“Wisdom Schools are a format for integral learning that’s based in some of the deepest kind of roots for transformation and change in the Christian tradition…It’s been a classic way that human beings have handed on Wisdom since time immemorial. The vision that human beings as we are not only can transform, not only can grow, but also have a different kind of consciousness that results in a different kind of presence in the world. Wisdom schools are about awakening the yearning for that presence and then developing the skills and the knowledge base to apply that, to transform your own life and the life of people around you.”
HKIS is embarking on a bold educational experiment by creating a Wellness block for each student each year at the high school, consisting of classes in PE (body), counseling (mind), and religion (heart). The religion courses’ contribution to this effort is a 4-year curriculum called “Spiritual Explorations” (SPEX), 20 classes a year aimed to support the spiritual lives of students. In this blog, I’d like to sketch out the essentials of a Wisdom School and share implications from my retreat experience to further develop the SPEX curriculum.
What do we mean by Wisdom?
Wisdom commonly means knowing how to live. What better gift could a school give to its students than such profound guidance? We can certainly say that is the goal of the Wellness block: to enable students to learn how to live healthier, happier, and more meaningful ways.
However, when Cynthia uses the word “Wisdom,” she employs the term in a more specific sense. Wisdom in this context means connected to the Wisdom Tradition, which is the inner core of the world’s religious traditions aimed at transformation of human consciousness. Put more practically, the Wisdom Tradition teaches that we live to our fullest potential when our bodies, minds, and hearts are brought to resonant aliveness with each other and the environment. In our overly mindy school culture, this means re-training our atrophed sense of our bodies and hearts to come alive. Such harmonization will naturally and without compulsion transform our way of being in the world, aligning us with reality. We come to sense an inner beat to the universe and are able to, as Aboriginal elder Bob Randall explains, “join the perfection.”
Heart of the Wisdom Path
It’s important to state most succinctly the overall goal of the Wisdom path. Cynthia explains directly, “We are first and foremost a school of being. “ The heart of the Wisdom path, then, is to create “being,” which means a gathering of personal energy at the center of oneself, anchoring identity in a stabler, less vulnerable space than the personality that radiates “all is well.” It is a place that accepts self, other, and world in a posture of unconditional love, serving as a counterweight to the busyness of our daily lives. Cultivation of being is lost when we squander energy through endless interior dialogue, comparison with others, ego maintenance and defense, and investing in entertaining distractions, all of which come from the mind’s instinct to grab what it perceives it needs to secure well-being. A fundamental task of all Wisdom Schools, then is to “plug the energy leaks,” recovering the energy necessary to move to higher levels of consciousness.
Wisdom schools work positively to build up this “being food” by practicing meditation in order to, as Cynthia says, put a spoke in the mind’s spinning wheel of grasping. In the nano-seconds between thoughts lie the emptiness, or the “Shining Void,” as Buddhism calls it, in which being naturally arises. Although subtraction is the main strategy to allow being to emerge, energy gains can also be realized through devotion, conscious food and conversation, contemplating new teachings, and interabiding with the natural environment. Kindling this energy raises the overall energetic level of the self.
Essential Elements of a Wisdom School
Cynthia may be the first person in the world to pioneer Wisdom Schools in their modern guise. In experimenting with this form of retreat over the last two decades, she has come to see its essential elements as a rhythmic mix of silence, spiritual practice, devotion, teaching, work, and relaxation.
- Rhythm: Following the Benedictine “Ora et Labora” (“work and pray”), a Wisdom School has a regular daily schedule of silence and speech, physical labor and rest, teaching and digesting – all aimed towards a natural flowering of heart resonance with a living cosmos.
- Silence: Following Thomas Keating’s claim that “silence is God’s first language,” a Wisdom School includes times of silence throughout the retreat. Silence is the root and ground of prayer, and cultivation of collective focus through quiet is a baseline of a Wisdom School. Cynthia claims that silence is the greatest asset on a retreat because it allows a people to enter into a mode beyond personality, an almost unknown experience in modern life: “When people gather in silence, a deeper kind of collective, synergistic, numinous knowing unfolds. And that’s the only knowing that’s worth a damn, particularly when you’re working with the infinite.” To these ends, Wisdom Schools have adopted the practice of the “Great Silence,” quiet time from 9 PM after the last teaching until 9 AM the next day. Only essential conversation for life in community occurs, as we build up “being” amongst the group. On the other hand, it is also recognized that connecting with others on the spiritual path is of enormous value. Breakfast is eaten in silence as part of the Great Silence, while other meals usually allow for conscious conversation. The day, then, alternates between times of silence and opportunities to interact with others.
- Spiritual Practice (2 hours/day): Usually, the day begins with a chant, and then proceeds to a 25-minute meditation. This is repeated 3-4 times in a day, for a total of approximately two hours in a day. Each day also closes with a chant. Some days employ a “double sit,” which is a 20+ minute time of seated meditation, a 10-minute walking meditation, and a repeated 20+ minute sit.
- Devotion: A special word needs to be said about the concept of devotion, which Cynthia explains distinguishes Wisdom Schools from, say, Gurdjieff Work groups and their more cerebral approach to mindfulness training. The day begins and ends with simple chants and meditation, which, though relatively brief in terms of time, suffuses the retreat atmosphere with a tangible quality of presence that can be carried into all parts of the day. My most abiding memory from my first Wisdom School in New Zealand was how participants came into the teaching room early to sit silently or lie in prostration before a simple altar of sand, stone, and a central candle. Practically, devotion means that we might start a session, as we did in Lake Cowichan, with Cynthia leading us in a chant, “Streams of my Father’s love run daily through me, from the holy fountain of life to the seed throughout the whole creation.” Beating a drum, she exhorted us to hold this chant at the level of the heart region. Then we stood and repeated the chant, feeling the energy of movement and adoration fire through the body’s nervous system, raising the level of being through devotion.
