As I turned 50 last month, perhaps it’s not surprising that the best books/resources for me during this past year involved the spiritual life. As I’ve been writing for some time on this blog, this aspect seems to be the necessary complement to my emphasis on social conscience education.
The most impactful resources this year were two online courses with Cynthia Bourgeault (see #1 and #2 below), which provided me with a new metaphor that I’m using now in my classes. In her Advent course, she explains:
In the esoteric school [Gurdjieff School] I worked in for many years, there was a teaching about so-called “A influences” and “B influences.” The gist of it is that along the horizontal axis we are constantly being bombarded by competing options and possibilities, all playing to slightly different images of ourselves. These “A influences” wind up cancelling each other out, and we remain at a standstill. But woven through this cacophony are “B influences” — invitations that seem to come from a higher order of reality, or from a deeper place within. The real challenge, particularly in the early stages of the spiritual life is to learn to tell the difference between them, allowing those A influences to loosen their grip as the B influences exert a stronger and stronger homing signal.
Eventually, the teaching goes, when the capacity to follow those “B influences” has grown strong and steady enough, a person of “C influence” will appear in your life to lead you to the next step. That is your teacher.
Reflecting on my last decade, I can see the relevance of this teaching. I submitted my dissertation in July, 2009, and despite the right-brain nature of some aspects of social conscience, writing about my research was primarily an exercise in analytical thinking. I remember thinking that in the next stage of my life, I needed to engage in other aspects of myself. In Cynthia’s terms, I needed to bring the mind into the heart and into the body. I received my marks back in September and then attended my graduation in March, 2010.
What would happen next? Well, I continued to teach the same courses in the same school that I did before the dissertation. Of course, the research helped me quite a bit to teach my students better (horizontally), but there was no especially noticeable qualitative (vertical) change in my work as a result of my research.
However, in October, 2010 I attended an evening presentation by Cynthia at St. John’s Cathedral about her new book on Mary Magdalene. I have been captured by her ideas ever since.
I can say, then, that teaching for social conscience is fundamentally a horizontal (A) axis pedagogy. This has been of primary importance between 2000-2010, and remains strong to this day. However, since 2010, I have been irresistibly drawn to Cynthia’s words and practices. The vertical realm (B) was calling at just the right time – when I had the time to focus on something new, and Cynthia, as I call her frequently now, is my teacher (C).
Teaching about the Vertical
Last week as I opened the second semester with my new World Religions classes, I did a short introductory lesson plan with students that borrowed Cynthia’s metaphor. I told the students as we began the course that I thought I should offer them a reason why it’s worthwhile to study World Religions. I then put a timeline on the board from 1900 to 2015 and asked students to fill it in with important events and dates from their study of humanities in their grade 9 classes. Up went “World War I” “Nanjing Massacre,” “Cambodia Genocide,” and “Occupy Central.” After this 15-minute brainstorming, I asked the class why we study these events, and they volunteered answers, such as an awareness how they affect us, not repeating the mistakes of the past, etc. Inside the timeline bar I wrote in bold letters, “RELATIONSHIP,” explaining that we as teachers hope that students see connections between recent historical events and their own lives.
Then I said as I wrote on the board, “Take a look at this quote from the famous 20th century psychologist Carl Jung, “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.*” I went back to the timeline. “Wouldn’t you agree that all of these historical events are ‘finite.’ They have a beginning and an end. Carl Jung is pointing us to the belief of nearly all cultures before modern times that there is not only a horizontal dimension to our existence of one thing happening after another, but a vertical dimension that involves the infinite. I think you would agree that nearly all of your school day, including your humanities classes, are about the horizontal.” I went back to the timeline and added “HORIZONTAL” to “RELATIONSHIP.” I continued, “But this class will give you a chance to explore the vertical.” I turned back to the timeline and drew a vertical bar through the horizontal plane, writing the words “VERTICAL” and “INFINITE” down the space. “And I think you would agree, IF a vertical dimension does exist, then it would certainly be a great pity not to investigate it. That’s the concern of all world religions, and that’s what we’ll do this semester.” And with that, I turned to our first activity on the topic of worldview.
