Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that “Hell is other people.” And Dante constructed his Inferno by wedging like-minded souls into very close quarters. You don’t have to attend the MLA Convention to see this principle in operation today. Just think for a moment about your own department, or classroom, or campus. No wonder some administrators dream of an ideal university that has neither faculty nor students. Fortunately, there’s no need to look to another world for solutions. Just punch up our latest, most revolutionary app:
In the Staying Alive workshops that Mark and I offer at campuses and conferences, we use yoga postures as emblems for the phases of an academic career. Balance works at the heart of yoga, which tones the whole body, cleanses the internal organs, and promotes both serenity and mindfulness. In Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, every session includes balancing postures as well as the familiar sun salutations, standing poses (such as the Warrior sequence discussed in earlier blogs), bending poses, and seated poses along with twists and stretches. When we talk about leading a balanced life over the course of an academic career, we find that the yoga conception of balance helps people understand how to cope with the competing demands of person, profession, and institution without going nuts.
When I started, the balance poses really threw me for a loop. The teacher looked so calm and graceful when she stretched up into the Tree Pose or lengthened horizontally into Dancer. I have good natural balance, so I thought nothing of it, but when I tried, my legs began wobbling uncontrollably and I almost fell over. I thought it was simply a matter of locking in to the right position. But balance turned out to be a process rather than a state; it was something dynamic, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It turned out to be a matter of core strength as well as focused attention.
I soon learned that every balancing pose begins with a preparatory step, followed by a series of entry moves that culminate in the full pose, which is maintained for a period of time, generally at least five breaths, after which you must exit the pose through another series of moves that return you to a relaxed, standing position. If you try to rush or short-circuit this process, you are likely to fall out and may even injure yourself. It’s important to go step by step, feeling your way and maintaining a sense of control.
Take for example the Dancer Pose, which serves as our emblem for the Citizen Phase. Remember how, in the Warrior poses, we discerned a four-way movement of energy along both vertical and horizontal axes. Here the same geometry applies, but with a shift in configuration appropriate to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship. The vertical leg supports everything else, representing your foundational skills and values. The forward arm extends outward, projecting energy into the community. The rear leg, rather than being extended backward for support, reaches up to be grasped by the other arm, forming a circle that captures the heavenly light of creativity, passion, and aspiration and then amplifies it in a generative feedback loop that provides the energy to the forward arm.
To get into Dancer you must assume a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center. Choose your supporting leg, then roll forward onto the ball of the foot, spreading your toes and grounding the foot. Flex your leg, feeling the muscles, and begin to breathe evenly. After two breaths, raise your opposite foot and bring it up behind your buttocks, grasping it with your hand. Steady yourself for a moment, then touch finger to thumb of your opposite hand and, as you breathe in, raise your arm straight up above your head. Now choose something in front of you that’s not going to move and focus on it as you begin to tilt forward from the waist, stretching forward as you push out and back with your opposite leg, still grasped by your opposite hand. Maintain steady, even breathing as you open the circle formed by your leg, arm, and back. After five or more breaths, begin to exit the pose by tilting backward into an upright position. Release your opposite hand and lower your leg to the floor. As you breathe out, lower your extended arm, Release your finger and thumb and come back into a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.
It is important to recognize that during the whole process you continue to breathe, ideally in a calm and measured way. Breathing connects inner and outer, and yoga recognizes many different kinds of breath. So, during the entry, holding, and exit from the pose, you are not only dealing with the circulation of energy within your body but also interacting with the environment. Maintaining this vital flow is an ecological and spiritual necessity. As you can see from the photo, Dancer is lovely to look at, and if you try it, you’ll realize that it also feels wonderful. When you are holding the pose, you feel strong and radiant. In life, as in yoga, balance manifests externally as grace and internally as health and happiness. Balance may be thought of as a process of dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy, harmony, and beauty. A person in balance appears to lead a convincing life.
As I practiced the Dancer pose, I soon came to realize that my body was always moving, even when stationary. My muscles were always working; they were never at rest. As I went through the entry, holding, and exit moves, I could sense my muscles communicate with each other, as if they were dancing. I could feel the energy flowing and shifting at need. I could feel my breathing as a nourishing conversation between myself and the larger world that sustained me. Balance, I realized, was not a state but a system, a process, a dance, a constant and ever changing improvisation. And the key was managing energy flows. That’s what Mark and I mean in these workshops by tools for balance: they are techniques for managing your resources and energies. We derive them from stories of people who seem to be leading convincing lives. Balance, therefore, is not something you attain once and then you’re done. It’s a matter of attentive learning and lifelong practice.
