An Unlikely Heathen: Attending Naropa as a Non-Buddhist

From its name to its sitting cushions, Naropa University screams Buddhism.  Its instructors and students alike sport mala beads and singing bowls.  Its classes begin and end with a bow.  Even its somewhat tongue-in-cheek mascot, the “Bodhi Cheeta,” references the school’s religious leaning.

Which is understandable, given its beginnings.  Naropa’s history involves a solid background in Buddhist philosophy and meditation instruction, and its early psychology department was perhaps based more in religious studies than traditional psychology.  Granted, the school has evolved a lot, and there is now a wider range of voices and opinions that come together to make Naropa what it is.

Having said that, there are a few Buddhism-related things about this school that must be considered.  The undergraduate psychology program requires several “Buddhist Psychology” courses, which contain a fair dose of religious “dharma,” and the TCP program requires at least four credits of meditation classes that can only be waived if one has gone through the undergrad program.  Are these classes useful?  I would say yes, although I have run into people who were less than happy about their mandatory status.  Nevertheless, Buddhism is here to stay at Naropa, and the psychology programs here will never be fully separate from Buddhist philosophy.

Now, knowing that Buddhism is essential to Naropa’s academic philosophy may be a wonderful discovery for the hopeful Buddhist applicant to this school.  But what about those of us who aren’t?  What about those of us who are Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Atheist, etc.?  What about those of us who don’t really want another religion forced down our throats?

Well, there’s good news and bad news.  The good news is that it won’t be.  Unless you apply to the religious studies program, you can be sure that the Buddhist philosophies that are integrated into the programs here will be tied back into the subject of study.  As a psychology student, for example, you will learn about the four noble truths, and then you will learn how the real-life manifestations of this concept result in your clients having a really rough time of things.

But, as I mentioned, there’s bad news as well.  That bad news is that you will probably feel a little weird in this school, because there isn’t a particularly large degree of focus on the other religions present here.

I have met a fair number of Jewish people here, and there is some Jewish presence in the Religious Studies department.  But the Jewish religion is rarely brought up in Psychology courses.  Christianity is almost less discussed, even though there are a fair number of Christian students here as well.  And if you come from a western religion that is not Judeo-Christian in origin, prepare to be largely ignored.

Bear in mind, you won’t be unwelcome here.  It’s quite likely that people won’t particularly understand where you’re coming from spiritually, and if you’re a member of one of the more traditionally evangelical religious organizations, you may be met with awkward silence if your bring up your faith in class.  But from what I’ve seen, it seems to be fairly uncommon for people to be outright discriminated against for their religious beliefs.

However, it’s important to remember that people are people, even at Naropa.  Prejudice, fear, and judgment are qualities that all of us are hard pressed to quash out all (or even most) of the time.  I myself identify as Pagan, but I don’t generally go spreading it around.  On the rare occasion that I mention this fact, I rarely receive any notable interest or response.  I don’t know if they’re worried about offending me, or trying to maintain an air of nonjudgment, but I get the feeling if I mentioned practicing Hinduism, or even Sufism, I wouldn’t receive such blank stares.  I am involved in Naropa’s student group PAN (Pagans At Naropa), and I occasionally meet other people who identify similarly.  But I can’t remember having ever heard an instructor bring up a nature-based religion, aside from the occasional reference to some form of Native American spirituality, and I’ve been attending this school for about three years.

I’ve come to terms with this fact, and it doesn’t particularly bother me.  But what will this mean for you?  Ultimately, it means that this institution has its philosophical leanings, as most private institutions do.  I certainly wasn’t driven away by this issue, and in fact, I chose to return for my graduate studies.  Even if you’re not Buddhist, you’ll be fine.  If you’re worried about it, you can bet that someone else will be having the same misgivings you are, and you may even form a new friendship over this shared concern.  No one will expect you to be Buddhist, and no one will expect you to convert.

