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What does it mean to be 'Spiritual?'

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

I am a child of nature. I grew up in the rainforests of northwestern British Columbia. I'm not sure I realized it at the time but it had a profound effect on me. I love the outdoors. I need the outdoors. I need to feel connected to something bigger than myself. I need to feel connected to the sense of wonder that nature inspires in me.



I'm also the daughter of a biology and marine science teacher. While my mother was very connected to the Anglican Church, it was time with my father outdoors that I remember most as a child. With summer sun until 11pm, I was outdoors and literally running wild for hours and hours beyond the edges of our backyard. Initially, we lived at the very edges of Prince Rupert with Mount Hays looming behind us, and bears and deer regularly roaming through our backyard and beyond. I loved it. I had no sense of danger. This was home, and while we were taught to be careful and never get between a mother bear and her cubs, it was freedom unlike anything I've ever experienced since.



My father taught at the local high school, was a city councillor, co-op member and very involved with environmental projects like increasing the number of salmon in the area, and reclaiming polluted streams. Many years before we were hearing about the danger of over fishing and the idea of the 'environmental movement,' my father was in the thick of it. He was also well connected with the local indigenous people before that was a thing as well. He also had a variety of boats, and spent his summers fishing salmon and getting fresh, 'live' crab from other fishers.



I loved being on boats and how as a family we could roam well beyond the confines of the small town in which we lived that was on Kaien Island. The island was so small that the airport was on another island, and you had to take a ferry to get back and forth between the two. The view from that ferry always reminded me of what a special place I got to grow up in. The smell of the sea, seaweed and the richness of the moisture that fostered so much growth.



I remember my mother taking us to church as well. A big old church that felt impressive and also instilled a sense of wonder in me. At the age of 11, my mother decided the fact that I was not baptized should be corrected and I should be 'confirmed' in the church. I was not interested in this. As a child of nature and science, like my father, I did not believe in God. However, my mother prevailed and I was enrolled in 'confirmation' classes. I said fine, and then promptly told the minister on my first day that I thought it best he know I was only there because of my mother and I did not believe in anything written in the bible or God.



It was very interesting how that minister responded to my fierce, 11-year-old declaration. He did not try to argue with me. He did not get mad. Instead he suggested the bible was a series of stories and metaphors that could be helpful in life. I was stunned. I had expected a fight. The lack of a fight intrigued me. So instead of continuing to push back hard against what I thought was a bunch of 'poppycock,' I listened.


I went through with the baptism and confirmation as my mother wanted, but it didn't really mean anything to me at the time. Later in life though, when I started searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in my life, the feelings related to being in that big church and being part of something bigger than myself came back to me.


A friend of mine who is African Nova Scotian invited me to her church, New Beginnings in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was encouraged by the hugs, the welcome I received when I went with her one day. I went back several times and brought my children with me to experience what I was feeling as well. What I felt was a powerful sense of community and support. It was overwhelming at times, and there were times I became very emotional just being there and part of this experience (which was also very different from the experiences I had of the Anglican Church).



When I was at the University of King's College, there was also a small chapel that was very 'high Anglican.' As with many of the universities in Nova Scotia, most of them had some religious background to their founding. King's was Anglican, and even when I was there in '88 to '92 studying journalism, I was highly aware of King's as a school for many students studying greek, latin, philosophy, the 'classics' and even preparing to then go on to study divinity at the nearby Atlantic School of Theology. We called them the 'God Squad.' You could always identify them because they often wore their scholar 'robes' when no one else did, and they participated in many of the activities related to running services in the university chapel.


Again, I did not spend a lot of time in the chapel because I did not believe in God, but I always felt a sense of peace and connectedness when I did go there for special ceremonies like at Christmas. It was the same as when I was a child, and it helped me to feel more connected to home, and my mother's family and heritage. She came to Halifax when she was two and my grandmother was a war bride. Despite being Scottish and from Edinburgh, they both had strong connections to the Anglican faith.


