Welcome to the Department of Academic Mysticism

What happened when I realized that ego-loss really is the ultimate ideal of the religious studies scholar…

When we were studying Buddhism in my first class on world religions, one student asked a perplexing question: “The ego is something that we want to get rid of, but to go through what it takes to get rid of it, don’t we have to have an ego to desire to have no ego?”

That should have been my first clue that I was in for many realizations of co-existing contradictions. Truly, I became fairly obsessed with this middle space – the “razor’s edge” as Charlotte Joko Beck describes it – walking the fine line of all-accepting unity while staying entirely aware of the world of dualistic thinking that we are constantly a step away from falling into. As an undergraduate student, I was looking forward to dedicating a lifetime of working in the field of study that introduced me to these ideas. I held out a grand hope that bringing this thinking to the field of study itself would be celebrated.

Admittedly, I had really gone to the university for the same reasons people decide to live in a convent or an ashram: to return to some eternal sense of truth. I was seduced by the dusty smell of higher education, padded elbows, old books and all. I spent hours in a five-story library and felt so high sitting among the shelves that housed the history (or one slice, at least) of human consciousness. It felt as though with just a little more time, I could figure it all out.

But, that is exactly what I now see as the inherent problem. I wanted to figure it all out and find my place in that vast history. I was motivated by the desire for becoming recognized, for stating my truth, bringing in new ideas, and being right.

The further I dove into literature on the transformation of human consciousness, the more I felt that the whole of the academic system seemed to be built upon slightly different principles than the unified reality that I dreamed of encountering there. Instead, I found that striving for academic success fed my desire for rightness, which would pull me deeper into a sense of separateness and one side of the razor that Beck describes. I started to see more clearly how what I wanted out of my academic experience wasn’t celebrated as much as I hoped. In a way, my studies had taught me to see that we could never actually achieve the true objectivity sought by the social sciences.

In an effort to call attention to this notion of true objectivity within the larger context of my Religious Studies department, I submitted a paper for a graduate symposium that looked at the inner life of religious studies scholars. Of course, I thought it was incredibly interesting and couldn’t wait to share it on a platform (I also assumed it would get accepted). I was saddened to hear that my paper had not been chosen and was told it was too “touchy-feely.” Touchy-feely?!? What kind of an objective analysis was that? My academic ego was seriously bruised.

Shortly after, I was out to tea with a friend of mine from the department who was having a similar existential crisis, and he pulled out a book that would become my first introduction to what is called the perennial philosophy. The philosophy that keeps coming back! That’s my kind of talking.

“Why can’t we research this!?” my friend exclaimed as he slammed the book onto the table. We went on to discuss how the ideas of this philosophy, the kernels of wisdom that we find tucked away in the study of various traditions, these simple yet somehow still difficult truths, were what tugged at our sleeves each day we went to class and each night when we stayed up writing papers. We both yearned for the connection we lost in our early encounters with religion. We wanted community, to lose ourselves in something far greater.

Doing the opposite is what it seems we must do in order to survive in academia. Yet, as the two of us went on to discuss our understanding of the foundations for our field – how it seemed like scholars must take themselves out of the research, putting their own ideas and beliefs to the side, and that striving for whatever degree of objectivity that could be attained was preferred – we found that in the end, the answer was the same as what founders of the religions we were studying suggested as an approach to life. My friend joked that he’d love to write a paper on “Ego-loss: The Ultimate Ideal for Religious Studies Scholars.”

Of course, I loved this and promptly printed it in a seventy-two-point font on a sheet of paper and posted it on the door to the office we shared. Underneath the title, I also added: “Welcome to the Department of Academic Mysticism.”

*     *     *

I can see it all more clearly now. What I was actually seeking was that sacred moment I found talking with my friend over tea. It was the same feeling I’d get sometimes as I sat alone in the library surrounded by books and occasionally seeing another person performing the rituals of student life. I realized it is not about getting published, tenured positions, or theories named after you. It’s about what one encounters in that process. What’s funny is how much falling into the perspective of separation, of righteousness, of me-ness, allows us to perform the actions that bring us back to the edge of the razor, which allow us the perspective of our overwhelming connections.

But, I guess that’s what life is about: the journey outward that eventually leads back inward (and perhaps in this way several times…). Full and complete experience requires one to accept the truth in paradox. In my yoga practice, for instance, I have realized how this plays out in something as simple as our breath. In order to completely inhale we must first completely exhale; the secret to breathing deeper, taking in more air, is to let go of more air.

And, you know, if that is the eternal truth that I got out of my academic experience, that’s pretty good. The funny thing is that the “problem” that I’ve had with academia – that my ideas weren’t accepted, that I felt I couldn’t study what I wanted, that the whole institution seemed to be against what I desired to seek – is exactly the problem we have with all things. We see ourselves as separate; even if we acknowledge, accept, or even embrace the idea of our interconnectedness, it is incredibly difficult to live in this space. This is why the rich history of scholars and mystics exists, because we need to be reminded over and over in varying ways.

Ironically, it was my struggle that led me to realize how deeply ingrained this egoic drive was. I have yet to solve this problem, but still strive to live in that middle space. I see the function of the ego as the mechanism through which we get things done. But, I also know that it is just as purposeful to learn to let it go. And when we do, there’s no problem.

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