Mindful U Podcast 92. Andrew Schelling: Writing as a Spiritual Practice & State of Mind

Mindful U Podcast Episode 92. Andrew Schelling: Writing as a Spiritual Practice & State of Mind

The newest episode of our podcast, Mindful U, is out on Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher now! We are happy to announce this week’s episode features Andrew Schelling, a beloved professor of over 30 years in the Religious Studies Program and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics programs at Naropa.

Today, Andrew Schelling joins us to discuss language, the page as a performance, and the bravery to pursue writing as a spiritual practice and state of mind.

Andrew’s work as an educator, translator, and writer involves around 20 odd books of writings and edits along with being a translator in Sanskrit.

Tune into this episode to hear this rich discussion on developing writing as a spiritual practice and state of mind!

Full Transcript Below:

Full Transcript

Andrew Schelling

“Sanskrit of Love”

TRT 59:21

 

[MUSIC]

 

Hello, and welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I’m your host, David Devine. And it’s a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions — Naropa is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement.

 

[MUSIC]

 

David:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Mindful U Podcast. Today I will be speaking with Andrew Schelling. Andrew is a faculty member at Naropa University who currently teaches in the Religious Studies Program and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He’s come on the podcast today to speak with us about his work as an educator, a translator, and also a writer. His work involves around 20 odd books of writings and edits along with being a translator in Sanskrit. He’s taught at Naropa for over 30 years, which is very impressive. Welcome to the podcast. How are you doing today?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Thank you. I’m good. And glad to be here, David. 

 

David:

Yeah. And I just have to mention, we recorded about 40 minutes or so of like, super awesome podcast, and my power just went out.

 

Andrew Schelling:

It’s the gods, we need to be humble here.

 

David:

I think so. It is kind of a bummer. And Andrew is an awesome guy. And he has volunteered to record it again. So here we go. This is round two, we got our fingers crossed, everything should be good. I’m going to keep constantly saving. And another fun fact, other than my just computer just dying on us, is the fact that this is the first podcast I’ve had in person in the last two years. Every podcast has been virtually now. There’s such a different dynamic to have somebody in the room and speak with them. Welcome to being my first guest in like two years.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Thank you. I’ve had an unusual pandemic experience, because I stayed in the classroom almost alone. I was about the only person on the Naropa campus teaching for two years. And the day we all returned to campus was like a festival. 

 

David:

Yeah.

 

Andrew Schelling:

The cafe was open, students were out on the lawn, yeah, it feels very different now.

 

David:

You didn’t have to do that. Right? 

 

Andrew Schelling:

No, but I wanted to.

 

David:

What in you made you want to show up in the classroom and do that? 

 

Andrew Schelling:

All my teaching experience has been in the classroom. And I like just being embodied with other people. And I just was skeptical about being all digital, we had to for a month or two when the pandemic first hit. But I asked for classrooms that had doors to the outside and windows so that we could open them and we had say last winter sometime where we’d all be there in parkas and boots, huddling around. 

 

David:

Yeah, it can get cold. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

It can get cold. Yes. Yeah.

 

David:

Wow. That’s interesting. So, you volunteered to show up in the classroom, to be in person. And so apparently you had some students as well. So, it was like half of your students on Zoom or whatever service you’re using. And then half of them were in parkas in the classroom. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Exactly, yeah.

 

David:

Yeah. What do you think it was like for the student experience to be zooming into class?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Some students dropped out of school, they just felt that they could not join a class digitally, and find what they were looking for. And that was one of the reasons I stayed in the classroom is because I know that when I was in college — or whenever I go, spend time with people, I want to do it in person. And it makes a big difference to be able to read people’s expressions and body language and see who sits next to whom and, you know, all of that felt so instrumental to the way I’ve worked as a faculty person, you know, as a poet as a — as a teacher, a poet, a thinker, converser.

 

David:

Yeah, I guess there are certain types of content that you could teach that would work on a Zoom setting. And then there’s certain other types of content that might not work as well.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yes, some of its content, but some of it’s just human spirit, and wanting to be in presence.

 

David:

Yeah, like for instance, here you are in person in my studio, and there’s more of a vibe than just being on Zoom. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Exactly. 

 

David:

So, it’s like we can actually bounce ideas off each other, have like a really awesome conversation and not — not have this like little glitchy thing going on.

 

Andrew Schelling:

I think because I teach Sanskrit too and sort of tune to the sound of the human voice and so much gets lost when it’s mediated across a computer, especially with the poor speakers that most computers have to try to teach pronunciation and hear the overtones and the undertones on the range of possibilities just didn’t work. 

 

David:

I was just thinking of the compression rate, they compress audio you know —

 

Andrew Schelling:

Right.

 

David:

Because it’s like you need to send it through the ether. And so, they don’t want to make it a big file —

 

Andrew Schelling:

Exactly.

 

David:

So, they have to like squash it. That’s why you kind of sound all bit rated, like glitchy, very, like hard edges in the voice. There’s not like softness to it.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, my fear was that the gods would frown on it if I stepped out of the classroom and tried to teach Sanskrit pronunciation.

 

David:

Like not allowed. They’d probably cut the power out just like they did on us. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, exactly. 

 

David:

All right. So, when I was reading your bio, and I was reading more about you, getting ready for this podcast, I noticed you had a very unique, a very interesting and very wild like educational direction. And I’m curious, what led you to becoming an educator and a translator? And where did you learn from — like, where did you get your studies from? And what was that like your educational experience?

