Passion, Wonder, & Higher Education

Yesterday was my last day on campus as a Master’s student, and as I reflect on the journey that I’ve been on, and the soul connections I’ve made along the way ,I feel overwhelmed with gratitude.  As many questions as the future holds, I also feel a sense of peace and  purpose, knowing that I finally understood on that last day why I care so much about education reform.  I care because I have been fortunate enough to experience a different kind of higher education; I went back to school looking for a profession, and in the process rediscovered what it feels like to be lit up, to be inspired, to feel connected to something larger than myself.  I went to the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology with the hope of who I could become, and gained a deep appreciation of the person I already am.  Today, as I step beyond from my formal education and prepare for teaching in a new culture, I find myself questioning what the world would look like if we were to  infuse all education with the kind of deeper meaning and interconnection I have experienced in my graduate program. 

My undergrad experience was an entirely different story-  in my first years of college, it often seemed  that the purpose of higher education was to fill my brain with a handful of textbook knowledge, and to suck all the joy out of my passions, or at least convince me slaving away to earn a degree was the means to achieving the “American dream”… which as far as I could see seemed to consist only of dreading Monday mornings. I loved reading,  I loved writing, and I loved learning, but suddenly they became tedious chores to earn a piece of paper I could frame in an office.  In particular, I remember taking a creative writing class, and by the end of it, I was sure that this class was where exuberant young authors went to  learn how to become a bitter unpublished professor. I think it was cross listed as “Lit 104: How to Become Your Own Critic/You Can’t Possibly Get Published Because I Didn’t”.

After several years of switching majors, I decided to learn what I wanted, graduated with BA in Philosophy, few employment options, and the recognition that I was never going to be able to commit to a life path if it didn’t absolutely light me up…   which of course was terrifying, because all my friends seemed to be able to suck it up and go to full time jobs that they tried to escape from by drinking or vacationing on the weekends.  As critical as I was of that path, those same friends seemed to be doing a whole lot better than I was at paying bills.

Although it crossed my mind in the years I was struggling to get by financially, I’m SO glad I didn’t settle for less than finding something I love.   After undergrad, I started exploring schools out west that had arts based therapy programs, meditation studies, and looking for something different.  In the summer of 2010, I walked through the doors of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology* for an interview, and from that moment everything shifted.  I had this profound sense of déjà vu when I met the admissions counselor that day.  Looking back, the magical experience I’ve had here seems like some sort of karmic reward for fearlessly following my intuition to this school I knew nothing about, and for never conforming to a path that belonged to someone else.  When I followed my heart,  I found a place where I discovered that higher education should be more than a means to making a living, it’s should encourage us to discover how we want to live.

Indeed, ITP is more than a school; it’s a multisensory learning experience and an opportunity for personal expansion and growth.  From the first day you come here, teachers encourage you to play, create, and be curious. It’s a place where Aikido is part of the required psychology curriculum, dancing is encouraged, and art is medicine.  It’s an institution where heart is valued as much as mind, where you read the Tao to learn how to be a leader, and where connecting with those around you is as important as the concepts you learn.   It’s a school where neuroscience is taught alongside mindfulness theory, a place where your fellow students may very well become your most valuable teachers, and where learning can be as joyful as it was when you were a child.  ITP is the place where both my inner and outer worlds began to open.

As my formal education winds to a close, I realized that I am a lifetime learner, and a lover of knowledge.  I’ve also realized that education should and can be about about nourishing your soul, finding your inner purpose, discovering yourself, and connecting with those who support and nurture who you are as an individual.  Good education can open us to new ideas, but  great education also ignites passion and brings people together  who share a vision of what comes next.

This may be the last round of courses at ITP, but I’ve come to realize that in each moment we are all students, all teachers, and always learning a lesson… so I know the journey is only beginning.  Maybe the best schools are the ones that recognize this, and while providing us with knowledge, let us grow in ourselves, encouraging us to question not only the answers, but  also to wonder what questions we should be asking.  I’m so grateful for this experience, and it’s why I’m always telling all of my friends  to find something that excites you, why a part of me can’t help but see myself as teaching in the future… because when you find yourself in a place that reawakens your sense of wonder, you can’t help but hope that those around you can be as fortunate.

