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My Little Known Self

March 22, 2018

“There was a hole in the wall. It’s gone now” by Sergio Y Adeline via

Yesterday was a good day. I slept, ate, worked, socialized well. Then around 8:30 p.m. for inexplicable reasons, I was grumpy. Colin and I were having a conversation and everything he asked was irritating, the way he ate his pasta was obnoxious, the effort involved in getting ready bed seemed like a giant burden. I was just grumpy.

Maybe I’m just toddler-ed out, I thought. You know when you see a toddler in a supermarket who was happy one second and then suddenly they’ve depleted their energy reserves and they’re tired and they want to be done and can’t handle their own existence anymore? Like that, but for adults coming at the end of a full day.

I tried to be as transparent as I could with Colin. I knew it didn’t make any sense. How can anyone eat pasta obnoxiously anyway? He took it with aplomb and I got ready for bed.

This morning I’m still grumpy. My mind is discursive and dwelling far too frequently on the negative and the unknown, whereas int he prior two days I felt positive and energized for everything I had to do.

Yesterday over lunch I watched a TED talk by Tim Harford about complexity. We actually know so little about how things work, he argues. Mostly we got here by trial and error. We find out what works by finding what doesn’t work, but most of the time, we don’t know why one thing works and one thing doesn’t. We know so much less than we pretend we do.

I feel that way about myself. I really don’t know how my self works. I mostly get along by trial and error. Right now, I suspect I’m under the influence of a swing in hormones or fluctuation in neurotransmitters, but I really don’t know. Maybe my immune system is fighting a virus? Maybe I was subconsciously psychologically triggered by something I read or watched? But I know from experience that getting into a fight with my partner would be an error and going to bed will probably work out better for us both.

The point is, I don’t know why I was grumpy but I know I wasn’t fully in control of what I was feeling. Something happened and I was just observing it and trying to do as little damage as possible to those around me.

It’s moments like this that remind me of just what a construct the “self” actually is. It’s an aggregate of fluctuating causes and conditions popping in and out of existence over which we really have so little control. It’s not random. It’s just inexplicable.

The “Self” (big “S”) is the idea that we have more control than we think we do. That we understand. That whatever we’re feeling or thinking or doing is somehow validated and justified because it’s “me.” It’s the idea that I have every right to tell Colin off for being an obnoxious jerk and pestering me when I’m tired and he should know better, even though his behavior was no different from any other night or even the hour before.

Little “self” isn’t much of a problem. It’s just a handy label for a collection of phenomena that really have no hard and fast borders. It’s like looking out at a body of water and calling it the Missouri River. You know that the water you’re looking at from one second to the next is never the same and if it dried up it wouldn’t be a river anymore.

Big “Self” can be a big problem when we let it. We buy into our emotions and thoughts, identify with them, create stories around them, act them out among others. We try to hold the river still. When someone dares suggest that our feelings or thoughts might simply be momentary or not really caused by whatever story we’ve made up to explain them, we feel like they’re challenging our very identity – an identity we built. It hurts.

I fall for this trick a lot. I see my “Self” one way and I invest in that. I build walls around it and defend it from attack. But the joke’s on me because I can’t control what’s coming in an out anyway.

Last night it was too inexplicable and I was too tired and maybe this whole anatta thing is starting to sink in, but I just noticed I was grumpy, shrugged, apologized to Colin, and went to bed.

This morning as I brushed my teeth, still grumpy, I wondered about how western psychology and culture reifies the big “Self.” As a chaplain, I’m trained to accept and validate people’s emotional reactions. I meet them where they are, hear their stories, and try to empathize. Sometimes, I’m the first person to really provide that kind of nonjudgmental witnessing and support and it can be immensely healing.

As a Buddhist chaplain, I take it all with a grain of salt. There’s a trick to absolutely believing what someone tells you about their experience while simultaneously believing they really don’t know what’s going on simply because nobody does (including me). It’s about validating their emotions and seeing through them at the same time. It’s about understanding their thoughts and reasoning and knowing that whatever they can put into words is only a fraction of a fraction of the truth behind it.