 

Andrew Schelling:

My education was largely missteps. And I certainly never thought of myself as becoming an educator. Yes. 

 

David:

Okay. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

You know, I went to a very experimental university. It was the University of California Santa Cruz campus. And when I was there, Santa Cruz did not have grades. The faculty who were there, I think were largely brilliant, unusual people who wanted to teach and maybe more than teach, they wanted to just spend time with young people. So, I was incredibly lucky. Some very memorable people there who set me on a certain course. But when I left Santa Cruz, I tried a couple times to do graduate programs. And couldn’t. I just left without getting a degree. I remember one professor, I had had, I went to ask him for a letter of recommendation to get into a — to get into UC Berkeley. And I told him, I wanted to study Sanskrit, and he looked at me and he said, if you want to study Sanskrit, you shouldn’t go to the university, you should go to India. And, you know, this was sort of the attitude at the time. I tried the university, didn’t really work out. 

 

David:

Sounds like good information, honestly. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Very good counsel.

 

David:

Go be amongst the culture. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, very, very good. Go be in ashram or something. But while I was in Berkeley, I fell in with a lot of sort of experimental bohemian poets, began to write a lot, began to edit, co-edit literary journals, and the university began to seem less and less relevant to me. So, I really got all my training, in a sense on the street.

 

David:

Okay. And so, when you did graduate with the BA, what was your BA in?

 

Andrew Schelling:

It was in religious studies, but Santa Cruz did not actually have a Religious Studies program.

 

David:

How does that work? You got a degree in it, but — 

 

Andrew Schelling:

You sort of patch together your own curriculum from other courses. So, I took courses in psychology, I took courses in literature. And then there were a lot of really renegade people teaching unusual things there that didn’t quite fit into any department. In fact, one of the early faculty at Naropa was a guy I studied with named Gregory Bateson, who is known for his work on, let’s see, ecology, genetics, LSD, anthropology, studies of schizophrenia. He was somebody who could walk into the classroom and read from a Buddhist scripture, and then recite the poetry of William Blake, and then talk about technical genetics theory, and then discuss his work with dolphin intelligence. And, you know, there weren’t really places who held people like this. So, my interest has always been what I’ve thought of as, like the casualties of the age of specialization. You know, people who don’t fit in and in some sense, I was — I tried to get a graduate degree in Sanskrit studies, really South Asian languages. And one day after class, my instructor Padmanabh, called me aside and said walk across the campus with me, Andrew, what are you doing here? And I said, well, I thought if I got an MA in Sanskrit studies, I could then do a PhD in South Asian Studies, get a good job in some university. He looked at me and he said, Andrew, there’s no jobs for second rate Sanskrits, and I —

 

David:

Second rate, what?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Sanskritists — I thought for a second or two and then I got down and touched his lotus feet in gratitude and walked out of the university, because he was actually wrong. I’m a second rate Sanskritist and I have a job at Naropa. But he was right that my temperament wasn’t proper for the kind of academic training that people were doing at Berkeley. So, I left and became a poet and writer.

 

David:

Okay, did you have any training in poetry and writing? Because it sounds like you were piece mealing, some sort of like Religious Studies degree together, but was there any writing courses that you’re taking in there?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Not really, no, I never took any writing courses in college. But I love to write. And this is — this is sort of instructive or interesting, at least to me, anyhow. I had for a long time, loved studying spiritual traditions, and writing about them. And at some point, I decided, or realized it was almost like a revelation came to me, that I was looking at it backwards. It wasn’t studying spiritual religions, and then writing about them, my path was writing, and that was the spiritual path. And once I saw that, I changed things entirely. So since then, writing has really been my way of exploring mind, the universe, human relationships, bio region.

 

David:

So, it sounds like you have natural ability in writing, because you never really was like pursuing writing, but it was always a passion of yours.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yes. And at the same time, it’s something that you work on and work on and work on, you know, many, many things are that way, we’ve got some sort of innate capability. And then if you just happen to be really turned on by it, you work and you work, and you work and you refine it, yeah.

 

David:

That kind of comes to the idea that I get with talent, like, oh, that person is talented. And it’s like, are they though? Because how much time do you think they’ve actually spent on that. What their talent is, is loving a craft enough, to hate it, to love it, to hate it, to love it, to hate it — you know, it’s like the they go through this destructive artistic cycle, that if you stick with something for at least 10 years, you’ve hated it 20 times, but you love it enough to continue your practice.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Right, it’s like you have to fall off the horse many times and be brave enough to get back on the horse each time you’ve fallen.

 

David:

And that’s the talent is loving the thing enough to keep doing it

 

Andrew Schelling:

Right and trusting — trusting your innate instincts. I just found a beautiful little poem from Sanskrit, did not bring it with me. But it goes something like this in translation, no need a guru’s word, trust in your instincts from birth, with them you can pierce the veil, they disclose the far mysteries. I love that — your instincts are able to disclose the far mysteries — and its work, it’s work and it may be harder work than trusting the guru’s word. But it may be more satisfying.

 

David:

Yeah. And it also puts the intelligence in your court, you’re not relying on someone else to decide things for you when you have the ability, and you are capable and intelligent enough to discover it on your own.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Right. And so, most of my training, and I think many people’s training, you know, as writers has been on your own or with — with your friends, with your comrades, talking ferociously, late at night, studying things.

