:Amar Bhardwaj’s Humanities I in Action Elixir Project focused on glass recycling, a project he carried on throughout his four years at HKIS. In this entry, Amar reflects on how he awakened to global environmental concerns in his grade 9 humanities class, and then continued his inner explorations in his grade 12 senior religion elective. More broadly, this entry shares reflections by Amar and other students on the impact of a new body-mind-heart framework that I used in this senior elective class, “Service, Society, and the Sacred,” this year.
Last school year I put into place a body-mind-heart curriculum framework in a religion elective course that I felt was the culmination of a 25-year search for what truly matters for students. From day 1 I posed this vision to the juniors and seniors in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class: with big decisions about college applications and majors approaching, this new curriculum would enable them to gain access to an inner wisdom that would help them navigate some of their largest questions about life. In this sense, the course would be a follow-up to “Humanities I in Action,” a 9th grade course which raises student consciousness about global issues. While every year we see students respond fervently and empathically to the Humanities I in Action curriculum, the SSS course attempted to foster a different kind of clarion call: understand the self before trying to change the world!
Now having completed the year, what I can say about the results of the new approach and its impact upon students? This blog entry features one student essay and excerpts from several others who took SSS. The essays as a whole indicate that students understood and embraced the basic concepts of the course, and were able to apply them to their lives. In this entry I highlight a final essay by one senior, Amar Bhardwaj, who writes an articulate and insightful piece that certainly suggests that my hope – to teach for both social conscience and inner awakening – is an attainable goal for high school students, and that when these two elements are integrated, they may indeed gain some wisdom about their future life direction.
Service, Society, and the Sacred Final Essay and Experience
June 6, 2016
I stand at a monumental transition in my life. In under a week, I will be a high school graduate, and in exactly three months a freshman in college. I face an ambiguous future, one defined by countless decisions, trials, and tribulations. However, I look to the next with a sense of confidence and assuredness. The wisdom I have gained through Humanities 1 in Action and SSS will afford me the clarity and depth of outlook I need to meaningfully navigate my path through life.
Humanities 1 in Action
I came to Hong Kong in 9th grade, and entered Humanities 1 in Action shallow and narrow-minded. I had never heard of the term ‘worldview,’ much less considered my place and meaning in this world. I was largely unaware of humanity’s greatest issues—learning about child labor in the chocolate industry and the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal Australians was a swift kick in the teeth directly from the outset. I was completely knocked off balance by each lesson as I tried to make sense of the ugly reality with which I was being confronted. The course shattered my sheltered perception of the world and expanded my awareness immensely. When my schedule was rearranged only two weeks into the year and I was moved out of Mr. Schmidt’s to Mr. Kersten’s Humanities 1 in Action class, I sent Mr. Schmidt a short email: “I have learned a lot of valuable lessons in your class and it has really made me think critically even in the short time we had.” As I re-read this note today, I see evidence of how truly impactful and transformative the course was for me, even within the first 8 class periods.
Being bombarded lesson after lesson by the seemingly hopeless host of problems with which the world is plagued, it is no surprise that I became somewhat demoralized. But Humanities 1 in Action went further than simple identification of problems. The course stimulated deep cogitation on the nature of humanity, the intricacies of morality, the existence of evil, and my purpose in this convoluted world. These discussions broadened my way of thinking about myself and my surroundings, and fostered in me a more comprehensive understanding of reality. One of the most consequential understandings I gained was the realization that I was born into a position of tremendous opportunity to help solve our most pressing issues. No longer demoralized, I was awakened and empowered to dedicate my potential for the benefit of humanity.
As I entered the second semester of the course, I was invigorated by my realization and primed to discover exactly what form my dedication to humanity would take. My answer came when we were assigned Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I did not simply read that book; I turned each page in an idealistic fit of intellectual wonderment and concern. Chapter after chapter revealed how distressing it is that humans have a fundamentally twisted and narcissistic relationship with the environment. If we continue to see ourselves as conquerors instead of caretakers, the place we call home will soon no longer be able to sustain us.
