Making Meaning Without Religion: Ritual for the Secular



This morning, at the Nalanda Campus of Naropa, I was greeted at the door by an armed policeman in a bulletproof vest.  It wasn’t because there had been a shootout, or anything like that.  In fact, I don’t know why every entrance to the building was being monitored by armed law enforcement officials.  But I can only assume that it had something to do with the dozens of people who had arrived to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration.

That image really stuck with me.  Here was a whole community of people who had gathered together to sing, pray, and appreciate their religious community, but somehow the presence of armed force was necessary to ensure peace.  I don’t know the history behind this scenario, and perhaps it’s a new security measure in response to the recent protests in the Middle East.  But, as a secular person, it struck me to see the faith of these people who had gathered together to celebrate, despite the threat of possible violence.

As someone who was raised Orthodox Catholic, I am very familiar with ritual celebration.  In my childhood, everything from eating breakfast to celebrating Christmas involved some form of ritual.  We observed dozens of holy days that most people have never heard of, fasted before major holidays, and even seemingly simple tasks were often preceded and followed by prayers.  I think it is difficult for secular people to entirely grasp this.  It wasn’t as though every day was a holiday, but every day was special because everything in every day held meaning.  Life was full of rites of passage, which were celebrated with great enthusiasm.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I am secular.  I no longer identify with any religion, and religion itself has little appeal for me.  It’s not that I think religion is wrong; it simply does not resonate with my own spiritual experiences.  Yet, while I do not miss the religious aspects of my childhood, I do miss the ritual.  There’s something about the marking of change, progress, and growth in a communal, celebratory way that fills some deep need in me.  And in recent years, I’ve started to feel a strange anxiety over not recognizing these milestones.

So what is a secular spiritualist to do?

The largest problem that I’ve run up against is that I lack the element of community.  Having come from a religious background, and an immediate family of ten people, ritual simply doesn’t have the same meaning for me when it is performed in solitude.  But if the individuals participating in a group ritual do not actually feel a connection to its inspiration, it becomes meaningless pageantry, which feels invariably hollow.  Time after time, I’ve tried to organize some sort of ritual gathering to celebrate a life event, only to watch it morph into a meaningless night of drinking games.

And this doesn’t surprise me.  Because how can you successfully bring a group of people together to celebrate an event when the event doesn’t hold meaning for the people celebrating?  Ritual has to be personal, and celebration of events in this way must evoke some shared appreciation on an immaterial level.  Furthermore, how do you get people together who don’t just want a pageantry?  For people who were not raised in a religious context, the flashiness of ritual can have more appeal than its underlying intent, and sometimes people are more interested in the show of the thing than in the meaning behind it.  If the intent is not there, the ritual’s meaning is lost, and the felt-sense of acknowledgement is painfully absent.

Thus far, I have not been successful in figuring this out.  It’s something that I’ve been puzzling over for the past few years.  My struggle is this: what events exist in life that draw us all together, that we all care about enough to be personally invested in?  Of course, things like graduations, marriages, funerals, etc. exist, and involve a great deal of ritual.  But what about outside of these things?  What about when the seasons change, or when you have a particularly bad break-up, or when you wake up one morning and realize that your life has grown stale and you need to make a change?  Some people can, and do,  acknowledge these things by themselves.  But how do you do so as a group?  Is there any way for an entire group of people, who are not religiously affiliated, to be emotionally (and perhaps spiritually) invested in this process?  And if they can, how do you design such a ritual?  Do you design it as a group?  If the ritual is meant to be focused on one person, how are the other people incorporated?

I would love to hear from anyone who has experience with, or thoughts on, this topic.  It’s one that has been consistently in and out of my mind for a while, and I suspect I’m not the only person who has been feeling the anxiety of unacknowledged things.

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7 Things You Will Learn in Your First Month as a Naropa Grad Student

Today is the first day of my fourth week of classes, which can only mean one thing: life is getting complicated!  The amount of reading and writing is intense enough, but when that is combined with the emotional upheaval that this program produces, the result is quite a bit of frantic rushing around attempting not to go crazy.