 

David:

Terence McKenna, I would listen to him, and he would talk about like his Berkeley days, and he was just like, an argument doesn’t sound good enough until you’re in the sixth hour. I was like oh, my God, it sounds exhausting.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, here was my real training. I co-edited as a poetics journal in the 1980s with a close friend. And there were no computers in those days. So, people would handle — 

 

David:

I remember those days too.

 

Andrew Schelling:

People would hand us manuscripts, often handwritten. And we would type them up on an old typewriter and cut and paste and then photocopy our journal. And when you type somebody else’s work, you feel in your muscles, what works, what does not work, what is a bad move, what is a brilliant move, and particularly when you type again, and again, work from people, you know, you see how they’ve improved, and you feel it in your muscles. So, I feel like my training became, really came through that. 

 

David:

All right. So, at the moment, you’re teaching in two different departments, two different programs. You’re teaching in the Religious Studies program, you’re teaching in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics program, which is basically the writing program. I can only imagine how these two topics are very similar, and they’re very different. And I’m curious with your experience, since you’re teaching in both of them, how are they similar and how are they different? Like, do you have any teaching abilities that have occurred over time that you’ve learned? Can you help us out with what those could be?

 

Andrew Schelling:

When I teach for the Kerouac School, the writing program, we’re really training young writers as best we can. Writing workshops, literature courses. What I do primarily for the Religious Studies is studying the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit it’s a tough language. But it’s very different. Because in the — in the writing courses, everybody who wants to improve their writing, and at the same time is brave enough to show it publicly to other people, you have to be very vulnerable. And there’s a lot of ego involved. And you know, I’m constantly impressed with the students how brave they are. But also, they have to feel very strongly about their conviction, regarding their own capabilities, their own ability to learn, their own writing skills. I go into the classroom to teach Sanskrit, there’s no ego at all. You don’t like adverbs, too bad. You gotta learn adverbs. You know, the verbs are complicated. Well, that’s what they are. That’s what we do here. So, it’s a very different kind of teaching. But they balance each other really well. And they’re both focused on language. They’re both focused on, you know, sound system and rhythmic patterns. So —

 

David:

I’m having a thought when you’re saying that is when you’re teaching Sanskrit, you’re teaching how to, but when you’re teaching poetics, you’re teaching what could?

 

Andrew Schelling:

That’s a good way of saying it. Sure. Yeah. And also, I think the, you know, the Sanskrit work is much more like, you can lay out a curriculum, you can lay out a course of study, and there’s a real specific goal at the end. With a creative art, you can say there’s a goal, which is becoming an accomplished writer, or musician or whatever, or generating great work, but you can’t see it until you’re there. It’s a whole different kind of world.

 

David:

Yeah. It has more of a feel, sense to it.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yes. And also, you know, requires a certain kind of trust in yourself, and trust in your comrades. You know, I often tell the students at the Kerouac School that the most important thing they’re going to get out of it is not what I say, or what I teach, or what any of the other faculty say or teach. It’s going to be the people they meet in their classes, it’s going to be their generation that are confronting the same artistic issues, the same moment in time. And they’ve got this precious two years to meet those people. And argue, like you said, the sixth hour — the argument doesn’t get interesting till the sixth hour, yeah.

 

David:

Yeah, man, sometimes feedback can be brutal. And I wonder what is brutal is not the feedback itself, but the realization that you could have done better or you didn’t give it your all or, you know, it’s like, they’re saying something that is true, essentially, or true to them. But in a sense, they’re noticing something that you’ve might have — you’re like, oh, I don’t know if there’s my best work, but like, I got to finish my assignment. And then you get someone in class me like, hey, man, that kind of is not that great. And then you’re like, boo hoo. But then you’re like, you’re right, it’s not, you know, so sometimes the feedback can be brutal, but maybe it’s just really showing, you know, it’s like asking you to step forward a bit.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Sure. And then I think another aspect you can take to it is, when you’re working on poetry, or any kind of writing, really, but let’s say poetry, since that’s primarily what I teach, maybe it’s not so much about what you’re saying, but what you’re making, then you’re able to stand back a little bit and talk about balance and rhythm. And, you know, like an architecture rather than an idea that I have, that I’m attached to, you know, I think this is the hoax of English departments. You know, it’s what I call the English department of the soul, which is the idea that poems have meanings, and they’re about what somebody says, how about the sound values? How about the visuals on the page? What if sound is maybe more important than meaning often for poetry. Most great poetry, if you sit down and paraphrase it, it says the same things. I love you. Where is my beloved. I don’t like this form of government.

 

David:

Woe is me.

 

Andrew Schelling:

What’s a better form of government? Woe is me. So, it’s really how you make the language around, in a sense, it’s often very simple thoughts.

 

David:

Yeah, presentation is just as impactful as the word itself.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, very much so. And I think at the Kerouac School we’ve always focused also on performance as well as writing. How you carry your work to other people and publishing the kind of performance — that’s the performance that happens on the page. But there’s also readings, lectures, panels, but also, you know, readings, poetry readings or readings with musicians. I have often loved working with musicians.

 

David:

Yeah. I love that. The performance on the page. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah.