Absorbing and discussing the ideas presented in Ishmael invoked my passion to the fullest. It astonished me to see how selfish and short-sighted the earth’s ‘intelligent’ species acted in its relationship with our home that has nurtured us so lovingly. Through this unit, I developed the passionate conviction that environmental issues were the most grave and imminent we face, and I identified the cause to which I have resolved to devote my life.
I wasted no time dedicating myself to this cause. My Elixir Project at the end of Humanities 1 in Action had been in glass recycling, and I continued to develop my efforts in this cause for the next three years, eventually making it my Senior Project as I concluded my high school career with glass recycling. In addition, I became involved in the leadership of environmental groups at HKIS, and in the summer after my junior year travelled to the US to conduct environmental science research on invasive plants in a lake ecosystem. I detailed my findings in a research paper, in the hope that lake conservationists will use my discoveries to more effectively maintain the health of their lakes. This array of pursuits that I undertook for the environment have served to affirm my freshman year conviction, to further my enthusiasm for my chosen cause, and to set the stage for even more impactful efforts in the future.
After my profound awakening in Humanities 1 in Action, I felt I had finally figured life out. I had a clear idea of how I wanted to impact the world in a way that was meaningful to me, and now it was simply a matter of working towards an environmentally sustainable society in my education and subsequent career. Although this state remained intact for the next three years, in the second semester of my senior year I entered Service, Society, and the Sacred. As has become commonplace in these ‘living deeply’ courses, SSS transformed my perspective once again, introducing me to an entirely new dimension and approach to life.
Service, Society, and the Sacred
SSS was an unconventional course, even from the first lesson. We started the semester in a circle, listening to Mr. Schmidt read out a list of words as he invited us to do nothing but observe our bodily reactions. In the context of a typical HKIS course, this activity was starkly out of place, but as I delved further into SSS, I began to understand its significance.
The course operated under the framework of furthering the pursuit of wisdom through an integration of the mind, body, and heart. These are the three centers of the self, each with a unique characterization, and they together constitute a balanced whole.
From the viewpoint of our modern Western society, the wisdom we seek is most closely (if not exclusively) associated with only one of these three centers—the mind. In the words of writer Philip Shepherd, the metaphor integral to our culture is that “the head has the spark of divinity, and the body is a machine…little more than a vehicle for transporting the head to its next engagement.” Our cranial brain commands the distinct ability to “separate itself from the world and create a subject-object relationship” in its perception. It enables the abstract reasoning, gathering of information, and analysis that characterizes our species and has driven our rise as unique beings of higher-level thinking. However, this course suggests that the mind alone cannot provide fully cohesive and genuine wisdom.
In the body resides a form of intelligence markedly contrasted from that of the mind and often neglected entirely by our society. As Episcopalian priest and mystic CynthiaBourgeault writes, “The body is viewed with fear and suspicion…But what is missed here…is that the moving center [body] also carries unique perceptive gifts.” Our ‘pelvic brain’ engages in sensations as opposed to direct thought, as the mind does. It focuses on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, and employs a holistic, integrated perception of the world, synthesizing information to provide intelligence as sensitivity to the environment. This brain is a polar opposite to our conventional brain, but neither can be fully effective on its own. Only when we recognize the importance of both forms of intelligence and find harmony between the two can we realize our full potential for a deeper understanding of our reality.
The heart is the third and final center necessary for full awareness. Although the function of the heart in this sense does involve feeling, it is not associated with emotions or passions, as is commonly assumed. The true purpose of the heart is perhaps the most consequential of the three: the heart can guide us to our true purpose in life. As Cynthiaexplains, “[The heart] is not the seat of our personal affective life…but an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty…The heart is not for personal expression but for divine perception.” Mr. Schmidt explains that by accessing the heart, we have unlocked an access point to greater oneness with ourselves and with the entire universe.
To ‘wake up’ from our limited interaction with the world through only one center, we must find a balance between these three facets of the self, and achieve what is referred to as three-centered awareness. Through this form of awareness, we can draw from the strengths and purposes of each of the three centers, allowing us to experience an enhanced, integrated, multi-dimensional, and holistic perception of our world, and giving us clearer direction in our path through life.
