I hope yesterday’s introduction was useful for you. As I mentioned yesterday, here now is the account of how all that is working out in my life. I hope that you will find it a helpful reference point in your own journey. If there’s anything you feel moved to share about your own process—or questions or suggestions about mine—I am always happy to hear from you. 😊
“I’m through accepting limits cuz someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change, but til I try I’ll never know!”
(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)
Much of the last year for me has been a slow process of deprogramming from the mindset of the academic world. The academic world is a source of incredible wounding—in fact, one specialty of my counseling practice is working with folks who have specifically been wounded by higher ed. As I’ve moved from university to university over my career, one thing has remained constant—it is an environment in which most everyone there feels somehow like they are failing. An example of this that I talk about in my work on decolonizing teaching is the ever-present scarcity of time, the ways that the hurried pace of higher education, and the resulting negative emotional states of anxiety, guilt, and inadequacy, dramatically interferes with the joys of both teaching and learning.
The academic world is fundamentally based on hierarchy, elitism, and competition. One of its main activities is gatekeeping—deciding who gets in and who stays out, who is rewarded and who is punished, who is appropriate and worthy and who is not. It is an environment thick with ego, fear and shame. Its lifeblood is measurement, evaluation, and critique—which I have come to view as forms of violence. And this mentality—especially coupled with the scarcity thinking that drives the institution—leads to other forms of violence, such as massive economic exploitation. A whopping 70% of academic faculty are glorified temps, contracted semester by semester to teach individual classes for below minimum wage.
One of the frustrating things about the academic world is that I was continually being judged by values and standards that were not my own—and feeling bad about myself as a result!
As an intuitive feeler, I never fit well in the academic world, where solely the intellect is valorized—the white male disembodied voice of rationality which rejects ways of knowing and being that arise from the body, the heart, and the spirit. I’ve referred to this previously as the “academic wound” as it compromises our wholeness as humans as well as our understanding of the world, and leads to a lifestyle that is unhealthy and totally out of balance. It is a world in which you are expected to be working constantly (as my partner always jokes about the freedom of being an academic: you can work any 24 hours you want…), where faculty members brag about their stress levels to demonstrate that they are at full productivity.
For years my partner has been voicing their concerns about the impact of this lifestyle on me (as well as the ensuing effects on her): my disconnected heart and antagonistic state of mind from being in the continuous mindset of intellectual critique for 15 weeks, my exhaustion and frenetic unstable energy from multiple all-nighters a week grading papers that compromised my ability to be present with her, the subsequent damage to my body in repetitive strain injuries, the emotional impact of being in such a dehumanizing environment (after the first week of classes last year, I came home from campus and just lay in my bed and started sobbing because I’d been witness to so many dehumanizing experiences over the course of the day—none of which even directly involved me), the anger and agitation from feeling unvalued and undercompensated (which even my ex who is an Associate Professor grapples with), and the underlying currents of shame and defensiveness, anxiety and inadequacy from feeling like you are never doing enough.
It has taken me most of a year to even begin to detox from this deadly combo. After decades of continually pushing past my limits, my body has struggled to come back into balance. It’s only been since May that I’ve been able to fall asleep consistently—after so many years of forcing myself to stay awake to work, I found that I’d trained my body to pop back alert when nodding off.
Even harder to shake has been the critical academic voice in my head that has kept my writing largely frozen. I’ve found that I’ve needed to distance myself from other people’s ideas and judgments in order to allow my own voice to re-emerge. It’s been delightful watching the freeing up of my creativity and imagination, the return of my joy and innocence, and my increasing investment in my own happiness and well-being the further that I move away from the toxicity of the academic environment.
Wanting to go back…
Despite the obvious negative effects, leaving the world of higher education has been a deep and scary journey for me. It is why most people stay in bad relationships, I think—whether romantic or professional. While you may be aware of the ways that you are having a negative experience and your well-being is being compromised, your experience is never JUST negative and so there are things that you are attached to as well, ways that your needs are being met, things that you would miss, ways that your sense of self has been shaped as well as compromised by being in a negative situation that over time alters your sense of possibilities and limits your ability to choose something different.
I’m a teacher—this is not only my professional training, but also my calling and life mission (or one of them at least). Although teaching is extremely labor-intensive, mostly it has never felt like “work” to me and most days I would do it for free simply because I love it (something true of many teachers I know, which our educational system has hugely taken advantage of and frankly relies upon).
And we are told that if you want to teach, you must do that in a school (if you want to be legitimate anyway). While my intention in leaving CU a year ago was to expand my teaching beyond the classroom (in response to our collective needs after Trump was elected), I quickly realized that I actually had no idea how to do that.
