Can the Seeds of Wisdom be Sown in an Educational Institution?

Because Wisdom is often referred to as that underground stream that feeds all the world’s great spiritual traditions, it seems assumed by many that Wisdom requires a religious container for its fullest and deepest expression.  And that may be so.  I have certainly seen firsthand what the infusion of Wisdom programming can bring to the growth and vitality of a parish.  Indeed, the present challenge to the Church and to other religious institutions is to develop the means by which, through specific Wisdom and contemplative practice groups, people can begin to access these deeper levels of being.  This can actually be accomplished with a minimum of resources.  I am currently working on a book that will outline how this can be done as well as the skills needed to lead such Wisdom Practice Groups.

But what about reaching those who are not connected to a church or other spiritual community…?

I recently led a retreat for a dozen self-selected faculty members from a small college.  The purpose was to introduce contemplative practices to these participants in order to deepen their writing.  From many different departments, the faculty were also from several diverse religious backgrounds, but most were presently unaffiliated.  Although not self-identified as such, perhaps they could be considered in that growing category of “spiritual but not religious.”

Besides some basic Wisdom teaching and the introduction of Wisdom practices, the participants were given stretches of time to work on their writing during this four-day retreat.  But this distinctly differed from other Wisdom programs in more than format.  Because I started out by explicitly inviting it, there was some specifically articulated resistance on the part of some.  Unlike other Wisdom Schools that I usually lead where resistance might be either hidden, unconscious, or passive-aggressively expressed, this was directly conveyed.

Perhaps like any other Wisdom group leader worth his or her salt, I actually delighted in having this resistance so directly articulated.  There is, no doubt resistance in every group, but it is best dealt with when it can be directly expressed and confronted.  My proposed schedule for the group included early morning meditation instruction, a silent breakfast, a mid-morning teaching, an afternoon lectio divina session that utilized selected poetry (rather than sacred texts), group discussion in the evening, and a Great Silence that took us through to the end of breakfast the following morning.  But given the resistance that had been initially articulated, I invited them in that first session to make their decisions about participation based on their own personal needs and desires.  It turned out that one participant ended up attending only a couple of sessions and chose instead to work exhaustively on writing projects that were soon due.  Everyone else, however, attended virtually all the sessions, and all ended up being active and willing participants.

In giving the participants this freedom, I sought to honor and respect the expressed resistance.  Indeed, I knew that what they would get out of this retreat was going to hinge much more on their own willing participation than I my own planned and desired outcomes.  Trying to be relatively free from my own emotional reactivity and intentionally refusing to engage in power and control issues usually seem to help keep resistance within the banks of the river of normal group functioning.

Wisdom does not necessarily have a curriculum.  Although I had been encouraged to submit a full outline of what I would be presenting, I had to demur.  I took the position that—although I committed myself to teaching a meditation practice, to introducing the practice of lectio divina, and to giving the group experiences of extended silence—I had said that I would have to gauge the rest of the explicit teaching material by what emerged from the circle of participants.  Indeed, the initially expressed resistance was amazingly helpful in knowing where and how to start.  But I couldn’t have known that until I sat in the circle and opened to where they were.

But, honestly, here was my deeper underlying concern: While mindfulness and contemplative practice have become incredibly popular and have entered into the everyday parlance of many aspects of contemporary life, including higher education, they are most often employed to open and deepen the capacities of those who use them.  Replete in the literature of higher education, for example, are studies that verify that meditation and contemplative practices improve student performance by increasing their personal investment in course material and improve focus, concentration, and recall.  That is all fine and good.  But Wisdom takes us beyond what we might call high-egoic development.  It is designed to take us beyond ego to the next orbit out.  Wisdom is about dying before you die.  And more than about how one can sharpen one’s capabilities, Wisdom helps us to discover the ways in which we can see ourselves as an integral part of the Whole and how we can serve that Whole.  Knowing that these faculty members self-selected because they wanted to hone their writing skills, I wondered how they would respond to Wisdom’s deeper agenda?

As I do in most all the groups and retreats I lead, I began with explicitly shaping the group norms.  “How we will be together” is most often the first order of business.  This is especially important for those whose regular group meetings and gatherings are of a completely different nature.  Here in a Wisdom Circle we are not proving a point or defending a position.  But as we begin to risk personal sharing and struggle to put deep thoughts tentatively into language and then set these into the center of the circle as offerings, these tentative sharings have the capacity to deepen the group’s inquiry and spark further insight.  And because two of us may see something very differently, it doesn’t mean that one of us must be right and the other wrong.  Indeed, there are no answers in the back of the book.  We are not only reading the tea leaves of life; we are contributing to reality’s ongoing creation.

With the unfolding of our time together, the practices themselves carved a spaciousness into the group process; and the rhythm and balance of our time helped to soften and open hearts.  The teaching inquired into such questions as, “Who is the ‘I’ that is writing?” and “For what purpose am I writing?” and “What are some of the sources of my assistance?”

Slowly but steadily, the group opened like a flower.  Listening was deep and intentional.  The silence began to be sensed as having a formative substantiality.  And perhaps not surprisingly—while at first wanting to deepen their writing—the group flirted with life’s deeper issues.  In our lectio we were drawn to the issues of death and the meaning of life.

On the final night in a sort of recital, they shared with each other in the circle what they had been working on.  Although the writings were of various forms and of diverse subjects, I was completely blown away both by the heart-quality of them all and the warm generosity by which each shared piece was received by the rest of the circle.  The group had found its way to the boundary between utilizing contemplative practice for one’s own devotion and/or development right to the cusp of Wisdom.  And all had deeply shared—except me—for on that final night I acted as facilitator and witness.

The final morning, however, I asked their indulgence to put my own oar in the water.  Although I did not have a reading to share, I tried to express that my life itself was the book I was writing.  And then, using Wisdom’s lens, I shared with them what I desired my life to be.  Instead of presenting Wisdom concepts and principles, I simply used my own life to illustrate some of Wisdom’s perspectives and expressions.  I could tell in both how they listened and in their responses that the teaching had landed in receptive hearts.

So, while their writing may well have deepened as the result of our time together and the practices they had learned, these faculty members undoubtedly were on a new and different trajectory.  Something had shifted in them individually—maybe we can call it a lowering of their centers of gravity; but something had shifted in the group as well.  In fact, I learned in the immediate days after the retreat they had planned a lectio gathering at one of their homes.

Can Wisdom be transmitted without an explicitly religious container?  I do not know the answer to that question yet, but I am committed to its further exploration.  While I continue to hope that the Church will take up Wisdom’s call, I also know our world cannot wait.

I cannot tell you how impressed I was with this group.  Having started out by being so clear in articulating their resistance, they ended up in a most receptive heart space and were able to make astounding connections.  The seeds of Wisdom had been sown in an academic institution, and we will wait to see what fruit they might bear.