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Erotic Academy
Enzo Red by Cynthia Moku. Sumi and pigments on paper.

The Erotic Academy: How Mindfulness Misses the Mark

by Carole Clements

At the outset I want to clarify that I am a proponent of mindfulness-based education. In my current roles as Dean of Naropa College (a.k.a. undergraduate education) and Associate Professor of Contemplative Psychology at Naropa University—a maverick in the field of contemplative education since 1974—of course I am. Being an alumna of two Naropa graduate degree programs—Psychology: Contemplative Psychotherapy in 1998 and Writing and Poetics: Prose in 2001—offers further, near-indisputable proof that I care about mindfulness-based education. In fact, it is precisely because of my commitment to and passion for contemplative education that I am concerned, even suspicious, about the mindfulness movement afoot in higher education and fret about the inclination to hop on the academy’s mindfulness bus.

Given the recent research findings in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, substantiating the benefits of mindfulness-based awareness practices, such as meditation, a naysayer would be hardpressed to offer contrary evidence as to its merits in an institution of higher learning. Still, it is my fervent belief that any academy extolling the benefits of mindfulness should employ mindfulness as the ground—or more aptly in this case what geologists call “chert,” a form of microcrystalline quartz commonly known as flint—rather than the proverbial low hanging fruit on (for example) a Sycamore tree (the three largest of which in the state of Colorado just happen to live on Naropa’s Arapahoe Campus). Otherwise, it’s too easy for mindfulness to become a panacea for higher education—the Quick Fix, or worse, just another way to bypass the complex and painful array of intersecting injustices that beleaguer higher education and our society more broadly.

There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.1

Erotic academy quoteIn this spirit of freedom in the summer of 1974, Naropa University (then Institute), the brainchild of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist scholar and meditation master, who has been credited with bringing Buddhism to the West, embarked on a one hundred-plus year project to “reignite the pilot light” in higher education, employing mindfulness as its flint. It was a vision meant to radicalize and animate the conventional approach to higher education, with its fixation on the objective study of knowledge that dismisses the particularities and wisdom that make learning vivid and embodied. In his 1974 convocation speech, Trungpa touted: “Let East meet West and the sparks will fly.”

I am not advocating that other institutions of higher learning committed to contemplative education mimic Naropa, or adopt its colorful— even controversial, hippy, Beat, Buddhist—past, but I am warning that contemplative education when situated and perceived in the context of a hierarchical system, which Naropa itself needs to examine, that is dominated by White, cisgender, heteronormative, and misogynistic lenses—be wary of its import, unless it is looking to reify the stale, neck-up learning that is rampant in higher education. If simple-mindfulness becomes a calling card for increased college enrollments, there may be more bodies on campus but very likely there will also be less heat.

TreePhoto by Lindsay Michko.


In a sex-phobic culture, it is risky to consider higher education erotic. Yet at its best, that is what I believe contemplative education is, or at least should aspire to be: Erotic—searingly so, as it stimulates an aroused between space—a tension that teeter-totters a body between knowing and not-knowing, between comfort and edge. As a teacher at Naropa University, this tension is my muse. It serves to challenge and amplify my knowledge, daring me to understand the sense as well as the words (which befittingly was also the siren call of the University’s namesake) and transfer the invitation to stay with—in this case, the uneasy pulsation—onto my students, as an embodied, erotic way to learn.

It is impossible for me to think about eroticism—which contains, but isn’t limited to sex, sexuality, and/or gender—without also thinking of bodies that have been marginalized—black bodies, brown bodies, amber bodies, umber bodies, disabled bodies, female bodies, fat bodies, intersex bodies, trans bodies, queer bodies: My own body included; assigned “girl” at birth and considered to be “biologically female” (though I prefer—and for me it is a preference, the distinction substantial—the pronouns they, them, theirs). My body, with its salmon-pink skin and a sexual abuse history that benefits daily from White, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied privilege.

I have marginalized, and I have been marginalized.

I have sought escape through victimization, complacency, spiritual bypassing, conformity, and fear. And I will seek Out! again. Again and again. I will also return, repeatedly. Like the resilient Weeble—Romper Room’s toy, circa 1970—with its slogan: “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” It was a childhood favorite that perhaps inspired my penchant for teeter-tottering and ultimately led to my career in contemplative education. I introduce “weebling” to my students as both a verb and a destination. It is experienced in the mind on a meditation cushion and more intensely (for me) in the interpersonal space of cognitive and somatic dissonance, where people who are different from one another meet. The verb is the shimmy—a practice of arousal that grows familiar but remains vibratory and uncomfortable. The destination is the site of perpetual reexamination—its ethos akin to the critical pedagogy of the late Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire—requiring a call-out to self before others: A geologic-like chert that is often seismic and fans the flames of commitment to uncertainty, unease, and edge.

Education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing—of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t.2

While Freire implies two genders —a myth that also needs to be debunked—without this critical and constant reexamination and its embedded pledge to discomfort and disruption the quake of interpersonal edginess dissipates, causing the mindfulness bus to veer toward mildfulness, foretelling a crash by forestalling the transformation of an academy that remains idly stuck in hegemony.

The North Pool“North Pool” by Chris Brown.