It’s what Zen Buddhists call the not-knowing mind, neither affirming nor negating, just letting be. It creates a tremendous sense of possibility. Great anger can turn towards forgiveness. Great passion can mellow into deep friendship. Mild grumpiness can be humorous. When we think we know, many possibilities are foreclosed, so I also try to not-know when it comes to myself.

I hold myself in skepticism. My emotions aren’t always justified or valid or useful. They’re just there and they tend to drive my decision making, whether I want them to or not. Sometimes they’re wise and trustworthy, sometimes not. My rational mind is powerful, but tends to operate post hoc most of the time, helping me make sense of what’s already happened. It’s also a big fat liar, trying to explain the inexplicable and justify the ridiculous. Just look up the lists of logical fallacies and cognitive biases to which we are prone on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.

But you know, once I began to approach myself with that skepticism, it lifted a tremendous weight off my shoulders. I feel so much lighter for not having to invest in my every passing emotion or thought. I don’t have to build those walls around big “Self” quite so high. They’re still there, make no mistake. (I’m still an academic after all, so my whole identity is built on confidently knowing stuff.) But sometimes I get to look at those walls and realize how silly they are.


In Defense of Solitude

March 9, 2018

“Solitude” by Dino8 via

The most calm moments of my life come when I am alone. I cherish these moments of calm, still, quiet, undemanding solitude. In a country and culture obsessed with the sadness of loneliness, I want only to be alone for a few moments. To be lonely is a tragedy, but to be alone can be a joy.

For six years, I lived alone. I often traveled alone, in cities and wilderness, and generally enjoyed myself. I often worked in my studio alone, choosing odd hours when classmates were elsewhere. I never compromised on where I chose to eat or sleep, what shows I watched, what music I listened to, what furnishing I bought, how long I sat on a rock in an aspen grove listening to the stream. I never indulged in compromises or permitted unwelcome activities, foods, sounds, or decor. It was not always joy. Sometimes, I was lonely, but on balance, I was content.

Then I moved to California and had a roommate again. As roommates go, he was very low key and I still enjoyed many hours alone most days. He had buddies over late at night to drink and talk, but only on weekends. I learned to sleep with earplugs in. The decor was spare, bachelor-ish, but not unpleasant. He cleaned the house like a machine each Saturday, which benefited me unequally. I was still occasionally lonely and I longed for my own place again, but I was not discontent.

I found a partner and we moved in together about five years ago now. I would not trade our relationship, but since then I have enjoyed less and less solitude. Rarely was I home alone. Errands were often run together. I spent more and more time at work around people. When I traveled, it was for crowded conferences or family vacations, no more solo wanders. Even spiritual retreats were confounded by others.

Yet my spirit, such as it is, never feels so calm, clear, and refreshed as when I am alone. The Buddha needed to be alone for his growth. Hermitages continues to be a vital part of Buddhist tradition, though it is less practiced now for economic and cultural reasons.

Today I experience blessed solitude with something like nostalgia. Like a warm cup of my favorite tea not tasted for many years. It is something to savor and stretch. In such rare moments, I find myself unwilling to do any work or even move around too much, lest I disturb this moment of peace. With regularity, I hope this reluctance will pass and the calm remain.

Colin and I have settled into our new routine in Rochester, which allows me to spend Friday mornings home alone after he has gone off to work. This morning, I spent the time reading on the couch under a pile of blankets, the dog’s head in my lap, watching the snow fall outside our living room windows. I told myself I should get up and work a bit on my dissertation, but I didn’t want to disturb the moment.

We’ve settled into our little old house just south of Downtown. For many years we’ve lived in “open floor plan” apartments. Our last apartment had enough bedrooms that we could each have a separate office, which was delightful. This is the first house we’ve had with a separate living room, complete with a door. We both agree it is preferable. We find open floor plan homes, like open offices, to be overrated. Colin no longer has a separate office, which we agree is unfortunate. He’s taken over the dining space by the kitchen, which is less than ideal, but sufficient in size.

