditions – largely from the East – we seek to prescribe practices, activities, and modes of living that actualize liberating patterns of thought and behavior. These new patterns break us out of the habits that continuously cause us pain and suffering and reorient our lives in empowering ways.

I will be one of the yogis writing for the Five Tattvas “Embodied Philosophy” blog weekly. My first post is already up! It’s titled “I’m not there yet” and it focuses on lengthening the space between stimulus and reaction, something I’ve touched on here at calmstrength before (see “Brilliant Honesty”). Here’s an excerpt:

But the man who is self-controlled,
who meets the objects of the senses
With neither craving nor aversion,
Will attain serenity at last.
                      – Bhagavad Gita 2.64

I like this passage from the Gita. It’s aspirational in a way that seems out of my grasp, yet reminds me, at the same time, to not be so grasping. Even to “like” it, is to fall into the very response that it warns against: craving (raga) and aversion (dvesha). Just envisioning what this would be like is difficult for me. What would it mean to meet each sense object, each next thing, each past thing, with equanimity?

I’m not there yet.

Please head over to Five Tattvas to see the rest of my post and the other pieces by my co-bloggers. I’m excited about this new project, though concerned about blogging twice (!) a week. But since I’ll be saying no to so much else this year, perhaps it’ll all work itself out…. (If I think it will, it will…right?)

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Banner from the Five Tattvas site

The Year of No

Hello, it’s been a while. Mostly due to a research trip I took to Jamaica. I thought I would be able to keep up with all my usual activities while there, including blogging, but soon found that for various reasons – archival research, family time, unreliable internet, heat, a wholly different pace of life – I had to start letting all non-urgent activity go undone. It was a good lesson for me in prioritizing, and also in facing the fact that I do too much.

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Way at the beginning of my trip, when I thought I had all the time in the world. Sadly, this was my one and only beach trip for two months.

Unfortunately, because I came back to all those non-urgent activities waiting for me, some of which had become urgent in the meantime, I haven’t had time to reassess my priorities while here. Often people say in such situations it’s sink or swim, but for the past two weeks I’ve felt like I’ve been in a perpetual state of floundering, neither sinking nor swimming and certainly not the easy float I’d come to know while in Jamaica.

An aside: Floating isn’t a universal way of life in Jamaica (much as the popular media may have you believe it is). It’s just that I was there for a single purpose and so didn’t have to contend with the distractions of real life during those two months.

So, I mention all the above not to brag (though, feel free to think more highly of me for what I could fashion as a single-minded dedication to research) but to bring up this question of how much we have on our plates. I am speaking even more specifically of how much work we have on our plates. Academics – active and productive ones anyway – tend to have several projects going at once. Most of them we do because we have some passion for the work involved and are invested in the expected outcome. A few (if we are lucky, only a few) we do because some force outside ourselves (the job market, the tenure track, the department chair) decreed we should. Let’s ignore the latter for a moment and look critically at the former. How much of your passion do you really have to pursue right now? Right this minute? How much of it can you pursue? That is, do you have the resources – time, energy and attention being the most important ones here – to do so many of them justice?

I’ve been on sabbatical for this past year, so I’ve had the luxury of indulging in primarily what I’m passionate about (including more yoga!) but now it’s summer and I can see the end of this freedom fast approaching. That imminent change, along with my experience while in Jamaica, has prompted me to declare June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016 “the year of no.” I plan to say no to as many requests for my time, energy and attention as possible.

“No” is a lot more difficult than “yes,” more difficult even than “no, but…” There’s so much wrapped up in “no,” so many unknowns, whereas yes seems paradoxically clear cut. I’ve already had the opportunity to decline a request this week and I opted for the “no, but…” escape. Baby steps. I still, however, have very high hopes of practicing saying “no” for the next twelve months. The hardest part, I have found in just the four days so far, is saying no to myself. Reminding myself that just because a project should be done, does not mean that I should be the one to do it. Wish me luck. I’ll occasionally let you know how I’m doing (because I’m still saying yes to blogging!)

brilliant honesty

One of the positive comments I often get on my work is that my writing style is remarkably candid and direct. Such comments go back to graduate school when peers would read my work and has followed me through my years as a professor. This consistency often bothers me because I want to be commended for being “smart,” dare I hope “brilliant,” sometimes I’d even take “interesting” over “honest.” I know theoretically that this desire has more to do with the self-doubt that academia is structured to instill in scholars than with my own desires, but that doesn’t stop my cringing.

