December 2016 Theme: Awake

December 6, 2016

Join us this 2016-2017 academic year, as we take time each month to reflect on a theme as a learning community. Hear from students in a personal reflection on the theme, as they consider how the concept applies to their life and work. See here for an overview of these themes, which will also be highlighted in each month's school e-newsletter.

The theme for our school community this December 2016 is "Awake." 

Student Nils Ringo-Pennino has written this month's personal reflection. Nils is a student in the MA in Couples and Family Therapy program.


Awake [uh-weyk]
By: Nils Ringo-Pennino

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; 
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep. 

-William Stafford, A Ritual to Read to Each Other


Taking my seat on the bus this morning, I felt tired; I felt my need for rest. My bus commute invites me to take a break from work and from my task-oriented attention. Most mornings after I take my seat on the bus, the urge arises to check up on emails, text messages, sports scores… whatever it there is to do on my phone. This morning, feeling a little drowsy and under the weather, I sat down, took my phone out of my pocket and paused.  My mind wondered, “What was I going to do?” Often, I at least have some conscious plan – check email, read news – however, this instance was pure habit. I slid the device back into my pocket. For the remainder of the ride, I made a point to try to be present to that which surrounded me and that which arose within me – an opportune break in an otherwise busy day. This scene plays out in many other activities and places throughout my day. Where is my attention?

Currently, BBC’s new season Planet Earth II is being released episode by episode, not on-demand yet. Over a recent long weekend with family, we all gathered around the television to catch up on the first three episodes: Islands, Mountains, and Jungles. Thinking about today’s bus ride, I imagine David Attenborough narrating my thoughts, actions, instincts, pursuits… bringing to life the drama of my creaturely existence. “Nils steps on the bus, ready to set out on a new day.” I imagine that while my physical movement throughout my waking hours would be easy to describe. Yet, how awake is my mind and my spirit as I set about my day?

For much of the day, I live on a plane that does not require that I transcend the ordinary, day-to-day physical world. Many parts of the day require that I move about from one place to another, or complete daily tasks. Yet, there is a tension in my being, how to be awake to more than just what I am doing. How do I engage the world? How do I think about impacts, meanings, and joys in the ordinary? I often find that though my body is awake, my mind and spirit are somewhere between asleep and awake. Until… a moment comes along, such as on the bus, when I wake up. I become conscious that I drew my phone out of my pocket for no reason other than habit. I slide the device back into my pocket. For the remainder of the bus ride, I try to be. My ordinary commute gained different significance and meaning.

These moments are gifts. David Attenborough’s script for Planet Earth’s episode on human life would be peppered with words such as “empathy,” “transcendence,” “greater understanding of the world”, “compassion.” To me, these are “awake” terms – awake to more than just the physical world. These moments help instill in me awareness. Someone’s story gifts me awareness of shared joy, assumptions, privilege, and needs. An awake moment on the bus brings rest, curiosity, and simple pleasure. Awake moments give me hope and conviction to learn, to act empathically in the world, and humbles me by letting me know that I am still asleep in many ways. Awakening is a life-long process, unexpected and unfolding in in mysterious ways.

My work and training as a Couples and Family Therapist instills in me the need to be awake and makes visible the reality of slumber. Learning to be a therapist, as well as a husband, brother, and friend, has entailed many instances of awakening for me. I am continually surprised to discover that when I slow down and live openly with others that each moment, interaction, and relationship holds meaning and significance. When I do not rush, when reflection is welcome, life feels full of moments. My being senses the gift of presence and awareness. Occasionally, an entire chapter of life can adopt new meaning with one moment of awakening. The gift of awake moments, for me, exists because others along the way helped to awaken my heart, my eyes, and my mind. The following poem helps to remind me and guide me toward being awake and aware. In this we journey together.

If you don't know the kind of person I am 
and I don't know the kind of person you are 
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world 
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star. 
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, 
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break 
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood 
storming out to play through the broken dyke. 

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake, 
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; 
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep. 

William Stafford, A Ritual to Read to Each Other