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Spirit: The Animating Force of Learning

By Jerry Wennstrom
What is the spirit of learning? I use the word spirit in the sense of a vital principle or animating force in living things. The idea of spirit orients us toward exploring the source of energy and therefore the source of authority in learning. The word spirit comes to us via the Latin word spiritus meaning breath. In this sense, spirit is the breath of life. In theological terms, our spirit is the medium through which we connect our souls to the creator. In this context we are invited to consider how our reality is connected to higher sources of creation than is immediately apparent to our physical senses. The idea of spirit is a means to expand our sense perception and intuitive awareness of life. An idea like the Human Spirit evokes the connectedness of all life and forms the basis for considering the essential unity of all things. The paranormal variation of spirit leads us into a world of the daimonic and the theatre of the mercurial. The phenomenon of human learning is intimately connected to the idea of spirit, and therefore can be thought of as an animating force in living things...

The Place of Learning

Each of us has a unique and individual spirit that is the source of our personality and character. In other words, spirit is intimately related to identity, character and personality. When we laugh our spirit is celebrating - we are in high spirit; when we are in emotional pain our spirit is sad - we are in low spirit. The idea of a high spirit implies a reaching toward the sky, or in theological terms, reaching toward heaven. The idea of a low spirit implies falling into the abyss - or falling into hell.

The spirit of learning implies a metaphysical reality to learning - learning beyond our immediate physical reality - or ways of learning that lie beyond the grasp of our physical senses. This has been one of the most consistent and essential activities of humankind, that is, finding ways of passage into other realms of experience beyond that which is immediately apparent.

The Place of Spirit

In Journey To Ixtlan, the location of spirit is closely aligned with a physical place:

They were not exactly places of power, like certain hills or land formations which were the abode of spirits, but rather places of enlightenment where one could be taught, where one could find solutions to dilemmas.
- Journey To Ixtlan

Knowledge is something that is experienced in a specific physical context. In other words, knowledge cannot be isolated from the place in which it occurs. Don Juan took Castaneda to different places in order to expand his sense perception and therefore his access to knowledge. The abode of spirits is a place for learning - a metaphysical classroom of sorts - that granted access to knowledge.

Mount McKay from
An experience that remains close to me occurred on a visit to Mount McKay in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was early winter and late one afternoon I decided I would drive to Mount McKay Lookout. I quickly realized that I was completely alone, probably due to the fact that I was the only oddball that would venture in rather harsh weather. As I turned from the incredible view offered by Mount McKay I noticed a pathway into the forest. In the midst of a forest, you can find the remains of an Ojibway Indian village. For some reason, I felt an overwhelming sense of not being alone. Sensations we have all likely experienced (at least, I'm hoping so) such as the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, shivers running through my body without the sensation of being cold, and mild sweating in cold weather. Nothing expect the remains of the village appeared before my eyes; nothing except the normal sounds of the mountain made themselves audible to my ears - yet my intuition was alive. I was in a crowded place with no one in sight. Of course, the whole thing overwhelmed me and I found myself needing to leave. And I did.

After leaving Mount McKay I felt my senses normalize, but the experience is one that remains. Delusional? That was actually a question I kept wondering about. Perhaps a momentary lapse of reason. Something wrong with my diet? Catching a cold? Had I gotten sick after the visit it would have been easy to dismiss. While I felt a self-imposed need to leave, I in no way felt threatened or sensed I was being pushed away by some mercurial spirits. I didn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary. I can imagine how inviting this might all be for a psychologist, however, the real task is to return to that place and see what happens. While this is pedestrian in comparison to the descriptions we find in Journey To Ixtlan, I wonder how many people have similar types of experiences but don't communicate them for fear of being thought of as crazy. I'm partially crazy so I don't mind sharing.

We might feel that the descriptions in Journey To Ixtlan are mystical at best, but that would miss the essential point that knowledge is an experience that cannot be separated from the place in which it occurs. One underlying proposition of modern technology is that we are more mobile through the use of technology - that we can "go to" other places through technology - that we can therefore physically travel less and still experience other places. Certain mundane and everyday tasks are perhaps simplified via new communications. However, it is delusional to think that we are provided better "access" to "knowledge" via technology. Would we really want to take a virtual trip to certain hills or land formations which were the abode of spirits?

Static Mobility

Technological mobility may result in an increased need to retrieve more immersive experiences like hiking and traveling. Mobility sometimes means we can sit on our backsides and mentally navigate to other places by virtue of electricity.

