This stunning image of the Buddha from the Golden Temple in Dambulla, Sri Lanka communicates the truth that spiritual growth is often associated with luminosity – which I experienced, strangely enough, when grading my final World Religions papers earlier this year. Their brilliance affirmed for me that what education most needs is a coherent understanding of our place in the universe, which is the theme I explore in this entry.
What is the most important innovation that is most needed in education today? Having been at one school for more than 25 years, it’s clear that students on the whole are achieving more and maturing faster in most ways than they did a generation ago. On the other hand, the mental health of students seems increasingly fragile. The pressures of competition only seem to grow, and I frequently hear complaints from students who are truly suffering.
We as educators need to up our game, so what should we do? What seems to draw the most focused attention in my conversations is not curriculum reform or technology upgrades, but developing the capacity of our students to deal with stress in a comprehensive way.
Last January I was grading my 9th grade World Religion final papers*. It had been the best semester of teaching this class, and I was looking forward to what they would have to say were their big takeaways. I promised them that if they followed the course curriculum closely, which is based on the Wisdom Tradition that I’ve been exploring since meeting Cynthia Bourgeault in 2010, then they would have a chance to experiment with the vertical dimension, letting go even in the smallest quantities of their egoic identities and seeing what emerges.
Grading papers is usually a laborious and fairly dispassionate activity – the bane of our existence, as teachers are wont to say – but this was different. As I read, I was overtaken by the depth and – dare I say – the luminosity of their writing; a quantum leap in these papers compared to previous years. And it wasn’t just a few – it was the majority. And not just the brightest students, but kids across the spectrum had insights I had never anticipated. And for some, there was a glow to them, using words that spoke of light: detonation, explosion, brimming, clarity, and energy. It almost felt – how can I say this – as some kind of direct transmission.
I was certainly thrilled with the results. And yet, strangely, I felt irritated and disturbed, like a caged animal pacing, planning its escape. I talked to several colleagues about the papers, but they didn’t seem to “hear” what I was trying to say; in fact, I didn’t really know what I was trying to say. Increasingly agitated, the next evening I called another colleague to talk about these issues, and that’s when the emotional waves rolled over me. I found myself crying and unable to speak coherently. Yet all the while I was aware that this was a very odd reaction: when does grading papers lead to some kind of emotional dysfunction?
As I was about to hang up the phone in distress, suddenly an image from Isaiah 6 flashed into my mind. In this passage the prophet Isaiah, having seen the glory of the Lord in the temple, cries out,
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
Somehow the luminous nature of these 9th grade essay papers undid me. Feeling overwrought, I hung up the phone; the juxtaposition of the beauty in these children’s papers with the educational system’s soul-stultifying hierarchy of achievement delivered an emotional wallop. Woe to all of us!
Dealing with Stress
I told my students when teaching World Religions last year that the essence of the topic, according to the Perennial Tradition, is that there is another dimension of reality that is greater than the visible world. It is believed to be the source of our lived reality, and needs to be experienced rather than simply mentally affirmed. Surprisingly perhaps, the prerequisite to even see if this dimension has something to offer them was to relax! Pursuing spiritual growth is not like mastering a field of study; it is discovered by letting go of one’s defenses. This softening of the ego contrasts with the aggressive agenda of personal growth that permeates modern education.
I taught the World Religions curriculum, then, from the vantage point of engaging students with spiritual practices designed to help them relax into the possibility that another dimension of reality exists.
Themes of Students Papers
So what was it about the course that gave the papers their luminous quality? As I read the papers, the following themes emerged:
1. Wisdom Framework Set the Metaphysical Stage
On day 1 I introduced the horizontal (visible and finite) and vertical (invisible and infinite) axes of human existence, and explained that this semester we would explore this under-investigated area of human experience throughout the course. Later I added other related concepts, such as the small self and the Larger Self, and the body-mind-heart framework to help combine these selves. Since most students find science more compelling than religion, we looked briefly at near death experiences and one guest speaker’s engaging sharing of her reincarnation experiences. This constellation of concepts laid a template that was referenced throughout the entire course. Laying out a “big picture” cosmology that allowed students to perceive the relationship between the visible and invisible, and which proposed that their goal was to journey from the former to the latter, provided an easily graspable sense of the whole that lessened student anxiety.
2. Spiritual Practices
Soon as we began to study Hinduism, I began to introduce small in-class activities and out-of-class homework to start doing spiritual practices as a way to link the small self and the Larger Self, and to open students to this vertical dimension. This culminated in the Spiritual Practices project, in which students do one practice ten times in two weeks, and then share in a presentation. It was clear that the practices themselves were the most common theme in the papers as well as the most efficacious activity in helping students make sense of not only their semester’s study, but bringing a sense of personal satisfaction into their lives.