 

David:

I think when you like a writer can feel their performance.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah. Or even at a very elemental level, like pick up a book of poetry, flip through and see what poem grabs you. It’s probably the shape of the poem on the page that is first drawn you to it. 

 

David:

Yeah, you’re like, this one looks short. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah. Short — short lines. It’s easy. It has plenty of punctuation. 

 

David:

Yeah. Awesome. So currently, you’re teaching in two different programs? What are the classes that you do teach in the Religious Studies program, and also the writing program? So, what are — like what are their titles? What is the context in which you teach in?

 

Andrew Schelling:

For religious studies, I’ve always — or I’ve, for almost 30 years taught Sanskrit and I’ve taught Sanskrit 1, 2, 3,4 — it’s basically a two year cycle. So, four semesters.

 

David:

Yeah, that one sounds a little bit more straightforward of learning a language.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, yeah. I’ve taught a few other classes, I taught a course called, How the Swans Came to the Lake, which is a study of how Buddhism arrived in North America. And I’ve taught —

 

David:

The iron bird flies.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Andrew Schelling:

The iron bird flies, yeah. So, I’ve taught several courses there. For the Kerouac School, the courses are divided really into writing workshops, where students bring in work and you carefully go over it, and the best you can, you know, discuss it and figure out ways to make the poem say, you know, better. And then the other kinds of course are literature classes, which we call poetics, course, was really and the idea of writing and poetics, Kerouac School has always had that focus on poetics, which is to say, intellectual and spiritual study, not just writing. Many, many writing programs in the country, this country, just focus on the student writing. But we’ve always felt that without good grounding in many things, politics, ecology, spiritual traditions, history, that deepens, broadens, gives you more resonant material to work with. So, and then a lot of history of literature itself, poetic lineages. You know, at Naropa, there’s a lot of talk about lineages, and they tend to speak of them as spiritual, but those are artistic also, artistic lineages are spiritual lineages.

 

David:

Okay, beautiful. So, what would you say are some of the artistic lineages that the JKS program does have?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Well, these things shift all the time. I mean, I could tell you my own particular lineage, and you know, particular writers who their full work or certain examples of their work, I feel, I would like to continue to present to students because they are — are remarkable, not only teaching possibilities, but when you feel the presence of an artist who may be dead, who may have been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years, you know, there is a real spiritual transmission that occurs there. The class, I’m teaching right now, Contemplative Poetics. I’m really just using one kind of mantra over the whole class, simply this, poem is a state of mind. So, if a student can locate a state of mind, craft it into a poem, pass that poem on to another person and transmit that state of mind that to me is a spiritual lineage. It’s a spiritual teaching. It’s a spiritual discipline.

 

David:

Yeah. It’s kind of like a verbal invitation to a state of mind.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, very much. And then you know, there’s all the craft work that goes with it. What are vowels? What are consonants? How do the consonants —

 

David:

What are those things?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Clack and rub and, you know, pop in your mouth? What is breath? Where does breath come from? And then how do you record that on the page? How do you work with line breaks? How do you work with punctuation, stanza breaks, so that you can capture on the page? You know, that’s why I say the page is a performance. Can you make the page a musical score in a sense, so somebody can reproduce that poem, which is to say that state of mind.

 

David:

As you’re saying this, I’m thinking about how there’s such a difference between something that’s on the page and then something that’s spoken out loud by whoever the person is, because by it being presented and being so spoken, it takes on a different form, like right then and there. As long as it’s not coming from the original writer, you’re getting a — like a curveball almost, you’re getting an audible, you’re getting something that might not be intended, but still feels right in the moment or for the poem or readings that are being read.

 

David:

Yes, I think the more writers you listen to perform their work, the better trained you get in terms of the possibilities of what you can do with the human voice and scoring it on the page. But you can refine it, you know, it’s one of those practices that you can work with a great deal. Here’s an interesting thing. I was going to tell you this earlier, when the power went out. 

 

David:

Oh, yeah, that.

 

Andrew Schelling:

If anybody knows the great poem by Allen Ginsberg, founder of the Kerouac School or co-founder, the Kerouac School, the great poem that made him in a sense world famous, Howl, you can do a search and you can find early recordings of him reading Howl or performing Howl, let’s say, and you can hear, let me say a young, possibly somewhat frightened young man who grew up in New Jersey, and he’s got something of a squeaky voice and the entire reading comes out of his throat. Then if you go to a late recording of him doing it, after he has chanted mantras for decades after he has had a friendship with Bob Dylan and many musicians and performed with them, he’s speaking or reading really from his diaphragm, his entire body has settled down into the center, he is no longer reading from his throat, reading from his throat, but it is deep inside coming from within. So that’s something that he learned himself and studied with, you know, musicians and longtime chant masters, he knew various…who are oral street performance figures from India, he worked with Buddhist masters of breath. He worked with musicians, I mentioned Bob Dylan, but you know, many others.

 

David:

Yeah, wow. And you’re kind of making me think about how it’s very momentary. It’s like who the person is, in the moment, is how it can be presented.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Right. Yeah. And of course, yeah, I mean, when I say something’s a musical score, it doesn’t mean — it doesn’t change from performance to performance. You know, in fact, once you understand how the score works, then you can really explore what is there. 

