Convocation 2006: Educational Programs that Cultivate the Present Moment

Naropa Convocation
Thomas B. Coburn
August 31, 2006

It is once again my great privilege to welcome you all to Convocation, an event that I like to think of us as our collective, ceremonial bow into the year that lies ahead, just as Commencement is the bow that frames the end of our year together.  The bow is a wonderful Naropa institution, a kind of short-hand for what contemplative education is all about, and I have used it in explaining Naropa to a great range of people, from foundation officers to pre-school children.  They get it in a flash.  So welcome to this most exemplary Naropa traditional event, something that is both utterly traditional and, because the particular group of us here this evening has never gathered before, utterly unique and without precedent. Similarly the year that lies ahead is another in a sequence of years, but it is and will be unique, beckoning each of us in a way that no previous year has.  This is Naropa’s 33rd Convocation, it is my fourth, and I know there is a great spectrum of Convocation experience here this evening.  For how many of you is this your first Convocation?  How many people have attended over 30?  Is there anyone who has attended all 33 Convocations?

The agenda for this evening allows us to celebrate the opening of this school year in several ways: by welcoming new faculty members, by hearing from our new VPAA, Stuart Sigman, and by reminding ourselves that the spirit of any occasion can be captured most vividly by the arts.  So Reed Bye, Laurie and David Rugenstein, and Steven Taylor will give us a bit of music, and we will together compose a spontaneous poem, which Laurie Doctor will, in her inimitable way, capture in calligraphy.  (For those of you who aren’t familiar with this tradition, you will see many previous Convocation moments captured in Laurie’s calligraphies around campus.)

I’d like to expand on my welcome for a few minutes by reflecting a bit about the year ahead.   The title that I’ve put over these reflections is “‘Educational Programs that Cultivate Awareness of the Present Moment’ and Naropa’s Future.”  The first part of that title—“educational programs that cultivate awareness of the present moment”—is, of course, taken from Naropa’s familiar mission statement, and the perspective I’d like to start with is that of a long-term faculty member in higher education.  I was always excited to begin a new year, eager to see for myself the results of the admissions office’s work, keen to see how this work would congeal in the particular configuration of students in my various courses.  One thing I never understood was the growsing I sometimes heard among my colleagues, lamenting the quality of the incoming students, bemoaning the decline in preparation for college level work done in secondary schools.  This kind of complaining is, of course, widespread in higher education today, but, so far as I can see, it is, for the most part, blessedly absent from Naropa.  While we might sometimes yearn, for instance, for improved writing skills in our entering students, Naropa faculty—you faculty—know at first hand what remarkable people these Naropa students are.  They have seen through the shortcomings of mainstream education, its undue attention to only cognitive learning, and they bring all of themselves—mind, body, emotion, and spirit—into their work with us.  What a pleasure and privilege—and what hard work—it is to help them realize this promise.

My three years at Naropa have helped me see that just as Naropa faculty are different from most college faculties in the respect they accord their entering students, so are they different in another way.  They do not teach—you do not teach—in a way that simply meets students as you find them, as they present themselves walking in the door.  You also have in your mind’s eye the kind of student, the kind of person, each might become.  There is, of course, an idealism that is woven into the very heart of the teaching profession.  But my sense is that Naropa faculty are more aware of this than most faculties, because they know the extraordinary power that is released through the intentional cultivation of our inner resources through meditation, contemplation, and action.  Naropa faculty know that entering students have only an inkling of what it will mean for them to do this inner work, for the kind of growth that lies ahead for them as they come to realize their potential more fully.  What I see in the teaching that takes place at Naropa, therefore, is this wonderful combination of full, unstinting acceptance of students as they are, walking in the door, eager and rough cut, with a vision for what each might eventually become as he or she grows into a fuller embodiment of wholeness.  Another, more traditional Naropa way of putting this is to say that our faculty—you faculty—help individual students join Earth, the state in which they arrive, with Heaven, the promise that they may eventually come to realize.