3. Field Trips
During the semester we visited a house of worship for each of the four religions we studied. Students commented in their papers that they found the utter sincerity of the people we visited compelling, lending personal credibility to the more abstract Wisdom Tradition teachings. Some students were also moved by the beauty of these temples, with some indicating that the visits sparked an inner vitality inside of them. For a significant number of students these experiences were valuable touchstones in coming to comprehend a spiritual vision of life that earlier in the semester had been captivating but confusing.
4. Buddhist Teachings
During the Buddhism unit I shared a range of Buddhist teachings – suffering, identification, attachment, emotional reactivity, living in the moment, impermanence, no self, the Middle Way – that students found noteworthy and verifiable in their own lives. Combining these teachings with Buddhist practices led to the overall personal impact of the course for many students.
5. Inner Well Being
A frequent theme in these final papers was the personal value that studying World Religions had for them this year. The most common response was that the practices helped them relieve stress, let go, and gain mental clarity. Most of the practices combined harmonizing the body, mind, and heart, and this inner connectivity resulted for most students in an increased sense of lightness and clarity. Some more articulate students, all drawing on their spiritual practices, even made inner peace and happiness the central theme of their semester papers.
Application to Curricular Reform
Based on my experience with the World Religions class, I would like to suggest the following in terms of curricular change.
1. Students Want an Orientation to the Universe
In absence of a relationship to the big questions of life – where did I come from, who am I, why do I exist, and where do I go after I die – students assume that the goal of life is to achieve, prove one’s worth, and live a successful and comfortable life. By contrast, at the beginning of World Religions, I laid out the Wisdom playing field, which describes a greater purpose of existence, the obstacles, and what to do. Students hunger for this kind of orientation that speaks to them in their lives
2. Spiritual Practices as Experiential Learning
Soon thereafter I began teaching and training students how to do various different spiritual practices – loving kindness meditation, body scan, mindful walking, surrender meditation, and other practices – that help train their bodies, minds, and hearts how to open to the vertical dimension.The most important assignment in the course, then, is their spiritual practices project. Coming 2/3 through the course, students pick or design a spiritual practice to do for 10 days. While it usually takes 3-5 times before many kids start to see some effectiveness from their practice, in time most of the students learn how to relax and open to something beyond their own self-preoccupation.
3. Role Models
The final takeaway was that the field trips exposes students to role models in the Hong Kong community that reinforce the framework and teachings. They meet real people who live according to these teachings, and are inspired to consider this alternative path.
Looking back on my Isaiah 6 experience, it seems that the disparity between the beauty of their responses and the despair I hear frequently from students is what caused my emotional outburst. At that moment I understood that the strategies employed in World Religions allow students to experience the beauty and harmony they seek; they don’t need to live in a state of suffering. Now six months down the road, the end of the passage still resonates, “Here am I! Send me.”
The call, then, is to respond to the suffering that I see in my students. With mental health becoming an increasingly serious issue across the planet, we need to reach back into our shared treasury of teachings and practices that orient us to our place in the universe, which has always been the proper role of religion in society. The Wisdom Tradition offers a cross-cultural and multi-religious framework within which students can better deal with the stresses of daily life and open to a greater sense of purpose. This is the kind of educational reform that is needed in our schools.
*Excerpts from students papers on the final assignment in the World Religions class
1.Julia’s paper on singing as a spiritual practice
“All my life I have been pressured to be great at singing and accomplish big things. For that little bit of time [during my spiritual practice] when I let it go it made me sing just because I truly enjoyed it. Not because I was trying to impress my family and friends. I thought about the words that I sang and nothing else, my mind was blank and the thing I could hear was my voice singing words I never had heard before. I felt like I was awakened and it was lovely … When I clear my mind from distractions while I sing I connect my mind to my body. I do this by thinking of the notes and the length of time I need to hold them for then I connect that to my body by taking the right breath needed to support that note. Also the note is projected by my vocal chords so by thinking about that I am connected.”
2. Moqiu’s calligraphy practice of writing the Heart Sutra
“When I first started copying the Heart Sutra, I was always nervous, and one of the challenges I had was over-reacting negatively when I thought a stroke didn’t look aesthetically pleasant. Due to this, I would sometimes even hold my breath to prevent my breathing from making my hand shake. Throughout this entire project, I noticed that I used extremely shallow breaths, as my breathing correlated with the strokes I wrote, but these breaths changed from being nervous and caught to being steady and meditative once I started focusing on the concept of letting go and keeping in mind the actual message of the Heart Sutra. For my ending sessions, I found that I was able to concentrate entirely on the calligraphy and use my shallow breathing, which had once been a barrier in my path, to assist my hand movements and concentration. I went from only noticing the surface of the calligraphy I was writing to better understanding the teaching of the Heart Sutra and using the calming movements of calligraphy to move one step closer to the inner peace I hope to achieve.” (To see a video of her project, hit here. )
3. Anton’s use of photography as a spiritual practice
“Calmly breathing in, while following the eagle dawning above me, holding down the trigger, snapping eight photos of the moving giant bird, looking down at the display, and seeing I got the perfect shot. A smile grew across my face but I wanted one more photo, a better photo. This has become an addiction going out every day for 2 weeks and taking photos. It all started off with a world religions project focusing on calming my body down. This had become a great passion out of nowhere; I had become so into it…. When I was standing on the top of the Dragon’s Back taking photos, it would not matter if I were cool; nothing mattered when I was with myself. This was just what I wanted; I had been drawn into a world where there was no [interpersonal] drama, the only problem was the lenses fogging up on the camera.”