I love people. I love them in their particularity. They are fascinating. I often seek them out and enjoy when they seek me out. I love my family, my in-laws, my partner.

But I also love solitude and separation. Having a little now and then helps me love people more, not less. It gives me time to refresh and reflect and return to them better than I could be had I never been alone.

If you have someone who loves solitude in your life, think of it like a gift you can give them now and then. Like cookies or flowers. And remember, wanting to be alone doesn’t mean they don’t want to be around you. It means they want to be around you in the best way they can. Being alone doesn’t mean they are lonely.*

Perhaps we’re not all built this way, but I am. I can cope with much less solitude than I used to enjoy, but I still crave it and savor it. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy winter. There’s so much more cultural permission for solitude in winter. It refills me for the remainder of the year. I am at my best with others when I have had some time without them, even those that I love the most.

*(Many people in this world are lonely, especially the elderly and those struggling with depression or disability. There are many charities that provide home visitation and, if you love people, consider volunteering for one.)

Don’t Say That, but Forgive Yourself When You Do

March 5, 2018

“Hands Up” by Poster Boy via

Last week I watched an African American student tell their instructor about a racist incident they witnessed and how it made them feel. I watched him tell it three different ways and pause to replay various parts of the conversation. Then we broke it down and discussed reflections with peers. How often would we like to be able to do that with difficult conversations?

This was part of a sketch put on by the Michigan Players from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, who were invited to campus by a program called Advance RIT, whose slogan is “Reimagining our Careers and Campus Culture.” As far as I can tell, Advance RIT is a grant-funded initiative from within the division of Diversity and Inclusion to improve how the campus responds to incidents of discrimination and harassment based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, ability, or various other statuses. In other words, they want everyone to be welcome at RIT.

I enjoyed the use of theater in this workshop. Too often when we have these conversations, which are difficult and triggering by their nature, we rely on the victims (our colleagues/students) to speak up and tell us how bad it’s been for them. Then, all too often, we invalidate their experiences either because it hasn’t happened to us or we don’t want to believe people we otherwise like and respect could behave that way or we think maybe they’re being “too sensitive” or, or, or any host of reasons. It takes what is supposed to be a conversation about how we can be more welcoming and leaves everyone feeling a little more divided. It’s just too personal when its our own house, but using theater gives us the sense of personal distance we need to seriously consider these important issues.

Using theater steps neatly around re-traumatizing victims and defensiveness in peers. It uses drama to put a situation before us for everyone to see. The situations are plausible because they are based on real events from case studies compiled by the University of Michigan. They actually happened, if not to the people who are now dramatizing them. We, the audience, can immediately relate to them. We can imagine similar events happening on our campus to our students and colleagues without the need to point fingers and name names (though that may come later).

Over two days, 160+ faculty and staff of RIT and NTID gathered to watch and reflect on two skits. The first demonstrated a number of micro- and macro-aggression targeting Muslim students through the life of one particular student. I came away with the sense that the student must live their life constantly on guard and how exhausting that must be. The second sketch centered around a single incident between an African American student and their instructor, described above. It demonstrated how heartbreaking it feels to watch someone in a place of authority witness a racist incident and do nothing about it, especially when its your own personal safety at issue.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, supportive, and engaging. Faculty and staff reflected privately, in small groups, and in large groups, and the hosts provided concrete strategies for how we can better respond to such incidents. I want to share one set of interventions with you for the future.

Dr. Sara Armstrong, the players’ artistic director, related that when they first provided the resource sheet titled “Responding to Campus Climate Concerns: Less Useful Strategies” to a group of faculty and then asked them to think of better responses, the faculty said “They’re nothing left!” So they did some research and in the following workshop, presented a two-sided sheet including “Possible Strategies” to demonstrate there were other ways to respond. Most of them come straight out of the chaplains playbook: listen compassionately, thank them for sharing, acknowledge the stress, tell them they matter, ask how you can help, show them how they have many supports, boost confidence, be sympathetic, share resources, collaborate on action (if any), and follow up. Sounds simple, but its fiendishly hard partly because the other, “less useful” responses get in the way.

