Excerpted from the book Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior for Our Times ©2014 by Matthew Fox. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com 

Being Spiritual Warriors for a Deeper Education[1]

Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) was a great mystic and a courageous activist for social and gender justice in the late Middle Ages who stepped on many privileged and powerful peoples’ toes in his effort to awaken and empower oppressed peoples, whether women or peasants or the uneducated. Indeed, he was condemned by the Pope one week after he died.

Eckhartian scholar Reiner Schurmann declared that Meister Eckhart’s work is “not a theoretical doctrine but a practical guide,”[2] and in doing so he is inviting us to make it real in the world by taking it as a point of direction or a guide. I believe this is especially so when we speak of education. Our species is in a new and dangerous place. We are facing our own demise. Education is obviously a big part of the problem as well as a big part of the solution. Can Eckhart help us to transform education?

In his own day Eckhart watched the decline of education happening all around him. A century earlier, the invention of the university, a radical concept introduced from Islam, had launched an intellectual revolution, but it was losing steam. Part of the revolution had been moving the center of education from the monastic establishment in the countryside to cities, where dozens of universities sprang up in a fifty-year period. But in Eckhart’s day learning was on the decline; universities were serving vested interests of the privileged more than inspiring love of learning. This is one reason Eckhart abandoned his esteemed position at the University of Paris in favor of working, learning, and teaching among the lower-class Beguines and peasants of Germany.

Eckhart exclaimed that “living offers the most noble kind of knowledge.”[3] Eckhart was, before all else, a student of life, and he urges us to be the same. “What is life? God’s being is my life,”[4] he declares. All his work is a study of life and a study of God and our relation to both. Is education today a journey into life?

The Dalai Lama, among others, has proclaimed that in our day “education is in crisis the world over.” I fully agree. It is only denial that refuses to look at the facts — such as that about 65 percent of black boys are not graduating from high school in the United States, that many young people are simply bored at school, and that more and more boys are getting in trouble and being diagnosed with “conditions” and “diseases” because they are not content sitting in a desk for seven hours a day.[5] Children are alive and mystical, and our educational system ignores this almost by choice. Learning is as pleasing to the human mind as good food is to the stomach — but you would hardly know it judging from most educational experiences young people are having in school. Where has the joy of learning gone?

Humans have lots of growing up to do, lots of training to undergo, from potty training to tying one’s shoes, from learning a language to standing up straight, from eating correctly to finding one’s talents, reading, writing, and lots of arithmetic — and on and on. Humans need culture, we need others around us and from the past (our ancestors) whose experience can instruct us. We need guidance. We have so many choices in life, and we don’t have time to try them all out by trial and error. Our lack of DNA programming means we need educating from the elders, from our parents, from culture. Meister Eckhart is such an elder. His teachings offer, I believe, what is most missing in education today.

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The Spark of the Soul

Eckhart honors intuition as the highest of all faculties. Eckhart calls it “the spark of the soul,” a term we examined in chapter ten that derives both from Sufi and from Jewish mysticism of the Middle Ages. It implies wisdom — and is that not the direction education needs to move in? Away from knowledge factories and toward wisdom schools? Wisdom incorporates heart and head, body and feeling, intuition and values. Einstein warns us that intellect does not give us values but only methods. Values derive, he says, from intuition and feeling.

It is our responsibility, as teachers and students, to bring heaven and Earth, cosmos and psyche, together in order to, as the Jewish medieval mystical book the Zohar puts it, “raise those sparks hidden throughout the world, elevating them to holiness by the power of your soul.”[8] Our minds and creativity unveil the hidden sparks of the world, for they lie hidden everywhere — in our hearts and in all things.

The Kabbalah tells us that “there is no greater path” than to bring sparks alive in life and to educe the spark that lies within. Ordinary things become extraordinary. The profane becomes sacred. Here lies an insight to Deep Education: its etymological meaning is to educe, to discover inner wisdom, to, as the Kabbalah says, “draw out the holy spark that dwells within.”[9] Is this not Eckhart’s teaching, that we are to birth the Christ in all our works? Wouldn’t it be wise to aim high and to seek to educate along a path that is “greater” than all other paths? This is the kind of Deep Education we need.

I am convinced that what Eckhart means by the “spark of the soul” is what we mean today by “intuition.” Eckhart’s term derives from the Christian language of the doxa or divine radiance (or Cosmic Christ) coming alive in all things as sparks. Eckhart develops his own version of the “spark of the soul” concept throughout his sermons. He refers to the term time and again, though he never fully defines it for us. In two sermons he calls it “synderesis,” which means a prelude or threshold to conscience. It is not conscience but it is a doorway into conscience. For Thomas Aquinas, conscience is a judgment, a decision, and synderesis is the intuition we have that precedes our acts of conscience.

