Top 10 Reasons Naropa University is a Joke.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Aug 5, 2013
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Photo by Naropa.
Photo: Naropa University.

ginsberg naropaKerouac Naropa

You only need to read this intro if you think I’m shitting on Naropa. This is intended to spark our inspiration and love for Naropa.

There’s a lot of good things at Naropa.

I’m no mere fan, man. I’m a lifer, having attended every graduation but one until this year, when I’m not sure I was invited. I’ve interviewed every president, and many of the faculty have written for this here elephant journal. I’ve naropa embezzled embezzle embezzlement participated in presidential searches (which, recently, with the exception of the most recent, Naropa has a way of messing up). I’ve participated in its board of trustees, as a student, when I co-founded its Founder’s Society, which sought to reintroduce actual meditation and un-PC-ness in a campus drowning in New Age—the direct opposite of its founder’s intention, who was all about sparks, and pretty much the least-PC person in human history.

My mom taught at Naropa. I grew up waiting in its halls (and maitri rooms) for her classes to end. Naropa continues to be a huge asset to the Boulder community, reinvigorating our yuppified city with liberals, hipsters (the real kind) and rebels and artists, to repeat myself. I was born the first session of Naropa, when my parents attended, in 1974. Thoughtfully, I entered the world the day between sessions.

I’m named after one of its early visiting professors, a Beat poet. I got to study with Allen Ginsberg, an un-PC lover of life and language and, you know, boys. We were just friends.

rabbi zalman naropa graduation boulderI went to Naropa. For a semester. In one semester, I gained more debt than in four years at the top-ranked journalism school at Boston University, which at the time was more expensive than Harvard.

All that’s to say, I get to constructively criticize, with love, and I do so with respect.

‘Let East meet West and watch the sparks fly.’ ~ Chögyam Trungpa, founder of Naropa Institute, now University.

Naropa seemed to be on the verge of going poof a few years ago, and it needs to wake up. elephant and Naropa have always had a special relationship, a relationship that I’m sad to say is withering, like a house plant left alone at home in a sunny window for two weeks. Naropa needs to rediscover its sense of humor about itself, its sense of duty to the world, its sense of outrageousness. There’s still a strong, proud, humble faculty there—many of them senior students of its founder—and they deserve to get paid well and retire, when they so choose, seeing an institution reinvigorated.

Its new President, Chuck Lief, is the man to do it. He’s both modest and fun, a leader and a business man. He wasn’t picked, Sesame Street/Glee-quote-style, out of self-hate or theism. He was picked for his skills, as a president should be. And he gets the vision.

If you don’t believe that Naropa is due for some making fun and introspection, then google it. The web loves to hate on Naropa. But that’s not fair. Naropa is doing something unique: contemplative education, that, in its fullest manifestation, is a realization of the promise of education itself.naropa institute

If you still don’t believe that it’s time to give Naropa some making-fun, here’s a poem from Bobby Louise Hawkins, a wonderful professor of mine that year semester.

He doesn’t understand
it’s a joke.
He has no sense of humour.
If he did have a sense of humour
he’d be surprised
how often he needed it.

Okay, Top 10 Reasons Naropa, like Portland(ia), is a walking talking hugging joke about itself:

naropa university1. Did you know? “An accounts payable clerk in the university’s finance department embezzled the shit out of them for nearly $600,000 over two years.” For more, here.

2. “Hugs need to last 16 seconds for your alpha waves to synchronize.” Or something like that. I was told this the other day, but immediately forgot the details as I vomited in my mouth while giggling.

3. “Unsurprisingly, Naropa U isn’t exactly regarded as a world-class academic institution. It came in 2,150th among colleges in 2012.

4. On the other hand, it’s probably one of the best schools for: 1) creative writing (Allen Ginsberg was co-founder of its Kerouac School, with the glorious feisty (understatement of the day) Anne Waldman, who still leads its well-regarded Summer Writing Program); 2) psychotherapy and 3) (Eastern) religious studies and 4) weirdly sexual nonsensical interpretive theater stuff.

5. It needs some help. This Cracked article (full link below) is cracking me up: “…there’s a little something for everyone to disappoint Mom and Dad.”

6. The school is full of peace-loving creative types including the

“white guy with dreadlocks enrolled in a peace studies program or a hirsute patchouli-soaked bohemian gal burning the midnight oil for your next ecopsychology exam…”

john cobb naropa president…types who nearly ran one of its greatest presidents out on a rail for failing to push enough “diversity classes” back in the day. You want diversity? Offer better scholarships and grants (which Naropa’s been doing, to its credit). Fewer diversity classes, more scholarships, more diversity.

7. Good news! “They’ve since expanded to include even more of the type of major that normally necessitates that the graduate’s parents have plenty of living space in the basement after graduation.”