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*I should note that while I was enrolled at ITP, the university decided to change it’s name and expand it’s the programs it offered.  The artist formerly known as ITP  is now “Sofia University”, sofia being the Greek word for wisdom.  I remember being slightly disturbed that this institution I felt so attached to was changing it’s identity in the middle of my degree; I had a real need to feel like the ground under my feet wasn’t moving….which of course is an illusion.  In retrospective, it seems appropriate; coming to this school often shifts who you are,  and perhaps when we let go of identity and old labels, we are able to embrace new wisdom.  While I’ll always be an “ITP’er” at heart, there is something exciting about being a part of a change, a shift, and an opportunity for expansion.  It also seems only appropriate the word philosophy, in which I got my undergraduate degree, derives it’s name from combining the word “Sofia” with the word Philo, which is the Greek word for love…philosophy, translates to “the love of knowledge”

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The Greater Yet To Be

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The greater yet to be…

As I write this, I’m sitting at a place called Weirs Rapids, a spot alongside the Maumee River where, when the water is at the perfect level, it creates a series of gentle water falls, and a magical mist that creates a series of faint rainbows on the surface of the water.  On this particular day, it strikes me that this place and I have a rich history together.  We first found each other eight years ago, when I was feeling overwhelmed, and took a random drive, searching for answers to questions I didn’t yet have the courage to ask.

I’d thought I’d taken a country drive simply to clear my mind, yet as I drove, I found myself desperate to find something. As I took turn after turn, it felt like I was trying to get lost, losing all sense of where I’d started, seeking any point of interest I could find in what had become a monotonous Midwestern landscape.  I had a sense of anxious yearning, thinking, there has to be more than this.

As much as I was looking to find something new outside myself, I later realized I was also seeking an internal change; at the time my life felt as flat and ordinary as the farm fields stretching in every direction.  Nothing lit me up anymore, I was tired and uninspired.   Maybe because I expected to find very little on this drive, I let go of all sense of logic and let my intuition take over, sometimes seeking points on the horizon that felt right, other times letting myself be pulled by the way it felt when I read the name of a road. Eventually, I turned down a tiny road that led to the rapids, and the small spot on the bank where I’ve come time and time again.  Driving without a destination led me to find this incredible hidden place, so when I come here, I am always reminded of the beauty that I find when I feel free enough to let myself wander.

Sometimes years have passed before I return, sometimes only months, and this time I am returning for the second time in a week, needing a moment of centering in the midst of necessary chaos before I pack my life into a small suitcase and begin a nine month adventure.  Surprisingly, though I was here only three days ago, today the spot where I laid a blanket out and enjoyed a sunny, warm spring day is underwater and the river, lazy only days before, is a powerful force, tugging at tree roots, debris rushing by as rainwater angrily tears away anything in its path .

Maybe that’s another reason why this place holds meaning to me; no matter how short the period of time between visits, the river always changes.  Sometimes I find a muddy bank covered in skeletal winter trees, struggling not to be pulled downstream, and other times a dry sandy shore, an entire river bed exposed and a perfect path of stones laid out encouraging a lazy stroll from one bank to the other.  Likewise, there are never the same sounds; some days I’ve been enveloped in a howl of cold wind and other warm days the rumble of motorcycles has faded into the distance revealing the noisy proclamations of flying geese returning for Ohio summer.  Some days I’ve been here alone, and other days the rapids were full of fisherman, laughing and shouting to each other, standing knee deep in the flow.

The philosopher Heraclitus once said, “You cannot step twice into the same river.”  I love this, and it’s so true- the natural world brilliantly and repeatedly reminds us of the inevitability of change.   Sometimes it’s through the gentle change of seasons, change barely discernible in each moment but constantly occurring nonetheless.   Other times we are violently shaken awake to the force of change as floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes sweep away humanity’s invented sense of security.   Whether quiet and gradual or loud and abrupt, nature never fails to open my eyes to something I’ve easily forget, that I live in a dynamic universe.  Sometimes I try to hide from this truth, and other times I think I’ve often tried to create change in my life in an attempt to beat nature to the punch; irrationally hoping that if I seek out change it won’t be able to catch me by surprise, that I’ll somehow be in complete control.  Yet here I sit, feeling incredibly aware of how little I can know about what lays ahead, a blend of fear and excitement rumbling in my stomach. It’s paradoxical, because while I don’t want to say goodbye until I know what it is I’m saying hello to, it’s also the mystery and the intoxicating unknown that have always moved me forward, and allowed me to embrace new experience.

