On Wednesday, April 18th, Cristina Pérez Jiménez, Ph.D., delivered a lecture at the last Agape Latte of the semester. Jiménez is an assistant professor of English, with a specialty in Hispanic Caribbean and U.S. Latino/a literatures and culture.
Students came out to the event for the cupcakes and pizza, but stayed for Jiménez’s eloquent, inspirational, and hilarious speech. Jiménez wanted to share formative experiences with her audience, stories which they wouldn’t know about her just from sitting in her classroom or working alongside her.
“I’m sharing some personal experiences that I’ve never spoken about publicly, so this is the first time I’ve talked about these things, and reflecting on them has been an interesting experience for me,” Jiménez opened.
The talk, which Jiménez titled “When I Thought I Could Fly”, may at first sound like a metaphor, but Jiménez clarifies that she intended this to be literal: “I really thought I could fly. I am a literature professor, but I do not mean this in a metaphoric sense, I do not mean this as a figure of speech… and no, it was not drugs. I really thought I could fly.”
For six collective years, Jiménez lived in communities of people who spent many hours each day practicing “advanced meditation” with the goal of eventually levitating, or flying. She admits how outlandish this sounds, and explains that what brought her to this place in life was something we all can relate to: teenage angst.
“I just had a lot of angst. I was rebellious. Teenagehood is just a difficult period, we all kind of struggle through our teenage years, very few people remain unscathed. It was like that for me. I think a lot of teenagers want to fit in, and it’s a period when we’re leaving behind the child and becoming the adult, and that process can be rocky—we don’t yet have a grounded sense of self, we’re trying to figure out who we are, we’re hormonal, and it is difficult,” Jiménez said.
She also reflected on what set her apart from other teenagers, in that she didn’t want to “fit in” to conventional ideas of life.
“I was consumed—obsessed really—with the big existential questions of life. Why are we here? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do we have poverty on the scale that we have? Why are there wars? What’s the point of life? What kind of life do I want to lead? Is there hell? Is there reincarnation? I really wanted to live an expanded life,” she said.
In her search for selfhood, Jiménez knew that she wanted to lead a unique life, and that she didn’t want to be like her parents. What influenced her most was books.
“I read dangerously and precociously, I read all of these books, a lot of pseudo-philosophical and spiritual works that make me cringe a little bit now, but as a teenager, reading about these ideas opened a different world to me than what was available in my immediate surroundings,” Jiménez said.
Amidst this reading addiction, Jiménez discovered a box of her father’s old copies of works by Herman Hesse, a German author best known for his novel Siddhartha.
“I read and re-read them, I was obsessing over the idea of the Buddha. […] I just remember reading, every night, about human learning and the pursuit of the life of the mind, and I had all these questions and all this yearning,” she said.
Jiménez grew up in a middle class family in Puerto Rico, and attended an all-girls Catholic school. She admitted that she still wonders, had her school had a campus ministry that was engaged with social action, whether or not her existential teenage angst could have been channelled into meaningful social action.
“But it wasn’t that kind of space,” she said. “It was this conservative space of Catholicism, you know, religion classes were about moralizing right versus wrong, and being at an all women’s school, they were always policing women’s sexuality, and I didn’t find a space there for me to really deal with the existential disquietude and recklessness that I was feeling.”
However, she would soon find that space.
Jiménez’s father, who was a transcendental meditation instructor, had taught her to practice as a child, so meditation was something she was familiar with as she grew up. She also noted that when her parents divorced, she realized that meditation became an even prominent aspect of her father’s life as he was coping with the divorce. When Jiménez was a sophomore in high school, he suggested that she go to a meditational boarding school in North Carolina.
Jiménez didn’t have to think twice: “I wanted to get out, get out of my life. I wanted something different. So I just said ‘yes.’”
Jiménez flew to the Heavenly Mountain Spiritual Center in Boone, NC, home to the Blue Ridge Mountains. She explains that there were two communities of monastic women and men on opposite sides of the mountain who were dedicated to the pursuits of higher states of consciousness and enlightenment. Jiménez attended “The Ideal Girls School” on the compound, which focused on education for enlightenment. She was one of eight students.
“I was just a regular teenager and suddenly landed in this all-women community, where we spent a lot of time in silence and meditating, and it was all really strange, but it was also very beautiful. There was just a serenity, a quietness, a sense of tranquility,” Jiménez said.
“I don’t think, as a fifteen year old, that I had really had the opportunity to just be quiet, to just be still, to just be. That felt very healing in some ways,” she said.
One of the beliefs at the spiritual center was “to create heaven on Earth”, which made Jiménez feel like she was part of something larger than herself. Part of this involved learning an advanced flying technique, which involved transcending the laws of nature.
“This wasn’t super powers, it was just unfolding our unbounded potential. That’s really how I saw it, and that became a part of who I was and how I understood the world. But I got so absorbed in the rhythm and routine of life that everything outside blurred a bit,” Jiménez said.
Her group only left the compound about once a month. Jiménez describes one of her memories from a time when they went to Walmart.
“We all wore Indian saris, and I just remember people pointing and going ‘those are the cult members!’ and I finally saw myself the way they were seeing me. And that was the first moment that I thought, ‘what am I doing? What am I wearing?’ and then this man came up to us and said, ‘if you ever need rescue, I’m a taxi driver, here’s my phone number. Call me,’” Jiménez said, to which the audience erupted in laughter.