Since I am still teaching one class at CU during fall semester with the INVST program, a peace and social justice leadership certificate program affiliated with the School of Education, I did not have to really grapple with this dilemma until January. While it was very disorienting feeling everyone going back to school without me—since I’ve lived according to the semester cycles for so long—fortunately, Phoenix went on choir tour in April to the Twin Cities, with concerts scheduled in Omaha and Iowa City en route, so I was pretty absorbed with preparations for that for much of the semester.
In the post choir tour funk, as it approached what was usually for me end of semester frenzy, I found myself really missing teaching. Though I had an amazing gig just drop into my lap—doing workplace mediation and gender trainings for an organization in Boulder—that was very satisfying and rewarding, it can be very stressful and exhausting always doing new things that are out of the comfort zone, utilizing skills that don’t feel super honed or deep yet, and having to continually negotiate payment. I longed for the ease of doing something I know I’m good at with an audience and platform that I don’t have to cultivate for myself with guaranteed returns—whether student transformation or a regular paycheck.
I think this is probably why a lot of people stay in jobs (or relationships) that they have outgrown. You have to give up something guaranteed to take a chance on something unknown and most people simply don’t have the desire or fortitude to withstand that degree of risk and uncomfortable uncertainty.
Foundational change can be slow. As my spiritual teacher in Minneapolis, Lynn Woodland, always used to remind me, if you are trying to turn a cruise ship around, there’s going to be a long delay between when you start turning the wheel and when you actually feel the ship turning. Something big that’s been in motion for a long time has a strong momentum so it takes a while to significantly change course.
So by mid-summer, I found myself increasingly despairing that I would ever be able to carve out a place for myself in the harsh “real world” of capitalism. It is how I ended up in higher ed in the first place—the university felt like a safe refuge. So by mid-summer, I was filled with self-doubt and regret about having given up my teaching position at CU.
“I hope you’re happy, now that you’re choosing this, I hope it brings you bliss
I really hope you get it and you won’t live to regret it.”
(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)
In the midst of my crisis of confidence, I was presented with a gift—the opportunity to teach an Intro to Peace Studies class at Naropa! I was thrilled! When I first moved to Colorado in 2010, I was certain that I would be teaching at Naropa. A whole university founded on contemplative education—what could be a better match for me! Though I was determined to separate myself from higher ed, Naropa seemed worthy of making an exception. As someone interested in starting my own university, I was curious to have first hand experience with the Naropa model and I was delighted to have the opportunity to be back in the classroom, doing something I love and do well, and with a steady income!
I had my interview last week, which was basically just a formality—I had the position if I wanted it and I knew I wanted it. I’d basically already planned the syllabus in my head.
Except on the way to campus, I noticed a nagging uneasiness arising in me. Especially after hearing the pay (which was the lowest I’ve ever heard of for teaching, even less than I was paid as a grad student—incredibly about $137 a week for what would be at least 15 hours of labor!), I began to wonder if it was really in my best interests, especially knowing I would have to put on hold my book writing as well as growing my counseling practice and public speaking career that were the foundational steps for my new life.
I felt at an important crossroads and, the more I sat with my uneasiness, the more this position began to feel like a step backwards. It felt like a test—right on the threshold of stepping fully into guiding my own destiny, could I still be tempted away by the illusion of security (which I know is actually just exploitation)? By the “respectability” that comes with being associated with a university? Am I still willing to stuff my expansive soul into the box of an old paradigm institution in order to have a place in the old paradigm world or am I really committed to building the new paradigm world?
It reminded me very much actually of when we first moved to Colorado. I’d just left the tenure track at the University of Missouri for ethical reasons and, upon arriving in CO, got an interview at the School of the Mines for a tenure track position—teaching environmental ethics to people who were going to do fracking (which I knew would destroy my heart). So it was like a carrot dangled in front of me to test the authenticity of my commitment. Would I still jump at the chance for that kind of security and status? I said no to that position and never regretted it.
So I decided to trust myself and stay the course I’ve been charting since leaving CU, even though it’s scary and hard. I’m very tired of subsidizing higher ed with my free labor, compromising my own well-being in the process. This summer I’ve come to a new regard for my own well-being, my own peace, and my own limits and boundaries—which I never felt able to have during my academic career. I’m very tired of giving my best ideas and insights and energy to an institution that is antithetical to my own values, one that will use me up and spit me out with no regard for my well-being. I think probably a lot of folks are feeling this way about their location in the current economy. And I certainly didn’t leave one institution that undermined my well-being to trade it for another.
