Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Naropa summer learning intensive: Welcome to contemplative education

I had little on which to base any expectations about the Summer Learning Intensive, my introduction to Contemplative Education at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I had the overall character of the schedule (from early in the morning until late into the night, 7 days a week, for 3 1/2 weeks); some summer readings (Turning the Mind into an Ally; Sacred World, and East Meets West, an essay about the formation of Naropa in the early 70's); and a basic understanding that the program enabled teachers and others to integrate mindfulness practices into their lives at work.

Boulder Creek flooding
 from snow melt
Well, that just doesn't give you much to go on. So I just went. It was like stepping into a raging river.

There's not much you can do but just hold on for the ride. And you're going to get bumped, scraped up, and if you're not careful, you'll drown. Assuming you survive, it's quite an experience.

Thursday was the first full day and it was filled with orientations, introductions, getting settled in. Friday was my first immersion experience. I went under for the first time at Amy Howard's thesis project presentation.
Tradition; trust; natural loveliness 
Amy's talk was about opening to being awake, and redefining the meaning of your life. She asked us to file by two long, low tables of nicely matted photographs and just notice each one. When we returned to our seats, she asked us to think about which one had appealed the most to us, moved us in some way. We returned to the tables, took the picture that had affected us the most, and returned to our seats. I chose the one to the left. She asked us to take a moment to reflect on and write about what about that photograph had affected us.
This image reflects qualities that I wish I had -- grace, strength, comfort in your own body, and a natural beauty that seems to come from a connection to something larger than yourself, in this photograph, a tradition that probably goes back many many years. And trusting in your larger community. My feeling was one of sadness. I often feel sad when I see something so achingly beautiful. It's like my heart just breaks open and sadness flows out. I have always wondered why this happens. Why doesn't love and beauty and grace and connection bring about joy, rather than sadness (Personal Journal Entry, June 23, 2011)?
Closed enso
I didn't have to wait long to find the answer to that question, one that had puzzled me for decades. But before that question got its answer, Saturday came: Graduation for the outgoing class. The ceremony was stunning. Seven students in their turn, each creating an enso brushstroke, a circle representing everything, all at once. Poetry, storytelling, the ringing of the gong, tears and joy everywhere. This was no ordinary graduation ceremony.
The ceremony completely exceeded even my wildest imagination of what it might be like to complete this program. The level of compassion, caring, love and commitment, support, energy and passion that everyone, everyone brings to this endeavor is simply unprecedented in my experience, anywhere, for anything. I can't believe I am sitting here, a part of this process. I know it's a university. I know there will be difficulty and adversity and frustration here and there. But that's true everywhere. This love and support is not everywhere. That I recognize. Never do the challenges end. You just meet them differently. That makes all the difference (Personal Journal Entry, June 25, 2011).
Thus began my getting to know a part of myself that I had long ignored -- my heart. It wasn't a matter of "what's going on here," or "why," or of fixing anything. I just started to notice. That's all. The practice for noticing was, first and foremost, meditation. At Naropa, meditation is primarily Shamatha practice, or mindfulness of the breath. You simply, repeatedly, notice what comes up while you sit, and return to observing your breath: in.....out. Thoughts come up, you think them, you go off with them, you notice that you've gone off and you return to Shamatha. Twice each day, 50 minutes in the morning and evening.

"And how might that help?" most everyone wonders.
Shamatha is not an endurance test, nor will it suddenly solve all our problems. But it does help us see how our problems arise, because it trains us in recognizing thoughts and emotions. It also trains us in letting them pass without acting on them. Even when we’re bored, we can work with our minds. This helps us cope in daily life. Because practice has enlarged our perspective beyond identifying with our thoughts and opinions, we’re less likely to act from a tight, self-protected space. We have more patience, more tolerance. We’re more able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In this way, meditation matures us (Mipham, 2003, p. 83).
So meditation was the constant in our lives. Always there.

Every morning on my
way to class, I stopped by
 the raspberry bushes...
But we also went to work that first week strengthening our practice of noticing through class activities of every kind. We explored our senses, our connection to the world, in fact, where we let the world in. We fine-tuned our ability to observe, and broadened it to include observing the observer, our feelings, our sensations, and our thoughts in response to what we saw, heard, felt, tasted and smelled out there.

Then we studied conceptual approaches to characterizing emotions, and discussed and experienced the different patterns of responses within ourselves that each characterization evoked. For example, Welwood (1983) notes:
In Western culture we have a history of treating emotions with suspicion and contempt, as alien, "other," separate from us. The "passions" have usually been viewed as our "lower nature," from Plato onward. Viewing the source of the passions as Freud did, as an "it" (translated in English as "id"), "a primitive chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement," makes it more difficult to befriend emotions and accept them as part of ourselves" (p. 80).
Welwood (1983) goes on to contrast the Western view with the Buddhist meditative approach, "which considers that it is precisely our alienation from emotions that makes them become so domineering and uncontrollable" (p. 80). I'm quite familiar with the first approach, and quite ready to try something else. So I embraced the practice of staying present with feelings and emotions, befriending them, as Welwood describes it. In short order I began to see this practice as the life-preserver it was. It is what keeps us afloat in the stream. You always have it. You can always just become present with what you are experiencing. Becoming present means observing your felt senses (tightening in the chest, warmth in the throat, pressure or burning in the shoulders, or whatever you sense in your body), your feelings (fear, happiness), your emotions (magnified feelings) and your thoughts. Just see them, notice them all.

