First published in The Hindu, 29 June 2024

Most educators would agree that a rounded education should nurture the physical, emotional, social and linguistic domains. While most theories of child development embrace these four realms, the spiritual dimension is rarely mentioned. Should educators consider spirituality as another facet that needs to be cultivated in schools? Or, should spirituality be outside the purview of formal education?

Foremost, I would like to distinguish religion from spirituality. Though religious experiences are often spiritual in Nature, the two are not synonymous as it is possible to be religious and non-spiritual, and vice versa. Keeping with the secular spirit of our Constitution, I don’t think religion, of any kind, needs to be imparted in school. Of course, parents are free to raise their children according to any religion they choose. Further, being spiritual doesn’t mean that you even believe in God. A belief in God, either a particular one based on various religious traditions or an all-pervasive force transcending any particular
faith is not necessarily a criterion for being spiritual.

Feeling of connection

In his book, The Transcendent Brain, physicist and writer, Alan Lightman avers that spiritual experiences involve certain features. One, is a sense of connection, whether to Nature, the cosmos, and other people.” Next, you feel you are “part of something larger’ than the individual self. Lightman’s characterization of spirituality overlaps with psychologist Dacher Keltner’s conceptualization of awe. In his book, Awe, Kelther defines this feeling as, “being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” Lightman explains that “transcendent experiences are ego-free,” wherein people “lose track of time and space,’ “our bodies” and “of our selves.”

Most of us have had these experiences of feeling connected to something greater while our individual egos dissolved or subsided for a few moments at least. Whether it’s staring into the vast expanse of the ocean or looking up at a star-studded sky or being transported by a moving and mellifluous music recital, both Keltner and Lightman concur that Nature and the arts can evoke awe in us. Lightman also believes that certain creative experiences can have a transcendent quality. Whether it’s a “painting, a musical composition, a poem, a novel idea, a sudden insight,” creative acts sometimes help you forge “connections between ourselves and the rest of the cosmos.”

What are the benefits of promoting a secular form of spirituality in schools? Emphasizing the beauty and vastness of Nature may help students appreciate the interconnectedness of all living beings in ecosystems, thereby curbing the anthropocentric view that Nature is a mere resource for human consumption. Given the pace of climate change, it’s imperative that children are unschooled of exploitative human tendencies that have plundered our planet and are instead schooled to cultivate an ecological conscience.

Further, as creativity and transcendence often go hand in hand, there is no reason why educators should shy away from discussing and promoting secular spiritual experiences. Lightman outlines four stages to the creative process: “ preparation, incubation, illumination, and finally verification.” He avers that transcendent feelings may be present in the first two stages when people rely more on intuition than the rational self to make creative leaps.

Finally, some individuals may have reservations that spirituality is antithetical to science. However, Lightman argues that science and spirituality are perfectly compatible. In fact, he’s a staunch materialist who believes that we are nothing more than atoms and molecules. So, how does one reconcile spiritual experiences with the workings of the brain?

According to Lightman, “emergent phenomena” are events or behaviours that arise in “complex systems” but are “not evident in their individual parts.” Our brains with their 100 billion neurons create an unimaginably sophisticated network that can give rise to transcendent experiences that cannot be produced by single neurons.

While schools have been teaching Tagore and Wordsworth for ages, teachers may emphasize the spiritual quality in their works and help children explore their own spiritual depths.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs