Category: Spirit Matters

Inside the Practice of Hope

Inside the Practice of Hope

solstice sunrise – Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

“The hopeful spirit transcends limitations.”

The life I want to live is a life in which I care for myself, I care for others, I care for the Earth. For this, I need to retain the hope that it is possible. A vision of the good. Having big questions is part of it. Always loving the mystery. Feeding my curiosity – freeing my imagination. Laughing and crying.

And here is the hard part. Pain, discouragement, despair are real. So hopefulness is a life’s work. The large hill to climb before the picnic , and then the next hill appears. And sometimes I feel I might not make it to the place where the water is –the place where of the full life resides and the day that Thoreau says will dawn to the soul that is awake. And that is a funny thing. I am too often awake, but in that other sense of not being asleep.

Hopefulness begins with a belief about myself. I learn this over and over. For example, insomnia is a experience that plagues me and many women I know. When the night of short sleeps pile up, I can feel despair. The need to overcome that sense of feeling helpless in the cycle of almost sleepless nights grows in me until finally I can say to myself, “I can handle this.” I know that this is the start of the practice of hopefulness–the belief that I will find a way to live with the experience of tiredness and the feelings that pervade the long, dark hours of the night.

To say, “I can handle this.” shifts the experience for me. My feelings become a little lighter. I am then more prepared to see symbols of hope in my present life. Walking to our biggest windows when I can’t sleep, I see the moon and, for some reason, this cheers me up. Sometimes I turn to the tall sturdy spruces to remember that life endures.

I have learned that my insomnia comes in cycles. I also sleep well for many weeks at a time. The hopeful spirit knows that change is a constant of life. The way things are can shift suddenly and unexpectedly from the outside. These shifts that we didn’t foresee are part of the reality that everything is connected to everything else. They mean that we don’t know what will happen next and that we are not in complete control. I find it heartening to know that change will happen. Sometimes I find out that what I was thinking of as bad turns out to be a good. My labels are most often not helpful.

And less this get too solemn or earnest, a tendency I have, humour brings hope. And feelings of gratitude cannot be forced – it’s hard to feel despair and gratitude at the same time. If someone can make me laugh, I am mightily blessed.If I can make myself laugh, or someone else laugh, I am doubly blessed. A crack in the wall where the light breaks through.

When my sources of meaning dim, I can usually just get outside, go for a walk along the river or around the block, deadhead a few flowers in the bed outside our condo building, and my spirits lighten. Getting outside is my most dependable source of renewal.

To say, “This happened to me” is a way to affirm experiences from my past as a step towards letting them go. To say, “This is happening to me” is a way to acknowledge an experience that is discouraging me.  Accepting my present circumstances — not to give up on them, but accepting them because they already exist, has been for me the first step in viewing my life more positively . Gratitude also grows from this seed. Fighting our present reality saps precious energy. To regain hopefulness, my experience has been that first I have to believe in myself, my strengths, creativity, ability to persevere. I remind myself I overcame challenges in the past. I remember that I have a support network.

I know that everyone on earth does not have the support system that I have.  When I am able to feel grateful for my own strengths , the support I receive, and for all that my life holds my soul feels more grounded and my spirit expands.

It helps me to be aware that any personal difficulties I face are part of a much larger source of pain which I call World Sorrow and Earth Lament. To find hopefulness in the midst of the cruelty and destructiveness of humans is the most difficult of all for me and I want to turn away from it. But I can’t. It seems to be there always as an almost imperceptible weight on my chest or in my heart. It is at the times when I feel like I can’t watch or listen to the news that I try to remember the courage of millions of people the world over.

the place of prayer beads – photograph, Jane Thurgood Sagal

I find hope in other people’s stories.  The ways that people under the most discouraging, dangerous, or pain-filled situations carry on with their lives moves me deeply.  The ways people maintain their sense of humour within a painful moment or repetitive days of struggle inspires me. The moral and physical courage of others can be a source of renewed hopefulness about the state of our world and an inspiration for my own actions when grayness descends. I have learned to remember the stories or the faces of courageous and compassionate others but not to use them to compare and criticize myself.

Hope comes from believing that small actions matter. John Tarrant wrote of this with tenderness.