In the spring of 2012, I am given the opportunity to teach a Special Topics course in the Contemplative Psychology undergraduate program at Naropa University in the fall 2012 semester. I muse (momentarily) what the topic might be, then hear it echo from the far rightrear reaches of my mind (routinely the location of my inspiration): Erotic Intelligence. I smile, bemused, having no idea what it means. From that inner-whisper forward—individually and with my students—I embark upon a yin/yang, hither/yon journey to discover what erotic intelligence is. I consult poetry, scholarship, and my past, sifting through literature, feminism, and flesh to develop a queer outlook with a hunger for truth: imbibing an elixir of intersectionality, where race, sex, sexuality, gender, class, and ability meet.

One of the first books I stumble upon in my quest to uncover erotic intelligence is Ecstasy Is Necessary by Barbara Carrellas (2012). I assign it for the course. What it lacks in intellectual prowess it makes up for in accessibility and inclusivity. It is the vestibule for students to pause and orient before diving in—intellectually and experientially—to a discourse on erotic intelligence, an antrum that traps the heat.

The prologue follows Carrellas into an MRI machine to be observed orgasming by thinking off, positioning erotic intelligence in the betwixt and between space of body and mind. Carrellas (2012) posits that “ecstasy is a universal human experience.”3 She presents evidence of its universality through findings from an informal research study that she conducts on social media, where individual testimonials illuminate the particularities of ecstatic heat. It is the particularities—rather than the universality—which catch my attention and catapult my investigation into nonlinearity.

In a 1982 interview with Claudia Tate, poet Audre Lorde underscores the necessity of teasing apart the particularity of love from a more universal—and decidedly heterosexually flavored and favored—love. In the interview, Lorde (1982) avows:

What I insist upon in my work is that there is no such thing as universal love in literature. There is this love in this poem. The poem happens when I, Audre Lorde, poet, deal with the particular instead of the “UNIVERSAL.” My power as a person, as a poet, comes from who I am. I am a particular person. The relationships I have had, in which people kept me alive, helped sustain me, were sustained by me, were particular relationships. They help give me my particular identity, which is the source of my energy. Not to deal with my life in my art is to cut out the fount of my strength.4

For Lorde, the particularities of life are necessitates to art, so should be the case with contemplative education. The intimacies of daily life cross over the invisible barricade known to separate this—rote learning—from that—an emotional subterfuge which heretofore tricked us into believing that arousal had no place in a classroom.


Carole ClementsPhoto by David DeVine.

I sit here doomed, attempting to describe the ineffable. Consternation, once momentary, is now a pervasive undertow. Yet it beguiles me forward, this siren call to “express the inexpressible” in the same way my ninety-year-old grandmother did when I helped her to the toilet and lifted her nightie so she could pee.

Two non-successive generations intertwined in space—both timely and timeless—as she leans against me in a parenthetical embrace that steadies her down and onto the toilet. Our syncopated movements reveal—in sight and feel—her once curvaceous figure has been supplanted by ripples of draping flesh that are no less beautiful or voluptuous. And I, in this searing moment of awe—amidst a backdrop of pinging, sweet-smelling urine and the aging body of my grandmother—non-conceptually understand the transcendent quality of platonic love: what in Plato’s Symposium Socrates calls Supreme Beauty or Divine Eros,5 which contains in its nature what is fleeting, decaying, and vulgar. Here, Eros has run its course to divinity—in a banal, familial trajectory—through a seemly charnel ground6 of old-age to emerge resplendent and holy whole.

It is this memory—one of the last I have with my maternal grandmother—that buoys my quest to grasp the ungraspable: to claim an intelligence that is round and sensuous, ferocious and resilient. While this moment at the toilet with my grandmother is happening now in recall, it is no less sensuous or vivid. Erotic intelligence exists beyond linearity, beyond a conceptual understanding of what is true, beyond the construction and constriction of time. Here, it is a bond of affection arising within a shared sensuous moment, experienced through blood-related bodies attuned in close sensory contact within the particularities of a moment. It is palpable. It is a point arising in infinity, a distinction that is critical. Form arising in emptiness favors magic more than manipulation, and rather than a solitary adventure, it is a co-created dance: a fertile intersection that requires “transcendent fearlessness,” which begins with loosening the grip and freeing oneself from fixation.7 It is the conjunctive AND rather than BUT as it includes rather than excludes. It is a liberated “social space filled with explosive, almost magical potential because no one knows beforehand what we can make together.”8

This keen and nimble intelligence often forbidden for its risky, intuitive, circuitous, and queer nature stands apart from convention, and wallops us over the cliff to a new and ungraspable way of learning: Freefallin’. Fortunately, according to Trungpa, “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” It is precisely its impossibility to prove and to pander that makes it such an intriguing and worthwhile investigation. “When the wise man points at the moon,” Confucius says, “the idiot looks at the finger.” Admittedly, I am the idiot who looks at the finger and also the wise man who looks at the moon, observing the vastness that exists between them as the playground in which erotic intelligence is bred. 

1  Peter Mayo. Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action. MacMillan, 1999, 5.

2  Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Indignation. Paradigm Press, 2004, 15.

3 Barbara Carellas. Ecstasy Is Necessary: A Practical Guide. Hay House, 2012, 1.

4 Joan Wylie Hall, ed. “Interview with Claudia Tate” in Conversations with Audre Lorde. University Press of Mississippi, 2004, 93–94.

5 Plato. Symposium, trans. 2016.

6 John Welwood. “Intimate Relationship as a Spiritual Crucible” Shambhala Sun, Nov. 2008, 58–63, 110–112.

7 Gaylon Ferguson. Natural Bravery: Fear and Fear lessness as a Direct Path to Awakening. Shambhala, 2016, 113.

8 Ibid, 162.