This essay appears in the issue “Rest and Creativity” (Volume 9, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.1
In my undergraduate years I hardly considered the impact that constantly being in survival mode had on my mind, body, and spirit. In hindsight, the structures of racial capitalism welcomed and enticed my indifference to the inescapability of growing old. How could I make sense of the nature of growing old when the prospect of having some semblance of financial stability was a tidal wave that would wash over my body countless times, without me ever realizing it until I was already in the middle of the ocean and the shoreline was barely a speck?
This question is clear to me now due to deep contemplation. However, it was not clear to me then. The goal was to take as many classes as I could to make sure my financial aid would remain intact. I felt significant pressure to keep my grades up because of a “merit” scholarship. My family was broke. I worked tirelessly to have some money so that I could unwind on the weekend and pay for gas, rent, and outdated textbooks for my classes, as well as to contribute to whatever expenses my Ma’ needed help with, rent and groceries to name a few. My days seemed to never end and seemed to constantly overlap. I slept infrequently, and when I did, it was only due to the exhaustion of caffeine crashes and unyielding late-night study sessions. I relied on coffee with too much sugar to make it through back-to-back classes with professors who insisted that those of us who did not participate in extracurricular activities and programming were “missing out” and were “not as dedicated” to the cause of decolonial study. I would leave crumbs in the car as I hurriedly ate while racing through traffic to make it to work on time. After working tirelessly for hours, I would eat a rushed dinner, followed by trips to the liquor store for burnt coffee, snacks, and a pack of cigarettes. From there I would go to the campus library for late-night study sessions. My breaks consisted of this combination of nicotine and caffeine, substances I still long for. The external work paid off in the form of a prestigious undergraduate fellowship which rewarded these odd habits. I was then introduced to the “publish or perish” model that would come to define and inform my studies.
Therein lies an irony. Although I did not observe the remembrance of growing old, I was in fact rapidly aging and running my body down. The training ground of the university professionalizes students through the study or perish model and overworks students of color, especially those of us who are compelled into scholarly pursuits. By design, these models of work, productivity, and reward neglect contemplation, rest, and mindfulness, and I, along with many other young scholars of color, had internalized these practices. By ignoring the truth of our own impermanence, we accelerate our aging process.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
The internalization of this condition from my undergraduate years quickened the pace of aging, and contributed to my ill health. These same processes followed me into graduate school, where things got worse. I smoked even more, and drinking became routine. With little hydration—I smoked more packs a day than I drank glasses of water—poor health awaited me. In fact, I found myself ill on many occasions. On the one hand, I was deeply engaged in my Ethnic Studies work, living the “life of the mind,” and becoming well-rounded as a scholar. On the other hand, I relied too heavily on those studies for a sense of my own worth and value and cared very little for my body. I was pre-diabetic, had high liver enzymes, severe stomach cramps that landed me in the hospital, high cholesterol, and my smoker’s cough stopped being a running joke; I was out of breath everywhere I went. In terms of the life of the mind, operating within the terms of western enlightenment, I found very little about mind-body-spirit alignment in practice.
Even though I was reading about new models for economic and societal transformation, and of abolitionist practice, I was constantly suffering from severe migraines, insomnia, and often suicidal ideation. Conceptually, I studied theories that imagined better worlds where we could have greater wellbeing. In practice, however, I was making myself sick. I was embodying the fate of many of the academics of color that I was reading about, premature aging and ill health, produced by centuries of colonial violence wrought upon communities of color, was unfolding in the brutal racialized process of professionalization.2 Achievement and accomplishment were mirages, while drudging hangovers, bouts of depression, and reckless and insufferable self-loathing became part of my everyday reality. My relationships with friends and loved ones suffered, even as my work thrived in the ruin. Fellowships, grants, the “revise and resubmit” email from a publisher, and positive student evaluations of my teaching served as evidence of success in the “life of the mind.” I was publishing, and yet, I was also perishing.
Could peace be found in such conditions? In the present day, I reflect on this question and name the remembrance. There is great wisdom in not escaping these memories of ill health. Gently acknowledging these memories as a form of contemplating this remembrance opens the space for moving slowly, a vital practice for aligning with our true nature.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
My journey through racialized projects of professionalization both in undergraduate and graduate school resulted in an intense internalization of habits that quickened my aging and made me sick. This journey led to a persistent ignorance of messages from my body to awaken, and consequently, this put me on a path towards premature death. Racialized professionalization in academia, often heralded by the mantra of “publish or perish,” dramatically impacted my capacity to listen to and speak the language of my body. How could I listen to my body in spite of the academic binary of publish or perish? The distractions of writing, reading, and teaching, while ignoring these messages, was no longer sustainable. At long last, a message managed to break through when I left Minneapolis to finish my dissertation back home in Los Angeles.
