The Problem With Disney’s Frozen: Being a Savvy Counselor in an Emotionally Complex World

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Greetings all!

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve got a lot of new and exciting things to write about, so bear with me while I get them all posted.

For today, I’ll be talking about that wonder of mystical wonders, the recent and (purportedly) feminist icon of a film, Frozen. Now, I fully realize I’m probably stepping on quite a number of frosty toes here, so before you barrage me with indignance, allow me to explain. There are quite a number of well-written articles on why Frozen isn’t as feminist as it appears at first glance, but discussing the relative feminism of Frozen is not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about counseling.

So what does Frozen have to do with Counseling? Well, quite a lot actually. Frozen is a story about two girls who experience some pretty intense and damaging things in their lives (the death of their parents, Elsa’s realization that she’s a danger to herself and others, and Anna’s loss of her sister, just for starters). While I don’t anticipate encountering any ice queens in my office, issues like these can cause some pretty big difficulties in a young girl’s life. So it’s actually quite likely that people like Elsa and Anna will end up in our offices sooner or later. It can become easy to get caught up in the “magic” when Disney movies start to play, so I’ll break down the movie into (not-fully-comprehensive-but-good-enough) bullet points for you, along with the emotional allegory that the movie implies, from my point of view as a counselor:

  • Elsa discovers that she has magical ice powers (Elsa discovers that she sometimes has strong feelings)
  • Elsa accidentally hurts her sister with her ice powers (Elsa expresses her feelings in a way that is hurtful to Anna)
  • Elsa and Anna are taken to some trolls, who tell Elsa that she is very dangerous, that she almost killed her sister, that she’ll need to conceal her powers from now on, and that Anna’s memory will have to be erased (Elsa is told that it is not okay for her to have these feelings and express them, and the fact that she has these feelings is glossed over and not talked about or acknowledged)
  • Elsa is hidden away inside the castle, and her sister is forbidden from seeing her (Elsa is required to keep her feelings hidden so that everyone else will be okay, and her sister isn’t allowed to see that Elsa has these feelings)
  • Elsa’s and Anna’s parents die unexpectedly, and Elsa has to become queen and somehow not freeze the land she’s ruling (suddenly, Elsa is an adult and, even though her parents aren’t around to reinforce the message that she can’t have strong feelings, she still believes she can’t have them and that pushing them down will protect people)
  • Elsa freezes the land she’s ruling (Elsa slips up and lets her strong emotions out, and people respond by rejecting her, just as she’d feared they would)
  • Elsa runs away, builds a snow castle, and sings “Let It Go” (Elsa decides she’s tired of living according to others’ rules, and embraces her feelings…sort of…we’ll get back to this.)
  • Anna shows up and tells Elsa that everything is frozen, and Elsa gets very upset because she’s hurt everyone after all (Anna tells Elsa that her emotional outburst hurt people, and Elsa feels despair because she feels guilt for having hurt people)
  • Elsa sends a snow beast after Anna (Elsa’s guilt and anger lead her to lash out at her sister)
  • Elsa is captured and brought back to the castle as a prisoner (people label Elsa as emotionally unstable, and therefore someone who needs to be put in her place, because of her emotional outbursts)
  • Elsa escapes and tries to fix things, but ends up stabbing an ice spear through her sister’s heart (Elsa tries to make it better, but learns that she doesn’t know how to reverse the damage that her emotional outbursts have caused)
  • Elsa figures out that love is what will thaw the ice and save her sister (the way to heal the damage caused by strong emotional outbursts is through love)

With me so far?  Yes, I’ve left pieces of this out, and yes I’ve focused mostly on Elsa, but it will make sense shortly.

This sounds like a nice narrative…until you realize that it’s not real.  You may be saying, “well of course it’s not, it’s a Disney movie.”  But once again, bear with me.