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What often happens when I get such comments is that I immediately want to take everything back. I want a do-over because I feel over-exposed and under-assimilated into the profession that I’ve chosen to pursue. One of the things that daily mediation has helped me to do is to notice my behavior patterns. And I recently had cause to notice and reflect on this particular pattern when I received an email about work I had shared with a group and the following sentence triggered my insecurities:

Thank you for bravely sharing your thoughts on your pedagogical experiment, for modeling a kind of honest wrestling with difficult questions that is rare in the all-too-often performative realm of the academy.

I had the initial knee-jerk reaction: “Crap, there it is again. So much for the ground-breaking I was shooting for. I need to work harder to make it innovative. I should…I’m not…Why can’t I? etc. etc. etc.” All the monkey-mind negative thoughts that have made their home in my head. (Whenever I really pay attention to such thoughts I think of the sitcom, Herman’s Head, where parts of the title character’s psyche were personified and viewers became privy to how his thoughts and actions were connected).

But the whole email was so beautifully written that I had to reread it. And the rereading gave me enough space to pause and notice the path I was travelling mentally. I realized that my work was being described as valuable. Indeed, uniquely so. Brilliance is so firmly established as the ideal for academic work that we see anything less as, well, less. Is there something to be said for other types of contributions? Like honesty? And candor?

Of course, the negative thoughts haven’t packed up and left. But they have been relegated to a corner for a bit while I play with this notion of other virtues of academic writing. And with the budding realization that this is my academic style. Readers aren’t randomly choosing similar words to describe my work. Actually, I’ve gotten some similar comments from friends about my Calm Strength posts as well, so it seems that I am the one privileging this approach in my writing. (Although it took lots of attempts and deletions to almost state that brilliance may not be the end-all/be-all/everything of academic writing.)

All this to say, I am noticing three patterns here: my writing approach, the responses to my writing, and my response to those responses. Thanks to my work with daily meditation, rather than constantly coming down on myself for not changing my writing style, I am learning to insert a little space between the second and third of these patterns.

the art of practice

So, I haven’t been blogging much in 2015. Ok, I haven’t blogged at all. I’ve had a lot of ideas, but just not made the time to sit down and write any of them out. In part, it’s because I have been doing a lot of writing on my new project and so I haven’t wanted to do any additional writing that I saw as “non-required.” But I’m trying to be better at exercising my writing muscle and that includes blogging. So, I’ll share how I’ve come to think of writing and yoga as parallel practices.

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Pattabhi Jois is often credited with saying “Practice and all is coming.” Consequently, Ashtanga practitioners are expected to practice six days a week, with exceptions only for moon days and menstruation. I know of no other exceptions. And the practice should be done first thing in the morning, partially for biological reasons, but also to ensure it gets done that day. If you stick to this practice, everything that will come from your yoga – poses, peace of mind, strength, clarity, etc – will come. If you don’t practice, then it’s simply less likely that any of those benefits will find you. Certainly not all of them.

Writing is similar. We like to think of the ideal situation where we have hours and hours of time to sit and meditate on a subject, maybe do some research, and then write. But for most of us the writing does not come easy. It turns out that here too, “practice and all is coming.” I have often scoffed at daily writing, but I’ve recently become a convert (at least, for the “required” type of writing…still working on blogging). In January I did a writing challenge with two friends. The idea for the challenge sprung from an article about academic productivity we’d been forwarded combined with our just having done a daily fitness challenge in December. We used Whatsapp for check-ins and basically, it worked in the following way:

Each day (Monday through Friday only) we stated a daily writing (either time period or word count) and we sent a “done” when we’d completed it. Our goals could be big or small and generally ranged between 30 minutes and 3 hours depending on what else we had happening that day. If we failed for that day, we put what we had done. There was a little to no conversation because we didn’t want to add to our reading load. The daily writing needed to be directly related to our research, not service or teaching.

At the beginning of the month, we also stated our goal of what we wanted to have done by the end of the month. In order to avoid the overwhelming fear of the blank page, I kept handy this list of “ten ways to write daily“(also suggested in the article above) for those days when I had no idea what I would do for even 30 minutes.

Surprisingly, at least to me, it worked! I finished all but one of my writing goals for the month, and on time. My colleagues were also similarly successful. Their support was, of course, a significant part of my success; but building the habit of writing daily – even if what I wrote that day would eventually just wind up in the virtual trash can – was the foundation for that success.

So, all that to say practice might not make perfect, but it does make “done.”

