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Contemplative Action

Meeting the World through Service and Reflection

"At Naropa's heart, the understanding of service is essential. It's what we talk about as 'compassionate activity.' The key for us is how to engage, but bring with it the wisdom borne of self-knowing and compassion." —Marty Janowitz, board member (and former board chair) on the occasion of Naropa's Day of Service and Learning

One way Naropa University meets its mission of preparing its graduates to meet the world as it is and change it for the better is through course work that incorporates community-based learning. As students gain real-world experience during their engagement in the community, they are supplementing their intellectual understanding of the materials they are studying in class with wisdom that comes from the heart. Additionally, their efforts forge strong connections between the university and larger community.

While many universities offer some type of service learning, at Naropa, the contemplative educational approach permeates every aspect, from the readings and classroom discussions that prepare students for their work, to the structured practices that provide opportunities for reflection afterward. Meditation, dialogue, Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), and body awareness practices, such as t'ai-chi ch'uan and aikido, are among the contemplative practices taught at Naropa.

For all the variety in contemplative practices, there is even greater diversity in the help students provide. Projects may involve attending to the emotional needs of Naropa community members, analyzing business practices, providing behind-the-scenes assistance at community events, or helping organizations become more sustainable.

Naropa students have opportunities to participate in community projects through approximately twenty first-year to graduate-level courses. In the first-year seminars Crossing Borders as an Introduction to Contemplative Education I and II, students learn to embody Naropa's contemplative approach through sitting and walking meditation practices. The seminars are part of the thirty-credit-hour core curriculum. In the first level, students experience border crossings by working across academic and artistic disciplines. The seminar is team-taught by Reed Bye (Writing & Poetics), Barbara Catbagan (Core), Carole Clements (Contemplative Psychology), Candace Walworth (Peace Studies), and Deborah Young (Early Childhood Education). Working in groups, students interview citizens for a community-based research project with the ultimate goal of contributing to a national dialogue on a current event. Students provide three hours of assistance to organizations such as Boulder Housing Partners, Community Food Share, or Growing Gardens. Many of Naropa's majors—Early Childhood Education, Environmental Leadership, Peace Studies, Psychology, Religious Studies, and Writing & Poetics—incorporate community-based learning in the curriculum.

Early Childhood Education courses require twenty hours or more of direct assistance to children in local child care centers, in the Boulder Valley School District, and through numerous nonprofit organizations. In the Poverty Matters course, Naropa students work locally for twenty hours in addition to forty hours or more on a group project during spring break. For the past six years, students have held fundraisers and helped construct educational centers, a dental program, and a therapy program in Jalapa, Nicaragua. Students have also worked with the Nicaraguan organization PIEAT, which uses home visitations to address early childhood care and education initiatives. In the EDU245 course, students partner with a local organization devoted to immigrant rights to host a conference for Spanish-speaking women and youth. (See related article for more.)

The Environmental Leadership courses ENV725/ENV785, Applied Environmental Leadership Project and its Capstone Project, provide the opportunity for second-year master's degree students to lead a substantial project that increases sustainability in an organizational or community setting. (See related article for more.)

Peace Studies students are exposed to community-based learning and organizations throughout their course work. In PAX345, Skills for Peacebuilding: Leadership, Restorative Justice and Dialogue, students explore the principles, practices, and ethical foundations of community leadership, restorative justice, and dialogue. For the past three years, students have participated on the University of Colorado's Restorative Justice program (CURJ) panels. Peace Studies Associate Professor Candace Walworth notes that the cases the CURJ program hears are often noise violations and under-age drinking, the kinds of violations that at first glance Naropa students may see as trivial. "I have been amazed at students' discoveries of themselves and others through serving on CURJ panels," says Walworth. "Students often return to class with observations about their own subtle (and not so subtle) biases and projections as well as unexpected heart-openings."

Peace Studies senior Cody Spyker recalls that when Gina Bata, an attorney and CURJ program coordinator, prepared Naropa students to serve on restorative justice panels, she said someone can explain restorative justice for hours, but until you are physically present and experiencing the power of it, talking is just theoretical.

"As we did a mock circle in class, one understanding that personally clicked for me was the importance of the various stakeholders.... I had the role of a neighbor to the offender, and once I had described my experience and how his actions had affected 'me' and my family, I honestly felt more at peace with the situation," Spyker says.

She recalled that hearing accounts of the other stakeholders and the offender created a container of compassion and understanding in the circle rather than one of dualism and separation.

"I realize this may not always be the outcome, but through the act of open and honest storytelling, I began to view the situation from a much broader perspective," says Spyker.

Writing & Poetics undergraduate and graduate students lead creative writing sessions with at-risk youth, the elderly, and women's groups through WRI481/781, Project Outreach. Adjunct Professor Jack Collom says there are many reasons that it's important for Naropa University to offer students these kinds of experiences. It helps the world, it's real-life experience, and it can bring students inspiration and understanding about their own work. (See related article).

Contemplative Psychotherapy students experience community-based learning in PSCY650, Community, Interdependence & Multicultural Foundations. Students choose and complete projects in small groups. At the end of the semester, each group presents the results of their community-based project to the class, and explains how it contributed to growth in their communication and collaboration skills.

In the Religious Studies course REL762, Applied Theology II: A Systems Approach to Counseling and Caregiving, pastoral counseling is emphasized. Students become campus minister interns where their responsibilities include developing and delivering ministerial projects with campus departments and performing rituals, including "The Blessing of Hands," and "Tea for the Soul." They also coordinate interfaith groups for the student body and Master of Divinity program.

"The internship allows the students to experience their academic work in the context of real life experiences. They are then able to develop their critical thinking skills and go beyond the written word into the world of experiential learning," says Donald H. Matthews, associate professor of Religious Studies and lead faculty in the Master of Divinity Program. "In a Buddhist-inspired university, the words of the Sakyamuni Buddha, in which he exhorts his followers to test his precepts by their reality of their own experiences, becomes real. The students are encouraged to test and clarify their beliefs and learning the crucible of praxis reflection-action-reflection."

Efforts to improve the lives of others in the community supplement classroom-based learning in these courses. 

  • COR113 First Year Seminar I: Crossing Borders as an Introduction to Contemplative Education 
  • COR118 First Year Seminar II: Crossing Borders as an Introduction to Contemplative Education 
  • EDU245 Education, Culture, and Critical Pedagogy
  • EDU352 Poverty Matters 
  • EDU360 Administration of Early Childhood Care and Education Programs 
  • EDU365e Administration: Human Relations for Early Childhood Professions 
  • EDU380 Observing Early Development I
  • EDU385 Observing Early Development II 
  • EDU393 Issues in Education: The Mary Culkin Series 
  • EDU430 Teaching Young Children 
  • ENV725 Applied Environmental Leadership Project 
  • ENV785 Applied Leadership Capstone Seminar 
  • PAX250 Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies 
  • PAX345 Skills for Peacebuilding: Leadership, Restorative Justice and Dialogue 
  • PAX445 Border Studies: The Lower Rio Grande Border Witness Immersion
  • PSYC650 Community, Interdependence & Multicultural Foundations
  • REL360/REL512 Engaged Buddhism Training I: Contemplative Approaches to Social Action and Peacemaking 
  • REL762 Applied Theology II: A Systems Approach to Counseling and Caregiving 
  • WRI481/WRI781 Project Outreach 
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