 

David:

I love that. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

And this may be a little bit of a crossover between my interest in Sanskrit and then my teaching poetry. There’s a traditional way of reciting, or you could say, even chanting Sanskrit alphabet, which runs through the whole mouth. And I’ve often used this and given it to students as a way of preparing for poetry reading because it sort of opens up everything, you just begin at the back of your throat and move forward. So, it’s like a little calisthenics…(doing calisthenics). Then you can add in if you want the different M’s. And you can even do the sibilance if you want…and of course, the great of the ah of the H.

 

David:

Wow, it’s almost like the exploration of what the vocal cords can do with breath and where it’s coming from, whether it’s your diaphragm, your lungs, your — your neck, your throat, you’re exploring all the sounds, and then you make — you create the foundational base of a language.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Exactly, yeah. And Sanskrit chanting works that way quite a bit. I wish I knew it better. But I, you know — I’ve drawn — 

 

David:

I mean you know Sanskrit, that’s pretty impressive.

 

Andrew Schelling:

I decode it. Yeah, I’m not — as I said, I’m a second rate Sanskrit scholar, but that’s okay.

 

David:

So, my next question, it’s talking about your teaching expertise, and it’s very impressive. You’ve taught at Naropa for 30 years plus, and I sort of see it as anyone spending that much time on a craft gains an insight to an evolution of many shifts within things like content, the students, the environment that you’re working in. And I’m curious during those 30 years, what are some insights or breakthroughs that you’ve experienced within teaching? Also, maybe at Naropa or the higher educational environment like anything that you’ve noticed over those years?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, I don’t necessarily credit myself with having any breakthroughs or insights on my own, I think most have come from the students. When I arrived at the Kerouac School it was still very much identified with the beat generation or the beat writers. It was broader than that, but — 

 

David:

When did you arrive? 

 

Andrew Schelling:

  1.  

 

David:

Okay.

 

Andrew Schelling:

So, Allen Ginsburg was still alive. He was there present through the summer writing programs, accompanied by Anne Waldman, Diane Prima, visitors who often came — Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger. Many more writers, but the beat influence seem to be very strong there. Gregory Corso, William Burroughs no longer came when I was there, he may have been dead, I’m not sure. But these were real culture heroes. And many of the participants, students and other people who came around what they really wanted was to hang out with their heroes, they wanted to see their heroes speak.

 

David:

Who doesn’t? 

 

Andrew Schelling:

But in a couple of years, things began to change. And the students I think, began to get impatient with that. And they wanted much more interaction. They wanted to be acknowledged and honored and recognized as their own beings. And that was a huge, huge change from sort of a stage with famous people and a fan base to a much more interactive sense of faculty and students. And I think that may have happened all over Naropa because there were other parts, and they’re also quite renowned, almost like folk heroes in the psychology and Buddhist studies department. So that was a big change. And I think that was an important one, I think, has really given a definition to Naropa now where this terrific amount of interaction with students, and what it certainly taught me is, I’m not a teacher, and the student is a student, so much is I’m entrusted with this person’s craft for a certain time, and by the time they leave they’re a peer of mine, they’re a colleague.

 

David:

Yeah, I mean, if I was hanging out with my heroes, or people that I am very inspired by, I would want to advance my craft as well. And not just like, droll out of my mouth and listen to everything they say, even though that’s kind of what I want to do for an hour. And then I’d like to shift it to be like, I think I got some cool ideas, too, and bounce them off them. And you know, like, I look up to you, but I also want to stand next to you. That’s how we like advance all together, you know?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, one of my anthologies, it was an anthology of North American Buddhist poetry, and I was so happy that I was able to include in it, three or four former students who had really gone on to accomplish wonderful things in poetry and all three of them Buddhist practitioners, by one definition or another.

 

David:

Okay. So how did you get into teaching? Because it sounds like your educational path wasn’t necessarily setting you up to — I guess it was for Sanskrit. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Somewhat.

 

David:

But how did you find yourself in these roles? Like, were you wanting to work at Naropa? Or did you try other colleges?

 

Andrew Schelling:

No, I had taught a couple of classes in Berkeley at a private high school called Maybeck School, which is a sort of alternative small, visionary school, like a very small Naropa or something. So, I taught a couple of classes there. But I was invited to the summer writing program at Naropa, two summers in a row. And I had gotten impatient with my life in the Bay Area, was right after the Loma Prieta earthquake that made things seem unsustainable in the area, and I was ready for a change. I couldn’t make enough money in the Bay Area, to do the kinds of things you want to be able to do in a city. You know, so I was ready for a change. And I was at Naropa and let a few people know that I was available if there was a job. And then I went to the east coast with my wife and daughter and got a phone call. And it was Naropa’s academic vice president, lovely woman, now dead named Pearl Olson. But she said, Julia Connor, just quit her job. We need somebody right away. Would you like a job? And I said, it’ll take me two days to drive there. But I’ll be there. And so, I loaded up my wife and kid and bags and drove straight from the east coast to Colorado and joined the faculty at Naropa.

 

David:

Interesting. Well, I mean, I guess that was good that you said something.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, yeah, well, I’d had my eye on Naropa a little bit. And I’d actually applied once before for a job which I did not get. The person who did, only lasted a year. But anyhow, I was much happier moving into the Kerouac School like that. And then the Sanskrit came about because I had published a book of Sanskrit poetry translations, which received a kind of, I guess it was a prestigious award. I don’t think that means very much. But, you know, still it was out there. And Judith Simmer Brown and Reggie Ray, who were the main Buddhist studies people were building a program in Indo Tibetan Buddhism, and they wanted to teach both Tibetan language and Sanskrit and they hired somebody who I think had been up at University of Colorado to come down and teach the Sanskrit study, and this person couldn’t make it at Naropa and quit mid semester — just couldn’t work with the Naropa students. So, I got a sort of panicked phone call from Reggie Ray, maybe he wasn’t panic, maybe he was just urgent. 