So, in light of this madness, I thought I’d write a list of 7 important things I have learned as a Naropa grad student in the last few weeks:

  1. You will never be able to finish all of the reading and still have a life.
    I’m serious about this one.   I’ve already had two of my instructors (that’s half of them) tell me that they simply don’t expect their students to complete all of the reading.  At this point, I am at least skimming all of the online material, and I am thoroughly reading through the physical texts.  This puts me at somewhere between 15 and 20 hours of reading per week.  To give you some perspective on this, if I were working a job at $12.00 per hour, I could earn up to $240.00 in the time it takes me to do each week’s reading.  Simply put, if you have a commute, a family, a job, or anything else that takes a major percentage of your time, completing all of this reading will likely be impossible.  But that’s okay, because your instructors understand that.  Just make sure you get the basic idea for what’s being learned that week, and come prepared with notes and questions on anything you come across that doesn’t make sense.
  2. Everything you could usually do easily will now be difficult.
    Naropa is designed to make you flip out.  The psychology program here is based on the idea that if you haven’t dealt with your own psychological issues, you will be in no position to help anyone else with theirs.  This means that Naropa will bring up all of those dark, uncomfortable, lurking things in the corners of your mind that you really don’t like paying attention to, and it will make them your new best buddies.  You will be thinking about these things as you go shopping, as you do homework, as you exercise…basically there’s no escaping from them.  Which means that you may start sobbing halfway through dinner and have no idea why.  You will feel emotionally drained, you will be irritable for no apparent reason, and you may even find yourself hysterically laughing at the most inappropriate times.  Basically, it’ll be like going through puberty again (without the uncomfortable physical issues), so don’t rush yourself.  Give yourself time to get things done, and leave room for interruptions.  Which brings me to my next point:
  3. The time will go faster than you think; don’t procrastinate!
    Reading takes longer for some of us than for others, but when there’s this much homework, it will take a long time no matter what.  And since classes only meet once a week, there’s a lot of information packed into each class session.  Furthermore, instructors will not be as lenient with deadlines as they may have been during your undergraduate studies.  Many papers can significantly impact your grade (think up to 25% on average, if not more), and anything below a ‘B-‘ grade counts as failing.  Complaints of printer malfunctions, hard drive crashes, and sudden food poisoning will probably not garner you any leniency.  So do not procrastinate! Your success as a grad student depends on this.
  4. Your relationship will probably get rocky.
    I think people often discount this point, which is a big mistake.  When stress runs high, and emotions run wild, relationships suffer.  Combine this with the major time constriction brought on by mounds of homework, and it suddenly becomes incredibly difficult to show your partner that you care.  To counteract this, you’ll need some pretty good time management skills.  Schedule date nights for the two of you (and don’t bring your books, or you might be tempted to study).  Get out of the house and take a relaxing walk, drive up to into the mountains, splurge on a full service meal at the lovely Dushanbe Tea House–anything that will allow you two to spend quality time together.  You may also want to start practicing nonviolent communication, for when those inevitable arguments pop up.  I’ve even heard of people scheduling fights for later, so that the tension has a chance to decrease before you discuss volatile material.  Sound crazy?  Wait until you’re in it.
  5. You will start to see the things you’re learning everywhere.
    You will learn about projection, and suddenly you’ll understand that your mom is taking out her frustration about your dad on your brother.  You’ll learn about Piaget’s stages of development, and you’ll start to notice that there really are significant differences between 3 year olds and 4 year olds.  Everything you learn in these classes will start to make sense in your daily life.  Some of it is nice, like the positive effects of meditation on awareness and attention-span.  But some of it will be more difficult, like noticing the subtle racial slurs spoken by the people behind you at the checkout counter.  Whatever happens, just know that you will start to see the world differently than you used to.  This is a good sign.  It means you’re growing.
  6. If you don’t take extra good care of yourself, you will get sick.
    Since the start of this program, I have been devouring veggies and flushing my system with ginger tea and plenty of water.  I’ve been exercising regularly, and trying to get enough sleep.  The good news?  I haven’t gotten sick.  But a lot of people have.  I learned in my Human Growth & Development Throughout the Lifespan class last week that the stress hormone cortisol suppresses your immune system.  This means that when you’re stressed out from all of the work, your body can’t protect itself as easily.  When you combine that with a poor diet, insufficient sleep, or inactivity, the results are disastrous.  And once one person gets sick, it’s that much more likely that everyone else in their class will.  So take care of yourself.  Don’t sabotage your efforts by being lax about your health!
  7. You will probably be very emotional, in class, in front of lots of people.  This is actually encouraged.
    Although this is 7th on the list, it is perhaps one of the most important things to know.  Not only does Naropa stress you out, make you sick, and take up all of your free time, it makes you wildly emotional.  As mentioned in point #2, the program is designed to bring up all of your “shadow” issues, and it’s generally pretty successful.  And the more trauma you have experienced, the more intense this will likely be.  But that’s okay.  Naropa actually encourages you to feel what you’re feeling, and express it.  If you’re discussing a difficult issue in class, and it brings up traumatic memories, you may start crying right then and there.  But nobody will think badly of you for it.  In fact, I haven’t had a single class yet where someone hasn’t cried.  You don’t have to throw caution to the winds and disclose your entire past, but don’t worry too much about opening up either.  Naropa puts a lot of work into making sure you’ll be supported.
  8. Bonus: It will be worth it.
    I’m sure that this all sounds pretty intimidating, but the reality is that it’s worth it.  This program melts you down, and forges you into something stronger than you were.  Not only does it teach you how to be a great therapist, it teaches you how to be great at being you–how to appreciate and trust yourself, and how to know what you need.  If you can get past the reading, writing, crying, stressful aspects of the program, you’ll come to appreciate the incredible change in yourself, and you’ll know that you were responsible for making it happen.

