Teaching for Self-Transcendence: Spiritual Practices in the World Religions Classroom

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A spiritual practices project has become the centerpiece of my  9th grade World Religions curriculum. Students can choose any spiritual practice (such as meditation which resulted in the dreamy image of rebirth above) to help themselves grow. This entry shares my approach to teaching the course, the role of this project in the curriculum, and many examples of student projects. 

“People seldom understand the power of repetition. What is repeated over and over can become enduring; what is done in a moment is seldom lasting. If farmers do not tend to their fields every day, they cannot expect a harvest. The same is true of spiritual practice. It is not the grand declaration or the colorful initiation that means anything. It is only the daily living of a spiritual life that has meaning. Our progress may range from dull to spectacular, but we must accept both. Each and every day should be linked together, strung into a long line of prayer beads.”

–   Deng Ming-Dao

The word “prayer” has often been trivialized by making it merely into a way of asking for what you want or making announcements to God, as if God did not know (see Matthew 6:7-8). But I use “prayer” to mean any interior journey or practice that allows you to experience faith, hope, and love within yourself. It is not a technique for getting things, a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven. Prayer is much more practicing heaven now.

                                                                                              -Richard Rohr, “The Inner Witness

“Being able to see ourselves as part of an abundant and compassionate whole . . . [is] the real goal of spiritual practice.”

-Cynthia Bourgeault

Introduction

Over the last five years as I’ve taught World Religions at Hong Kong International School, I’ve continued to weigh the most fundamental questions about this area of study: what is the purpose of religion and how do I teach toward that purpose?

I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that, in the midst of a society that trains us to be separate, autonomous individuals, the purpose of religion, which literally means to “reconnect,” is to offer followers self-transcendence, uniting a lower, self-protective self with a more generous, outward-focused Larger Self. Franciscan Richard Rohr[1] suggests that if religion fails to serve such a purpose, it has little to offer modern culture:

That’s one reason why religion is in such friar-richard-rohrdesperate straits today: it isn’t really transforming people.
It’s merely giving people some pious and religious ways to again be in charge and in control. It’s still the same small self or what Merton called the false self. Mature, authentic spirituality calls us into experiences and teachings that open us to an actual transformation of consciousness (Romans 12:2).

Although I’ve devoted much of the last 20 years teaching transformative education through service learning, a highly effective way to open a crack in the ego, I’ve come to see that this approach is not, in and of itself, sufficient. The weakness of service learning is that it doesn’t provide practical daily means by which to cultivate a decentered self. Religion’s most important contribution to this kind of education, then, is its many technologies of transformation – breathing, meditation, chanting, conscious walking, and many more – which facilitate change from the inside out. Only through these spiritual practices, I’ve come to conclude, can the initial awakening of service learning come to the fuller fruition of genuine transformation.

Self-Transcendence Through Spiritual Practices

Over the past five years as I have reinvigorated my own commitment to spiritual practices, I have slowly included more opportunities for my students to do the same. For many students, engaging in practices that unplug the mind is an unusual, or even non-sensical, approach. So, it’s important to explain why religion uses such practices. Rohr addresses this question:

“I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear. We need some practice that touches our unconscious conditioning where all our wounds and defense mechanisms lie. That’s the only way we can be changed at any significant or lasting level.”

Rohr gives the practical example of such a change by contrasting genuine contemplation with “small self” prayer:

“What is contemplation? Simply put, contemplation is entering a deeper silence and letting go of our habitual thoughts, sensations, and feelings. You may know contemplation by another name. Many religions use the word meditation. Christians often use the word prayer. But for many in the West, prayer has come to mean something functional, something you do to achieve a desired effect, which puts you back in charge. Prayers of petition aren’t all bad, but they don’t really lead to a new state of being or consciousness. The same old consciousness is self-centered: How can I get God to do what I want God to do? This kind of prayer allows you to remain an untransformed, egocentric person who is just trying to manipulate God.”

This suggests that there are two levels of religion.[2] The first level includes all the external religious trappings involved in any community of faith, but leaves the ego intact. The second level, by contrast, speaks of a dying to self in order to be centered in Ultimate Reality. Given the fragile state of both people and the planet, it seems important to include this more powerful, ego-transcending level in our religion classes.