Recently I came across a video produced by the Fetzer Institute that speaks to the importance of spirituality in education, and the challenges in including it within systems that are supposed to be 'neutral' in this area. God and the state, and education provided by the state, are never supposed to mix apparently. And yet, I also remember everyone being required to say the Lord's Prayer in Grade 7 and my rebellious self refusing to do so, and having to leave the classroom and stand in the coat closet when I did. So, let's be honest: Spirituality and religion especially, of a particular sort, has always been a part of education, or at least, the dominant religion of conquerors and colonizers always has been.



Could spirituality be reclaimed as a source of good in education though? This video by Freethink seems to say yes; that without some form of 'spirituality,' a sense of connection, a sense of purpose in our lives, many of us are lost. Certainly, we see now how the suppression of this side of many indigenous peoples and people of African descent has caused great harm. We are learning now as well from those who support holistic education, including a sense of spirituality in whatever way might be most relevant and appropriate, is actually critical to the development of all of us as human beings.


Could we find a way to bring more of the 'essence' of spiritual being into our classrooms? What effect could that have on students? On the system? On society?



We generally reserve the study of 'philosophy' to university level education. What if we did a major re-think on this? I asked a panellist during an online conference on the teachings of Eastern educator and philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, about a phrase he used related to support for people struggling with mental health issues. He said he did not deny that many people have biological reasons for their illnesses and needed medication to help them, but he also suggested that 'philosophical counselling' that explores the more 'existential' side of being - What is life all about? What is my life all about? What is my purpose in being here? - could also be very helpful. As someone who lives with a mental illness, I was very intrigued by what he was saying.


I wrote a review of that conference, called the J. Krishnamurti and Contemporary World Crises Conference, for the journal Holistic Education Review (HER). I attended the conference because of the work of one of my PhD professors, Dr. Ashwani Kumar, who is based at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and has pioneered an approach to education called 'meditative inquiry' based in large part on inspiration by the work of Krishnamurti. Those who might be interested can learn more about Dr. Kumar's work here, and more about Krishnamurti here.



I have also written papers for school related to an assignment Dr. Kumar gave us around meditation and relaxation for one of his courses, and then he invited myself and two other students to co-author another article for the HER journal on 'Holistic Ways to Lead an Academic Life' (which should be available soon on the journal's website). Currently, both the first paper I wrote for class about the meditation and relaxation exercise Dr. Kumar gave us and the second one that will soon be published are available as part of my PhD Portfolio on my website.


I also wrote a review a review of a dissertation by a graduate of the Educational Studies PhD program I'm in, Dr. Kesa Munroe-Anderson, called 'Set Our Spirits Free: Exploring the Role of Spirituality as an Anti-Oppressive Agent in the Formal Education of African Nova Scotian Learner.' The review of Dr. Munroe-Anderson's dissertation is also available on my website under a section of my Portfolio related to In-Depth Knowledge.



In addition to learning more about the inspiration for Dr. Kumar's work inspired by Jiddu Krishnamurti, an educator and philosopher from India, I also learned a lot from indigenous classmates in my cohort and other guests with a wide range of perspectives that visited us online in the PhD classes I did during the pandemic. It was the beginning of a strong interest in other perspectives, other ways of being and other ways of knowing beyond my own educational 'training and culturalization ' in western, euro-centric ways of being and knowing.


For another assignment for Dr. Kumar, I continued to explore the role of spirituality as it might relate to education, but also how different ontological and epistemological perspectives could relate to community development and social movement learning. Access to this paper and related presentation are also available under the same section of my website related to In-Depth Knowledge.



Part of the paper looks at an interview with Truthout media, where educational theorist Henry Giroux (a fan of educator Paulo Freire, the father of critical pedgogy) identifies the basics of what can be seen as an ongoing and accelerating war between the rich and everyone else, an event that has resulted in a mass inability ‘to translate private troubles into larger structural public considerations.’ "We have no way of understanding that link anymore," Giroux (2014) says, "because what we've done is we've defined freedom in a way that suggests it's the freedom to do anything you want and screw everybody else."


