“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Education as it is currently understood, particularly in the West, ignores the human soul, or essential Self. This essential Self is not some vague entity whose existence is a matter of speculation, but our fundamental “I,” which has been covered over by social conditioning and by the superficiality of our rational mind. In North America we are in great need of a form of training that would contribute to the awakening of the essential Self. Such forms of training have existed in other eras and cultures and have been available to those with the yearning to awaken from the sleep of their limited conditioning and know the potential latent in the human being.
—Kabir Helminski, Living Presence, p. 6.
Three years ago I had something of a breakthrough in my teaching philosophy that had been in formation for a long time. I had been searching my entire career for what power in education really means, and service learning had been my pedagogy of choice for the first twenty years, but in 2012 I began focusing extensively on the inner life. Then three years ago, prompted by G.I. Gurdjieff’s emphasis on the body, mind, and heart, I re-organized my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” (SSS) elective course around these three centers of intelligence, which I summarized in a blog entry.
All the big themes that came together in that 2015 blog – body-mind-heart, the vertical dimension, and spiritual practices – are working well; I’m thrilled that after so many years of experimenting I have finally found a relatively stable curriculum. The one major addition in the intervening three years has been teaching of the Enneagram, which has become perhaps the most valuable aspect of the course for students. This entry, then, is a distillation of that earlier blog, and an attempt to further identity the essentials of this approach.
My starting point in re-designing the SSS course is considering the developmental needs of HKIS juniors and seniors. With college looming on their event horizon, the big task for SSS students is the massive question, “What should I do with my life?”, which translates into the ever-present questions of what college for which major for what purpose. It’s the biggest question of their teenage years and maybe of their life trajectory: what is worthy of their time? And deeper still lies the question of identity: who do they want to be, as they consider the broad expanse of their lives?
Yet the pinball-like experience of high school that occurs on so many levels makes it difficult for students to explore such important questions in a calm, sustained manner. Here is a typical example of a hard-working, conscientious, and ultimately successful (in terms of college admission) student narrating her struggles throughout high school:
“Starting…in sophomore year, things were getting harder and I wasn’t “being” but merely “living” every day with fear and dread. ‘I have to take hard APs in sophomore, junior, and senior year so that college will see that I am competent; I have to maintain a good GPA; I have to have more extracurricular activities; I have to create this amount of artwork,’ I told myself. With this mentality, I started getting 4-6 hours of sleep, started consuming a lot of junk food, stopped exercising as much, doing devotions, and spending time with friends and family. For a period of time in junior year, I remember staying at the school’s library during my frees and lunches, and my friends could not contact me at all. At home, I would stay at my home to study and miss some of my family dinners. I would even bring my books to study at a restaurant if I really had to go. These incidents led to misunderstandings, which ultimately hurt my relationships.”
Personally, I sympathize with the genuine angst that my students suffer. And in terms of answering the big questions of SSS, their ordinary state of mind mitigates against a balanced and heart-felt inquiry into such important life decisions. So, what approach can be taken? Rather than taking personal interest surveys or a strengths finder approach, SSS opts for a more intuitive method to address these questions. Drawing upon the Wisdom Tradition, we use a body-mind-heart framework, which trains each core component of the self to become more capable of self-understanding.
Given this point of departure, the course overview can be described in this way:
“This junior-senior religion elective aims to enable students to gain a better sense of life direction through a holistic exploration of their bodies, minds, and hearts. The starting point of this journey is the assumption that each aspect of the self – body, mind, and heart – has its own unique intelligence that it brings to bear in addressing the question of purpose in life. The class, then, consists in teaching about and training of each intelligence to bring it into greater sympathetic resonance with other aspects of the self. The training of the body asks students to not only find ways to improve their physical health, but also to consider the body’s own innate ways of knowing; the training of the mind helps students to identify and understand their personality type; and training of the heart uses various spiritual practices to integrate the three centers and relax into a whole self. It is hoped that this intensive self-exploration will enable students to gain greater self-understanding so that they can consciously choose a life of purpose and service to society.”
In using this framework as the organizing principle of the course, I find myself in agreement with philosopher Jacob Needleman’s assessment of these three centers: “Man’s confusion, his lack of unity, his unnecessary suffering, his immorality – in fact everything that characterizes the sorrow of the human condition – come about because these centers of perception are wrongly related, wrongly functioning, and because man does not see or care to know this about himself.” Reducing suffering, then, comes about through a re-integration of these three centers of intelligence.
Second semester juniors in SSS class.