 

David:

He’s probably like, panicking, like a Buddhist would like, hey —

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah. Could you teach the Sanskrit class, we’ve got students mid semester? And I said, I’d like to try it. And I walked in. And I think, because I was familiar with Naropa, and the needs — the particular, you know, needs and expectations of Naropa students, and I happen to love the language and so I’ve taught it ever since and that’s been, you know, 25 years now.

 

David:

Yeah. Wow. That’s a long time. I would actually love to move on to more of a sanskruti type of question. But before we do that, would you like to share a reading with us? Maybe a translation or reading or — 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Sure, let me start by just — I’ll recite a verse just so people can hear what Sanskrit sounds like.

 

David:

Yeah, please.

 

[Reciting Sanskrit]

 

Andrew Schelling:

That’s a — that’s a very famous poem by the Sanskrit poet playwright Kalidasa, maybe third or fourth century, brief translation of it. It’s very philosophical, it says something like when we see lovely objects, or we hear sweet musical sounds, why is it that even a content person gets inexplicably restless? Could it be that without knowing it, in their heart, they’ve touched somebody they’ve loved in a previous lifetime?

 

David:

Yeah, wow. It’s very Buddhist, too. Because if you’re talking about lifetimes, talk about the bardo and reincarnation. Yeah. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

And it’s particularly interesting, ya — you know, why is it that when we are confronted by great art, you know, beautiful art or great music, instead of completely falling into a state of bliss sometimes we get really restless, you know, we — you know, we’ve gotten a transmission of energy. Anyhow, it’s what I like is it’s cast as a question. Could it be? 

 

David:

Maybe perfection just feels like awkward sometimes. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, yeah. 

 

David:

Oh, it’s too perfect. I don’t like it. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah. Here I’ll — I’ll read a poem from my last book of translations. This is from Bhartrihari. This was a 17th century poet Bhartrihari, of whom almost nothing is known — it’s not a love poem, by the way, a little, maybe. You gathered riches, milked every desire. What then? Shoved your enemy’s head down with your foot? What then? Friends fond over you drawn to the splendor. And then maybe your whole human body can last a whole culpa? What then? Then, then. And here’s a beautiful one. I’ll read one more here. 

 

David:

And this is out of a book that you translated?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yes, this is a book I translated, it’s called, Some Unquenchable Desire: Sanskrit Poems of the Buddhist Hermit Bhartrihari. This I did something unusual, which is I left one line of the — of the original Sanskrit in here, because it’s so beautiful. Armbands do not ornament a person, nor does a necklace bright as the moon, not bath oil, ointment, flower petals or elaborate hair. Only speech measured and precise gives distinction, cosmetics fade or fatigue…true speech is the true ornament,

 

David:

I can really get with that being honest and loyal. Those type of qualities are really what get me going. Because I mean, you could look any way you want. Right? 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah. 

 

David:

But it’s how you treat people, it’s how you interact with people. That is the real beauty that I see. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah.

 

David:

You know, and I feel like I’m one of those people that can — I meet someone new, and I’m just like, you’re kind of full of shit. I don’t — I don’t know — I feel like I can read people pretty well. And so, it’s like, I want to prove it to me, like, show me through actions, you know, like, I like longevity. And I like people constantly showing up and being loyal to — being honest and truthful. You know?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, well some of this you pull out of the Sanskrit poetry and you know, I think this character Bhartrihari who I translated is certainly one of the more pointedly honest person, and it seems to be that he, in his day, there weren’t a lot of jobs for somebody like him, you could say over educated, underemployed, and most of the jobs were, you know, being like a court artist for some warlord, and a number of his poems are ones in which he basically says, I’m sick of this decadent life. And you know that my tyrannical employer, I’d rather go deg my living on the streets. And he seems to have done that quite a bit. It’s a great story of — a story that comes out of one of his poems. But it said that he bounced back and forth between the court where he was a sort of celebrated poet and the forest where he retreated to, to become a hermit. And they say he went back and forth seven times, whenever he was at court, he loathed the decadence and just wanted to get back to the forest. When he got out to the forest, he kept wondering what’s going on back at court, who’s having a love affair, and he would go back. So, the story is then, finally, he was at court. He was in love with a young woman. He had a magic amulet. And he gave it to this woman. But she was in love with somebody else. And she gave him the amulet. But he was in love with another woman. And he gave it to her. And she was in love with Bhartrihari, so she gave it to him. And he stood there looking at this amulet in his hand and saw the whole cycle of vain, futile love, unrequited love, you know, delusions and hopes and fears, then he said, I’m done with this life and went off to the forest.

 

David:

At least people are loving each other. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

At least they’re loving each other. 

 

David:

The thing is, is like, I guess you can go in the woods and like be alone, but people need people. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, people need people

 

David:

People need to interact, and intermingle. And I find that very important, but we need to be honest, while we’re doing it. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah. 