Spiritual Practices Project Assignment

The way that I have taught towards this goal is through a spiritual practices project. Having studied Hinduism and Buddhism in the first half of the semester, which allows me to explain the logic behind meditation and experiment with a variety of contemplative practices in class, students are ready in the second half of the course for their own personal exploration through an independent project. I give them a few half-periods to work on the project in class, while I talk with them individually and give them tips to get their practice up and running.

Here is the assignment sheet for the project.

Spiritual Practice Project

World Religions – Schmidt

All spiritual traditions use various practices to help them take their teachings and integrate them into one’s identity. There are many different types of spiritual paths. In this project you are going to study about a particular religious path, while at the same time evaluating if it has some spiritual significance to you personally. This project, then, involves both study and spiritual practice. Half your project should be the academic study of what you have learned about the tradition, and the other half should be about your practice.

Goals for your presentation:

  1. Create a thesis, a one-sentence summary of the point you want to make through your presentation. What have you learned through the combination of your study and practice? Make sure everything connects to this thesis.
  2. Study the Tradition’s Background: First, what is this religious traditions’ pathway to the divine? How does it move followers from the horizontal to the vertical dimension? How does it bring about personal peace/inner aliveness?
  3. Self-Discovery: If you devote time and effort to a spiritual practice, will you grow?
  • What practice did you choose and why?
  • Just like we did for the Buddhism presentation, what is the core problem/issue that you are hoping that your spiritual practice can address (e.g., anxiety, self-focus, superficiality, reactivity, emotion-driven behavior) or a positive behavior you want to develop more fully (e.g., compassion, openness, peace, hope, living in the present, exploration of a potential vertical dimension)?
  • Share high (and possibly low) points of your practice. How effective was it?
  • Did you feel that your experience verified what the tradition said about a spiritual practice or not?

Due date:

Regular Spiritual Practice – I want you to propose a spiritual practice which:

  • Can be done 10 times over the next two weeks.
  • Can be done primarily alone.
  • Involves creativity on your part in designing the activity.

Best place to start: What kind of spiritual practice would you like to do?

Then I want you to link this practice above to something you can STUDY. I’ve listed some ideas below, but don’t be limited to this list.

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Sample Student Spiritual Practices Projects

Each student in my World Religion class engages in a project that they choose for themselves. Here are some recent student examples from my classes. (Some of these also come from my Service, Society, and the Sacred class.)