To help understand those responses, I’m going to share the full text from that side of the resource sheet, then some thoughtful questions they asked us to consider during the event.

If your goal is to be an ally/ to act as a support for the individual who has chosen to share their concerns with you, consider not engaging in the behavior below. Though commonly used, these behaviors often limit the possibility of positive interaction and can exacerbate an individual’s already negative sense of climate.

• Don’t assume the role of investigator. It is not your role (at least not in this moment) to determine the veracity of this individual’s claims. “Did anyone else see/hear the incident you ‘re describing? “What exactly was it that was said?”

• Don’t minimize or trivialize the interactions the person experienced. “It could be so much worse, especially now. ” “People say stupid stuff all the time. ” “You should be glad that [this other ‘worse’ thing] didn’t happen.”

• Don’t attempt to explain or rationalize the motivations or beliefs of those that were
involved. “He’s a really good guy. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” “Well, he’s
from a different generation.” “She must have been under a lot of stress. I’ve never known her to do anything like that.” “He was just trying to be funny.”

• Don’t deny the impact of marginalization on those who have been marginalized. “I
honestly don ‘t see what the big deal is.” “He didn’t mean anything by it” (implying that any hurt experienced is irrelevant).” “Groupwork is always hard” (implying that it is not meaningfully harder because of the experience that has just been described).

• Don’t uncritically compare your experiences of marginalization to others’. “I completely understand It’s exactly like when …” “Yeah, people always assume that I … too. “

• Don’t assume that others will (or should) react to situations in the ways you would or that there is only one appropriate course of action. “You have to talk to him about it.” “You need to report him.” “You have to ignore people like that.” “I wouldn’t get too wound up about it.”

• Don’ t disengage just because others’ emotions don’t mirror your own. “Maybe we should return to this when calmer heads prevail.” “I don’t appreciate your tone.” ” Well, getting upset about it doesn’t help anything.”

Source: University of Michigan Center for
Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT)

How often have we said these things to someone in distress? How often have I said them? A lot, I’m afraid.

But if they’re not helpful, why does anyone say them at all? This was a pivotal question for me, because it shifted my mind from judging to empathizing. 

Another colleague pointed out that we do them because that’s what’s been modeled to us. That’s how we’ve been treated in similar situations, especially as children telling an adult about something bad. So it’s a learned behavior, and we don’t know any better, but it’s also more than that.

Each and every one of these responses is, in some way, protective. We are protecting ourselves, our ego, our emotional, mental, and physical energy. And protecting ourselves isn’t a bad impulse; we’re just enacting it the wrong way. Staying with someone through a though situation is hard. It takes energy, especially when we’re trying to understand something that is beyond our natural frame of reference because of our different social locations.

I’m never going to understand what it was like for that African American student to hear his white classmates say racist things and watch the teacher hear them but fail to intervene. But I can imagine. I’ve heard classmates say sexist things and teachers do nothing or, worse, join in. It’s not the same (and I don’t need to bring it up), but it forms some basis for empathy.

But all that takes work. It takes energy to listen, realize he’s afraid for his safety, remember when I was afraid for my safety, experience the heartbreak with him, and … some days, I just don’t want to go there. I’m too tired, I’m too busy, I’m too … whatever, I just don’t want to go there.

At this stage in my career, I’m trained to go there. I go there everyday at the drop of a hat. But I’m also trained to handle it, to come back, to self-care. Most college instructors don’t have that level of training. I didn’t always have that (and even now, it sometimes isn’t enough). Our packet also included a five-page essay on healthy boundaries from Kerry Ann Rockquemore for that reason.