 

David:

So, you’ve become a translator in Sanskrit language. And when I think of Sanskrit, it seems — it seems like very far away, very foreign to my everyday experience. And I’m curious, where did your interest and pursuit to learn and study Sanskrit come from? You like sort of talked about it. You know, you talked about your exposure, but like, did you actually have an interest into it? Or did somebody say, hey, look at this, and you’re like, whoa, and it sparked your interest? Or did you actively go pursue the interest that you generated on your own? How did this journey begin?

 

Andrew Schelling:

I can only really tell it as a — like a story or a mythology. But I grew up in New England, west of Boston, which was really the transcendentalist territory, and I think something got into my blood there. Because really, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, people like that were the first people in this country who were reading Sanskrit as a Buddhist and Hindu texts as native to this soil, not exotic imports, but something that made more sense in North America than say, the teachings of Christianity and Judaism. So, I must have imbibed something early on drinking the water around there. Another possibility is touched something from a former lifetime, but I know when young I got interested in, you know, picked up some of these books like translations of Bhagavad Gita…had a lot of interest in yoga. And what really began to happen was I would read these translations and I felt like I was looking at the surface of a creek. And I’d see a flash down there. And I knew there was something down there. But I couldn’t really see what it was. I knew that the translations are not close enough. So, I decided to pursue, you know, learning something of Sanskrit and I did that for — you know, for a while, and then at some point settled in to really do a full course and get what I could out of it.

 

David:

Like a mystical pursuit. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, very much. There was like sort of a destiny there in a way. And it was also a very interesting time, because this is a funny little piece of history, but in, I think it was 1970, the president the United States was Richard Nixon, and his Secretary of State was a war criminal named Henry Kissinger. 

 

David:

Oh, yeah. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

So, Henry Kissinger made a secret flight to what we used to call Communist China and met with Mao Zedong and set up a visit by Richard Nixon. When Nixon hit China, and reestablished diplomatic relationships with China, it had huge implications, especially around the United States. The military, took all their money out of South Asia and put it towards East Asia. The intelligence services dropped everything in South Asia and put it towards East Asia. All the banks dropped South Asia and went to East Asia. So, when I was in college, all my friends were studying classical Chinese and Japanese. They got their ways paid. India dropped off the map. What kept India alive? It was Ravi Shankar. It was the Beatles studying with Ravi Shankar, particularly George Harrison. It was head shops. It was hippies taking the hashish trail from Kabul up to Katmandu. This was what kept India in the public eye in the United States, the Hari Krishna people. It was like a non official, non academic, underground street ecstasy, psychedelics, you know, classical Indian raga. And when I began to study Sanskrit, that’s what I felt I was doing, I was helping that effort to keep the old teachings of India alive with no official American support. No money, you know, small academic departments, everything was going to East Asia.

 

David:

Interesting. I never really thought of it that way. But I can kind of see that happening, the collapsing of a culture in another culture that it’s — because it’s not studying it.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Right. Yeah, not really paying attention, which was fine for me because in a way, I was much happier getting raga from Ravi Shankar than taking ethnomusicology classes in college. I was much happier, piecing together what I could have Sanskrit and learning about the poetry than being given a curriculum in the, you know colleges.

 

David:

So, I keep thinking to myself, since you — you’re basically bilingual in English and Sanskrit, while also actively teaching in both of these arts or both of these languages. What is your experience teaching? Do you have like different places in your brain that you come from when you’re speaking these languages or teaching these languages? And how does learning and teaching each language inspire your writings? 

 

Andrew Schelling:

I don’t think I draw much of a difference. I mean, what we have really is the possibilities of the human voice. And different languages work with that differently. It’s not just the voice obviously, there’s grammar and there’s syntax. So, there’s different structures, but languages are like grand operatic architectures, really. And interestingly, English and Sanskrit are not that far apart in terms of their sound systems.

 

David:

Yeah, when you’re saying the vowels I heard — I heard some very like, hey, wait a minute, I heard that one before.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Pretty much everything, you know, our ears maybe don’t distinguish between a TA and TA. But that’s just our ears because we haven’t yet trained ourselves. Sanskrit, rich language of mythology, poetry, spiritual traditions, English, a rich language of poetry, mythology, spiritual traditions. And you know, if anybody out there is listening and thinking, English, spiritual traditions, I’m talking really about the poetry’s or let’s say, the literature of because these have real lineages and traditions to me I, you know, I recite that poem by Kalidas earlier, hearing Shakespeare recited is my lineage in my own language. Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound Laurine Decker, these are real lineages of you know, the Spirit and of art.

 

David:

Yeah, I love focusing on the spirit and the art and the creativity and the, you know, the foundational building blocks and then you get to construct it from there and see where it goes. And — and also like the — the meaning behind everything. You almost get to like develop a meaning. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, yeah. So, the biggest difference is that the writing students want to become writers and the people studying Sanskrit have, you know, other kinds of applications like they may want to be — go on into something in Buddhist studies, or maybe linguistics or Kashmiri Shaivism. But in terms of my own teaching, I don’t feel like I have to be split in two. It’s all part of the same structure of language, creativity, art, spiritual yearning.

