As students enter high school, they are asked to begin to navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood, a daunting task. A new wellness block is being offered for all incoming HKIS freshmen next year employing an interdisciplinary approach combining PE, Counseling, and Religion departmental perspectives to offer students a much-needed orientation towards well-being and wisdom.
HKIS as a large and complex institution has sometimes been likened to the Titanic in that changing course is a slow process. And so, it was a shock when a small group discussion in a religion curriculum meeting in December initiated a flurry of conversations that culminated in a major high school-wide curricular change in January – which included a 3-week Christmas holiday!
A new wellness block has been created in student schedules for the 2017-2018 school year that combines Religion, Counseling, and PE courses. Specifically, the “World Religions” course, a Counseling course called “Seminar”, and grade 9 PE will be integrated into a new interdisciplinary wellness block. The Religion portion of the of this block will be called “Spiritual Explorations.”
The goal of the wellness curriculum is to enable students to gain mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being in their lives. In so doing students will embody more skillful levels of self-knowledge and resilience, and the ability to make informed decisions about their futures beyond HKIS.
Wellness from the Wisdom Tradition Perspective
I’d like to offer some thoughts about wellness from the perspective of what is called the “Wisdom Tradition,” the inner traditions of the world’s religions. The Wisdom Tradition assumes that another dimension of reality, an invisible or spiritual world, is the source of our physical, material lives. Thus, a “Spiritual Explorations” course expands the playing field for understanding well-being beyond the material world to include consideration of the spiritual dimension of life.
A metaphor that works with students in this regard is moving from a small self existence – which focuses on achievement and higher functioning in the visible, or horizontal, plane of existence – to a Larger Self, which combines the daily tasks of life with a heightened sensitivity to the invisible, or vertical, dimensions of reality. Such an inner awakening requires more than self-reflection, but actual spiritual engagement with the larger questions of life.
Training Your Three Brains
How does one move from an exclusive focus on the small self to developing a Larger Self? Let’s start with a proposal from the Wisdom Tradition about what it means to be an awakened human being. Humans are often thought to have three aspects – a body, a mind, and a heart. All three are what we might call “intelligences.” It can even be said that we are “three-brained beings” – one in the gut, one in the heart, and of course the one in the head. Inner awakening requires that all three brains become sensitized and connected to each other.
The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of our time at school is focused on mental intelligence. If I asked how many hours students have spent since birth training their brains, most would put the number above 10,000. According to Malcolm Gladwell, this number qualifies our students as mental intelligence experts, and our prestigious college acceptances verify that this is indeed the case. But if I asked students how many hours they’ve spent training their bodily intelligence, or how much time they’ve put into sensitizing their hearts to be in resonance with the spiritual world, many of our students would struggle to answer the question.
The Wisdom Tradition says that if students are primarily rooted in one center – their minds – then they are technically asleep! And when I look at students in my classes who are seated for six hours a day trying to develop mostly their minds, many of them indeed look sleepy rather than anticipating the “joy of learning.”
The key understanding is that moving from a state of sleepiness to wakefulness requires a whole new way of being, one in which students pay more attention to their bodies and hearts. Bringing a new awareness to their body-mind-heart self will not only make our students more balanced and higher functioning, but will over time, say these traditions, allow them to slowly access the invisible dimension of life, giving them opportunity to discover their Larger Selves. This is the Wisdom Tradition’s path to become a fulfilled human being.
Interdisciplinary Wellness in Practice
If we loosely link PE to the intelligence of the body and its ability to be present, Counseling to the intelligence of the mind and its self-reflective capacity, and Religion to the intelligence of the heart with its goal of purifying intention, we can see how all three disciplines can contribute to the holistic growth of students and open them to the possibility of making sense of life in all its visible and invisible dimensions.
What does this mean in practice? It means bringing three different lenses to particular well-being issues. Let’s look at three potential topics:
1) Nutrition: The PE department can teach about healthy eating habits; Counseling can teach about what happens when students develop an unhealthy relationship with food (i.e., an eating disorder); and Religion teachers can provide practices which instill eating with spiritual significance (e.g., saying grace before meals, conscious eating).
2) Depression: PE can teach about the role that exercise and nutrition play in mental health; Counseling can teach about various suggestions and interventions when signs of anxiety and depression emerge; and Religion can offer how in many traditions, melancholy can actually be understood as a pathway to deeper self-exploration and even spiritual awakening.
3) Breathing in Mindfulness Activities: PE can teach about the role of the breath (e.g., pranayama) in maintaining physiological life balance; Counseling can teach mindfulness as an intervention to help students relax before tests; and Religion can show how the words “breath” and “spirit” are synonymous in many cultures, suggesting that breathing can be considered a moment-by-moment connection with the invisible world.
An Interdisciplinary Developmental Path towards Wellness
Bringing together the strengths of the three departments with the needs of our students suggests a developmental path towards wellness. This path involves moving from a survival stage of academic competence to deeper reflectivity, and then offering practices to let go to something larger than the small self.
Achievement (cognitive): As a school with ever-increasing expectations, the wellness program needs to help students succeed in the area of achievement. This includes study habits, course selection, and the college application process.
Interiority (psychological): As the pace of life continues to quicken, it is imperative that students be given time in their day for quiet self-reflection and dialogue with their teachers and peers about ways to keep themselves healthy and balanced. Self-reflection and mindfulness are key strategies in this area.
Letting Go (spiritual): While achievement and interiority lead to a higher functioning self, the third component of letting go may seem counter-intuitive. If the first two steps are mostly about preparing the small self to do more work at a higher quality, this third approach emphasizes relaxing into reality, offering growth of the Larger Self. Like the concept of Sabbath, this third area advises stepping back from the cycles of achievement and self-reflection to be present to life as it is in the moment rather than unceasingly working to improve it in the future. The key pedagogical strategy here is introducing students to different types of spiritual practices.
The Eastern Orthodox teaching of bringing the mind into the heart captures the journey across the three levels of achievement, interiority, and letting go. The mind excels in coming to know objectively by standing at a distance and analyzing, whereas the special gift of the heart is to know something from the inside, or subjectively. True understanding, then, involves a mind-heart entrainment. In practice, this means that the “Spiritual Explorations” course takes students from their assumed starting position – coming to HKIS to excel academically – and offering them reflection and letting go as training for the heart as well. All three departments can contribute their perspectives on how to help students develop along this developmental path.
This new wellness block is a unique opportunity to combine the best offerings of three departments and bring them into dialogue around the practical goal of well-being, a concept that teachers and students sense is much-needed in our school community. The way forward is to develop a common vision that allows each department and their respective teachers to contribute their particular strengths to this larger conversation of student well-being.