I found this written in the back of an old notebook today; Half of the human life is saying goodbye- don’t be at war with half your life.  I don’t know where I heard it, but the reminder was welcomed.  What a battle I’ve often waged trying to prevent my life from shifting, to escape the inevitability of and perhaps ignoring the blessings that are inherent in change.   I don’t think I’m alone in this, we all have this tendency to cling to our favorite moments, wanting them to last forever, yet on some level recognizing their impermanence is what makes them magic.

The happiest moments are of course the hardest to let go of when they end.  Sometimes we stick around too long, hoping for a repeat.  I’ve often found myself clinging to relationships, jobs, and situations that have reached their expiration date, only to realize that whatever magic I was seeking has already passed, feeling sad that I didn’t recognize the meaning of those moments while they were happening.  In the midst of a period of great change, I’m trying to embrace the knowledge that any seemingly inconsequential thing that is happening right now might be the memory I cherish in a year, and to appreciate each accordingly.   I’m embracing change by breathing deeply into each moment and staying open to the possibility of more magic moments that are just around the corner.  I think Heraclitus is right, we can’t step into the same river twice… but we can choose to step willingly into the ever flowing river of change, allowing it to carry us the greater yet to be.

impossibility, terror, and taking flight.

I was having coffee with a friend last weekend, talking about the future, careers, and the often terrifying prospect of following our big dreams. You know the ones; the dreams that we decide not to follow because they are so huge and so scary that our rational brain tells us they are impractical… or my least favorite word of all… impossible

As we were discussing this idea of dreams vs. practicality, he reminded me of a personal truth that I try to live by. He reminded me that it ALL has a purpose, even what seems like confusion or misfortune in the present will make sense when we look at it down the road.  The truth he reminded me of was that even when it’s not clear, everything that happens fits together perfectly, that it’s all part of a path we are meant to be walking.

Someone once explained this much more gracefully… “it’s the path off the path that leads us to God.”  The idea that there is no such thing as a misfortune or mistake is a truth that is easier said than lived, especially when we are in the middle of tragedy or personal crisis, or really even when we just have a bad day.   It’s like we get so focused on what we want to happen, some goal we want to achieve, or some dream we can’t wait to be living, that in the moment we forget that it’s those twists and turns that are the real journey.

As a self-acknowledged accomplishment junkie, I am often guilty of  being so focused on my long term goals, the cause I want to champion, or my next big dream  that I get tunnel vision that prevents  me from seeing the beauty and divinity of the now. This is especially true right at the moment, as in a couple weeks I fly into California for grad school and visiting family and friends, and then fly from there to teach in Thailand for nine months.   Having a one way ticket to SE Asia has made living in the present more of a challenge than ever, my brain is a mess of future and past.  When I’m not distracted by  a mental  list of trip preparations, I find myself reflecting on the past, and the winding, unexpected paths that have led me here.

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So, I’ll indulge myself by lingering in the past for a moment, because as I look back over the last three years, all the pieces seem divinely orchestrated.  There were things that had to fall apart and come together, lessons I was meant to learn, friends I needed to meet, and places I needed to be in order to take this journey.   I feel like the last six months tested me in a necessary way.  Did I really want this?  Could I let go of the life I was used to in order to embrace a new adventure and perspective?   Most importantly, my gut has been telling me that going to Thailand is what I should be doing, but I’m not really sure why…so could I follow my heart when I didn’t know what it was leading me to?  When I answered those questions with commitment, and put my faith in the same higher power that continued to point me in this direction, I began witnessing each obstacle falling away.   I stalled on this dream for two years, avoided the signs, pushed forward on the practical career path I had chosen … until now. And now is perfect timing; had I not faced some of the challenges I did, I might not feel as strong, inspired or supported as I do.  I might not have the faith in my dream that I do now.

My experiences in the past couple years have granted me the ability to travel without seeking something out there, but rather stepping out of the known to see ordinary things with new eyes.  In this way, while I have no idea what the next step will be, I  know that coming home next spring will be just as valuable an experience as leaving.

Taking this trip represents only a first step; in doing the thing that no one thought I could or should do, I’m achieving my own impossibility.  Which is both exhilarating and terrifying, because suddenly I realize that the only thing that has ever limited me was the scope of what I believed I could be.  The way I see the world will change, because the things I ‘can’t do’ will suddenly be the things I choose not to do, and perhaps I’ll see doors where before there were none.   While this seems like a small step, I realize I am taking one more step towards letting go of fear and living the life I am meant to, whatever that ends up looking like.  So, thank you to all of the people who remind me to live fully and burn brightly, especially those who have loved me enough to let me take flight.

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