What It Means to Be a Holistic Educator

What It Means to Be a Holistic Educator

If you’ve read about, taught, or practiced mindfulness, you may have experienced some of its benefits. You may also know a bit about the history of the secularized mindfulness movement in the West.

However, you may not be aware that holistic education expert John (“Jack”) Miller, author of over 20 books, has been sharing contemplative practices with teachers in his university courses for over 34 years now.

Mindfulness programs are still polarizing in some U.S. schools. Yet meditative practices are central to Miller’s work in Canada and across the globe. He has consulted with educators in Indigenous and urban schools, with Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, and with educational leaders in countries like Bhutan, India, and Japan.

Why are people from disparate cultures and religious perspectives so drawn to his educational philosophy and approach to teaching and learning? That’s one of the questions we explored in our conversation with Miller.

Amy L. Eva: You have been sharing mindfulness and other contemplative practices in your courses for teachers for many decades now. Why is this work so important?

Jack Miller: First, one of the most obvious reasons is stress, particularly for young teachers who are just starting out. We also know that a lot of new teachers are leaving teaching due to stress and anxiety, so finding a practice that helps you deal with stressors is incredibly valuable.

Another thing to understand is that mindfulness is a form of self-inquiry. So much of higher education involves receiving material from a teacher or a text, but mindfulness is an opportunity for real self-learning—to observe your own experience and try to learn from that.

Third, the more that we are in a meditative space, the less we’re driven by what’s called our inner critic. Then, we can we go into a place where we can be more creative.

And I think, ultimately, teaching is an art. The more that you can work from a place of intuition, I think the better teacher you’ll be. You still need to have teaching strategies and tools, but as a teacher you need to be able to respond to things that arise in the classroom, and I think mindfulness really helps with that.

The last and most important thing to share is that mindfulness is about being present in the moment. The more you can be present to your students, the more they will feel that presence. In fact, if you’re not present and if you’re lost in your thoughts, you’ll lose your students. They need to feel that you’re there for them. That’s such an important aspect of teaching.

AE: Could you describe your university course for teachers?

JM: Although I’ve taught over 2,500 teachers, my basic course design has remained the same over the years, and I try to stay away from any formulas. My main goal is to get teachers to find some form of contemplative practice that they’re comfortable with. There are different mindfulness programs that have been developed, and they’re not bad programs, but teachers need to have a practice themselves before they pick up and work with a larger school-based program.

The main thing that I do is give teachers a lot of choice so they can have some ownership of the method they use. I introduce eight different kinds of meditation [breath, sending good wishes to others, movement, contemplative reading, etc.], and I ask them to practice daily for five weeks.

A lot of people don’t stick with meditation because the first couple of weeks are the hardest. Your mind is so restless. But I find that around the third week, there’s often a shift where they become more comfortable, and they actually begin to feel better.

AE: How do your students reflect on their practice?

JM: They keep a journal—and they share their responses with me three times within the five-week period. That’s the way I get a sense of their practice and how they’re doing. And at the end of the course, they do a summary reflection of one or two pages. Reading those reflections over the years has just been amazing.

For example, one retired elementary principal from Canada shared how important meditation was for her as a leader: “It takes a long time for people to get calm, but they won’t get calm if the leader isn’t calm. . . . It makes you more creative in your problem solving; for example, out-of-box thinking. And it makes you more equitable. You see the staff as real individuals, real human beings.”

AE: I’ve noticed you using the word meditation rather than mindfulness. Maybe it’s easier to do that in Canada than in the U.S.? JM: We’re not experiencing the same pushback against meditation here in Canada that I’m aware of. In fact, there are more and more people using mindfulness in schools.

I do think they prefer the term mindfulness over meditation, though. And that’s fine, you don’t have to call it meditation. The other big thing [in Canada] is that there’s a lot of concern with mental health and well-being—and that’s a big entry point for this work. Most people respond well to discussions about the importance of well-being.

AE: What advice would you give to educators who really don’t want to step on parents’ toes, but have a strong belief in the value of mindfulness—or of social and emotional learning?

JM: I try to avoid being ideological and focus on being more pragmatic. I also engage in a lot of listening. You have to try to be as compassionate as you can with the people you’re working with. You have to try to see them, even though they may say things that are difficult to deal with. You have to try to listen to them and try to understand what they’re saying. And at the same time, you can offer up why you think the work you’re doing is important. And try to do it in a way that is conversational, heartfelt, and sincere—and that doesn’t seem prepackaged.

It’s not easy today because people tend to pick sides, so you have to try not to let yourself get caught up in conflict. And this is where mindfulness is important—it helps you learn to find a space for a conscious response rather than an automatic reaction. (Usually if it’s an automatic reaction, it won’t be a wise one, right?) Ultimately, try to work from a place of wisdom and compassion as much as possible. Because if you reach a point where you’re just arguing with people, then there’s no point, right?

AE: You also use the terms “soul” and “spirituality” in your work. How do you avoid resistance to those words and help others to understand their relevance to learning?

