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The Age of Wander: Where Contemplative Education and Rites of Passage Meet

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A confluence is a coming together of two or more rivers or streams. It’s a crossroads, an intersection, a potentially liminal space where the impossible is more likely, where new realities can coalesce and gel. Part of our work as guides, parents, artists, scholars, youth workers, and educators is to usher young people (and people of all life stages) through liminal spaces. One of the confluences I sit within is between alternative educational approaches in higher education and contemporary rites of passage practices.

I am currently an instructor at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I also work with Melissa Michaels (after many years as her student), immersed in the movement-centered and embodied rites of passage program, Surfing the Creative (also located in Boulder, Colorado), which, in turn, lead me to Youth Passageways. So, naturally, I tend to think, theorize, and in the ways that I can, act as a bridge between rites of passage revivalists and contemplative educators. I see a vital connection between these two streams of educational and cultural alternatives, though not always a clear one. I don’t claim to be an expert in either field, merely in a place where I can consider the potentialities of their confluence, and their potential need for and isometries with one another. Furthermore, what motivates me is finding what tools, practices, traditions and institutional supports can help the students who flow through Naropa’s halls, while acknowledging that those students represent a small, privileged, yet significant subset of the rising generations.

I teach a first-year, first-time-college-student seminar with themes of social identity theory, diversity, and social justice that is grounded in Naropa’s core approach to contemplative theory and practice. I have the pleasure of being an inductor of sorts. I welcome youth to Naropa and their first step into what this society considers adulthood. I am present at both their orientation and graduation. Both are moments, rites (ceremonies) of passage.  Many of our students do not fit into the educational mainstream, or often the societal. Their backgrounds and perspectives vary widely: they had an early insight that broadened their view; they dropped out of high school and returned; they struggled with addiction, their parents divorced, they were home schooled, they had their eyes opened by travel, or their gaze shattered by abuse. One way or another, these incidents led them to moment of awakening, of initiation. Most of the students are aware of this to some degree or another, and the curriculum is designed to draw out and enhance that awareness. Our initial readings for the first year seminar (put in place previous to my arrival at Naropa) are a selection from Malidoma Some’s Healing Wisdom of Africa, about initiation, and Joan Halifax’s Education as Initiation.  I was delighted to find these as our first assigned readings, having trained with Melissa and studied initiation from a more structural standpoint.  I was also heartened to find an understanding of education as initiation was already present at Naropa, as I imagine it is in many institutions of “higher learning”

Naropa’s Founder, Tibetan refugee Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa (himself a confluence of Tibetan Buddhism, Oxford, and American White counter-culture already involved in a massive act of transmission and translation) saw Naropa as a one-thousand-year project of educational revolution. He stated that the mission of Naropa was, in part, to re-ignite the pilot light of education in the western world. He believed that the fire had gone out of its educational methods, and that youth had, at least in part, taken to the streets in the 1960s and ‘70s to seek direct experience rather than an abstract and insulting “education.” This malaise continues today. Consider a study of UCLA students, conducted in 2014. College students reported the highest levels of depression and anxiety in five decades since these studies began. And this is just for those privileged enough to attended colleges. What might these numbers look like for working and underclass youth?  

Trungpa was of the view that each person has a unique brilliance; that a person should learn to trust their inherent intelligence, and that the student-teacher experience should be a meeting of minds rather than depositing in the sense of described by Freire. Trungpa believed that the educational situation should be characterized by joy! In a public talk called Education for an Enlightened Society he stated:

You are individuals with the possibility, the potential of enlightenment. You may have already been exposed to such a situation, either directly or indirectly, but in any case, you are all that type of person. That is why you are here . . . I would like to emphasize, again and again, that I am not kidding. This state of mind is real; it’s defined. For one thing, it could be embryonic: suddenly you have the urge to come and find out. Often you don’t have an exact idea of what you’re looking for, but you are looking for something, and that something has tremendous strength in your mind.

Another mission that he saw, both for Naropa and his larger enterprise of the Shambhala secular Buddhist lineage, was to reintroduce/refresh formality, precision, and ceremony (rites) into contemporary education and society more broadly.  To that end, he sought to cultivate an educational approach that fostered creativity, attention to perception, awareness of one’s thought processes and to the cultural conditioning that both supports and ensnares awakening and the capacity to access our natural intelligence: “on the spot,” unrehearsed response to new situations.

At Naropa, we work with a  model of education taught by Chogyam Trungpa from Buddhist traditions called prajna, or “discriminating intelligence or wisdom.” Interestingly, the process has three steps. The first is listening: taking in one’s environment, the course of study, information, or mental processes in as open a way as possible; tasting, reflecting, absorbing. In traditional Buddhist teachings, this sometimes involved recitation and chanting. The next stage is to contemplate: to take in the source of learning and to compare it to what one already knows; to question and analyze it,  allowing both the conscious and subconscious mind to work on it — to chew and swallow. In the in the final step, mediation, one has made the knowledge part of their being — made it meaningful — and can skillfully and spontaneously work with it to respond to a given situation. It becomes a living thing, almost a reflex, beyond thought. In a classroom situation, what is taught by teachers and learned by students may not be identical. We are not looking for clones. The object is for each student to unite their learning with their internal structures of meaning, and use that knowledge to meet their needs.

