Intimacy and Efficacy • 31 October 2017

Solitude in Academia

Ghost is the creepy way of saying ancestor. There is history, and there is secret history. The latter does the haunting.

My memory’s been stormed since September with the learning that was exciting and new a decade ago, through projects and classes with Peter in the magic months before he died. Meantime, I’m listening to the people who talk about regenerative culture, considering what it means to be a good ancestor, both to future Earthlings and specifically yoga practitioners. Some small part of that is stewarding the memories that are in me, but not just for me. Peter’s insight and contribution were so strong; and ten years on I wonder if they are already most forgotten. All of a sudden now I keep mentioning him in parentheses: the way he taught enlightened game theory, the fact that he was the first person as far as we know to take troupes undergrads on meditation retreats, the way he used the rubric of school grades to introduce the idea of karma without ever saying the word.

So, to be clear: my mentor’s name was Peter Kollock. He was a star undergrad teacher at UCLA, pioneer of integrating mindfulness into university education, an expert in the sociology of trust-building and cooperation, a secret Zen monk and even more secretly superrich maven of the early internet. People didn’t think much of him. Not that they thought poorly of him; they did not think of him at all; he was as evanescent as he was clever. He left good knowledge with people, but always without a trademark or a whiff of personality attached. He found the notion of ownership unbeautiful, and trademarking trite. Peter died at the top of Malibu Canyon in 2009, when his motorcycle slammed in to a tree.

Last week someone asked what made me go to Mysore for the first time, nine years after starting to practice (and nine years ago). Usually I just say I went to pay my respects. But this time more of the history came out. “Uhh. My mentor died and I didn’t know what to do and he’d told me to stop pretending not to have spiritual life and… I guess it’s time to share what happened there.” At the time, January 2009, I wrote about it vaguely, with spacious reasonable emotions and no clarity on the cosmic emptying force of his departure. I expressed violence towards motorcycles, and an intention to be marked but not scarred by what happened.

I was vague, because lost. We had been working for years on a book (on the development of trust in alternative markets, the elimination of middle-men like banks and brokers in trade relationships and something amazing called implicit contracting). That semester, I was assisting him teach Sociology of Culture to 150 undergrads. When he stopped breathing, all this ended. My Chair called on a Saturday and said “It’s Peter.” Those two words gave me the what, and the how. I spent the following days in gentle, super-reflective shock and carefully watched for years as different aspects of grief moved through my system… even as they are moving now. But at no point was there the very bad sadness. No empty damp downwardness of loss. This is socially inappropriate and smells a little like depersonalization; and it’s why I haven’t known what to say.

On January 10 what I had left in addition to so much implicit instruction about Being was just this: the keys to various offices and file cabinets, the blessing of responsibility for coordinating the funeral with his family, and the one serious instruction he had ever gone to the trouble to offer. Peter had been hyper-alive, but nobody was shocked by his departure. We all agreed that he’d gotten ready. He’d just taken six months of retreat alongside beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn. He had almost no stuff. Even I (his only grad student) wasn’t a loose end; he clearly knew that even if I didn’t.

Being lost, I followed the one instruction. I am still following it.

The thing is, Peter kept his spiritual practice in the closet. Of all the professors in our department, only the Chair knew about the Zen thing, and only because he had to know why all the important mail went to me for months on end. It was smart for Peter to hide his practice. Being a meditator-intellectual is cool now because the Mind and Life Institute and the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) made it cool. Ten years ago, contemplative practice smelled like religion and it was a good way to get yourself disrespected at faculty meetings. Academic condescention is hollow, but still it kills. In material ways: that condescention kills your projects.

As he quietly helped lay the groundwork at the MARC, and recruited me to one of its maverick projects, Peter would say to me that times were changing in academia. It wouldn’t always be taboo to have a contemplative practice. He knew this then-anoymous blog existed for some other side of me, the part that was absorbed with yoga, and this anonymity concerned him because he knew it was still necessary for me as a professional. (My brother and another friend created this as an anonymous playspace because academic writing made me miserable. They also named it, something random that included my favorite bird. Owls weren’t hipster yet, because Etsy and the home décor section of Anthropologie still did not exist).

In my career, Peter said, I’d have a responsibility to be out about my yoga practice. Be an example of a person who could integrate scientific and spiritual reasoning. By that time, ashtanga had been the foundation of my daily ritual for years and I was crazy serious about it. I was not “dedicated” (that term is too polite), so much as ludicrously interested. Still am. But this was hidden in the Department, where I was a serious professional with a strong publications and a future. So, after Peter’s funeral, when I told people I was going to India for an indefinite period to grieve and to pay my respects to the lineage (what?) of my yoga practice (no way), I looked a little nuts and a lot unprofessional.

Peter was the guy who won university teaching awards, all of the time. He was captivating in the classroom, but more importantly he had an ability to leave people with practical knowledge that stuck, instead of the memory if his name or face. “Intimacy and Efficacy,” he told a group after a difficult auto-ethnographic project on their own relationships with money. These are the two things you need to be happy in this life. Not money. Intimacy and efficacy. I bet a lot of us still steer by those stars.

Peter never gave me a teaching formula; he studied me well enough to understand my biases, and then communicated his way of being/doing through language and values we already shared. This was how he mentored – he took FAR more interest in the mind that I brought to the relationship than in any agenda for how I’d think as a result of the relationship. And then he let me observe him just being himself. I watched him draw the best out of students over and over, watched him create situations where they could draw the best out of him.

