The Secret Spiritual Life of Children
Tobin Hart's Wednesday Matters Presentation
(From The Crucible #8)

Tobin's basic premise is that “children have spiritual experiences - profound moments that shape their lives in enduring ways.  These moments are sometimes stunning, often tender, and they reveal a remarkable spiritual world that has been largely kept secret.  And these children are in good company.  Surprisingly, many of the great mystics and sages of our world tell us that their own spiritual realizations began in childhood.  The simple spirituality of a compassionate act, an open heart, a small moment of courage are just as much the stuff of a spiritual life.  It is just a bit easier to see the more dramatic stories - their greatest value may be to remind us to notice the more subtle impulses of spirit in our children and ourselves.”

His interest began one evening as he was putting his daughter to bed and she began communicating with her angel.  She offered profound wisdom that "cut through the complexity to the heart."  Did she really see an angel?  Tobin says we can't be sure and it may not matter what we call it.  It's not the source, but the quality of the information and the impact it has on her life that is of the most importance.  These moments seem to provide wise counsel and deep comfort for her life.

Tobin points out the discussion of spirituality is difficult, “it’s like asking a fish to talk about water.”  But he agrees with the notion, probably already a bumper sticker on someone's car, that ‘we are not human beings who have spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings having human experiences.’  Unfortunately, adults often discount children's spirituality, leaving it at the doorstep of God-talk.”

Tobin proceeded to describe five styles of spirituality, illustrating them with a number of accounts and stories involving his own experience, that of his daughters, and others that he has encountered in his research.  First is wisdom - access to deep knowing and a depth of consciousness. While kids have surprising access to wisdom, we don't often recognize or trust it as adults. As Emerson said, "We do not think we can call out God in man and we do not try."

Second, moments of wonder, awe and reverence are enabled by a child's natural beginner's mind - seeing the world with fresh eyes and naturally attaining delight.  “This is non-calculative thinking” (using Heidegger’s terminology). Tobin says, “The beginning of awe is wonder and the beginning of wisdom is awe.”  Again, these ineffable, timeless moments of bliss and wonder accompanied by a sense of “oceanic” (to borrow from William James) unity are common for kids, and us, though we often may not recognize it.  Perhaps this sense of reverence or mystery, Tobin comments, "is the most profound attitude we can have as humans."

Next is wondering - questioning and pondering the big questions. Kids are natural philosophers, Tobin comments. They have fresh eyes for perplexity and incongruity that enable them to ask the big questions - "What are we here for?" - and consider these ultimate concerns.

Fourth is a relational understanding - between you and me.  Tobin cites Buber’s I-Thou idea of meeting “in the between” - this deep empathy, natural compassion, selflessness is natural for children.  He quoted The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see right.”

Finally, seeing the invisible is recognizing more than that which meets the eye, such as faces and colors similar to those described by mystics.  Tobin acknowledges the double-edged sword involved - “Not only is there insight, but also a dangerous lure.”  Nevertheless, it can help shape one’s worldview as  multi-dimensional and interconnected.   These experiences bring delight but are also demanding, especially in a world that does not accept them.”

Tobin concluded by distributing a “mystic quiz” and discussing his work with the Childspirit Institute with his wife and Jim Dillon, and gave a web address - www.childspirit.net - that can be accessed for more information.  He also stated that this evidence challenges many developmental maps in contemporary psychology, including that of Piaget, Wilber and Washburn.  But “now that it is safer to discuss it (as opposed to the past in which one would be burned on a cross),” Tobin says, “we have the capacity to refine our spiritual capacities from the  beginning, and not repress them.

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