Let me boil down this story a bit:

A girl is shamed for her feelings, and sanctioned for even the smallest display of anger, or similarly strong and “negative” emotions.  She is taught to hide her feelings, fear her feelings, and fear herself. She is forbidden from ever displaying these feelings by all of the authority figures in her life.  She never learns to feel things in a healthy way, and instead bottles them up inside, hiding from people and trying to be perfect.  And then, suddenly, her parents die and she is expected to take over all of the responsibilities of being an adult.  All of her life she has been told how to behave, how to feel, and now there is nobody around to tell her anything anymore.  But she still has this pressure to be perfect, to never feel “negative” emotions, and especially not to express them. 

Sounds horrible right?  Sounds like a great reason to seek therapy.  But the story continues:

The girl gets angry at someone, and everyone sees it.  They shame her too, just like her parents did.  She can’t handle her “failure,” and runs away, trying to get away from the pressure.  When she’s gained some distance, it gets worse.

Have you ever stopped to listen to the lyrics of “Let it Go”…?  The song contains choice phrases, such as:

  • “No right, no wrong, no rules for me”
  • “You’ll never see me cry”
  • “The past is in the past”
  • (and my personal favorite): “The cold never bothered me anyway”

Alright, now let’s all put our therapist hats on.  You have a client that comes into your office and says that she was shamed and silenced her whole life, that her parents just died, that she is completely estranged from her only living relative, that she has no friends, everyone she knows hates her, that she’s hurt everyone she’s ever been close to, and that now she’s completely self-isolating with no intention of ever building up a social life again.  And she’s saying things like “you’ll never see me cry,” “the past is in the past,” “there’s no right or wrong,” and “[strong feelings] never bothered me anyway.”

I don’t know about you all, but I would be looking into a long future of slowly working with this client through the process of uncovering the grief, the anger, the pain, the guilt, the shame, and the realization that she had never really been given a chance to be a healthy, happy person.

But this isn’t what happens at all.  Elsa doesn’t sit in her ice castle and grieve.  She doesn’t feel her feelings.  She suppresses them.  “The cold never bothered me anyway.”  It’s all right there.  Her whole life has been a spiral of shame surrounding her ice powers (feelings) and now she’s saying that her powers (her feelings) never bothered her anyway.  That’s pretty classic denial if you ask me.

I’d love to say that the movie gets better after this…but it really doesn’t.  Elsa realizes that her feeling still exist (snow beast) and is then forced to confront the people whose town she froze (whose feelings she hurt).  And when it seems like all hope is lost, she figures out what will undo all those years of neglect, shame, and bottled-up emotions.

Love.

….Really?  Love?  Aren’t we missing something?  Or maybe, several somethings? 

Here’s the real problem with frozen.  Up until this point, I think it could have been salvageable.  But instead of Elsa realizing that she needs to feel her feelings, feel her anger, feel her loneliness, feel her guilt and grief and sadness and pain, Elsa feels love.  And love makes all the other feelings go away.

Which, once again, is some pretty classic denial.

Because you can’t just love away anger.  You can’t love away what some would call abusive parenting, and what would almost certainly cause major childhood-attachment issues.  You can’t love away everyone you’ve ever known shaming you for your feelings.  It doesn’t work.

You know those kung-fu movies where the kid who has never practiced a martial art becomes a master in the span of a few intensely-filmed training shots that last about two minutes of real time?  I think this is what we sometimes expect in therapy.  It’s a nice thought—it would be great if we could bring clients into our offices, teach them to love (themselves, others, the world, whatever) and send them out beaming.  But therapy doesn’t work that way, and neither does real life.  We can’t move through the healing process if we skip all the middle steps.  We can’t learn to love ourselves and others if we try to jump there directly from crippling shame and guilt.  We have to realize what our feelings are, what caused them.  We usually have to get angry about them (and this process definitely isn’t a hurried one).  We have to feel sadness over the loss of the nurturing and support we were never given.  We have to learn to find resolution through our tears and our pounding fists and our despair.  We have to touch those wounded places in ourselves and, slowly, stitch the jagged edges closed again.  And we will always have scars.  Only then can we start moving on to love—love of ourselves, of our families, of those who hurt us.