Naropa University
Naropa University

8. Overheard at Naropa (with a little help from my friends): “I’m sorry I’m projecting. Saturn’s in retrograde and I’m on my moon.” “Please transmute your vajra tendencies and just allow the cohort to hold space for you to process your trauma.” “I’m thinking of dropping out and going to herb school.”

9. All that said, you love Naropa, I love Naropa, we all love Naropa. The sense of truly-loving community, the mixing of writing, art; some smart, sharp, motivated, intellectual, progressive, eco-minded, creative students; a beautiful green-built campus (well, Naropa‘s horribly split into three campuses); the bike shack and greenhouse and tea room and huge sycamore trees and crazy wisdom history and present…it’s good stuff. It just needs some serious fundraising, salary-raising, faculty-loving and raising the bar on the students.

Naropa University The Princeton Review Green Education10. There is no ten. I’m too out of touch these days to have ten, and wouldn’t have had nine but for the help of my Naropa friends.

Above quotes all hail from the hysterical, unfair and vicious Cracked:


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


13 Responses to “Top 10 Reasons Naropa University is a Joke.”

  1. kimberlylowriter says:

    WOW! You got to study with Ginsburg? I am so jealous.

  2. elephantjournal says:

    Well, when I was 10-12…but, yes! Still got his notes!

  3. kimberlylowriter says:

    Wow. Just wow.

  4. AMH says:

    Hoping to apply to Naropa to pursue the degree I never got to start at my former University. This article just reaffirmed my desire to go!

  5. Kristy says:

    I went to Naropa. I graduated a few years ago with two bachelors degrees (Environmental Studies and Traditional Eastern Arts) and enough debt that I have to use a submarine to surface back to the land of plenty. EVERYTHING YOU SAID IS TRUE. That being said, I have a fierce love for the place. You have to have a well developed sense of self and be able to put yourself in what some would consider rather ridiculous and compromising situations. Coming into the school ready to laugh at just about everything is a good idea. I only say that because the silly willy nilly air that lingers around Naropa is often the counter to the harsh realities every student is facing. I went to two other schools before I went to Naropa. Naropa was the only school that was saying "Here's what's going on in the world. Look at the pink elephant in the room and deal with it."

    However, I left Naropa with more interpersonal relation skills, emotion regulation, a sense of place, a strong familiarity with distress tolerance. Naropa isn't for everyone. It has a lot of growing up to do. It's a lot like it's students. Maybe a bit too much. It's a zen koan. Some people want it to be more mainstream. I guess we'll just have to see what happens!

  6. thingsofallure says:

    Haha, this reminds me of Evergreen, Naropa's friend to the north and the school that I adore with no grades only evaluations..I've wanted to attend here since I was 14. Great article.

  7. I love this! I just graduated from Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield Iowa. It's the Vedic/TM version of Naropa, I think. Anyway, it's quite expensive, the academic standards need some tightening, some of the professors just want you to listen to them and become "infused with knowledge" rather than speculating about other possibilities, thinking critically or challenging Maharishi's ideas (yeah, the later ones when he was so old he just rocked back and forth and chanted "light of god light of god light of god"…I ended the year soooo ready to have a break from Fairfield. I overheard the funniest shit! "I'd love to come with you to see some music tonight, but I'm only listening to Ghandarva Veda and reading the Gita right now". Or "I'm so pitta I'll turn that coffee into vata-tea" or "dude, never ever have sex with your mala beads on…" Or "I have a debilitated moon so I'll never be in a relationship." or "please don't put my purse on the floor, it's disrespectful to the goddess Lakshmii". What I realized is that a) most of the weird stuff people were saying and doing was all them and had nothing to do with Vedic teaching b) I keep going places where there are lots of people expecting different behavior but where there are people, we will find human behavior (me included) and c) the core of Vedic teaching is to be self-referral. It's not about my brain-washed professor or the lady who only wears saris and won't put her purse on the floor, of the skinny, anti-social meditators who are in the meditation domes 8 hours a day and have integrated none of their consciousness into their bodies, so basically, they have given themselves some kind of disassociative disorder. It's not about them. I learned to read Sanskrit, I studied ancient texts, neurology, asana, higher states of consciousness, my writing skills improved, I learned enough about Ayurveda, seriously, someone punch me if I ever get sick because I "should" be able to be perfectly well at all times…it was amazing. So much so, I'm going to go to training to learn to become a TM teacher so I can work with veterans with PTSD. Just like the post above, MUM isn't for everyone. But I am so glad there are schools like Naropa and MUM for people who look at the world and see that we can do better. MUM is really trying and for that, I am proud and glad I got to experience it. Now someone give me some pitta tea…

  8. wonderlandnovel says:

    Honestly, I have to disagree with you on number 6. If I have any criticism of my time at Naropa it's that it desperately needed more diversity classes, not less. You can't recruit or retain diverse students when there is so much racism and homophobia going on in the classroom, no matter how many scholarships you offer. As a woman of color I found my years at Naropa to be both wonderful in some aspects, and highly traumatic in others. I think the school could be greatly improved with a little more history and context around diversity issues, as well as more diverse students.

