Welcome to the Year

Naropa Convocation
August  25, 2005
Thomas B. Coburn

It is my great privilege to welcome you all to Convocation 2005, and to the work of the 2005-6 academic year that is now beginning.  This is the third year that it has been my privilege to offer this welcome on behalf of the University to students, faculty, staff, trustees, and friends, and I am grateful for it.  My gratitude is rooted in appreciation of the opportunity for the next few minutes to take the long view on our work, to anticipate the year ahead and to take stock of where we have been.  This is Naropa’s 32nd Convocation, and many of you have attended a lot of them, which makes my mere three Convocations appear paltry.  But as I look back over the past two years, I think I see a thread of continuity, a pattern of evolution that is a function, in part, of my own growing understanding of the institution and, in part, a function of the substance of the work that we  have been doing together.

Two years ago I started with a brief story, a story that remains central to our work together, although I now see its implications as pointing in a new and somewhat different direction.   Here is that story once again:

“The story is told of a Jewish rabbi whose disciples were debating the question of when precisely ‘daylight’ commenced.  The one ventured the proposal: ‘It is when one can see the difference between a sheep and a goat at a distance.’  Another suggested, ‘It is when you can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree at a distance.’  And so it went on. When they eventually asked the Rabbi for his view, he said, ‘When one human being looks into the face of another and says, ‘This is my sister, or this is my brother,’ then the night is over and the day has begun.’”

Two years ago I used this story to develop an argument for the importance of  Naropa engaging with the bald facts of diversity in all of its manifestations in the contemporary world.  I believed then, and now, that there is no more pressing educational agenda for the 21st century than helping our students—and helping ourselves—learn to engage constructively with those who are not like themselves/ourselves, whatever the axis of diversity might be.   There is, in my judgment, a seamless connection between diversity education and contemplative education, and Naropa is uniquely poised to contribute to this most pressing of the world’s problems today.

Last year I took as my point of departure the fact that Naropa is the first choice for 95% of our incoming students, suggesting that they thus begin their studies with an uncommon understanding of the institution’s mission and with an implicit sense of community, based on that understanding.  I then invited us to think of ways that we might actually deliver on the expectation of community that students bring with them, and I proposed several initiatives, the foremost among them being a broad-based Contemplative Education Initiative, to help us become clearer about what we mean by “contemplative education,” both for our own sakes locally, and so that the importance of our work might become more intelligible to others around the country.  This Initiative is now well under way on several fronts: in the library, in University archives, in planning our new undergraduate contemplative education course, and in conference planning for the summer of 2007.  I also invited us, as we gained clarity about the language and the talk of contemplative education, to look in the mirror, to interrogate our behavior, and to ask whether, as an institution, we actually walk that talk.

From my vantage point now, a year later, I believe we must put this invitation to walk the talk of contemplative education in our own institutional life at the center of our aspirations for the year ahead.  Helping us to identify what it might mean to be a learning community that embodies contemplative education, and then helping us actually to embody it more fully, is my primary goal for the year ahead.  I will ask the Board of Trustees to endorse this goal at its meeting next month.  Can we walk the talk of contemplative education more fully in our daily lives with one another?  Can we come closer in our behavior to realizing the extraordinary potential of this place?  I believe the answer can and must be “yes.”

efore developing this line of thinking further, I want to offer two caveats.

First, every one of us has in some fashion tasted the magic that Naropa embodies. For me, that taste came during the presidential search process in the fall of 2002.  My interview on campus prompted me to describe the Naropa experience as “an ever-present invitation to ever-greater openness.”  I have that experience regularly in my work, as I know others do, too.  This obviously indicates that something unique is already afoot here, that we have begun to walk the talk of contemplative education.  But I also believe now, on the basis of two years on the job, that we have only begun that walk and that we must become much more intentional about walking it more fully.

