The shadow side of powerful service learning experiences, like the one that Claudia had at the Foshan orphanage, is that students carry a burden of guilt with them when they return to school. This blog entry explores the possibility of drawing upon spiritual practices as a pedagogical strategy to integrate such deeply impactful experiences beyond the more common approaches of discussions and written reflections.
“Moments of great love and great suffering are often the first experiences of nondual thinking. Practices of prayer largely maintain what many people first experience in deep love and suffering.”
– Richard Rohr, “Dualistic and Nondualistic Thinking“, January 30, 2017
For more than ten years now I have been taking Humanities I in Action students to an orphanage in China because it provides a valuable wake-up call for them to reconsider their own lives in light of the suffering of others. Over and over again students talk about how important this trip was to their own personal growth. But there is no denying that this growth is accompanied by genuine emotional pain as they struggle with the glaring disparity between their lives and that of the orphans. Along with positive feelings of care and empathy, students experience a range of “negative” feelings – guilt, despair, helplessness, hopelessness, anger.
Returning back to our humanities classroom, my primary way to process this powerful experience has been through three pedagogical strategies: class discussion; writing a personal narrative about their experience; and then writing a semester exam about how their study and experiences in this course, including the China orphanage trip, have affected their worldview. Every year student conversations, narratives, and essays attest to the potentially transformative power of this trip as part of the Humanities I in Action curriculum.
At the same time, I have often wondered if we as teachers of this course could not do more to support students through their emotional distress. Year and after year I know that this trip will introduce disorientation, and even inner turmoil, into my students’ lives. Somehow discussion and writing, while effective, seem to leave out other means of psychological processing. Then this semester, as I taught how to deal with emotional reactivity in my Buddhism unit in World Religions, I wished there was some way to bring spiritual practices to bear upon student experiences such as this trip. Then it just so happened, without any suggestion on my part, that two students who were on the China orphanage trip and at the same time in my World Religions class, began their spiritual practices project soon after returning from Foshan. Natalia and Kathy made the connections themselves, undertaking their spiritual practices as a response to the emotional struggles resulting from the trip. I’ve asked them to share their experience of processing the China orphanage experience through their spiritual practices project.
- Tell me about your Foshan experience. Specifically, what were your feelings that you had to deal with when you returned to school?
Natalia: As a child who was born into a rather privileged family, the experience from Foshan shocked me to my core because I had never encountered anything like this before. The mere sight of all the disabled children in one room was enough to surprise, and even frighten, me. Looking back, I was ashamed that I had been intimidated by those harmless beings, who had so little yet deserved so much. Right after the trip, I felt like my whole world was shattered – I was overflowing with guilt and shame. How could I have taken everything for granted? As I explain in more detail in my next response, my first piano composition revolved around the theme of poverty and depression as it accurately reflected how I felt back then. The experience unlocked a dark cage in my heart where I hid all my negative emotions.
Kathy: As a kid, my parents would always tell me that I’m very privileged to live in such a comfortable environment and that there are some people out there in the world who aren’t as lucky. Hearing about this, I knew that there were people in a less comfortable environment, but I finally experienced what my parents meant when I went to Foshan. Although the Foshan trip lasted only a few days, it had a strong impact on me and how I view my environment. Returning back to school, I felt extremely guilty that I was ignorant about the lives of the orphans that we saw. For example, some orphans don’t get the proper love and care from the nurses and they live in an environment where it feels like imprisonment. Also, they don’t get much freedom and spend most of their days in the orphanage. Therefore, from experiencing the lives of these kids, I had to deal with feelings of ignorance, guilt and privilege.
- Describe what you did for your spiritual practices project. Did you specifically design your practice to deal with your orphanage experience, or did that connection come later? How did your project help you to deal with the emotional struggles coming out of the China trip?
