Finding Your Battery: How to Recharge When Energy is Low

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The spring semester of my second year in Naropa University’s Transpersonal Counseling Psychology program has come to a close, which means that I finally have some time to sleep in and finish all those little projects I’ve been putting off for the last several months.  Having all this free time has made me think about the ways that I spend my time, particularly when I don’t have much of it.  And it’s also highlighted for me the importance of spending that time on self-care, which I’ve decided I’m actually quite good at.

For those of you who know me, this may seem a very funny statement.  For those of you who don’t, let me explain.

Have you ever met one of those people who are so busy that you don’t know how they managed to maintain any sort of social life, or have any fun, much less focus on self-care?  Well, I am one of those people.  And while it is true that I do tend to be very busy, I actually do find the time to take care of myself.   Admittedly, part of it comes down to the fact that I’m fairly high-energy anyway.  But a big part of how I am able to accomplish so much and be so busy without burning out is that I’ve figured out ways that I can effectively “recharge.”

Learning how to recharge is one something I frequently discuss with my coaching students, as it seems that many of us were never taught how to do that.  Part of this could be due to our culture of busyness, in which taking two weeks off per year is supposed to provide all of the rest and relaxation one could possibly need.  Not a lot of value is placed on really taking care of ourselves, and very little information is available on how to do this.  There are definitely many books on how to feel “at peace,” or how to increase one’s energy through exercise, for example.  But there seems to be a common assumption that self-care looks exactly the same for all people.  At Naropa, people tend to conceptualize self-care as involving alone-time, rest, and maybe yoga or some other type of physical activity.  I suspect that these things can be very helpful for many people, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that they are not, but I’d like to suggest the possibility that the correct method for taking care of oneself cannot be prescribed by another person, and definitely isn’t one-size-fits-all.

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This gets to the heart of what I’m talking about.  I agree that self-care is very important, and that if we don’t take care of ourselves we won’t be useful to anyone, least of all our future clients.  But trying to force ourselves to go sit alone in nature when we really want to be dancing to dub step won’t get us very far.  Every person needs different kinds of self-care, and I sometimes think that not enough attention is given to encouraging people to take care of themselves and the way that actually makes sense for them.

I think that, too often, we have a default way of spending our time, and that we don’t stop to consider whether our “free time” actually feels like a break.  Often, I think we get stuck in habitual ways of spending our time.  This may be watching Netflix, or doing chores, or browsing the Internet.  And while those could feel recharging for some people, they could also just be a distraction to keep us from noticing how exhausted we are.  When we get to the end of that time, we may not feel any less exhausted, and it may seem like our “break” wasn’t really worthwhile.  This seems common among people who work a lot, and who are tired a lot, which is unfortunately typical for grad students.

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So if this sounds like you, maybe stop and pay attention to the way you feel *after* you do the things you do in your spare time, and don’t be so concerned if those things are typically labeled as “work” or “fun.”  It could be helpful to keep a journal, or to record in some other way how you feel after doing certain things for a couple of weeks.  The results may surprise you.  I discovered that one of the best ways I can recharge is by cooking.  I also discovered that while spending time alone doing artwork is enjoyable for me, it’s very hard for me to do a unless I already feeling energized.  And I figured out that lounging by myself in a bubble bath listening to nice music and “relaxing” is actually strangely draining, and doesn’t do much for my energy levels.   I know people who feel energized and ready to meet the day after cleaning the house, or after going for a run, or even after getting into lively debates with their friends.

The whole reason we’re in this program, or any grad program for that matter, is because we have found something that we want to do with our lives.  But we can’t expect these things to sustain us when they are also our chief sources of stress, work, and worry.  For that, we need self-care, and in order to take care of ourselves we need to figure out what we actually need to feel energized.

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Wake Up: This is Naropa, and You’re Missing It.

I wanted to start this post by saying “I’m sorry, this is a departure from my other posts” and other things.  But you know what?  I’m not sorry.  This needs to be said.

In the past few weeks, I have come to feel markedly less safe here at Naropa.  I don’t need people to agree with me in order to feel safe, or even to accept me necessarily, but I do need people believe in the integrity of my own experiences, even if they don’t understand where I’m coming from.  And I need to know that, if someone uses a power dynamic or a privilege against me, that someone will stand up for me if I’m feeling too ashamed, or fearful, or dissociated to do it myself.  We were taught in Helping Relationships that even if we are the “authority” on mental well-being in therapeutic relationships, our clients are the “authorities” on their own experiences.  No matter how much we understand, no matter what we learn or how long we practice or how many clients we’ve seen over the years, we will never be more of an expert on a person’s experience than that individual is.  This is because, regardless of how much we empathize, we can never actually know what it is like to be another person. 

