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.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Martha
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 13:08:21

    Great post, Mari. I really enjoyed it!


    • Mari
      Sep 07, 2012 @ 00:00:09

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Martha! Please let me know if you have anything you’d like me to write about that you’ve noticed at Naropa 🙂


  2. Kris
    Sep 07, 2012 @ 22:11:16

    Very excited to come across this blog! I’ll be attending next year (hopefully) and am loving this perspective from a ‘normal’ student since I consider myself fairly well grounded- was a bit worried how it would be to deal with the abstract within the school.


    • Mari
      Sep 08, 2012 @ 02:22:58

      Hi Kris, it’s good to hear that I’m not the only one who feels a little weird about the abstract, as you put it. It does definitely take some getting used to. But the way I came to terms with it was that this is the only school I’ve ever heard of where the students feel like they’ve gotten a good education as well as personal enrichment from the academic process. The way a friend of mine put it, you can learn about psychology in any psych program, but only Naropa’s will teach you how to come home after a long day of therapy sessions and not want to kill yourself. The burnout rate for therapists is so high, that I think this type of program is invaluable. Please don’t hesitate to message me with any questions, or let me know if you want me to blog about a particular topic!


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