My second caveat is to acknowledge that, yes, it was the swirl of issues last spring around the Vice President of Academic Affairs’ office that first brought this matter into focus for me, although both before then and subsequently, I have had other inklings of concern.  Last spring’s episode was a complex and painful episode for many of us.  It leaves us individually in varying degrees of healing and of transition into the next stage of our institutional life.  One of my hopes for this evening is that we simply recognize these facts—and then begin to think how we can use the year ahead to move us into becoming a richer embodiment of what contemplative education might mean.  For me last spring’s episode was intrinsically important, but it also suggested a deeper malaise and oft-hidden fissures within the community.  It is to the year-long task of creating relief from that malaise, and of healing those fissures, that I invite you tonight.

Some of the ways in which we might move forward are fairly straightforward.  We need to look at the policies that govern our communal life, to make sure that they are thoughtfully constructed, clearly communicated, and equitably and justly administered.  I have in mind such policies as those governing faculty/staff searches, and hiring, and grievances.  I have in mind such practices as the mentoring we provide to newcomers.  I have in mind such training as sex discrimination training for all employees, for this is an area where cultural and legal norms in America have changed significantly in recent years and we all need to be informed about these changes.  I have already begun conversations with Christine Caldwell and with Amy Haddon about how best to accomplish these various activities.  Many of them will ask us to become more articulate about what our institutional norms are. You can be assured that we will therefore be using the usual governance and committee structures to accomplish the basic work, and that its results will be broadly and publicly shared.

But equally important is the more difficult and subtle matter of helping us move toward a fuller embodiment of what contemplative education means behaviorally, in our daily life together.  This is not a matter that can be delegated to a committee, or to a particular individual or office.  It is something that each of us must be engaged with personally.  This will be hard work for each of us individually—we know the contemplative life is often hard— and it will be challenging work for us institutionally.  What you need to know is that not once during my time at Naropa, even on the most difficult days, have I doubted either the fundamental sanity of this institution or our ability to work through whatever challenges might come upon us.  I had that confidence, that trust, even though I couldn’t at the time see what the outcome from a particular difficulty might be.  I couldn’t yet see—in Chogyam Trungpa’s wonderful image—how the rising sun might be rising.  What we are about in the year ahead is therefore a project based on trust, my trust and your trust, in one another, and in the potential of this unique university to become even more than it has been in the past, in our collective ability to walk the talk of contemplative education in our daily work together.
Because this is a complex and subtle undertaking, as are all commitments to culture-change, it cannot rest solely in the president’s hands.  I do not today, August 25, have a full-blown plan in mind, ready to roll out and persuade you of its appropriateness.  If I had such a plan, you should be suspicious of it, since such an undertaking requires broad participation and shaping of aspirations.  That said, I do have a number of principles to suggest for accomplishing this important work.  There are five of them.

First, this is a year-long project we are embarking upon.  To rush through it would be to invite triviality in the results.  We need to talk and to listen to one another carefully, and over time, with several iterations and opportunities for cross-fertilization in conversation.

Second, much of this work may need to be done in small groups.  This past summer I have been reading Parker Palmer’s recent book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and he writes powerfully of what he calls “circles of trust.”  In his exposition, these are not encounter groups, but something he met at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center where our friend, Niyonu Spahn, last May’s commencement speaker, is now the academic dean.  For Palmer, circles of trust are “rooted in two basic beliefs.  First, we all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader.  Second, we all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher’s voice for at least three reasons:

  • The journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo: lacking support, the solitary traveler soon becomes weary or fearful and is likely to quit the road.
  • The path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company: finding our way involves clues that are subtle and sometimes misleading, requiring the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialogue.
  • The destination is too daunting to be achieved alone: we need community to find the courage to venture into alien lands to which the inner teacher may call us.”

Regardless of whether we this year employ Palmer’s specific method of “circles of trust,” I believe that, since Naropa has grown so dramatically over the past decade, and since we remain spread across three campuses, we may need opportunities for small group discussion, where each of us has the opportunity to have a voice in saying what kind of a place it is that we are trying to give birth to here at Naropa. 

Third, over the past two years we have made real progress in staffing for diversity education, and I was delighted last week to announce the appointment of Suzanne Benally to the new position of Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer.   The national search that brought Suzanne to this position demonstrated to me and to others that there is no better person for this role anywhere in the country.  She comes to us at just the right time, when we are seeking to improve the way we engage and accommodate the various differences that exist between us here on campus.  I have asked Suzanne, as a central part of her assignment, to work with me in taking a leadership role in helping us articulate and embody an increased walking of the talk of contemplative education.

