So Why Did I Choose This School Anyway?

This is an important week for me.  It’s the first time I’ll be interacting with the Naropa University Transpersonal Counseling Psychology graduate program in physical terms: I have my interview scheduled for this Friday!  That means two things.  First, it means that I haven’t actually been accepted yet, which means that this whole blog could be a lost cause.  But second, it means you’ll get to follow me through the interview process, and see what it’s like from the inside.  If you, or someone you know, is thinking of applying to Naropa, this is your chance to learn a little more about the process than you’ll find on the Naropa website.

Incidentally, the Naropa website is what led me to my topic for today.  After going through the site with the fervor of a cat after a laser pointer, I’ve turned up surprisingly little about what Naropa actually does.  There are a lot of buzz words, like “basic goodness” and “compassion,” but the meat and potatoes of the school’s educational system seem to be missing.  So I took my search to the greater internet in hopes of figuring more out about this odd little university.

The funny thing about Naropa is that very few people have heard of it.  This isn’t surprising, as it is quite small, but it also means that there’s not much information to go on.  There aren’t many reviews, forum threads, or blogs about the school.  What is available seems like a foreign language.  The school claims a unique teaching style, called “contemplative education.”  The label is unfortunately vague, but a quick google search brings up a wikipedia page for the subject. It turns out that contemplative education is a philosophy as well as a teaching style.  The wiki starts out by explaining that contemplative education “infuses learning with the experience of awareness, insight and compassion for oneself and others through the erudite academic practices of meditation and contemplative disciplines, such as ikebana, t’ai chi ch’uan and Chinese brushstroke.”  I’m sure that I’m not the first person for whom this description has instantly conjured up images of flower children sitting in a circle, holding hands, and chanting.  On the other hand, I’ve also never heard of a bunch of hippies going to grad school, learning to manage their own neuroses, and becoming successful therapists.  And since the latter is closer to the reports I’ve heard from the school’s alumna, I think it warrants closer inspection.

The second line of the page states that “contemplative education seeks to integrate the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions, helping students know themselves more deeply and engage constructively with others.”  Well, I suppose I can’t argue with that.  It’s a philosophy that encourages diversity, introspection, and cooperative interactions with other people–all good qualities for a therapist. But, as the page goes on to explain, there’s more to it than nice interpersonal qualities.

The real driving force behind contemplative education is the belief that you can’t learn about a subject by memorizing a book, and then expect to be able to use that knowledge effectively.  Imagine trying to teach yourself a language.  You could study a book, memorize vocabulary and sentence structure, and probably even find audio cds or computer programs that allow you to hear the language spoken.  But if you never bounce your language skills off of someone else who speaks it, you’ll probably develop all kinds of bad habits in your pronunciation or grammar.  Furthermore, you won’t know what it’s like to really speak with another person until you absolutely have to, and you may very well find that there are different accents, or colloquialisms, or dialects of that same language that you never learned about.  In short, until you’ve used that language, you won’t know if you can effectively communicate with the people who speak it.

As a therapist, there is a certain “language” that each of your clients speaks.  A therapist needs to work effectively with people who have gone through trauma, or addiction, or who suffer from mental illness.  If you can’t relate to your clients, you won’t be able to communicate with them.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that potential therapists should undergo traumatic experiences, or take up addictive substances.  Contemplative education teaches therapists how to empathize with clients’ emotional experiences, even if they can’t directly relate to their clients’ life experiences.  It offers the tools necessary to speak the “language” of your clients, even though you are often very different people from very different backgrounds.

So how does contemplative education go about teaching someone to do this?  I’ll explain what I’ve discovered, in my next post.  In the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts or questions relating to contemplative education.  Have you encountered this form of education yourself, or do you know someone who has?  How has it panned out?  Do you think it’s possible, or does it sound like an idealistic but unrealistic philosophy?

A Program like No Other…?

The best career advice I’ve ever been given is “any psychology program can teach you how to diagnose a patient or handle insurance paperwork, but you need one that can teach you how to come home after work and not want to hang yourself.” While this view may be a bit morbid, it’s effectively trure. In a field that’s rife with college dropouts, unused degrees, and career changes, there’s obviously some need that isn’t being met. But the process of finding the magic ingredient that makes a successful psychology career work must be incredibly complex…right?


That’s what I’m here to find out. I’ve chosen to skip the big name schools, the acclaimed programs, and the traditional methods of western schooling in favor a tiny university in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This is a school with radical views on education, where students are routinely required to sit perfectly still for hours at a time when no lecture is being given. I have been told that highly academic graduate students routinely break down sobbing in class, that instructors of incredibly varied backgrounds are drawn to work there, and that the program’s intensity is incomparable to anything the average college student has ever experienced.

And the results? Graduates claim that their experiences in this school have offered them that x-factor needed to work in this field, to shrug off the stress at the end of the day, and to maintain a positively happy career. They describe the program as lifechanging. After speaking with dozens of current students and alumna, not one has had anything bad to say.
What other program can claim this?