Moreover, Eckhart repeatedly relates the “spark of the soul” to the presence of angels, and according to Aquinas, angels learn only by intuition.[10] Therefore, to speak of angels and the sparks that accompany them is to speak of intuition. Furthermore, Eckhart names this special place where the spark exists as the “apex” of the intellect (or mind or human spirit); it’s a special, powerful “corner” of our consciousness. One might say it is the “sweet spot” where the human mind or spirit links up to the Divine Spirit (in the presence of angels); it also equates to the seventh chakra, which represents a kind of apex or culmination of our spiritual and physiological powers, and from which our light pours forth into the world to link up with other light beings in community making.[11] Eckhart also refers to the spark as the “kingdom of God,” meaning the place where justice and compassion flow.

Thus, for me, Eckhart’s greatest contribution to education is his emphasis on intuition, which is what Einstein felt was so lacking in our culture. Returning intuition to the center of education would mean a revolution in teaching. A truly transformative event. Eckhart, by repeatedly mentioning the “spark of the soul where God is born,” is telling us that we need to democratize intuition and conscience, giving them the prominence they deserve in our lives and consciousness and culture.

The great ecumenical Catholic monk Thomas Merton speaks of the spark of the soul in almost the exact same language as Meister Eckhart — one more proof of Eckhart’s deep impact on Merton. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton writes:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. . . . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. . . . I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.[12]

An awakened education will make room for the ancient and indigenous forms of education, which worked for tens of thousands of years. By that I mean ceremony and ritual. Ceremony and ritual are how our ancestors taught the younger generation the important stories of life, including creation stories and stories of what it meant to become an adult (rites of passage), what values mattered and more. A rebirth of ritual and ceremony is essential for a rebirth of education in our time, for that is the bedrock of community awareness and the sharing of joy, grief, transformation, and creativity. Values are named and practiced in ceremony and ritual.[13]

A truly Deep Education would train the intuition, the mystical brain, the place where, as Einstein teaches, values are born and conscience takes hold. Intuition is where Wisdom is born, where the Divine Feminine plays and from which creativity emerges.

Few educators I know or those serving on our all-powerful and all-mighty accrediting bodies are daring to ask the real questions: What are we educating for? What values do we want to communicate? Who is profiting from education as we execute it today? Are people happy educating and being educated? Where is the joy? As the Dalai Lama observes, “Education is in crisis the world over.” The forms and structures we have so mightily constructed for about 150 years in the West are not up to the task. Values and creativity are rarely addressed; instead, politicians shout for “more tests” and “more math” and “more science.” Today, the Internet’s potential for sharing information is obvious. But can it also impart values? More to the point, what values are important, in education and in life, that we need to pass on for the sake of our, and our planet’s, survival?

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The human species is obviously different from other species insofar as we do not come into the world well programmed by our DNA inheritance to carry on our assigned tasks in the world. Bears, cats, whales, fishes, pretty much know what they are about in the world and they set out to accomplish their tasks which are essentially to be a successful bear, cat, whale, fish, etc. But humans have lots of growing up to do, lots of training to undergo, from potty training to tying one’s shoes, from learning a language, to standing up straight, from eating correctly to finding one’s talents, etc. etc. Humans need culture, we need others around us and others from the past (our ancestors) whose experience can instruct us. We need instruction. We need guidance. We have so many choices in life and not time to try them all out by trial and error. Our lack of DNA programing means we need educating from the elders, from our parents, from culture.

But education comes in many varieties. In Europe in the early middle ages education was handled by the monks to whose monasteries privileged parents sent their children. With the revolution that the return of the Goddess inaugurated in the twelfth century, the monastic monopoly on education yielded to a new invention—cities and Universities that were alive with an exciting and radical import from Islam called “scholasticism” which was a whole new way of doing education. Much more freedom to ask questions and to experiment was introduced at the new explosion of universities in Paris, Naples, Bologna, etc.

When the Puritans brought their version of educating their children to America they had their ways of teaching the children by sitting them in desks in a little red schoolhouse. The story is told that an experiment was launched in the seventeenth century in the United States wherein a certain number of white boys were allowed to go off into the wood to learn in the Native American fashion; and the same number of Indian boys were assigned to a little red school house. It was to be a six week experiment. After a week or two, all the Indian boys escaped and returned to the woods. Six weeks passed and the white boys did not return; nor the seventh, nor the eighth week. When the worried parents went looking they found their children very happy and content and indeed excited to be learning in the woods in the native way.

