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Teaching Marc Gafni’s “Unique Self” Enlightenment in the classroom


By Kathleen Brownback

Note: This blog post is adapted from “Teaching Marc Gafni’s ‘Unique Self’ Enlightenment in the Classroom: Reflections from a Phillips Exeter Class in Mysticism (for the annual conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, November 2011, Amherst College).”

A new course introduced at Phillips Exeter Academy in the spring of 2011 began with these words on the syllabus:

What we are about to explore has many names. It has been called the mystical tradition, the perennial tradition, the direct path, the path of the heart, the journey to (and with) the beloved, the practice of yoga, and the contemplative tradition. Aldous Huxley called it “the science, not of the personal ego, but of that eternal Self in the depth of particular, individualized selves, and identical with, or at least akin to, the divine Ground.” What these traditions share is the understanding that there is the possibility of union between the self and whatever we might call Ultimate Reality or God or Spirit, and that this union is primarily realized through a path of spiritual practice.

There is no possible way to make a comprehensive study of all these traditions in one term, and no need for us to do so. The main goal here is to locate various paths within the religious traditions, and to begin to understand what is meant by “spiritual practice.”

As the first teacher of this class, my main goal was to engage the students in a deeper understanding of ego development and the way in which the contemplative or mystical dimension of religion could help them both intellectually and practically as they move into their adult lives.

Phillips Exeter is a secular independent secondary school in New Hampshire, an hour north of Boston, with a 200-year history as an academic powerhouse for boys. It became coeducational in 1972 and has retained its high academic distinction, with all students headed for college and many to the top schools in the country.

The students are bright and lively and curious. But as anywhere, they struggle at times with nonacademic life circumstances that have the capacity to affect their intellectual engagement—a superficial and highly commercialized teenage (and often adult) culture, a pervasive unease about the future of their society in an era of environmental and economic challenge, and for some, personal or family histories of addiction or depression. For this reason I sought out texts and readings that were inclined to prompt questions at the interface of psychology and religion. I had the sense that these would speak to students in both an academic and a personal way, as in fact they did.

In this paper I will first describe student background and interest, then give a brief overview of the course, then focus on the work of one scholar and teacher, Marc Gafni, whose writing in particular spoke to the students in a powerful way.

In the course of the term I had to develop and articulate to myself my own changing philosophy of teaching, which I began to explore in a 2009 article in the Exeter alumni/ae bulletin entitled “In Pursuit of Truths.”

I will describe this evolution more deeply at the end of the article, but also briefly mention it here.

[Read more…]

Ought comparative religious studies be mandatory for high school graduation?

High School“Religious education is a necessary antidote against fundamentalism and extremism,” says BeliefNet columnist Dr. Arne Kozaz in a profile of James Morrison, a courageous high school comparative religion teacher in Minnesota.

Kozak continues:

“Religious education should be part of normal human discourse. Information is not the enemy. An inability to handle information is the culprit. Epistemology is, no pun intended, humanity’s salvation. If we can’t think clearly, intelligently, and critically, nothing else will really matter.”

Indeed. I want to join the chorus of those few advocates of mandatory education in comparative religion for high school students. Alternatively, students could be offered the choice of taking a course in contemporary perspectives on spirituality or perhaps comparative anthropology and psychologial anthropology, looking at a diversity of world’s cultures through a lens which encouraged stepping outside of a narrow ethnocentric paradigm.

Some parochial high school courses in theology could serve a similar function, if they were truly oriented towards critical thinking as opposed to indoctrination, but so long as the course were narrowly focused on a single religious tradition or simply presenting one religion’s view of other religions it is unlikely that it would serve the students’ need for development from ethnocentric to more worldcentric frameworks of meaning. On the other hand, it could still be a valuable experience in its own right.

It’s almost a diversion from the main point, but I have to share this. Along the way, Kozak’s article relates one of my favorite stories from the Buddhist scriptures:

“It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior case, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural or the lowest case. Or if he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name of family the man is; or whether is is tall, or short, or of middle height; or whether he is black, or dark, or yellowish; or whether he comes from such and such a village, or town or city; or until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a chapa or a kodanda, or until I know whether the bow-string was of swallow-wort, or bamboo fiber, or sinew, or hemp, or of milk-sap tree, or until I know whether the shaft was from a wild or cultivated plant; or know whether it was feathered from a vulture’s wing or a heron’s or a hawk’s, or a peacock’s; or whether it was wrapped round with the sinew of an ox, or of a buffalo, or of a ruru-deer, or of a monkey; or until I know whether it was an ordinary arrow, or a razor-arrow, or an iron arrows, or of a calf-tooth arrrow. Before knowing all this, verily that man would have died.” Majjhima Nikaya)

Read the whole article.

An article by Kathy Brownback on the Center for World Spirituality website discussed a recent class in Mysticism offered to high school seniors which employed Dr. Marc Gafni’s Unique Self teaching.

Originally posted on February 27, 2012, on Awake, Aware & Alive.

Photo Credit: dave_mcmt

Make college more affordable by linking tuition to future earnings

College Students

By Joe Perez

One of the biggest obstacles to developing a World Spirituality based on autonomous, self-realized individuals is our present educational system in which economic incentives drive students into occupations that will stifle their authenticity rather than offer paths for giving their Unique Gifts. But what if our system of college financing were transformed so that students were more empowered to follow their dreams, and tuition were more affordable for all?

In The Economist, an article about a novel approach to make higher education more affordable:

Students in California have a proposal. Rather than charging tuition, they’d like public universities in California to take 5% of their salary for the first twenty years following graduation (for incomes between $30,000 and $200,000). Essentially, rather than taking on debt students would like to sell equity in their future earnings. This means students who make more money after graduation will subsidise lower-earning peers.

It is not clear if this will provide adequate revenue for the university. It also means the university bears more risk, because the tuition it will ultimately receive is uncertain. But the proposal will benefit some students and the principle is not so ridiculous. American universities already practice price discrimination based on parental income. The more money your parents have the larger your tuition bill; richer families already subsidise poorer ones. Why not price discriminate based on future income of the student rather than the current income of the parent?

It also means, in many cases, that degrees that command a higher value in the labour market, like engineering or computer science, will cost more than other degrees, like theatre arts. But if an engineering degree is worth more shouldn’t it cost more? If you think of a degree as an asset which pays dividends in future wages, the asset with a bigger expected pay-out should cost more. Faculty in high-value fields tend to get paid more. Perhaps some of that cost should be passed along to the students.

The proposal comes from Chris LoCascio, a University of California Riverside student, who tells AOL Daily Finance that:

“Charging students when they don’t have money doesn’t make sense,” LoCascio points out. Instead, the FixUC plan would charge students when they are actually able to pay — once they’re out in the workforce. “In 20 years, our plan would double the amount of money coming into the UC system.”

LoCascio’s proposal strikes me as an example of Reverse Innovation, in that it looks at the way the world is, spots a need where money is an obstacle, and engineers a way that creates more value for less money.

World Spirituality based on Integral principles is not merely a program for individual self-knowledge, but a system of knowing and integrating other systems of knowing in The Four Quadrants. By making changes at the socio-cultural level, individuals are empowered to awaken more fully everywhere in the spiral of development.

Photo Credit: Monica’s Dad