Most of us would probably agree that gaining a life purpose is among the most important ingredients of a life well-lived. It appears so fundamental to personal fulfilment and social progress that it seems imperative that we teach about it in our schools. But last semester when a classroom conversation segued my Humanities I in Action curriculum into a 3-day exploration of purpose, a brief survey of the internet and reviewing resources I read during my doctoral studies left me fairly clueless how to teach towards this goal. Indeed, my own daughter, Christa, who is working with a leading researcher in the field, explains that we are only at the beginning of understanding purpose from a research perspective. Thus, we educators are left in a quandary: how do we teach students about this all-important goal of purpose?
Research On Purpose and Spirituality
However, this summer I came across a valuable insight. In the conclusion to their important book on the topic, The Quest for Purpose: The Collegiate Search for a Meaningful Life (2017), Glanzer, Hill and Johnson advise that curricula need to go beyond a “conversational approach.” While the authors found in their research that discussing meaning and purpose were vital ingredients in developing a heightened awareness of these values, they note a particular pedagogical blind spot:
“Focusing on having conversations may mean we do not ask students to engage in practices beyond discourse that may prove transformative in helping students discover their purpose. What we found is that students often discovered their purpose and meaning by engaging in such practices. Rarely did this kind of transformative participatory experience occur in the classroom. In fact, one of the noteworthy things we did not find, when asking students about their curricular life, were courses that encouraged students to examine their own practices and not merely their thinking. For the students we interviewed, the examined life meant critically analysing different historical or contemporary ways of thinking or gaining a deeper or more holistic view of their calling or vocation. They did not tell stories of classes asking them to examine what they currently do” (333, underline added).
This comment brought to mind the ground-breaking research reported in Cultivating the Spirit: How Colleges Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (2011), in which Astin, Astin and Lindholm conclude in their final chapter that there are several types of experiences that develop students’ spirituality: study abroad, interdisciplinarity, service learning, philanthropic giving, interracial interaction and leadership training. Then the authors go onto say:
“There is, however, a set of powerful educational tools that have been employed only sparingly by higher education institutions: contemplative practices such as meditation and self-reflection. One study found that contemplative practices are among the most powerful tools at our disposal for enhancing students’ spiritual development” (148, underline added, italics theirs).
The key words “rarely” and “sparingly” point toward a clear implication of these research studies: a blind spot in U.S. higher education in developing purpose and spiritual growth within students may very well be the absence of practices in the curriculum. Whether they be lifestyle-related or spiritually-oriented, implementing practice-based assignments which incorporate students’ actual lived experiences seems to be an underutilized pedagogical strategy for self-understanding.
Implementing Practices in Religion Curricula
The paragraph quoted above in The Quest for Purpose leapt off the page when I first read it, for this practice dimension is at the heart of our new Spiritual Explorations (SPEX) curricula. Just as the researchers surmise, our students deeply resonate to a practice-based approach, most saying that they are the highlights of our courses.
The focus of this entry, then, is to provide four examples of such practice-based activities: two examples of current assignments that align with the research above as well as two that we are planning to implement in the future.
- Spiritual Practices Project (Grade 9 and 10)
Background: In our new SPEX curriculum we have made the paradigm-shifting pedagogical commitment to include some kind of spiritual practice in nearly every class. Thus, the new norm we have created is that students will do some form of spiritual practice – meditation, body scan, conscious walking, writing letters of gratitude, etc – as a regular class activity. About 2/3 of the way through our 20-lesson curriculum in grades 9 and 10, then, we ask students to implement a spiritual practice project.
Project: Students are asked to choose a spiritual practice from a list of choices or they may create their own practice, and to do this practice 10 times over the following two weeks. They record the time, the practice, and their response each day. Several weeks later students share their experiences in small groups settings, facilitated by the teacher. If they submit their spiritual practices log and actively participate in their “shared inquiry” session, they receive a passing grade for the project. For the vast majority of students, these practices are beneficial, helping them to worry less, relax more, understand themselves better, and gain confidence that spiritual practices actually “work,” a realization that oftentimes comes near the mid-point of their 10-day experiment.
- Be Healthier Today (Grade 10)
Background: One of our key assumptions in SPEX is that a life well-lived integrates the intelligences of the body, mind, and heart. We have found that one highly effective way of engaging the body center of intelligence is to pay attention to food consumption patterns, which for many students is fairly mindless, habit-forming, and frequently done in haste.
Project: Modeled on the spiritual practices project above, in the “Be Healthier Today”
project students need to introduce some kind of change in their diet for 10 days over the span of about a two-week period, noting in their log what they ate and how they reacted to the changes. Not only does it have physical value – a surprising number of students report that they continue with their diet changes after the project ends – but it raises questions of motivations for their choices, which causes considerable introspection for many students. Because the curricular context is a religion class, we also ask students to introduce an attitude change towards their eating habits, which for some religious students may mean praying before meals or expressing gratitude for the gift of food, but for most students is some type of practice to slow down and concentrate during meals, like taking 5 sips of water before eating or putting away their phones. Like the spiritual practices project, many students willingly engage in this project because it is personalized and aims to help with their own self-development.