  1. Christian Prayer: James wrote a prayer that he recited twice a day, and then allowed himself the opportunity during this prayer to add in his own thoughts and requests. While he questioned whether he even believed in God at the beginning of the project, by the end he felt that some kind of Higher Power had helped to modify his behavior and attitudes. (See more details below under “Student Project Reflection” about his growth through this project.)IMG_4964
  2. Creating a Mandala: Adrienne (who did the mandala above) did a Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.51.07 pm.pngmix of meditation (about 10 minutes) and drawing of mandalas (15 minutes or more), completing several of them through the 10 sessions. She felt calmer about life and very satisfied with her mandala, even though she burned one of them at the end. She also felt that she wanted to burn some of her personal journals that she keeps. She realized that there were a lot of emotional burdens in her writing, and it felt like a relief to let them go. (See more details below under “Student Project Reflection” about her growth through this project. See notes below for tips on making and using a mandala. I’ve also written a blog entry entitled “Burn Your Mandala: Letting Go in a Culture of Achievement.” Check out the excellent book The Mandala Bible from the library (203 Gau).)
  3. Death Meditation: Following the visit of a Buddhist monk who meditated for 45 minutes a day on his own death, Zach took 15-20 minutes/day to imagine his own death. Although initially it was a struggle, by about the 3rd session he was able to go escape his own initial uncertainty of how to do the practice and venture into areas he had never considered. Through this practice, Zach, a math-science guy, felt that for the first time he began to develop his own spiritual identity beyond the day-to-day horizontal dimension. The second outcome for Zach was that considering death helped him relax about his tests and homework, putting them into a larger perspective. As Zach himself wrote, “I was quite baffled by the spiritual impact of this project. Furthermore, death is often quite a stigmatized subject in Western culture, and therefore the idea of meditating on this extremely frightening experience was something that pushed me past my comfort zone. However, by persevering through this initially uncomfortable practice, I was able to understand the true results of this meditation, and not only did I have a better grasp of myself, but was also able to find spirituality in my life.” See this helpful description of the death meditation by Dylan Watts below. You also may find this reading by Kathleen Singh on why we need to meditate on death beneficial. Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 7.08.19 PM.png
  1. Gratitude Letters: As a second semester senior, Jocelyn wanted to bring her high school career to closure by writing letters of gratitude. She began each letter with a 3-minute meditation to center herself, and then she hand-wrote letters to people who she wanted to thank in her life, which allowed her to really think deeply about those people who have made a difference in her life. Another student, Celine, wrote letters to important people in her life and then cut the letters into extraordinarily graceful paper lace. See this article on gratitude research.
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  2. Journaling: Both Jade and Natasha have been journal-writers in the past, but in this project they took this good habit and turned it into a spiritual practice. Jade did this by listening to the teachings of Buddhist teacher Adyashanti (e.g. hear example) before writing; Natasha meditated on the benefits of failure and the detriments of success before turning to her journaling. These practices reframed their writing with a spaciousness that is analogous to moving from a 2-D to a 3-D perspective. Developing an “outside observer” outside of their normal egoic self proved to be a growth experience for both of them. Both girls also felt that writing as a spiritual practice allowed a healthy emotional outpouring regarding their experiences.Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 10.01.26 pm
  3. Processing the Foshan Orphanage Experience: Two girls, Kathy and Natalia, had deep emotional experiences that they struggled with after returning from the Foshan orphanage. Both girls created their own spiritual practices to deal with the emotional confusion of that experience. Kathy did spiritual journaling, while Natalia combined impromptu piano pieces with a loving kindness meditation. Both felt that these practices helped them in a more powerful way than more conventional ways, such discussing or writing, to process their Foshan experience. You can read about their whole project here. You can also listen to Natalia’s first and last improvisational composition here and here, respectively. screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-11-18-02-am
  4. Loving Kindness meditation: Paul did a series of loving kindness meditations, 20 minutes at a sitting. He focused on different groups of people (e.g, family in other parts of the world, people he doesn’t always get along with, etc) on different days. He felt that it definitely made him a calmer and kinder person. See this excellent summary of research on the 18 science-based reasons why you should consider doing the Loving Kindness meditation as a spiritual practice. Here is a second piece on the research of Barbara Frederickson (search for “lovingkindness” in the article).
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  5. Calligraphy with Loving Kindness meditation: Soobin and Valerie started with a few minutes of loving kindness meditation to calm herself, and then she moved to writing Chinese characters that were meaningful to her. Each time was 10-20 minutes. This practice helped both students to get a sense of the true purpose of calligraphy. Another student, Serena, found this practice helped her think about the beauty and meaning of Chinese characters. Here is a video clip of her calligraphy. (See more details below under “Student Project Reflection” about her growth through this project.) Finally, Moqiu used a meditation to lead her into the writing of the Buddhist “Heart Sutra” in traditional Chinese script, as can be seen in her video of the project. (For more information, see this blog entry,”Calligraphy as Sacred Art.”)Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.17.02 pm
  6. Fasting with Loving Kindness meditation: Kennedy gave up sweets for several weeks as a commitment to her Christian faith. She also did a 5-minute loving kindness meditation as part of her project. Her goal was to help her create better personal habits for herself, both in her eating and with her attitudes towards other people. If you choose to do fasting, this TEDx talk may help you understand the physiological benefits of your practice.
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  7. Painting: A high-achieving student, Claudia has struggled with stress-induced headaches throughout her high school career. She chose painting, a love that she neglected in her high school years, to see if she could use it as a spiritual practice. While she initially conceptualized painting as a way to distract her mind from her stress, she came to understand that this practice required her to engage her conscious mind with the physicality of painting: focusing on her brush strokes, listening to the sound of brush on canvas, and concentrating on her choice of color. Using painting as a therapy, she realized, meant fully engaging her mind in the present. Not only did she produce a beautiful painting, but she came to see the therapeutic value of her underused talent of painting.dsc_2875
  8. Eating Mindfully: Samiya did a Hindu pray6fa0c588b6ab8b3997cd5fc2fcec8e2eer before she ate her meals with the goal of eating more slowly and mindfully. The highlight of the project was when she went to a Christian student’s home for Thanksgiving that she felt an immense sense of gratitude for the food and friendship. Here is the prayer she used:

O lord Hari, you are the giver of food.
You are the enjoyer of food

and you are the creator of food.
Therefore, I offer all that 
I consume at your lotus feet.

