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Love thy work

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Mar. 7th, 2014 | 09:40 am

I shared an article yesterday on FB about mental health issues in Ph.D. programs. On my FB feed, below that story, this one came up as a suggested additional article on a related topic.

I recalled having read it before, and I noted its date of December, 2013. I remember the author's self-identification as "first generation [college student], queer," etc., and I remember identifying with those characteristics as well.

This time I was particularly struck by the following passage:

"In the humanities and social sciences, we are steeped in the belief that one has to truly love the work in order to succeed. It’s a conversation I have with my adviser a lot: whether or not I love the work enough to see it through, to be sustained by it. But depression makes that a question I can’t answer. I don’t know if I love it. Depressed, I don’t love anything unless it comforts me in some way."

This made me think of my pursuit of a spiritual path, and how that search intensified during the year that I began the teaching and "dissertating" phase of my Ph.D. program. After a period in which my spiritual pursuits tapered off, they intensified again when my partner was studying abroad and had gotten romantically involved with someone there. After he returned, my search tapered off again, but then it resumed after I had landed my first full-time academic job. After various attempts to stabilize my spiritual pursuits, I found a local circle of NAJ and was initiated. This was my second Sufi initiation, the first having taken place 8.5 years earlier, during my first year of teaching and "dissertating." After I relocated in order to take on my second full-time teaching position, I found it difficult to maintain regular contact with a suitable Sufi community. After the end of my first academic year here, I met the Amma devotee who led me into that organization. At the time, this seemed like the next logical stage of my "path."

In reviewing the trajectory of one of my academic projects, in preparation for the presentation that I am scheduled to give today, I looked again at some of the astrological factors that were operative at the time that I decided to search for the job that I currently occupy. In particular, I was looking at the motions (transits) of Pluto in the area that was occupied by the Moon when I was born (natal Moon). While one typical interpretation of Pluto transiting one's natal Moon is that one's mother may be in mortal danger, in fact the onset of her illness preceded the series of direct transits of Pluto to my natal Moon, and her death followed those transits. What I found interesting this time was that the most intense period of those transits occurred from June to November of 2004, which is when I experienced a flare-up of intense emotional discomfort that seemed to me to be centered around my solar plexus. This period of discomfort led me to reach out to friends, and also to return to therapy for the first time since my first year of teaching and "dissertating."

[I broke off on writing this post yesterday morning. Since then I have given the presentation I mentioned above. Attendance was sparse. The notification was sent around at the last minute and people were evidently too busy to attend, or not interested. I understand, as I have to make difficult decisions daily about how to spend my time. Nonetheless, the time I spent by breaking up my day to give the presentation meant that I was unable to attend the university symphony concert last night without risking exhaustion. I opted to stay home and to go to bed early. Every day is like this--including weekends--and there appears to be no let-up in sight. Spring break is coming up after next week. I plan to turn off university email over the break so that I can make significant progress on the talk I've been writing in dribs and drabs since the beginning of January.]

With hindsight, two things appear clear to me: 1) my attempts to immerse myself in spiritual pursuits were ultimately strategies to soothe feelings (see the remark about seeking comfort in the quote above); 2) the therapists I worked with simply did not understand the distress that results commonly in contemporary academic environments.

One thing I was able to see through examining my recent history astrologically was that my attempts to have close friendships with spiritual seekers as a third focus--after home and work--eventually led to prohibitively painful disappointments, and a dawning conviction that I was simply wasting my time in trying to maintain such a source of "inspiration." Now that a number of articles are appearing online about the mental health of people in academia, it is becoming easier to see myself as someone who has been struggling to find ways to deal with chronic low-grade depression (my self-diagnosis--not an official one), and this seems to account for some of the apparent irrationality of my chosen forms of seeking relief. While cutting back on the number of my pursuits--personal, professional, etc.--gives the appearance of withdrawal due to a sense of defeat, I think it is a necessary form of mature self-care.


Peace,

kh

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