Once I realized each of these behaviors was a form of ego-protection, I was no longer shaking my mental finger at them. I felt deep compassion for myself in the past for using them and for others who respond this way (including me, from time to time). It also renewed my commitment to stick to the other side of the sheet. To listen and validate more, without jumping right into investigation and problem solving (although there are times for that, too).

It also affirmed the damage that comes from our warped sense of an enduring Self. Responding the other way, the more difficult way, because much easier and much more natural as I learned the Dharma. When I learned there was no Self to protect, as such, I could be much more open and less defensive while simultaneously being less enmeshed in the other person’s trauma. Being open also suddenly required so much less energy than it had before (still considerable, but less).

I must thank the Michigan players and RIT for reminding me of this Dharma. Overall, this is a fantastic approach to helping organizations understand the impact of marginalization and what they can do about it. I highly recommend it. If you’re still using these responses when students in crisis come to you, maybe consider letting them go, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Consider how you could listen and meet people where they are, but also be aware of your own boundaries and practice good self care. Finally, if you can, loosen that grip on ego. It’ll pay off in the long run for you and everyone around you. Good luck!

Who Will Build the Bridges?

February 21, 2018

“Reach out and touch faith” by Gaellery via

“Who should receive the bill or bear the costs of the rise in hatred against the U.S. government and the consequent pain and suffering of its citizens?” asks Pamela Ayo Yetunde, in her introduction to the winter issue of American Buddhist Women, the online magazine of Sakyadhita USA. It is a timely question, both politically and personally.

If you asked the Catholics at mass this past Ash Wednesday or the students at Friday night’s Crusade for Christ meeting, they might say “Jesus did, so we should.” In the Christian narrative, Jesus died for the sins of humanity; he accepted the suffering of the world onto himself. Christians are called on by their churches to be like Jesus. Thus, was a long tradition of martyrdom founded.

Thus, do some Christians today still see themselves as the persecuted, snug in their religious hegemony to do some persecuting of their own, to build walls and support bans. Thankfully, many other Christians their mission as one of opening arms, rather than closing doors, though the votes were not in their favor recently.

Siddhartha Guattama saw the suffering of the world and resolved to know it, leaving his princely palace and practicing austerities. The Buddha stood between armies, not to keep them apart, but to bring them together in peace. He reached out to the untouchables, the lowest of castes, women, and murderers to include them in the sangha.

Yesterday, Colin and I saw Black Panther, the newest Marvel superhero movie and so much more than that. The character of King T’challa speaks directly to the spirit of this age by saying “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” The context of the scene, which I will not spoil, lends additional weight to these words. It is as though the filmmakers are speaking directly to us, the voting public.

All these sources swirl around in my mind as I read Dr. Yetunde’s essay, calling on us Buddhists to also step out of the walls we have built around ourselves for the sake of peaceful contemplation. I too am guilty of this. I too have decreased my intake of news media for the sake of my mental health. I too have sat on my cushion and told myself it was for the good of the world, while allowing evil deeds to go unchallenged.

Where is the balance between the self-care that renews us for the work of being bodhisattvas and hiding from the pain of it all? Dr. Yetunde challenges us:

Bearings the costs and paying the bills will fall on the bodhisattvas because they have opened their very selves, through no self, to receive the sufferings of this world.  Are you ready to pay up?

For this reason, I am so glad to be stepping into this role in this place at this time.

Completing a doctoral dissertation is, in many ways, a profoundly selfish act. It has required a sustained focus on myself and my work that few other projects have entailed. It was hard to maintain mindfulness of non-self in the midst of such focus. Yet, it has also enabled me to take the next step of unfolding what I have learned through this process to the benefit of many.

Dr. Yetunde’s words, my inter-religious encounters, the life of the Buddha, and even a big-budget superhero film remind me that now is the time to take the second step. They invigorate my efforts to reach out to collaborators across this new campus when introverted tendencies would rather see me ensconced in my cozy office. They compel me to take the risk of rejection for paper proposals at conferences and in publications to disseminate and continue beneficial research.