In the nineteenth century, with the dawning of the industrial revolution. education in America was set up under governmental oversight to essentially train workers for the industrial revolution. That was its goal. It still is today—even though much industry has moved far beyond our borders. Education today is in trouble. And few educators I know or those serving on our all-powerful and al-mighty accrediting bodies are daring to ask the real questions: What are we educating for? What values do we want to communicate? Who is profiting from education as we execute it today? Are people happy educating and being educated? Where is the joy?

When the Dalai Lama observes that “education is in crisis the world over” today, he is offering us an opportunity to break through our denial and face the music about how we are training our young people and for what. The forms and structures we have so mightily constructed for about 150 years in the West are not up to the task. Too much is being left out of education. Issues like values and creativity are rarely addressed even as we hear politicians shout for “more tests” and “more math” and “more science.” Today, with the Internet, the potential for reaching more youth with facts and figures is obvious. But can we also reach them with values? And if so, what are those common values we want to pass on for the sake of survival of future communities and individuals?

 Lily Yeh and the Barefoot Artists

Lily Yeh is an amazing artist and community activist who co-founded The Village of Arts and Humanities in the inner city of North Philadelphia in 1986. There, amidst over 200 abandoned lots set in a drug-riddled ambiance, she set up community art places where citizens would come to express themselves often using the materials straight form the streets—broken bottles and tossed beer cans, needles and the rest, to create art and with it community and learning. One of her handpicked leaders was a drug gang leader and, by emphasizing the arts, he turned his life and many others’ lives around with Lily’s supervision.

Yeh has worked with communities in dire straits around the world including Rwanda, China, Ecuador, Haiti Ghana, Kenya, Syria and Italy. She founded Barefoot Artist, a volunteer organization that uses the power of art to revitalize impoverished neighborhoods. She writes: “When I see brokenness, poverty, and crime in inner cities, I also see the enormous potential and readiness for transformation and rebirth. We are creating an art form that comes from the heart and reflects the pain and sorrow of people’s lives. It also expresses joy, beauty, and love.”[14] I believe Yeh is showing us the way—as do M. C. Richards and YELLAWE—to recover the “enormous potential and readiness for transformation” that education can be. She is not just reinventing lost neighborhoods but is shining a beacon on reinventing education. And, by putting the Via Creativa in the center, she is following, consciously or unconsciously, the wisdom of Meister Eckhart to honor our “fearful creative powers” as well as that of Hildegard of Bingen who said, “there is wisdom in all creative works.” Notice once again: We are not reinventing schools of knowledge: What we seek is a do-over, schools of wisdom.

Robert Shetterly is a portrait painter who created an on-going series called “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” He asked to paint Lily’s portrait as part of the series and she in turn invited him to accompany her to Rwanda to a village of survivors of the horrible massacres there. Expecting a scary scene, Robert was amazed at the amount of joy and celebration that welcomed Lily back to the village. “They all began running, shouting around the village, on the hard dirt between the unfinished houses that had recently been painted with murals designed by these same children under Lily’s direction. Bird and beast and decorative murals transformed the depressing gray mud brick….What had happened in this land of grotesque violence to provoke such joy?” He answers his own question this way:

Lily’s magic. Accountable art. Healing art. No snake oil, no secret elixirs. It’s an art that fans the dim embers of spirit in diminished humanity. It’s one thing to decry injustice, to expose trauma, to write a report that tells a true history. It’s another to witness a small Chinese-American woman with an iron will, a bag of paint brushes, profound compassion, and unshakable belief that damaged people can heal themselves with their own art, come into a terribly depressed situation and beg to fix it—begging with the irrepressible spirit of orphaned children. The children, in a sense, give re-birth to the adults, to adult hope and adult responsibility. After the art comes co-operative work, the will to heal, the will to start over.[15]

In her book, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms, Yeh tells the story of just one of her projects—that of the Dandelion School for the children of migrant workers outside of Beijing where she worked for five years with teachers and children with amazing results to create “a school like no other in the world.” Outside Beijing Lily converted a school of dreary concrete that mirrored the social disregard of the childrens’ lives. Shetterly summarizes Yeh’s work this way. “William Sloane Coffin said, ‘The highest form of spirituality is justice.’ Lily’s art is the pursuit of justice and it raises everyone’s spirit. Her art insists on accountability—the artist to the community and then the community to itself.”[16]

In her book, Yeh shares her story and her philosophy of education. She speaks lovinglyof the eighteen years she spend in the Village of Arts in Philadelphia where she worked with hundreds of teachers and students from primary to high school creating everything from banners, murals, gardens, mosaics, dances, stories, poems, and even a full costumed theater performance. But above all they were creating a “vital, joyful community” from a broken neighborhood.