Love doesn’t heal all.  Love is what waits for us when we’ve healed.  Because it’s the process of going through all the painful, messy, horrible steps that allows us to love ourselves, to have compassion for ourselves.

So why is this relevant to counselors (particularly to Naropa counselors, I might add)?  Because we so very want it to be a true story.  We want to jump from shame to love.  We don’t want the messy steps.  As counselors, we’re trained to know that we have to go through the messy steps.  But our clients aren’t taught this.  It’s our job to gently let them down into that realization, and support them when they get there.

I’ve heard a lot of therapist friends of mine espousing about the wonders of Frozen.  And sure, it has its good points.  But I think a lot of them missed this.  Even therapists want to believe in the healing powers of love.  And it’s true that our compassion and empathy for our clients can be tremendously healing.  But that doesn’t prevent the messy parts of healing.  It just makes them more bearable.

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness: Finding a Naropa Practicum Site

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After a long hiatus, I’m back. And, I’m eager to share my newly acquired information about the practicum application process. Now, I’m guessing that many of you current students probably know a lot about this already (since you’ve likely been going through this process yourselves), which I think is great.  In fact, I’d love it if you’d share your expertise in the comments area below, because I know I can’t cover everything (and wouldn’t know everything, even if I could cover it).

The first thing I’ll say about this, and probably the most important thing, is that you do NOT want to procrastinate. This operates on a first-come-first-served basis.  Many practicum sites have only 1 or 2 placements, and will already have filled their available positions by early summer, including the very-coveted Noeticus Counseling Center.  Additionally, many sites require 2-3 letters of recommendation, in addition to a resume and a cover letter.  You definitely don’t want to be asking your instructors for recommendation letters while they’re grading final papers, and many instructors leave during the summer, so make sure time is on your side when doing this.  Some people may actually prefer you to write a letter yourself, which they will then proofread and sign, so you may want to suggest this when asking for those letters (particularly if time is short).  Additionally, ask them to give them your final letters in digital format on official letterhead, as it will make things easier in the long run.

Applying for a practicum is  much like applying for a job, except that you aren’t getting paid in money.  Instead, you’re getting paid in training, exposure, and perhaps most importantly, in resume fodder.  A lot of Naropa’s Counseling students seem to have limited mental health-related experience (although there are also many who do), so this may be the biggest indicator of whether or not a future internship site will choose you.  What that means is that you’ll be wanting to get the biggest bang for your lack-of-a-buck.  Choose internship sites that will look good to future employers in your chosen area of specialty.  So, for example, my chosen area of focus is  Marriage and Family Therapy.  So, while it might have been interesting to work at Medicine Horse, I thought it would make more sense to apply to sites like Boulder Valley Women’s Health and the Boulder ARC because reproductive decisions and addiction are both issues that could be central to family or couples counseling.

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Another important thing to consider is the big ‘D’: “Diversify.”  You always want a wide base of experience, so that you’ll be appealing to various employers for various reasons.  Now, you can interpret that as you wish, but I choose to approach it in terms of clinical experience.  Naropa gives us a lot of Rogerian-oriented counselling and mindfulness skills in our first year, but fairly limited clinical experience.  So, even though doing meditation instruction with kids sounds pretty fun, I wanted to choose sites that would have me filling out intake forms, witnessing or administering clinical assessment, and giving me a better understanding of social services.

So, let’s assume that you’ve gone through the practicum site list and found a few different placements that sound pretty rad.  Then what?  Well, before anything else happens, I recommend doing two things.   First, find the organization’s website, and read up on it.  Much of the placement info on the site list isn’t as comprehensive as it could be, and you want to be able to ask relevant questions (and show that you’ve done your research) when you go to step 2.

