Colorado's Naropa Institute known for unique approach of
'contemplative education' ... and Jack Kerouac poetics
Bryan Birtles / firstname.lastname@example.org
November 6, 2008
For more than three decades, students looking for a liberal arts
education enriched through Buddhist spiritual practices have flocked
to Boulder, Colorado's Naropa University. Founded in 1974 by exiled
Tibetan monk Chögyam Trungpa as the Naropa Institute, Naropa
University offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in liberal arts
fields and has a particular focus on creative writing through its
Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which was co-founded by
Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, John Cage and Diane di Prima.
Naropa teaches what it refers to as "contemplative education," a
practice intertwined into all of their courses. Contemplative
education is the melding of eastern spiritual practices with western
academic discipline for a more complete education. As Acting Director
of Marketing and Communications Patrick Johnson explains,
contemplative education provides students with tools that other
"It improves [education] because we're not saying 'here are a list of
dates you need to memorize' or 'here is a formula you need to
memorize.' It's more than that. The reflective part is being able to
have a deep understanding of yourself and that helps you better
relate to the material you're trying to learn," he says. "It's the
ability to look inside yourself and say, 'Here is what I'm capable
of, this is what I can do,' and using that, as well as the
traditional academic ideas."
The contemplative nature of education at Naropa University takes a
number of forms, some of which are formal, such as specialized
courses in meditation, and others which are integrated into the
curriculum at the classroom level as a reminder to students that the
spiritual skills they learn at the school can be integrated into
their daily lives.
As Vice President for Academic Affairs Stuart Sigman explains, the
goal is for students to personally integrate the material that they
are studying so that they can make sense of it on a deeper level than
simply an intellectual one.
"The goal is to use various contemplative practices, such as
meditation, to help the students slow down the chatter of their
mind's thinking so that they can concentrate on their studies, so
they can reflect on the meaning it has for them, and what it brings
up for them, what obstacles and other feelings it may provoke as part
of their trying to make sense of the material," he says, listing tai
chi, yoga and ikebana as other formal contemplative practices the
school offers students.
"To be in the present moment, to reflect on what is actually
happening around them and with themthat's the goal."
In addition to these formal practices, there are a number of
contemplative activities which happen in class that are designed to
bring the students' focus to a sharp point and prepare them for the
material they are about to learn.
"We begin all classes with a bow in and [end with] a bow out and it's
an attempt to bring the student psychologically, emotionally,
mentally and physically right there. The chatter they had from the
conversation just before they entered the classroom ceases, they're
really present for the faculty and for their peers. The bow in is
part of the rituals of contemplative practice," says Sigman. "Some
faculty will have a procedure where at various points in the class
someone will be appointed to ring a bell and that's an opportunity to
stop the conversation no matter where it is and for everyone to take
a kind of momentary internal inventory'How am I feeling, what are
the emotions this is bringing up in me, how do I wanna deal with
that, am I fully present to this conversation, this lecture, this
discussion?' So there are formal recognized contemplative practices
and there there are other informal pedagogical tools that teachers
can use in their classes to help students stay in the moment."
But a focus on contemplative education is not the only thing that
sets Naropa University apart from other post-secondary schoolsthe
student-to-faculty ratio is an incredibly low 10 to one.
"The smaller student-to-faculty ratio you have the more personalized
education you have," says Johnson. "I realize it seems obvious, but
having gone to a very large university myself I can certainly tell
you from my own personal experience that if you have a class that
only has 10, 11 or 12 students in it you're going to have a much more
personalized education. Our faculty know our students by nameit's
not a situation of, 'Oh there's 40 students in my class and maybe I
know who five of them are.' So there's a real personal connection
between our students and our faculty and that's very important
because you get a much more direct relationship with faculty members."
And while such a small ratio might lead one to believe that Naropa is
a very elite institutionand therefore a difficult school to get
intoJohnson assured me that it's not necessarily harder to get into
Naropa, though it is a different process from other schools.
"One of the major things of our admissions process is the interview
processwe base a lot on that. We don't really use a whole lot of
test scoresyou have to go through an interview process and there's a
whole lot of writing involved. The people in admissions can get a
real sense of the individual perspective student instead of, 'Here's
a list of test scores,' which isn't particularly personal," he
explains. "You really do need to have to put onto paper what you're
thinking and you need to be able to communicate that to one of the
admissions staff during the interview process."
The structure of Naropa and the admissions process based on
interviews and writing skills has led to a situation where the
institution has more graduate students than undergrads, a situation
very different from most other post-secondary institutions. According
to Johnson, this has led to a more mature student body ready to
tackle the extra challenges a school like Naropa University throws at them.
"We have over 600 graduate students and about 450 undergraduate
students, so with that you've got a bit of an older age for the
average student on campus. And we get a lot of transfer students in
the undergraduate programs so we do have a number of people who've
already had a year or two of college and have a little bit of life
experience, instead of being 17 or 18 coming into university for the
first time," he says. "You do have to be a mature student when you
come into the programs so that you can be reflective and you can
really understand that concept."
Because of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and its
being co-founded by Allen Ginsberg, Naropa University has long had a
connection to the Beat Poets and their work. The Kerouac School is
staffed by well-known writers and poets while their summer program
sees a further influx of luminaries onto the school's campus every year.
"This is something that's been around pretty much since the founding
of the institution in 1974. In 1974 when it was the Naropa Institute
and it was set up that way, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied
Poetics was an original part of the institution so it's deeply
ingrained with the institution because of how it was founded," says
Johnson. "Especially through the summer writing program, we have a
tremendous number of people who are well known in writing or poetics
or both and we've had that for many, many years.
"It's quite a collection of people and they're very well known, very
well respected and we're very happy and proud to have these people
come on campus."