This entry, written as an introduction for a future book, explores how the yin-yang symbol offers a model for the integration of service learning and spiritual practices in school curricula. Such an approach is needed to meet the deep needs of both the planet and of our students.
“The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible, and they are. They want awakening, to get the soul out of bed, out of her habitual sleep.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I first began teaching, I wanted to find the power of education. The roots of this allurement was the Lutheran education of my youth that I received in Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S. So many of my teachers from kindergarten to college were simply good, “salt of the earth” human beings who served others through their teaching and their lives. Although as a community we did not use such terms as “transformation” or “breaking of the ego,” these messages were encoded in the sacred Christian story that formed the basis of my community. Stories like Jesus changing water into wine, raising Lazarus from the dead, the walk to Emmaus, or Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience – all spoke in their rich narrative symbolism of the tradition’s raison d’etre as a catalyst of transformation. Of particular importance in my youth was the bold, plain speaking of II Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, and the new has come.” These teachings, received as God’s Word, imprinted upon me the implicit understanding that life was all about some rupture from an ordinary, temporal consciousness and entering into a new life of the Spirit, transforming the self in some fundamental, mysterious and, yet, discernible way.
More than 25 years later, I still think that working with the power of transformation in education is the most exciting vocation that I can personally dedicate my life to. I have been on a quest in these years to figure out what power in education really means, especially in an international school setting in which I teach in Hong Kong. The relatively small parochial community of my formative years in the 1970’s and 80’s in which church, school, and family all adhered to the same sacred story contrasts dramatically with teaching affluent expatriate and Chinese international school students in 21st century Hong Kong. While the remnants of a theistic belief system are able to maintain optimism for those who still believe – assuring adherents that the human story culminates ultimately in a happy ending – most of my students find this traditional worldview of my youth to be bewildering and even downright contradictory at key points. For most students, it simply does not speak to their personal and spiritual concerns. The adults as a whole, for their part, lack the commonly accepted certainty of previous eras, so the question of full worldview integrity is left to students to consider for themselves. Then there is the fact that international students, simply by their exposure to a world of travel, multiple perspectives, and affluence, assume a posture of superiority towards those limited by their nationalistic horizons, further severing the link between these traditional worldviews and my students’ attempts to make sense of the world. For all of their achievements, my students are adrift about the really big questions.
Despite these vast cultural differences, there was – in the Lutheran upbringing of my past – and certainly is – in the international school of my present – a yearning for the same imperatives of human selfhood: meaning, authenticity, service to something beyond oneself, and understanding one’s place in the universe. The belief systems, cultures, languages, and socio-economic levels are markedly different, but the quest for wholeness remains. As education becomes globalized and technology becomes a ubiquitous feature of modern education, I expect that many emerging trends among international schools will arise in national schools in the future. My conviction is that it is precisely in the laboratory of international education that we should be field testing whether wisdom is possible in this leading edge of success-driven students. Ultimately, my desire is to create pedagogies that will speak to these future global leaders about how to find wholeness within themselves that can then be projected into a world that is going through wrenching change.
It is in the midst of rising mental distress and worldview uncertainty among my students that I offer The Wisdom Way of Teaching as a personal journey as well as a sharing of how to teach for what I believe is most essential in today’s 21st century world. While I don’t claim to have “solved” the question of cosmology, I want to offer what is working with students in hopes that further dialogue will lead to a picture of the universe that students can not only abide with, but one that actively supports their aspirations, ranging from the personal, to the community and global, and finally to the cosmic.
Teaching for Wisdom
Let me begin, then, with the book’s title. The primary claim is that it is possible to teach for wisdom, but what do I mean by a term that is frequently bandied about in modern parlance? I am specifically drawing upon the writing of my spiritual mentor, Episcopalian priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault, for my working definition of wisdom, which she describes as a “precise and comprehensive science of spiritual transformation that has existed since the headwaters of the great world religions and is in fact their common ground” (Bourgeault, 2003, xvi-xvii).” Wisdom, in short, is the world’s accumulated understanding of how to educate for transformation. I had no understanding in the early days of my teaching that my desire to find the power of education has been present in every human culture. As Cynthia contends, personal transformation is the intended destination for all humans as they journey through the second half of life.
In traditional cultures, a unified understanding of how the universe worked was taught hand-in-hand with practices to enable a seeker to find the wisdom path. However, in this age of scientific critique of all metanarratives, traditional cosmology and their practices are summarily dismissed. This has left our students with highly attuned critical reasoning skills, but bereft of other ways of knowing. They can tell you what they don’t believe, but find little guidance to stake their fidelity in anything beyond what appeals to their personal values system. Meanwhile, for all the good work we do preparing students academically and for personal growth, I think I can say without much debate that the affluent international educational system as a whole is creating much planetary destruction and personal exhaustion. Any education proposal that does not have one eye on the global environment and another on the mental well-being of students is incomplete.
Social Conscience and Inner Awakening
While Cynthia associates wisdom primarily with contemplative practices, I have taken the license to broaden her use of the concept to include my emphasis on social conscience education. My justification for this amendment is a practical one coming from my years of teaching. Wisdom work is all about awakening, and I have found that it’s much easier to make an initial breakthrough to high school students through service learning rather than spiritual practices. Then once they’ve experienced the power of living for someone or something besides themselves, they are more likely, especially as they mature, to be attracted to the internal search through spiritual practices. Put more practically, going through some level of transformation holding a baby at an orphanage is more likely to convince a student that they have a soul in need of being nurtured.