And even though the Buddhist concepts in these classes may be strange, unfamiliar, or may even clash with your own beliefs, know that it’s okay if you don’t buy into it.  Take what is useful to you, leave what is not.  Your experience as a Naropa student will be worthwhile, if you let it.


Women, Women, Everywhere: The Missing Men of Naropa University


There are a lot of things you’ll notice within your first few minutes at Naropa—there’s nothing weird about wearing yoga pants for any activity here, hugs tend to go on for potentially uncomfortable lengths of time, and the school has its own vocabulary that is baffling to non-Naropans (including atypical definitions for “contemplative,” “container,” and “space,” just to name a few).  But probably the first thing that you’ll notice, particularly if you’re male, is that Naropa is dominated by women.

In fact, according to Naropa’s facts at a glance page, 61% of first year students are female, compared with the 39% who are male.  And while I couldn’t find any percentages for the TCP specifically, I suspect that the numbers are even more skewed.  Admittedly, these statistics don’t take into account individuals who do not identify as “male” or “female,” but no matter how you look at it, there are a lot of women here.  I’m sure that these figures won’t surprise anyone who’s wandered the halls for more than five minutes, but to the unknowing applicant, this may be somewhat surprising.

Furthermore, the men at Naropa seem to have a different sort of affect than many American guys.  While I don’t have any stats to back this up, my own personal observation has been that many of the men here are decidedly more connected with their emotions, more ready to engage in dialogue, and less inclined to assert the stereotypically qualities that are often associated with masculinity.

Which should be great, right?  Well, it depends who you are.  If you’re a woman, having this many other women around is probably pretty nice.  You can express your feelings with the knowledge that if someone complains about you being “too emotional,” that person is probably in the minority and will likely be socially castigated.  Plus, in the classroom, the discussions tend to be very accepting of women’s struggles in a largely patriarchal society, and acknowledgement of sexism is expected.

But what about the men?

I’ve brought up this topic to a few men outside of Naropa, and their responses have been invariably the same: “awesome.”  Yes, most non-Naropan men that I’ve talked to don’t seem to mind the idea of having two women for every man in every class (if not more).  However, the reality is not necessarily so cheery.  Because after a while, it gets tiring.

Think about it this way.  Women tend to have a sense of community.  We gravitate toward each other for support.  If a woman is crying in the bathroom, many other women will stop to see if she’s okay, and offer her a tissue.  Women chat with each other at bus stops.  When we’re clothes shopping, we can probably go up to almost any other woman and ask for her opinion about the dresses we’ve tried on, without worrying about it.  Women complement each other, help each other out, and generally look out for each other.  And when there are this many women in one place, we tend to form a pretty tight knit community.

But what about the guys?  What happens when you’re one of three men in a class of twenty five?  What happens when that class starts discussing sexism, and suddenly all of these hurt, frustrated women who have never been able to express this stuff in a safe setting let loose their stories of injustice?

Not sure? Well, what would it feel like to be the one of three women in a class of twenty five men who are discussing how angry they are at women?

No matter how you look at it, there’s bound to be some discomfort.  And this entire program is mostly women.  That means that men spend several days per week, for three to four years in a setting where they are bound to feel like an outsider at least part of the time, if not more often.  That alone would be enough to make a person’s life more difficult.

But as I said, women tend to have a sense of community that men often don’t have.  Of course, men have friends and colleagues that they get along with, and many men have female friends.  But it’s not quite the same in some ways.  Men aren’t used to looking to each other for emotional support.  Men who show vulnerability in dominant U.S. culture are often insulted and ridiculed, and sometimes just showing emotionality is considered grounds for physical violence.

I have spoken to a few men in this program, and while most of them don’t feel exactly unwelcome here, many do feel a certain degree of isolation.  This is particularly true for men who were raised in families or cultures where the “stiff upper-lip” mentality was prevalent.

Alright, so why did I choose to write a lengthy blog post about it?  Well, for two reasons.

