Continuing the Conversation: Recovering the Sacred in Education


Education becomes spiritual whenever a lesson - irrespective of the subject being taught - moves beyond a mundane level to grapple with issues surrounding the fundamental meaning and purpose of life. ~ Andrew Wright

Learning When my son was in elementary school, one morning he said, “I don’t want to go to school. I hate learning.” This is from a child who held bees in his hand, knew how to weld, knitted scarves, and was a third-grader reading at the fifth or even sixth grade level. My son did not hate to learn. He did not want to learn in transmissive ways, where he is considered empty and needs to be filled with knowledge. He loved to learn in the backyard, where he set traps and waited for squirrels to come and eat his sardine (or leftover pizza) bait. To this day, in spaces where he is allowed to express his creativity, he shines. The Western educational paradigm avoids creativity because it is rooted in a mechanistic, industrial paradigm. When we leave creativity out of learning, we are standing on shaky ground.

The word learn has its foundations in the definition ‘to follow or to find the track’ and is also related to the Old English word, laest, which means ‘sole of the foot’ (Online Etymology Dictionary). What are we following and what track are we on when it comes to learning? Sterling suggests that we are on an educational track “based on the 19th century factory model” (Sterling, 2001, p.44). Are we still traveling on a track we laid down a century or more ago, for reasons that are no longer appropriate or applicable? Is filling students with facts and information in a primarily objective manner going to prepare our children to face the ecological, social and spiritual challenges of their day? How can we invite transformation, rather than fear it, and root ourselves in the organic, creative process of learning? Stephen Glazer, author of The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education believes that, “American education has become grounded in disconnection, in particular, the separation between the material and the spiritual” (Glazer, 1999, p.9). If this is the ground we stand on, and I believe we do, it is up to us to reclaim the spiritual or the sacred, in education.

Stephen Sterling, author of Sustainable Education: Re-visioning Learning and Change, writes in his opening statement, “The key to creating a more peaceful and sustainable world is learning” (Sterling, 2001, p.12). If we are to learn something new, whether that is a new skill or uncovering a hidden quality within us, we must be willing to open to something we do not know. The process of moving from the known into the unknown, like the caterpillar to butterfly, is a sacred process of transformation. It is a creative, moving, intimate process. It seems strange that we would avoid this process when we educate children, as it seems so natural to the life of a child. But when you think about it, we are a culture that generally runs from intimacy. I think we avoid transformation because we are top heavy. We rely too much on our heads and not enough on the rest of the resources we have within us. The rational mind sorts and organizes; it does not sense. And since we are in an educational and societal paradigm that overvalues the intellect, we are not encouraged to make mistakes and take risks. Susan Aposhyan, author of Body-Mind Psychotherapy says, “We have come to regard the brain as the master of the body and the sole holder of intelligence...First and foremost, we must remember that: The brain is part of the body...It is dependent on the body for feedback, because the brain has no sensory nerve endings. It cannot feel; it’s data is secondary...the brain is the last to know” (Aposhyan, 2004, p.26-27). The rational mind alone wants order. It does not want the mess of creativity. The heart holds the hand, so to speak, of the mind and says, “It is going to be okay. It is messy, but that is the stuff of transformation. We will make it through.” The heart is what leads us into unknown landscapes and gives us the strength to take risks. When the rational mind learns to be in service to the heart, rather than the dictator, we are brilliant. We need both, as Andrew Wright says in his book Spirituality and Education, “Raw emotion, it seems clear, must be subject to some level of critical scrutiny. Spiritual education ought to seek to produce a generation of discontented philosophers capable of thinking as well as feeling ... a balanced combination of the two stands a better chance of producing appropriate levels of spiritual sensitivity and literacy” (Wright, 2000, p. 76). Reclaiming the sacred requires us to live with balance, where we consider not only our inner experience, but the various contexts that we find ourselves in. And when we respond to the world wholly, head and heart, we root ourselves in the mysterious and intangible Source that makes each one of us whole, and unifies us, even through our differences, as one.

Rupert Sheldrake, author and biochemist, tells us in the book The Way Ahead: A Visionary Perspective for the New Millennium “the only way to move back to a greater sense of cohesion and community is through...a rediscovery of the sacred” (Shapiro, E. & D., 1992, p. 195). Years ago, when I sat writing this paper, I remember my three-year-old neighbor sitting down next to me playing with magnetic toys, when all of a sudden a breeze came through the room. He immediately put down his toys and looked at me. “I feel the wind, Jenny. I can hear it too.” This child’s attention to the wind showed his respect for it. His actions embodied his immediate connection to the sacred in the here and now. Glazer refers to the sacred in education as “the practice of openness, attentiveness to experience and sensitivity to the world” (Glazer, 1999, p. 11-12). If we can redefine the sacred as respect for, and attentiveness to, the here and now, we might be able to the create space needed for all of us to explore what is sacred about the here and now. Spirituality, understood as sacredness, is then available to us all. It has to do with recognizing with wonder and awe, the complexity and creativity of life. With the darkness that surrounds us, suffering that we cannot deny, we are invited into a multi-dimensional way of learning, one that includes every part of us. It might sound ideal, but it is necessary, and it is possible.

Learning that is rooted in the sacred is what is called for now and we build relationship with the sacred through individual and collective experience. When we look into the mirror of our culture, we can see how it reflects the emptiness within us. Sterling suggests that “the larger-still social system affects and shapes the educational system more than the other way around...” (Sterling, 2001). Throughout his writing, Sterling alludes to the idea that it is not simply the educational system that needs to transform - we do. We are society. We are the educational system. One by one we come together and create webs, consisting of fear, faith or both. And Sterling says: “The concept of sustainable education appears to be calling for deep change at a time when educators and learners are already overwhelmed with too much change.” When many of us consider the magnitude of the current social and ecological issues that we face, we get overwhelmed and lose faith. Sterling gives us hope in his transformative educational paradigm saying that it is of “a different order...where the smallest gain can be of deep significance” (Sterling, 2001, p. 33). In the darkness of its current state, education holds the potential to be the great light keeper - the pathway back to ourselves.

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