A metaphysical death awaited me when I moved back. It was inescapable. I missed my family. I missed the sunshine. I missed my community. I was working on finishing my dissertation and even landed an adjunct position. At this point I was teaching seven to eight classes spread out across three, sometimes four campuses. I often drove from Compton to East L.A., and from East L.A. to Fullerton. Because of this schedule, I found that fast food was convenient, and so was the coffee and the smoking. The stress of driving—sitting in traffic and trying to find parking at short notice—was exhausting. After months of this culture of rushing around, I was beginning to break down. I wrote in a haze of substances and smoke, but I finished my dissertation, successfully defended it, and graduated.
But soon after walking the stage and receiving my doctorate I began having nightmares, and would wake up with flashbacks. I had climbed the intellectual mountain and found the summit to be suffocating. Childhood traumas of violence and abuse now completely consumed my consciousness. All the so-called resilience and resistance that was over-valued in my field and which had gotten me to this point of success, was depleted. I sought out a therapist and they told me that my culture was inherently problematic. I cried endlessly. After a night of too many substances, when a conscious out-of-body experience and a suicidal visualization took hold of me, my body decided it was time to put an end to the extreme internalization of the work and perish model that had caused my mind to suffer. I sought another therapist who, like me, had Central American roots, someone who was also a specialist in childhood trauma. At one point in between my second and third session, I thought I was having a heart attack at work. Somehow, I managed to drive myself home, and my sister took me to the emergency room. It was not a heart attack. I was experiencing my first sudden panic attack.
The truth of the remembrance “I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death” was now right in front me—would I listen to what my body was communicating? What practices beyond the production of my labor would allow me to remember that we are of the nature to die? I did not want to be indifferent to death and dying. I wanted to learn how to live, and so I had to begin sitting with the wisdom of no escape, and the remembrance of death itself. This remembrance, coupled with practice, offered me a way to refuse the conditions of premature death, and it awakened the possibility for inner growth.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
Relating to the wisdom of no escape was difficult at first, even excruciating. I grew afraid of the changes and transformations that were possible. Who would I be if I let myself change? How would my relationships change? This was part of the panic, and the relentless and severe daily panic attacks made it extremely difficult to sleep. I would find myself walking at 10:30 pm wandering the streets and looking at the skies, wondering if I would ever survive and endure the pain I was experiencing.
During these moments, I started listening to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Chögyam Trungpa, Jarvis Jay Masters, and Pema Chödrön. I began meditating daily. I began to realize that I could have a relationship with my pain, and perhaps, befriend my suffering. My suffering began at the charnel grounds of my life, my traumas, and my past. I sat with the horrors of my memories of childhood trauma. These forms of suffering revealed themselves only after I achieved the kind of success which I believed would actually mask that pain. At times, I sat with anger, and found myself at odds with myself. I deeply wanted to change and to evolve; I felt the aggression I had with myself and with anyone holding me back. I grew impatient with the teachings, even as I learned from Jarvis Jay Masters that anger with the teachings is common in meditation. I was so angry that, even with the leisure that was available to me, I could not access the peace I so desperately wanted. I was so disgusted that I could not bridge the perspective I learned from Jarvis—suffering on death row in ways I could not imagine—with my own life. I learned that chasing peace itself was ambition, and in ambition, pain and suffering are eternal.
However, self-compassion and concentration practices generated the space to sit in the present moment, a moment which is so often stolen away by the demands of racial capitalism. Rather than an expert in an academic field, I became a curious amateur of my beginner’s mind. I began refocusing my view in the space of no-being, the groundlessness and fullness of emptiness. I read the work of Lama Rod Owens, and began identifying ways of gentle and compassionate contemplation that countered the rigors of publish and perish; I encountered a way to balance the work I was doing with my own physical and spiritual wellbeing. I began considering the labor I did at work as more tied to spiritual alchemy in sitting with the nature of my mortality than to material labor for the purpose of capitalist humanity. Meditation became part of the way I began my classes and how I connected with students. Meditation allowed my students and I to engage the space of quietness, our inner peace, and our bodies in relationship with the important work that was on the pages of assigned readings. I also built mindfulness and reflection weeks into our lesson plans and shared with my students different meditations, breathing practices, and even my own story and struggles with contemplative practice. This opened the space for even more generative relationships with students— ones that did not always already begin with the rushed and compressive stresses of assignments. We could center our mortality, not just our labor.