11. Hindu Chanting: (1) Karan did a practice with his mother at a shrine in their flat. While it started off as a way for Karan to learn more about his Hindu religious heritage, but by the end of the ten sessions, he felt that his whole worldview had shifted from assuming that there was no spiritual world to his belief that there probably is something to it. Through use of his imagination and the prayers, he came to accept that there is real wisdom in teaching of his Hindu tradition. You can see video clips of him chanting the prayers and doing a candle ritual.

Screen Shot 2016-12-23 at 2.50.57 PM.png(2) Sid sang a 25-minute religious Amritvani: Select Shabads From Sri Guru Granth Sahebsong called the Amritvani. While initially he didn’t feel any different doing the singing, by the third session and throughout the rest of the practice, he felt that the Amritvani helped him become calmer, more focused, and put him in a better mood.

  1. Bathing gods: Riana did a variety of rituals in which she washed gods at her family’s Hindu shrine (mandir) at her flat. She had always done this before with her Mom, but now she did it more regularly on her own. Each ritual took 10-15 minutes. She felt much more connected to her tradition through doing this spiritual practice. What started off as a fun project without much meaning became something she felt she was doing for herself. The end result is that she felt she was becoming closer to God.
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  2. Ikebana: Aly did a short meditation to begin her practice, allowing her to gather her thoughts and feelings about her day. After the meditation, she then took the flowers that she had purchased and arranged them in accordance with her impressions from the meditation time. This practice helped her feel much less stressed about her upcoming summatives, and even her father remarked that she seemed so much more “Zen” about school.
  3. img_5172Transcendental Meditation: As an artist, Sam came to this project with a desire to escape the sense of being “stuck” in her creativity that she had had during her senior year, so she decided to take up a 20-minute Transcendental Meditation practice. She was particularly inspired by the value of TM for artists, as described in this video clip by filmmaker David Lynch. By the end of the project, Sam felt that her art had begun to flow in ways that she hadn’t experienced for some time. Although she’s not certain it was due to the practice – perhaps it could have been due to the decrease of stress as the end of the  year approached – it was striking how the subject matter of her art changed from a focus on dark topics (“What’s Up?” in the first picture) to etheral images of rebirth (“Dreamland” in the second picture) during the time she did TM.吓?(small)

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Additional Ideas

  1. Yoga: A good place to start is with Stanford YPRcoverprofessor of health, Kelly McGonigal. Here is a her 20-minute breathing yoga practice. She also has a TED talks about how to use stress to your advantage, and how to develop stronger willpower. Her yoga book has very helpful ideas, like the “breath of joy” practice.
  2. The book Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden has 20 different meditation exercises to help someone develop compassion towards themselves or toward others. Examples: eating mindfully (196); body scan (201); developing self-compassion through imagining a safe place (240), colors (241) or loving images (245); working with the anxious self (266), angry self (268), or critical self (270); feeding-your-demonswidening the circle of compassion (283).
  3. Drawing on Tibetan Buddhism, the book Feeding Your Demon by Tsultrim Allione challenges students to imagine any problem they are facing as a demon, befriend it, and win it over by feeding it. (See me for reading excerpts to help with this project.)
  4. I’d like to encourage some projects involving conscious walking with nature, or some other nature project.  (See “Creation Is the Primary Cathedral” by Richard Rohr at the bottom of this entry.)
    Here is a description from Lisa Persons, spiritual director of Emory University, of this spiritual practice:


    “In an ordinary psychic state I simply look at a street. But if I remember myself, I do not simply look at the street; I feel that I am looking… Instead of one impression of the street there are two impressions, one of the street and another of myself looking at it.

    ~ G. Gurdjieff

    Most of the time, impressions of the world around us “bounce off” of our consciousness and we don’t take them in. If we can muster “self remembering” and become aware of our feet, our breath, our being as we look, then we see and sense so much more. Taking in impressions this way nourishes us more deeply than we know.