Step 2 is calling the site.  And, although it would seem logical to call the number on the practicum list, don’t do it.  Seriously.  It’s most likely wrong.  I contacted 5 different sites right away, and all 5 of them had incorrect contact information.  It would be better to find the volunteer coordinator (or equivalent) on the website, and get contact information this way.  Two of my placements didn’t get back to me because my voicemail went to the completely wrong person, and I had to go back and find correct information.  Once you’ve figured out who you actually need to talk to, which may involve a few transferred calls, introduce yourself briefly (being sure to mention your name and that you’re from Naropa!), and tell them some form of the following:

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“Hi, my name is ________ and I’m a Counseling Psychology student at Naropa University.  I know you’re probably very busy, but I’m wondering if you have a quick minute to tell me a little more about your practicum position and answer a couple of questions for me?” (Don’t say this verbatim, as it will be weird if all Naropa students seem to be reading from a script).

Why is this important?  Well, I have to give credit to Casey McCarthy on this, because this is in fact an old sales trick that he taught me.  People who manage other people are busy…and at nonprofits (such as most of our practicum sites), they’re often VERY busy.  They don’t want to waste their time talking to people who don’t know what they want, and they certainly don’t want to waste their time talking to someone who doesn’t even value their time.  Furthermore, as frustrating as it may be, Naropa students sometimes get an unfortunate reputation for being unfocused and unreliable.  The best way to dispel that assumption is to show potential sites that you do not fit that stereotype.  Mentioning that you’re aware of their busy schedules, asking politely for just a few minutes, and actually taking ONLY a few minutes will make a big impact.

Once you’ve gotten the information you need, including contact name(s), phone number(s), and e-mail address(es) where you should send your application, be sure to follow up.  Send an e-mail right away thanking whoever you talked to for their help, and assuring them that you’ll send your application along presently.  You basically want as much exposure as possible, and you want them to remember you.  If they have a personality and a face to put to your name and resume, you’re already a step ahead.

The next step, obviously, is applying.  Many sites will also have an online volunteer application to complete, so don’t forget this step.  You will want to send a CUSTOMIZED resume and letter of interest.  This is very important.  Do not send the same resume to every site.  If you’re applying to an organization that works with adults who have developmental disabilities, focus on your understanding of human developmental theory, or your experience with this population.  If you’re hoping to work with kids, focus on any childcare experience, teaching experience, or youth mentoring you’ve done.  You get the idea…play your strengths.  One very effective way to do this is by using a functional resume, which will highlight your skills and expertise, instead of your chronological work history.  I have personally been using a functional resume for the past year or so, and I’ve found it to be very effective.

Logically, you’ll next want to focus on your cover letter.  Your cover letter should be equally customized, and additionally, personal.  These people get dozens, maybe even hundreds of resumes for their volunteer positions.  Making it personal will make yours stand out.  Instead of starting with “I have all of these qualifications for this position blah blah blah…”, start by highlighting why this is so important to you.  For example, I started my own Boulder ARC resume with “When I first learned that someone I loved was suffering from addiction, I remember feeling surprised, confused, and scared.”  This immediately tells my potential site that I am both personally motivated to pursue work with addictions, and that I am already familiar with some of the ways that addiction affects people.  Of course, you’ll want to highlight your experience to some extent as well, but it’s key to remember this: any applicant can be trained, but only the ones who are motivated to learn will be effective.

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Once you have your completed your resume, cover letter, and (if applicable, although I recommend them anyway) letters of recommendation, you’ll want to send them (probably electronically, unless otherwise specified) to the person in charge of hiring.  I usually name my resume and cover letter files something like “(MyName) – (Site Name) – Resume/Cover Letter” so that I don’t accidentally send a resume that was customized for a different site.  Plus, it helps keep things organized.  Thank the person again for considering you for their position, and ask if there are any next steps you should take in the application process.  As a bonus, if you find out that the practicum list information is out of date, it may be helpful to include Mary Bear-Rittenmeyer’s (our current practicum coordinator) contact info so that they can send her updated information for the site list.

