Thursday, March 21, 2013
“Why are we here?” – a question that parents often hear from even their youngest children. But should we overlook such a wise question as sheer curiosity when the basis of religion and philosophy are derived from the same inquiry? According to Dr. Tobin Hart, author and UWG professor of psychology, this type of question may be just one way that children experience a secret world all to their own. When children engage in this type of wondering, they are actually acting as philosophers open to a world with no boundaries. We lose this openness, as we grow older.
On March 14, University of West Georgia alumni, faculty, students and local community members were invited to Sunnyside Café to enjoy free dessert and coffee during Hart’s discussion on “The Secret Spiritual World of Children.” This free event is the first in a series of events sponsored by the UWG Alumni Association and College of Social Sciences.
“Sometimes a child shall lead us,” Hart said. “We teach kids how to tie their shoes, and they teach us patience. We teach them about proper dental hygiene, and they teach us about sacrifice. We teach them about cleaning their room, and they teach us about love so deep we can’t find its bottom.” Hart’s research provides amazing insight into the world of children, and therefore possibly a bit of insight into ourselves.
It’s appropriate that Hart’s daughter, who was very young at the time, was the inspiration for his research. As he was tucking her into bed one evening, she started to openly describe her “angel.” Curious to know more, Hart encouraged his daughter to describe her angel and was amazed at the profundity in which she spoke. When he asked if he could talk to her angel, she politely dismissed his question and instead responded with, “My angel knows your angel. They are old friends.” Hart had chills.
After this experience, Hart said he began to hear a number of interesting accounts from other parents “I noticed from these different accounts that children have five different ways that they seem to be innately spiritual,” Hart said. “These spiritual styles are not only for children but they may be for us. We may get some inkling of our inner life early on.” The five styles of spiritual experiences include wondering, mentioned previously, wisdom, wonder, “between you and me” and seeing the invisible.
To illustrate the wisdom of a child, Hart told the story of a girl of almost four-years-old who had the profound foresight to solve a problem with love and care rather than retaliation, something that is often a struggle for adults. She demonstrated love and attention to a boy with behavioral issues, and therefore encouraged him to treat others with the same kindness. “Somehow this four-year-old knew exactly what this little boy needed,” said Hart.
To further explain the wonder of a child, Hart described how children have the ability to be in awe of the world, more so than adults. He told the story of a child who, on a trip to the beach, stands at the edge of the water for a long time, staring in pure wonderment. When she finally returns to her father, she says the simple statement of “I am the water. I love it, and it loves me.” Hart describes this as a unitive experience, one in which there is a merging of oneself and another; she merged with the water. “Her account, like so many others we heard, is indistinguishable from the greatest sages and saints of all time,” he said.
The fourth spiritual style mentioned, “between you and me,” refers to a child’s incredible ability for natural compassion. Hart also says that most feel as though a sense of morality toward others is only acquired through teaching, but he counters that children are born with an innate empathy toward others. “In addition to whatever we need to bring them from the outside, it looks like they may already have something from the inside, natural compassion,” he said, adding that children have a heightened sense for what others are experiencing and have fewer boundaries allowing them to feel what others feel.
Lastly, Hart addressed a child’s ability to “see the invisible.” Whether it is imagination or an actual ability to see into the past or future, children sometimes have access to a world adults can no longer see. He describes a two-year-old child that became upset while at a friend’s house. Every time the boy would see the house across the street, he would become unsettled and repeat the words “sad old man in the garage.” Looking across the street, the parents saw nothing but a quiet house. Later the parents learned that the previous owner of the house, an older gentleman, committed suicide in that very garage. Hart offers that “there may be a field of consciousness that we may tune and tap into, and a child is so wide open that they have access to this in a way that we may have tuned out over the course of time.”
Hart’s book, “The Secret Spiritual World of Children,” is available on www.amazon.com as well as other book retailers. He is the co-founder and chair of the Board of Directors of ChildSpirit Institute, a nonprofit educational and research resource dedicated to understanding and nurturing the spiritual world of children and adults. He researches, writes and teaches on a variety of subjects including deep empathy, transformative education, spiritual development, the inner life of children, contemplative inquiry, music and the mind, and the psychology of mind and body. Hart received his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.