JM: It’s so important to recognize that within us, there’s a deeper place, or sense of self, that we all experience at points in our lives when we feel deeply connected to the universe and experience a sense of interconnectedness. Maslow called these peak experiences, whereas the experiences of separateness are the experiences of depression and of pain.

So, I think if we could talk about soul and spirituality in terms of feeling a sense of wholeness and connection to the Earth, people may relate to that more easily. It’s also important to use language that reflects people’s experience and that emphasizes health and well-being.

In my book Education and the Soul, I talk about a curriculum for the inner life while focusing on nature and the arts. I’ve also written a book called Love and Compassion, which focuses on eight forms of love, including love of learning and love of beauty—not just seeing beauty, but hearing and experiencing beauty through music. We can encourage people to talk about their different perceptions of what beauty is—including the beauty of writers like Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson. When we default to a highly critical perspective in reading, we lose the opportunity to revel in the beauty of their writing.

I also talk about friendship and interpersonal love in the book. What does it mean to be a friend in the age of social media? Again, a lot of people don’t want to talk about love, but being present is actually a form of love. If you are with someone who is very present to you, you feel something there. Love is another avenue toward spirituality.

AE: Let’s talk more broadly about your work in holistic learning in education. You have said, “It’s important to recognize that holistic education cannot be reduced to a set of techniques or ideologies. Ultimately, holistic education rests in the hearts and minds of the teachers and students.” Can you say a little bit more about that?

JM: A holistic curriculum honors interconnectedness and creates a learning experience based on connections between ideas and human relationships. Reality, at its core, is interconnected. It’s not fragmented. That’s what ecology teaches us and that’s what all the great spiritual teachers have talked about. We tend to teach isolated subjects, but we can show students how things are interconnected. If students can see that they’re a part of that network of connections, that’s a very powerful thing. Problems result when people get caught up in separateness. These ideas are a big part of my work. 

An integrated curriculum is important, but it’s easier to create more integration at the elementary level. When you get up to high school, it becomes more of a challenge. However, you can also emphasize different kinds of thinking, including both analytic and intuitive thinking, recognizing the value of each. There’s been such an emphasis on logical thinking. We have to think critically and logically, but some of the great thinkers have also been holistic; they use both.

It’s important to have a philosophy and strategies. You have something to work with. In my book Education and the Soul, I talk about a curriculum for the inner life: keeping a journal, and meditating, for example. And one of the biggest changes in my work over the years is that it has become more focused on nature. Most people have a positive experience in nature. Just being in nature can lower the heart rate. That’s how I ended up writing my most recent book.

AE: In your latest book, Taoism, Teaching, and Learning: A Nature-Based Approach to Education, you make the argument that the more we can be in harmony with nature, the more we will flourish as a people and a planet. Can you say more about this and how it relates to education?

JM: The ways of nature are the ultimate way of things. It’s difficult to talk about because there’s an element of mystery here, but nature is about transition and change. We are constantly changing—even as we breathe. There is a Taoist concept called Wu Wei, and it’s closest to the Western concept of the “flow” experience [a heightened state of being where we’re so absorbed in a task that time and self-consciousness disappear]. If we try too hard, we lose. We become too anxious and get out of “flow.” A lot of Taoism is about how we relax into the flow of things. And the more that you can do that, the more success you’ll have actually—rather than trying to do too many things all at once. Things like mindfulness meditation can help you access flow experiences.

Another idea about meditation is that you don’t do meditation, meditation sort of works on you. Rather than saying, “I’m meditating, and this is going to make me a better person,” you can say, “I’m going to surrender to this practice.” That’s a very foreign concept to us in the West—surrendering. And contemplative practices that have been developed over centuries have a certain mysterious quality. When everyone in my class participates in a practice, although they are participating separately, it creates this kind of subliminal sense of harmony and togetherness.

That’s actually quite powerful, particularly by the time you get to the end of the course. You’re surrendering to this practice and seeing what happens. It doesn’t mean that you give up your basic sense of things. It all goes back to trusting ourselves and trusting the universe. The more that we can trust what’s happening, the less fear there is. The universe is very ordered. We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t an order to the universe, but our social life has become so chaotic. We’ve forgotten about order.

I’m also a big fan of classical music—composers like Hayden and Mozart. They lived at a time where they experienced the appeal of order, and their music reflects that order. So, when I listen to that music, it puts me in harmony with what I understand to be, at a very subconscious level. I’m not saying you need to listen to Hayden and Mozart because there are many other options. Eastern music has its own sense of harmony, too.

AE: When you think about bringing a sense of connectedness and harmony to the classroom, you have mentioned nature, the arts, and music as tools. You’ve also talked about the value of mindfulness, journaling, and other contemplative practices. What else would you add?

JM: Remember to focus on developing integrated learning—and an integrated curriculum. And, finally, focus on community. I love the way that Martin Luther King talked about the beloved community. A school should be a beloved community, a place of love and justice.

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