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Edith Turner

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Edith Turner

Sitting in Edith Turner’s kitchen, it is difficult to not feel awed. The 92-year-old world renowned anthropologist is both active and witty, conversing on subjects as varied as international relations and church politics, while fondly recounting dinner parties she hosted just weeks prior. With characteristic humility, Dr. Turner attributes this admiration not to the vitality of her own person, but rather to the social nature of the kitchen—“The kitchen is no small matter; the kitchen is quite a powerful place.” Following the sudden death of her husband Victor, Edith Turner began working with her colleague Roy Wagner to explore shamanic practices and contemplative techniques as a method to experience the world in profoundly changed ways. For its ability to engage in such practices, Dr. Turner passionately defends the extraordinary nature of the human mind: “The human brain is well capable of handling religious and mystical experiences; it’s not just a matter of religions say this is true and you believe—you get them and you experience them. It is highly therapeutic.”

Soon after her initial experimentation, Dr. Turner began introducing shamanic practices into her classroom—guiding students through meditations which often result in an extraordinary spiritual journey and a transformation of the personal sense of self. Dr. Turner states that her students leave the classroom deeply transformed, because this contemplation gives students a sense of Self-worth, in the sense of Jung’s capital Self, a Self based on feelings of completion and curiosity and cheerfulness. This indeed is also the meaning of “individuation.” It is the beautiful perception of the “whole.” Everyone turns to each other and finds that they are each full and deep people in themselves and in their particularities. That’s the virtue of contemplation. To put these practices in context, Dr. Turner’s students are asked to write a term paper describing their experiences during shamanic meditation and offer an interpretation in light of course readings and discussions. Dr. Turner’s excitement for her students’ experiences described in these term papers is evident; she talks excitedly about the deep understanding and awareness they demonstrate and several of her former students’ papers have become required reading for new students to the course.

Ultimately, Dr. Turner’s teaching philosophy has at its foundation a deep and abiding faith in human nature: “It is almost impossible for people not to lend themselves out to another. You can analyze it down, but at a fundamental level, people everywhere get it.” Building on this faith in human goodness, Dr. Turner views the shamanic practices she utilizes in her classroom as an important component of students’ moral development, explaining that she “hopes that contemplation will make our students just, people passionate about justice. We teach them science and mathematics and languages, but we do not teach them human justice.” Beyond justice, Dr. Turner’s moral human development is based on gratitude; Dr. Turner describes her students with the care and affection of a grandmother, stating “I have total gratitude to my students—these students are just marvelous. Humans have this idea that creation serves us, rather than we serve creation. All we can say [to creation] is ‘thank you,’ even though we do not always know who we are saying ‘thank you’ to.”