Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Wed 2/14/2007 5:15 AM
Random Thought: Spirituality in Teaching

Susan and I have just returned from a day trip of grand-daughter spoiling in Nashville. I'm getting myself into the meditative mood for presenting two inter-related sessions at the Lilly-South conference on preventing faculty burnout and creating a motivating classroom. Everyone wants handouts. So, I've been printing off a bunch of my stuff that I may or may not use: "Rules of the Road," "Ten Stickies," "Zen and the Art of Teaching Maintenance," "Spiritual Alphabet," and a power point presentation. But, nothing threw me into the spirit then what happened yesterday night.

I was reading students' journals when a chat message interrupted my reading, "Wanna talk. Too busy to listen?"

It was Jane (not her real name). She didn't know but it was a strange question she asked because the word for the day from my Spiritual Alphabet that I had picked out from my Cat-in-the-Hat hat that morning was "listen." It was another one of those times I just don't ask. I stopped what I was doing and answered, "No. Good to hear from you. Its been a long while. Two years?"

"More," she corrected me. Then, after a pause, she threw me a written outburst. "Why didn't you say 'yes'? Why are you bothering to talk with me after I betrayed your trust in me by lying day after day? Why didn't you get pissed as hell at me instead of being just disappointed when I gave up? Why is that still bothering me after all this time? Why the hell am I bothering to talk to you now?"

"I don't know. Why do you think all this bothering is going on?"

We must have talked for over an hour about stuff I'll keep between her and me. She ended the conversation with, "Mind if we talk some more now and then?"

"Any 'now and then' you wish. I hope it's more now than then."

All this has reminded me of the work by Jeremy Gray of Yale and Sara Lazaar at Mass General Hospital that I had read. It's really interesting stuff. Their studies suggest that meditation can affect parts of the brain that deal with positive thinking, with sensory and cognitive and emotional processing. That without saphron robes or monastic retreats, meditation can change your gray matter for the better. So, this morning, I guess I want to take you with me into that gray zone as Jane just took me.

I want to talk about spirituality in teaching in particular and in education in general. I know. Some of you, maybe a lot of you, will shake your heads and say, "There, he's going off the deep end again with that touchy feely stuff." Well, I am going deep. Spirituality is not high above "up there;" it's something deep "in here" that aims high. It doesn't take us up, up, and away from ourselves. It gives us our precious humanity, our sacred individuality, and our noble community with others. It is not half-baked tomfoolery; it's well prepared soul food. It is not divorced from reality; it's revelations are grounded in the everyday. It is tangled in and thoroughly engaged with the sensual world around and in us. In it we find purpose, meaning, and value both beyond ourselves and within ourselves. So, I will argue that to be a practical and effective teacher you've got to be spiritual. Does that sound like a contradiction? It shouldn't. It is not a matter of intellectual v. spiritual. It is not an either/or situation. It's not. It's not. It's not. It's not. We have to recognize the important role that spirituality plays in the lives of people, in our lives. And, we educators are in the people business far more than are in the information transmission business.

What, then, do I mean by spirituality? Well, for some it is something transcendent above us. For me, it is more of being deeply human and less of being godly; it is the desires, struggles, fears, memories that lie deep within me and draw me deep into my physical and emotional being. It ties to my teaching because by spirituality I also mean my approach to life which, in turn, determines my approach to teaching and to each student. Too many think and act as if life on the campus and life in the classroom are separate from their lives, life off-campus, and life itself. For another thing, it means to me a distaste for reducing education to a numbers game, that is, to only that which can be quantified and controlled. I think too many of our educational institutions, that is, far too many of us, are caught up in an intellectual "ten word" oversimplification, a shallow and often self-serving outlook, and a consequent distortion of the educational terrain. That is, too many of us, objectify ourselves and others; we make real individual people unreal. Too many of us count so heavily on counting while ignoring those very important matters that can't be counted however they may count. That's because we don't just see spirituality. I think it was Anais Nin who said that we don't see things as they are; we see them as we are. That is, we see our concepts. We have our specific lexicon and set formulas. We see through the eyes of our evaluations, biases, prejudices, tolerances, judgments, dismissals, acceptances, categorizations. We see with our emotions when we try to emotionally drum out emotions from academia's intellectual scene. What we wince and groan and shake our head at in disapproval or grin and smile and nod our head at in approval is determined by our self-absorbing, emotionally satisfying attachments to fixed ideas. And all of these attachments to the views we have are impediments to talking about spirituality in practical terms and seeing the practical role spirituality, in partnership with intellectuality, plays in education. So, if you want to see spirituality, you have to do some heavy housekeeping; you have to spring clean your heart and mind. You have to be ready to improvise, to set aside your rehearsed responses, your specific lexicon, your set formulas, your sweeping generalities. You have to be ready to be dragged away from your comforting, routine, and dulling comforts.

