Regenerating Life with Soulcentric Education

A few years ago, I was invited to present a paper on a panel titled “Teaching for the Post-Anthropocene.” At the time, I was an English teacher, at a high school in England. I was unfamiliar with the word “Anthropocene” and so started an educational journey that took me to the heart of the matter – an understanding of the root causes of environmental decline. My primary sources were Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Deep Ecological thought from Arne Naess and Joanna Macy, and the works of Gregory Bateson and Fritjof Capra. These writings, among others, helped me understand that all life on Earth is interconnected and interdependent. Addressing the matter of environmental decline abstractly, in a reductionist way, is thinking about the wicked problem at the same level of consciousness that created it. It is not enough to recycle or change lightbulbs, as Leonardo Di Caprio, the UN Ambassador of Peace for Climate Change, demonstrates in his documentary Before the Flood that what is needed is a shift in perspective – shift in the way we view the world and our place in relation to it.

Fundamentally, the problem of environmental decline is a malady of tension – between the self, society, and nature. Over time, when one begins living in a more connected way, developing intimacy with nature, a deep reverence for life and an awareness of the spirit emerges. The environment’s decline is a sign that modernity is suffering from a crisis of spirituality. Despite the urgency with which humans need to reconnect with nature and the spirit, I believe it is important for a person to discover and find the deep mysteries of life on their own. With guidance, yes – but each of us must relate to, and discover, the world, personally. Becoming connected to and aware of nature highlights the role of the educator in the post-Anthropocene paradigm.

Before diving into the educational offer of this new paradigm, which Thomas Berry calls the Ecozoic era – “the geological era earth is entering when humans live in a mutually enhancing relationship with Earth and the Earth community” – we need to touch briefly on the elements within the present education systems, across the world, that have fed the existence of the Anthropocene.

Through the lens of Paolo Freire, we understand formal, mainstream education is oppressive. It is dehumanizing and moulds people into consumers and workers. Education systems all over the world value academic intelligences (Gardner) over all others. These intelligences are favoured because they serve the economic values the system upholds. These values define what education offers, as well as the way one sees the world and their relationship to it. Education presently preserves patho-adolescence, which few move on from in adult life. This is a term that will be discussed later in this article.

The contemporary education system also perpetuates “The Old Story” – the story of separation. This story divorces humans from nature and the world by “othering” and commodifying it. The world becomes an empty place, devoid of spirit. And the kosmos - a term revived from the Greeks by Von Humboldt to describe the interconnection of all in the universe – becomes a dark, empty void. Because humans are educated and socialized into these values and perspectives, it is understandable that many see the world as a place absent of soul, and they do not recognize or understand the responsibility of guardianship that comes with living life as a human being. Viktor Frankl says, “with great freedom comes great responsibility.” Because many adults are unable to recognise their responsibility to life, is it fair to ask, are we really free? Or are we just poorly educated?

Regenerative education supports the emergence of healthy adults. From the ecozoic perspective, this adult is one “who understands why he is here on Earth, why he was born, and is offering his unique contribution to the more-than-human world” (Plotkin). The soul-centred adult is one who lives with a sense of belonging to the Earth community, and who works with nature and lives with a sense of reverence towards it.

This adult has shifted perception and no longer lives with an Anthropocentric/human-centered worldview. Rather, the adult that emerges lives with an eco/soul-centered sense of belonging. This means one recognises one’s self as being a part of the web of life. One has embodied understanding, that each living being has significance and contributes to the whole in its own unique way. This shift is extremely empowering, because it enables a person to understand and recognize that we are all irreplaceable; that we all carry and hold a gift that no one else can offer to the Earth community. When one begins to live from that gift and shares it with the community of life, the Earth becomes a little more complete.

John Seed, an environmental activist, makes the point clearly. He experienced the shift in his perception while protecting some native rainforest in Australia. He said,

‘I am protecting the rainforest" develops to "I am part of the rain-forest protecting myself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into thinking.’ What a relief then! The thousands of years of imagined separation are over and we begin to recall our true nature. That is, the change is a spiritual one.

When one’s perspective shifts to that of belonging and place, the choices one makes, the values one lives by, and the attitudes one has towards life and one’s self, shift, too. It is this shift that regenerative education serves.

When planning for regenerative education, two points of focus emerge. The first is the support and guidance given to the person as they progress through life, and the second is culture repair – co-creating regenerative culture. If the culture of the place one learns in is not regenerative – that is, connecting the self, society, and nature – and is not conducive to the peace growing from these connections, then growth, flourishing, and individuation are inhibited. The individual needs a healthy, life-enhancing environment to be in, and to thrive, the environment needs a collection of connected people.

The San bushmen, a nomadic hunter/gathering tribe that lives in the Kalahari Desert, offer comprehensive examples of what a connected way of life resembles, and they model how it is lived and shared through their culture. Through his 20+ years of research, Jon Young, an anthropologist and tracker, has come to believe the San people are some of the most connected people in the world. It is with their knowledge, and the knowledge of other wisdom traditions from around the world, that modernity can begin to relearn how to live in a connected way. The challenges come in finding ways to bridge ancient wisdom with modern attitudes and ways of life.

We, in the modern world, have forgotten what it takes to raise and develop healthy, connected human beings.