Natalia: My spiritual practice project revolved around the topic of the orphans. I wanted to include both a musical and a meditative aspect to my project. On the first day I did an impromptu piano playing for one minute to express my feelings about the Foshan trip, which came out in a cold minor key. Then in the subsequent eight sessions I did a loving kindness meditation where I tried to imagine a utopia in the world where the orphans each had caring families to support them. The meditation sessions really helped alleviate some of the guilt and shame that had accumulated by the end of the trip, and allowed me to gradually understand the perspectives of the parents who had abandoned the children. I didn’t know what was going on with their families at the time, so I couldn’t be sure that the orphans were necessarily worse off than they would have been had the parents decided to raise them. As I imagined a utopia where the orphans lead healthy, prosperous lives, my pain began to fade away. I told myself that I was going to love my family like the orphans would have if they had been given the chance, and was therefore able to have a positive takeaway from the experience. Then for my last spiritual practice I wanted to see if there was a change in my emotions, as reflected in a second improvised musical composition. The second time was in a heart-warming major key.
Kathy: My spiritual practice project didn’t start out directly related to the Foshan orphanage experience. I wanted to deal more generally with my emotions and my anxiety through mindful journaling. To start my practice, I used the the Three-Minute Breathing Space to help center myself, and then I did the journaling. Sometimes I would even write down my anxieties on a piece of paper and tear it up to symbolize my letting go of that worry. But having come back from Foshan recently, what was on my mind was the lives of the orphans. Journaling reminded me that I shouldn’t stress over small things because right now there are orphans who are struggling with other things which are far more important than what I’m dealing with. For example, not getting the proper care and love and being abandoned from their birth parents. Therefore, my spiritual practice taught me to let go of my own worries. I also told myself that there isn’t anything I could do right now to help these kids. However, journaling helped to remind myself that I’m very privileged and helped me feel less guilty because I couldn’t exactly blame myself for being ignorant since I’ve never experienced poverty before.
- Both of you have processed your China experience through class discussion, writing a personal narrative, and now through spiritual practices. Are all of these strategies valuable? What advice would you give to us as teachers how we can help students process this experience more completely? Do you think it would be useful for every student to do spiritual practices when they return from an experience like this?
Natalia: These are certainly viable methods of helping us process the experience and reflect upon everything we saw. To most of us rather privileged children, an orphanage was something we had never encountered before. For me, this harsh reality shocked me so much that without these strategies, I wouldn’t have found a way to cope with them. These activities were like an outlet where all my emotions were released and I was able to feel at ease again. I would recommend teachers to instead of having us use words to describe our experience, open up the project options to include other forms of media as well. Different students are skilled at different areas, and they may have different ways to express their ideas. I think that making a short film or a poster can also achieve the same goal as having students write an essay. Spiritual practices are another form of media that will also help students be able to express the emotions they encountered, and it aided me tremendously on my journey from my smaller self to being able to connect with my larger self.
Kathy: To me, I felt that the spiritual practices project and the personal narrative were both valuable strategies to help me process my China experience. I thought that the personal narrative was more of a reflection. It was a good way to help me write down my thoughts and feelings that I experienced after going to Foshan. Then to me the spiritual practice was more of a way to help me resolve the feelings I had when I returned to school. One advice I would give to the teachers is to make sure the students write something before their Foshan experience so that they can compare what they have written before and after. Lastly, I think it depends on the student and if they want to do the spiritual practice because to some students the personal narrative might already have helped them, but to me I thought the spiritual practice helped me even more.
- As a concluding thought, how do you think you have been personally affected by the whole Chinese orphanage experience, including your processing in both classes?
Natalia: I was a lot more aware of everything around me. The lesson I learned was really about how I took everything for granted and how I should embrace every opportunity I have. Instead of backing away from challenges, I should meet them head on because there are others who don’t get these opportunities at all. If I didn’t try my hardest in life, I would feel guilty and unable to face the children who were abandoned, yet still clinging onto every shred of happiness they can get.
Kathy: The Foshan trip has helped me develop compassion, and I have realized that I don’t need to feel guilty about my ignorance or privilege but instead to use my resources to help others.
Several years ago I took our students to interact with local Hong Kongers at a center for at-risk youth only about a 15-minute drive from our campus. Everyone had a good time doing various activities at the center and, in closing, I asked the priest, Father Newbury, how we should respond to such an experience. I explained that my students oftentimes say that they feel so guilty after encounters like this, and sometimes feel that their study at HKIS seems so pointless by comparison. His response was clear: “Don’t feel bad or guilty. Go back to your campus and study – study hard! Study for them, not just for yourself.” This very useful advice has helped my students to re-vision their study with a sense of purpose beyond the conventional “work-hard-to-get-into-a-good-university-to-get-a-good-job-to-have-a-happy-life” mantra that is the underlying philosophy of student culture.