They also remind me that politics and religion are not and can never be divorced. I have contemplated this over the past week, walking in and out of the interfaith center where I now work. Where are the symbols of ally-ship? What does their lack in this space communicate to others in need of refuge?  How might we communicate and serve as that refuge for all the members of this campus community?

The Dharma is everywhere. I encourage all of you to seek out Dr. Yetunde’s essay, to remain open to learning from those of different worldviews, and to go see Black Panther, when you are able. But also, I encourage you to be mindful of where you have built barriers, both emotional and physical, and to what end? Boundaries can be healthy, but when do they serve as walls rather than bridges?

Incognito Buddhist

February 18, 2018

“Hidden Buddha,” by Sakkra Paiboon via

As the first week of my new position in Rochester drew to a close, I pondered when and why I choose to disclose to others that I am a Buddhist. Why did I tell the Jewish student-leaders and the Hindu gentleman who visited us, but I did not tell the Catholic bishop or the Campus Crusade for Christ students? What is Right Speech in this instance?

Sometimes it has to do with the natural flow of the conversation. When speaking with the Muslim chaplain, we were joking about who was older and I asked if the past lives of Buddhists counted. We had a good laugh.

Sometimes disclosure creates a sense of empathy and solidarity between religious groups. With the Hindu gentleman who was completing CPE at a local hospital, we commiserated over the novelty of chaplaincy as a profession for both Hindus and Buddhists.

At other times, I did not disclose. I attended the Catholic mass for Ash Wednesday and I was very happy to see a packed chapel, with several rows standing in the back. However, I did not get ashes or receive communion, and so it was very obvious I was not Catholic. Yet, when I introduced myself to the bishop emeritus who had kindly presided over the lovely service, I only mentioned my new position.

I also attended the Campus Crusade for Christ meeting on Friday night, or Cru, for short. They are a very energetic and charismatic group. After the presentation (I hesitate to call it a “sermon,” though it had certain flavors of that), we were encouraged to discuss four questions about grace with one another. I joined a small group and listened, but did not offer any opinions. I thanked them for letting me listen.

Cru offered a good opportunity for students to develop what one might call a “self-authored worldview” – to think deeply about the beliefs with which they were raised (or not) and decide for themselves what they will follow (or not). Yet, again, while I introduced myself by my title, I did not mention I was not Christian. If they assumed so, I did not correct them.

The Catholic mass was formulaic and beautiful. I deeply enjoy their message of being mindful of our failings and resolving to do better. The Cru meeting less ritualized, but still compelling. I felt that the Cru meeting deliberately engaged more critical thinking skills. Though I naturally disagreed with several assertions and chains of reasoning presented, it wasn’t the time or place to say so.

In general, I noticed that I tend to disclose my Buddhist identity to other religious minorities in order to foster a sense of empathy and solidarity. I don’t know if I always succeed. Am I highlighting a reassuring commonality? Or simply noting a difference?

I am less quick to disclose my religious identity to the religious majority (i.e. Christians) as I feel it would create a sense of separation, rather than a drawing closer. But I wonder if this assumption has more to do with me and my baggage (however light)? I have no doubt that the Catholic and Christian chaplains know and welcome me, but what would a freshman student who’s interacted very little with someone from another religion do with that knowledge?

Nor have I felt it necessary to disclose my religious identity to colleagues from other departments with whom we might collaborate on programming. Rather I reassure them that my department is happy to provide programming both for specific people with specific religious needs and for non-religious and inter-religious populations on common topics. In other words, we can tailor our offerings to welcome the nonreligious constituents of the university.

Self-disclosure is a question that Buddhist chaplains commonly face no matter where we work. When is it Right Speech to disclose our Buddhist identity? Generally, I only disclose when it is timely, relevant, true, and helpful to do so, but that is still a judgement call. There is no way to control how another will receive that information and what they will do with it. Will it build a bridge or a wall in their minds?

But there is also a flip side to that question. When it is not Right Speech to withhold our Buddhist identity? Can silence ever be wrong speech? This is especially pressing for those of us who don’t “look Buddhist” or wear any outward signs of our religious commitments. Am I doing harm by allowing others to assume I’m Christian or another religion? Could this later foster a sense of distrust?

