Exploring Student Spiritual Practices in a Hinduism Unit

As I begin teaching Hinduism again in my World Religions class, I’ve decided to make a more explicit attempt to involve students in personal spiritual practices as part of the curriculum. This entry provides my lesson plans in this mini-unit, including student responses which show that it is possible for the study of spiritual practices to go beyond head knowledge to find value in the daily lives of students.Introduction

The biggest challenge facing students at an achievement-oriented school such as HKIS is stress.  All students, even my freshmen in World Religions class, sense that school is intense, and most do not question that their future depends on working hard in high school and achieving as much as possible.

Coming into a freshmen course on World Religions, I ask myself, ultimately, what gift could a religion course give to my students?  The answer I am pursuing this semester is to offer them experiences with spiritual paths that can lead to a greater sense of inner awareness and peace.

At the beginning of the course, we watched a TED talk by Jonathan Haidt, professor of business ethics at NYU-Stern, in which he claims that self-transcendence leads to feelings of ecstasy.  Religions specialize in diminishing the small self so that a larger Self can emerge. Haidt uses the metaphor of a staircase to symbolize this move from the smaller to the larger Self.

My hope, then, for World Religions class is to give my privileged, but psychologically burdened students a chance to experience some peace that comes from climbing the staircase towards a higher state of mind.

During the middle of our Hinduism unit, I introduced an activity on a Monday that asked students to do a spiritual practice during the week and share it on Friday.  The activity description can be found below.

Exploring Your Spiritual Path

World Religions – Mr. Schmidt                                             Name:_____________

Bottom of the staircase in the ordinary, profane world:

“Why are you so unhappy?
Because 99% of what you think,
And everything you do,
Is for yourself,
And there isn’t one.”

– Modern Chinese sage, Wu Wei Wu, Presence, p. 184

Path up the staircase involves awakening the heart:

“Humanity is the victim of a tragic case of mistaken identity. There is a “self” and a Self, and our fatal mistake lies in confusing the two . . . .  The egoic self . . . is in virtually every spiritual tradition immediately dispatched to the illusory . . . . It is the imposter that claims to be the whole . . . .  [Spiritual practices] create a bridge between these two levels of awareness with us, offering a consistent and reliable way of practicing the passage from the small self to the greater Self (Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 82).”

“Awakening the heart may sound like one of those lofty but unattainable ideals, beyond what a human being can accomplish.  But actually, it’s only the words that are lofty; the task itself is quite doable.  You could even say that we were born for it, because only with awakened hearts are we actually able to fulfill our purpose within the cosmos” (Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, p. 100).

Image result for bhagavad gita

Hinduism’s Four Paths Towards Liberation

I want you to propose a spiritual activity which:

  • Can be identified as at least one of the four paths below.
  • Involves creativity on your part in designing the activity
  • Can be done primarily alone.

There are four traditional schools of Yoga: Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Raja Yoga. For the vast majority of practitioners of Yoga, a blending of the four traditional types of Yoga is most appropriate. One follows his or her own predisposition in balancing these different forms of Yoga.

Path 1 – Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection and contemplation. It involves deep exploration of yourself through a combination of meditation and study.

  • Walking meditation while repeating a sacred verse
  • Meditate first and then mindfully read Image result for bhagavad gitaa book, poem, or some kind of holy scriptures
  • Meditate first and then do journaling
  • Visit to a holy site for the purpose of reflection.

Bhavagad Gita 4:38: “In this world, there is nothing so sublime and pure as spiritual knowledge, which is the mature fruit of all mysticism. One who has become accomplished in the practice of yoga enjoys this knowledge within himself in due course of time.”

Image result for bhakti yogaPath 2- Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion, emotion, love, compassion, and service to God and others. All actions are done as an act of devotion towards the Divine.

  • Create a way (e.g., song, poetry, meditation, art) in which you cultivate heartfelt love for something beyond yourself.
  • Singing/chanting/listening worship songs
  • Art: drawing of a deity
  • Loving Kindness meditation (benefits)
  • Saying grace before meals and eating healthier food.Visit a holy place for the purpose of worship

Bhavagad Gita 9:23 – “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.”

Path 3 – Karma Yoga is the path of selfless action.  The key in the yoga of service is to fully present and giving in the moment rather than wishing to be somewhere else, glancing at your phone, or welcoming distractions.Image result for bhagavad gita

  • Think of an activity that you oftentimes do mindlessly that you will now do mindfully.
  • A service activity for someone or to do something useful for others
  • Listening to someone
  • Visit a holy place for the purpose of service

Bhavagad Gita 3:19 – “Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”

Path 4 – Raja Yoga: Raja Yoga is a comprehensive method that Related imageemphasizes meditation, while encompassing the whole of Yoga. It directly deals with the encountering and transcending thoughts of the mind.

  • Martial arts, tai chi, yoga, martial arts, qi gong
  • Calligraphy
  • Silence, Centering Prayer (Christian meditation), loving kindness meditation, Vipassana meditation or other types of Hindu/Buddhist meditation.
  • Visit a holy place for the purpose of Image result for yogi meditatingmeditation

Bhavagad Gita 6:11-12 – “To practice astanga-yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kusha grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses and activities and fixing the mind on one point.”