Best Books and Resources of 2014
In keeping, then, with my own shift to the vertical, here are my favorite books and resources of 2014. The books are listed in order of their impact on me:
- “The Gurdjieff Work with Cynthia Bourgeault:” Only this fall have I come to appreciate the wealth of knowledge contained in the Spirituality and Practice website. They regularly have online spiritual retreats in which participants receive a daily/regular email from a teacher, and the online community participates in a “Practice Circle,” sharing our responses to the lessons and practices. Led by Cynthia, this course studies the work of G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), “an enigmatic, Armenian-born spiritual teacher whose one-of-a-kind spiritual teaching has been a quiet force in Western spiritual history for nearly 100 years” (Spirituality and Practice website). In her 12 emails over 4 weeks Cynthia explores the essentials of Gurdjieff spiritual formation: living on autopilot; paying attention; thinking, feeling, and sensing; expanded attention; self-observation; identification; re-awakening to the vertical dimension; conscious labor and more. Perhaps my biggest insight was considering the body as a source of wisdom. Of the three centers of intelligence – the mind, the heart, and the body – the one that doesn’t lie is the body. I gained new perspectives that I don’t think I have ever considered from this course, which can be accessed here on-demand on the Spirituality and Practice website.
- “The Gospel of Thomas with Cynthia Bourgeault.” Following the success of the first e-course, I signed up for this second one, which is described in this way on the Spirituality and Practice website, “Using the format of the Advent calendar — a saying for each day of the 25 days from the first Sunday in Advent through Christmas — the e-course allows the Gospel of Thomas to lead you further into those great Advent themes — watchfulness, spiritual generativity, the fullness of time, the play of light and darkness — and to prepare our hearts for a truly blessed Christmas.” Having read the Gospel of Thomas some years ago and coming away untouched by its contents, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Cynthia did not disappoint. She provided the Rosetta Stone code to translate this enigmatic text into spiritual insight. The daily emails prepared my heart for Christmas in a way that I cannot remember. On the whole, Cynthia’s daily reflections here were even more brilliant than her books.
- The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort, and Spiritual Transformation (1998) by Kathleen Singh. This is one of those paradigm-shifting books that leaves a permanent inner shift. Singh, a hospice worker, gives an in-depth and beautifully written account of the process of dying. As she began this work, she saw tragedy everywhere in her town, “That home had this sad event,” or “I know the last days of this person,” or “Her life came to end too soon,” but over time all this changed to, “I know how this person changed in the last weeks,” or “What a beautiful final image I have of this person. The point of this book, first, is to learn not to fear death, and, second, to encourage all of us to “die before we die” through spiritual practices. It’s the same process. Why not come to transformation earlier in one’s earthly existence rather than later?
- American Veda: How Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation – How Indian Spirituality Changed the West (2010) by Philip Goldberg. I was with my family on the last day of a vacation in Kolkata, following our trip to Bhutan, and I dragged my family to the Ramakrishna’s home temple of Belur Math, and came to learn of Vivekananda’s taking of America by storm in 1893. This eventually led me to this superbly well-researched and lucid telling of the story of Hinduism’s impact on America. What I came to find out was that so many of my own intellectual mentors, such as Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell, Bede Griffiths, Ken Wilber and even the Centering Prayer movement, were impacted by the Vedantic revolution in American society.
- The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (2013) by Charles Eisenstein. As my colleague Mike Kersten and myself worked on a Humanities II in Action curriculum this summer, Eisenstein’s ideas about story played a substantive role in our planning: “A leader is the holder of a story, someone whose experience of its reality is deep enough so that she can hold the belief on behalf of others. Many leaders today are weak because they do not believe in what they profess . . . .We must become storytellers of a new world (79, 203). Having so thoroughly devoured Eisenstein’s Ascent of Humanity, I was eager to read this follow-up. I was not disappointed. Eisenstein’s integrity and honesty shines through on every page. As a younger writer who has three children from his (former) Taiwanese wife, lived in Taiwan for some years, and is fluent in Chinese, I also feel some affinity for his life experience. I highly recommend these two works; you can also sample his writing on his blog. Hit here for Charles’ online essays.
- The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (2013) by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. As I was preparing to teach my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class this fall, I chanced upon this book by the legendary educational researcher Howard Gardner and his (then) associate at Harvard, Katie Davis. As we broached the topic of technology’s impact on the younger generation in the class, Gardner and Davis’ book, especially the chapters on identity, intimacy, and imagination, proved just the right mix of research and well-written prose to give us much to consider as a class. Given the technology revolution that our students are living through now, this topic needs to be addressed in their schooling. (My class’ responses were featured on Gardner’s website.)
