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This is the first post about the April 13th – 15th Symposium at the University of Virginia commemorating the opening of the Contemplative Sciences Center and the Arura Tibetan Medical Group in Charlottesville.
Friday had two events. The first was a talk by Judith Simmer Brown, a professor from Naropa University, about their Maitri program. The second, and more official, event was the opening evening with talks from Dr. Otsang Tsokchen, the President of the Arura Tibetan Medical Group, Dr. Tsem Gonthar, Prof. Robert Thurman, and a welcome from UVa’s president, Teresa Sullivan. It also featured prof. David Germano and the Dean of the Nursing School, Dorrie Fontaine.
I am going to write a little stream-of-consciousness here, please forgive this tangent. I just want to say that this symposium brought together one of the most eclectic groups of people I have ever witnessed (and been apart of). Scientists, meditation practitioners, philosophers, yogis, yoginis, psychologists, Western doctors, Tibetologists, Western nurses, Eastern doctors, alternative health practitioners, religious studies, acupuncturists, Buddhists, recovering Buddhists, neuroscientists, professors and humanists from all the various departments listed above, and more (there was even a famous Tibetan pop singer there)! Incredible!
Judith Simmer Brown gave the initial talk, which allowed her to have more time to discuss Naropa’s (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s creation) project called Maitri.
Maitri means loving-kindness or friendliness in Sanskrit, where it is Metta in Pali and Champa in Tibetan (I think…) In a nutshell, Trungpa Rinpoche created a series of rooms which were meticulously played with to get the right colors, dimensions, and shapes, and then he chose different postures to hold while lying in each of these rooms. And long story short, students enter these rooms mindfully and respectfully and stay for 20 to 40 minutes at a time, silently watching their thoughts and just attempting to be present with what comes up. You can go to Shambhala’s website to see more on this practice.
My take on Dr. Brown is that she is a present, equanimous, enthusiastic, patient educator who seems to be very articulate. She did not rush her presentation in any way and she was very patient with the many questions which came up afterward in the Q & A. With that said…
I must say I went through an exotic array of emotions and reactions to her talk:
My initial reaction to this description of Maitri was, “is she serious?” It looked a bit like this idea came directly out of a science fiction novel about asylums… Seriously – who would knowingly lock themselves in a purely red, blue, green, yellow or white room for 40 minutes? Something is going to come up! And when I mention the pure colors, she said everything is the same – the ceiling, the plexiglass in the window, the carpet, the walls, everything.
Okay, yes, my initial reaction was strong and considering I have a tiny bit of experience with meditation in an organized Vajrayana Tibetan tradition, you have to admit this type of lying meditation in a colored room seems a touch too easy. Could this actually “work?”
You may chuckle at my next series of thoughts… Once she started talking about how students go through little mini “retreats” in these rooms, meditating for 6 days a week, at least 40 minutes a day, for two to three weeks, I realized, “Wow, this practice might actually do something insightful, and may even be beneficial!” And then she discussed how all students who enter these rooms have some training ahead of time and they have a solid container for discussing what might arise while in this process, meaning there is a supportive atmosphere for airing whatever arose during these meditations. This was sounding better and better! In fact, the more she talked about it, the more I was curious to try it myself.
Brown mentioned each color was associated with a “Buddha family” and that each color and family had a set of traits that went along with it. For instance, red was the lotus (padma) family and it was associated with the afflictive emotion of passion (desire and lust). And within this emotion is discriminating wisdom.
Here comes the chuckling section: Once I realized the potential implications (contemplation, increased emotional intelligence, reflection, enhanced awareness, etc) this Maitri practice could have, and I realized it was being practiced at an accredited university… I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really seeing it! I could be dreaming you know. I realized that for anyone new to meditation, this was a perfect introduction – and possibly quite a potent introduction at that!
So yes, I went from initially feeling disdain and rejection of this idea to pinching myself to make certain everything was the way it seemed to then say, “That’s brilliant!” Or at least it is a good start.
I felt this was a great way to start the symposium considering half the events were to be about contemplative science. I guess I went into this talk with all my unquestioned assumptions and stubborn opinions intact, and after a little contemplation and self-analysis, I realized some of these opinions were not correct. Yes, someone might actually get a lot out of meditating, letting go and resting down in a colored room. And to have a support group around that process is a beautiful thing. [If nothing else, lying down in a colored room and staring at the colored walls would definitely have an affect on the brain’s interpretation of the messages from the cones of the eyes – the color receptors. And who knows what this might look like?]
And now on a personal note…
Maybe I was a little jealous, as my time at the University (UVa) was a bit dry. I would have loved to have any room to take a nap or meditate in, colored or not. I was never brave enough to meditate in the chapel (actually I tried once, but people kept coming and going which was nerve-wracking). I eventually found little nooks and crannies in various libraries to rest in, but come on! At Naropa, they have a class where you get credit for meditating, and lying down to do it. Holy jamoly!
Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for my time at UVa, but if I could change one or two things… I would. But now that the Contemplative Sciences Center is opening, and now that I discovered the UVa Mindfulness Center, along with the Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies (a part of the nursing school)… Most of the changes I would suggest seem to be arising. The future is bright indeed I think for meditators, scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists and religious studies (especially Tibetan) students at UVa.
This incredible initiative is actually happening at UVa. I am so very happy, and I am glad I took some time away from work to attend these inspiring, dynamic talks.