Giroux (2010) also says the work of Freire is more important than ever because current educational systems are "privileging job readiness above any other educational values [including] self-reflection... [and] critical agency (p.716)." He adds Freire's work is about "a political and moral practice that provides the knowledge, skills and social relations that enable students to be critical citizens while expanding and deepening their participation in the promise of a substantive democracy."



In the same presentation, I quote adult educator Wilfred Bean who admits that "at best, spirituality is a vague term encompassing a vast landscape of meaning... but there remains within us a need for meaning, for understanding how our lives fit into the larger world (2000, p.72)." He goes on to outline some principles that could help to foster a more 'contemporary' spirituality that could help all of us.


1). Using an Ecological base; recognizing that humans are NOT the apex of

creation, but one species within a complex, interdependent web of life.


2). In relation to Social Justice; recognizing there is increasing exploitation of

both humans and nature that is unjust.


3). Affirmation of the 'dignity' of the human person; that each person is a unique 'subject,' a creator and an end in himself or herself, not an object to be used for

the benefit of others.


4). Being Community-based; 'I am because we are' is a common African proverb

that refers to how an individual's life is shaped by, and in turn shapes the

relationships and people whose lives one is a part of.


5). We must all act for liberation; A 'spirituality...' is a practice of justice.


6). Action and reflection combined... is relevant both for the groups educators

work with, and for educators... themselves.



Bean adds: "these principles do not stand separately. Each is a strand in a larger, inter-connected vision of a more sustainable, equitable world in which both people and resources are honoured as sacred and where everyone is more fulfilled through an increased awareness of their connection and contribution to the great good of the entire Earth community. This is a vision in which spirituality, ...education and development are inseparable, and one that challenges ...educators... to understand their work as central to the project of human betterment (2000, p.75)."


Bean also recognizes spirituality and education can come in many forms around the world. In the same work referenced already here, he writes about both the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia, Canada and the Bhuddist Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka. He describes the culture in Sri Lanka as emphasizing the "inter-connectedness of reality." He adds: "It calls for awakening on four levels: the personal, the village, the nation and the world... Achievements are not just measured in changes in social systems or economic production, but also in human transformation [that must include] the unfolding of the villagers' potential for wisdom and compassion (2000, p.70)."



How does this relate to my life as a child growing up in northwestern British Columbia? I think it is this sense of the inter-connectedness of everything. If you are a child of nature, you cannot fail to see the complexity of various ecosystems, and in turn, the complexity of community. As the African proverb says: I am because we are. I am because of all the people I have connected with in my life, for good or bad. I am because of the planet that has given life to so many different beings and life forms.


My life, and my actions, has impact. My life and my choices make a difference.



I am not young. I have had many different experiences and challenges in my life. I continue to learn and grow, even at 54. The real question is what will I do with this learning. How do I look to show up in this world, and how can I continue to learn - not just at superficial level, but in a deep way that honours the sacred in this life and uses whatever I am to continue to contribute, to make life better for all that I might touch in some way.


This is in large part the heart of what 'meditative inquiry' as I understand it is about. To quote the introductory page of Dr. Kumar's website:



"Meditative inquiry is an art of becoming aware of an existential process of asking deep questions about life and our place in it. [It] is a holistic way of connecting with oneself

a way to deepen awareness of one’s actions, thoughts, and emotions. [It] teaches us the art of listening and conversation. [It is] an invitation to listen to and learn from life within and around us."


The challenge for all of us is to find a way to do this, and to teach our children this. If we could, I do believe this could lead us to a new sense of wonder about ourselves and the world. If we can do that, then I think the future could be very bright, for all of us.


References


Bean, W. E. (2000). Community development and adult education: Locating practice in its roots. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education (85) pp. 67-76


Giroux, H. A. (2010). Rethinking education as the practice of freedom: Paulo Freire and the promise of critical pedagogy. Policy Futures in Education. 6(8), pp. 715-721


Giroux, H. A. (2014, March 28). Neoliberalism, youth and justice. [Video]. YouTube.


Kumar, A. (2022). Meditative Inquiry. Retrieved Feb 12, 2023.


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