The Book Club That Ended All Book Clubs

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Image credit: The book club that ended all book clubs

Headed to a book club meeting later today (yes, “The Book Club That Ended All Book Clubs” is really the name of this book club) to discuss Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I was surprised that this varied group of visibly “professional” and/or “artistic” folk, primarily from the Brooklyn immigrant community, chose this book (it’s a democratic process that involves nominations and voting on Facebook). It seemed too “touchy feely” for this group. Although, I was happy to have this book be the choice because I had already started it and was having trouble finishing it (also, always happy not to have another book on my to-read list). I am very much looking forward to the meeting and seeing where the discussion goes.

Brené Brown intrigues me because she holds fast to her identity as an academic, but is part of this larger machine (propelled by the Oprah industry) that moves her into an arena that academics tend to frown at. From what I’ve seen, she straddles the line between the two areas and makes that line look a lot less defined, and a bit silly. This TED talk video basically sums up the book:

Performing academia

I was more than a little hesitant to commit to this project of the Calm Strength blog. There are many reasons for that, but the most relevant for this post is my reluctance to appear to do anything other than academic work. A major part of grad school is the indoctrination into the idea that your work is your life, your whole life. I had to do a lot of what a colleague calls “deprogramming” to even consider admitting publicly that I don’t research/write/teach/think literature during all my waking hours.

There has recently been more attention paid to the life choices academics make both as graduate students and as faculty (full- and part-time).  This year, in particular, there has been a noticeable increase in blog posts and longer articles about not choosing the academic life. So much so that the genre has been dubbed #quitlit (see a spreadsheet on the subject here). The “going public” of the various factors involved in deciding to continue in academia is a welcome change. As Melonie Fullick writes in “Fight and Flight”:

The “Quit Lit” seeks to fill that silence with something other than the assumption of failure, one that’s perpetuated in the meritocratic culture of academe (where incredibly smart, capable people must keep insisting, “I was good enough”).

And:

They function as correctives, and often as confessions, too. The correction being made is usually one about how leaving an academic career is in fact a decision or a choice (and not usually an easy one – based on context), not simply an outcome of one’s lack of capacity or tenacity or merit. Not only that but the posts are statements about identity, choice, and control, even when they are full of the anger and grief and self-doubt that many people feel when they depart.

Beyond the vague mention that one could leave with a master’s degree, there was no discussion of choice when I was a graduate student. I clearly remember bringing the topic up with my advisor and him saying: “But what else would you do?” It is possible he meant the question seriously but I took it as rhetorical and continued on the PhD path. I haven’t always been happy with that choice (indeed, I have had to make that choice multiple times at various junctures of my professional and person life) but I have thus far landed softly each time.

I am incredibly privileged to have a full-time, tenured faculty position. I know I am and for the most part I am actually happy and grateful to be in said position. I won’t say I worked hard for it, because many worked hard alongside me and do not have this privilege. And, to look the thing square in the face, there are also many who did not work so hard and have a similar privilege. And I don’t use “privileged” to mean lucky. Unless we are talking the age-old redefinition of lucky to mean “when hard work meets opportunity” rather than the dictionary definition of simple “chance” or “accident.” Otherwise, I would be misrepresenting the path I have chosen to take.

A major theme in #quitlit is the refusal to continue to do what I call perform academia. That is, to be an academic at all times, in all situations, in every corner of your life. If left unchecked, academic work can take over your 168 hours per week (yes, even the few hours you may let yourself sleep). And, if it doesn’t, you have to pretend it does in order to avoid suspicion from those who hold your future in their hands (read hiring and tenuring committees). Don’t have hobbies, don’t have babies, don’t have a life outside the ivory tower, because for true, worthy academics, there is no life outside the ivory tower.

To return to Melonie Fullick’s article (you really should go read it – after this, of course – not just for the article itself but also because it’s chockfull of interesting links):

Lots of others have pointed this out, but it’s worth emphasizing that academic culture encourages us to see professional identity as personal identity – and thus to see “work” as “life”. What are you left with, then, when you walk away from the work? This has also been questioned through the recent criticisms of the idea of “do what you love”, which is in some ways the epitome of the rhetoric around higher education careers.

I sometimes fall victim myself to the myth of an academic career as part of the DWYL path. That is, until I am faced with some part of it that I unequivocally do not love. And then I remind myself that I have chosen this as a career, not a life. That I am allowed to embrace the choice as a good one for me in this moment, but not the only one I could have, or can ever make. That I am allowed to do other things I love. And, probably most difficult, that I am allowed to step off the stage and admit I do other things I love.

Site Spotlight: Aware of Awareness

Last week I met up with Crystal Fleming, who runs Aware of Awareness, a site for “Musings on Spirituality, Academia & Well-Being.” Crystal’s academic work “draws upon cultural sociology to explore how people interpret and respond to oppression” and her new project will look at people of color in the yoga/meditation/mindfulness community.