A final note on the practicum application process: if you’re going to need help from Mary, you have to be on top of it.  She is very busy, and has limited office hours.  Although her phone message says she’ll get back to you within 48 hours, I called her at one point and only heard back a week later because she’d been working from home and wasn’t checking her messages.  Send e-mails and leave voicemails, and be proactive about it getting ahold of her.  You’ll need a practicum placement by the time school starts, and no practicum hours worked during the summer count towards your requirement (per Mary), so if you run into problems, waiting until the last second isn’t the best choice.

Happy practicum hunting, and as always, let me know how it goes!

Aside

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.

The Naropa TCP Interview Scoop – Part 2

The last few days have been quite the array of frenzied activity, involving a costume wedding, an important phone call, and a birthday, among other things. Nevertheless, I am back! I’ll be explaining the second part of the Naropa interview process today, and also telling you the results of my own interview process.

Oddly enough, I think that today’s post must start with lunch. Naropa’s cafe provided lunch for all of the applicants, and I felt like the food they served really summed up the Naropa atmosphere. Lunch was veggie wraps, salad, two kinds of cookies, and a sort of hibiscus fruit drink. The food was vegan friendly, and there were gluten-free options. There was a large amount of fresh produce included, and everything was neatly laid out on trays, waiting for us when we arrived at the cafe. The thoughtfulness that went into this meal is a great illustration of the school.  Naropa attracts many kinds of people, and the school tries its best to accommodate them all.  At many schools, a catered lunch wouldn’t have been given this much thought. Naropa is so small, and so focused on the wellbeing of its students, that lunch became a small statement about these qualities, while also giving a glimpse about the types of people it attracts.

During our lunch, we were given the opportunity to discuss life in the graduate programs with some of its current students. One of the students happened to be a friend of mine, whom I’d met during my handful of years in Boulder, and he was very personable in answering my questions. I found it very thoughtful of the school to provide current students with whom we could discuss the program, especially since we hadn’t had our interviews yet.

Perhaps one of the best parts of the day, however, was getting to talk to one of the school’s financial aid counselors. Naropa is an expensive school, as it is a private school, and it doesn’t have many majors that produce incredibly lucrative jobs. We had the opportunity to hear an honest, straightforward explanation of graduate tuition rates, financial aid options, and post-graduate loan repayment options. It was very clear that this school is more concerned with serving its students than with making money.

After lunch and the financial aid discussion, it was finally time for my interview. I was one of the last people interviewed, and therefore had some time to relax and go over the things I wanted to remember during the interview process. I had spent time reading the descriptions of each program on the website, and I’d met with my admissions counselor in order to ask for further clarification. From what I’d gathered, there were a handful of things that Naropa was most interested in. Naropa wants students who:

  • Have some kind of daily contemplative practice, which could include meditation, or some other mindfulness building activity such as Tai Chi.
  •  Have a good academic background. Naropa wants students who will be able to handle its coursework, especially when coupled with the unique stresses of a mindfulness-based program.
  • Have some kind of real-world experience in the mental health field. This doesn’t mean you have to be working in a psychology-related field, it means you need to show that you have worked with people in a way that has caused you to grow–for example, volunteering with a homeless shelter, or working in a school.
  • Have the ability to overcome difficulties on an emotional and interpersonal level.

When I went into my interview, this seemed to be pretty spot on. I was asked a handful of questions, and given the opportunity to answer them to whatever degree I needed. My interviewer took notes, and prompted me if she needed further elaboration on any of my answers.

Basically, I was asked to:

  • Demonstrate that I understood contemplative practice, and that I was involved in some sort of contemplative practice regularly in my personal life.
  • Show that I had faced situations that were personally difficult, and explain how I had handled those situations.
  • Explain how I tended to interact in a group setting, and what difficulties I had in a group setting.
  • Display my strengths and weaknesses, academically and in my own life.
  • Illustrate how my experience outside of an academic setting had contributed to my foundation for graduate school.