What continuously come up for me are the similarities between these three components, and the prototypical (perhaps even stereotypical) image of the three stages of a rite of passage/initiation. We work with the connection directly in the first-year seminar as a way for a student to begin to map their educational journey. In Education as Initiation, Joan Halifax shares a three-step process that might be an even more effective bridge: the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order developed by Rosie Bernie Glassman. Glassman, an American Zen teacher, founded an international order of socially engaged Buddhism that has since become quite prolific. He trains his students not to shy away from the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries, but to face them directly and cultivate the capacity for unswerving and sustained action to relieve suffering. He holds regular “street retreats” that take place in the midst of modern urban life, rather than in seclusion. He is also known for his annual interfaith Bearing Witness retreats, begun at Auschwitz and now hosted internationally.

In her book, Halifax speaks of the way the Zen Peacemakers train their students. They begin with not knowing: the stage in which the student releases their preconceived notions and, much like in the process of separation in a traditional initiatory experience, goes forth into the unknown of practice, activism, or their mind. This is followed by bearing witness: the stage in which the threshold of the present moment, in all its injustice, neurosis, or beauty, is so potent, so inescapable, that all one can do is attend to it with one’s whole self and thereby be stretched beyond one’s former definition of self. Finally, the student comes to healing oneself and others: after bearing witness to one’s own suffering and that of others, one connects to the willingness to go forth and respond to that suffering with some sense of equanimity. One is reincorporated into the larger (non-monastic) community charged, opened, and capable of a new level of functioning and responsiveness. I consistently find that my students connect quite strongly to this material. Sometimes it is the only thing that they remember from the class when I speak with them a year or two later.

Halifax asserts that in higher education we teach students “how to deal, but not heal.” So many of our students relate to this because they come to us wounded or “experienced.” And on some level, everyone does. These experiences are what our reading of Somés Healing Wisdom of Africa emphasizes.  Everyone is marked by crisis (sometimes even by the lack of crisis). The question is: How can we transform it into ritual, social meaning, and spiritual power? How can our crisis become a moment of and foundation for consciousness? How can it reveal a person’s giftedness and intelligence? How can it become the ground from which, in collaboration with mentors, teachers, peers, and life situations, each person’s unique genius is called forth?

And the students always respond intensely,  because they know this inherently. We say it so often in these circles that it’s becoming tired, but the true purpose of education is to help draw forth, seduce (to use Melissa’s term) the deep, unique, holistic intelligence of each student, or in the language of Naropa, their basic goodness, their congruence with the inherently sensible and rapturous world. This is our aspiration as contemplative educators and as ritual and ceremonial guides, friends, mentors, and elders. I don’t mean to say that Naropa always lives this, or that the contemporary rite of passage movements, organizations, and processes do either, but this is what we strive for.  And as Chogyam Trungpa reminds us, it may be a centuries-long project. My understanding of his work is that was a mestizaje or an ecotone. He tried to combine the best of eastern and western traditions to bring forth a fresh contemplative education for modern students. I see something similar in rite of passage movements. At Naropa, we’ve begun to look at education as an initiatory experience, as a rite of passage. Could rite of passage practitioners begin (and return) to look at our work as education? As perhaps one of the oldest forms of contemplative education? Chogyam Trungpa thought that the traditions of the East could spark and renew the traditions of the West. In a similar manner, the modern rite of passage movement has its genesis in European anthropologists’ study of the initiatory traditions of indigenous African, Pacific Islander, and American (Turtle Island) traditions. The disease of the western world (“industrial growth society,” to use Joanna Macy’s term) both spreads across the globe and dies (kills) from the inside. It becomes the shared house within which a new house is being built; the planetary context within which multi- and intercultural practices meet, clash, and birth the emergent forms of tomorrow.

How can we renew our vision of higher education at that fragile and excitable age when a young person is ripe, and in many cases, desperate to awaken? How can we see higher education through an initiatory lens? How might these two seemingly separate streams of contemplative education and rites of passage meet, blending currents and adding power to one another? Contemplative education is about to go viral, thanks to “mindfulness,” or rather, McMindfulness. Rites of passage may be next if we experience a certain limited and dangerous kind of success in our work here. The point is that the need to renew our practice of higher education. I can see it in the classrooms; in the brightness of my students’ gazes; in their impatience with being immobilized in a seat; in the woundedness, the burnout, and the anxiousness that come from a lifetime of digitally-paced institutionalization.

We need to be asking fundamental questions about our models of education and what they mean. Is a period of four unbroken years in the classroom the best and only model? Is going into debt to enter the economy the right path? Guides, professors, activists, artists, administrators, and youth: To compare our practices, traditions, experiences, ideas, and shortcomings, we have to come together — to converge and let the sparks fly!  I have a thought or two about how and where we might do that. I bet you do to . . .

About the Author: Ramon Parish

Ramon Parish M.A. serves as an instructor at Naropa University where he welcomes 1st-year students into inspired adulthood and all students to deepen into civic engagement, contemplative practice and environmental justice. For the past decade, he has studied under and helped lead the international movement-based rites of passage youth leadership program, Surfing the Creative
with the founder, Melissa Michaels in Boulder, Colorado. It is as a student of her SomaSource® maps that he first encountered the language of initiation and the centrality of ceremony and embodiment to education and the coming of age processes of youth.

His life-long fascination and romance with relationship, story, myth, and our cyclic experience of time has led him to co-found multiple projects. Most recently, he is a co-founder of the budding community project, SKP Cultural Media (Some Kind of Paradise), which helps amplify the voice of ecotopian artists of color and other much-needed voices.

A husband and father deep in the mysteries of family, Ramon makes his home in Front Range of Colorado at the crossroads between cultures and ethnicities. He has come to understand that the friction between and coming together of cultural ways and spiritual practices holds great redemptive and creative power for our times

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