Naropa Magazine Fall 2018 masthead
Home / 2018 Fall Magazine / Features / SparkTalks Ignite the World

sparktalks logo on red background

SparkTalks Ignite the World

Photos and article by Kelly Watt

October of 2017 brought some exciting opportunities to Naropa University. Over the past few years, alumni have made it clear that they have a strong desire to reconnect with their Naropa roots. And whether it is teaching a workshop or offering a presentation, many alumni want to give back to their alma mater and help guide the next generation of Naropa graduates. Enter Community Week 2017, created as an invitation for alumni to come home to Naropa. The inaugural Community Week offered free events through which alumni, students, faculty, staff, and visitors could learn more about the university’s storied past, vibrant present, and exciting future through a variety of offerings including panel discussions, presentations, interactive workshops, and contemplative practice offerings.


The week culminated in the first-ever presentation of SparkTalks, an event created to exclusively showcase the wisdom of Naropa alumni to both the local community and a broader audience. The name originated from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s famous quote: “Let East meet West and the sparks will fly.” Free and open to all, audience members were treated to a series of dynamic presentations on subjects ranging from mindful lying to mythopoetic pedagogy. Here are some excerpts from the 2017 presentations:

Mark Genco giving a sparktalkIntegrating Jiu Jitsu, Buddhism & Positive Psychology for Inner & Outer Success

Mark Genco (MA Buddhist Studies ‘03)

Genco is a professional Jiu Jitsu competitor. He shared his philosophy of blending all aspects of life, spiritual and secular, with martial arts.

In Jiu Jitsu, you’re always trying to find techniques that make things more efficient. If you don’t know what efficient means, it just means minimizing wasted energy. Isn’t that beautiful? That is a traditional martial art mindset right there. That is the same fundamental understanding of Tai Chi and Aikido. I feel like the philosophy of Aikido applies to Jiu Jitsu, but we just have a slightly different way of doing it physically. I also think it relates to Buddhism. Buddhism to me is one of the greatest self-improvement modalities you can think of. It raises your understanding of the world, and it cuts down on suffering.

… You are not a passive actor in this universe. Every action that you do, whether you think you’re having an impact or not, will have an impact. So make your impacts on the world the most positive ones you can. Become more efficient, and watch your life improve in every way.


Aging Out—Advocating for the Dignity, Respect & Safety of LGBTQ Elders

Beit Gorski (MA Somatic Counseling Psychology ‘13)

beit giving sparktalkGorski is a somatic psychotherapist who develops Rainbow Elder Programming for Boulder County’s Elder Rights Division. After taking us through the history of the pink triangle and its reclamation by LGBTQ activists, they reminded us of the ongoing and crucial work of creating safe spaces.

How visible we are, how accepted we are, how celebrated we are, how safe we are, that depends on a lot. That can change very quickly.

… Someone born in 1938 on that very first day, the first time a Nazi soldier put a pink triangle on the very first criminalized homosexual, someone born on that day would have been in their mid-thirties during the Stonewall riots. They would have been in their mid-thirties when the American Psychological Association finally, finally took homosexuality off of the list of mental disorders. That was the seventies. That person born on that first day, when that first pink triangle was applied, would have been forty-four the first time they heard about GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, known now as HIV/AIDS. And that person would be seventy-nine years old today.

We often refer to nowadays as progressive, inclusive, we’re really making advances; boy, isn’t it good we don’t live in the dark ages. But, that seventy-nine-year-old likely remembers a different time line. That seventy-nine-year-old might remember times that seemed more progressive until they weren’t, just before we were driven into camps much like the camps for gay men and women in Russia here and now today.

So think of the global, national, and local changes that our LGBTQ elders in Boulder County have witnessed and experienced across their lifetimes. You can see—once you start digging into our history, once you start talking to the elders that are still here and generous enough to spend time with us, brave enough to stay out with us—you can see that LGBTQ lives run in separate, if parallel, rhythms to heteronormativity. And that includes aging.

We don’t age the same. We age differently. So end-of-life considerations that we all must consider regardless of our gender or sexuality, things like living wills, assisted living resources, end of a life review, the meaning-making that we need to do when we hit the end of life, all those things are true for LGBTQ folks as well, but we have to include and expand the specific issues and concerns. We have to learn to be more visibly inclusive. We have to learn how to give those indications that let these folks know that even though they were out and proud and fighting for their whole lives, they don’t have to go back into the closet to access basic services like housing, medical services, a coffee group, a grieving group. … We have to do the difficult work of scraping through and rediscovering what it means to co-create safety in our communities.

cosplay sparktalkCosplay for Mental Health

Voniè Stillson (BA Art and Design ‘04)

Stillson specializes in aquatic dance/movement therapy and the intersection of geek culture with mental health. She spoke about how cosplay invites the whole self to the party.

Cosplay is people saying, “Here I am. See me.” Cosplay gives people a chance to show those sides of themselves that they’re normally not okay with showing and sharing with the world. I was not somebody who would walk outside in a corset ten years ago. It was not something I felt comfortable with. But as I’ve continued on my own journey and my own path, you know what? It’s okay for me to be like, “This is part of me. See all of me.”

… There has been so much research done on the value of play, cosplay. There’s a value in play as adults; we still need to play. As kids, we need to play. We need to play with our kids and bring all those pieces together. So anything you’re doing that’s a creative outlet, that you’re creating connection with people—the whole idea of it is you’re lifting each other up versus dragging each other down. How is that not good for mental health? purple naropa seal to end article


You can check out all the 2017 talks at

Look for new SparkTalks from 2018 to be posted later this fall!

nora headshot


Nora Alwah, MA ‘16

Embodying Our Full Selves with Mindful Lying

Lying is a widespread act that we engage in every day. Why? Because the need for connection is stronger than the need to be honest. Learn how to honor this mechanism by cultivating authentic connections.


chris headshot


Chris Cole, BA ‘10

Bipolar Order: Getting to the Heart of Sanity

At age 18, Chris experienced what he thought was a spiritual awakening, only to be diagnosed with acute manic psychosis. After struggling for years amid an affinity for spiritual material and an aversion to psychopathology, he now finds refuge in love, which holds space for it all.

 tara headshot

Tara Galeano, MA ‘00

Experiencing Pleasure After Pain: What I Learned from Women Who Have Had Cancer

An often overlooked aspect for women in recovery? Sex after cancer. Join us for an enlivening talk on rediscovering the body, exploring sexuality, and regaining confidence.


 beth headshot

Beth Smith, MA ‘06

Being-Doing-Thinking: A Model for Change in Humans, Organizations, & the World

What happens when we combine the agile methodologies used by software development teams and mindful awareness? We’ll explore how incremental improvements—and failures—are the path of meaningful living and worthwhile work.


swanee headshot with fan


Swanee Astrid, MFA ‘16

Mythopoetic Pedagogy

Swanee uses poetry as a framework for trauma recovery as a critically important method for pedagogy in combating misanthropy and antipathy in experiential learning. She promotes it as the method for creating a more empowered youth culture.