Jon Young believes there are 64 elements (512project.com) which comprise regenerative culture/culture repair. For these elements to exist, they need a defined social structure. Traditionally, this structure has been called “the village.” In a regenerated system of learning, it is the village that raises and educates the child. The process of education and support for the newborn begins from the moment of birth, if not before. Parents give love and support the independence of the youth to develop into self-reliant adulthood. Aunts and uncles facilitate the emergence of the child’s uniqueness, offering mentoring in ways parents cannot. Grandparents teach children what they need to know, offering healing and support from their wisdom and experience. Such social support is difficult to come by in modern settings and households, because a) the nuclear family rules; b) adults need to work to provide for their families; and c) there has been a breakdown in trust between adults and youth. Within the context of the village, a person has 25-30 people to share stories with. This is far greater than the access any modern human has to intimate and trusting social connection.

The biggest difference that is emerging between The Old Story and The New Story is abstraction/holism. Formal mainstream education judges a human being ready to learn from a curriculum at a set age – usually 4 – and ready to enter the world of work at the age of 18. In these 14 formative years, the person will have learnt enough about the world and acquired the necessary knowledge and competencies to go into the world with qualifications (hopefully) and begin working; or, they will continue learning at a university. The New Story understands education holistically and recognizes it is a shared, collective responsibility to support, mentor, and guide a child and adolescent into true adulthood. Each member of the village can give something unique to the child, enriching the learner’s understanding of their place and journey. The New Story asserts that learning is qualitative and is not time-bound. We all develop and grow in our own ways, at our own paces and rhythms. We each have our own gifts to bring into this world.  

Measuring learning quantitatively overlooks the psycho-social and psycho-spiritual development of a human being. Presently, students may graduate with grades (or not) and be judged ready to go into the world of adulthood, but psycho-spiritually, they may be stuck in patho-adolescence. This refers to a psycho-social stage in life, which many Westerners sleepwalk through. Bill Plotkin, a depth psychologist and the founder of the Animas Valley Institute, defines pathoadolesence as,

an egocentric existence focused upon the attempt to look good to others; to conform and/or to rebel against the ordinary and mainstream; to “get ahead” in the dog-eat-dog competition for material possessions, financial wealth, and social status; and to minimize the experience of challenging realities by way of addictions (whether to substances or to compulsive behaviors such as shopping, impersonal sex, or gambling).

Many remain stuck in the late adolescent psycho-social phase of development due to an absence of the village and an absence of rites of passage, which celebrate or confirm a life transition. Plotkin has refined the four life phases of childhood, adolescence, adulthood and elderhood into eight – that is, two stages per life phase. The model he has defined can be seen below. The life cycle begins and ends in the east and moves clockwise/earthwise around the circle.

This model is revelationary, because it looks at human development soul-centrically. It acknowledges and understands that every human being has a natural rhythm of unfolding and growth, which enables each person to live to the fullness of their potential… if the life-cycle is followed and supported. Each phase is defined by an archetype which speaks to and outlines the qualities, gifts, and tasks that each stage offers a person in their development. One is ready for a rite of passage when one has done the daily work of addressing and meeting the task of that specific developmental stage.

When a person experiences a shift in their center of gravity – observed in regenerative culture by elders and true adults – a rite of passage is orchestrated for the human to navigate and move through. Elders and true adults are able to identify the moments when a person is ready for a rite of passage, because they themselves have walked the path and have gone through the processes themselves. The competencies one needs to have in order to facilitate these learning and initiatory processes are completely different from the skillset of a teacher operating in a system of formal education. Comparing and analyzing the differences between “Mentors of Connection” and “Guides to the Soul” to “Teachers of Subjects” promises to be an insightful exploration of specific roles within regenerative education. However, this will need to be explored at a later time.

A question to ask, at this point is: how can the holistic support of the village be offered to a person living in the industrialized/industrializing worlds, allowing them to live in a healthy, connected way?

Over time, in the most developed parts of the world, I foresee increasing numbers of people moving away from cities, returning to the land and community/village life. This movement and transition of people can be seen as a shift towards neo-egalitarianism. It is not enough to move onto the land with good intentions and high ideals; one needs to understand what regenerative culture is, and, with this understanding, one needs to begin building the village and repairing culture. This is necessary, if one is to begin co-creating the life enhancing reality that is presently emerging across the world.

There are pockets of regenerative culture that exist already, yet we, as an industrialized/industrializing population, are a long way from realizing “local autonomy and decentralisation” (Naess). I believe the early adopters have already begun to make these transitions, yet the shift and tipping point will take longer than our lifetimes to occur. This invites the intergenerational perspective. The first peoples of North America practice the wisdom of thinking seven generations ahead. When we expand our thinking and consciousness to imagine intergenerational transition, it is possible to live with greater faith and hope, knowing that our lives are a part of something far greater than what we are living now. What we create with our lives, whilst we live, can continue to serve and be built upon by the generations who come after us.

Soulcentrism and Nature Connection are needed in today’s world and are central to a regenerative system of education: these methodologies support the emergence of human beings who are capable of leading and shaping the future of life on Earth. The soul-centered and connected adult is capable of being an artisan of cultural change. Such a person lives with the eight attributes of connection: inner happiness; vitality; a commitment to mentoring and paying it forward; empathy and respect for nature; being truly helpful with vision activated; having full awareness, full aliveness, love and forgiveness, and quiet mind; creativity; and presence. These are the qualities of true leadership, and it is these qualities that empower any person to lead and consciously contribute to The Great Turning, which Joanna Macy defines as “the essential adventure of our time. It involves the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world.”

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