Pedagogical Dits

One definition of pedagogy is the presumption that teaching can be systematic. Dits are small amounts. What follows are taken from various times and contexts: classes, conversations, dreams, and musings. Check back to this page from time to time; it grows during periods of moisture.


Small Club

A favorite pronouncement –it's actually a misquote from Eric Hoffer's 1951 book, True Believer– goes something like this: Every great social movement eventually becomes a business, and every business eventually becomes a racket. I've been thinking lately that higher education in the U.S. is a steaming example of this. More and more universities are run like corporations with high paid executives at the top. Students are turned out into the world with crippling debt loads and thin prospects for employment. A college degree is an increasingly questionable investment.

I'm approaching twenty years of teaching art and meditation at Naropa University, an experimental educational setting that started out in 1974 in a rush of visionary enthusiasm and which is in peril lately of succumbing to conventional thinking. The occasion of this letter was a cheeky invitation to my colleagues to examine the criteria by which we choose candidates for full time faculty positions. People with advanced degrees generally assume that they occupy the high ground of knowledge and learning, so as one might expect my letter went over like a lead balloon, as my mother liked to say

Dear Colleagues:

Thank you for soliciting views regarding the criteria by which we choose new faculty at Naropa. I would like to use the opportunity to argue that we not limit our faculty searches to holders of advanced or terminal degrees.

One of the founding visions of Naropa University is the aspiration to present wisdom along with knowledge. Advanced degrees may be a reliable measure of knowledge, but it is not in their design or purpose to cultivate wisdom. I would agree that our presentation in some fields of study – the sciences in particular – should be carried out by those with conventionally recognized academic credentials. But in the presentation of the arts and spiritual inquiry, conventional credentials are on shakier ground.

Biologists have long recognized the importance of genetic diversity in protecting the health of biosystems. Academia is always in danger of becoming its own monoculture. It is our strength at Naropa that we promote learning as embracing a wider field than what is generally encountered in higher education, and our faculty has always included what might be called “wild wisdom” genes, with views emanating from unconventional sources.

I propose that our examination of a prospective faculty member's credentials include forms of education such as extensive retreat practice, relationship with teacher and lineage, artistic accomplishment, transformative life experiences such as parenting, imprisonment, soldiering, or being openly gay in a homophobic society. We could make a cogent argument that our doing so not only revivifies the education we present, but also promotes a larger view of education itself.

The students I’ve seen in my classes over the past twenty years are longing for meaning beyond what is expected or practical. They are free to attend a traditional college if they want but they have chosen Naropa. Let’s not smother our purpose or theirs with conformist thinking!


Robert Spellman, BFA


P.S. Here is a list of people who, were we to insist on terminal degrees in our faculty, would be ineligible for positions:

Pema Chödrön, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, John Daido Loori, Natalie Goldberg, Surya Das, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Gary Snyder, Duke Ellington, Charlotte Joko Beck, Aitkin Roshi, Barbara Dilley, Phillip Kapleau, Barbara Rhodes, William Kwong Roshi, Robert Creeley, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Sakyong Mipham, Allen Ginsberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, Noah Levine, and so on……

~ April 24, 2011



I received a letter from my alma mater, Massachusetts College of Art, some months ago. It was one of those letters that originate from university development offices these days gathering information about their alumni out in the world. Their questions were reasonable enough: what awards have you won? what positions have you held? what galleries and museums show your work? and so on. As I was filling in the details of my forty years of artistic life since graduating –modest by the measure of the questions– I got to thinking, What defines a successful artistic life? A good many artists do not measure their success by winning awards, making a living selling their work, or by holding positions of social authority. Many practicing artists live in obscurity, often quite happily so, their success gauged in more personal, inner ways.

Artistic practice unencumbered by “market forces” –some of them quite vulgar– has the great potential of givng contentment to life. The act of drawing an ordinary object can trigger sensory connectedness with the simplest means. Sensory connectedness can produce happiness; it's what it means to be at home in the world. This view might seem simple minded, and indeed is rarely mentioned in contemporary artistic training.