In Memorial: What Does it Take to Rebuild?

Today marks the 11th anniversary of one of the most impactful U.S. experiences that has occurred during my lifetime.  It is the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the devastating event that killed nearly 3000 people and moved the nation to a collective state of shock and unity.  I’ll keep this post brief, because honestly, there isn’t much I can say.

I was a freshman in high school at the time, and knew very little about international politics or fundamentalism.  I knew that a large number of people had died, and I watched the planes hit the towers over and over again, because every classroom TV was replaying it (I lived on the west coast, so school had started already that day).  And as I watched those planes repeatedly hit the buildings, the most striking thing I remember  experiencing was my lack of surprise.

Bear with me on this.  I had grown up in a very sheltered, conservative community.  I never read the news, I didn’t watch TV, and I had only recently started attending a public school.  I didn’t yet know that the field of psychology existed, and I couldn’t have told you why the previous year’s election had been important.  Basically, I was a clueless 14 year old.  But somehow, the fact that people from halfway around the world hated our country so much that they would choose to commit an act like this was not a surprise to me.  This wasn’t because I thought the U.S. was a terrible place that deserved such a violent assault.  It was because ever since I was little, whenever I learned about American history, I learned about war.  We fought the British for independence.  Then we fought each other when the country was split on ideologies.  We fought in World War I and World War II.  We fought in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and we very nearly ended up fighting during the Cold War.  And these are just the major ones.  Every time there’s a conflict, the U.S. is there, in one form or another.  Our country has only been around for a few hundred years, and we’ve been fighting virtually this whole time.  And only one of those wars was internal.  Basically, we’ve spent our country’s entire history fighting other people.

So when I saw the attacks of a country that hated us enough to kill thousands of people, I wasn’t surprised.  Because, regardless of our motivation, and regardless of the outcome, we’ve been killing citizens of other countries for our entire country’s history, and I was honestly surprised someone hadn’t counterattacked sooner.

Which brings up an interesting point.  If war is so ingrained in our country’s history that even an oblivious 14 year old girl  can be so jaded, what can we do to break the cycle of violence?

I think there are many answers: improving education, cultivating an appreciation for nonviolence, trying to reduce the fear-based mentality that is so prevalent here…but honestly, I don’t know.  How do you change a country whose entire life has been war?  How do you change a culture that has spent so long demonizing others?  How do you implement an attitude of nonviolence, when already, just 11 years later, we’re involved in so many new wars?

What do you think?

The Elephant in the Classroom: Addressing the Issue of Ethnic Diversity at Naropa

During my time at Naropa I’ve become increasingly aware of how incredibly tolerant everyone wants to be.  It’s almost impossible to find someone who will adamantly disagree with you on a touchy subject; instead, most of them will respectfully allow space for both of your respective views to coexist simultaneously, even if they seem to contradict each other.  While this is a Buddhist-inspired university, there are members of a variety of religious backgrounds here, and long classroom discussions about worldview and religion often occur with minimal conflict.  However, there seems to be one issue that will always be touchy at Naropa: the issue of ethnic diversity and racism.

Bear in mind, Naropa tries very hard to address this issue.  Both undergraduate and graduate students are required to take courses relating to diversity and multiculturalism, and instructors often try to include the topic of racial discrimination in classroom discussions.  But somehow, when all is said and done, there’s not enough that anyone can say or do.  I’m sure there are a lot of people with varying opinions on this issue, but I’m going to go ahead and state my thoughts on why this seems to be the case.

Naropa, like many private universities, is predominantly white.