Though I was originally very excited about the thought of teaching at Naropa, the thought of it now makes my body feel heavy. Ultimately, Naropa gave me the same feeling as Women’s and Gender Studies—like a very lovely vision, but its actual practice is not necessarily in alignment with the vision. And I can see that I would feel a lack of peace around that, which would then put me out of integrity to be teaching about peace, as my energy and my message would be discordant.
As I composed my email to Naropa declining the position, my housemate said to me, “Well, you don’t want to burn any bridges.” And I pondered that and responded “Actually, yes I do!” I thought about third century BC Chinese General Xiang Yu, whose victory came out of burning his troops’ ships so that they could only move forward. In order to fully step into my new life, I needed to close the door on my old one.
“So if you care to find me, look to the western sky
As someone told me lately: ‘Everyone deserves the chance to fly!’
And if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free
To those who’d ground me, take a message back from me
Tell them how I am defying gravity!”
(“Defying Gravity” from Wicked)
It was really my time at the Arise Music Festival the prior weekend that shifted everything truthfully. I was excited about the Naropa position pre-Arise when I was filled with despair about how to fit myself into the old paradigm world. Naropa seemed like a pretty decent match.
But after feeling the community support for my teaching at Arise (I led 2 workshops there and had 30 enthusiastic folks at each), and being in the new paradigm energy (including the ways that Arise seems to effortlessly care for the well-being of its community members), I was able to notice the big energetic mismatch with Naropa (Naropa is the old energy of settling) and felt empowered to say no to it, recognizing it’s not the only game in town.
Another world is possible–is happening now–and I will find that more and more the more I am able to let go of the old paradigm people and institutions that have been taking up all the space in my life.
I had immediate confirmation of the rightness of my decision.
1) Wednesday evening, after my Naropa interview, I went to the Denver Dances of Universal Peace since my partner was co-leading. As I was in the circle, I noticed that the 2 people next to me were wearing Arise bracelets (they had been fire keepers at Wisdom Village, where I’m trying to get a trans/non-binary lodge created to supplement the women’s and men’s lodges). Then more folks I recognized from Arise kept arriving–people I’d never seen at the DUP before! At one point in the circle, both the person on my right and on my left were folks who had come to my Reigniting Passion workshop!
And it just felt like this was affirmation that I will be supported if I continue to free myself from old paradigm institutions. I was despairing about where are my people, but they are all around me if I just have eyes to see them–and they can find me the more that I am shining my light and sharing my gifts, which I can do more effectively when I’m not being beaten down battling with old paradigm people and institutions.
2) When I signed my fall contract with INVST, I saw that (without even mentioning it to me) they increased my pay by almost the same amount I would have made at Naropa! This reaffirmed my sense that they ARE in alignment with their vision and they do value the well-being of their staff, as well as specifically value my gifts and presence. So that felt like a clear YES to continuing to teach with them. And further affirmation that I will be supported if I have the courage to say NO to the things that aren’t good for me/that I’ve outgrown.
3) And these are the oracle cards I received Wednesday night and Thursday night as I was contemplating what to do:
(Wed) Release your ties to the past. When you let go of the old, you make room for the new.
(Thurs) New Beginnings and A Fresh Start
(Wed) Trust your decisions. March to the beat of your own heart.
(Thurs) You’re on the Right Path
(Wed) Be patient. Be willing to pass up good for great.
(Thurs) Keep Your Eyes on Your Targeted Intention
(Wed) Resurrect a childhood dream. Let your passion take flight.
(Thurs) Success! A favorable outcome is assured.
Beyond the Classroom…
The childhood dream I’m meant to resurrect is clearly writing. I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer and my first autobiography was written when I was in the fifth grade! And that is how I’m meant to expand my teaching beyond the classroom. Teaching the class at Naropa would have given me the opportunity to strongly transform the lives of 18 people, but getting my writing out into the world gives me the opportunity to impact potentially millions of people.
I realized that all of the things that make me a popular teacher and speaker (openness and humanness, an overall sense of optimism, unusual and eye-opening perspectives, blending intellectual critique and spiritual insight) will also make me a popular writer. It’s the next expression of teaching for me—reaching a broader audience beyond my comfort zone of the classroom, less taxing on my body, and free from the soul killing toxicity of academia.
One way I’m deprogramming from the academic mindset is considering self-publishing, not only for my Transgender Wisdom book (the title and structure of which actually came to me at last year’s Arise Festival), but especially for my new book project that I started on this summer, Learning from Polyamory: A Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Love (my next blog post coming soon will include an excerpt from this book). The academic voice in my head scoffs at the very notion of self-publishing. That is for charlatans. You are only legitimate as a scholar if your work is published by a big university press.
