Teaching with sacred intent

In  psychologist Jean Houston’s book A Passion for the Possible,  her view into the human experience, sees our existence as part of the greater whole, inviting us  to re-frame who we are through our connections with new people in new situations. She speaks of how “soul making requires that you die to one story to be reborn to a larger one.” The entry point to one’s larger “soul story” is through what Dr. Houston refers to as the Sacred Wound.  The wounding becomes sacred when we are willing to release our old stories and to become the vehicles through which the new story may emerge.

As we respond to a child’s sacred wound, we are drawn to certain facets of it, based on our own life experiences. This is called “matching pictures,” meaning-that the issues we are drawn to, the student’s behaviors we are most affected by, the ones that really push our buttons-are reflections of our own issues and our own work. As we teach, support, nurture, and love our students, we are doing the same for ourselves. This is the way of the teacher, and some would say, the way of the healer, as well.

Human development professor and child psychologist Emmy E. Werner in her work on resiliency refers to bonding as a protective factor. A protective factor is an “individual or environmental safeguard that enhances a youngster’s ability to resist stressful life events and promote adaptation and competence leading towards future success in life.” Dr. Werner calls these successful people resilient; despite the presence of multiple risk factors at an early age, they are able to demonstrate the attributes of a person with “self-righting tendencies” with the capacity to spring back, rebound, successfully adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social competence, despite exposure to severe stress Her description of the resilient child portrays someone whose wound has become sacred, through its vulnerability and raw state, the psyche has opened up enough to let in the conscious realization of just how wonderful, beautiful, talented, and powerful that person is.

If teachers honor their students by listening to each unique voice and by intentionally creating emotionally safe settings, there will be a greater hope for the students to grow up whole. The word whole meaning “healthy” or “sound,” comes from the word heal. To be healed or whole indicates someone who is resilient. Emmy Werner’s simple description of a resilient young adult as someone who “loves well, works well, and plays well” is what we as teachers can help nurture and create. Our role is to illumine each student to a place of awareness and understanding, a place where that young person is fully engaged within each moment.

This comes about by intentionally creating a sacred classroom space where honor and authenticity are the norm, and connectedness is the outcome. To be authentic means to be truly intimate-opening one’s heart to others. When a group’s collective heart is open, caring, compassion, and empathy abound. This magical experience is not often what happens in groups, much less classrooms, and the creation of a group experience of this type is one of our greatest challenges as educators.

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The Spiral of Life

So often, people have lamented to me that after all of the inner work they have done, they find themselves right back in the same place once more; they have traveled a circle and are repeating one of their many unhealthy life patterns. My response to that perception is, “Before, when you were here, you didn’t know what was happening. Now you do, and that understanding makes a huge difference.” It’s not really a circle that we travel, but a spiral up, for we are forever climbing. As we climb higher up the spiral, we may come around to familiar or old places, but we can also change how we choose to experience these places. This is what is known as changinge one’s mindset and is something we can consciously provide for our students-opportunities to change one’s way of seeing the world to elicit a different outcome. This truth is expressed in the equation E + R = 0: The event plus your response equals your outcome. Instead of blaming the event for our outcomes, we can feel the power of what happens when we consciously change our responses. This awareness is part of the work of our soul, as it journeys through this lifetime on its spiraled, healing path.

As we move up the spiral toward knowledge, truth, and wisdom, we occasionally meet a mentor along the way who is on her own path of learning and who is there in that moment to help us explore our innate gifts and talents-to change our mindsets perhaps. A mentor is someone who has traveled further along the spiral with more experience, and a teacher can serve the role of mentor for the student. In Emmy Werner’s work on protective factors, she says that these are people who “foster trust and a sense of coherence or faith, and ‘second chance’ opportunities in society at large, which enable high-risk youths to acquire competence and confidence”. It takes great effort and commitment and requires the teacher to have the courage to look into the mirror of the images his or her students are reflecting back and to see these images as projections of the self. In the end, it will all be worth it, for as each soul is deeply touched (including the teacher’s), passion for one’s work as a significant adult in the life of a child will reign, and that is what it means to be teaching with sacred intent.

resilience in practice


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David A. Levine’s (davidalevine.com) work on teaching empathy as a social culture building strategy has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and ABC News. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls "A School of Belonging." This systems change process, is highlighted in his books, "Teaching Empathy", "Building Classroom Communities", and "The School of Belonging Plan Book." He is the founding Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute, in Kingston, NY, a program of The Tides Center, and serves as an adviser to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative.

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