According to Naropa’s “Facts at a Glance Page,” the breakdown is as follows:

  • Caucasian: 60%
  • Hispanic/Latino: 7%
  • Asian American: 1%
  • Black/African American: 2%
  • Native American/Alaska Native: 0%
  • Multiracial: 4%
  • Other: 24%

This data is particularly interesting, because it isn’t representative of the United States as a whole.  The U.S. Census Bureau lists the 2011 U.S. demographics as follows:

  • White Persons: 78.1%
  • Black Persons: 13.1%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native persons: 1.2%
  • Asian Persons: 5.0%
  • Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders: 0.2%
  • Multiracial: 2.3%
  • Hispanic/Latino: 16.7%

Boulder is also Predominantly white.  While it’s impossible to know how the 24% “other” Naropa students identify, it’s easy to see that the representation of the African American, Asian American, and Hispanic/Latino populations of this country are incredibly underrepresented here.  And while these numbers are uncomfortable on paper, they’re even more uncomfortable in person.  Because let’s face it.  Being a white person, enrolled in a predominately white university, in a predominately white city, allows people to turn a “colorblind” eye to issues of diversity.  And while I cannot understand what individuals of minority ethnic backgrounds experience, because I myself am white, I have heard a great deal of frustration from some of them.

It seems like Naropa students get this idea that because they are open and accepting of others, race and ethnicity no longer matter.  I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve heard people here claim that they don’t see any difference between themselves and minority groups, that they see everyone as equal.  And honestly, in some ways it would be nice if that’s how the world worked.  But it doesn’t.  Racial prejudice is ingrained in our culture, our government, our educational system–basically anything regulated or accepted on an institutional or majority level.  The fact that “racism” is a word is a testament to its existence.  But, more importantly, we know it exists because individuals of minority backgrounds  feel it.  They experience it on a day-to-day basis, in many different forms.

I know that it’s hard for us white folk to hear that racism still runs rampant, that it’s ingrained into our society, and that our privilege blinds us.  I know it’s simpler, more comfortable, and seems more “fair” to think that because we try to actively include non-white individuals in our lives that we are, in fact, not racist.  But, to use the old adage, “the proof is in the pudding.”  The above statistics alone indicate that.  What are a few things about Naropa that could contribute to this?

It’s expensive to attend a private school.  It’s expensive to live in Boulder.  When you consider the statistical correlation between race and poverty in light of the high cost of attending Naropa and living in Boulder, it’s not that surprising that Naropa is so whitewashed.  But it’s also more than that.  While I cannot speak for the ethnic minority students here, they can speak for themselves, and most of the ones that I have spoken to have mentioned being decidedly uncomfortable here.  Somehow, many Naropa students haven’t been exposed to that much ethnic diversity.  I’ve heard white students claim that they’ve only “seen black people on TV.”  I’ve heard African American students say that they’ve been labeled “sassy” or “sexy” by individuals who had barely spoken to them.  I’ve heard of ethnically diverse students being ignored in classrooms, of people cutting in front of them in lines, and then claiming that they hadn’t even seen them there.  Time after time, I’ve heard wealthy, white students cite “reverse racism” as a counteraction to claims of racist experiences.  I’ve even heard of students being called liars, or being laughed at, when they shed light on the racist experiences that they’ve encountered.

These aren’t isolated incidents.  They’re also not exclusive to Naropa.  This is an international problem, and when we ignore it, we only perpetuate its effects.

Sounds like a pretty impossible issue, doesn’t it?  Well, I’m a fan of “thinking globally, acting locally.”  If you are a non-white student or interested applicant, please know this: we need you here.  It is not your job to educate us and point out our prejudice, but it is so much harder for us to see and address these issues when we are lost in a sea of white.  I myself am nervous about even posting this, because I’m very much expecting both white and non-white individuals to jump down my throat about what I’ve said here.

But at least I’m saying it.  I’m getting it out in the open.  This is what I think of racism and ethnic diversity at Naropa.  This is how it looks to me, through my skewed white perception of the world.  Am I racist?  Probably; I don’t think anyone can help being racist on some level.  It’s ingrained in our language, our customs, and just about everything else.  By sharing a commonality with a particular group, it seems like we often exclude others by default.  I don’t claim to be an exception to this.  But I hope I can be involved in making positive strides towards changing it.

Transpersonal or Transference: The Curious Case of the ‘Naropa Stare’

Another student in the Graduate School of Transpersonal Counseling Psychology (TCP) brought up an interesting point that I thought might be worth sharing.  There seems to be a phenomenon at Naropa that I’ll call the “Naropa Stare.”  Basically, this is the tendency of people (especially students who have been there a while, and instructors) to fix eye contact with you to the point of discomfort.  Having gone through the undergraduate psychology program there, I had sort of gotten used to it, but it really is strangely creepy to experience it for the first time.