Finally, we learned several key buddhist concepts describing the practice of integrating intellectual and intuitive understanding, with awareness of body, felt senses, and mind, to create insight and wisdom. We had been using this practice in our classes and as we prepared our assignments. It's called prajna. Judy Lief (2002) says of prajna, soon as you enter the Buddhist path and start practicing meditation and studying the dharma, you are picking up this sword of prajna. Now that you have this sharp thing, this sword that skewers and cuts through ego trips of all sorts, you have to deal with it (para. 9).
Prajna is represented iconographically by the feminine deity Prajnaparamita ... with four arms. Two arms are folded on her lap in the classic posture of meditation, and her two other arms hold a sword and a book. Through these gestures, she manifests three aspects of prajna: academic knowledge, cutting through deception, and direct perception of emptiness" (para. 18).
Leif (2002) says that we cultivate prajna through refined practices of hearing, contemplating, and meditating. We take what we read, listen to, discuss with others with an open mind; we analyze it, turn it over in our minds and look at it from every point of view we can, and then we sit with it for a time until it becomes something that we know deeply; finally, we live with it for awhile until it is part of our very being, no longer something that we must "recall."

Our final week put all we had been studying, discussing, and practicing to the test in two performances: the Warrior's Exam for Mindful Teacher Class, and Final Performance for our Presence in Teaching Class.

Shambhala rocks
The Warrior's Exam is a form of traditional questioning. Each of the nine of us would have our turns seated on mediation cushions in the center of a circle of witnesses to be the questioner of a student, and the student who answered the question. We had ten questions to study. We would have five minutes to respond to our single question, without notes. After a brief follow-up question of the questioner's device, we would have 2 minutes to respond. Then we would return to our place as witnesses in the circle for the other students. So, each of the nine questions we would answer were drawn from a bowl, along with the names of the questioner and responder for that question.

Prajna was perfect preparation for the exam: we had already heard, read and discussed, with our minds open and non-judging. We had had time to analyze and think about what we had read. We had begun to see how it applied to our own experiences, to begin to incorporate those parts of what we had heard that were meaningful, that were true, for us. And now we were ready to sit with it for awhile longer, to see what became part of us, our very marrow, because that is what was to be our response to our questions. Not a memorized script. Not a fainthearted attempt to explain. But what came from within us, from the place beyond "thinking it up."

It was an exhilarating experience, for all of us. We did the absolute best we could, for all of us. It was the most extended period of time for which I have been present. Not 100%, of course, but for nearly 2 hours, I returned again and again to being there. For everyone. And they were there for me.

HillyHilly trades for a horse
The Final Performance for Presence Class asked from our bodies that same experience of bringing forth form from space, the place beyond thinking. In other words, "let's do a play!" Being present in this context meant struggling with a predictable set of urges -- most notably the urge to run as far and as fast as I could up into the Rocky Mountain foothills. Once I committed to stay present instead of checking out, a myriad of other urges cropped up in the place of the big one. One by one, I faced them all down. I sang, I spoke, I waited for and gave cues, I played my parts, changing costumes, being conscious, taking and giving feedback, getting better each day, being there. I would have to say that I was there just about 100% of the time during the play. I could not let a stray thought take me off. There was absolutely no room for wandering. It was pretty cool.

MM sings HB to CB
Our play was called, Meditation Self-Evaluation, and it presented a series of vignettes representing the thoughts that meditators have as they sit on the cushion, illustrating their successful efforts to let them go (short bursts of thoughts that wander in and easily leave, sometimes of their own accord), and their not so successful efforts (the longer vignettes that spin out a storyline or indulge the meditator in a fantasy): Like a memory of parents arguing; a breakup; a childhood morality tale; a student driver experience; and Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to the meditator.

That one was my idea. So I played it. It was transformative. It brought up every fear, anxiety, and condemnation I could possibly harbor, and I faced them all. That's what in the Shambhala tradition they call being a warrior on this path. Never abandoning yourself.

Thomas's photo of his summer family
So, it was amazing. Practically impossible to convey in a blog post, but making an effort is a good practice. It converted two dozen people from "strangers I've never seen or heard of before" to what one participant called his "summer family." Mine too. I have arrived. I am home (Hahn, 2009).

I flew to my Austin home a day later, had Sunday to relax and readjust, and went to work on Monday. It's Wednesday now. Warrior's Exam was a week ago. I'm still impressed. This is just the first semester.


Hanh, T. N. (2009). Happiness: Essential mindfulness practices. Parallax Press.

Hayward, K., & Hayward, J. (1998). Sacred world: The Shambhala way to gentleness, bravery, and power (2nd ed.). Shambhala.

Lief, J. (2002, May). The sharp sword of prajna. Shambhala Sun. Retrieved July 14, 2011, from 
Mipham, S. (2003). Turning the mind into an ally. Riverhead Hardcover.

Welwood, J. (1983). Befriending emotions. Awakening the heart (First Edition.). Shambhala.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

Georgia -- I really enjoyed your blog -- you capture the essence of the first year of this program beautifully. I graduated in 2009, you probably met Joan Griffin, one of my cohort. There is so much ahead of you -- I feel envious. I live in Dallas, who knows, perhaps we'll meet someday!