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Naropa's Dr. Ben Williams Speaks on Contextualizing Spiritual Practice in Western Education

{{youtube:medium:center| 4atRgbhBEhk, Historicization in Contemplative Pedagogy by Dr. Ben Williams at the College of William and Mary}}

     Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado is not just a liberal arts institution which pairs intellectual learning with an Ashram-like environment and a range of contemplative practices. It also bears with it the history of a formative role in the American counterculture movement. Founded in the 1970s by the exiled Tibetan monk Chögyam Trungpa, Naropa attracted scholars, poets, and yogis seeking to explore the intersection of Eastern philosophy and an emerging Western counterculture. This has left Naropa with a seemingly contradictory “tradition of anti-traditionalism” by developing a university with the traditional roots of Eastern religious practice alongside the historical lineage of the counterculture movement. In his talk “Historicization in Contemplative Pedagogy” given on Wednesday, April 13th in Tucker Hall, Dr. Ben Williams, who received his PHD in South Asian Studies from Harvard University and now serves as Chair to Naropa’s MA in Yoga Studies, explained how he tackled these challenges in attempting to build a comprehensive Yoga Studies curriculum at Naropa University. Williams Flyer

         Dr. Williams introduced the challenge of balancing what he described as a “kaleidoscope” of contemplative practices with a more objective and scholarly approach to the study of Eastern religions. As Naropa’s professors are expected to teach as both contemplatives and scholars, he described that it has been challenging to balance the teachings of enduring religious traditions with the process of guiding students to develop their own, internal contemplative practices. But, he has found a solution to this seeming contradiction- the process of historicization. He describes historicization as the process of tracing lineages; not only the lineage of religious traditionalism but also the lineage of the anti-traditional and critical approach to religiosity exemplified by the counterculture movement of the 1970s. Rather than pushing that his students be absolutely adherent to a certain religious tradition or resolutely disattached to religious tradition, Williams explained how historicization creates an environment in which students can honor the enduring power of religious tradition alongside individual spiritual experience as opposed to developing only a spiritual eclecticism that is uninformed by respect for the traditions that it draws from.

     Finally, Dr. Williams took his audience through some of the specific and in-depth historicization of the origins of Naropa. First, he described the unique political and artistic environment of the 70s which developed the conditions for the formation of Naropa. He described the role of a group of beat poets, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, in developing Naropa’s enduring “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics." He described the role of Ram Dass, a Harvard psychology professor dismissed for his experiments with psychedelic therapies turned Naropa spiritual teacher, in developing the unique culture of Naropa. To conclude, Dr. Williams emphasized the role these teachers played not only in Naropa’s history, but also in creating a future for a form of education that melds together spirituality and intellectualism through contemplative practice.