Of course, it is also hard to know just what they assume. When someone makes an overt statement about my religious identity, I have corrected them (not this week, but in the past). But mostly people keep their assumptions to themselves. I can only assume what they are assuming, and assumptions are dangerous things, as we Buddhists know.

I can only proceed with Right Intention, Right Mindfulness, and Right Speech and hope that the seeds I plant create good fruit. But I’m sure I’ll also have to do a little weeding.

Be Excellent

February 4, 2018

be excellent

When they finish their doctorate, many people say, “I don’t feel like a doctor.” This feeling can continue for a year or more, even into their first faculty gig. It’s especially prevalent in women and minorities. It’s called “impostor syndrome.”

When I finished my doctorate by successfully defending my dissertation on January 25th and my chair told me I could now call myself “Dr.” and use PhD behind my name, I owned it. I feel like an effing doctor. I worked hard for it. I earned it. But that’s not why I feel like a doctor.

I feel like a doctor because I’ve been treated as a peer by people who do carry that title for the last several years. I believe that is the decisive factor. How others treat us influences who we feel we are.

Our sense of self is conditioned by the behavior of others, behavior we can very rarely control. This has huge implications for issues of race, gender, class, orientation, ability, age, and so many other factors.

A few years ago, I worked with a group of student leaders who were predominantly minority and the first members of their families to go to college. They came from poor high schools that did not fully prepare them for college. They all worked outside of school, often in low-paying jobs (like fast food) with bad managers.

Staff wanted them to do well, but in attempting to give them advice, the students felt disrespected. Staff members’ behavior had unintentionally mimicked how the students had been treated by teachers and supervisors of the past who clearly did not respect them. The students were conditioned to perceive disrespect because they had been treated disrespectfully so often.

Moreover, the people who treated them this way in the past also exercised power over them. The students protected themselves by closing off relationships with people who treated them that way, which was a good strategy at the time, but not effective in the new context. They now had the opportunity to step into their leadership roles, tell the staff how they wanted to be treated, and improve communication in the long-term. First they had to overcome old habits (which I’m happy to say they did).

People with imposter syndrome often have more power than they believe they do. They fail to exercise it because they cling to old ideas of self that are conditioned by how others have treated them in the past.

For years I was limited by an old notion of myself as a student. I was a “bad student,” a trouble maker, the kid who was “smart but…” I expected my teachers to abandon me and, at a certain point in the relationship, I would begin to sabotage it. My behavior was conditioned by how others had treated me in the past and I was clinging to an old understanding of self.

The last few years, I have finally shed that identity. I have seen through it and I didn’t do it all by myself.

There were three primary factors that helped me overcome my impostor syndrome. First, my Buddhist practice gave me the cognitive framework I needed to understand the nature of my identity as conditioned, conditional, and changing. Second, my wonderful peers and colleagues valued me, which helped my value myself and grow into my own expertise. Third, good teachers stuck with me and helped me understand my old patterns in new ways; they affirmed that I was not only a good student, but a worthy scholar.

In respect to the second and third points, these people helped me by acting as spiritual friends on my path. By presenting a new set of conditions, they helped me let go of old attachments and identities and form newer healthy ones – while simultaneously gaining a deeper understanding of the conditionality of that identity.

Sometimes I see things online that say “You get the love you think you deserve” or “How can others love you if you don’t love yourself?” Encouraging people to love themselves more is well-intentioned.

I also believe these ideas are total and complete bullshit. We are social beings. We are entirely conditioned and interdependent. Telling people they only get the love they think they deserve is like telling them “It’s your fault other people treat you poorly.” That’s horrible and also completely untrue.

On the one hand, the student leaders saw the disrespect they expected, even when it wasn’t there. I didn’t see the support of many teachers who helped me because some of them hadn’t. We perceive what we expect, and we need to become mindful of how limiting that is.