However, in light of Natalia’s and Kathy’s remarks, we have something even more useful to manage these powerful emotional experiences than only inspiring advice, as valuable as this is. Spiritual practices can help students process these memories on the emotional-somatic level, rather than primarily on the mental plane. Given that students often experience a deeper level of emotions than ever before on service trips, it could be one of those “teachable moments” where we also offer them a new method to handle what for some are overwhelming feelings. My experience in World Religions class is that once students gain a comfort level with the concept of doing these kinds of practices, they frequently create their own innovations, as these girls did. Hopefully, the girls and their reflections will serve as role models for future students to experiment more intentionally with integrating spiritual practices into their powerful service learning experiences.
A Paragraph Excerpt from Kathy’s Worldview Essay
Foshan was one of the turning points for me. Through crossing the threshold from the ordinary world to the special world, I’m now aware how privileged I am and I should use my resources to help others instead of feeling guilty. From the Heroic cycle’s point of view the little boy that I took care of for 3 days is from the special world and it had helped me reflect on my life in the ordinary world. Taking care of the little boy had helped me realise how privilege I am compared to the other orphans and how they will never get the same love and care as I did growing up. For a while after the trip I felt extremely guilty because of my privilege and sometimes I would be petty for the smallest things. On the other hand, some of these orphans don’t don’t even have the basic necessities. Luckily, in religion class we did our own spiritual practice where I had to journal my emotions and do a breathing mediation. From the practice, I learned that I should not be guilty about my privilege and should stop blaming myself for my ignorance. Instead, to use my resources to help make a change.
Natalia’s Foshan Narrative
A Peek Into the Truth
By Natalia Chu
What is it like to have no family?
The question raced through my mind as the elevator shuddered and halted, delivering a flabbergasted me in front of a huge steel door. All the sounds drowned away and I found myself hearing nothing but the loud beating of my heart. A click of the key, and the door opened. From the corner of my eye, I caught a shadow flicker, darting quickly as it crouched and hid behind a pillar. I slowly entered the third floor of the Foshan Orphanage, and this alienated environment surrounded me. A feeling of fear engulfed me, and I felt the room swallowing my sanity; everywhere I turned, I could see dirty walls, sordid bedsheets, and both mentally and physically challenged children. I was drowning in sorrow. The shadow appeared again: slowly, tentative at first, then it quickly emerged beside me. An electric shock ran through my fingertips as I felt a strange sensation. With a jolt, I realized that a hand suddenly became my only connection to the real world, so cold yet ever so brave, holding me and saving me from my crushing misery.
After I was dragged out of the depths of grief, I realized with amazement that the shadow was actually a girl, looking no more than 9 years old. Her bright eyes, filled with innocence and purity, was staring at me with both curiosity and affection; her short, black hair was shimmering under the dim lights, reflecting her angelic smile. “What am I doing?” I wondered. Why was I the one breaking down when they were the ones who were suffering? A huge pit formed in my stomach as I felt a wave of emptiness wash over me and force me back to my senses. I knew that the least I could do was to put on a courageous front, if not for my sake, but for theirs. With a feigned smile, I softly greeted her and asked for her name in Chinese. She remained rather stoic, but I could tell that she was pleasantly surprised to hear that I could speak her language. A spark of fire was ignited within my heart as she said, “My name is Tan Hong Ning, jie jie [sister]”.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face her truthfulness with that insincere, fake smile of mine. I had to turn away, but with a quivering breath, managed to keep my composure. With her tiny hand still wrapped in mine, she took me on a quick tour of the orphanage. Hong Ning didn’t give me time to worry about breaking the ice or dealing with awkwardness between new acquaintances. She chatted with me as comfortably as she would have towards a close friend or a relative. Gradually, I felt the iron bars locking away my positive emotions begin to vanish, melted away by the incredible heat of her words.
