Beyond facts

Can one teach spirituality in college?

By David Alford
Published November 5, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

My world religion and spirituality class haunts me with a kind of transcendental dread. Information is not a problem. There are adequate texts stockpiled with historical and cultural facts to nibble on, doctrines and rituals assembled in flamboyant collections like little fish on display in the cultural supermarket of the world. Everybody can go home satisfied that his cognitive bank account has a positive balance.

But the "spirit" of the course is another matter, crying as it does for experiential exercises. Resistance to self-transformation is enormous, as anybody who has ever seen Woody Allen movies or tried to read "Moby-Dick" can attest. My recurring nightmare is throngs of neophytes pretending facile conversions, or, worse, myself, lured by the temptation to be a guru, wallowing in everybody else's ecstasy. I know what it feels like. It feels great.

And yet, crossing over the bridge from the objective domain into the subjective is like disappearing into a psychic no man's land with no maps and no markers delineating the territory. I am still bothered by the memory of a former student who, years after my class, sent me a 400-page, typed, single-spaced manuscript of his emotional odyssey, the last page of which contained the statement, "So, I'm thinking of committing suicide, and it's all your fault, you and that fucking Camus. One CANNOT imagine Sisyphus happy! Fuck no. And the fucking universe is not benign. You got me into this. Now you get me out." That was the last I heard from him. His journal still sits up on my wall someplace.

We started the world religion class with a New Age, Native American shaman drumming and singing. When she passed the talking stick, a middle-aged woman said, "I've been waiting for this class all my life," her face gleaming with revelatory sincerity. The class roster was like an all-star reunion of people from the last five years of my teaching, several of whom I deeply care for and all of whom filled the air with spiritual desire. It was as though all the cynicism of our society had been checked at the door -- a voluntary disarmament that left everyone naked.

The available material on spirituality contains many gems, but none of them is guaranteed to provide everlasting light for my throng of seekers. Thomas Merton comes close. A Catholic monk who writes sensitively about Zen and the Tao, he says:

If one reaches the point where understanding fails, this is not a tragedy: it is simply a reminder to stop thinking and start looking. Perhaps there is nothing to figure out after all: perhaps we only need to wake up.

Merton understood the similarity between Christian faith and Buddhist meditation, both facilitating the crunching of barriers between "self" and "God" or "self" and "nature." The isolated ego seems to be the problem for all wisdom seekers, which is probably why the "culture of narcissism" seems so hauntingly empty and why moments when we are truly loving feel like an astonishing epiphany.

To aid in the discovery of these connections, I asked the students to do simple things: to leave the room and find a solitary spot on the campus where they could be silent for an hour. Our college has lovely, pine woods surrounding a duck-filled lake, with deer and other wild life foraging peacefully; it's the kind of place rich folks construct for expensive estates. Some of the students came back with bits of stone and wood, and most had little stories.

Life has become so rapid and media-driven lately that even the smallest moments of arrested frenzy can be wrenching. I was on my porch some time ago eating breakfast, reading a book, reviewing my task list and working on my calendar, all at the same time. Then I came across a passage from "Being Peace" by Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes, "For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to abandon our views about them." Suddenly, I put down my spoon. A small spot of meadow glimpsed through the trees -- the ridge beyond became extremely vivid. The ghost of Thoreau suddenly overwhelmed me. A bee was working the chives in the flowerbox; sun filtered down on me through the pine above; a chair, a gorgeous fern, the sound of the sprinkler on the grass, the splintered wood of the deck, driftwood I had carried from the sea, a light breeze stirring the leaves.

It lasted for 10 or 15 seconds. I stared back down at my cereal bowl.

Maybe I did drive one of my students to consider suicide. I don't know. Did his dark epiphany have anything in common with my moment of bliss over breakfast? Perhaps we both glimpsed the same cauldron of interconnections but from a different angle. Or maybe his pain was in feeling that he would never see that flash of the sublime that I caught sight of. I don't have the slightest idea what anybody will learn in my world religion and spirituality class -- sometimes I think it's dangerous to tread beyond my academic compound of facts and theories. All I know is that those few seconds that happen every once in a while are extremely precious.

David Alford

David Alford lives and works on a ranch in the Sierras, near the town of Avery, CA.

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