(image source: http://thesoniashow.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/dancers-pose.jpg )
What can we learn from these stories and reflections about finding balance in grad school? Each group develops its own wisdom, but here are some tools we gleaned from the ASLE workshop last June.
1. It’s not just about work. No doubt work – making the grade, learning the ropes, designing and conducting research, writing, seminaring, conferencing – always comes first in people’s mind. But there is more to life than learning and more to learning than books and talk. The primary tool, then, is to keep the dream of balance alive, to make it part of your life practice.
2. Mentor yourself. Take time to explore options and study alternatives. Remember that a PhD gives you many transferable skills, and that teaching is not the only path open to you. Investigate other channels in the braided stream of an academic career: administration, foundation or nonprofit work, government, think tanks, research, industry, writing, journalism, even entrepreneurship. Listen for what the Quakers call “leadings,” the inner voices, signs, or hints that point toward the path of your own soul’s growth. Then find activities that shed more light down that path.
3. Learn from the community. If you observe both your institutional community and the larger society in which it is embedded, you can learn much about the culture, personality types, and social drivers that govern the world you are preparing to enter. This sort of knowledge can often prove of more than equal value to field expertise as you navigate the choppy waters of a career. Try looking at your school, your professors, and your colleagues with the eyes of a novelist, and don’t neglect the folks behind the steam tables.
4. Get involved with undergraduates. And not just as a TA. These are the people you may soon be helping to educate. They are the future. Better yet, most of them will not become academicians; they will go out into the “real world.” They are still experiencing education for the whole person, so their journey, which is also yours, can become mutually supportive, even inspiring. Staying in touch with the undergraduates will help you stay in touch with your own growth process and balance the professional training emphasis of grad school.
5. Network to build relationships. In grad school, everyone is pretty much equal, on the same level, in the same boat. Soon enough, you will all begin to diverge. Relationships formed and nurtured early on can pay handsome emotional and professional dividends in years to come. Don’t just stick to your own department, but venture forth to other fields, student organizations, and colleagues from other institutions that you meet at conferences.
6. Choose work that feeds your spirit. There is no point in doing research that will “get you ahead” if it doesn’t speak to your soul. Take time to find your own burning questions and build research that will address them. That is how fields evolve, and how academic work leads to progressive social and intellectual change.
7. Engage in self-nurturing activities such as hobbies, socializing, recreation, sports, or sharing your home culture with friends and colleagues. Be sure to take good care of your body as well as your mind; remember the Sufi admonition to “be kind to your ass, for it bears you.” Eat well, sleep well, work hard, play often.
Got tools? Please share them in a comment.
Recently, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) published a report, The American College Teacher: National Norms for the 2007-2008 HERI Faculty Survey, that draws data from more than 22,000 full-time college and university faculty members at 372 four-year institutions from across the United States. It seems that only 34.2 percent of faculty believe they have established a healthy balance in their lives personally and professionally; and, not surprisingly, female respondents have greater difficulty than male faculty in striking a balance (27.3 percent vs. 38.7 percent). At the same time, faculty value as “very important” or “essential” developing a meaningful philosophy of life (72.5 percent), raising a family (69.2 percent), helping others who are in difficulty (65.2 percent) and integrating spirituality into their lives (47.5 percent). The conclusion, as one summary of the report puts it, is that “personal and professional balance is difficult.”
Growing up surfing, skateboarding, skiing and climbing has endowed me with an experiential archive of equilibrioception. For the most part, my body knows what to do. Maturing into a profession in which one’s work will never be done, however, I’ve become increasingly aware of the difficulty people have with “striking a balance” between personal and professional life. Faced with internal as well as external pressure, the mind seems less able to know what to do. And so at every turn a discourse of balance calls us back to what seems to be important in this life: from yin and yang to a balanced diet; from Buddhism and the art of life to the balance of success and happiness.
But what if we took to task the idea of balance? While utopian yearnings for balance are worthy in the light of spiritual transformation, such yearnings at the same time prove less able in the messy cycles of our day-to-day lives. Might there be a more felicitous way of describing (and living) a life less driven by apparently irreversible tensions between what we call the “personal” and the “professional”? Could we find in our lives a way of integration, or simply a life path that allows us to pursue our lives without feeling as if we are always “out of balance”? Much like the ecological enthusiast who discovers that the intuitive notion of balance and stability are no more than reductive human values imposed on the natural world, might we discover limits in the very idea of balance?