Relevance of the Framework
Throughout the past 18 years, I had not been exposed to nor given any consideration to these ideas. As such, the very premise of SSS was both foreign and elucidating to me. I realized that—shocking as it seemed—I did not have life figured out. In Humanities 1 in Action and the vast majority of my schooling, the focus had always been on studying the world around me and maximizing my impact on it. At the outset of SSS, my attention was entirely outward. However, the course turned this model on its head, taking me on a profound inward journey unlike any I have experienced. I examined all aspects of my inner self, identifying their respective merits, and reflecting on how I could better manage and utilize their value.
Though it at first seemed difficult to draw a connection between my outward efforts and the inner self that SSS maintained as important, a concept explained in introduction of the course has remained with me throughout the semester. When we perform work to make any impact in our society, we are simply projecting our self onto the outside world. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for the efficacy and beneficence of this outward work that the inward self is first pure and fulfilled.
In my first paper earlier in the semester, I detailed the body-mind-heart framework and explained methods to further integrate all three centers, but I did not write to the greater significance of these ideas in an exterior context. As the semester has progressed, I have come to understand more clearly the application of body-mind-heart cohesiveness to my mission for the environment and to my future path on the whole. Nurturing a healthy balance between the three centers will ensure that the effect I have on the world will be positive, and will help provide clarity and guidance in my pursuits.
Lessons in Practice
Seeing the relevance of these lessons to my seemingly unrelated outward journey, I plan to put in practice my learning from the semester, and in some ways have already begun to do so. First and foremost, I have learned to correct my one-sided view of the mind as the sole source of intelligence. I will attribute more effort to nurturing my body and heart, while still maintaining wellness of the mind. Although the concept may not present itself clearly, I have learned that a healthy body is essential to full wisdom. Simply put—if you don’t have your health, you have nothing. I have studied a range of health techniques in SSS, from proper nutrition to alternative health practices. I hope to employ this learning to elevate my bodily self. I was also given the opportunity to engage in spiritual practices for integration of the heart. I found prostrations to be surprisingly effective, grounding me in the heart and bringing greater humility and peace. Practices of this nature will help significantly in achieving full three-centered cohesiveness.
I experienced a powerful example of bodily intelligence in making one of the biggest decisions of my life to this point. Professor Jorge Ferrer writes, “Bodyfulness reintegrates in the human being a lost somatic capability” to be “extraordinarily aware without intentionally attempting to do so,” Cynthia explains, “If I am making a decision and sense inner constriction, I know that no matter how much I try to convince myself that my preferred option is the correct one, in fact it is not,” and when Paul Saltzman visited our class he echoed the two with a practical application. Saltzman advised that in deciding on a university one should meditate, envisioning oneself living life on each campus, and observe which university felt ‘right.’ When I found myself in this dilemma only a short while later, I visited both schools, did extensive research on programs and opportunities at each, and as the decision deadline approached was still hopelessly torn. I decided to rely on my intuitive bodily intelligence to aid in my decision, undergoing Saltzman’s meditation and surrendering the expanse of information I had gathered on each university to raw, simple feeling. When I completed the meditation, I could feel which school was right for me, and assuredly made my decision. Though the school I declined was more prestigious and even the assumed choice for some who awaited my decision, I couldn’t be happier with the choice I made. The level of intuition I employed in this anecdote couldn’t have arisen from the logic-driven mind, and in this instance I observed a tangible testament to the mind-body-heart framework of wisdom. I will continue to utilize this and other forms of wisdom I gained in SSS in the future to guide my most consequential moments.
