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Robert Waterman, Founder Southwestern College, Santa Fe, NM

“The mission of Southwestern College is Transforming Consciousness Through Education.”

 “Philosophy: We hold that true agents of transformation will naturally embrace a commitment to transforming their own consciousness in order to help others. To that end, our first year curriculum is a deep journey into, and engagement of, the student’s authentic self and life path. The two-quarter sequence ‘Psychology of Consciousness’ (a signature course at Southwestern) builds the experiential base and paradigm for engaging deeply the content of the core curriculum classes in a unique and profound way that develops transformational leaders.”

Part I

I first met Robert Waterman in his office at Southwestern College sometime in the year 1991. I had a question for him. “Should I study psychology and commit to a profession of giving therapy to others?” There was a half-formed and even feared question in my mind which I did not pose: “Does preparing to do therapy and counseling mean that I and my classmates would self-disclose and self-analyze?”
My hunch was correct. At Southwestern College, classroom seats were set up in a circle for purposes of dialoguing, and, for example, the psychopathology course included one paper regarding if and how we saw our own pathology.

I had completed a course, “Foundations of Counseling,” at the University of New Mexico Santa Fe campus. Although the UNM course taught me the fundamentals, still I searched for a curriculum which would be more innovative than what I had been used to in graduate studies. I was seeking academics that would be self-reflective and experiential. I found these elements at Southwestern College.

This meeting with Dr. Waterman was happening in the midst of one of the most transformative ventures in my life. Yes, I was right on schedule—the mid-life career change. I posed my question to Dr. Waterman. “I am trying to figure out what college will be right for me…” Among other things, he said: “Just look at where you keep showing up.” As a solution this sounded obvious. But then I realized that this was an astute and artless idea, and very practical. I am reporting his reply because it has stayed in my mind since that day, and prefigured more such knowing encounters to come.

I left the interview less doubtful and enrolled in “Art for Personal Transformation” with Rosvita Botkin and “Psychodrama” with Kate Cook. These courses proved to be remarkably creative and stimulating. By Fall, I was matriculated full time and was graduated with MA in Counseling in 1994. It worked out very well for me.

Part II

Here are more of the high moments I shared with Dr. Waterman. Where I believe I have rather precise notes, I use quotation marks.

Los Dichos de Waterman

  1. “When in doubt, assume you’re right.” (My comment is that this sounds presumptuous, but would be just the right thing for someone too agreeable, people pleasing, and self-effacing.)
  2. “Unformed flashes of thought are essentially forms of the questions ‘Who am I? What do I want?’”
  3. “Chaos, when it comes around you, is trying to wake you up to a higher order of experience within yourself. That is its role.”
  4. “Two things are needed for your righteous path: the fuel to get there and the right intention. Life is here to remind us of what we want to resolve and to fulfill. Your life is resolved when you have the individual experience of universal love. Always ask ‘love’ what to do no matter how many times you forget.”
  5. “What is your spiritual exercise? Is it loving God or worrying? Is it complaining or appreciating? There is a whole collective of worry out there in the world, and if your spiritual exercise is to worry, God will unconditionally and lovingly give you all the worry you want. But if loving is your work-out program, God will point you toward your loving. Rather than eat of the worry, eat of the forgiveness and self-forgiveness. The banquet of goodness is set before you. Every scripture on the planet says so. All you need to do is attend.”
  6. “People have not been, nor are they going to be, perfect so that you don’t need to worry or complain. Forgive the transgressions of others, and those you have done against yourself. If you have not been entirely skillful with people, and if your intentions were not always quite fully from love, it was pretty close to love. The problems of others are not your problems. They are God’s problems. So say to God, ‘God, here are your problems. You solve them.’ Then, after all the worry and complaining, the last thing to say is: ‘God bless you. I love you. Please forgive me. I forgive myself.’”
  7. Two of Robert’s most potent formularies for self healing are: “I forgive myself for believing __________________. I forgive myself for forgetting ___________.” (Fill in the blanks)
  8. One of the mottos of the college is “Loving is the experience of life. Life is the curriculum of living.” I am not sure that Robert Waterman composed this; but it sounds like he did.
  9. Question to Robert: “How did I get the way I am?” “People told you things and you believed them.” This left me somewhat dazed, but the simplicity and depth of it was stunning. Many times we carry negative messages about ourselves much longer than we need to, and unconsciously to boot.
  10. Question to Robert: “How did the self-proclaimed, most high metaphysical structure, the Church, become so flawed?” “They stopped moving from Spirit and went to power.”
  11. In a Jungian moment I once showed Robert a still photo from the film Andrei Rublev by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. In the background of the picture, at the far end of a darkening hallway in a medieval monastery, is a penitent on his knees, reaching toward a monk in the foreground who has taken a severely rejecting stance. Robert’s comment was, “Is that you pleading with yourself?” I’ve been around Zen enough to know when the sensei has wielded the keisaku.
  12. Once I questioned Robert regarding the mystery of “victims.” Why do people suffer at the hands of others? Dr. Waterman responded with an idea that is nothing, if not a Zen koan. “There is victimization. There is no victim.”
         I interpret Robert as follows: First, ‘no victim’ does not mean denying, minimizing or making light of what happened. By no means is it, “Oh, get over it,” one of the worst things anybody would ever want to hear. Rather, ‘no victim’ is an encouragement to live beyond the past event. One’s seeing one’s self as a victim can arise from continuing to “hang out” in the mind with the trauma as one’s identity (…this happened to me…this is who I am)—searching, perhaps unproductively, for justice or revenge long after, in some cases, when the perpetrator is untraceable or dead.
         The trauma may be a single incident of assault or battery, or early childhood attachment dysregulation along with complex, cumulative trauma by care-givers. In these cases, therapy is indicated. And yes, when the wrongdoers are able to be identified, do pursue redress of grievances, even by litigation when warranted.
         The goal is healing and going forward in life as a ‘victor’ as much as one can, and dropping the label ‘victim.’ Freud, in his style, put it this way, rather coldly: “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”
         In “The Postwar Attitude Adjustment” by Jim Rendon, there is a marvelous account of ‘postadversity growth.’ This de-emphasizes “trauma” and “disorder.” Rendon et al collected the characteristics of veterans with severe injuries, many of whom transcended their war horrors. Growth in these veterans took the form of greater appreciation of life, changed sense of priorities, warmer, more intimate relationships, greater sense of personal strength, recognition of new possibilities of paths for one’s life, and spiritual development.
         Dr. Waterman went on to say that victimhood is not the basis of one’s importance. “It’s not about you and your saga. It’s about you and your relationship to God.”

Thank you, Robert Waterman, for some great moments and fond, humorous memories.


Postscript: A comment from the Editor

Dr. Waterman’s framing of the concept of victimhood is a succinct illustration of the Zen concept, No subject no object. While we tend to conceive of victimization as a one way relationship between a perpetrator and victim, history shows that no such act appears in a vacuum. It is part of a much larger web in which one can distinguish neither victim nor perpetrator. For example, if we look at a seemingly straightforward case of victimization such as bullying, it probably doesn’t take much exploration to see that the bully’s behavior rises out of some trauma that drives them to the offensive out of self-preservation. The roots of this trauma form another act of victimization, and this act too is likely born out of still another dynamic of pain.
His statement regarding the relevance of the individual saga also fits in the Zen philosophy. We are storytellers who form our identity based on our timeline (or how we perceive our past). But the practice teaches us to stop believing and feeding the stories.



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