Source: Four Paths of Yoga by Swami Jananeshvara Bharati

For more spiritual practice ideas, see the Tree of Contemplative Practices website:

Image result for tree of contemplative practices

On our class blog by the end of today’s [Monday] class period, you will:

  1. Propose the design of an activity that you think will benefit you spiritually and explain why you picked this path.  (If you need props, set-up time, explain what you will do to prepare.)
  2. Identify which path (or paths) is involved in this activity.
  3. Propose a date, time, and venue you will do this.  What practical and mental preparations do you need to make to give this experiment the best chance of success?
  4. Explain your hypothesis of what you think will happen to you during this time.

By Thursday, 10 PM.  Write a blog response of at least 20 lines in which you:

  1. Briefly review what you did, what your hypothesis was about the outcome of this activity, and which path this involved.
  2. Explain your experience of the activity.
  3. Explain the outcome for yourself and what you learned from doing this.  Did you learn anything about yourself personally/spiritually?
  4. If you were to continue this practice, what would be the next step in your exploration?

Friday’s Class

During Friday’s class I gathered the students into four groups, depending on their chosen spiritual practice:

1)    Art: painting, Chinese calligraphy.

2)    Physical: running, yoga.

3)    Sacred reading: reading the Bible/Torah, a spiritual text.

4)    Meditation: walking meditation, Centering Prayer.

I asked them to share their experience using a series of questions.  Then we gathered in a circle to share their experiences.  I turned the lights off and placed a three candles in the center of the group.  Students shared their experiences in a relaxed and at times humorous way.  One of the girls chanted her bat mitzvah Torah passage.  Another girl shared a striking picture of three crosses on a hill that helped her meditate on Jesus’ sacrifice.   Most memorable was simply the warm atmosphere in which every students shared an attempt to find inner peace through a spiritual practice.  All but one of the students felt that it had “worked.”

Student Reflections

On Thursday night, students shared and reflected on their spiritual practice.  They responded to four questions:

  1. Briefly review what you did, what your hypothesis was about the outcome of this activity, and which path this involved.
  2. Explain your experience of the activity.
  3. Explain the outcome for yourself and what you learned from doing this.  Did you learn anything about yourself personally/spiritually?
  4. If you were to continue this practice, what would be the next step in your exploration?

Megan, a Jewish student, commented:

  1. I meditated for 21 breaths, chanted my Torah portion and prayers for about 30 minutes, and drew (glued? I ended up using glitter glue instead of crayons, which doesn’t sound very spiritual, but I have reasons that I will explain later.) a picture for about 15 minutes. I thought it would help me express myself and calm down.
  2. For my meditation, instead of closing my eyes, I looked outside and watched the movement of the water in the reservoir. I liked this because watching water, the wind, clouds, etc. is calming to me. Then I chanted my Torah portion and really thought about the Hebrew as I was reading it. I focused on the words, but also kind of let my mind wander to the Torah and how rabbis and other Jewish spiritual people had read the same words that I was reading thousands of years ago. I decided to use glitter glue instead of crayon for my drawing because I knew I would want to run my fingers over the ridges the dried glue produced. The sparkles also reminded my of the sun at my Bat mitzvah, which, being in Aruba, was on a very sunny and bright day. One wall of the temple it was at was windows, and there was sunlight streaming inside.
  3. I realized that rhythmic things sooth me, and some things that may seem basic or childish to others. I love glitter glue because it contains sparks of light. I thought about this a lot especially after the visit to the Raja yoga center. I think the rhythm of the chanting calmed me like playing my saxophone or clarinet does when I’m upset. Sometimes if I have a really bad day, I get really frustrated, and when I get frustrated I often start crying. I then play my saxophone or clarinet and it relaxes me. I realized that I could also practice Hebrew if I feel upset or frustrated.
  4.  The next step in this exploration might be to draw after chanting different prayers, so see what feelings come out through my art and what the prayers mean to me.

Charmaine chose art as her medium for her spiritual practice:

