In 1969, after receiving the best Ivy-league education money could buy, I found myself in a small house in Fort Lupton, Colorado, living on a stipend of $276 per month. I had graduated from Columbia Law School, passed the New York Bar Exam, joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, now known as AmeriCorps Vista) and been sent to Colorado "to help ...". I didn't realize completely then, but I was in serious danger—a danger well expressed by writer Walker Percy in his oft-quoted assertion, "You can get all A's and still flunk life."
Fortunately, all that changed for me. When I was asked by nuns to help form a nonprofit health clinic for migrant workers, Corporations 101 took on an astounding significance. Or, when I was led by a migrant group out to the sugar beet fields to measure the lengthy distance from a worksite to the nearest toilet, there occurred a mysterious ignition where education became meaningful, connected and alive. The hours of lectures, the Socratic Method, the "could-never-happen-to-me" hypotheticals, found a kinetic landing place in caring and community. The realization of education as a gift to be shared, a potent force for community, or, as Naropa's founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, outrageously exhorted, for "creating enlightened society", was no longer a hollow hope.
Slogging along a dusty road in Weld County with farm workers, together searching to find a remedy for unnecessary suffering, I was able to question who was really learning here, who was benefitting? I regretted my years of taking education for granted and, worse, the mistaken belief that one could reach understanding solely by and for oneself. That moment when one's self-centric world is penetrated by a simple exchange: "Can you help?" and "How can I help?", our inner life and outer engagement powerfully coalesce in a partnership for social progress. For me, it is at once a selfless and a selfish moment. By giving what one knows, one learns exponentially and deeply.
As this issue of Naropa Magazine highlights, the Naropa educational path is one that is centered on providing students with just such an engaged experience. In the Border Studies Project or Art Therapy "Transitions Global" Project, students don't wait, as did I, until after graduation to enter life. Students explore, cultivate, and "test" their knowledge and skills in relationship and in community.
At Naropa, we take this experience one step further and gently demand that students see their own minds and develop an acute awareness of their own inner process. Personal awareness is seen, at once, as the foundation and the catalyst for genuine learning and change. We become not merely skillful, but caring, and truly beneficial, actors in the world across all fields of endeavor, from waiter to business owner, from therapist to poet. This dynamic alliance of the inner work with outer engagement is the lifelong path and uncompromising discipline of a contemplative education.
John W. Cobb, Acting President