  9. elephantjournal says:

    Amen. My point is merely, as you know, that teaching a bunch of privileged whities about diversity is less powerful than nurturing actual diversity through scholarships and reaching out beyond the bubble.

  10. Tara says:

    Are these reasons to not attend Naropa? If I get a bachelor's degree here, will I get into Masters programs?

  11. I agree with everything you said. I lived with Allen for a year in the early 80's and it profoundly changed my life and how I saw the world and my place in it. I was able to study with Trungpa and his influence has shaped my life as an activist, teacher, artist, and meditator. My graduating class was me. 30 years later I still live by and believe in the ideals but also see the inherent contradictions entrenched and in play there and I work and effort to bridge that gap. Thanks for writing honestly about this. I stumbled on it while reflecting on the time that has passed since I attended and the current state of affairs and my involvement. The inherent fragility and my passionate commitment to what i learned at that time in my life. Thanks!

  12. Nancy McShane says:

    I just visited Naropa Spring Break ’15 as my daughter wants to attend Fall ’15. The problem is the high tuition (in a town w/a cost of living 250% of the national average) cost. My daughter is 21, living on her own, working & suporting herself, yet she is still expected to apply for financial aid as if her disabled mother (who receives no SSA Disability assistance) & her absentee addict father (who has declared bankruptcy) are able to pay for her higher education. Her step-father is the only wage-earner and my daughter feels he should support his wife but not necessarily her grown children.
    Naropa fits my daughter’s kinesthetic learning style and her drive for social justice. She wants to major in Contemplative Psychology with a minor in Women’s & Gender Studies. Equality for Women and for LGBTQ People is the next front in the battle for Civil Liberties for American & the rest of the world. She wants to be at the forefront of the fight and wants to get there via Naropa. But at what cost to her future? She’s likely to earn a civil servant or not-for-profit salary working for Civil Liberties for Women & LGBTQ People. And she’s supposed to pay back $160K + incidentals like books, room & board? Where’s the love? Where’s the support? Where’s the Buddhist community? Seems they’d support an institution with such a rich historical background.
    When my daughter told me of Naropa I had no idea of its founding. It wasn’t until our campus tour that I realized it was founded by Chőgyam Trungpa Rinpoche with the help of Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman & Jack freakin’ Kerouac! Teaching my kid how to think, write, listen, speak, not speak, stand tall, stand together, stand alone, help others, help herself & help our planet.
    I hope it comes to pass. I pray that all who would see this University flourisk please give so that Naropa can graduate more compassionate students. Thank you.

  13. Cecelia says:

    As the only Native American student at Naropa at the time I had my struggles. I was glad to have Suzanne Benally there as I made it through non-gmo hippie land. Suzanne Benally is Navajo and Santa Clara Tewa and is now the Executive Director of Cultural Survival —

    I am Ojibway/Metis, from a union (auto/telephone) family from Michigan and the Midwest of all places. I struggled to find a place at Naropa and was often ostracized by my fellow peers. I have a Masters degree from Naropa and I consider it an achievement despite the hippie and cultural appropriation bullshit. According to the American Indian College Fund only 13% of Native Americans have a college degree. I know other Native alumni who struggled while going through that place. Upon graduation and moving away from Boulder, I left feeling very frustrated and was happy to return to Detroit, Michigan. Now I live in a rural, remote, reservation (non) community in Northwest Michigan. Its conservative, redneck, and hillbilly. The nearest 4 year university is 80 miles away. I don't care I've grown in this place with the racism, patriarchy, and Catholicism. Its not mine nor is it who I am but it has transformed me.

    Diversity class in theory is just that a theory, word, definition. Most people who I came across at Naropa were out of touch with the ways in which Native American people experience racism, discrimination, stereotypes in everyday life. Here's a good article — How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion —…. People want to appropriate my culture all the time. I found out that there was cultural appropriation after I came and decided I would stay and finish my degree. I wouldn't have come to Naropa if I knew this prior. I don't appreciate White liberals appropriating my culture when they have no idea what our issues and lives are like. Do you know that we have the highest rates of youth suicide compared to any group? Do you know sex trafficking has existed on freighters in the Great Lakes? What do you know about missing and murdered Indigenous women and Two-Spirits? Do you know what it is like when you live on a reservation and there are no good jobs for hundreds of miles? Just this out of touch but I love your culture is so incredibly insulting.

    Now I have to say I was able to start my healing journey at Naropa. The personal is political. This was a transformative process that I was unable to undertake alone. I've taken many skills that I have learned from Naropa and applied them to my resistance and survivance! I did really well academically too. But if I could return my degree and go somewhere else I would.