Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Faculty Highlight: Dr. Stella Marrie

Dr. Stella Marrie, Union Institute & University

For over a decade, Dr. Stella Marrie has been active as a psychotherapist, educator, and community leader. In addition to her responsibilities as professor in Union Institute & University’s Bachelor of Arts program in the Psychology & Human Development concentration, Dr. Marrie is invested in the political and social justice issues surrounding mental health treatment and therapy practices. Over the years, she has served in community centers and women’s shelters, providing training for volunteers working with victims of domestic violence. Dr. Marrie has participated in outreach programs aiding at-risk youth and teenage mothers, as well as individuals struggling with drug addiction and eating disorders. She has taught a variety of courses in group therapy, personality theory, the psychology of trauma, and human development. Her research interests range from Jungian and contemporary psychoanalytic methods of psychotherapy to spiritual development and existential theories of how individuals and communities create meaning in their lives. She is familiar with depth psychology and transpersonal approaches, and her own personal practice of meditation and spirituality has led her to explore the relationship between Buddhism and Western psychology.

What started you on the path of clinical psychology?

I think I was always interested in understanding others. As a child that was expressed in my love for nature and animals. My heroes were people like Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, and Konrad Lorenz.  I read all their books and thought I would become a research scientist. Goodall was especially inspiring because her method was simply to sit quietly and pay careful attention.  She developed an “I –Thou” relationship with her subjects, which was criticized as “unscientific”, but it was probably the key to her success.As it turned out, I went to the University of Chicago, where a student with my interests was typically directed to the anthropology department.  I studied anthropology for several years but eventually realized that I wanted to work in a way that might benefit others more directly.  I realized that I wanted to be involved in my work in a way that fieldwork did not allow.  As I began to take psychology courses, I found a framework of theory and praxis that wedded my desire to understand others and also to be of some service.   During this time, I was also introduced to Zen meditation.  Zen practice gave me ample opportunities of quiet sitting and careful attention.  This practice of mindfulness also became a core element of how I practice psychotherapy and also how I teach.

One of the formative experiences that led me on this path, both as a therapist and as a teacher of psychology, was through one of my first psychology professors, Gene Gendlin.  He was a unique teacher in that everything he did and said seemed to instantiate the ideas he was presenting. Even if he was talking about something that had nothing to do with psychotherapy, his manner and attitude still expressed the essence of his work as a psychologist.  In this respect, it was sort of impossible not to learn in his presence.  I saw in him a deep integrity in the way that he expressed his life’s work and purpose, and I took this as an example of the way I wanted to teach and what I hoped to offer my own students.

What are the top 2 issues you believe need to be addressed for students within the psychology field?

Many people think of an undergraduate degree as a means to an end - a first step toward obtaining a credential or a job. It is true that career development and advancement are very important and should be a core element of any degree program.  Alongside this is the deeper significance of study in psychology with its potential to change the way we think, feel, and live.  It is important for a psychology program to consider both dimensions and to address the needs and development of each student in a holistic way. This is especially true for adult students who typically bring a wealth of experience to their studies and often have more individual learning goals than traditional aged college students.

Psychology emphasizes many skills and intellectual attitudes that are applicable to a wide range of fields. The skills that are integral to a liberal arts education - communication skills, the ability to view complex problems from multiple perspectives, the ability to work collaboratively, the ability to think flexibly and adaptively, an appreciation for diversity – are all deeply embedded in this field.  These are habits of mind that also promote self-understanding, meaningful relationships, creativity, and well-being. Not surprisingly, they are qualities that are also sought after by employers.  So, I feel that one of the most important things for psychology students to experience in their education is that personal development and professional development are not two separate things, but really one and the same.  An undergraduate degree in psychology provides preparation for a variety of careers and also enhances one’s personal life through a fuller understanding of self and others.  I think that when both elements are addressed, students engage in their learning in a very wholehearted and generative way. Education then becomes a vehicle to many things, but it is always an end in itself.

Who are the leaders and examples that you look to or aspire to be like? Why?

Some years ago, I taught a seminar titled, Committed Lives: Social Engagement in Adult Development. The students in the course picked moral exemplars from whom they took inspiration to study and write about.  From that experience my own list of moral exemplars became quite large!  Public figures come to mind – authors, artists, and scientists who have shaped my thinking – as well as many people I have met in my personal life and though my work as a therapist and teacher.
I am not sure that it actually originated in Zen, but there is a saying popular in the Zen tradition that one should strive to “let everything be your teacher”.  This is generally understood as encouragement to learn from all of one’s experiences, but it is also literally true that when you get to know something or someone well enough; they always have something to teach you.  I think that some of the most influential humanitarian leaders of our time – people like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama – all seem to embody this inclusive, awake, mind and heart.  So now, possibly because of that seminar, when I think of leaders, I tend to think less of individuals but of a collectivity of people who seem to stand for something that I believe is available to be cultivated in everyone. I am very interested in looking for facets of that in everyone.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career within the fields of counseling, teaching, writing, workshop leadership, etc.?

Teaching is always a two way street, and the process is mutually transformative.  The same can be said of psychotherapy.  So I feel that in both areas of my professional life, the rewards are intrinsic to the activity, as I am always learning and growing through my work.  As a teacher there something especially rewarding about working closely with students and having the privilege of seeing their lives unfold and flourish as the result of their efforts and experiences at Union.  It takes a lot of courage to return to college as an adult with a job, family, and all kinds of responsibilities.  It is inspiring to see them push through internal and external barriers.  Many of them start out on this path to create a better future for their families and only later on realize that it is also for them.  I so admire the determination that they bring to their work.

I have been with Union Institute & University for 14 years, and in that time so many graduates have contacted me for a letter of recommendation for graduate school, a reference for a job, or just to update me on new projects or additions to the family.  I now have the honor of working with students in the doctoral program that I started with in the Bachelors program. These reconnections are like a large informal follow-up study about the effects of a Union education, and they enable me to see the big, long-term picture of the role that the Union plays in the lives of its students – and in society.  The intellectual liveliness, creativity, and commitment to doing good in the world that our graduates express in their personal and professional lives is tremendously rewarding for me and my colleagues.

What does  “social responsibility” mean to you here at Union and outside of Union. How would you describe the role and importance of "social responsibility" in your own life?

I think of social responsibility as an ethical stance rooted in compassion that recognizes the deeply interconnected and constantly changing nature of life.  Unfortunately, we have a lot of social conditioning that runs counter to perceiving suffering and our interconnectedness. So for me, practicing social responsibility involves cultivating an awareness of this interconnectedness on a continual basis and also acting on that awareness in small and large ways.  I feel that the contemplative side of social responsibility is not emphasized enough in discussions of the topic.  It is important because when we have a deep realization of our connection, acting in a purely self-interested way no longer makes sense.  We start to naturally orient our lives in more socially responsible ways through our choices as consumers, our communication with others, and what we are willing to give our time and attention to.  In my personal life, contemplative practice is the method that I use to train my mind to be ready for socially responsible action. I feel that finding ways to skillfully address suffering through my work as a practicing psychologist, and also in teaching my students to respond to suffering in the world, is my primary expression of social responsibility.  Education is also a critical factor in socially responsible action, and I rely on others to help me become aware of the impact of my actions and the social and global issues that I need to be aware of and involved in.

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