    Image may contain: plant, tree, flower, nature and outdoorTaking a walk is a good time to practice “self remembering.” As you walk and see the trees, houses and birds, buildings and cars, observe what you feel and sense in your body. As you take in what you see while simultaneously sensing your body, you are perceiving with more of you.
  5. Chigong: I would like to encourage students to consider the ancient Chinese energy practice of chigong (氣功) as a spiritual practice. A good guide for this is Master Mingtong Gu who has made various videos leading students through chigong exercises, such as this one to increase energy flow in the back. You can also read this introduction to chigong from the Shift Network. Mingtong Gu has more practices on Youtube.
  6. There is a lot of fear in our world, especially now after the Trump election victory. Here is a Buddhist take on how to deal with this fear.
  7. Mudra meditations: Mudras are hand gestures that Screen Shot 2016-11-23 at 10.14.15 AM.pngcan be used as a spiritual practice. Borrow from these websites (“Mudras: The Healing Power in Your Hands;”10 Buddha Mutras to Practice in Daily Life;” “The Power of Hand Mudras and Their Meaning: Improving Your Yoga Practice” ), combine with yoga (see this excellent 12-minute yoga practice with mudras by Kelly McGonigal) or design your own.
  8. Deep belly breathing meditation: Teacher Reggie Rae leads students through a 10-minute deep belly breathing that is frequently practiced by Tibetan Buddhists as a way to awaken the mind to a larger consciousness. Start the video at 57:40.

Student Project Reflection

Each student recorded their ten (or more) spiritual practices and provided a brief reflection on each experience. I’d like to highlight two projects from the list above and show how students grew through the project. Here are selected log reflections from two students as they progressed through their projects.

  1. Christian Prayer (#1 above): James, who comes from a Christian family, had a lot of doubts whether he actually believed in God or not. So, he wrote a prayer for himself that he recited twice a day (total of 10 minutes) for 15 days. Here is a selection of his log reflections through the 15 sessions:
  • Day 1: Since this was the first time doing my practice, I didn’t really expect much. I just read the notecard and didn’t think much of it.
  • Day 2: Tried again today…but didn’t feel anything. I’m not really expecting much.
  • Day 4: Getting a little bit skeptical about this whole praying thing. It’s still only the fourth time but still. Also, I think if the rest of the sessions continue to be like this I might really reconsider my belief in Christianity or religion altogether.
  • Day 6: I’m not sure if this is just a placebo effect of prayer, but I think I’m thinking more optimistically.
  • Day 7: Today was a really tiring day because I had 3 tests. However, during my night prayer, I felt more energetic and peaceful. I slept well.
  • Day 8: I’m starting to the feel the real power of prayer and belief in a higher power. I’m still not certain but I feel that it may have not only an emotional effect but a physical one as well.
  • Day 9: Today I got into a discussion with my mom over my grades and I noticed something different about the way I behaved. Instead of going straight to yelling, I caught myself and decided to resolve it calmly. I’d never actually thought about arguing with my mom without shouting in the past so it was actually a surprise to me as well. I think this whole prayer thing might be working.
  • Day 11: After my night prayer today, I felt a weird calmness that hasn’t ever happened. My body just lost all energy and I felt extremely relaxed. It was as if my whole body and consciousness was letting out a sigh of satisfaction. I’d like to think it was God but it could’ve just been the thought of sleep getting to me.
  • Day 12: I’m starting to see a real difference in my behavior at home and at school. I feel like I’m politer and more cheerful.
  • Day 13: My friend commented on my cheerfulness. He told me I look happier than usual when I didn’t really have anything to be particularly happy about. I think this actually proves that now, it’s not just me noticing changes but people around me as well.
  • Day 14: I am positive now that by doing this spiritual practice, my behavior and outlook on life has been changed. I feel significantly for happy throughout the day compared to when I started.
  • Day 15: This was the last time I did my spiritual practice and honestly, I was quite surprised with my results. Although at the beginning it was either this would have no effect on me or I would become the Buddha, I realized that I ended up somewhere in between these two expectations. I’m still not sure if God is real but it confirmed to me that there is in fact a higher power. It also proved to me that there is an effect related to praying and behavior, which I plan to present on. It’s been a very interesting experience.
  1. Drawing a Mandala (#2 above): Adrienne did a meditation and mandala spiritual project because she thoroughly enjoys doing art.
  • Day 2: Today I tried not meditating first and just go straight into drawing my mandalas and I got bored really quickly so I think I might try meditating again next time and see if there’s a difference.
  • Day 6: I meditated for 10 minutes this time because it worked for me very well last time when I meditated for 10 minutes only. I’m finding it to help me concentrate much better on my mandalas and I don’t get bored as easily while doing my mandalas over a longer time period. Today I continued with my mandala carving and I’m really happy with the end result.
  • Day 8: I’m starting to enjoy spendinIMG_4106.JPGg more effort and time on this much more than when I just started. Since I’m working with oil paint, the whole process is taking much more effort and work to finish but I’m enjoying it.
  • Day 9: I didn’t get bored of doing it at all, in fact I found it to have put me in a better mood and calmed me down a lot more than before since I was stressed out today.
  • Day 10: After meditating, I finished off some details of my mandala and I’m extremely happy with the results. I feel really comforted and in a great mood because I finished something well and I focused and put a lot of effort on it.
  • Day 11: Today is the final day and it’s also the day that I have to destruct what I have made since it’s an important part of the process. Although I couldn’t get the strength to burn my last mandala, I did burn my first two pieces and also my journal which I keep and write in almost everyday. I think that at first it hurt to burn my journal since it kept so many of my memories and emotions but it also weirdly felt good to burn it because there were bad memories in there too and now that I’ve burned it it’s like nothing ever happened and now I can make new memories and make better memories too.