In my response to MassArt's questionaire, I encouraged the school to expand on their measures of success, and to do this for the students' benefit; the students should be aware of alternative ways to engage the phenomenal world.

~ May, 2011


Gottlieb Letter

Following is an excerpt from an earlier article about myself from this website. It was, in fact, part of a letter to the Gottlieb Foundation, to which I was applying for a grant some time in the mid 1990s. I didn't get the grant but the application process was an opportunity to clarify my thoughts at the time.

In my studio classes at Naropa University, I sometimes describe artistic discipline as comprising two areas of attention: the theoretical and the yogic. Theoretical understanding arises from a continued investigation of the historical, philosophical, and technical application of any area of study. The second area of development, the yogic, (derived from the Sanskrit word yoga, which means joining, union) is how a practitioner of a discipline becomes one with the activity at hand. I have been interested in developing this yogic understanding since my time in art school. It has led me to an intensive investigation of mind as it is understood in Buddhist philosophical systems of India and Tibet wherein the nature of mind and experience is examined minutely. This entails a methodical and sometimes arduous dismantling of preconceived ideas about reality. One begins to glimpse nonduality, the absence of separation between mind and phenomena, subject and object, inside and outside. This nondual joining or yoga must occur experientially, not theoretically. Those who have followed this inquiry to its fruition serve as brilliant examples of clarity and accuracy of being.

The union with phenomena described here offers practical guidance for artists, musicians, athletes, and mothers. It is the freedom from mental fixation essential to the initiations in many traditional societies. It is a timeless way of being in which verbal, visual and physical communication can elucidate, transcending mere skill or display.

At first, this retraining in traditional western art proceeded parallel to the Buddhist investigation of mind. As time goes by it becomes less relevant to distinguish between the investigation of mind that occurs in meditation and the investigation of perception that occurs in painting. Both require suspending fixed notions; both hold the potential for going beyond habitual mind; both develop accuracy within one’s medium and, in a larger sense, within society.

The artistic forms that evolve over centuries contain the wisdom of a culture. When these essential forms are learned and embodied, their infinite reconfiguration provides up-to-date richness, clarity and guidance for oneself and others on the most profound levels.

~ Some time in the 1990s



The internet can be a surprisingly personal format for one-to-one conversation between strangers. This inquiry appeared in my website message box; it provoked the response following.

I am in a stalled moment in my painting, after many years of work, though my meditation practice is alive and well. Do you have any suggestions? I am feeling bad in my studio and read about you in Inquiring Mind and on your site...just looking for a way to jumpstart.

Diane Sherman

Dear Diane Sherman,

How long have you been feeling bad in your studio? Weeks? Months? Years? I find that creative output is cyclical, like seasons. Things don't grow in the winter; yet there is nothing wrong. Spring arrives in its time. Sometimes jumpstarting is just that: you do anything to get the old car rolling. I find that drawing things, individual things, can get me started. I draw them carefully, affectionately, accurately and as simply as possible. While this might begin somewhat mechanically, it often wakes up pleasure in my sense of sight. Sometimes I can do this by mixing colors just for the pleasure of it.

My wife says that creativity is like breathing. We alternate between breathing in and breathing out. The inbreath is any kind of replenishment: going to art museums, looking at books, reading, hiking, sitting, gathering images, textures, ideas. The outbreath is the result or synthesis of that replenishment; whatever we paint or write or sing. If we recognize and appreciate this alternation, it can render the cyclical nature of creativity more comprehensible and enjoyable. (Enjoyment is very important!)

Laurie Doctor, who for many years taught calligraphy at Naropa University, makes a useful distinction between being “mindful” and “willful”. As a meditator you may recognize the difference between a forceful manipulation of mind and an appreciation of its natural unfolding. I find that artistic activity has its own rhythms and often those rhythms are not convenient to our wishes and schedule; and as with meditation we must be attentive but not ham-fisted in our approach to phenomena.

Have you read Anna Held Audette's book, The Blank Canvas? It's a gem from Shambhala Publications. I recommend it for any practicing artist going through a stalled period.

Let me know if any of this helpful.

Good luck,

Robert Spellman