The movements of compassion can be big enough to save rain forests, but intimacy also appears in the small acts that open infinitely large doors. Modest act of courage reverse evils before they grow great; small generosities welcome children to the world. Those who recognize their connection with others serve quietly, like members of a secret order. Then the small acts and the large coalesce (pp 139-140)

Throughout my teaching life I was inspired by the children I taught. I think of Laurie, a bright-eyed little girl in my grade one class who told me she was so happy that she was going to learn to tell time and understand clocks because then she could get herself to school on time. Laurie often come to school later in the morning when her struggling, single-parent mother did not wake up. Laurie told me that she would be able to get her little sisters up too and feed them before she came to school. All this, she said with a beaming face. Imagine.

Hope is real and necessary and for me it is foundational to creating a better life and a better world.

Hope at the Center of Education

Hope at the Center of Education

Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

Hope at the Center: Voices of Indigenous and non Indigenous Educators

(See Gratitudes for full references for all authors quoted)

“Teaching is the psychology of hope, and hope is a cause and a consequence of action. It prefers participation to observation, and it believes that vast problems can yield to several small solutions. Teaching creates the infrastructure of the art of the impossible.” -Marie Battiste, (2013, p.175)

This post is largely dedicated to teachers who work with indigenous students and is written with gratitude for the educators and scholars whose books have illuminated the practice of hope in indigenous communities and urban schools. I commend their work to all teachers.

I have also explored the concept of hope in other writing and feel strongly that teaching doesn’t make any sense if, as teachers, we don’t believe that every one of our students is capable of learning and growing (Finney, 2013). With this conviction, at the heart of our teaching, we don’t give up on any student. We reject deficit beliefs about any cultural group or set of economic circumstances. No matter how difficult the challenges we face, we act. We find ways to support our students to see their own gifts, inner strengths, and the knowledge they already possess. We use our hearts to understand our students’ unique needs and to reach out to their communities; we use the resources within and around us to strengthen their learning, and our imaginations to create other resources. We see our students as always more than they reveal in the present moment. This is a practice of hope.

Hope as a belief in the capabilities and gifts of students is also an openness to being inspired by them. I feel moved by the passion of Cheryl Morin, a Cree teacher at Pelican Narrows when she describes her beliefs about her students in these words:

 I hold a number of positive beliefs in my heart, spirit, and mind that keep me focused and intent on moving forward. First and foremost is my belief that the large number of youth in our community are an untapped asset, full of potential.Youngsters are open and willing to try new ideas and alternative practices if they have guidance and receive assurances that they won’t be left defenceless ( in Goulet & Goulet, p.184).

Marie Battiste’s compassion and wisdom makes this belief in students clear when she says that education is the belief in possibilities. Her words express this idea powerfully and directly:

We as educators must refuse to believe that anything in human nature and in various situations condemns humans to poverty, dependency, weakness, and ignorance. We must reject the idea the youth are confined to situations of fate, such as being born into a particular class, gender, or race. We must believe that teachers and students can confront and defeat the forces that prevent students from living more fully and more freely (175).

We grow our courage and compassion through understanding the contextual and historical dimensions of indigenous education in our country, and work with others on overcoming present injustices. And so we begin with hope, and our first responsibility is to keep it alive, within ourselves, and within our students. This could be likened to tending the fire and not letting it die.

While this is a central principle of indigenous education after colonialism, it is not surprising that it is a shared conviction with all compassionate educators. Sandra Deane, a Canadian educator who worked with low income children in troubled neighbourhoods, ends her book, Hearts and Minds with this same message. In describing the universal themes of education that are central to her work, she writes,

Hope is the most valuable universal theme of all. With hope, children embrace a vision of better things for themselves, and realize they do not have to settle for the same conditions into which they were born (p. 242).

When I reflect on what hope looks like in action in the classroom, what comes to mind first is an attitude, belief, and responsibility to see every day as a new day – letting go of what happened yesterday or last week in terms of patterns in students’ learning or behaviours and my own. A new beginning, a new opportunity is upon us and we don’t know what it will bring but we know it will hold challenges, achievements, surprises, possibly setbacks, but we are prepared in our heart-mind to see what we haven’t seen before.

Hope can also look like humour, liveliness, patience, kindness, perseverance, listening, and appreciating. It grows through a practice of collaboration between students and with families and other community members. Linda & Keith Goulet (2014) in their book, which is rich in case studies of contemporary teachers, conclude with these words,

Above all, as the teachers in this book have shown, we need education for hope – hope that we and our students and community members are capable people who, through our individual and collaborative efforts, can create innovations for positive change in Indigenous education as we enact kee-chee-giskinaumatowin, the striving for excellence in our teaching and learning, with and for each other (217).