I fully believe this.  Unfortunately, this belief does not only come from the classroom.  It comes from a long history of misunderstanding and judgment from people who did not understand me.  While I have become accustomed to this, it is a lonely and painful way to live.  I’ve outgrown most of the people I’ve loved.  I’ve stood up for my beliefs, even when they were different than everyone else’s.  I’ve been ignored, teased, threatened, and even physically attacked for disagreeing.  I’ve had to quit jobs, withdraw from classes, and seek out resources for myself because nobody offered any.  I’ve had to advocate for myself quite a bit, and while I suppose I never really expect this to end, I had hoped that maybe I wouldn’t need to do this quite so much at Naropa.  Unfortunately, I’ve found the opposite to be true.  I’ve had to advocate for myself here, as well as for others, more than almost anywhere else I’ve been because Naropa asks us to be so incredibly vulnerable.  And while I’ve had a lot of practice advocating for myself, many others have not.  I’m starting to recognize more and more the incredible damage that can occur when vulnerability and misunderstanding are mixed.

Because that’s what we do here.  We’re vulnerable.  We break ourselves open and ooze onto the floor and hope that nobody minds the mess too much until we put ourselves back together.  And in our deepest hearts, we hope that people will understand.  Or, even if they don’t, that they’ll step up and say:

“Wow, I really have never known what it’s like to experience that.  I won’t pretend that I have…I know pretending would be meaningless, and wouldn’t help you.  It would only be to make myself feel better.  But I want you to know that I heard you.  I didn’t ignore your pain, and I’m not going to drop the ball.  I’m going to sit here with you and help you hold your fragile pieces together until you’re okay to hold them by yourself.  I’ll listen to what you have to say, really listen, and I won’t judge you for your perceived ineptness.  And I’ll help make sure this space is safe for us to do just that.”

But for all those hopes, I’ve noticed something in our classes.  I noticed that I am almost always the one who steps up when the space isn’t held.  When microaggressions happen, when people express powerful, scary things that are summarily ignored, when people express a need that the group can’t meet.  When issues of privilege and oppression come up.  When someone forgets, and slips in a prejudicial stereotype.  When someone makes an insensitive joke.  When someone’s real and honest feelings are labeled as “projections” because those feelings too scary for someone else to deal with.  When that happens, I step up.  And almost NOBODY ELSE DOES.

I routinely sit in classes of up to 45 people, who know and care for each other, who have been together through intense emotional and academic rigor, and who claim to feel deeply the suffering of their peers.  And it is ludicrous how rarely someone else steps up, ignoring the anxiety and fear of speaking the uncomfortable words that are needed to advocate for those who have been marginalized.  And every time I step up, a couple of classmates (and not just the same people over and over) come up to me after class and say, “Thank you so much for saying something, Mari.  It was totally unfair what that person was saying.” 

And I just have to wonder if what they’re really saying is “thank you for saying something, because I didn’t want to, and now I don’t have to feel guilty for not speaking up.”

There are people in this program who have experienced such withdrawal, such mass ignoring, such utter lack of support and understanding and empathy from us that they have stopped speaking about their deepest feelings altogether.

Let me repeat that: THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO FEEL SO UNSUPPORTED BY US THAT THEY HAVE STOPPED SPEAKING.

We are here to learn to be therapists.  How are we going to do that if we can’t even stand up and say something when our own classmates are marginalized???

What would you do if your therapist couldn’t handle your pain?  I know what I’d do, because I’ve had to do it with therapists who couldn’t handle my pain.  Who changed the subject automatically.  Who asked if maybe I was really dealing with some other issue, and that the issue I’d brought up was in fact just *hiding* something more important (so let’s not deal with the it please).  Who were so unable to tolerate their own anxiety that they wouldn’t let our sessions go deep even when I was ready.

You know what I did?  I left and never went back.

We can’t become good therapists if we can’t address our own problems, and most of us can’t address our own problems without a supporting relationship in which to process.  Naropa offers an opportunity the likes of which most of us will never have again.  We will probably never again have an entire community full of professionals and peers whose sole purpose is to instruct and support us in our personal and professional development in this way.  This is the best possible opportunity that we have to learn to advocate for others who are being marginalized.  And we simply cannot utilize this opportunity if someone else is always coming to our rescue.  Yes, it’s scary, and we’re afraid of confrontation, and we were yelled at as children, and we were never taught to handle anger.  So what?  Do you think our clients are going to care about that? At best you’ll lose your client.  At worst, you’ll re-traumatize them and set their healing back years.  