Crystal participated in the June yogathon I pulled together this year and it was a treat to finally meet her in person. We sat for hours discussing the various intersections of identity that we manage as academics of color with a dedicated contemplative practice.

I first “met” Crystal via Twitter – doesn’t Twitter always know when you should know some one? – and I take her site as an example of how we can marry these seemingly separate parts of our professional and personal lives. Aware of Awareness is a bold statement about the ways in which these parts are not actually, or always, separate. We can be professor, scholar, sociologist and irreverent, fly fashionista and contemplative, spiritual practitioner and angry, black woman and starry-eyed, love-struck idealist and….

From the first post on the blog (June 2012, “Popping This Blog’s Cherry”):

This blog is a space for me to share realizations, questions and musings related to spirituality.  It is inevitable not impossible that you may also stumble over posts about academia, France, thrifty fashion, cooking, champagne, cigars, social theory, activism, Mad Men and the existential angst of Blackness.

My spiritual practice draws upon two main principles at the core of a variety of Western and Eastern traditions:

(1) We are all interconnected

(2) What is real in existence is the conscious experience of the present moment

I love Crystal’s irreverence and the myriad things I can find of interest in just this one site – I can especially get lost in her posts in the “Poppin’ Tags” category about her thrift store hauls. Those of you who cook might also like her “Vegan Recipes” section. But it’s best to just go for fun, with an open mind about what you might find today.

PS – I find the following note at the end of her About page totally stealable:

IMPORTANT NOTE: Given that I am a tenure track professor, please know and understand that while I love your comments and connecting with readers, I am not able to post and reply as often as I would like, particularly during the academic year.

25 ways to sleep better

One of my favorite TEDtalks is by the poet Rives from 2007, titled “The 4 a.m. Mystery.” It’s comedic, but as with most good comedy, also quite true. I am sure exceptions exist – most probably for young partygoers and lovers – but in general, 4 a.m. is not a pretty hour to be awake…. It’s a downright ugly hour if you’ve been trying to sleep since midnight. In that case, 4 a.m. is the time you know you are going to have a bad day tomorrow. At 2 a.m. you were still optimistic; at 3 a.m. you began to go over your day to see what you’d done to deserve losing sleep; at 4 a.m. you give up and start trying to rearrange the day ahead to accommodate your misery.

I’ve had these nights (and those days ahead) and so I’m always looking for information on how to prevent them. Most recent to come across my screen is an article on MSN.com by Marnie Soman, seductively titled “25 ways to sleep better tonight.” Unfortunately, if you didn’t do some of these things today, you won’t sleep better tonight (unless, of course, you’re reading this at 4 a.m. and have all day to get some of these in). We all know much of this already, but it’s always good to be reminded. Some highlights:

1. Pump it up
Regular aerobic exercise — bicycling, walking at a moderate pace, swimming laps — for 30 to 40 minutes, four times a week, improves sleep quality. You can break it up into two 20-minute sessions if that fits better into your life.

Hmmmm…no mention of yoga here but a strong vinyasa class would surely fit this bill. The article warns, however, that said exercise should end at least 3 hours before bedtime.

3. Choose cherry
The fruit is rich in melatonin, which helps the body regulate its sleep/wake cycle. When study participants drank eight ounces of a tart cherry-juice beverage twice a day for two weeks, they reported significant improvements in insomnia. Find the juice at Whole Foods Market and natural foods stores.

Perhaps we can claim cherry-juice as a medical expense? Business-related expenditure maybe? Then there is the old standby at number 8:

Frazzled people sleep less and have worse sleep quality, and compromised slumber contributes to stress.

No kidding. My job market and tenure years immediately come to mind. Soman suggests a warm bath to raise the body temperature, which “may enable you to fall asleep faster and then shift you into deeper sleep.” Not sure how that squares with number 6, which advises you lower the temperature in your bedroom because “A cool bedroom lowers your core body temperature, which initiates sleepiness.” I guess you choose which works for you (I find a Bikram class totally knocks me out while a cold room means I have to make several trips to the bathroom).

One of the 2 items I can totally get behind comes very near the end:

23. S-t-r-e-t-c-h
In a study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, women who did upper- and lower-body stretches four times a week for about 15 to 30 minutes reduced their problems falling asleep by 30 percent.

Yup, make time to do some yoga. Even if it’s in bed. Even if you’ve already tried the other 25 strategies. Even if it’s already 4 a.m.