Last week a story went around the media and socials about a farmer who was unable to attend his much-loved aunty’s funeral and he chose to honour her by creating a beautiful heart shape of sheep in his paddock.
By pouring out grain in a heart shape and setting all the sheep loose at once from one end of the paddock, the forming of the heart was as magical as when the heart was complete. Particularly poignant was the fact that his sheep had learned to do this during the drought, when they were relying on grain-feeding rather than grazing to survive. Tears sprang into my eyes and I was deeply moved, not only because I am a sheep farmer’s daughter! The visual imagery and the heartfelt story beneath quite simply moved my heart.
That same visceral response happens sometimes watching musicians sing with deep emotion as well as skill. I still remember watching a very young Guy Sebastian singing Angels Brought Me Here, Tina Arena, Jessica Mauboy and The Veronicas singing Chains live at the ARIA awards and the final song, Sweet Caroline, at a Neil Diamond concert in Perth years ago, all making the hairs on my arm stand up and my heart sing.
Being stirred by something spectacular or moving is not just about our heart. I believe it is that our human spirit — that indefinable, invisible part within us — that’s been moved. There are many definitions of the human spirit, however, if there is one thing I have learnt over my 66 years on this earth, it is that it is seldom moved by fear, things of the ego, or material things. For many who have a faith, the human spirit is nurtured by the rituals, prayers and words of their sacred texts.
Seeing through a child’s eyes
Have you noticed how magical it feels when you see a young child in a state of ecstasy? Their eyes seem to shine brighter. There is a sacredness to their innocence, their spontaneity and in them being so beautifully mindful. Even though it can be really annoying when a toddler is dawdling so slowly in a state of absorbed observation —especially for parents who are driven by tight time schedules and expectations — there is something positively magical in pausing deeply and observing the world through our little ones’ eyes.
“Childhood is a time of wonder and awe as the world grabs our attention through our fresh eyes and ears. It is not hard to find a child absorbed in the blissful moment on a swing, or spinning just to feel the world move around them. Children are natural mystics. Sometimes the wonder opens all the way to ecstasy and unity.” – Tobin Hart ,The Secret Spiritual World of Children (2003)
In my book Real Kids in an Unreal World: Building resilience and self-esteem in today’s children I explored 10 strength building blocks to help build resilience in our children. The 10th and final building block is nurturing the spirit. With all the changes in the parenting landscape of increased competition, endless testing in schools, a growing disrespect of the value of the arts, over-scheduling and hurriedness plus the arrival of the time-consuming, culture changing digital world, I believe the importance of nurturing the human spirit within our children, has diminished. Maybe this could be reason for the increasing levels of mental illness among our children and our precious teens.
Steve Biddulph in his latest book, Fully Human: A new way of using your mind explores the concept of having a ‘supersense’ and, in a way, this is what having a healthy human spirit is all about. In his usual measured and eloquent way, Biddulph explores how human beings are motivated by a deep sense of connection or union with the world around them and that includes the humans we meet along the way. One of the tendencies of living in a civilised world is that we can easily become human doings, defining ourselves with what we have or what we do, rather than simply experiencing ourselves as human beings seeking for meaning and loving connection.
Characteristics of Spiritual Intelligence
- Respect and reverence.
- Relational security
- Lightness and laughter.
- Reflection and contemplation.
- Calmness, stillness and quiet.
- Tenderness and gratitude.
- Listening with the heart or intuition.
I am an extremely strong advocate for letting our children experience childhood for as long as possible, with as much autonomy and freedom as possible, with other children in the natural world. Children need to experience the joy of discovery — feeling rain, jumping into a puddle or a large pile of leaves, touching a kitten, or seeing Christmas lights — all for the very first time.
A moment of awe must be experienced while we’re young for it to be a powerful part of adult life. Childhood is meant to be a time when the wonder of seeing the world through their eyes needs to be valued and appreciated. It has some serious benefits for the developing brain — neural pathways to pleasure rather than pain. These experiences of heightened sensation allow children to feel transcendent — somehow more expanded and larger than life. The search for transcendence can drive later experiences. Those who have had positive natural highs as young children are more likely to seek natural highs rather than through drugs or high-risk activities as they become teenagers and adults.
A pathway to wellbeing
In my work around death and dying and when I worked as a counsellor, I met people who have been crushed by the circumstances of life and yet they have found a pathway back to wellbeing and finding meaning in their lives. Some people who have overcome huge adversity will often identify a moment in time when they felt strengthened by something deep within them, rather than just a rational thought. Deep challenge often strips away many layers of identity until our core reveals itself.
One of the ways to release high levels of cortisol from the nervous system can be as simple as creating moments of lightness and laughter. Laughter needs to be experienced often so that it becomes an easy part of life. I once remember a quote that went something like, the shortest distance between two people is shared laughter. A sense of humour is one of the most important protective factors in terms of resilience, because it helps us reframe a negative experience into a lighter moment. As Daniel Goleman writes in his book Emotional Intelligence (1996), chemical changes happen in the brain that help us diffuse stress, improve our emotional state and allow us to review the situation from a more optimistic place. So encourage young children to tell jokes and riddles, and to laugh lots.