He was always so much fun to talk to. He’d been a pioneer of the early internet, during his grad school days in Seattle. He was a data junkie, like me. And like me he was interested in too many literatures, too many disciplines, and – worst of all – metaphysics. He made excellent tea. He undertook spiritual journeys, mostly within and sometimes through pilgrimage. He was extremely funny and irreverent and yet sensitive enough to be the only other vegetarian in the building. I think that I grew especially fast with his advising because, once he accepted me as a student, he trusted me and was extremely generous with me. I did not have to keep earning approval or trying to please him. He wanted me to enjoy my life and work, and just my being. How subversive. I responded extremely well to this deep acceptance, and began to experience academic work as play. I got way more creative and productive. And, integrating Foucault, I started to see various mental prisons around me for what they were, opting whenever I could to get more free.

In an Economic Sociology seminar, I assisted Peter teaching Robert Axelrod’s early game theory book, The Evolution of Cooperation. This is the story of the emergence of mutually assured destruction – the way that global annihilation “logically” emerges from successive encounters in which individuals try to maximize their personal gain. We offered the students space to play the simple “Prisoners Dilemma” game from Axelrod’s research but to try out blind trust… and to directly experience that a tiny majority of actions based on blind trust lead to a radical increase in wellbeing for all – even for selfish freeriders. Assisting 150 people to integrate this empirical truth changed my life, and set the foundational premises for the way I now do so-called business.

Peter guided every group of students to a crossroads. His work always secretly addressed the deep mind – where long term memory and subconscious beliefs reside. There would be a project at the crux of every class, just before the drop date, that would push students to some sort of hard edge of self-reflection. Some would give up and quit the class; many would generate a realization that would alter some deep structure of their received belief system. In his “Art of Peacemaking” class, the crossroads was a long weekend at Thic Nhat Hahn’s monestary in Escondido, called Deer Park. God knows how he got away with that in the aughts, but there we were, taking undergrads on Zen retreat where they harvested the vegetables they ate for lunch, and interviewed Vietnamese monks about the quiet life, and began to learn how to think about thinking. Back then, most of them would leave their phones back at the dorm for 3 days straight. Those were beautiful weekends.

Peter was uncompromising with the grading process, as I am now when I teach university. Students earned the grades they earned. He never created situations in which they could benefit (and degrade themselves) by acting in a manipulative fashion. And he especially avoided situations in which students could flatter him in any way. Through this, I came to experience by its weird absencre how pervasive flattery is in hierarchial cultures, and how degrading it is to both the giver and receiver. Anyway, there wasn’t space for manipulation or debate or specialness in his protocols. Grades weren’t an index of student-teacher rapport. They expressed the student’s relationship with the material itself.

Like this, Peter kept a lot of space between himself and most everyone. His boundaries were transparent and very very broad, in harmony with his aesthetic of minimalism + Pureland Zen. His way of setting boundaries with me involved refraining from drawing me in to a hierarchial dynamic where he was my patron and I owed him and tried to cultivate his approval and personal investment in me. He just didn’t care about bossing me around or getting my gratitude. We were together in the same boat as secret meditators and vegetarian metaphysicians, and he treated me as a colleague. I cannot overstate what a weird, self-defeating stance this is to take with an inferior in an intensely status-determined environment.

Not that Peter had much of a self to defeat. Talking with him gave me space to question the values of the academic system, and of the yoga subculture I inhabited. Were the regnant ideals in those scenes (insider status, hard work) used to hold systems of toil and hierarchy in place? (Yes.) Was there anything wrong with just enjoying the process of being an academic, the process of contemplative practice, without ANY sense of achievement or goal orientation to drive it? (Weirdly, yes.)

So instead of making me wait until I reached the appropriate place in the social order, Peter gave me the keys to one of finest offices in the building. There I quietly did my research and very often my yoga practice throughout grad school, and didn’t mention the address to anyone who’d resent it. Instead of using his grants to purchase books we could use from the library, he’d take collaborators and me for dinner at the finest restaurants in Santa Monica, where they’d chuckle at my idea of “indulgence” over a big salad and tea. He liked being alive, a lot, and sometimes that showed up in material ways. But he didn’t experience luxury and cost as overlapping. Luxury was a minute alone at the desk with the computer off, a beautiful memory of his teacher Thay, and most certainly it was plain rice at the Faculty Club. He wanted me to be well supported and well nourished in a time when otherwise I was – and long had been – cruising high on notions of asceticism. Introducing the resources of new knowledge and support into my life, he took care that I’d never think I owed him a thing.

That said, when I read back to what I wrote about Peter almost 9 years ago now, I see that the days following of his death are when I decided that my whole life was a story of generosity I’d received and could never repay. When he died, what was brought into relief for me, and transmitted, was his implicit ideology of service. Something like that had always been there, given who my parents are. But I had fought the notion extremely hard, maybe because I had not fully understood how much I had to be grateful for.

Then Peter went jumped into the emptiness before anyone could say thank you. Clever.


Peter’s whole pedagogy was this: don’t get between students and their karma. Let them realize the path that they’re already on.

He died. And we gave him a beautiful, super-awkward funeral. And then I went to Mysore to pay my respects. There Patthabhi Jois was, too, at the end of his life. I tried to stay invisible practicing in the midst of that, just thanking the yoga that had long been and might always be my inner home.

After two weeks I decided to change my ticket to come home early. I felt done and was sick of being hot and dusty. The feeling at the KPJAYI in winter of 2009 was so sad. But then, something went backwards. I started to feel a bond with a teacher, someone I’d met in America years before; someone currently in the middle of the painful family turmoil there. This was a moment, I think, when Peter’s implicit instruction about pilgrimage and devotion fastened into my mind.

Not understanding myself, I changed my ticket not to come home early but to stay longer. I went more into the sadness and discomfort there, and then accidentally was in love with the life and study in Mysore as an end of itself. And then I went home and realized that the life I had was re-anchored in my practice, in a way it was no longer possible to keep hidden. From that time forward I was out as a contemplative practitioner, far sooner than Peter had suggested it would happen.