Now, I’ve heard a lot of reasons for this from people.  Mostly, people seem to want to convey a sense of attentiveness, so that you know that they’re giving you all of their focus.  Some people have claimed that it is their way of showing you that they’re not afraid of discomfort, and others claim to make it intentionally uncomfortable so that they can offer the other person a chance to work with difficult emotions.

Which is all well and good from the starer’s perspective, but what about the person being stared at?

The fact is, in the United States, most people don’t maintain that kind of eye contact naturally.  Usually, when we find someone staring intently at us, we tend to worry that we’re about to be stalked and murdered (or at the very least, we feel unduly scrutinized).  And even if we can look directly into the eyes of someone speaking to us, when it becomes our turn to speak, we generally turn away while we’re formulating the beginnings of our sentences.  To maintain eye contact while speaking is actually very intimate, and a very vulnerable gesture.  But at Naropa, I feel weirdly socialized to ignore my own impulses and adopt the Naropa Stare as well.

But as my fellow grad student brought up, what if we just don’t want to be stared at like that?  On a certain level, it violates a boundary that many people assert on a nonverbal level: the need for their comfort levels, or “bubbles,” to be respected.  Some people may be fine with the Naropa Stare, but many are not.  In fact, many people find scrutiny of this sort unnatural, and a few may find it intensely triggering.

So what is the purpose of this practice, particularly when it’s coming from a graduate course instructor?

While I’m sure everyone has their own thoughts about the purpose of this habit (or, whether there is a purpose at all), I think that I may have some insight into the nature of the Naropa Stare.  Having been through the undergraduate program, I’ve been ‘privileged’ enough to have experienced the Stare for a few years now.  And ultimately, I think it is precisely  because  of the Stare’s academic context that it is enacted.  Or more simply, Naropa wants to challenge its students to push beyond their comfort zones and confront the things that make them feel uneasy.  The school does this sort of discomfort-pushing in many ways–from provocative reading assignments, to intensely emotional writing assignments, pretty much every class in this school is designed to mess with you in some way.  And because they’re designed to mess with you, they’re also designed to help keep you uncomfortable without scaring you away.

However, there is a lot to be said for boundaries.  They’re extremely important, particularly for individuals studying to become therapists.  Without boundaries, we would have no way to keep ourselves from adopting our clients’ neuroses, negative emotions, etc. as our own.  If we can’t hold a safe space for our clients, without getting lost in their processes, we certainly won’t be any help to anyone.

I have been in a number of classes that I found infuriating beyond belief.  I have calculated the amount of money that I spent on an individual class, and ticked off the dollars as I sat through what I considered the stupidest possible waste of my collegiate time.  I have spent classes lying down on the floor in a tiny, dimly lit, colored room crying my eyes out.  I have spent classes sitting still, not speaking or even moving, for 45 minutes, and then spent the rest of class discussing that 45 minutes of silent sitting.  But I graduated, and then, I came back.  And that’s the important part.  I came back, because something about the inanity of this place works.  This school doesn’t just train people to be therapists; it trains people to be good therapists.  And it does it without you even realizing that it’s happening.

For a while, Naropa largely feels like an expensive, poorly administrated waste of time.  Until it hits you.  And it will hit you, all at once, in the most painful, magnificent, and satisfying way possible.

The more time I spend here, the more I begin to realize that nothing here is accidental.  What initially appears as chaos, slowly gels into something notably different than what it was, but when it does, you realize that nothing at the school has really changed…except you.

So, having read this, should you accept the Naropa Stare as a healthy, important part of the Naropa experience?  No.  Not unless you feel that way.  Naropa will never tell you that its word is absolute, or that its actions are all impeccably meaningful and poignant.  And neither will I.  I’ve fought the Naropa beast for three years, and I’ve come to an understanding with it that has led me to trust its intentions, and its savvy, and its skill, enough to invest thousands and thousands of dollars in an education here.  Enough to come to each and every class willing to laugh out loud, or break down crying, or run across the lawn clutching a potato between my thighs in the most ridiculous and embarrassing relay race ever conceived.  Because Naropa has proven itself to me.

If Naropa hasn’t proven itself to you yet, you don’t have to trust it.  You don’t have to like it.  You can hate it if you want; Naropa makes room for that.  The only way you will trust your decisions about Naropa is if you make those decisions yourself.

Who knows…you may be pleasantly surprised.  I was.