I found that the best way to answer these questions was with honesty. While many graduate programs seem to encourage you to sell yourself to your interviewers as much as possible, Naropa really is looking for that genuineness that it professes to teach its students. Naropa wants to know that you understand what it’s like to suffer, and to be with others who are suffering. It also wants to know that you are able to function academically and emotionally during difficult times, and to grow from these situations. Finally, Naropa wants to know that you are dedicated to a mindfulness-based lifestyle, because without an appreciation of mindfulness, the degree program will not satisfy you, and you will likely do poorly.

There has been a lot of jargon in this post, which can make understanding exactly what Naropa is looking for a bit confusing. Much of this is explained during the actual program, so it’s not expected that you will understand it all. However, familiarizing yourself with the concepts of mindfulness and genuineness can make a world of difference.

For a better understanding of mindfulness, check out this link: http://www.wildmind.org/applied/daily-life/what-is-mindfulness

For a better understanding of genuineness, especially as it relates to empathy: http://www.ahpweb.org/rowan_bibliography/chapter6.html

And finally, that important phone call I mentioned at the beginning of this? That was Naropa, calling me to let me know that I’d been accepted into the Transpersonal Counseling Psychology MA program. So it looks like this blogging endeavor will be able to continue.

What do you think? Are you applying to Naropa, or have you applied? And if you have, was your interview experience similar or different? Feel free to comment!

The Naropa TCP Interview Scoop – Part 1

After a long weekend filled with friends’ wedding preparations, costume creation, and other neat things that I won’t have time for once I’m back in school, I’m ready to update you all on how my Naropa interview went.  I have to say that it was about what I expected, but at the same time made me even more eager to go back to school.

I arrived at the school at about 10:10 am, 20 minutes early.  This was partially due to a desire to give myself extra time in case anything went wrong, but also because my partner Casey needed the car later.  I entered the building, and was met by what could only be described as a labyrinth.  There are hallways everywhere, and the only common areas are the cafe (at the far end of the building), and a sort of center area where many of the hallways intersect.  To make things even more confusing, there are mirrors at the ends of many of the hallways, making them seem to go further than they actually do.  I had to ask a few people for directions before I found the bathrooms, and even then I had to walk through an area marked “meditation hall” that was a designated quiet area.

I ran into a few other prospective students during my time walking the halls, who seemed as lost as I was.  Eventually we were all brought to a room near the cafe, which had a lovely indoor water feature, as well as a table full of nametags and snacks.  I didn’t get to spend very much time in this room, however, as we were soon led to another room where we would all start the interview process.

The room we were brought to was fairly small, with wood floors and large windows.  There was a circle of cushions arranged on the floor for us to sit on.  While there were a few chairs, most of us sat on the cushions, which were quite comfortable.  A couple of people introduced themselves as the interview coordinators, and we were given a brief description of the philosophy behind Naropa’s education style.  Then, for a few minutes, the group leader described the “Naropa Bow.”

At some schools, the instructor will verbally call attention to the class in order to begin, and in others a bell signals the beginning of class time.  At Naropa, the class starts with a short bow.  It isn’t a complex movement; it involves sitting up straight, appreciating silence for a few moments, and then bending from the waist and inclining the head.  The bow is a symbolic movement, to focus your attention on the people present, and to acknowledge your willingness to bring everything you’ve got to the table for the time that everyone is together.

After the bow, we went around the circle introducing ourselves, and I got a taste for what to expect if I get accepted.  The brief descriptions that each person gave were quite varied, from the woman who had used art to work through a long recovery from illness, to the man studying the effects of auditory stimulation on the brains of trauma survivors.  I could tell that these individuals were at the forefronts of their fields of interest, which was an encouraging sign of what was to come in the program.