On the other hand, be really do need other people to treat us well in order to begin to believe we deserve to be treated well. Sometimes we have to demand it ourselves, and other times we are fortunate enough to find people who do it despite persistent self-limiting behavior. Either way, people overcome impostor syndrome when they are repeatedly treated like the experts they are.

To paraphrase Bill and Ted: be excellent to each other. Even if someone isn’t an expert yet, treat them with respect now so that they can grow into the kind of experts we need to face the urgent problems of the world.

New Adventures

January 24, 2018

‘Walk Away’ by Michał Koralewski via

This blog has lain dormant for a bit. Writing my qualifying exams last year, followed by my dissertation, tapped out my literary energies. I have produced more scholarly writing in 2017 than any other year and I am proud of what I have accomplished.

I look forward to revitalizing this blog, in part, with what I have learned through my academic adventures. But that is not the adventure I have come to share. That is soon to be in the past.

My dissertation sits on my desk beside me, all 339 pages, ready to defend tomorrow morning. I will probably be nervous about that tomorrow, but today I am not worried about it. First, worrying today will do no good. I’m actually managing this present moment thing we Buddhists talk so much about. So much so, that I usually role my eyes on hearing about it again, even though I do try to practice it. Second, my committee chair wrote on Facebook over the weekend that he was enjoying reading my “kick-ass” dissertation. So I think that’s a good sign, right? I’ll probably still be nervous tomorrow.

The adventure I really want to share is the one coming up after the defense. It is both happy and sad. I am sad because I will be leaving University of the West, which has been my home and family in California these past seven years. I came as a graduate student in 2010, which is when the Dharma Cowgirl blog began. I was hired part-time, then full-time, then promoted to the executive team.

I have worked hard with a dedicated group of folks who love our small, slightly dysfunctional school, to make it better. It’s still slightly dysfunctional, but in the way of your favorite sitcom family. I don’t expect that to change until UWest grows a bit and can hire people to do what should properly be six jobs, but one person is currently managing alone. Until then, it will continue to be a lovely quirky family. I hope it never looses its family feeling or quirkiness even as it gains more students and staff in years to come.

I could not have learned as much as I did at a larger school, where they have the six people to do the six jobs (and they all have assistants). Instead, I was able to see everything that any school needs to do, regardless of size, and understand how the pieces work together. Everyone in academia should spend some time in a very small school. My time at UWest is invaluable.

I’ll miss the people most. Who will I have lunch with in the dining hall and dinner with on Thursdays and go to movies and marches with on weekends? I’m sure I’ll make new friends, but I’ll still miss my friends from UWest, students, faculty, and staff. Let me tell you about these people.

Yesterday, they threw me a Star Wars themed going away party in a hall decorated like the Mos Eisley Cantina. They had light sabers and theatrical music and a very cool video narrating my departure, make by my friend and colleague, Eddie Escalante:

It was like my 10-year-old self finally got the birthday party she always wanted, full of friends and laughter, presents and hugs and cake. How could I ever leave such a great family?

That brings me to my new adventure (I realize I’ve buried the lead). Next week, Colin and I will be packing up the dog, cat, and everything else, and driving 2,500 miles to Rochester, New York, where I will become the Assistant Director for Spirituality and Religious Life at Rochester Institute of Technology. I get to be a full-time campus chaplain to a school full of geeks! How fantastic is that?

My car is already on its way. The moving company is coming next Tuesday. Our house is waiting for us. There is snow on the ground, but I’m looking forward to that. I miss snow. (I might change my mind by March.) I start at RIT on February 12. Hello, Tigers! A new life and new adventure is waiting.

As far as I know, I will only be the second Buddhist in the country to hold such a position. But I won’t be alone. Rochester is the home of the famous Zen Center founded by Philip Kapleau Roshi and there are several other Buddhist groups in the Rochester area and many retreat centers throughout New England.

I am looking forward to sharing more about this upcoming adventure and revitalizing Dharma Cowgirl for a new chapter in life.