Opening the Soul Cage

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Dear students,

What I would like you to hear, as you enter into a high school career that will challenge you in every way, is a universal message from the world’s Wisdom traditions about your true identity. Think of all the most positive qualities you enjoy – contentment, empathy, forgiveness, creativity, gratefulness, morality, unconditional love. These concepts are universally revered as among our most cherished values, and we associate them with Divine Reality as well as with the most cultivated traits of human beings.

The message from the world’s religions is that these things are your essence. What we most desire in God and what we most admire in others also lies at the heart who you are.

Twentieth century Catholic monk Thomas Merton put it this way:

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“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us … like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”

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My Buddhist monk friend, Rabten, speaks similarly of the Buddha Nature, which he describes as a blazing sun in a brilliant blue sky. Can you imagine that there is so much beauty, innocence, and purity within your heart? Even by the tender age of 14, it’s very possible you have lost touch with your inner goodness.

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What happens to us as we grow up is that we take all that is good within us – symbolized as a bird – and hide it behind what Buddhist teacher John Welwood calls a “soul cage.” Living in a world filled with so many voices giving you advice on how to make the most of our lives, many of them critical, it’s not surprising that most of us take our beauty and hide it inside a cage for safe-keeping. We protect it from the ruthless critique of others who tell us that these virtues are naïve, that we’ll be taken advantage of, that won’t get you ahead in the “real world.”

The tragedy, of course, is that each one of us forgets that the bird is meant to fly, not remain protected inside the cage. The incarceration of your Larger Self can be seen to be what the traditions call sin (Judeo-Christian), ignorance (Hinduism), and suffering (Buddhism). We know this all too well.

This hiding of our essence may lead to Beck’s cognitive triad of depression, the three messages that lead to a sense of inner despair:

  1. “You are no good.”
  2. “My world is bleak.”
  3. “My future is hopeless.”

Sin, then, can be seen as giving into the temptation to see self, world, and future as empty of hope.

The big question, of course, is: what will it take to find and free the bird?

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Yet you intuitively know the answer: love. And so my second wish for you is that after glimpsing your own soul cage, you find some love that will free that bird. If you are deeply blessed, you will have someone in your life who mirrors that unconditional acceptance that allows your finest, God-given qualities to take flight.

The world’s Wisdom traditions say that ultimately this love can be found in the Presence of God, which we can glimpse “through a mirror darkly” when our busy minds rest from worrying about ourselves, the world and the future, which then allows our body-mind-heart to enjoy being alive. For most of us, these are the briefest of moments – a quiet walk on a beach, reading a book, caring for someone who receives our generosity, a perfect moment of hanging out with friends on a school trip.

Practically, what can we do? Here is a story from one of my classes.  To my utter surprise, one of my high-achieving and entirely pleasant students was recently having panic attacks in my class. It didn’t actually make sense to her either, as she explained tearfully one day after school. Following our lengthy discussion, I suggested that she do a Loving Kindness Meditation on a daily basis to help her love herself and cultivate love for others. I checked in with her several times during the next week, and she seemed to be doing better. At the end of the week she wrote an email to me: “Thank you so much for the help, Mr. Schmidt. Truly, I feel like this week I’ve had a lot of improvement in regards to my anxiety for some of my classes. The meditation overall helped my security for all my classes. Thank you!”

While I don’t want to pretend that spiritual practices are a cure all, I do have some in-house research that seems to indicate that even the simplest practices can bring about a marked increase in happiness. Take a look at recent graphic from our grade 9-12 online wellness check-in that you regularly participate in:

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What it says is that if you are in the minority of students (26%) who have done some kind of spiritual practice in the last 24 hours, then regardless of your grade level, you are in the happiest category! The vast majority (74%) who did not do a practice, by contrast, were – with the exception of the generally sanguine grade 9 students – on the lower half of the happiness continuum. Even for a religion teacher who regularly touts the value of spiritual practices, this seems way beyond any expectation I had. Of course, we need to investigate this phenomenon further over time, but let’s at least consider the proposition that regular spiritual practice significantly lifts our self-perceived sense of happiness.

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Here’s the advice from the Wisdom traditions: open the cage door just a crack to love and grace, and over time these energies will beckon you to reveal what’s inside, coaxing the bird to take flight into the brilliant blue sky with a blazing sun. These images, the world’s Wisdom traditions claim, are not mere wishful thinking; rather, at the center of our identity is a “pure diamond, blazing with invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody.”

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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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