Both of these student examples show that starting a spiritual practice is somewhat uncomfortable for a lot of students. Many of them have never been taught how to do anything to help them deepen their spiritual life. However, as illustrated by these two projects, in time most students feel that they benefit personally from their chosen practice.

3. Serena did a meditation and calligraphy spiritual practice.

  • Day 2: Again, I started with meditating and focusing on my breathing. When I was writing my character, I felt as if I wasn’t conscious. The strokes felt so natural and swift that it didn’t feel like had used any energy or pressure. I felt like something took over my body and the writing was so much easier. This time I wrote the character that means tranquility. When assembled with the last three characters, it creates an idiom that means forever at peace. I chose to write this idiom, because I think that we everyone should have peace with each other and with themselves. This might not be true right now, but I am hoping that in the future, we can have world peace forever.
  • Day 4: Again, I started with meditation, and relaxed my body and calmed my breathing. And again, when I was writing, I felt like something had taken over, and that the writing had gotten easier. This time, it was even easier than last time, and it felt like I wasn’t really in control, it felt swifter and the pen glided through each stroke. I wrote the character that means energy. I chose this word because usually energy and determination helps you get things done, however it doesn’t feel like any energy was put into writing these characters. It just felt like my hand has a mind of its own and is just writing the characters that I see.
  • Day 9: The meditation I did today, helped calm the chaos in my head. After the meditation, I felt as if it was a new day, and I had a clear head again. This time, I chose to write the write the character that means clarity. I chose this word because, after a day of work, everyone’s head is filled with chaos. Today my head was completely filled. I had no space for any more thoughts. However after I did the meditation, my head was cleared, which is why I chose this word. To get things done, you need to have a clear mind, or else you will never get things done.

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 Conclusion

 Most students coming into my religion classes don’t have burning questions about the topic. On the other hand, from the first day of class when I introduce them to the extraordinary claim that religions have always made: that their teaching and practices can enable followers to combine the material and spiritual dimensions of life into a meaningful, energizing whole. As the semester unfolds and the perspectives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam are explored, students do begin to wonder if religion can help them gain more peace and purpose in life. I have found through this project that having students generate their own spiritual practices regimen does actually bring some sense of calm, balance, and purpose for many of them, starting them on a path that leads to self-transcendence. Such practices, I’ve come to believe, are the necessary transformative complement to our social conscience courses.

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Footnotes

[1] Richard Rohr, “Alternative Consciousness,” Monday, May 9, 2016

[2] Richard Rohr, “Alternative Consciousness,” Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tips on Making a Mandala from Richard Rohr

Practice: Making a Mandala

Mandala, the Sanskrit word for circle, is a Hindu and Buddhist symbol for the universe. It represents the Whole of which we are a part. In Carl Jung’s words, a mandala is “a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.” [1]

We might think of Christ as a mandala—a symbol of matter and spirit cohering in and beyond time. Christ is God manifest, both visible and invisible, darkness and light, bringing all things to greater life and love throughout eternity. Christ’s love is the very shape of the universe. Each of us are part of this pattern. Through our conscious participation, we can grow into the fullness of love.