This book brings together my two big takeaways of my quarter century of teaching in one international school in Hong Kong. The first part of the book, which draws from the first 20 years of my teaching experience, explores the initial aspect of teaching for wisdom through social conscience education: breaking the outer shell of the ego. Students engage in a curriculum that aims to expand their thoughts, feelings, and actions beyond their immediate circle of family and friends. Such a journey can be utterly transformative for students. Specifically, I teach towards this goal in a course I created called, “Humanities I in Action.” The ultimate goal of the course, as I found in research with my students, is empower students to feel that they can “make a difference” in society.
However, I found that a second journey is equally necessary, which I have dabbled with my entire career, but have focused on intently over the last seven years. This second educational approach might go by the terms of character education, moral education, or holistic education. Drawing again upon one of Cynthia’s books (Bourgeault, 2004), however, I prefer the more descriptive and edgier term inner awakening. Like social conscience, this approach also involves transformation of students’ minds, emotions, and bodies, but, intriguingly, the definitions of the three parts of the self will need to be refined as we consider the nuances of spiritual growth. They are not the same, and this second focus requires a more delicate touch.
Thus, the case I’m presenting here is that the wisdom needed in a world of both climate change and unprecedented levels of depression is a yin-yang process. The first cracking of the ego focuses on the yang of social conscience, which can be described in a short-hand sense as an emotionally engaged understanding of the world. However, as my students have told me for years, such a powerful change is not completely satisfying, nor fully sustainable. The fire of social justice does not necessarily light an inner flame. Teaching for inner awakening requires the dissolution of the ego’s inner shell as well, offering students the opportunity to find an aliveness felt within one’s being, a burning bush that flames and crackles but is not consumed.
The yin-yang symbol is a useful representation of this hybrid service learning-spiritual practice educational approach. The apparent duality of action and contemplation is not only portrayed in dynamic interaction, but, as indicated by the eye contained at the heart of each force, the core of each polarity contains its opposite. The lesson to be drawn in terms of transformative education is that action responses need to be refined by a reflective and even contemplative dimension in order to purify motives of self-interest and egoic attachment. Conversely, spiritual practices are driven not by the desire to escape the world, but to influence it in a more pervasive, if more subtle, manner. Understood properly, it is the desire to serve the world that motivates spiritual practices.
The wisdom tradition emerges out of a worldview that is explicitly religious and/or spiritual in nature. As a Christian teacher in a pluralistic setting, my teaching of social conscience and inner awakening has been deeply shaped and immeasurably enriched by my Christian faith and the faith traditions of many other religions and spiritualities. Indeed, it’s no secret that the vast majority of the world’s wisdom has been encoded within such traditions. I intend to draw upon these traditions in this book, as I do in my multicultural setting, simply because to avoid them would result in a more superficial and less effective approach, and one that would not be true to my journey or the methods employed in my teaching. If the goal is spiritual growth, then my experience tells me that student energy is drawn to and enhanced by the two themes – social conscience and inner awakening – that form the basis of this book.
Yet these two approaches can be easily translated into secular educational language. Put in more widely recognized terms, this book explores why service learning and mindfulness continue to inspire so many students and teachers. Regardless of the reader’s own belief system, aspects of the book can be used in secular or parochial school settings.
With these introductory thoughts in place, let me outline the book’s contents. Part I has four chapters on social conscience education. Chapter 1 is an overview of my own journey, the creation of key courses, and an introduction to my research. Chapter 2 describes the curriculum and teaching of our core social conscience course, “Humanities I in Action.” Chapter 3 narrows the focus further, describing in detail our day 1 lesson plan in Humanities I in Action and the student responses to it, in light of the research findings. Chapter 4 provides more detail of the impact of social conscience education upon students, and then explains the four essential roles of social conscience teachers.
Part II has four chapters on inner awakening. Chapter 5 explains my own journey in coming to recognize that for all its effectiveness, social conscience education was insufficient in and of itself to provide the transformative effect that I was searching for as a teacher. This chapter concludes with on overview of what teaching for inner awakening means. Chapter 6 shares how I teach the heart of inner awakening, the use of spiritual practices, in my “World Religions” class. Chapter 7 expands the wisdom field, taking these practices and embedding them in a body-mind-heart framework that provides a more comprehensive understanding of how to teach for wisdom that I use in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class. Chapter 8 is a dialogue between myself and a mindfulness teacher about how we teach the most important and yet most neglected aspect of this wisdom framework, body consciousness.
Part III has two chapters that serve as reflections on this wisdom way of teaching. Chapter 9 shares the views of students and teachers who have studied/who have taught courses that employ these social conscience and inner awakening approaches. Finally, chapter 10 brings together all the aspects discussed – service learning, spiritual practices, and pedagogy – into a more fully developed teaching philosophy.
Teaching the wisdom of transformation requires trying to change both the world and the self, or in the terms of this book, joining the yang of social conscience education with the yin of inner awakening. This is the education that is needed to heal both the planet and the psyches of students who study in our classrooms. Welcome to the book!
Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
At the center of the HKIS high school plaza is a fountain modeled after the yin-yang symbol.