So, what is spirituality? It's connection. It's a watching of our heart and mind. It's being conscious of our thoughts and feelings. It's the recognition that students have an inner life that is nourished by meaningful learning which provides direction, wholeness and connectedness in the context of community. By community I mean four dimensions of connectivity. One is a connectedness with our inner self; one is a connectedness between and among students; one is a connectedness of each student with him/her self; and the last is a connectedness of us with each of them. The first has to do with a mindfulness of who you are and who you can become; the second with a vision, meaning, purpose; and the third with working with other people. The first has to do with the belief in your own sacredness and meaningfulness; the second has to do with something larger than ourselves that endows a meaning, purpose, sacredness of all lives; the third has to do with helping other sacred human beings, cherishing the potential of others, rejoicing in the lives of others. The first has to do with your heart and soul; the second with a perspective that has no horizon; the third with service to others. Spirituality, then, means to be at a point beyond limited self-interest and anxiety about yourself where you identify with a greater existence comes a deep-seated desire to serve, promote, and contribute, a positive and creative sense of moral responsiveness. A spiritual person is one with a strong sense of "me" and a stronger sense of "them." I don't find spirituality to be in conflict with intellectuality. To be spiritual, requires a mental discipline and a mental transformation. If anything, spirituality makes my horizon horizonless; its endlessness gives me a heck of a lot more to think about. It urges me on to ask about and investigate the deeper questions. Spirituality has this limbering impact by taking you off the ground and flies you beyond familiar territory; it pushes you beyond your limits and thereby pushes back your limits. I have not attached myself to any anti-intellectual or anti-academic star. Spirituality is a journey from the head to the heart that joins the heart with the head with the body. Being a servant, being a servant teacher, believing I am on an educational service mission, believing in others, having a faith in and hope for others, accepting a sacredness of others, loving others, having an enveloping "otherness," having a sensitive "mindfulness" or "awareness," paying attention, striving to help others help themselves strive for their unique potential is the star on which I hitch a ride.

Educationally, to be spiritual means two things. The first is to pay attention to yourself and your own teaching that emanates from your self as if it truly matters to you. The second is to pay attention to each student's life as if it matters to you. It means to develop to a stage in life or to evolve to an attitude that is over and beyond limited self-interest and fear or anxiety about and for yourself embodied in tenure, promotion, renown. By spirituality, I mean a movement outward toward faith, believe, zeal, mindfulness, peacefulness, forgiveness, generosity, patience, truthfulness, hope and love of each student. By spirituality, I mean a compassion, a well-tempered heart, as the path to kindness and happiness. After all, I can't stop having faith in students or loving them just because they do something wrong and aren't perfect.

