It’s my first semester at Naropa University, and I’ve already noticed the term “contemplative” show up in each class creating synchronicity and an overarching learning experience that is both liberating and terrifying. Terrifying?! Yes, because this form of inquiry requires deep honesty. And, liberating because I know from experience the truth really does set you free.
When I first started attending Naropa University in January (2018) I had never heard the term “contemplative education” or “contemplative practice” for that matter. My best guess would have been reviewing one’s curiosity from a meditative state, but today in my fourth month as a student, I realize being contemplative is not one thing, but many. Most of all I believe a contemplative education describes a style of learning that places as much value if not more on one’s questions than it does on the answers received.
For this paper, I have divided this concept into what I’ll refer to as the 5 C’s of a Contemplative Mind.
So, let’s start with the first “C”, Curiosity.
Contemplative education teaches us how to tap into the innocence and childlike curiosity we were all born with. It turns life into a magical learning experience that is not only fun but a great mystery to explore each day. Through a contemplative education, you have the opportunity to let go of the limited perspective you may have inherited revealing an abundant source of answers and possibilities. During my studies, I have had the opportunity to experience life from multiple dimensions within classes exploring various topics such as diversity, psychology, writing and, of course, contemplative learning.
Shunryu Suzuki describes this abundant mental state in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind stating
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
As Suzuki describes, a beginners mind reveals many possibilities. Instead of finding one simple answer, we discover a world that is complex and full of unending insight.
I’ve noticed that a curious perspective is extremely difficult for a structured mind to accept because it requires flexibility, which is something a rigid mind avoids. With a contemplative mind, there is a natural flow that decreases the inherent hesitation and expectations we learned at an early age. To be curious, again, we must surrender. Ironically, as we do, curiosity reveals itself as just another structure, but one that guides us toward intentional relevant lives.
As I develop and rediscover the natural curiosity I was born with I am greeted with many unanswered questions. I must acknowledge this is a bit frightening and seems counterproductive because often the point of inquiry is to find an answer not more questions but as Suzuki states
when our mind is compassionate, it is boundless
This brings me to our next “C”, Compassion.
The contemplative journey moves you toward an expansive understanding that allows love and space enough to grow with and for each other. With this loving presence, you can meet the world with a fearless attitude and not feel inadequate throughout the process.
Chögyam Trungpa discusses the importance of compassion in his talk Education for an Enlightened Society stating
We’re not particularly talking about a learning process which constantly delivers a tremendous slap on the face and exposes your stupidity, a process in which the more you’re confronted with learned people the more stupid you feel.
Trungpa’s statement acknowledges the lack of compassion for those trying to learn. How can we learn if we are afraid of being seen as ignorant or stupid as Trungpa states?
This is why compassion is an important aspect of the contemplative path. Not only are we afraid of being seen as stupid, but we may also be afraid of what we find. Compassion helps us love and embrace what is found. Through contemplative practice, as we discover pain, we encounter the difficulty of sitting with our pain and the pain of others.
This brings us to the 3rd “C”, Challenge.
On a personal level, I can see contemplative inquiry showing up in my life as a constant force challenging me to live the life I was born to live. I was born into a family whose history was built between blacks and whites during the slavery era. A culture that was asked to conform as a means of survival and deny any connection to their African ancestry. I’m describing the Creole people of Louisiana. I can feel those expectations pumping through my veins, and as a gay man of color raised in a Creole family, I have felt a depth of shame I could never explain with mere words.
I share this because I believe each life faces some indescribable challenge. I believe we are meant to embrace the challenges of our ancestors and embrace a destiny that has more to offer. A destiny our ancestors were unable to receive, and this is challenging. I like to think this is what my ancestors unknowingly prayed for, and like my ancestors, I must have courage. In a world built upon systems and structures of division, I must be brave. In a world where honesty is black and white and wisdom remains unseen if the circumstances are not quite right, I must be brave.
In Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior Chögyam Trungpa comments
The key to warriorship and the first principle of Shambhala vision is not being afraid of who you are.
So, as I move deeper in my learning facing challenges that appear, as I find “unacceptable” answers, and unexplainable realities preventing me from fully living my authentic truth I can rest and feel reassured in knowing that this is an expected part of the journey.
The fourth “C”, is the heroic quality I’ve already mentioned, Courage.
To live an authentic life we must be willing to disappoint ourselves and each other. Trungpa states willingness is required in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior and that you must be
willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world.
This vulnerability reveals a strength of heart that we may have otherwise never noticed.
My understanding of contemplative inquiry has grown tremendously throughout my education at Naropa University. I believe it has shown me something I have always known. I realize my own strength. But, I need courage to realize this. I have come to realize I must have courage to incorporate contemplative practice in my life. That I need courage to simply be curious and express compassion. I cannot stress how important these contemplative qualities are and have been in my life. It seems so simple these childlike abilities, but in a world that asks more and more of us as we age, remaining contemplative in our learning through the challenging experiences we each face is the last thing we are likely to do.
So why are we raised in a world that challenges us? In a world where we need courage each day to simply love and explore ourselves and the world around us.
That brings me to my last “C”, Conformity.
Why are we raised in a world of conformity, and what are we to do with it? I think this is the great question we face, “to be or not to be” as Shakespeare put it. Conformity challenges me to be curious, to have compassion, to have the courage to face a world that seems to be asking me to compromise myself.
But, what else could it be asking?
The structures that exist in society today tell us to fit in or that you fit here, and yet this curious world we live in is constantly changing, constantly evolving and so are we. Perhaps conformity is evolving, too. Perhaps conformity is a question in itself waiting to be undone in all sorts of ways.
Or maybe it doesn’t want to be undone at all. Maybe it is here to bring us together where we truly belong. Maybe conformity exists in the dream Martin Luther King Jr. described where white children and black children could stand hand in hand. Maybe it exists between gay men who celebrate their partnership by having a traditional Catholic marriage ceremony.
In a very odd way, this structure is keeping us close to one another. So, I’ve decided to include it here as an open question, an open possibility because perhaps conformity is an essential aspect of a contemplative mind, too.