I invite you to create your own mandala as a contemplative practice. Begin by gathering all the materials you’ll need (a large sheet of blank paper, extra paper, scissors, pencil, compass, coloring pencils, markers, paints, etc.). Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for an hour or so.

Bring to heart and mind four areas in your life or the world for which you desire healing and wholing. Record them on a spare piece of paper using words, symbols, or colors.

Cut the large piece of paper into a square. Mark the center of the page with a small dot and use a compass to draw a circle a couple inches from the edge of the paper (if you don’t have a compass, trace a small plate or bowl). Within the circle, draw a square and divide it into four quadrants. In each section, draw an image or design that represents each of your desires.

Beginning at the corners of the square and, moving outward, create concentric circles with shapes or curving lines. Add color if you wish, slowly filling in the design.

When you have finished creating your mandala, consecrate the time, energy, and focus you’ve given to the healing and wholing of self and world. Spend some time simply gazing with non-judgmental eyes at the mandala and surrendering your desires and expectations.

Tibetan and Navajo rituals involve ceremonially destroying their intricate sand mandalas after completion. You might choose to intentionally burn, bury, or somehow let go of your mandala.

“Creation Is the Primary Cathedral” by Richard Rohr
Tuesday, November 15, 2016

 Creation itself—not ritual or spaces constructed by human hands—was Francis’ primary cathedral. It is no accident that the majority of Jesus’ stories and metaphors are based on human and natural observations, not classroom theology. It is not unimportant that both Jesus and Francis were peripatetic teachers—talking while walking—and on the road of the world. In our own time, major teachers like Thomas Berry and Teilhard de Chardin have rediscovered this natural and universal theology.

The Gospel transforms us by putting us in touch with that which is much more constant and satisfying, literally the “ground of our being,” and has much more “reality” to it than theological concepts or the mere ritualization of reality. Daily cosmic events in the sky and on the earth are the Reality above our heads and beneath our feet every minute of our lives: a continuous sacrament. I find that a preoccupation with religious rituals tends to increase the more we remain untouched by Reality Itself—to which the best rituals can only point.

Jesus himself commonly points to things like the red sky, a hen, lilies, the fig tree, a donkey caught in a pit, the birds of the air, the grass in the field, the temple animals that he released from their cages, and on and on. He was clearly looking at the seemingly “nonreligious” world, ordinary things all around him, and appeared to do most of his teaching out of doors. Francis said, “Wherever we are, wherever we go, we bring our cell and our soul with us. Our Brother Body is our cell and our soul is the hermit living in the cell. If our soul does not live in peace and solitude within this moving cell, of what avail is it to live in a man-made cell?” [1]

Both Jesus and Francis knew that everything created was a message about the nature of God. Nature was not empty of divinity. Seeing nature as secular or merely functional created much of the loneliness and seeming meaninglessness in our contemporary worldview.

In the five-day Men’s Rites of Passage [2]—that was a focus of my work for fifteen years—so many men felt that prayers and rituals inside of human-scale buildings were rather domesticated and controlled. They often perceived that the salvation offered inside these artificial constructs was also “small” and churchy. Almost without exception, the greatest breakthroughs for our men occurred during extended times of silence in nature, where the human and the merely verbal were not in control, or during rituals that were raw and earthy. Remember that good ritual, like art itself, merely imitates nature.

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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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14 Responses to Teaching for Self-Transcendence: Spiritual Practices in the World Religions Classroom

  1. I’m a 9th grade world literature teacher and stumbled upon your blog. You’ve designed a killer project, and your students did an amazing job!

    • Thanks, Paula. Yeah, I’ve been really surprised how well students have taken to the project, too. I think partly it’s the stress of school – an assignment where the goal is to relax and let things come to you with basically no responsibility for outcome – just do the practice. Of course, I think more is going on as kids let go of the horizontal and get their first experience perhaps with something beyond that, but for the majority it’s a stress reliever. However, even that small step means they’ll be more open to spiritual practices in the future. Thanks for taking a look.

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