The Body-Mind-Heart Framework
In her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault outlines her understanding of the life and teachings of enigmatic spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, who first codified these three fundamental intelligences for the modern world. Gurdjieff stated that humans are “three-brained” beings; the body, the mind, and the heart all have ways of perceiving and orienting, as well communicating with other aspects of the self. A healthy self, then, has all three intelligences interacting as an entrained trinity. By contrast, to be operating out of only one center, which in modern society is almost always the mind, means that we are functionally asleep. We need to wake up the body and the heart in order to come to self-understanding.
The Body Center
The focus of the opening unit is on the body center, and its role is prominent throughout the semester. What could the body possibly have to do with making decisions about one’s future or self-understanding? The Wisdom Tradition’s response is that in a mind-obsessed culture, coming into the body through sensing one’s feet, breath, or other sensory experiences is the easiest way to wake up from our habitual sleep-walking. Secondly, and more intriguingly, is the concept of the “intelligence of the body.” That is, the body has a way of knowing that is different than the mind or the heart. Understanding oneself and one’s place in the world, according to the Wisdom Tradition, is intimately connected to how well you can tap into “embodied knowing.”
Many contemporary spiritual writers speak of this intelligence of the body. Writer Phil Shepherd calls the gut “the second brain.” Michael Brown’s Presence Process teaches meditators how to follow their emotion-laden sensations deep into the body in order to liberate them. In describing this “Presence Process,” publisher David Ord comments that it “brings to our conscious awareness those deep unresolved emotional forces from childhood that have been driving us.” Similarly, Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell contend in their book Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality that the “intellect’s eye cannot easily penetrate this inner world of felt meaning” (30) that is stored in our cells and tissues. Finally, Cynthia’s teaching of the Welcoming Prayer, which deals with daily emotional pain, instructs that when strong negative emotion hits, pause and experience that emotion’s bodily sensation in an attempt to integrate the energy rather than repress it.
Seeing the body as a partner in the quest for wisdom requires a paradigm shift for most of us. Cynthia writes, “In many spiritual traditions of the world, the body is viewed with fear and suspicion, considered to be the seat of desire and at best a dumb beast that must trained and brought into submission to the personal will. But what is missed here – and it is of crucial importance – is that the moving center [the body] also carries unique perceptive gifts, the most important of which is the capacity to understand the language of faith in sacred gesture.” All religions use bodily movement – bowing, prostrations, symbolic hand gestures, sitting postures, conscious walking – to interlink the body, mind and heart together for holistic understanding. Consider the power of adding a hand gesture, which moves from the chest outward, to a song about opening the heart. A mental activity of rote singing moves into an embodied practice that works on both conscious and sub-conscious levels of the individual.
It’s helpful to think of the body as an interface between the inner subjective self and an objective world beyond the self. Sensitizing the body to become a fluid medium linking self and world, a role it seems purposefully designed for, gives our physical structure an integrative function far more prominent than its frequent dismissal as a machine.
Of the three centers, certainly it is the body as a way of knowing that seems the most difficult for modern students to understand. According to Cynthia, bodily intelligence is our weakest center. She explains, “I have learned through years and years of spiritual work that it’s from a finely developed inner sensing [of the body] that you really get the information you need to make accurate discernments in your inner journey. Both the mind and the emotions are easily blindsided or manipulated by the personal will. But the sensing/moving center never lies. 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. It has taken years to learn to discern from sensation.”
It is the exercising of this underutilized natural intelligence that explains to a large degree the receptivity of my students to all kinds of spiritual practices in the form of conscious walking, doing body scans, or writing Chinese characters. Employing the body’s innate capacity for engaging and relaxing movement allows student to be present in the moment, giving the anxious mind a much-needed rest and time for rejuvenation.
The Mind Center
The strengths of the mind in terms of understanding and discernment – critical thinking, self-reflectivity, multiple perspectives – are quite evident to students. What is less obvious, however, especially in a school setting, are the hidden dangers of overreliance on this particular faculty. Cynthia explains, “The intellectual center . . . [has a] natural aptitude for reasoning, doubting, making fine discriminations. In their own right, these discriminatory skills are legitimate and profoundly necessary, built into the structure of the human mind itself. But in terms of the spiritual journey, trying to find faith with the intellectual center is something like trying to play a violin with a saw: it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. This is one reason why all religious traditions have universally insisted that religious life cannot be done with the mind alone; that is the biggest single impediment to spiritual becoming.” Is it any wonder, then, in the mind-intensive, frenetic atmosphere of high school that students find it difficult to come to any kind of abiding faith in deeply-held causes, values, or beliefs? To repeat, the mind is the wrong tool for the job.
