When I was asked to write for the Omega Center on Love in a Fractured World, I could think of no better theme than describing the context of my work running an innovative mindfulness and evolutionary worldview program in the public high schools of Philadelphia. Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in America, is the poorest of the ten largest metro areas in the United States. That means that the environment here, the infrastructure, the educational resources, the neighborhoods, and inevitably the experience of the youth is one of fracture at all kinds of intersections. Some of the fractures are as visible as boarded up windows in fully inhabited houses, some of the fractures are as invisible as the lingering shadow of disappointment and self-doubt that runs across a teenager’s self-sense when a stressed teacher is unnecessarily callous. It is in this environment that I am planting the seeds of inner reflection, wholeness, and systemic thinking among 3800 teenagers. Wonderfully, these seeds are taking root.
The Inner Strength System, a three-month curriculum, rests on the best insights of my thirty-five years of in-depth, a form of lay-monastic, mindfulness practice coupled with a couple decades of reflection on the mystically-inspired evolutionary vision of Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other more contemporary process oriented thinkers. It’s my conviction that helping students perceive the profound interconnectedness of all things, from sub-atomic particles to planetary orbits in vast galaxies, while empowering them to self-regulate and cultivate compassion will prepare them to engage constructively with our increasingly complex world.
We need flexible tools like these. Under the best conditions it is still truly a challenge to educate for a future we cannot conceive. The world we inhabit is simply changing so fast. One of the best ways we can empower and prepare our youth is to familiarize them with uncertainty, introduce them to the fact of change, and the view of evolutionary unfolding. In this process-oriented perspective, we then show them how to connect the dots between large-scale influences and personal experience. The kids then learn, at a visceral experiential level, to perceive the web of inter-dependence, the connectivity between all things. When youth can let go into a felt sense of their own centers, they find themselves more intimately connected with the world they inhabit. This develops their stability, self-confidence, and most importantly, their curiosity about life. A passion for creativity, exploration, and a thirst to discover the unknown begins to stir within them. Again and again, this innocence emerges when teens let themselves explore simple but profound mindfulness practice. Recalcitrant youth unselfconsciously start expressing a generosity of spirit, smile from happiness, and allow themselves to experience Love. In the midst of a beleaguered educational environment, contemplative classroom sessions that are related to the great arc of evolutionary history become vibrant oases for learning.
What I love about a contemplative approach to self-regulation, stress reduction, and anger management is that it is rooted in a depth of possibility while remaining secular. In addition to being a mystic and a Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin was a profoundly practical scientist. A deeply spiritual man, he rigorously engaged with the stuff of history, the dust and bones that tell a three million year story leading to our times now. He allowed the layers of trowel and brush excavation imprint his view and his humanity, giving rise to a recognition of what I call the “archeology of ourselves”—an understanding of the layers of early culture and the biological imprints that make us who we are.
Teens love to excavate. They brighten up when challenged to go on a dig of their own interiors, discovering 300 million years of survival instinct encoded in how they freeze at the announcement of a pop quiz or run from a street corner when a car suddenly backfires. They wrestle with the march of cultural unfolding, as they recognize the roots of the agency and freedoms they have to create their own identities, innovating everything from hair color to daily music playlists. And they depersonalize the downsides of postmodern culture including the fraying of social support and the lack of clear guidance to help them navigate their lives.
The stage of teen brain development is one characterized by the exploration of the new. Leaving the vistas open for exploration while supporting the kids with context leaves them free to work with their own passions and potentials. Quite literally, teens are the architects of our shared future. Fortifying the youth of today with inner strength and outer stability, with love and wonder invites and prepares them to intuit solutions to cultural, environmental, economic, and spiritual fractures that we can’t even imagine. That unleashed passion and care gives me much hope for the future.