  1. For my spiritual practice I decided to paint with water colors. My main theme was “nature” because one part of being spiritual is to connect with the living things around you and I thought that by imitating/ copying the nature around me, it would somehow form a connection. Also, I played music as I drew. Since drawing has made me calm before, I hypothesized it would make me calm and “separate me” from material things around me and it would make me focus on myself and peace. This involved the Bhakti yoga path.
  2. I started drawing at around 6 and what finally got me to stop drawing and check the clock was when my dad came home from work at around 8. I had been drawing for 2 hours. I kept on drawing the entire time focusing on the strokes and colors. The music helped block out other thoughts and after the first 10 minutes I stopped thinking about the things I had to do but instead just focused on my artwork. I started off by drawing a sketch with pencil and that developed to water color pencils and then finally using water and a brush. One of my paintings focused on a leaf. The leaf included many curvy lines and swirls. This to me was one of the things that was really calming and I’m not sure why. I assume it is because curvy lines are somewhat graceful and that can be interpreted as peaceful. Another painting was with a globe of the earth where half of the earth was colorful and glowing and the other half was only black and white. I wanted this to represent the two levels of life; profane and sacred. The profane was the dark side and the sacred was the colorful because it was suppose to have more meaning. Only after I reflected did I realized that when I was painting with colors I wanted to continue and I was really attached to the painting, but when I was painting the dark side, I was slower and less energetic. I think this shows how the physical actions or things you see or draw affects what you feel.
  3. I use to think I couldn’t focus well on a certain task for long periods of time and that I would always get distracted easily. Also, I thought I was tightly attached to the materialistic world (phones and computers). However through drawing, which was focusing on a piece of artwork, I found that I can separate myself from those items and I can block out external thoughts that could make me anxious. I found out that music is a great way to block thoughts because it’s another thing the brain focuses on. I also found out that drawing “happy” or colorful things as well as smooth looking shapes makes me calm.
  4. The next step would probably be to draw for longer periods of time and maybe draw a larger space. I’d also like to paint with acrylic because I’d like to use more brushes rather then pens.

Elizabeth used art to deepen reflection upon her Christian faith:

  1. I painted using some paint I found in my room. I painted three crosses with a sunset (sort of) background. This is part of the Bhakti Yoga yoga path.
  2. I found that as I started to paint more and more, I became absorbed in the painting, I started to think about how Jesus died for our sins on that cross. I started to think about the Bible and what it tells us about Jesus, what kind of person we should be, etc.
  3. I think that during times like this, I can really process the Bible and think about the Bible and the meaning of it, better than when I go to church and discuss the Bible.
  4. I think I would start painting things that I want to paint or feel like painting. Or one time I could try a color scheme or tone and try to express my current feelings with colors on the sheet of paper. I think it will turn out pretty interesting.

Angielika combined Bible reading with sitting at a local beach:

  1. I meditated for a little bit, I took 21 breaths and had sat in the beach. Listening to my acoustic guitar music. I watched others do what they do. Wether it was playing in the sand or just swimming in the water. I sat and looked up for a little while and then read my favorite parts in the bible. I liked to read Psalms because it clears my mind, and lets me focus into something deeper. I thought if I do this, I could easily find out what I really need to be happy or just reach , or even touch that tiny bit of happiness that will never leave me.
  2. I stayed there for 2 hours. I didn’t know I took so long. I read for 30 minutes, and the rest I sort of just sat there. Looking at people. It was weird, it was as if I was seeing something different. My head wasn’t filled with negative thoughts. I wasn’t thinking of the girls infront of me or the guys running around. I was just completely mesmerized by the beach. Although I’m usually a quite nature person, it felt different. Something in the atmosphere changed. I couldn’t tell what it was but I could feel it.
  3. The outcome was something I had expected. I felt so fresh. I didn’t have worries. I wasn’t looking at anything that brought any negative feel towards me or other people. My eyes were just opened. I felt really refreshed and new.If I were to continue this, it has nothing to do with spirituality but actually finding more about myself. I believe to be able to be happy and live happily , you need to understand yourself.
  4. So if I were to continue this, I would actually, work down my way . Break down the walls I built, and try to move past on the memories that sort of leave a sad emotion. My next step is to do it without music and listen to what my mind is telling me.

About a week after this reflection, Angielika wrote about another experience that resonated with the stairway metaphor:

Recently, I went to [“Resound,” a Christian concert,] that happens every couple of months . . . that brings youth from different backgrounds, ages with a vision to unite the youth in worship and prayer for a spiritual awakening. I experience this only a few hours ago and it was just amazing. About 600 people showed up along with me, and we sang along with the live music, laughed through the stories, cried over the ones sharing their pain and also prayed for each other . . . .  During the songs, I felt as if I was getting lighter, and was being pulled up by a string. I felt my body getting all warm . . . and fluttery. I was suddenly awake . . . . Honestly, religion class was all I could think of during this time. I was ‘experiencing’ how others reached the staircase. I heard stories from people on how close they’ve gotten. I then thought about the other students. I really thought about it, and I said, the next time ‘Resound’ happens I really think other people should come and experience this as well.

This last story about Angielika represents a best-case scenario in that something she learned in World Religions provided a useful symbolic framework that helped her to interpret her experience at a faith-based concert.

Conclusion

Student after student expressed a sense that their spiritual practice of 30 minutes or more helped them to deal with stress in their lives.  This seems quite remarkable that relatively untutored students from a mix of religious and non-religious backgrounds could experience a distinct sense of wellbeing through a simple process of personally designing and experimenting with a spiritual practice.  What would happen, as Professor Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin suggests at the end of a recent lecture, if students would spend as much time on mental health in school as they do on physical health?  Could this new emphasis on mental wellness lead to greater clarity, sense of self, and compassion towards others?  This seems like an especially promising area of educational research and practice, and religion teachers could be valuable facilitators of this exploration.

References

Bourgeault, C. (2004). Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD: Cowley.

Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P., Scharmer, C.O., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B.S. (2004). Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. New York: Random House.

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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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