- The Circle (2013) by David Eggers. As can be seen by my list, I don’t read a lot of fiction. This one was recommended on Howard Gardner’s website related to technology. I began it as a supplement to my teaching, but once I got into it, I had a hard time putting it down. Eggers writes with flair, exuberance, and a sense of unpredictability. As a NY Times review notes, this story is not a “dystopia;” much of the novel engages the positive aspects of a technology company: optimism, dynamic change, and even a concern for the poor. Yet by the end, much like watching the recent movie “Disconnect,” seeing the issue of technology through a credible story set at the apex of a commercial hierarchy was disturbing. Given my explorations in meditation, which aims to unplug the self from always checking in on its progress, the decision by the charming, high achieving main character Mae to go “transparent,” living her entire life in front of an audience who scores her every move in real time, seemed only a hyperbolic extension of the direction we have moved in the age of Facebook and Instagram. It left me again with the belief that if we do not develop spiritual practices to counter the relentless drive towards quantifiable success, then many will be lost to anomie, emotional distress and, in time, to mental illness. (Read a review of The Circle here.)
- This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) by Naomi Klein. Having being blown away by reading the Shock Doctrine (2007) five years ago, I eagerly purchased Naomi Klein’s book on climate change. Yet I couldn’t help but think that this would be a liberal diatribe against conservatives, blaming the latter for the slow response to climate change. While some of this critique of conservatives occurs, such as a fascinating insider’s look at a climate change deniers’ conference, the book begins where most of us are: Naomi’s own dismissing of climate change in her personal life. It is her slow conversion to the gravity of the situation and the hope implicit in this acknowledgement that serves as the book’s entry point. What emerges in this historical moment, she realizes, is the opportunity to re-think the fundamentals of capitalism, to re-imagine a world as different as a country without slaves for the 19th century southern plantation owner. This reflective tone is complemented by her trademark delivery of striking facts and arresting anecdotes. As the back cover claims, “once a decade, Naomi Klein writes a book that redefines its era.”
- Convictions: How I Learned What Mattered Most (2014) by Marcus Borg. Although I have been following Borg’s writings ever since being enthralled by reading Jesus: A New Vision (1987) as a young social studies and religion teacher in the early 1990’s, I still enjoyed reading this book as he brings forward new understandings. I especially enjoyed his analysis of the five divisions in the American church: conservative Christians, conventional Christians, uncertain Christians, former Christians, and progressive Christians (8-16). Borg continues to find simpler and more accessible ways to elucidate differences between traditional and progressive Christian beliefs and practices.
- Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012) by Eben Alexander. I am always searching for materials that interest World Religions students in even the possibility that some other realm exists beyond our material existence. On last year’s list was Brian Weiss’ book Many Lives, Many Masters, which, while quite good, is a second-hand account of Brian’s therapy sessions with a young woman named Catherine. This year I switched to Near Death Experiences, using Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s breath-taking descriptions of his lengthy time in the “other world,” to consider the possibilities of a spiritual dimension. I especially liked his suggestion that one doesn’t need to almost die to have this kind of breakthrough; Eben suggests that Centering Prayer can also help people to come to similar realizations. Many students were deeply impressed by his journey, while a few found his intelligent and confident style to be a bit off-putting. For this reason, next semester I plan to offer students a choice to read this book or the next one below. (I used this video is a valuable introduction to reading excerpts of the book.) [Later addition: This semester’s students found Eben’s book more impactful than Anita’s.]
- Dying to be Me: My Journey to Cancer, to Near Death to True Healing (2012) by Anita Moorjani. Anita provides a cultural and gender counterpoint to Eben’s story. Raised in Hong Kong as a minority who attended international schools in the city, Anita seems to fit the profile of HKIS students. Her healing from the final stages of cancer is truly miraculous, and her glimpses into the other world may be more easily believed for some students than Eben’s visions. Anita reflects on her transformation in the later stages of the book in ways that students find authentic. (I used this high-quality video clip, set in Hong Kong, to introduce Anita’s book.)
The Advent season, as Cynthia teaches, is an anticipation of the timeless (vertical) entering into human history (horizontal). As a Christian teacher entering my 6th decade, it seems that the purpose of a truly holistic education is to bring these two dimensions together. T.S. Eliot once wrote, “To live at the intersection of the timeless with time is the occupation of a saint.” We are intended for both, which in this worldview means God’s intentionality and energy are on the side of those who seek to integrate these dimensions. In this sense, bringing together social conscience education (horizontal) with inner awakening (vertical) is not only my own natural preoccupation at this time in my life, but an intimation of divine purpose.
* Carl Jung’s full statement:
“The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance. Thus we demand that the world grant us recognition for qualities which we regard as personal possessions: our talent or our beauty. The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential, the less satisfying is his life. He feels limited because he has limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy. If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change.”
(To see my favorite books and videos in 2013, hit here.)
Our first World Religions field trip to an ISKCON site in Hong Kong to learn more about Hinduism. Taina and TK are dressed up by our hosts. Below are the sacred statues of Krisha and Radha that we were able to view at the end of our visit.