Fourth, I noted earlier that this project is based on the cultivation of trust, in one another, in our policies and practices, and in the culture in which we swim daily.  The cultivation of trust is a tall order, for it cannot be legislated or mandated.  We place our trust primarily in individuals whom we respect, whom we think of as elders, regardless of how old they may be.  They are the wise souls among us.  Instinctively you know right now who those individuals at Naropa are, the ones to whom we turn privately or publicly, individually or collectively, when the going gets rough.  As we move forward, Suzanne and I will be asking you to identify who those trusted individuals are, so that we may invite them to constitute an advisory body, to help plan and implement strategies for accomplishing this cultural change.  My premise is that trust, like spiritual enlightenment, is contagious, that we can spiral outward from a nucleus of wise and trusted individuals to become a more trusted and trusting community.

Finally, this kind of work has a lot to do with cultivating our individual and collective listening skills.  Parker Palmer calls this deep listening, attending to what the other is saying on her or his own terms, without offering advice or backtalk or trying to “fix” the other person.  Just listening.  My most recent favorite definition of contemplative education is “disciplined listening to self and other.”  It is important how we conceptualize this work, and I would suggest we call it “dialogue” and recognize that it can be accomplished not just in small groups.  A leader of MIT’s Dialogue Project explains the dialogue concept this way: “Dialogue is a form of free-floating exchange among groups of between 20 and 40 people.  It generally has no ‘leader,’ and no set agenda, although a facilitator initiates the dialogue and guides in the beginning stages.  A dialogue is an intentional exploration of the assumptions that structure common experience. It may be contrasted with a discussion, which has the same roots as percussion and concussion, and means to break apart or disperse . . . .  Dialogue’s purpose is deeper than discussion in that it seeks to explore the fundamental, collectively held assumptions and collective pressures that mediate against creative interaction.  It is not specifically task focused, but seeks to establish a new collective relationship among people, and to the fundamental ground of experience.  As such, it is not an attempt to resolve problems, but to examine and alter the ground out of which problems—and predispositions to see certain circumstances as problems—arise.”     I believe Naropa has a gargantuan collective intelligence that we have not yet tapped, because we have not made systematic efforts to listen to it.  That, I suggest, is part of the work that lies ahead for us this year.

This, then, is the invitation I extend to you tonight, to help Naropa walk the talk of contemplative education more fully.  This will entail acknowledging the various differences that exist among us and then, in Niyonu’s wonderful phrase, proceeding to “co-create” a common future.  This is, I believe, the issue that has been slowly working its way to the surface over the past two years until I finally recognized it over the course of this past summer.  Once I recognized it, I began asking others if I had seen something significant, and to a person they said yes.  That is what prompts me to extend this invitation this evening.  This issue of establishing a greater congruence between what we say and what we do is not, of course, the only issue that will require our attention in the year ahead.  But if we can make progress on this issue, the rest of our work will become easier, for it bears on the very texture of our daily lives, on the countless interactions that make up our life together.  We will be reminded that each of us is part of a larger whole, not just at the cosmic scale, but locally.  We will be reminded that education is not just a private gain, but also a public good, and we must listen together to determine what that means.  We will discover afresh what it means to be a self in community.  We will discover that part of the evidence for understanding the outcome of a contemplative education lies in the quality of our daily lives together, as our behavior reflects our deepest aspirations.

It is obvious from what I have said this evening that I do not have a simple blueprint for the work that lies ahead.  But I do think I see where we need to go, for our collective and individual fulfilment, and, based on preliminary conversations with a number of you, I know I am not alone.  Can you imagine a learning community that actually fulfilled the dream of contemplative education?!  That is what I ask you to envision, and that is what I invite you to help define and realize in the year ahead. Welcome to this evening and to this great work that lies ahead!

Quoted in Farid Esack, “To Whom Shall We Give Access to Our Water Holes?” Crosscurrents (Winter 2002), 502.

Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2004, 25-26.

Bill Isaacs, “Listening for Collective Intelligence,” The Dialogue Project, MIT Sloan School, typescript, p. 1.