- Habits Workshop (Grade 10)
Background: When my colleague Sangeeta Bansal introduced a workshop on habits to all of our grade 10 students last year, I realized that she named a key aspect of what I had been working on in the above projects: we have habits of mind (spiritual practices project) and body (“Be Healthier Today” project) that are mostly subconscious. In fact, we begin our SPEX grade 9 year with the highly effective video, “This is Water,” based on David Foster Wallace’s well-known commencement address, that makes this point explicitly. Trying to makes lifestyle changes brings to the surface hidden resistance to habits that students know are not healthy for them.
Project: Although we haven’t formally developed Sangeeta’s workshop into a course project yet, her approach is to first ask students to visualize a future goal and to feed that goal with logical reasoning and emotional motivators. With an aim firmly in mind, Sangeeta then asks students to plan cues that initiate the new habit, specify the habit’s routine, and imagine the reward. Following this envisioning process, students then attempt to implement this habit change over the next several days, returning to class for support and modifications. Many students do create new habits, which for some begins a knock-on effect initiating a virtuous cycle of improvement in other parts of their lives.
- Cleaning Up
Background: The final example comes from a lesson plan our SPEX 11 team will implement this coming semester. Our new SPEX 11 curriculum focuses on “Cleaning Up” aspects of students’ lives with the goal of lightening their load during their very challenging junior year. Our first lesson will ask them to note what they have in their backpack/pockets, a practice that reflects their preparation and academic habits. We hope that students will reflect on how their lifestyle choices enhance or detract from their longer-term goals, starting with the very practical issue of backpacks. We also hope to develop ways to help students “let go” of their metaphorical achievement-laden backpacks in future lessons.
Project: We hope that we can develop some kind of practice-based activity that elicits the same response that the authors of The Quest for Purpose note as the singular student-reported “exception” to the general rule that colleges lack a pedagogical focus on practices:
“We did this thing called a room inventory where you count everything in your room and you write down everything that was in your room, and I was just like, holy crap, I have so much shit, this is ridiculous! I don’t know why it’s so important to me that I keep thinking about things and money and concerns like that when, really we’re going to be okay. I started thinking about myself and what’s important to me…. It was when I really realized that what is the most important to me in my life are people and not things….Okay and I knew that…but I started critiquing the way I live and what do I make time for and I feel like it really significantly changed my life, and so I am taking another class from the same professor” (333-334).”
This is the kind of life-shifting experience that some students share in our SPEX classes as well.
Why does a Practice-Based Approach Work?
I still clearly remember the first time I experimented with a brief version of what became the spiritual practices project in 2012. Even with only a few days of practices, student reflections were strikingly deep. The most convincing explanation for the efficacy of this approach to my mind comes from the Wisdom Tradition, which suggests that we have three centers of intelligence – body, mind, and heart – in contrast to the modern belief in the singular center of the mind. The body and the heart, according to the Wisdom Tradition, have “ways of knowing” as well. In drawing upon one center only – the Wisdom Tradition’s definition of sleep – the commonly used conversational approach noted in The Quest for Purpose appears to be a reductive, cyclopean strategy; simply batting around disembodied ideas in the classroom is hardly transformative for most students. On the other hand, discussing and enacting actual practices – be they primarily physical or explicitly spiritual – brings the three intelligences into dialogue and even disagreement, for they rarely act in unison. The projects occur over several weeks, allowing time for students to observe their conflicts, contradictions and resolutions.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the descendants of Descartes – “I think, therefore I am” – have erred in assuming that a pedagogy of conversation is sufficient to bring about the kind of transformation that might forge life purpose within students. However, what these two scholarly summations and our experience at HKIS suggest is that students hunger for a practice-based approach that grounds self-understanding in the three centers. In this new approach teachers are not primarily considered as mentors – the image of a wise elder offering advice to young proteges comes to mind – but as life coaches. Religion teachers may need to shift from an overly cognitive view of the sage who dispenses the meaning of life to the far more common metaphor of a sport coach who has practical tips on how to improve training sessions.
I would like to contribute one more point regarding the teaching of purpose. The authors of The Quest for Purpose note that the pedagogy of purpose falls on the horns of a dilemma that is endemic to our civilization at large: while some students find purpose in their religious faith, purpose for others is completely separate from these traditional sources of meaning. To include or exclude the spiritual dimension risks frustrating one group or the other.
