Centering Prayer and the Call to Wisdom: A Personal Reflection

2013-02-05 03.30.03

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart [bhakti], with all your soul [raja], with all your strength [karma], and with all your mind [jnana].”

– Huston Smith’s forward, p. xiii in American Veda by Phlip Goldberg.

Introduction

I believe that considerations of one’s future direction should be an essential part of the teaching profession. Now nearing completion of my 23rd year of teaching, I am quite conscious that my life has an arc, and that as time passes I need to continually consider how to live my life purposefully. In this entry I will reflect upon my future directions in teaching.

index1Writing my educational philosophy last summer helped me to clarify the “big pieces” of my teaching future.  If the yang of my teaching at HKIS has been service learning, which I now know is highly effective in waking up students to their place in the world, writing my philosophy helped me to realize that the yin of inner awakening should be the “value added” that we as educators provide in processing these service experiences.  Jaclyn Phi’s speech in a community gathering last year only confirmed for me how important it is that we do much more in supporting students beyond their service experiences. More generally, this opening up of a new “half” of my teaching vocation led to my next steps.

The Call of Wisdom and the Practice of Centering Prayer

Assisi Saturday 2Last May Richard and Suzanne Friedericks and I went to Assisi, Italy to attend a spiritual retreat with Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. So much of what Cynthia said made so much sense on so many levels that I often now refer to her as my guru. The heart of my experience with her was her explanation that wisdom as a category of spiritual discernment is not something that is accessible to only a few; rather, it should be the normal state of affairs for people as they reach age 60 or so.  Why are so many of us not gaining wisdom, and why do our institutions seem to exhibit little of this quality?  Her answer is that we have lost our understanding of how to develop our spiritual sensibilities; specifically, we have failed to appreciate the role of spiritual practices in cultivating wisdom.

There are many such practices, but her favorites are Centering Prayer, the Welcoming Prayer, and Lectio Divina. In anticipation of the conference, I decided that I would commit myself to Centering Prayer before we traveled. Since that time, I have maintained a commitment to this daily practice – approximately 20 minutes a day. Some days I only manage a few minutes, while other days I am able to do what she considers the “normal dosage,” which is 20 minutes in the morning and evening.

I still don’t know what I am directly “achieving” with my daily practice; little seems evident in my 20 minutes of silence. However, in numerous subtle ways, other parts of my life have changed over the last year, and I intuitively credit reading of her books and commitment to the practice for these changes. I have integrated some form of meditation into nearly all of my teaching at HKIS. I have also consciously worked to maintain a non-dualistic posture towards many of the issues that I face here at HKIS on a regular basis.  That is, I try to avoid reacting with frustration or anger to things I 201003-omag-oprah-thich-nhat-hanh-300x205disagree with, and take a third-person approach to my own emotional reactions. As Cynthia says, as we develop a practice, our “magnetic center” comes to resonate to deeper areas of exploration.  For example, I have been recently inspired by Oprah’s interview with Thich Nhat Hanh as well as by the visit of a Bhutanese monk to Richard Friederick’s class who, when asked what was his life’s purpose, simply responded, “To be compassion.” This seems to me to be a succinct summary of the life and work of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Finally, I recently heard a talk by trailblazing meditation researcher Richard Davidson who, when asked why he got into this area of research, explained, “All the best people I knew in the world had one thing in common: they meditated.”

imagesAt this point in my practice of Centering Prayer, Thomas Merton’s statement speaks to me: “This act of total surrender is not merely a fantastic intellectual and mystical gamble; it is something much more serious. It is an act of love for this unseen person, who, in the very gift of love by which we surrender ourselves to his reality also makes his presence known to us.” Although I was first introduced to Centering Prayer in the mid-1990′s, it has only been in the last 11 months that I have been able to maintain a commitment to its practice. It does feel like a “fantastic intellectual and mystical gamble” for me.  I’ve given a substantial amount time (that I had not been able to relinquish in previous years) over to something that seems quite ambiguous. Yet what I read simply makes so much sense to my intuition.  At the same time Centering Prayer seems to be bearing fruit in my own life, too, although the impact has been analogous to telling “the truth slant.” Perhaps like yeast leavening a loaf, its effect is indirect.

Wisdom and My Future

Just a few weeks ago I read a section from The Future of Wisdom: indexToward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity that spoke directly to my sense of vocation.  Drawing from the Hindu tradition, Catholic monk Bruno Barnhardt writes that Christianity in the last 100 years has had a rebirth in 3 of the 4 spiritual paths:

1) The Path  of Contemplation (raja yoga) – Centering Prayer.
2) The Path of Devotion (bhakti yoga) – Pentecostal Movement.
3) The Path of Service (karma yoga) – Liberation Theology.

However, the fourth path, the path of wisdom (jnana yoga), has not had a distinct movement develop within Christianity. But whenever I teach about wisdom which balances critical reasoning with other ways of knowing (e.g, experiential, contemplative, service-related, artistic), most students welcome this kind of multifaceted exploration. As a teacher who enjoys the life of the mind in the context of spiritual growth, I would like to continue the work I’m doing, but to direct my energies toward fostering a wisdom movement within the church or  within schools which I serve.

indexBorrowing the central concept of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward (as he explains in this video clip), I have now entered the second half of my life – where inclusion, compassion, surrender, and forgiveness should supplant the first half of life’s emphasis on boundary markers, competition, establishing identity, and keeping score.  I feel drawn to the wisdom of the second half of life, and believe that HKIS and other educational institutions are in desperate need of this perspective. As a Christian school, access to this wisdom is our birthright, but we have lost sight of this “pearl of great price.”  In the future I would like to study with Richard, Cynthia and others at their Living School of Wisdom, and bring this wisdom to our schools.

Conclusion

I am now in my late 40′s. This decade began with my social conscience research, which was a culmination of the path I had been on for the first 20 years of my teaching here at HKIS. The year following my graduation was when I first met Cynthia (thanks to Richard Friedericks who had known of her some years ago), and I believe that she represents a turn in my life. If the first 20 years of my teaching ministry was about understanding the yang of service learning, there now appears to be a pivot towards the yin of inner awakening through spiritual practices.  Perhaps it could be more succinctly stated that the yin-yang of my educational philosophy is the method for the ultimate goal of pursuing wisdom. I have the sense that this desire for wisdom is what I have been subconsciously chasing throughout my years at HKIS. I hope that in years to come I can continue to harmonize these two aspects of my teaching ministry, and in some small way contribute to a movement within Christianity towards the path of wisdom.

With gratitude,

Marty

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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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4 Responses to Centering Prayer and the Call to Wisdom: A Personal Reflection

  1. Rishi says:

    Marty, this is fantastic! You’ve really expressed it all so well!

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Pingback: Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  3. Pingback: The Benefits of Meditation Five Years On: A Personal Reflection | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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