So think about that the next time someone says something oppressive, or microaggressive, or dismissing.  Think about that when you’re waiting for me, or one of the handful of other people who regularly step up to challenge inequities. Maybe next time, I’ll just stay silent, and see if anyone steps up.  Maybe next time, you’ll step up instead.

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!

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Extracurricular Activity: Dating and Relationships at Naropa University


As we near the end of our first semester here in the Naropa TCP program, a lot of activity is going on.  Papers are due, finals are coming up, and stress and emotions are both running high.  This produces a variety of troublesome phenomena for the students here.  It’s around this time of year that people start to feel the physical demands of the workload, and many people get sick, don’t exercise, and resort to eating junk food because they’re always in a hurry.

It’s also the time of year that students start to get pretty lonely.  Think about it–family holidays are coming up, the novelty of a new town and a new school are wearing thin, and the weather is turning towards winter.  Overall, the atmosphere here in Naropa-land has become decidedly less like flying above the clouds, and more like falling through them.

Which means that at this time of year, people start turning toward their new friends and classmates here at Naropa, and not always just for a shoulder to cry on.  Naropa’s unique setting attracts unique people that often felt ostracized in their hometowns.  Upon coming to Naropa, many suddenly feel accepted for the first time in their adult lives.  Furthermore, the open mindedness that the school tries to cultivate means that it’s usually not hard to find a handful of people who match your sexual orientation, even if you aren’t straight.

Okay, so people hook up.  We’re all adults, we can handle our own sex lives without anyone’s interference, thank you very much.  Right?

Well, it doesn’t always work out that way…at least from the faculty’s point of view.  Don’t get me wrong, the instructors here are savvy, and they’ve worked with grad students for a long time.  They know how it works.  People in college date each other.  And yet here, in a population of self-sufficient, well-educated adults, it’s still pretty common to hear teachers advising against even casual sexual intimacy with Naropa buddies, much less forming relationships with them.

Which, upon first glance, seems pretty ridiculous.

But really, they’re well intended.  As much as I’d like to point out that many of Naropa’s instructors probably met their own significant others while in college, they do have a point.  This program is intense.  It messes with your emotions in ways that no other graduate psychology program ever will, and it does so intentionally.  If you sleep with someone, and it ends up being a mistake, you’ll probably have at least one class with them every semester for the next two and a half years, unless you intentionally (and collaboratively) schedule around each other.  The program is small, and some of the classes are big.  Many of the electives are only offered once or twice during the program, and then only have one section.  And couples often don’t survive Naropa.  I’ve heard instructors tell their students to start couples counseling on the first day of classes, because they’re instantly worried for their students’ romantic stability.  In a school of only a couple hundred students, it would be pretty easy to see your ex every single day without meaning to.

How do I know all this?  Well, some of it is from hearing all of those instructors’ warnings.  Unfortunately, the rest is from experience.

When I began attending Naropa as an undergrad, I was engaged.  After about a year, I was married.  About a year after that, I was single again.  Just like that.  Both of us were Naropa students, and saw each other every day.  It was terrible.  I cannot stress this enough…this program seriously fucks with you.  Having a relationship will be twice as difficult as it ever was, particularly if your significant other(s) attend Naropa too.

Luckily, there’s hope.  I am now in another relationship, with someone else who had gone through the undergrad program too.  And we’re both in the TCP.  And thus far, it’s been the best kind of hell.  We’re constantly falling apart and putting ourselves back together again.  We’re learning what it’s like to have a partner who is sometimes just too distraught themselves to be supportive.  We’re learning how to be individuals in our relationship, to trust each other even when we’re both wrecks.  We’re on this bull that is Naropa, and it is bucking like hell.  But we’re also incredibly lucky.  We get to be in a relationship in which we actively watch each other progress intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually at an accelerated rate, and we each know the other is experiencing this as well.

I don’t know if I’d honestly recommend this process to anyone…my partner and I are pretty stubborn people, and this has served us through the intensity thus far.  I have to admit, it’s often very uncomfortable, particularly when we have classes together.

Will we last?  Hopefully.  I have faith that we can, and I know it will be one of the hardest things we’ve done as a couple.  But even only one semester in, the results are astounding.  It really is a trial-by-fire, and we’re each melting down into something new.  It’s incredible, and terrifying, and amazing all at once.


If you choose not to date, good for you; you’re probably saving yourself a world of heartache.  If you decide to do so, good for you anyway.  You’ll learn a lot about who you are in relationships…and who knows, you may come out the other side still together and stronger for it.

Whatever you choose, I wish you the best, and hope you find a way to make it work.

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.

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.

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.

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