Visiting schools in Philadelphia she often found them paved with gray cement and encircled with cyclone fences. “Entering a school there often felt like entering a place of confinement. It does not inspire learning.”[17] Her project in China was a challenge to turn a concrete jungle into an engaged community. Could she do it? Could she assist in “inspiring learning?” Can we all?

Lily tells the story of her own transformation from being a student in art at Taiwan University to being a graduate from the School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. After some years experimenting in Western art techniques, she sensed “a strong urge to go home—not the physical home of my parents and siblings, but the spiritual home of ease and enchantment revealed to me through my study of Chinese Landscape paintings.” Through them she arrived at a “place of wonder and mystery,…a place potent in stillness and tranquility. The Chinese call this the ‘dustless world.’ Here the word ‘dust’ does not refer to anything physical. It points to the mental pollution of desire, longing, attachment, and greed, all emotions emanating from the ego.”[18]

She traveled to Europe as well as to China in an effort “to return ‘home’ to that ‘dustless’ world.”   But, surprisingly, “it was in the dilapidation of North Philadelphia that I found my path of return.”[19] Notice how her journey very much began with what mystics like Eckhart call the Via Positiva, that is, wonder and mystery” and then “stillness and tranquility” and the “dustless world” of letting go of mental pollutions. All this contributed so deeply to the vocation she was to awaken in the “badlands” of Philadelphia as they were known. Lily describes the scene that inspired her.

            People called inner-city North Philadelphia ‘the badlands’ because of its prevailing decrepitude, poverty, drug dealing, and violence. But this area contained invaluable hidden treasures. Numerous abandoned properties and vacant lots offered creative opportunities. The transformation of abandoned lands into art parks and gardens became the bone structure of our art project….During my sojourn there from 1986 to 2004, the Village staff, community residents, and volunteers transformed over two hundred empty lots into seventeen parks and gardens, inducing a two-acre tree farm. The Village became a national model for urban revitalization through land transformation, creation of beauty, and grassroots actions. It was there that I realized that art is a powerful tool for social change and that the artist can be at the center of that transformation.[20]  

Yeh has gone on to create and re-create similar resurrections in depressed settings around the world of which her wonderful book names with pictures and stories galore in particular the work in the Dandelion School in China. A must read!

Who can witness Yeh’s work and not be inspired? I find it all thoroughly grounded in her Buddhist and Taoist lineage—but also in that of Meister Eckhart who is a great mystic from the West.

 

[1] This article is an excerpt from chapter 13, “”Warriors for a Deeper Education: Meister Eckhart Meets YELLAWE, Theodore Richards, M. C. Richards, and Lily Yeh,” from Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times (Novato, California: New World Library, 2014), 251-256; 268-272. Reproduced by permission of New World Library.

[2]    “not a theoretical doctrine….”  See Matthew Fox, Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart (Rochester, Vt: Inner Traditions, 2000), 50.

[3]    Ibid., 479.

[4]    Josef Quint, Meister Eckhart: Deutsche Predigten und Traktate (Munchen: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1977), 184.

[5]    “more and more boys….” See Peg Tyre, The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at school, and What Parents and Educators Must Do (NY: Three Rivers Press, 2008).

[6]    Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential (Oxford, England: Clio Press, 1989), 6.

[7]    Ernest Becker, Beyond Alienation: A Philosophy of Education for the Crisis of Democracy (NY: George Braziller, 1967), 62-86.

[8]    Daniel Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2009), 97.

[9]    Ibid., 151.

[10]   “angels learn only….” See Matthew Fox & Rupert Sheldrake, The Physics of Angels: Exploring the Realm Where Science and Spirit Meet (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 82-85.

[11]   Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons for Transforming Evil in Soul and Society (New York: Harmony Books, 1999), 315-327.

[12]   Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 142.

[13]   “ceremony and ritual….” See Linda Neale, The Power of Ceremony: Restoring the Sacred in Our Selves, Our Families, Our Communities (Portland, Oregon: Eagle Spirit Press, 2011) for a fine and practical guide to making ceremony from the native American tradition.

[14] Lily Yeh, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms (Oakland, Ca: New Village Press, 2011), inside cover.

[15] Ibid., 7.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 8.

[18] Ibid., 15.

[19] Ibid., 18.

[20] Ibid., 21.