Cynthia continues, “The other reason why the mind has been regarded with a certain amount of suspicion is its tendency to pull us into a smaller, mentally constructed sense of ourselves: to confuse being with thinking. That was Descartes’ mistake in his notorious ‘Cognito, ergo sum’ [“I think, therefore, I am”]. It’s a vicious circle: the process of thinking intensifies our identification of ourselves with the thinker and makes us more and more dependent on thinking as the way of maintaining our sense of identity. In terms of Wisdom, this is like racing round and round in a squirrel cage. Nothing real can happen until we find our way out.”
While high school classes certainly maintain an invaluable element of stretching students intellectually, the goal of the wisdom tradition in modern society is to bring the over-exercised muscle of the mind into sympathetic harmony with a revitalized body and heart.
What is the proper role of the mind from the perspective of the Wisdom Tradition? When informed by an alive body and heart, the mind can provide a combination of understanding and intuition that articulates “the big picture” of our role in our communities, extending even to our existential place in the universe. In a world with an ever-increasing overabundance of data but a dearth of wisdom-clarifying crystallization of priorities, the value of a discerning mind cannot be overestimated.
The Heart Center
The third aspect of the triad is heart, which in contemporary parlance is often equated with our emotions. However, Cynthia explains that this is an unfortunate misunderstanding with dangerous implications: “In the psychological climate of our times, our emotions are almost always considered to be virtually identical with our personal authenticity, and the more freely they flow, the more we are seen to be honest and ‘in touch.’ A person who gravitates to a mental mode of operation is criticized for being ‘in his head;’ when feeling dominates, we proclaim with approval that such a person is ‘in his heart.’ In the Wisdom tradition, this would be a serious misuse of the term heart. The real mark of personal authenticity is not how intensely we can express our feelings but how honestly we can look at where they’re coming from and spot the elements of clinging, manipulation, and personal agendas that make up so much of what we experience as our emotional life today. A person with serious [emotional] control issues . . . [is] more at the mercy of her emotional agendas.”
So often students are exhorted to find their “passion” in life, or commended for having “passion” for a subject or an extracurricular activity. However, Cynthia offers a word of caution about our unquestioning praise of passion. “In the teachings of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers, these intense feelings arousing out of personal issues were known as the ‘passions,’ and most of the Desert spiritual training had to do with learning to spot these land mines and get free of them before they did serious psychic damage . . . . Passion [was seen] as a diminishment of being. It meant falling into passivity, into a state of being acted upon (which is what the Latin passio actually means), rather than clear and conscious engagement. Instead of enlivening the heart, according to one Desert Father, the real damage inflicted by the passions is that ‘they divided our heart in two.’”
Through spiritual training, however, our emotions can lead us to what we are trying to find in this class: a sense of direction about our future. Cynthia explains: “The heart, in the ancient sacred traditions, has a very specific and perhaps surprising meaning. It is not the seat of our personal affective life – or even, ultimately, of our personal identity – but an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. It is our antenna, so to speak, given to us to orient us toward the divine radiance and to synchronize our being with its more subtle movements. The heart is not for personal expression but for divine perception.”
In other words, if life direction is about a calling from something beyond oneself, then awakening the heart gives students a new form of perception – a purified sensitivity – to what they are meant to do with their lives.
To give a better sense of the heart’s gifts beyond its stereotype of personal emotions, Cynthia quotes modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski: “We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. In addition to the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative capacities; and image-forming and symbolic capacities . . . . This total mind we call ‘heart’.”
Somehow deep down most of us sense that this expansive sense of heart has more to offer than the mind in itself, promising satisfaction that seems unattainable by the mind alone. Yet think of our society’s priorities. Whereas school requires about 15 years to teach us how to think before going off to university, our formal educational settings spend little time teaching us how to feel, a description that even sounds rather odd. By contrast, Jesus states at in one of his most famous teachings: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Wisdom Tradition argues that the path to ultimate satisfaction goes straight through the purified heart.
The Heart’s Reconciling Force
What is the interrelationship between these three ways of knowing? Cynthia envisions the three centers playing distinctly different, but related functions. Borrowing concepts from Gurdjieff’s Law of Three, she sets up the Wisdom playing field in this way: “In the ancient language of Wisdom, the moving center [or body] carries the ‘affirming force;’ its natural aptitude is for reaching out, embracing, making contact. The intellectual center carries the ‘denying force,’ cautioning and questioning the body’s desire to connect.”