“The rainbow is a circle that is completed within the spirits of learners.”

What is your concept of hope? What does hope in the classroom look and feel like to you?

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life: A Few Thoughts

light sparkles on water

Aesthetics have an integrative role which connects us to the whole – the web of relationships which is life. The aesthetic is an open concept that attracts diverse perspectives and eludes any final definition. Yet, it is an essential part of human life, an aspect of our experiences which deepens their potential for meaning.

I think of aesthetics as having to do with the life of the senses, with beauty, and the sublime. It encompasses art but is much more than art. Kant believed that the aesthetic domain offers the promise of reconciliation between Nature and humanity.[1] This potential is realized through feelings and sensory experiences and is shaped further by the mind but is rarely a matter of the mind alone.

One of the central elements of the aesthetic is that it offers autonomy. Each person has the freedom to find and assert what they experience as beautiful, appealing, or powerful in its impact. Free to explore the world and develop our own aesthetic sensibilities, we change ourselves and our world.

Light sparkling on water whiles waves splash on shore never fails to bring me pleasure and deepen the quality of my day. The sights and sounds connect me to a world that humans didn’t create and brings wholeness. The harmony of mind, senses, and spirit which is aesthetic pleasure is at times sublime.

Life has diminished meaning, is almost impossible to sustain, without some of what the aesthetic dimension of life can offer the human soul.

Aesthetic experiences also come from the creative process whether it takes place within the arts or in every day life. The feeling of unity with self and materials that is possible within creative processes means we are fully ourselves in those moments. We can see our ideas materialize and take other forms. Within aesthetic experiences we may understand our selves more fully or feel greater compassion for others. We can express our feelings whether positive or not, happy or hurting. We often gain empowerment in their expression.

with sand and water we create worlds-Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

I have just scratched the surface of the positive elements & potential for feeling connected to all of life that the aesthetic dimension can offer. I will be continuing this focus in future posts.

Do you notice when the aesthetic dimension of life enriches your day?

[1] Eagelton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990/1995) discusses this idea and Kant’s aesthetic philosophy in detail.

Present, Awake, Alive

Present, Awake, Alive

a bit scary, but exciting

Our responsibility to children is to give them full experiences of the present. Alice Yardley, Senses and Sensibility, p.15.

Children of all ages benefit from living in the present moment. Many children and teenagers live programmed lives with little time just to be, to imagine, to explore and enjoy sensory experiences of all the elements. Many young people experience most of their interactions second hand through electronic media. I feel sad when I think about how this limits their opportunities to be more fully alive in body, mind, imagination, heart, and spirit.

What a blessing it was for my sisters and I that we lived on the outskirts of a small city in a neighbourhood with unpaved streets and little traffic. Making drains with the spring runoff of melting snow provided endless amusement –running one “river” into another, building dams with stones, floating small sticks and papers or silver foil boats all sparked our creativity and imaginations. When we were camping, we all enjoyed stargazing and watching the flames of the nightly campfire.

A yard or neighbourhood can also be a fertile environment for the imagination. It can offer opportunities to observe insects, notice butterflies, listen for birds, pick dandelions to make chains or bracelets, appreciate the tenacity of plants, watch clouds, or simply daydream. Conservation areas near your home or school can be good places to observe, ponder, or sit quietly, unwind, and experience moments of calm.

explorers on a hike, © Photograph by Colleen Watson-Turner

Even if you live in a city apartment, I hope it would be possible for you to go camping, visit a family farm or acreage, or, if you are First Nations or Métis, visit your ancestral reserve to encourage young people to:

  • explore,
  • collect,
  • climb a tree,
  • play games
Mom, I remember that first swing, the roughness of the rope, and the feeling of creating a breeze
  • read a book under a tree
  • find a quiet spot to draw or dream
  • build with blocks of snow, fallen branches, or the space within a circle of bushes to create a home or fort,
  • imagine worlds and create their place in the story imagined
  • notice diversity, pattern, delicacy, and uniqueness of familiar life forms and organisms they haven’t seen before
  • develop their sense of beauty
  • observe insect behaviour, (e.g., appreciating the industry of spiders or ants)
  • watch and listen for birds and other sounds of animals,(e.g., in relation to mating behaviours)
  • notice nests, webs, and cocoons without harming them
  • follow trails made by deer
  • find clues to who else lives in that place

(and always, of course, within boundaries of respect for that environment).