 

David:

Yeah. Amazing. So, when I was reading about you, I heard you really enjoy love poems in Sanskrit. I guess this is more of a fun question. But I’m just curious, like, when we speak of love poems in Sanskrit, what can we expect as in motifs subject and content? And also do English love poems love differently than Sanskrit love poems? Or does love translate in all languages? Kind of interesting one.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Okay, here’s — there’s a little bit of a technical answer. I hope I can keep it entertaining. 

 

David:

All right.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Sanskrit love poetry is typically by the poet’s themselves divided in two categories. There’s love while you’re enjoying it. Those are very sexy poems.

 

David:

I wonder where this is going.

 

Andrew Schelling:

And the other category is when you’re separated from your beloved. And in America, that second category is a big one. We call it the blues.

 

David:

Agony. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Agony, but the blues. You know how many blues songs begin, woke up this morning, my baby was gone. Or my baby left me, and my dog go on and die. I think when you get down to —

 

David:

With or without —

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, I think we get to the core of what human emotion is about there really isn’t any difference. I found a great quote by a Bengali poet, folk singer, this is some sort of funny history. But in the 1960s he lived on — he was brought over to this country by Bob Dylan’s record producer and set up in Woodstock with a few of his pals. And they played music with Bob Dylan’s band, the band, and I saw an interview with him where the interviewer said, so, you know, how do you get along with Bob Dylan? What’s — what’s it like, hanging out with him. And this Bengali street singer said, oh, we get along just fine. He’s a folk singer, I’m a folk singer. It’s all the same. It’s the frailty of the body. It’s love for other people. That’s what it’s all about. And so, I don’t think the Sanskrit poetry is that different than in English. It has its, you know, sort of conventions and even its traditions and poetry in America has its conventions and traditions. And, you know, so um, but at the — at the core, the — the cheerfulness and delight in sexual expression, the pain of heartbreak, we’re all the same human beings.

 

David:

Yeah. I mean, I guess I asked that too, because then — because you can think of like the love of life, the love of being alive, the love of the cosmic turning of things, the love of — the ability to love, to have feeling. So, it kind of seems like there can be an emphasis on another, or an emphasis on a thing. So that’s why I was asking, like, what are the motifs? Like, do Sanskrit people talk about the love of spirit, you know, other than like, I loved a person, and that person is no longer here or something.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, I think one thing that confounds Westerners because of our long, complicated history, and especially religious history is the way in India, the distinction between spiritual and erotic love is not like quite so clear. You know, I think, particularly if you think of the British arriving in India, and seeing temples with statues of orgiastic scenes going up, you know, all the way up the temples. They didn’t know what to make of that because in the West, we’ve been so used to separating erotic and spiritual. And in India, that separation probably exists but has taken a different form.

 

David:

I mean, we were putting pant legs on pianos, because we didn’t want to give people ideas. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Apparently. Yeah. 

 

David:

All right, well, beautiful. So, I’d like to offer this time for like another translation if you’d like, and then we can just say our goodbyes.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Good. I’ve been working on a sequence of poems, most of which I’ve translated before, but every time I look at them nuances emerge. And so, I’ve been doing translations, which I then respond to with a poem of my own, but I’ll just read a translation.

 

David:

Oh, I like that. I’ve never thought about reading a poem about a poem I read.

 

Andrew Schelling:

So, this is — okay, so this will be a translation by Vidya, an early woman poet, and then a response — forests, temples, glacial rivers, vine tangled forest groves on Mount….riverbank, sheltered cow herd girls for old time lovemaking rights, watched Radha come in secret, but traveler. The days are gone when I’d arranged soft cuttings for sweet fuck on the ground. Tell me have the green shoots grown brittle? The Indigo bright petals dried out. Vidya’s have I translated for a love her name elsewhere in these pages hidden a North American bear I’m told that faces its tracks by the creek arranges broken pine boughs, to wintry grotto sleep and love. She gave me a book to study night sky. All winter the bright constellations, Great Bear, a wheeling compass of myth. 14th day January glacial moraines descend through our bodies. I burn sage for Lady Vidya temple, forest, light dark green.

 

David:

Wow, that’s beautiful. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

Thank you. 

 

David:

So, is that like a new piece of work you’re working on?

 

Andrew Schelling:

Yeah, yeah. That’s fairly recent.

 

David:

Because my last follow up question was, if anybody — if any of our listeners are really interested in your work and want to fall some more, is there anything like you have to offer like a website, social media or workshops, or maybe you got to come into Naropa and just experience you for themselves. 

 

Andrew Schelling:

They can either come to Naropa and take a class or I think if you looked on Amazon or did a search, I have three books in print from Shambala publications, all translations. I have a couple of books from Counterpoint press, which is a great press located in Berkeley. And then a lot of books with, you know, smaller presses. But you can easily find them if anybody wants to look. I do, you know, have books of poetry, books of translation of poetry. And I think four books of essays or nonfiction.

 

David:

Amazing. And I would just like to say thank you so much for your time and your patience. And also, just your knowledge of being a teacher who has taught so many years and just like a student yourself. It sounds like you’ve been a student for a long time. And just your love of poetry and the languages is I feel like we got something on the podcast that we haven’t had before. And I just appreciate you speaking with us today.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Well, thank you, David. Thanks for pulling me out in this subzero weather.

 

David:

This blizzard outside that’s happening right now.

 

Andrew Schelling:

Good. Well, I appreciate it. It’s fun to be here.

 

Thank you. 

 

[MUSIC]

 

On behalf of the Naropa community, thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at http://www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.


 

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