Teach from the Heart: Pedagogy as Spiritual Practice
by Jenell Paris
Cascade Books, June 2016, 136 pp.
In this modified excerpt from the first chapter of Teach from the Heart: Pedagogy as Spiritual Practice, author Jenell Paris explores the role of spirituality in the classroom. In 2014, Bearings Online interviewed Jenell about her work, which we encourage you to view here.
Many (most, dare I say) teachers have spiritual sensitivity; after all, like social work or nursing, one doesn’t go into teaching to get rich, to be famous, or to hurt people. Though they can become distorted, deflated, or forgotten over time, most of us start out with noble purposes and high ideals; at the very least, that there is something more to life than making money and spending it, and that investing in students matters.
Spirituality in the teaching life is the unmistakable spark that makes a teacher wise, joyous, and fully alive. It isn’t about being, or becoming, religious; rather, it’s an invitation to a journey of the heart, many dimensions of which may be appropriately shared or integrated into classrooms in a pluralist society, a journey stemming from and contributing to the liberal arts tradition. While he honors the separation of public education from religion, educator Parker Palmer also encourages soul education, which begins with nurture of teachers’ inner lives. “A teacher has the power to compel students to spend many hours living in the light, or the shadow, of the teacher’s inner life.” As English professor Barbara Newman writes,
I’m paid to teach English in a secular university. But I believe the formation of contemplative habits and the reduction of mental clutter are goods in themselves, so nothing keeps me from promoting such goods, as long as they remain ancillary to the study of literature. This privilege comes with getting too old to be cool and way too old to be “hot,” as Rate My Professors has it. If teachers of a certain age don’t try to teach wisdom, with heart and mind and soul and strength—then who will?
Writing in English, and in a western frame of mind, limits my ability to speak of spirituality. It can connote religion, which makes it unsuitable for many classrooms and many teachers. It can connote a woo-woo, kumbaya vibe that is also unhelpful for many subjects, schools, and teachers. What I’m getting at is something like the a!ia of the Ju/’hoansi, an indigenous group in southern Africa. Traditionally, a!ia referred to a hot energy that boils up from the stomach and comes out the hands of a healer, drawing sickness and malevolence out of people. Before they became more familiar with the broader world, they also used the word to refer to aircraft contrails or radios. A!ia is a fantastic presence that surprises even while it is not unexpected. It is something like the realm accessed by Yanamamo men when they forcibly blow ebene, a hallucinogenic powder, into each others’ sinus cavities, producing an altered state that allows them to draw hekura into their own bodies, the spirits that reside in every single vine, tree, animal, and living thing.
The Ju/’hoansi a!ia is hardly the same thing as the Ya̦namamo hallucinogenic state, which is different than the Christian’s Holy Spirit, prayer, or contemplation, the Buddhist’s Buddhahood, or the Sufi’s ihsan, perfection of worship. What I have in mind—surely not precisely the same as, but in the vicinity of what these examples bear witness to—is not principally special, not beyond, other than, or more than. It’s mere immanence, which is sheer immanence. It is already there, already within, but still, a gift when we see it. It is the iridescence of everyday life.
I’ve said too much, like my son who ran into the woods recently shouting, “I’ll play my recorder for the birds, and they will come to me!” There was stomping and more shouting, followed by piercing squeaks of various tones. This was followed by no bird sightings whatsoever. Much later, when we weren’t looking but were ready to see, they came: birds, lots of them, along with dragonflies, grasshoppers, bees, and even a snake.
I’m a glutton for spirituality: as an anthropologist, I’m fascinated by the ways people explore the whole universe, parts visible and invisible. Personally, I’ve been deeply involved in Protestant Christianity since birth, in fundamentalist, evangelical, Holiness, and Anabaptist communities, and am currently part of a United Methodist congregation. I read Zen Buddhism and practice mindfulness meditation, but I wouldn’t call myself Buddhist; I don’t have a teacher or a sangha (community), and I only read Buddhism made palatable for Western readers. Inspired by animist cultures I’ve studied, I expect to encounter the sacred everywhere, in any living or natural thing. I follow the way of Jesus, who said, “Look at the birds of the air,” and “See how the flowers of the field grow” (Matt 6:25–34). I look and see the sacred, a!ia, everywhere.
We can recognize this sacred dimension of life in the classroom, too. English professor Mary Rose O’Reilley observes, “Some pedagogical practices crush the soul; most of us have suffered their bruising force. Others allow the spirit to come home: to self, to community, and to the revelations of reality.” Such practices constitute what she calls “radical presence,” a contemplative, focused, sensory approach to learning that involves attunement to self and other, listening and watching closely. Her techniques are suited to her personality and to her subject. She sends students out into nature to sit still and observe, and write about something they observed. She reads a poem in class, then allows ninety seconds of silence before speaking. The techniques don’t necessarily translate into my anthropology classroom, with its more empirical and social scientific approach to investigating the human experience, nor to my teaching temperament. But the way—shaping an educational space for students that encourages presence, attention, and deep learning—is one I want to follow.
Whether conceptualized as contemplative pedagogy, mindfulness, or an application of a specific religious tradition, interest in this way is growing. From preschools to colleges to graduate schools, teachers are increasingly interested in how to strengthen, deepen, broaden, and enliven their students’ education by teaching to, and from, the heart.
Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com