The heart, then, as the organ of spiritual perception, is the reconciling force, “a bridge between the mind and the body and also between our usual physical world and this invisible other realm. When properly attuned, the emotional center’s most striking capacity, lacking in the mind alone, is the ability to comprehend the language of paradox. Logical inconsistencies that the mind must reduce into a simple ‘either-or’ can be held by the heart in ‘both-and’ – and even more important – felt that way – without needing to resolve, close down or protect oneself from the pain that ambiguity always brings.”
What happens when body, mind, and heart all function properly and in harmony? “When a person is poised in all three centers, balanced and alertly there, a shift happens in consciousness. Rather than being trapped in our usual mind, with its well-informed rut tracks of issues and agendas and ways of thinking, we seem to come from a deeper, steadier, and quieter place. We are present, in the words of the Wisdom tradition, fully occupying the now in which we find ourselves.This state of presence is extraordinarily important to know and taste in oneself. For sacred tradition is emphatic in its insistence that real Wisdom can be given and received only in a state of presence, with all three centers of our being engaged and awake. Anything less is known in the tradition as ‘sleep’ and results in an immediate loss of receptivity to higher meaning.”
All this sounds like a daunting task, so I’d like to conclude with this final observation from Cynthia that comes late in the Wisdom Way of Knowing: “Awakening the heart may sound like one of those lofty but unattainable ideals, beyond what a human being can accomplish. But actually, it’s only the words that are lofty; the task itself is quite doable. You could even say that we were born for it, because only with awakened hearts are we actually able to fulfill our purpose with the cosmos.”
Given the preceding overview of the body-mind-heart framework, then, here are the essential aspects of the new course structure and the accompanying larger assignments (called summatives) that proceed out of this pedagogical approach:
- Starting point: in the midst of making important and far-reaching decisions about their futures, students have great personal challenges managing their high school experience.
- Approach: The body-mind-heart framework offers students a balanced way to recover and reconnect to themselves.
- Body awareness: The “Be Healthier Today” project focuses on the foundation of pro-actively making healthier eating choices, which strengthens students not only physically, but also empowers them to take steps to improve their ability to cope with life challenges (summative #1).
- Mind insights: The Enneagram helps students understand and accept their personality type with all of their strengths, quirks and contradictions.
- Heart integration: Emerging from their self-exploration through the Enneagram, the spiritual practices project provides students with a practical daily routine to work towards rebalancing their physical, mental and emotional well-being (summative #2).
- Emotional Intelligence: Throughout the course I introduce practices and experiences that help students to explore the intelligence of their hearts, such as dealing with the inner critic, non-reactivity, burning their regrets, and re-enlivening their lives through rituals.
- Application: The DIY wellness project asks students to develop for themselves a holistic practice that can sustain their body-mind-heart selves (summative #3).
- Culmination: The final paper (3-6 pages) summarizes their learning, which they then share in a final ritual on the last day of class (summative #4).
The biggest takeaway for most students in SSS is that it gives them permission to take a sustained look at themselves. As Zach explained a few years ago, “SSS was like Humanities I in Action for the inside.” Here a some recent examples of student reflections on the course:
For Hollis, the main benefit was getting in touch with her physical body after the whirlwind of activities and classes she was involved with: “The class has been crucial to my wellbeing as it has been a refuge during the day for me to take time to focus on myself, to stop comparing myself to others and to ultimately, listen to my body. In this sense, it has been an extremely beneficial course for me to take in several ways. The diet change project, identifying my enneagram type and a comprehensive introduction to kinesiology have all contributed to my journey of becoming my most healthy self, physically and mentally.”
Ali also expressed similar sentiments in the context of his desire to make a positive impact on the world: “Before I focus on fixing societal issues, which I am extremely passionate about, I must concentrate on bettering myself both mentally and physically. As a result of the “Be Healthier Today” project, my spiritual practices project, and learning about the enneagram, this course has given me the perfect platform to make myself healthier.”
Sharon was able to counteract her extremely stressful first semester with a regular habit of meditation that she developed in SSS: “Through SSS, I realized the importance of the balance between body, mind, and heart, and the consequences that can follow the imbalance. I will bring my learning to college and through life, of letting go, eating healthy, and meditating.”
