By Candace Walworth, PhD, Peace Studies Department Chair
“Another world is possible. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
“How do we cultivate the whole human being in community?”
This question, posed by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc in their book The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, is at the core of Naropa University’s Peace Studies program. As a teacher, I add this follow-up: “What does cultivating the whole human being look and feel like in the classroom?” While there is no one right way to “cultivate the whole human,” below is a portrait of one successful endeavor in one of my classes, “Socially Engaged Spirituality.”
On that day, April 18, 2017, Dr. Kritee Kritee, Environmental Defense Fund Senior Scientist and Zen teacher, and Dr. Sudarshan Kapur, author of Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi and founder of Naropa’s Peace Studies program, joined our three-hour class for a cross-cultural, intergenerational dialogue focused on the life and legacy of Gandhi.
As the class opened, we listened to a recording of Hari Prasad Chaurasia’s “Raga Bageshree” on flute. The captivating raga created a space—a stillness—in which both students and visitors listened before speaking. Only once the raga ended and we’d all participated in the experience of it, did we introduce ourselves.
Next, Sudarshan and Kritee shared stories of their lives and work, beginning with their youth and early adulthoods in India. Kritee began with a photograph and story about Babu Mool Chand Jain, her maternal grandfather and a freedom fighter in the Indian independence movement. Sudarshan told a story about accompanying his father to a prayer-meeting that Gandhi was leading. “It was a moment,” he said, “that has never left me.”
Sudarshan then fielded questions students had prepared—addressing topics such as the role of women in the Indian independence movement, internalized oppression, religious pluralism, and the caste system in India, then and now. In response to a question about how to learn from Gandhi’s life and work without putting him on a pedestal, Sudarshan suggested that the study of Gandhi (and other well-known historical changemakers) can be approached both critically and appreciatively. “Gandhi was a 19th and 20th century man,” Sudarshan said. “He was an imperfect human being who sought to transform himself into a caring, compassionate and loving human being.”
Creating a bridge from Gandhian values and commitments to the environment, Kritee offered a series of slides illuminating the science of global warming. She engaged students in a discussion focused on “how we got here,” noting individual and collective tipping points with attention to “the psycho-spiritual basis for a path forward.” To conclude, Kritee led us in singing a heart-opening song, “Bella Mama” (“Beautiful Mother”).
As the dialogue deepened, I began seeing connections between the concept of “cultivating the whole human in community” and the model of the Tree of Contemplative Practices.
For visual learners, including myself, The Tree of Contemplative Practices creatively depicts diverse methods of inquiry (or practice) rooted in a common aspiration—to cultivate and realize interdependence.
The format and discussion with Kritee and Sudarshan incorporated several branches of the Tree: stillness, relational practices (deep listening and storytelling) and creative practice (singing). We ended class by standing in a circle, each person offering a spontaneously arising word before closing with a bow (ritual/cyclical practice).
I still had the Tree in mind when, a few hours after class, I received an email from Chelle Storti. Chelle wrote that she had been deeply moved by the day’s stories and discussions and had decided to put her visual arts skills to work. She’d offered to create signs for “Meditate the Frack Out of Boulder,” a gathering Kritee had talked about with us.
“This class is just what I needed to push me toward action,” Chelle wrote.
While Chelle tapped into the activist branch of the Tree of Contemplative Practices, Rose Cowan, another student, valued the class’ philosophical dimensions which arose from the relational practices of deep listening and storytelling. “I appreciated that Kritee validated the dualities that can be present in activism. She identified the importance of a community’s wisdom and resilience while at the same time pointing out how dogmatism might hinder progress.”
For me, the class evoked connection and communion (the roots of the tree), linking contemplative inquiry and academic study with my civic commitments. A few weeks later, when I joined Chelle and others in Chautauqua Park to raise awareness about the end of Boulder County’s fracking moratorium, I gladly accepted one of Chelle’s beautiful, bold signs.
A month after the Chautauqua Park action, on June 1, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. In response, I participated in a gathering organized by 350 BoulderCounty at the Boulder Bandshell where Mayor Suzanne Jones affirmed Boulder’s climate commitment goals and Dr. Phaedra Pezzullo, CU professor and director of BoulderTalks, addressed the relationship between social justice issues and the climate crisis (climate justice).
In her remarks, Phaedra acknowledged Naropa as a signatory to “We Are Still In.” “We are Still In” is an open letter from U.S. cities, counties, states, higher education, and business leaders to the international community and to parties in the Paris Agreement. The letter states the intent of signatories to continue supporting the Paris Accords.
“Naropa is a small participant in this international movement to address the climate change crisis, but our practical actions . . . supporting the evolution of an upcoming generation of leaders and activists, is no less important than what a large corporation might do with vastly more resources,” President Charles Lief wrote, announcing Naropa as a signatory.
Chelle, Rose, and their classmates are among the upcoming, “still-in” generation of leaders to which President Lief refers. They, rooted in contemplative practices that cultivate the whole human being—head, heart and hands—continue to grow strong and branch out, cultivating wisdom, compassion and skillful means in both Naropa classrooms and in our community.