While she cheerfully lead me everywhere, I couldn’t help but let out a faint sigh as a smile trickled onto my face. During that brief moment, the world stood still except for Hong Ning and I; as she slowly wore down my barriers, I was also wearing down hers. A strange emotion flashed across her face, only to be covered with a smile once more. Confusion cloaked me as I wondered what that expression meant. Although she continued with high spirits, I couldn’t act as though that didn’t bother me. I stopped her in her tracks, and asked her solemnly, “Are you okay?” Immediately, Hong Ning avoided my gaze and stared down at the ground. For the first time since my visit, she let go of my hand and trudged toward a dark corner. I was compelled by my curiosity to follow her, and we reached a state of silence.
Finally, she whispered, “Jie jie [sister], where is your mother?” I stared at her with utter disbelief at what she had just asked me. “Just as I thought,” she muttered. “No one would tell me anything about themselves even though I try so hard.” My happiness was shattered like a delicate vase as I clutched my heart, unable to move a single muscle. I knew that this was a make or break situation: why couldn’t I return the same level of trust that she had in me? A war raged within myself between two sides that would normally agree: my morality and my urge to tell the truth. Both sides were screaming at each other, arguing and trying to conquer the other. Which should I listen to? I let out a shaky breath, and quietly stuttered, “I…she…my mom is at home.” Complete silence. In the dark corner that everyone ignored, I was completely dejected at my predicament of what her response might be. I knew that I had just confirmed her worst fears. The person that she had so willingly opened up to had the one thing that she might never be able to have: parental love.
A small chuckle penetrated my thoughts, and then laughter. My head was reeling, unable to comprehend the situation and totally puzzled by where it was coming from. Mustering all my strength and courage, I peeked over at Hong Ning for a split second. I noticed her laughing eyes and the perked corners of her mouth. “No…impossible. She would never be laughing from what I said,” I mumbled. Again, I dared to look at the face of the orphan I was sure that had certainly been broken by what I just said. I confirmed my confusion. It was indeed Hong Ning who was laughing, and smiling so gleefully that it began to diminish my pain. How could she bear to smile at what I just said? Hong Ning noticed my conflicted expression and she told me in her warm voice, “I’m glad jie jie [sister] has a mother. You must be happy.” I could only stare at her, my mouth gaping as I nodded to her statement.
Hong Ning turned around quietly and murmured, “Then why don’t I have a mother?” At that instance, I realized. My smile was not the only one that was a mask that shielded me from my true emotions. Her innocent smile, purity, ignorance had all been destroyed ever since the time of her abandonment. The only way she was able to retain happiness was because she desperately clung on to whatever positivity she had left, and forbid herself from getting lost in the sea of depression. “If I had a mother, I would hug her everyday, and tell her I love her so often that she would never leave me,” she continued as her eyes glazed over and became unfocused. Her eyes reflected her version of a utopia where she returned home after a day of school to her parents’ open arms.
Time flew by. In no time, I was greeted by the steel doors again, this time from the inside. Although it was the same structure, it now represented something completely different from the first time I saw it. Instead of feeling ignorant and even frightful of what these doors might contain, these doors now represented the barrier between the orphans and the outside world. I wanted to take Hong Ning with me, to have her escape alongside me, to have her experience what any child should have. I wanted to give her feelings of love, happiness, and childish joy that only existed in children. But I knew that this could never happen. The differences were simply too drastic, too impossible to overcome. Even though I knew this, I still hoped Hong Ning would be able to live life with as much hope and aspiration as I do.
I was finally able to see Hong Ning not as an orphan, but as the final brick that completed the bridge connecting my smaller self to my larger self. Up until then, never had I encountered something that shook me so much; its impact was so profound that it turned my entire worldview upside down. I had taken everything in my life for granted – my education, family, and environment remained unchanged as I continued on with my daily life. Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I had felt grateful for my prosperity, but I had never fully come to terms with just how privileged I was until I met them. In hindsight, I don’t know how I had lived 14 years of my life without ever undergoing this transformation.
I could never forget my mother’s elated face when I returned home, tightly embraced her, and shouted “Mother, I love you!” as I started sobbing in her arms. I should be doing this every day, if not for me, but at least for Hong Ning. I had to love my parents with as much intensity as Hong Ning would have if she had this opportunity. Even though Hong Ning’s utopia may never come true, I wanted her to experience the vicarious thrill of having a family through my eyes.
In a soft voice, I whispered, “Hong Ning, do you feel this? This is called love.”