It was about ten years ago that a little boy asked me:
“What is my spirit?”
Never having to answer that question before, it made me stop and think deeply about my own understanding of spirituality.
The little boy also had a disability that affected his abstract thinking. This often left him frustrated and angry when he didn’t understand what was being taught. I knew that meant that in order for him to understand what I was saying, I would have to make his ‘spirit’ something he could experience. The explanation I came up with was:
“Close your eyes. Now without saying anything out loud tell yourself I love you.”
The little boy closed his eyes and was quiet for a minute and then looked up at me with questioning eyes, “Is that my spirit?”
I nodded, “It is that voice inside you that only you can hear. That is your spirit. That is the part of you that will never die, even when your body gets sick or gets old that piece of you will be there.”
When I began teaching, my philosophy was fundamentally tied to the holistic Cree value that a person is made of four aspects of self – mind, body, spirit and emotion. All of these are equally important in the development of a person as a whole. This is what I was taught by my grandmother, and this is what I teach my own children.
To put this into perspective, we can look at an athlete. An athlete with only physical talent will make it only so far in reaching a goal. If we look at athletes that have reached the ultimate level of performance, they have done so by managing all four aspects of self. In order to succeed an athlete must learn techniques and strategy (mind), an athlete must learn to visualize and focus through high stress situations (emotion), an athlete must learn to build strength and control movement (body), and an athlete must learn to find quiet and push to better themselves from within (spirit).
To clarify, when I write about spirituality I am not writing about religion. I am not discussing a particular belief system that a person chooses to follow. I respect all religions, and the people that dedicate themselves to their beliefs. What I am recognizing that we can do in the school system is to teach individuals to find and use a voice within themselves that is responsible for their inner peace.
The first time I was asked how I was going to address the spiritual aspect in an educational setting I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. I was teaching in a public school and it was made very clear to me that there would be no practice of a specific ceremonial ritual in my classroom. I had asked to have a weekly smudge, it was not allowed. A smudge is a Cree ceremony, to learn about the ceremony I would refer you to seek out a Cree ceremony knowledge-keeper as it is not for me to write down.
After being told the smudge would not be permitted I had to figure out another way to acknowledge the spiritual aspect in my teaching. I remembered the little boy, and I remembered the look on his face when he recognized that he had a voice that was his own inside of him. I chose to use activities that would bring about the use of my students’ personal voices in my classroom.
What came about from incorporating these activities was a group of students who were not afraid to speak for themselves, used communication rather than acting out on emotions, and had little to no behaviour issues. Some examples of activities would be yoga, meditation, outdoor walks in silence, and if possible, moments of gratefulness. These moments of gratefulness can be done as a group, or they can be done as an individual time set aside for quiet thinking. An example of this would be to think, write, or speak about one thing that students are thankful for in their life. The act of recognizing thankfulness is a moment of connection between the students, the world that they have been given, and their own voice to appreciate their gifts.
Imagine how thought process changes when students begin to recognize things to be thankful for in their life.
Imagine students listening to the voice inside of themselves when faced with a challenge.
Imagine being able to teach students how to make that voice a positive influence in their life.
Imagine the impact that this has on dealing with peer pressure.
How does this fit in the education system? I would answer that question by saying, “Right now we are a reactive school system, sending students to counselling AFTER a problem occurs. By beginning to develop inner strength, to teach inner peace, and to help students develop a positive inner voice would be proactive and preventative. That is how re-engaging the spiritual aspect would benefit the education system.”
And I’ll tell you what happened with the little boy after I explained spirit to him. I watched him close his eyes when he was angry and frustrated. I imagined he was talking to himself. I didn’t know what he was saying. Maybe he told himself that he loved himself. He learned how to find peace in difficult situations, on his own, with himself. And maybe that’s enough.