The first reason is for the men at Naropa.  I can’t understand your experience, necessarily, but I do acknowledge it.  And I want you to know that I am choosing to be consciously aware of it as often as possible.  Please know that your presence here is important, and that I value your opinions as much as those of the women in this program.  I know it might be harder to speak up in class on gender-related issues, but I for one will always be interested in what you have to say.

The second reason is for the women here.  We need to be aware of this.  I know that we’re used to not having the privilege that men have, and that suddenly being in an institution where our sex is well-represented, both in the student body and in the faculty, can be incredibly comforting.  But please remember that not everyone here is comforted by this, and as the majority, we have a certain degree of power here.  We must use it responsibly.  I believe that it is our responsibility to keep ourselves from crowding out the men at Naropa.  So I’m asking you to let the men in your classes know that you value their opinions and their presence here.

Finally, I am interested to know more about the experiences of men here at Naropa.  Can you identify with this, or has your experience been different?  Please post your thoughts, if you feel comfortable doing so.  I am eager to hear your voice.

Therapy-Lite: Naropa’s Sink-or-Swim Approach to Counseling

This week, I found myself sitting in a chair across from someone else, with the hope that in the next twenty minutes I would find a way to make a difference in her life.  Although I have only been in this program for 6 weeks, I am already scheduling therapy sessions (albeit practice ones) with real clients who expect me to know what I’m doing.  No pressure, right?

Actually, right.

I think this is the hardest thing I’ve had to learn at Naropa so far, and I am by no means finished learning it.  Most American graduate psychology programs involve a great deal of theory, research, and general book-knowledge.  Of course, Naropa requires some of that too, but the vast majority of the work that we do here is experiential.  And the plain truth is that you can’t study for that.  Unless you go around finding extra people to be practice clients in your own time, you will invariably go into your first few (or possibly, first many) sessions feeling ill-equipped, inadequate, and largely like a bull in a china closet.

But here’s the catch: if you’re anxious about about seeming professional and about being a “good therapist,” this will probably keep you from succeeding.  Why?  Because therapy isn’t about you.

This bears repeating: therapy is about your client.  The therapist is merely a facilitator.  Your client’s responsibility is to be vulnerable, to explore painful and uncomfortable feelings, and to identify and alter the cognitive and emotional blocks that prevent growth.  The therapist’s job is to basically support the client through this process.  We aren’t here to make brilliant analyses of our clients’ defense patterns, or provide illuminating insight and epiphanies.  We’re here to make a connection with our clients, to provide that interpersonal x-factor that allows them to feel safe enough to become an emotional mess and then sort through it.

Are there techniques, guidelines, and skills that we can utilize?  Of course.  But those are secondary.  Study after study has shown that the type of methodology used is largely irrelevant if that therapeutic connection, that relationship between the therapist and the client, is not sufficiently strong and sufficiently intimate.

But wait…intimate?  You mean we should be mushy and vulnerable with our clients?  Well, yes.  The real key difference between a therapeutic relationship and a regular (non-sexual) relationship is that in a therapeutic relationship, the entire purpose of the interaction is for the benefit of one person: the client.

And that takes practice.   It is virtually impossible for a student at my level of training to get this yet…and I certainly don’t.  I have ideas, and vague sensations about what works and what doesn’t, but ultimately getting this requires time.

So how did my first therapy session go?  Well, I fumbled around a lot.  I said “um” no less than 64 times in 35 minutes, and I laughed at completely inappropriate moments.  I asked superficial questions that didn’t really relate to my client’s content, and I repeatedly felt inadequate, unskilled, and generally ineffective.  And that’s perfectly normal.  We aren’t therapists yet.  We’re just babies in this world of therapy, and we’ve got to learn to roll over, and then crawl, and eventually walk, long before we can run marathons.

So for all of you who are feeling like you’re blundering around, playing therapist as though you knew what you were doing, but secretly trying to figure out why you signed up for this program, trust me–you’re right on schedule.  And personally, I feel better knowing that we’re all learning the hard way, and that when our trial-by-fire is past, we’ll be better therapists for it.