Ellen Rowland is finding depth, purpose, and joy in freeing both learning and spirituality from the bonds of obligation.
I grew up with two imposed givens —education and religion.
Education happened in school, a place I was obliged to go Monday through Friday to learn things that didn’t necessarily interest me. Religion, reserved for Sundays, was fortified and demonstrated by my family’s regular attendance at church and rewarded with warm donuts and scalding coffee served in Styrofoam cups in the community hall. We usually skipped that part in order to be the first to get out of the parking lot.
These two obligations were not my choice and I never really questioned either until I had children. Two uniquely designed, impossibly small bodies imprinted with years and years of genetic scrambling and combined ancestral traits and yet I didn’t see them as part of me, or as part of my husband, but rather as two free souls who chose us as parents.
My husband and I have always described our children’s births as special occasions when we were introduced to the two most important people in our lives. Of course we felt fiercely protective of them (and still do), but we are constantly working to avoid any notion of proprietorship. We take Kahlil Gibran’s words to heart and to bed, and hope to remember them as more than a lullaby during the day.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.
The experience of having my own children had the unexpected side-effect of stripping away old belief sets. It was as if, through their painful and clamorous births, I was washed and given a fresh start as well. It wasn’t sudden, or obvious, or easy, but for their sake, I wiped the slate clean with some threadbare remnants that no longer served me. My vision got clearer, my heart and mind woke to a sense of self that swept away the imposed veil to reveal a very clear understanding that I had choices and that I would offer them to my children.
There would be no imposed school. School is merely a place, a building. But there would be expansive and meaningful learning. There would be voyages and knowledge quests. There would be play and dance and song. There would be exploration and expeditions of the imagination. We would choose experiences over things, curiosity over information, expression over conformity. Because learning lives in all these spaces, seen and unseen.
There would be no imposed religion, no housing of beliefs. All doors of worship would be open, with their unique beauty and identical fears. There would be mindfulness. There would be gratitude. There would be loving kindness and equanimity and compassion. We would expose our children to mosques and temples and cathedrals, to museums and cafés and booksellers, to lectures and concerts and performers, to street merchants and legless beggars, and to mossy gardens and majestic forests. Because the spirit of life lives in all these people and places, seen and unseen.
As I watched my children pull together an education independent of time, pace, place, or someone else’s agenda, it occurred to me that I could craft my own form of spiritual expression according to my individual interests, my unique curiosity, and whatever helped me make sense of the world. I could unschool my spirituality in the same way they were unschooling their education. And I could do it with joy, purpose and intention.
I put aside obligation and legacy, and thought about what made my heart bloom. Gospel music, reciting the Gayatri mantra, a regular practice of Qi gong, the Hawaiian principles of Ho’oponopono, keeping a gratitude journal, Buddhist teachings and meditation, cooking a meal for loved ones, holding compassion for others.
The spiritual patchwork I pieced together is nothing that could fit into a neat category. It can’t be extorted and will never be profitable. It wields no guilt and promises no rewards. And because I sewed it together, I don’t need to call it anything. It is what it is. We are who we are.