4. Natalie’s use of piano improvisation to help her deal with her grief at leaving an orphanage in China on a class trip several months before.
“On the first day I did an impromptu one-minute piano piece to express my feelings about the trip, which came out in a cold minor key. Then in the next 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 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.”
To hear more about Natalia’s experience at the orphanage and this practice, read this entry.
The written description of the assignment is below.
The Road Not Taken
World Religions – Schmidt Name: ___________
In the famous poem, “The Road not Taken” by Robert Frost (see the end of this document), the author explains that taking the alternative path of wisdom has made all the difference in his life. This semester we have been exploring the Wisdom Tradition, which claims that living as the Larger Self, which assumes the reality of a vertical dimension, is the road not taken in the all-out drive for horizontal-level small self success that is a mark of modern society.
- Write no more than a 750 words (@ 2 pages) explanation of your main take-away this semester in World Religions. What have you learned? Include a theme/thesis and two or three specific examples from our study this semester that support this claim. This will be handed in as a hard copy on Monday, January 16.
- Then you will give a 5 minute PowerPoint presentation on January 18 or 20th that will apply this learning to your life.
- ORDINARY WORLD: The conventional message you have received from your “world” – your family, school, and social environment about what does it mean to live “the good life” rather than an “ordinary life.”
- SPECIAL WORLD: Then share your take-away message from your paper.
- FUTURE: If you were to opt to live your life based on what you have learned from World Religions class this semester rather than the conventional message (assuming that they are different), how would your life be different 20 years from now? What would be the benefits of this life? What would to be the costs? Weigh the pros and the cons.
Questions to ask yourself to help with the paper
- Does your paper have one central idea?
- Do you consider including the way you used to think about religion and how you think about it today?
- Did you consider using some of the frameworks we discussed: (1) Construction-deconstruction-reconstruction (2) Committed horizontalist, agnostic horizontalist, traditional vertical, fading vertical, progressive vertical
- You need to include at least 3 references to materials/examples/field trips/experiences in this class.
- Clear theme or thesis explaining your biggest take-away of the semester.
- At least three references to class activities explained specifically and linked to the main theme.
- Sense of a journey or story, as students explain how the main theme of their semester developed over time.
- Content ticks: the best papers had at least 10 points that advanced the theme. (A few papers had more than 20.)
- Overall depth and coherence of the essay
What have we done this semester in World Religions?
Introduction to the Vertical Dimension
- Vertical vs. Horizontal, and Jung infinity quote; worldview activity: do I believe in a vertical dimension?
- Eben Alexander and Anita Moorjani about their Near Death Experiences
- Katie Larson on her spiritual journey, especially (1) construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction and (2) her reincarnation beliefs.
- Visit to ISKCON
- My PP lecture on Hinduism: Compare Hindu and Christian worldview (written quiz),
- Hinduism “My Religion My Life” video
- Series of reading quizzes on Hinduism from the textook
- Summative #1: Introduction to the Wisdom Tradition and paper responding to this Tradition.
- Spiritual practices on the four spiritual paths of Hinduism
- In-class meditations: 3-minute breathing space, loving kindness meditation, body scan; meditating on death; breathing and the 4 brains.
- Summative #2: Hinduism worldview paper
- Buddhist Spiritual Practices presentation on breathing, bowing, and chanting.
- Visit to Su Bong Zen Buddhist monastery
- My presentation: Buddhist perspectives on stress, reactivity, and attachment
- Watch “Little Buddha”
- Non-Reactivity and Triggering Events
- Buddhist monk Rabten’s visit
- 3 marks of existence: impermanence, no soul, dukkha
- Summative #3: Buddhism Presentation on Modern Psychological Issues
Judaism, Islam, and Spiritual Practices project
- Judaism: “My life, my religion” video
- Themes of Judaism: Centrality of the Law; Liberation; Jubilee; social justice.
- Various different religious practices of Judaism (Shabbat, tifillin, mezuzah).
- Jewish Festivals project
- Visit to Synagogue
- Judaism “My Religion My Life” video
- Summative #4: Series of 4 Judaism quizzes
- Reading and quizzes on Islam
- Islam “My Religion My Life” video
- Visit to the Chai Wan mosque
- Other topics: Jim Jones and the Mohammed movie; Cynthia Bourgeault on moving from the small to the Larger Self.
- Summative #5: Spiritual Practices Project
- Summative #6: Final paper and presentation
“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads onto way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.