Beyond the work or perish model that I had been socialized into, a path full of community was now opening, and at its center was contemplation. My relationships with others evolved as well. Those with whom I once drank and congregated became increasingly distant from me. I mourned this then, and perhaps will continue to mourn this, and those with whom I shared my healing story wanted me to stay in the past. They felt the boundaries I established were too threatening. I experienced a deep sense of loss stemming from the end of these relationships, but meditating on impermanence provided a space for loving kindness and compassion to evolve where these relationships faltered. My relationship with ambition, and with the desire to change—so necessary to my survival—also evolved. There was no escaping this either.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I find great peace in times of suffering through contemplation. Meditative practices encourage a gentle but precise engagement with my earlier indifference to the five remembrances, and toward a more loving relationship with my own mortality. Sitting meditation, walking meditation, writing short poems, resting with my spirit, and eating with peace have encouraged me to stay present. These practices have become the ground I walk on. Now I reckon with the past with embodied engagement and good will. I encourage students in my classrooms to contemplate with meditation, rather than just studying for accomplishment and evaluation. The cultivation of both inner peace and social justice for the kind of racialized harm I experienced because of academia’s drive toward professionalization, as well as compassion for self and others living in this violent world we occupy, has become a daily emphasis in my meditation, be it walking or sitting practice. Contemplative social justice holds the potential for great individual peace, as well as the possibility of loving-kindness for ourselves, each other, and this beautiful planet we live on.
Two great teachers of mine recently transitioned—teachers who also happened to share space—bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh. In a 2017 conversation with one another, hooks asked Thich Nhat Hanh “what is your thinking about why people are moving away from love, and how can we be part of moving our society towards love”? Thich Nhat Hanh responded with this reflection:
In our own Buddhist sangha, community is the core of everything. The sangha is a community where there should be harmony and peace and understanding. That is something created by our daily life together. If love is there in the community, if we’ve been nourished by the harmony in the community, then we will never move away from love. The reason we might lose this is because we are always looking outside of us, thinking that the object or action of love is out there. That is why we allow the love, the harmony, the mature understanding, to slip away from ourselves. This is, I think, the basic thing. That is why we have to go back to our community and renew it. Then love will grow back. Understanding and harmony will grow back. That’s the first thing.3
The writing, contemplation, and loving-kindness of these remarkable Buddhist teachers engaged in social and racial justice brings forth a path and a ground to walk on, a space to accompany one another in relation to our deepest suffering. Their alchemy of love and spiritual teaching radically transformed so much of the way I understand my past wounds. They did not study and write to publish and perish, but instead, to teach us to write and to love in order to teach ourselves how to welcome the five remembrances, which are the facts of life. We are of the nature to grow old, and there is no escape. We will have ill health, and there is no way to escape ill health. We are of the nature to die, and there is no escape. All that is dear, and everyone I love, will change, and there is no escape. My actions are my belongings and are the ground I stand upon. I now rest. I do not write to perish, but instead, to welcome life, and to hopefully allow more life to blossom, as bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh have taught us. We cannot escape the consequences of doing and living otherwise. This is the ground and the path we all share.
With his heart in the pueblos of Palmichal and Tabarcia and the capital city of San José, Costa Rica where he was born, Dr. Mario Alberto Obando (he/him/his) found his intellectual home as an Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies in the Department of Chicana/o Studies at CSU Fullerton where his teaching, research and writing holds dear the queer and feminist of color interventions into transnational American studies, Chicanx and Latinx studies and critical and relational ethnic studies. Mario’s work has appeared in Performance Studies Journal, Latino Studies, Cinephile: Journal of the University of British Columbia’s Film Journal, and Journal of American Ethnic History. His most recent article, “Beyond Essential Laborers, Toward Globalized Morals in and Beyond the Ethnic Studies Classroom in the Early Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published in Kalfou: Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies. At CSUF, Mario is also the adviser of the student organization Central Americans for Empowerment, CAFÉ. He is the co-host, co-creator, and co-writer of The Alchemist Manifesto Podcast.
- Sr Thuận Nghiêm, “The Five Remembrances,” Plum Village, May 17, 2018, https://plumvillage.org/library/dharma-talks/the-five-remembrances-sr-thuan-nghiem-spring-retreat-2018-05-17/. The Five Remembrances cited in this essay all come from the Plum Village community. ↩
- Grace Hong, “The Future of Our Worlds”: Black Feminism and the Politics of Knowledge in the University under Globalization,” Meridians 8, no. 2 (2008), 95-115. ↩
- bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh, “Building a Community of Love: bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh,” Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time, March 24, 2017, https://www.lionsroar.com/bell-hooks-and-thich-nhat-hanh-on-building-a-community-of-love/. ↩