"Otherness" and "mindfulness," then, are the measures of my academic stature. We have to start where the students are, not where we are. To loosely paraphrase William Coffin, there is no smaller academic package in all of academe than that of an academic wrapped up in himself. Spirituality is an attitude towards yourself and others; it is an attitude; it is a state of mind, soul, heart, body. It is, therefore, both a state of being and a state of doing. It's really a way of living, for as I perceive myself, so it influences how I perceive and interact with those others we call students and colleagues, as well as how I conduct my daily life. And thus, your life is spiritual meditation, for spirituality is a way of being, of managing the living of your life, and your teaching, with a beauty, grace, warmth, love, and intimacy rather than with an ugliness, tenseness, distance, chill, lovelessness, and fearfulness. An educationally engaged spirituality is filled with the awe and wonder of each person in the classroom; it tells you that there are other sacred souls in that room who matter; it energizes you to do whatever it takes in the service of each of those persons. It's having three voices: the voice of your head, and the voice of your heart, both of which join to give voice to your mouth, face, and body. Combined they're the spirit and embodiment of empathy, understanding, compassion, love, faith, hope, and kindness. Spiritual is a complex, variable, and multifaceted dimension of existence. It, like intellectuality, grew within me in proportion to its growing importance to me. It comes from relentless, powerful, patient, committed, and concentrated intention, purpose, and meaning. It translates into the courage to be happy, the courage to serve, and the courage to shine in the darkness. And, all that comes onto campus and into the classroom since both are parts of life. And so, I find that my spirituality has impacted on my evolving philosophy of education, on my educational credo, on my attitudes towards students, on my teaching methods. I no longer see myself as merely a transmitter and instiller of information. I no longer see education as simply and solely something white-collared vocational. I no longer see education solely as something with which to secure a job. I see the purpose of an education as more than that. I see education as helping someone learn how strive for his or her unique potential, to live well as well as how to earn a good living. I see, then, the most important use of information, knowledge, and education is to help students, as well as ourselves, transform into better persons, to understand the importance of engaging in more wholesome actions, and imposing a discipline of understanding of, appreciation of, consideration for, and respect for others on our minds, hearts, and actions.

Spirituality, then, is not a matter of looking spiritual or doing spiritual. It's not a matter of disconnecting. To the contrary, it's a matter of connecting. It's a matter of living spiritual. It offers slowing, taking breath punctuation to a harried, relentless, blurring run-on sentence of life. That's very important, for what we feel, think, and do is limited only by what we fail to notice and appreciate. Being spiritual means the fabric of the great principles of living are to be found in the thread of daily living. That is, you based your decisions not on convenience, conformity, or success, but on compassion and service to others. It's the rudder that allows you to navigate the dangerous shoals of material life and pay no heed to the sirens constantly trying to draw you off-course onto the shoals. Being spiritual costs less than you think, takes less effort than you think, is easier than you think. It is found everywhere around you and in you. Listen to Yoda explain it to Luke: "For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we..." Luminous beings are we. We each can shine in the darkness.

Everyone asks "how" did I come to this point. The answer is to tell my story, my genesis story. That requires more than a degree of personal exposure, of stripping off any protective and masking armor I might be wearing to make myself vulnerable. I tell my truth, and I never find it alarming to others who listen. I relate my story not as a prescription for anyone, but as an explanation of how my long and hard journey--I'll repeat that, "long and hard"--has made me a better person and thus a better teacher. I tell it as a demonstration that any transformation takes time and is challenging. I don't ask people to follow me. I don't ask people if it's okay to do it. It's not a question for me. They ask; I tell. I am less fearful than when I began my journey in 1991. The Zen-trained Benedictine brother David Steindl-Rast reminds me that we can be grateful even in difficult times: "The gift within every gift is opportunity. In troubled times, the opportunity is to do something about it." I am more prayerful. I am more peaceful. I am stronger. I am more confident. I have, as Jon Kabat-Zinn would say, fallen in love with each moment, especially after having cancer, for I have come to see that each moment missed is a moment unlived and each person missed is rift in the future. And, I am more likely to miss the moment and the person if I am blinded and deafened and numbed by mindless and automatic habits of feeling, thinkng and doing. That love gives me what it takes to make an ordinary instant into a great one that will always be remembered: living in awareness and appreciation. And so, I have fallen deeper in love with others we call colleagues and students and friends. I have fallen in even deeper love with my Susan, my sons, their wives, my grand-children. I had fallen in deepest love with life. As I grow older, I am growing younger and bolder. As my bones creak more, I am getting more limber. In the coming autumn of my life, I have more of a spring. I can communicate more easily; I am more open; I am more authentic; I am more colorful and more engaged in life; I live more contentedly; I live more intently; I live more meaningfully and more purposefully; I live more compassionately. I live more peacefully. I do good better. I feel good and better. I am better, a better person, a better learner, and thus a much better teacher.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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