However, the world of traditional publishing is another gatekeeping old paradigm structure. A big publishing house can tie up your book for a couple years, absorb most of the royalties, and ultimately your work and ideas serve their brand. With self-publishing, you can bypass the “middleman” and go directly to the reading public; they can receive your insights and you can receive their financial support much more immediately. Although I still have some work to do to completely shed my academic elitism, I’m getting better at recognizing what are the old paradigm structures that are collapsing and which are the new paradigm ways of being that we are stepping into that will build our better future together.
Here’s how you can tell the difference:
The old paradigm is top down, hierarchical, based on dominance, enforced by gatekeeping. It is rooted in scarcity-thinking and most of the resources are consumed by administrators, bureaucracy, large institutions. Authority figures use fear and shame to control and disempower people and people internalize this approach and motivate themselves through fear and shame. Competition is encouraged, even required, and people feel stressed and unsafe. Their hearts are guarded and protected—and, as a result, they create a lot of pain and suffering with one another. Life is lived in defense, self-interest is the norm, and everyone is scrambling to survive. Everyday life is managed through rigid rules and dehumanizing bureaucracy. Creativity is squashed, standardization is compulsory (at Naropa you can’t even just print out your own syllabus for class—you must upload it piece by piece into a standardized authorized template, including even a standardized font!), and difference is seen as threatening and must be punished, so people have to hide and pretend a lot which is exhausting.
You will know the new paradigm by how it makes you feel.
If you’ve never been to the Arise Festival, it is new paradigm in action. The Arise Festival is a reminder that people are fundamentally good. When people feel safe being themselves, they thrive. This principle should guide our national educational policy. When people feel safe being themselves, they relax, their creativity explodes and they want to make a contribution. They are confident and oriented towards what they can offer, rather than what they can take. I’ve found this in my teaching as well.
The new paradigm is horizontal, egalitarian, based on direct access to community rather than going through authority figures and institutions. Collaboration is encouraged and nourishing, and people’s unique contributions are welcomed, appreciated, and expected. Everyone is needed and has a place.
People’s hearts open when they feel safe, and trust and connection is a lot easier and less risky. Kindness is the norm—even unkindness is responded to with compassion.
In the new paradigm, your fear and scarcity-thinking won’t be activated. At Arise, there is no feeling of territoriality, no competing for space or food. At Arise, every time I feel like sitting down, there happens to be a chair nearby—and empty because nobody is trying to claim them. People sit for a time as needed and then get up and move on, freeing the resource for someone else. There is enough for everyone and a feeling of abundance. Access is prioritized, not ownership; experiences are valued over material objects. Like the internet or the Bernie Sanders campaign, as my teacher Lynn Woodland explains, abundance is created by many many folks contributing in small ways with everyone having access to what we’ve created together.
In the new paradigm, people are motivated to take care of the community. It is incredible at Arise to walk around a music festival and not see a piece of trash anywhere. People are trusted to largely govern themselves, to self-select, and they move freely in an atmosphere of spaciousness. Power equals self-mastery and leadership falls to those who demonstrate wisdom, integrity, and the ability to hold the needs of the community. Difference is intriguing and a source of learning and growth.
In the new paradigm, you realize you don’t really need a lot to be happy and your life is not cluttered with things, outdated relationships and identities, toxic food and addictive substances, relentless stimulus. When you no longer need something, you simply let it go and trust that whatever you need in the future will come to you when you need it. Joy seems to come naturally because you feel safe, valued, and connected, you feel the satisfaction of utilizing your creativity and capacity, and you trust that your needs will be met moment by moment.
We’ve been lied to. We’ve been told that the only access to safety and security is to go to big institutions. They are the ones we believe have all the resources. We feel we must be tied to one in order to survive and, even once we realize it is killing our soul and stifling our happiness, we tell ourselves we must stay—it’s the only responsible choice. We are told this is the only game in town.
But that is a lie. Another world is not only possible, it is happening all around us. It is the world that we are creating together–through our love, our vision, our creativity, our unity. Our old ways of being have taken us to the brink of collapse—individually (as you can see in my case) and collectively. We are facing a seemingly dire situation as a species: evolve or perish. But the happy news is that we are transforming into a world that will be easier and better for us all. While the transition feels daunting and may be bumpy—as you can see in my case—I’m confident that when we look back at where we are now, we’ll wonder why we didn’t change sooner.
My dad, who passed away in 2005, communicates with me through leaving me dimes. In April, at the last rehearsal of the season for Mosaic Gospel Choir, when I was feeling discouraged about my professional life, I came downstairs and found this dime, perfectly placed in the center of the couch, in front of a pillow that I had never seen before, with this incredible message. Thanks for the reminder, Dad!