After we’d all introduced ourselves, we were taken to the meditation hall of the school.  It was pointed out that many schools have chapels, but few have meditation halls, and I must say I prefer Naropa’s choice.  The room was quiet and comfortable, and not very large.  It was full of cushions, this time facing an altar at the front.  Hanging above the altar was a banner with a sun on it, signifying the continual dawning of new opportunity with each moment.  On the altar were five objects in bowls: a mirror, a guitar, a cookie, scented water, and a ribbon.  These signified what we were offering to ourselves and to the world by meditating: our five senses, and the awareness we gain by using them.  We practiced shamatha meditation, focusing on the breath with our eyes open, for about ten minutes.  It was very relaxing this time, and allowed me to calm the nervousness I’d been feeling about my interview.

After this, we were dismissed for lunch. I am out of time to write this post, so I will describe the second half of the day during my next post.  In the meantime, feel free to ask about anything in this post that is unclear, or if you have any thoughts about Naropa’s interview process thus far!

How Sitting Still Can Make You a Better Student

As I mentioned in my last post, the idea behind contemplative education is that you can’t expect to use information effectively if your only means of understanding it is intellectual, such as reading a book.  Contemplative education uses a well rounded approach, which includes experiential learning as well as a sort of deeper “digestion” of the information, and then integration of that knowledge into daily life. While there are probably various ways to do this, which are likely utilized by other models of education, the way that contemplative education works is through meditation.

Now, before you go back to that mental image of the flower children chanting in a circle, allow me to explain what meditation really is. Naropa’s style of contemplative meditation involves Vipassana Meditation.  Put simply, this form of meditation involves sitting still with your eyes open, paying attention to your breath, and noticing any thoughts that come into your head.  Sounds easy, right?  Not quite.  There are so many things going through our heads all the time, that eventually we stop paying much attention to how important they might be, and we just get carried away.  You sit down, start focusing on your breath for about 3 seconds, and then start noticing the floor.  You remember your own bathroom floor, and how dirty it is, and how that friend of yours commented on the pattern of the tile.  Then you start thinking about that friend, which leads you to thinking about that city where you met in that bar.  By the time you remember to focus on your breath again, 30 seconds has gone by.

Most people think that meditation is relaxing, and pleasant.  But the fact is, it’s often frustrating, and tiring, and once you start noticing your thoughts, you can be quite disturbed by what’s actually in them.  You start noticing feelings that you’ve shoved deep inside yourself, and when they come up, you can’t yell or go zone out into a movie.  All you can do is sit with them.

So how does this help you learn?  As you spend time noticing your thoughts, you start being more deliberate about paying attention to the world.  It’s harder to fool yourself into thinking the world is out to get you, for example, because you notice all of those thoughts like “how dare he say that to me” or “why doesn’t the bus ever come sooner?”  Usually, you’d just accept those thoughts as truthful, and feel rotten about it.  But when you start noticing your thoughts, you question their usefulness.  For example, when the thought “how dare he say that to me” shows up, you might then thing “that really hurt my feelings, but maybe he’s having a bad day, I shouldn’t take it personally.”  You are spending less time focusing on unpleasant things, and more time paying attention to what’s actually going on around you.

The first step in contemplative education is the traditional sort of learning, from books and lectures and such.  Meditation is the second step.  It helps you start to understand what you’re learning, because you start to notice your reactions to the information.  You notice how the information is exemplified in your own life, and you start to discover the real value in the knowledge.  When you learn about it this way, it’s much harder to just forget about it once you’ve passed your exams.

I’ll cover the third part of contemplative practice in my next post.  In the meantime, give it a shot!  Sit down, loosely focus your eyes a couple of feet in front of you, pay attention to your breathing, and notice what thoughts come up. Try this for about 5 or 10 minutes.  Then, let me know how it went!  Maybe you’ll have a different experience than I did.  Maybe it’ll be great, or maybe it won’t work at all.  Either way, it’s worth a shot, and I’d love to hear about your experiment with meditation!

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?

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