Spiritual Practices & Empathy in Classrooms
By RAAGAV PANDYA, Ph.D | Educator, scientist, PhD candidate at Columbia University Teachers College
In describing the process of contemplative pedagogies, Simmer-Brown (2019) presented how it is different from traditional inquiry processes. Most academically taught science inquiry is third-person, as the individual is taught rigorous research methods and evaluation techniques. But, spiritual practices concentrate on first-person inquiry, and “emphasize the experience of the person so that they reach a critical subjectivity (Simmer-Brown, 2019, p. 15). Through the practice of accepting and understanding one’s experience of being a subject, a student learns that this critical subjectivity is truly universal (Simmer-Brown, 2019). Consequently, an empathy and sense of activism is cultivated.
Often wisdom traditions are taught with tenets like ahimsa (nonviolence), for this very reason, as they are pedagogies of compassion (Bryant, 2009). Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore taught Yoga and similar traditions by requiring students to engage in social and political activism in villages and neighborhoods of marginalized peoples (Malaviya, 2021). If the purpose is to realize one’s own critical subjectivity through first-person inquiry, then anti-oppressive pedagogies follow inevitably (Orr, 2002). Nearly all Eastern and indigenous spiritual traditions are based on the following hypothesis of first-person inquiry: “individuality is precious, because only through it, can we realize the universal” (Malaviya, 2021, p. 78). Eastern traditions offer a perspective towards environment and climate that can improve the decaying living conditions and consumption-based degradation that many communities face today (Stanley et al., 2009). Consequently, a responsibility, stemming from compassion, towards local and global environmental crises is inevitable.
In an educational era that highlights the gravity of human-induced climate change, spiritual practices concentrating on awareness lead to actionable steps in the classroom and at home. As young people across the globe unite to resist corporate takeover of indigenous land, support policy that lowers carbon emissions, and preserve natural resources in their communities, spiritual traditions provide a foundation and intent. Through their meditative practices and paradigm, these philosophies argue for empathy not only for fellow human beings and the coming generations, but also for the land, animals, plants and trees, vegetation, and microscopic life. The stillness and resulting compassion is congruent in a myriad of traditions from the East like Buddhism and Yoga to the ceremonies and prayers that indgenous peoples of the Americas have shared for centuries (e.g. recognizing the Earth as a Mother to all conscious beings). Let’s imagine a curriculum and educational construct that not only emphasizes the importance of activism along with a scientific approach, but also one of empathy based in the awareness practices of spirituality!
Raaghav is an educator, scientist, consultant, and PhD candidate at Columbia University Teachers College. Along with climate research and teaching physics and engineering, he studies the intersections of wisdom traditions, nature of science, and science education.