Through these experiences we are also providing young people a means to happiness that is sturdy and available despite the ups and downs of life.  And, the more we can engage our own curiosity and sense of awe and wonder, the more likely we are to live in the present moment with imagination, senses, and heart more fully engaged. The natural world is a good place to contemplate the wonders of symmetry.

“There are geometric equations hidden within the promise of a flower bud . . . The same equation dictates the swirls at the tip of your fingers and the arrangement of stars in the Milky Way” Ken Druse, Planthropology.

What influences young people most profoundly is the way the adults they depend on behave towards their surroundings. It is rewarding to keep our own senses alive, our minds curious and open to being amazed. Then, when we guard the unstructured time of children and teenagers, and give a few suggestions for what they might do outdoors within our slightly-broadened parameters of safety, we are providing them time to imagine, dream, create, use all their senses, cooperate with others, and test their powers. In short, live a more meaningful life.

Do children notice when we are fully present to them?

Do they notice when we are not?

Do we notice the difference between being fully present and being somewhere else in our thoughts, body, and spirit?

The Earth Knows Us Here

The Earth Knows Us Here

Grasslands National Park
Grasslands National Park

Indigenous cultures are aware that nature and all its creatures are aware. They say, “The Earth knows us”. When they have visited the same sacred place over centuries, they say, “Here, nature knows us”. This is a lovely idea for reflection – to understand beyond an intellectual level that the Earth is alive and communicates with us, and accepts us, even remembers us.

This requires a different kind of knowing. It is rewarding to develop an understanding of the different forms of consciousness within us and within other forms of life. Sometimes our language restricts our ability to know aliveness beyond the human world. Sometimes it is our lack of experiences in natural or wilderness settings, or that our imaginations are constrained by our fears or habits. Perhaps we have not developed the ability to relax, slow our breath, and let go of the thinking, planning, remembering, list-making mind and rest in a deeper awareness of the world around us.

Finney and Sagal (2017) describe the importance of experiencing that plants and animals feel our presence as helping us understand our profound connections to all that is. They say,

The more deeply we know the natural world around us, the more likely we are to see the ways non-human, living beings respond to our presence and speak to us. We may see the idea of the Earth speaking as metaphor or we could understand that there are many ways to communicate. When humans walk the same route for many years, the plants respond by drawing back and our route becomes a path. The earth knows our footsteps.

This path is an example of our profound interconnection with all other life forms on Earth – the air, the water, the plants and animals, the mountains and minerals. The trees around us evolved from the earth and we evolved from the earth and we are together in this evolving (p.182). This understanding enriches our lives.

Like all humans, we experience times of sorrow or loneliness or the pain that comes from not being seen and accepted for who we are. The longing to feel accepted, at peace, and at home, can be the motivation to spend time outdoors by ourselves. With our focus on the natural elements above, below, and around us, we develop the ability to feel known and part of the trees, plants, animals, and stars. This gives us a sturdier and stronger sense of belonging—one that once felt cannot be taken away. We are accepted as our essential selves by the Earth and other life forms in a profound and lasting way.

Coleman (2006) describes the rewards of opening our hearts to other living things as another way to be in love.

where creek and river meet

When we attune to nature with sensitivity, we can see just how connected we are. Falling in love with a meadow, a limpid stream, a young fawn, or a grove of oak trees does not happen without those things “reaching out” and touching us in some way. We are always in relationship; we just rarely notice it. From this perspective, everything on this earth, from the spring rains that provide fresh drinking water to the warmth of the sun, is an open-hearted, generous offering. To wake up to this idea is to realize how abundant our lives truly are, how we receive gifts of love from nature all the time. (pp. 9-10)

To be genuine in offering more of nature’s gifts to ourselves, we need to be outdoors more often and strengthen our presence and our ability to feel the presence of the other forms of life around us. This practice of listening and sensing more deeply can become a source of pleasure, a solace when we need it, and assurance that we are not alone.

“Teachings come from everywhere when you open yourself to them.” (Richard Wagamese, 2017)

This post is an excerpt adapted from Knowing the Earth Knows Us in The Way of the Teacher (Finney & Thurgood Sagal, Roman & Littlefield Education, 2016,pp.181-184).

What part of the natural world speaks to you?  beckons you?