In order to learn we need to be mobile. However, we have a tendency to think of mobility as something closely connected with portable electronic devices.

The idea of mobility as a vehicle for cultural transportation describes the ways in which we can travel to the world, as well as the ways in which the world can travel to us.
- The Experience Designer: Learning, Networks and the Cybersphere

Of course, it all is really quite simple since all we are really saying is that learning demands mobility and therefore involves travel both in a physical, emotional, and psychological sense.

In Care of the Soul : A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life Thomas Moore describes the essential importance of unexpected places in learning:

What is the source of this soul power, and how can we tap into it? I believe it often comes from unexpected places. It comes first of all from living close to the heart, and not at odds with it. Therefore, paradoxically, soul power may emerge from failure, depression, and loss. The general rule is that the soul appears in the gaps and holes of experience.
- Care of the Soul : A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life

Moore's work focused on helping people to accept and take responsibility for the unavoidable mystery that is their own life. Don Juan refers to "places of enlightenment" and Moore refers to "living close to the heart." Just as breathing is essential to our physical bodies, resilience is essential to our spiritual bodies. We are invited to reanimate our imagination and capacity for life through a greater mobility of mind, body and spirit. Part of this task means that we must physically travel to specific places while other parts of this task require us to travel emotional and spiritual terrain.

The Violence of the Soul

I became very nervous with the idea of being enclosed and asked how he was planning to bury me.
- Journey To Ixtlan

One of Castaneda's most important mentors was fear - the fear of the unknown, the fear of letting go of the known, the fear of dying, the fear of becoming ill, the fear of getting hurt. This has connection with the way Thomas Moore intelligently talks about violence:

It would be a mistake to approach violence with any simple idea of getting rid of it. Chances are, if we try to eradicate our violence, we will also cut ourselves off from the deep power that sustains creative life. Besides... repression never accomplishes what we want. The repressed always returns in monstrous form... The power of the soul can hurl a person in ecstasy or into depression. It can be creative or destructive, gentle or aggressive
- Care of the Soul : A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life

Violence is a real, unavoidable, natural and normal part of what it means to be human - so we need to embrace it for what it can reveal to us, not live under some delusion that it is completely avoidable.

When we think about the word violence and the images it conjures up, perhaps the last things we are thinking about is embracing it. What could embracing violence mean? It doesn't mean being or becoming violent, but it does mean taking off the blinders and understanding that it is in each of us whether we choose to admit it or not. Here is a place in which we are to hold together to seemingly opposing views, the first being the care of the soul, and the second being the destructive forces of the soul. "The power of the soul can hurl a person in ecstasy or into depression. It can be creative or destructive, gentle or aggressive.

This brings to mind a powerful account of creativity written by Stephen Diamond and May Rollo called Anger, Violence and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil and Creativity [see entry: Psychology: Anger, Violence and the Daimonic]. We know that creativity is not a safe thing to engage in, yet too often we think of creativity as a form of expressing beauty. It isn't that simple. Creativity will take us to unexpected places that can be destructive and may even threaten our lives. This reflects the kind of creative spiritual drive being described by Carlos Castaneda and Thomas Moore.

Spiritual Learning

When we consider the phrase spiritual learning we might first think of it in theological terms. The idea of spiritual learning is something closely associated with religion. However, the idea of spirituality is something greater than religion. Spirituality transcends a specific pattern of belief, even though specific patterns of belief are often vigorously and sometimes violently defended.

Nor is spirituality a kind of new age feel-good therapy since it is often obvious that our experiences with matters of the spirit are often far from comforting. The idea of spiritual warfare is one that has merit in describing the nature of conflict that can arise in one's own identity and sense of self. Spirituality is also an essential fabric that is intimately associated with the creative process and therefore dimensions of life that lie beyond our physical senses.

In Castaneda's experiences, spirituality is intimately linked with significant places in the world. In other words, our spirits and the earth cannot be separated. The underlying insight is that learning is intimately and unavoidably connected with the earth itself. It promotes the necessary idea that there are special and significant places in the world for each of us, and that part of our spiritual quest for learning is to find them. It also promotes the more urgent idea that we must take far better care of our planet or we will destroy these places.

In Moore's experiences, spirituality is intimately linked with the animating force of our souls. He takes a more interior orientation on spiritual learning. The soul for Moore is not merely some force that allows us to feel good, it is also a force that can quite literally rip the bodymind apart. It is only by accepting both the relief and the torment the soul can cause that we find a deeper sense of spirituality. This involves an ability to face the spiritual reality of fear and violence as much as it does beauty and peace.

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