In an even broader view of wisdom, I was worried early on in the semester when I read on Mr. Schmidt’s blog of the pitfalls of passion, a trait that HKIS has upheld as a coveted virtue since day one. I had always been taught to invest myself in developing my passions, and was certainly never warned about any detriments. In fact, I had based my entire life plan on my passion for the environment, so I posed the question to Buddhist monk when he visited our class. Rabten explained that passion can be a phenomenal positive force, but only if it is pure. Purifying passion is eliminating oneself from the equation—passion must be wholly in the service and love of others. The downside of passion comes when it is a selfish desire for personal benefit. Through Rabten’s wisdom, I learned to ensure that my greatest passion is pure. I must always maintain my motivation in benefiting the earth and the people by whom it is inhabited, and if desire for personal recognition develops, I now know to identify it and remove it. With this understanding, I can be assured that my career efforts will be righteously motivated and as beneficial as possible to my cause.
Throughout the past four years I have undergone a twofold transition that I believe has prepared me for a fully engaged and wisely charted future ahead. My experience in Humanities 1 in Action awakened me to the world around me and guided me to my calling in executing a positive impact for this world through environmental sustainability. Service, Society, and the Sacred reminded me of the paramount importance of intimately knowing my inner self in order to purify these outward efforts. Though I have learned that I will never completely figure life out, I believe I now have the tools to lead a life of more profound wakefulness and to constantly seek out wisdom for the betterment of my pursuits. The wisdom of Humanities 1 in Action and SSS for ‘living deeply’ has transformed me for the better, and its lessons will continue to influence all aspects of my life indefinitely.
Selected Student Reflections on SSS
Here are several excerpts from students’ final essays in SSS this year.
Yash: Without SSS, it is likely that I would have paid no heed to the signals from my body and my heart—I would probably have derided any dissent to my mind’s decision as simply irrational. Perhaps only after many years [of] working would I finally [have] realized that I might not have made the best decision for myself, all things considered. SSS’ invaluable contribution to my eventual career path is that it has prodded me to step beyond the comfort of taking a cerebral approach and has challenged me to consider my future from a more holistic perspective.
Celine: Service, Society, and the Sacred is an experimental course and is unlike any class I have taken throughout my high school career. We learn and talk about things that are rarely discussed elsewhere – things that matter – and the class really gets me thinking about the issues in life that many people encounter. My greatest takeaway from the Service, Society, and the Sacred course is that I have learnt how to be honest with myself through activities we have done body, mind, and heart . . . and using that to drive me to becoming a healthier, happier person. Once I do that, I can be honest with others and go after my career goals and dreams.
Meghan: One of the first projects of the class, the heroic journey, I expressed my passion to become a nurse. That was the first time I had fully opened up to people in a long time. It was also the beginning of an experiment I now have been orchestrating throughout this course. In my previous paper I mentioned how I have created an outer shell for myself to hide under, and I have come to the consensus that this shell has made me unhappy. The shell holds me back from acknowledging the happiness and love around me . . . and all the beauty in the world that goes unnoticed.
Cameron: Before this class I knew that I wanted to do something art related for a living, and after this class, especially our unit on the body, I’ve kind of come to realize that that’s one of the few things I could do for the rest of my life. Before I wanted to do art because I enjoyed it, it was something I would like to do for a living, but after this course, and especially the unit on the body, I’ve come to understand more so why that is. When I do work for other things, I’ve noticed my body really doesn’t want to do them. Like I can do it, but there’s resistance. I don’t think I could be a lawyer or doctor if I wanted to because it would get to the point where I’d be pushing against my body too much . . . . Recognizing this has made me kind of like art like I did when I first started drawing.
As I have now taught the first group of students who have now experienced both Humanities I in Action and the newly-envisioned SSS, I have been waiting to see if student learning seems in line with my expectations that we can educate for a powerful integrated social conscience-inner awakening matrix. At the very least, I can say that no student has raised questions about the usefulness of the body-mind-heart approach. More substantively, Amar’s essay and the other excerpts suggest that the SSS curriculum is assisting students to become more deeply self-aware, and that this knowledge has cultivated not only personal growth, but, at least for some students, a better sense of what they would like to do with their lives in the future. Perhaps it was best said by junior Zach Fried, who also took Humanities I in Action as a freshmen. In trying to describe SSS to his mother at a parent conference, he explained simply, “It’s like Humanities I in Action for the inside.” This, I believe, is the education that students desire: one that assists them in exploring, purifying, and bringing to fruition their essential selves.