The center of our work in the year ahead, I believe, is to accomplish this same joining of Heaven and Earth with regard to our institutional life as a whole.  While Naropa has a long history of working very effectively with individuals in realizing their potential, our experience with realizing this for the entire institution of Naropa is more modest.  But we are poised to attain a new level of maturity in this regard over the year ahead.  The seeds for this maturation began in conversations I had with the board of trustees during my first year at Naropa.  They began to grow in the board retreat held in February of 2005, when a skilled consultant helped the board through an instructive self-study, which, in turn, led to the resurrection of its Vision and Planning Committee.  The board charged this Committee, under the leadership of John Bennett, with reviewing Naropa’s mission statement and crafting a new statement that would be substantively congruent with the familiar statement, but less unwieldy than its two-and-a-half page length.  I met with the Vision and Planning Committee throughout its deliberations over the past ten months and so know it worked hard and with great thoughtfulness on this assignment, moving through a total of seventeen drafts, many of which reflected the comments and suggestions coming from on-campus constituencies and individuals.  The revision process is now nearly complete and I expect the board will endorse the proposed revision at its meeting next month.  There currently remains only one point of uncertainty in the Committee’s mind, namely, whether in the first sentence we should refer to Naropa as “’America’s” or “North America’s’ premier institution of contemplative education.”  Here is how the new mission statement reads:

Inspired by the rich intellectual and experiential traditions of East and West, Naropa University is (North) America's leading institution of contemplative education.

Naropa educates the whole person, cultivating academic excellence and contemplative insight in order to infuse knowledge with wisdom.  The University nurtures in its students a lifelong joy in learning, a critical intellect, the sense of purpose that accompanies compassionate service to the world, and the openness and equanimity that arise from authentic insight and self-understanding.  Ultimately, Naropa students explore the inner resources needed to engage courageously with a complex and challenging world, to help transform that world through skill and compassion, and to attain deeper levels of happiness and meaning in their lives.

Drawing on the vital insights of the world's wisdom traditions, Naropa University is simultaneously Buddhist-inspired, ecumenical, and nonsectarian. It embraces the richness of human diversity with the aim of fostering a more just and equitable society and an expanded awareness of our common humanity.

A Naropa education - reflecting the interplay of discipline and delight - prepares its graduates both to meet the world as it is and to change it for the better.

A mission statement serves an institution by stating, in declarative terms, its identity, something that is always and ever the case, unconditioned by time and circumstance.  It sets forth an aspiration and a vision that will be true as long as the institution endures, even as the ways in which it seeks to realize that vision will change over the course of time.  A vision statement is a statement of what Heaven is like.  Our strategic assignment over the year ahead will be to be to begin to bring this statement down to Earth.  And the way that we will do this is the way that most thoughtful institutions do, which is through a strategic planning process.  Conjoining Heaven and Earth is what we aspire to both for our students and for Naropa as a whole.  Strategic planning is the next logical and necessary step in grounding Naropa’s compelling vision in the realities of mundane life.

The board and I are agreed that we will engage an experienced consultant to assist us in accomplishing this project, and I am currently concluding these arrangements.  Once we have such a person, he or she and I will work with the board’s Vision and Planning Committee to map out a schedule for the year.  Regardless of the schedule, certain principles are already very clear.  Charting Naropa’s immediate future—three to five years—is an activity in which all constituencies must be deeply engaged.  The process therefore must be broadly inclusive of all university constituencies.  The outcome must be action-oriented, designed in specific ways to help Naropa realize its remarkable mission more fully.  It must articulate a path toward institutional sustainability, including a financial dimension, commonly called a business plan.  Well done, such a plan should mitigate the financial challenges that have been such a hallmark of life at Naropa.  And, finally, while the outcome of strategic planning will be a specific, succinct document, that document will be simply a condensation at a particular point in time—May 2007—of an ongoing process that will enable us to take stock of where we are annually, redirecting our course as circumstances and evolving aspirations warrant.

It is clear from conversations I have had with college presidents and others that strategic planning can be a lively, engaging, fun project that generates broad understanding of the institution, creating new energy around its core mission.  At the same time, this is challenging work, since it necessarily brings to the surface different views of the institution’s future.  This fact can, in fact, help us grow into a new level of cultural maturity, for while I believe there is widespread agreement at Naropa with Chogyam Trungpa’s claim about the fundamental goodness of human beings, we do not have an impressive history of engaging conflict constructively.   Some would say that Naropa has been a conflict-avoidant culture.  Consequently, I am hopeful that, even as the strategic planning process will enable us to chart Naropa’s future more intentionally and strategically, it will also help us learn how to walk the talk of contemplative education more fully in our daily interactions. 