- Teaching (4+ hours/day): Cynthia teaches for about 1.5 hours three times a day – after breakfast, in the late afternoon, and then early evening after dinner. She chooses a topic for the retreat, such as the teachings of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th-5th century; the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest; the Gospel of Thomas; or a consideration of the Wisdom lineage; and leads participants through a week-long consideration of the materials.
- Work (1 hour/day): Every Wisdom School includes time for physical labor, which gets the mind center into the body, facilitating integration of learning. Work experiences thrust participants, explains Cynthia, into the “crucible of transformation,” for they surface ways in which the identified self – governed by likes and dislikes, attractions and avoidances – comes into play in the simplest of duties. Analogous to seated meditation for the mind, retreatants can catch themselves in automatic physical behaviors. Cynthia gives participants an inner task to accompany the work, such as softening eye focus, or paying attention to lifting of the foot. My outer task one morning, for example, was to dig up small stones on the beach and cart it to a garden to reinforce a stone path. While my body was engaged moving stones, the inner work task was to watch for other living systems that shared the same space – the wind, the clouds, the ponies or lambs, the bees and flowers, or the tides. This waking up to the nested interconnected sentient systems decenters my egoic self, opening me to the intersubjectivity reality of the natural milieu.
- Relaxation (2+ hours/day): Every day has breaks between sessions and margin time to allow for conversations and unhurried transition time. In addition, there is a two-hour time after lunch for walks, reading, a nap, writing, or conversations.
Perhaps the ultimate goal of this rich variation, in imitation of real life, is to shift gears smoothly between different modes of being in community. The danger of total silence, of course, would be that retreatants might come to associate inner peace with an outer condition that is rare in daily life. Wisdom Schools give participants an opportunity to practice transitioning in an intentional community that can then be enacted in the return to daily routines.
Implications for the SPEX Curriculum
What can we learn from Cynthia’s construction of the Wisdom Schools? In discussion with good friend Richard Friedericks who attended the Lake Cowichan Wisdom School with me, we suggest the following:
- The essential teaching needs to be emphasized regularly that the fundamental Wisdom goal is to develop a sense of being that stands independent of the horizontal-oriented achievement culture of modern life. Following the lead of the Perennial Tradition, coming to know, love and identify with this Larger Ground of Being is a primary purpose of human existence. Implicit in this teaching is the concept of the Imaginal World, which according to Cynthia is desperately needed today.
- We should also consider using Ken Wilber’s stages of consciousness, which summarizes human and socio-cultural development over time, to help students understand higher orders of consciousness. Cynthia believes that Wilber’s stages explain key aspects of contemporary culture, and we suspect that these may be of great interest and applicability to HKIS students, such as:
- Failure of pluralistic consciousness (green level) to address current social issues with love, inclusivity, and humility, which resulted in a coalition of anti-pluralistic forces (amber and orange levels) that elected Donald Trump.
- Understanding and teaching towards non-dual, heart-centered Witnessing consciousness.
- Balanced rhythm of body-mind-heart in a community that includes the Benedictine work and prayer – interpreted loosely as activities and spiritual practice – fosters natural higher order growth. For example, set a rhythm during each class which includes
- 5-10 minute meditation to begin class
- Teaching of a new theme or theme
- Conscious work/activity
- Written reflection on the teaching and activity
- End with a 5-minute meditation or silence
- The need for intentional times of silence in the midst of very busy school life.
- Exploration of devotion as a way to cultivate a a capacity for heartfulnesss, which, in a multicultural context, encourages expression of gratefulness and awe.
- Purposeful work activities that ground energy and provide opportunities to catch the small self as it inhabits physical tone, gesture, movement, and behavior.
- Assign out-of-class conscious activities and exercises that bring awareness into sensations when students are riding the bus, eating a meal, brushing teeth, etc.
- Exploration of using sacred geometry as a spiritual practice in order to explore the cosmos and our place in it. (Richard recommends The Way the World Is Made by John Michel to understand this concept in depth.)
The development of the Wellness block and the SPEX curriculum seems to be a local manifestation of the evolutionary impulse towards higher levels of consciousness, which by definition is always a cutting edge development. The attempt here is to draw upon the pioneering work of Wisdom trailblazer Cynthia Bourgeault, who through fusion of the Christian monastic tradition with mindfulness practices, has created and implemented over the last 20 years a highly successful model of cultivating spiritual growth that she calls Wisdom Schools. Having attended four such retreats, it’s obvious to me that she has winnowed the world’s spiritual traditions in order to bring about a contemporary regimen that works splendidly for those with the time and means to attend. The attempt in this blog is take this distillation and apply the essential elements of a Wisdom School to a high achievement, multicultural school context at HKIS. It is expected that the aspects identified here will at some point be implemented in the SPEX curriculum.
This Wisdom School in Lake Cowichan outside of Victoria, Canada focused on understanding the particular Wisdom lineage and commitments of Cynthia’s work. As she explains:
“Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements—or defining characteristics—for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:
1.We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora,” as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.
2. We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing,” not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.
3. We incorporate a major emphasis (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.
4. We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.
5. Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.
6 We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose, but rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.
7. We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice, or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.
8. Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels; The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions; Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart); Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And of course my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.”