After an uplifting and academically successful 9th grade year, Sandra’s high school career went downhill. It wasn’t until SSS that she was able to put all the pieces back together again: “From praying before meals, to learning how important gut health is (second brain), to realizing that superbrain yoga represents the importance of exercise, to finding myself as a type 2 “Helper” on the Enneagram, knowing that loving kindness meditation is the most effective for me, all have contributed to another year of feeling enlightened. I have never been so grateful for such an experience. The unfinished puzzle after Humanities I in Action and World Religions in freshman year has finally been completed.”
Amar describes how SSS provided a necessary counterbalance to his vision for contributing to society through environmental research: “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.”
Like Amar, Ivy also appreciated how SSS was a valuable complement to Humanities I in Action, leading to the beautiful phrase that she now “radiate[s] with life:” “Humanities 1 in Action challenged me to step outside my bubble and instilled in me a passion for service. SSS guided me in integrating that energy in a way that is cognizant of my immediate surroundings. As I work on my gratitude project and think about how to make the best out of my remaining time here, I feel myself radiate with life. Throughout my journey, I’ve learned how to live.”
Here are a number of student comments from last semester that reflected the value of a course that allows students to do self-work that has been neglected throughout high school:
- Teenie: “It has been a hectic 4 years, and taking SSS has helped me slow down, breath and actually word on myself, my body and soul rather than just focusing on my mind…I finally got the time to learn more about myself and how to be a better version of myself. I’ve always felt lost, not knowing who I am and what I’m good at and I think this was a great class that led me to finally make some time for my heart and my body.”
- Jason: “Service, Society, and the Sacred has been the most unique course in HKIS I have taken because it was about me. I hate to seem self centered, but focusing on myself for once in a classroom setting was refreshing, and to be honest, much needed.”
- Kenna: “The most impactful gain [was] my development of self-love on the physical, intellectual and spiritual levels.”
- Jazmin: “Through almost every activity that we did, SSS class helped me be honest with myself and recognize when I need help from others, and to not be afraid to ask for that help. It has taught me healthy ways to deal with my emotions instead of being reluctant to open up to others, which is my main takeaway from this course.”
- Khushi: “After learning about and trying out various spiritual and holistic practices, I realized how crucial it was for me to create this balance in my own life to stop the destructive cycle I had created and was going through in my life.”
Many years ago I began teaching with the desire to discover power in education. What is the secret elixir of transformation that changes the lead of our normal experience into the gold of a student saying, “I feel myself radiate with life?” What I have learned by listening to my students is that there is a deep yearning to make a positive impact on the world; yet without interior exploration, even “making a difference” is not ultimately satisfying. The imperative of transformative education, then, is to balance the yang of social change with the yin of inner awakening, a harmony represented in Gandhi’s pithy directive: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Satisfaction is always related to beingness. SSS in its many years of experimentation has returned to Aristotle’s insight, “Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom,” a truth that is reinforced every semester in SSS.
Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bourgeault, C. (2014). “Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work.” Online course on the Spirituality and Practice website.
Brown, M. (2010). The presence process: A journey into present moment awareness. Revised edition. Vancouver: Namaste.
Kabir, E. H. (1992). Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
McMahon, E.M. & Campbell, P.A. (2010). Rediscovering the lost body-connection within Christian spirituality: The missing link for experiencing yourself in the body of the whole Christ is a changing relationship to your own body. Minneapolis, MN: Tasora.
Shepherd, P. “Out of our heads.” Sun Magazine, April, 2013.
 Other recent student comments: “I am unable to reflect on my high school career without the awareness of how my struggles with depression and anxiety has filtered all my experiences.”
- “I was in a sad, lonely place, putting on a happy face for friends and family so that they didn’t know what I was going through.
- “I stopped taking caring for my body, and my heart wasn’t in the right place because I didn’t get the love or acceptance that Type 2’s desire so much and basically my life was a living nightmare for type 2’s because I was living the basic fear everyday: to not be seen or worthy of love and acceptance….I finally admitted that I was showing signs of depression, and I needed to fix this instead of blaming it on the world and God.”
 Educating for inner awakening seeks to re-balance the “one-brained” student into a triangulating, multi-sensory being. Cynthia defines these three aspects in this way:
- Body: “Sensing is the work of the moving body center. It operates through a directly embodied or kinesthetic knowing.
- Mind: Thinking is the work of the intellectual center. It operates through deduction, logic and analysis, comparison, measuring and weighing.
- Heart: Feeling is the work of the heart center. It operates through vibrational resonance (i.e., empathy)” (day 5 of online course “Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work”).