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.

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If I Only Had a Brain: Media Portrayal of Mental Health Professionals

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We’ve all seen them in movies and TV shows–the heady, overly critical, frumpy old therapists who look at their clients through thick spectacles and expound upon the psychological horrors that only they think plausible. They’re usually portrayed as incompetent, overly analytical, and generally out of touch with reality.

Characters such as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest show a cold, remorseless approach to mental health, while others such as Sean Maguire in Goodwill Hunting display the belief that it’s expected for even good therapists to unload damaging counter transference onto their clients.  The list goes on: Dr. Thurman in Donnie Darko, Jack Nicholson in Anger Management, not to mention Anthony Hopkins’ incredibly creepy depiction of Hannibal Lecter.  The media is rampant with therapists who sleep with their clients, scream at their clients, betray their clients’ trust, even physically attack their clients.  And most of all, therapists in the media seem to have an uncanny knack for wrongly diagnosing clients, and consequently cause them countless miseries.

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Perhaps this provides people with comfortable distance from which to identify with the social fear this country seems to have of mental healthcare, but I find it rather troubling.  On the infrequent occasions that I do encounter a positive (or even accurate) depiction of a therapist in a film (such as in Lars and the Real Girl), I am reminded of how rare this sort of occurrence actually is.

So why does American media seem to hate mental health so much?

Well, to be honest, there are some good reasons for Psychology’s bad reputation.  I still find myself griping about Freud’s emphasis on sex, and shake my head at the gross ethical violations of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.  The field’s history is rife with unethical studies, instances of misinterpreting data to promote prejudiced views, and overall, there’s been a lot of misinformation.

Now, this is true for every field, but nobody seems to blame scientists for once believing that the earth was the center of the universe.  There are probably a couple of reasons for this.  First of all, people care less about the effects of research on the lives of mice than their own.  But furthermore, science is all about figuring out new and better ways to understand the world and accomplish things, which the United States is all about. Psychology, until recently, basically focused on figuring out what makes the mind break.  Strengths-based approaches are fairly new, and still haven’t really caught on in the popular view.

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I guess that means we have our work cut out for us.  On the other hand, we’re also at the very forefront of a new wave of psychology.  We’re the ones who get to show people that counselling isn’t mad science, and that the therapist’s office isn’t (necessarily) a petri  dish.

What do you think?  What will it take to shift the public attitude towards mental health into the realm of the healthy, instead of the horrifying?

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.

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.

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!

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