While it is too soon to know what will emerge as the salient issues for us to address in the strategic planning process, I invite you to begin thinking about what you think the big questions are for Naropa as whole to engage.  They might include such questions as:

  • Given that we are no longer a series of graduate programs with an undergraduate appendage but what is properly called a “comprehensive university,” what ought to be the balance between our commitment to graduate and undergraduate education?
  • Given the virtually universal agreement that everyone would benefit from having Naropa operate on a consolidated campus, and given the scarcity and cost of available property in Boulder, how important is a Boulder address to Naropa’s identity; how important is it that Naropa continue to be situated in Boulder?
  • What should Naropa’s commitment be to international education?  to civic engagement? to developing doctoral programs?  How should we balance our successes in on-line education with our successes in real time, face-to-face education?  How should we best realize our concurrent commitment to diversity education and contemplative education?

Obviously these are lively, complicated questions to which there are no simple answers.  There are doubtless dozens more, and we haven’t even begun the formal planning process yet!  Here I hope simply to have primed the pump, inviting you to begin thinking about these big strategic questions that promise to make the year ahead such a vital, energized, and energizing one.  As soon as I know more about the formalities of the process, I will share them with you.

Finally, I’d like to suggest that, in embarking on such a process, Naropa is positioned to do something that is not just good and necessary for us, but that can model and extend some of the most recent thinking about the kinds of institutions that are needed in the ever more globalized 21st century.   Some of you know, because I inflicted a recommendation on you, that one of the best books I’ve read in the past decade is one called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society.  Its authors are Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers.  Some of you will recognize these names, particularly Peter Senge, an MIT professor and founder of the Society for Organizational Learning.  I don’t usually read a lot of management theory, but I had heard of this book, so when Gaylon Ferguson put a copy in my hands last spring, I plunged in, found it immensely readable, even conversational, and practically written for Naropa.  The book is dedicated to the memory of Francesco Varela and his influence is apparent throughout the book. Varela was the brilliant cognitive scientist who played an important role in Naropa’s early ventures into science education, who went on with Adam Engle to found the Mind and Life Institute that is supporting the Dalai Lama’s dialogues with neuroscientists, and who died prematurely in 2001.

Part of what makes Presence so accessible to someone familiar with Naropa’s mission is the appearance throughout the book of world wisdom teachers.  As always, they say pithy, memorable things.  Among my favorites are this poem from the Chinese sageWu Wei Wu:  “Why are you so unhappy?/ Because ninety-nine percent of what you think,/And everything you do,/ Is for your self,/ And there isn’t one.”  There’s also David Bohm’s wonderful line: “Thought creates reality and then says, ‘I didn’t do it.’” 

Beyond this, Presence extends to us an invitation to build on what we at Naropa know about the contemplative life of individuals by applying it to our corporate life.  The book is a record of conversations between the authors over many months, based on their research and interviews with thoughtful, successful institutional leaders.  The model that the authors suggest has the shape of a large “U,” and planning consists of moving from one point of the U, down to its low point, then back up the other side.  They label the three stages in this movement: sensing—where the goal is “observe, observe, observe”—presencing—with the goal of “retreat and reflect”—and realizing—with the outcome “act swiftly, with a natural flow.”  The movement here is “a different type of learning process where we learn from a future that has not yet happened and from continually discovering our part in bringing that future to pass.  Learning based on the past suffices when the past is a good guide to the future.  But it leaves us blind to profound shifts when whole new forces shaping change [such as we now find in the 21st century] arise” (86).  The authors are explicit about the place that meditation plays in creating this new kind of openness to the future, holding in abeyance the impetus to look outside ourselves for a solution, willing to trust the intuitions that arise from deep, collective introspection.  Based on what they’ve seen in exemplary institutions, Scharmer writes: “When you do that, when you discover what you’re here for, the forces of nature also operate in your service . . . .  Then, as you move back up the U, all sorts of things start to happen that aid in the realization of your aims, things you had no right to expect.”  Flowers adds:  “When you see what you’re here for, the world begins to mirror your purpose in a magical way.  It’s almost as if you suddenly find yourself on stage in a play that was written expressly for you” (114).   

The authors of Presence are keenly aware of the exploratory nature of their work, which is why they write it so conversationally.  They have glimpsed a new kind of institution, demanded by the global realities of the 21st century, but also—because the folly of sweeping generalizations and master narratives has now been exposed—rooted in the particulars of time and space.  As Naropa becomes more and more authentically itself, cultivating the present moment and identifying and pursuing the future that is implicit in that moment, so, I believe, do we become better able to deliver on our promise for the world beyond Naropa.  That is the work I see unfolding over the year ahead.  To that work, starting this evening, I offer my warmest and most enthusiastic welcome.