While there were only a few girls at the Ideal Girls School, Jiménez explains that they were still very much like every other high school girl.
“Sometimes we would put towels under the door so we could turn on the light and stay up talking to each other and gossip. […] One night we had the clever idea, ‘why don’t we do something fun? Why don’t we have the taxi driver pick us up? So we called him and told him, ‘we don’t need to be rescued, but we want to have a little fun.’ And he was like, “sure!’” she said.
The group snuck out to meet the taxi-driver, their saris hidden in the bushes. Jiménez laughs as she recalls the story: “It was actually quite dangerous. We were really wild—we went bowling. There were some local high school kids bowling next to us, and they were very curious about us. They said, ‘Here’s our number, give us a call!”
The group continued to sneak out, but eventually got caught.
“I was made to feel like I had done something awful, and it was really kind of traumatic for me. I had found this space where I felt so good, so tranquil, so welcomed, so at peace, so myself, for the first time ever. And I had somehow breached the trust,” Jiménez said.
The entire group was kicked out, and because of this, the school shut down. Jiménez returned to Puerto Rico and as a senior in high school, she attended the same Catholic school she had left as a freshman.
“I sort of a lived a double life. I was a normal teenager and I didn’t tell anyone about the kinds of experiences I went through, I would go home and I would practice meditation. There were like two ‘me’s’ living life,” she said.
Jiménez decided that she wanted to return to another meditational community for college. She attended Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa. She explains that it felt good to be surrounded by people who had similar passions and goals, yet she was unsettled by the inequality that she witnessed in the community.
“I started to notice a lot of classism within the community… people that donated a lot of money had roads named after them and were somehow more liked. […] Yet there were parents who had left everything and dedicated their lives to the university, and were living in these really crappy houses, and it made me sad when I visited them,” she said.
Jiménez also experienced a struggle with the constant focus on enlightenment and happiness. She found herself asking questions like, “What about anger? What about sadness? What about hate? What about these other feelings, that are not love and unity?”
“There was no space for me to explore that range of human experience, and slowly, I became more and more disaffected,” she said.
Jiménez began reading radical feminist works, as well as Karl Marx. She began questioning everything, and eventually left Maharishi.
“My process of dissociation was very gradual. I suddenly wasn’t meditating as long, and nothing happened. I was so worried that something bad would happen if I stopped meditating. Nothing bad happened,” she said.
Jiménez would later go on to receive an impressive number of degrees: a B.A. in English from Manhattanville College, an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and three degrees from Columbia University: an M.A., M.Phil, and Ph.D. in Latin American and Iberian Cultures and Comparative Literature.
Jiménez reflects on her formative years prior to academia: “I feel that when I look back, it feels like I was another person, another human being.”
Yet Jiménez closes with a statement that encourages her listeners not to label themselves, or others, as “just one thing.”
“That existential quest for meaning was something that was very much a part of me. And in general, as we move throughout the world, I think it’s really important to recognize that we’re not just one thing. We tend to put people in one category, but in a way we’re shaped by many yearnings, by many longings, by many aspirations, by many things. I think something very positive can come from interactions with other people if we think of them as ‘this, that, and…’ and you should always have that ‘and’, that question of, ‘what else is beyond this person?’” she said.
Senior Alannah Boyle, an active member of Campus Ministry and Social Action (CMSA), reflected on the speech with heart: “I thought Dr. Jimenez’s talk was incredible, especially as my last one as a senior. As soon as it was over, I turned to my friend and said how upset I was that I had never taken a class with her. Her talk reminded me of the importance and necessity of personal growth and self-reflection.”
Conor Reidy, a staff member of CMSA who organizes Agape Latte, was thrilled to invite Jiménez to their last event. Like Boyle, he was also blown away by her lecture.
“‘When I Thought I Could Fly’ reminded us all of two important lessons: none of us are a single story, but an amalgamation of experiences. And in the hectic fast paced environment of daily life on a college campus, it is vital to find space and time for quiet, reflection and introspection in order to connect with the inner self,” Reidy said.
In her closing remarks, Jiménez explains that she has changed her perspective on life to encompass a broader understanding of the wide array of emotions and experiences every human goes through—not just the good ones.
“This isn’t very uplifting, but I don’t believe life is bliss anymore. I think life can be very painful, life can be very unfair and conflicted, and difficult, and yet I think those experiences of difficulty, fear, anger and disillusionment… there is some beauty in that this is part of the range of human experience. So I ask all of you, and I try to remind myself in moments that seem to be very difficult […] that if you’re able to step out, and see it [life] as a range of experiences, and contextualize it within a larger frame. I say to ‘step out’, but I also mean to step in,” she said.
Jiménez explains what she means by “step in.”
“I did take something very good from my experiences. I value quietness and stillness. I think it’s something that we sorely need in this world, in our lives. Now, I’m a junior faculty member on the tenure track, I’m a new mother, I want to write my book, I’m managing finances and taxes, we have all these things that can make life become really overwhelming. We can become so caught up. I think it’s really valuable and really helpful if we consciously make space and time to just have quietness and stillness. Hours meditating is a ridiculous extreme, but 10 minutes, 15 minutes, of just sitting, just witnessing. Whether it’s prayer, mindfulness, contemplation, just quiet time. I really can tell you that it’s something that has served me really well, even though I learned it in this extreme context, it’s become part of who I am, and I really encourage you to just take time to just be.”