There were many times as a funeral celebrant that I witnessed grief expressed through laughter — deep belly laughter — even though it is a time of sadness and deep sorrow, laughter can move us too.
I know that without the laughter and lightness in my home, shared with my boys and their many friends, we would all have experienced more pain and challenges as we journeyed through childhood and the teenage years. Experiences of deep connection can bring forth joy. Music, singing, dancing and awesome moments in nature can also result in joy. The simple experience of being seen, heard, remembered, accepted, validated or thanked all bring forth a bubbling of joy within us — even if we are alone.
The human spirit in lockdown
Families all around the world have struggled over the past 18 months of a global pandemic. For people currently in lockdown — some going into their 10th week in greater Sydney, and in Melbourne who are currently in their sixth very strict lockdown — will most likely be feeling extremely disillusioned and fatigued. While this is normal and a consequence of living through a traumatic event, with no clear endpoint insight, it is completely understandable that many grown-ups and children are struggling with heightened levels of anxiety and stress.
One of the ways to create small pockets of relief, rest or rejuvenation is by focusing on the simplicity of nurturing the human spirit. Many of us do this intuitively when we turn on our favourite music, or enjoy a family ritual together or go for a walk with the family dog in the fresh air.
Some of the happiest children live in third world countries with strong extended family-based communities with simple needs. The stronger the human spirit the less disconnected and separated we feel within the world. Just as we have cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence and social intelligence, I believe we have a capacity for spiritual intelligence and it matters in the life of every one of us. Happy children have a strong spirit and know that life is full of anticipation, delight and fun, regardless of adversity. Have you seen the shiny eyes that happy children have especially after diving into a pile of leaves or a big puddle? The more of these experiences children have up to 10 years of age the better. The brain wires all positive experiences like a web over all future experiences and builds a sense of anticipation of how life will be. Children who have had moments of sheer fun and enjoyment will tend to anticipate and expect more of those moments as an adult.
The imaginary world of children is an essential part of strengthening their spirit and I have explored that in great depth in a recent blog.
Experiencing awe and wonder in the natural world can happen in every country on this blue orb. I have been blessed to watch the sunrise over Uluru, to watch the moon rise in Broome creating the stairway to the moon, to see a lamb being born on a cold winter’s morning. They all created moments of awe. Of course, nothing beats the awe and wonder of welcoming your own unique miracle — a baby or grandchild — into this world. Awe can happen watching butterflies come out of cocoons, or turtles laying eggs on a beach they had to swim thousands of kilometres to do so. Even though many families are unable to travel at the moment, there are still many awe experiences they can see in the digital world or even sometimes just out the window.
The human spirit is strengthened by connected, loving relationships where there is genuine positive regard and acceptance.
Being prevented from spending time with special loved ones has created endless grief all around our pandemic world. This is why staying connected in any way possible needs to be prioritised. Acts of kindness towards others always builds our own spirit and sense of value. This was happening with the teddy bears in the windows, the chalk drawings on the footpaths and the endless Facetime, Skype and Zoom catch ups we have been having.
Young children can benefit by becoming involved in simple acts of service and helping others. These opportunities can be very valuable for building emotional and social competence that acknowledges our inter-connectedness and our profound need for community. The modern world has seen a serious weakening of social capital and community spirit before this pandemic arrived.
There has been an outpouring of outrage and loud opinions that has caused much pain to many. Fear-based thinking has silenced the light bringers and the hope sowers. Maybe this is the lesson we can all learn from this pandemic that it is time to return to being more of a ‘we’ world because it is far more important than being a ‘me’ world?
“Human connectedness is the key to resilience, authentic happiness and a sense of well-being. This can only be achieved through the recognition, honouring and nurturing of the human spirit that exists within every child ever born.” – Maggie Dent, Saving Our Children from Our Chaotic World (2003).
Parent Tips for Strengthening the Spirit
- Children need to experience the joy of discovery.
- The human spirit is strengthened by loving relationships.
- Have special home and classroom rituals that show everyone matters.
- Work at building strong caring relationships — no matter how hard it may be.
- Feeling heard, loved and valued is essential to a strong spirit.
- Allow imagination and wonder to be a part of children’s lives.
- Develop a strong connection to the natural world.
- Ensure the arts are part of every day — singing, dancing, music, painting, make-believe, storytelling.
- Laughter and lightness nurture the spirit.
- Connection to nature is very important for the growth of the whole child.
- Acts of kindness towards others always builds our own spirit and sense of value.
- Remember the little things are sometimes the big things for toddlers and children.
- For children, the gift of the imagination is a powerful source of comfort, distraction and escape.
- Hope is a unique quality that everyone needs.
- A strong spirit will help individuals overcome setbacks and adversity.