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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Summer 2009
Vol. 36 No. 2

Pedagogy of Reverence:
A Narrative Account

Fran Grace

The outer work can never be small
if the inner work is great.
And the outer work can never be great
if the inner work is small.
~Meister Eckhart

Greatness.
It does exist.
By Whatever Name.
And?  My students want to know about it.
Some of them want to become it.

In his book On Being Buddha, Paul J. Griffiths refers to “maximal greatness” as the most common theme in religious sensibility:  “If there are any trans-cultural universals in the sphere of religious thinking, it is probably that among them is the attempt to characterize, delineate, and, if possible, exhaustively define maximal greatness.”1 
In the “Seminar on Compassion” course I developed four years ago, we study “maximal greatness” in the lives of the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Viktor Frankl, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Mary Oliver (nature poet who recently lost her long-time partner to death), and Mattie Stepanek (a boy poet and peace activist with a rare form of muscular dystrophy who was honored with the Global Peace Award after his death at age 14).  All of these exemplars faced severe racial-ethnic, religious, or gender oppression, or personal loss and physical suffering.  Yet, they embodied unconditional compassion towards all sentient beings, including the “enemy” which had caused their suffering.    

Whoever I am, and whatever happens,
I will always love my body and mind,
Even if it has different abilities
Than other people’s bodies and minds.
I will always be happy, because
I will always be me.

I am here for a purpose.
~Mattie Stepanek

Ahimsa is perfect love.  To extend this love even to those who hate you is the farthest limit of ahimsa.
~Gandhi

The oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.  A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred.
~Nelson Mandela

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.      
~Mother Teresa

Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. . . .He who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss in the contemplation of his beloved.   
~Viktor Frankl

We can clearly see that the desire of others for peace and happiness, and the avoidance of suffering, is just the same as our own.

With no enemy, how do you learn forgiveness?  
~His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I have not
forgotten the Way, but a little,
the way to the Way
~Mary Oliver, “After Her Death”

Most people (including myself) struggle to be compassionate to our own selves, our own families, our own “group” or “tribe.”  In the Seminar on Compassion, however, we study those rare individuals who are breathed by a universal compassion that goes beyond self, family, and nation.  Their compassion encompasses all of sentient life.  When asked, they emphasize that unconditional compassion emerges from the rigor of inner cultivation, not social activism or rational analysis.  Nelson Mandela told an interviewer who had asked him how it was possible to endure twenty-seven years in prison and walk out with his hand extended in forgiveness:  “I had twenty-seven years to accomplish the most difficult task in life, which is to change oneself.”  By changing himself, he changed the world.  “Maximal greatness” surely includes universal compassion and unconditional love.

It also includes self-knowledge.  Carl Jung, one of the most illuminating inner archeologists of the human unconscious of the last century, concluded that the human psyche has an inexorable drive to uncover its wholeness by “circumambulating” its center, The Self.  My students are in the midst of this “circumambulation” to their center, to discover what Jung called the Undiscovered Self.  The semester-long Mandala Project completed by some of my students for the Psychology and Religion course demonstrates the jagged but irrepressible journeying to “the center” in vivid visual and written form.  Their mandala drawings, contemplative labyrinth walks, and research into the mandala symbol seem to confirm Jung’s clinical discovery that mandalas, which are spontaneously (non-discursively) created, mid-wife the human psyche in its birth to wholeness and inner coherence. 

For example, one senior Religious Studies student from the Spring 2009 semester, recounted a process of interior integration as she reflected back over her creation of fifteen weekly mandalas.  She titled one of her first mandalas “The Broken Mirror,” a pattern of stark fragmentation in boldly marked rainbow colors.  In her research, she discovered an explanation which resonated with the inner conflicts that characterized the beginning of her final college semester:  “According to Fincher and Kellogg, ‘the use of many colors in a fragmented, shattered pattern suggests a profound reordering of the psyche’ or ‘the first step of a process, whereby, in order to achieve a new integration, disintegration of the old self is necessary.’…  It may also suggest taking action in my life towards wholeness.” 

As the semester progressed, this student faced several challenges, including her senior thesis.  Because a junior high school teacher had humiliated her as a writer, the student had never felt confident in her written expression, even though she was one of the most succinct and adventuresome writers in the course.  Her mandala project revealed profound healing in the arena of writing, as she shifted from external validation to internal self-assurance.  In a later mandala drawing titled “Feathers,” she “was feeling particularly loved and nurturing.”  Research into the spontaneous imagery of this mandala led her to conclude that the soft spiral movement evoked a nest or womb, affirming her ability to parent and protect herself.  This learning was of great import as she moved into her last month as a college senior and rode the waves of uncertainty about the future, thesis deadlines, saying good-bye to friends, and moving out into the world on her own.  A couple of her mandalas at the end of the semester were vibrant with primary colors, suggesting to her “my ability to survive and sustain myself” with relation to basic human needs.  The Mandala Project, with its synthesis of research, art, dialogue, and contemplative process, gave this student one of the most “life-changing” projects of her college education.  By the end of the semester, it was obvious that she had broken the barriers to her creativity and was able to experience new levels of intellectual success, interpersonal honesty, and existential contentment.

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