This, I contend, is why we need pedagogical approaches that are psychospiritual in nature; that is, multi-dimensional tools that can strengthen students’ integrity regardless of their worldview about an invisible spiritual dimension of reality. For example, when we teach the spiritual practices project, some student happily implement a totally secular meditation that eschews metaphysical claims, while other students opt for practices that originate from a religious tradition, as they seek to build their faith lives. Another relevant example is my use of the Enneagram, a personality typing framework, which can powerfully help students find their identity on a psychological level, but can also assist others to go beyond this step to the more counter-intuitive goal of “losing themselves,” a more spiritual approach. Flexible psychospiritual frameworks such as the Enneagram aim to non-coercively meet students where they are at, a necessity in our pluralistic world.
Sociologist of religion in America Robert Wuthnow (1998) observes that social science research has ignored the role of spiritual practices historically. In light of his assertion that America has been in a phase shift from “dweller-centered spirituality” in the 1950’s to a “seeker-centered spirituality” in the 21st century, Wuthnow advises Americans to adopt a practice-centered spirituality as a synthesis of the two paradigms. While spiritual practices honor the seeker’s quest for authentic personal experiences, the requisite commitment of doing such practices causes followers to “reside” in the practices themselves rather than in sacred physical spaces. Wuthnow perceived such a hybrid internalization as a far more robust spirituality than dweller or seeker-centered spiritualities alone, and one resonant with the dynamism of our increasingly interconnected world. Perhaps he foresaw the attempt to create an “evolutionary spirituality” in which God, creation, and the self are marked by multi-faceted dynamism; more verbs than nouns. Now twenty years later, the trends that Wuthnow predicted have only gathered force. Spiritual practices are emerging across the cultural landscape, and research has grown rapidly in areas such as mindfulness.
In such a milieu, it is time for educators teaching for purpose to implement practice-oriented approaches. Our experience at HKIS unequivocally supports the authors of The Quest for Purpose, who rightly intuit that placing such practices at the center of curricula can move students closer to self-understanding and a purposeful life.
Astin, A.W., Astin, H.S., & Lindholm, J.A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ spiritual lives. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York: Penguin Press.
Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.
Fogg B.J. (2012). “Forget big change, start with a tiny habit.” TedxFremont. Accessed on July 29, 2019.
Glanzer, P. L., Hill, J.P., and Johnson, B. R. (2017). The quest for purpose: The collegiate search for a meaningful life. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
McGonigal, K. (2013). The will power instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Penguin Press.
Wuthnow, R. (1998). After heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950’s. Berkeley: University of California.
 Given that I have written frequently on this blog about student responses to these projects, this entry is a summary of the approach; additional information, including extensive student quotes, can be found at the provided hyperlinks.
 Sangeeta’s resources for her habits workshop came from Cleary (2018), Duhig (2014), Fogg (2012), and McGonigal (2013).
The Perennial Tradition
Sunday, August 11, 2019
The Perennial Tradition includes the constant themes and truths that recur in all the world religions at their most mature and deep levels. As I mentioned last week, the Second Vatican Council teaches Catholics that indigenous religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism each reflect “a ray of that Truth which enlightens all [people].”  If it’s true, then it has to be true everywhere. Or, as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was fond of saying, quoting Ambrose (another Doctor of the Church, 340–397), “If it is true, it is always from the one Holy Spirit.” 
Here’s philosopher Aldous Huxley’s (1884–1963) definition of “the perennial philosophy”:
The metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality, and the ethic that places [humanity’s] final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being. This is immemorial and universal. 
The Perennial Tradition constantly recognizes that we are part of something more than we are observing something. Read that again: we are part of something more than we are observing something. How does that feel to you? From the perspective of participation, we can recognize that most of religious and church history has been largely preoccupied with religious ideas about which we could be wrong or right. When it is all about ideas, we do not have to be part of “it”; we just need to talk correctly about “it.” We can avoid actually living out our beliefs and walking our talk.
The foundational spiritual question is this: Does one’s life give any evidence of an encounter with God? When we’ve experienced union and intimacy with the divine, what is our response? Does the encounter bring about what Paul described as the “fruits” of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22)? This is what authentic conversion or metanoia means. We should keep asking ourselves: are we different from our surroundings, or do we continue reflecting the predictable cultural values and biases of our group?
Until recently, participation has not been the strong suit or primary position in the three monotheistic religions, except among some subsets of Kabbalistic Jews, Hesychastic Orthodox, Sufi Muslims, Christian mystics, and the many individuals who would have fit into any of these groups if they had known about them.
The “participatory turn” is learning from concrete practices, personal disciplines, and interactive dialogues that change the seer and allow and encourage the encounter itself. Many Christians today are rediscovering prayer beads, prayer of quiet, icons, Taizé songs, charismatic prayer, walking meditation, Zen chores, extended silence, solitude, and disciplined spiritual direction. Up to now, someone could have a doctorate in theology as a Catholic or Protestant and not really know how to pray or even enjoy prayer (experienced union), although they could recommend and attempt to define it. Now we need to personally live it.