Spiritual Wisdom for Secular Times

The search for meaning and faith.

Sex, Drugs & Education: The Spiritual Perspective

Students must be particularly treasured for who they uniquely are

Wellington College
The ‘Festival of Education' took place again at one of England's premier schools, Wellington College in Berkshire, on 25th & 26th June this year. I was invited to join a panel discussion on ‘Sex, Drugs & Education'. What follows is based on my brief opening address.

I retired from clinical psychiatric practice to write about a spiritual dimension, to complete and complement the more commonly acknowledged physical, biological, psychological and social dimensions of human experience. About ‘Sex, Drugs and Education', I want to say that young people are, above all, in search of a true identity; not only a ‘persona', a mask to wear to face the world, but a true self in harmony with nature and the totality of humankind.

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Sex and drugs, including alcohol and other intoxicants, often play a part in the experimentation involved in such a search, but can derail it... through psychological and biological dependency. Because it is often overlooked, I want particularly to emphasize the point that sex and drugs also divert people away from the true goal of what may be characterised as an essentially spiritual mission. This is the quest to discover and hold true to a deep-seated inner compass, a true-self or ‘soul', and to be guided in life by fellow-feeling, wisdom, compassion and love.

Headmaster Anthony Seldon opening the festival
Research indicates that young children have a natural spiritual sensibility that atrophies unless encouraged. Often it succumbs, or goes dormant, in the face of strong secular cultural pressures. Education (originally meaning a ‘leading out') will ideally take this observation into account and correct the tendency. In ‘The Spirit of the Child' (Jessica Kingsley, 2006), highly esteemed researchers David Hay and Rebecca Nye warn us: "Spirituality cannot be nurtured where education is purveyed as just another commodity, distributed at arm's length. What is conveyed is a lack of spiritual awareness, sometimes paraded as a virtue".

Expressing the view that spiritual education is fundamental for the personal and political wellbeing of the community, they offer straightforward alternatives. These include helping children become alert to their spiritual awareness and encouraging them to reflect on this experience in the light of the language and culture within which it emerges. There may be a principally religious context for it, but spirituality is by no means confined by religious parameters.

I think of spirituality as more like an adventure playground to explore than a specimen to dissect and analyse. It may be the ‘active ingredient' of religion; but spirituality overflows religion's boundaries. Indeed it has no boundaries, and so must be thought of as allied to, but distinct from religion.

Hay and Nye suggest that teachers help children keep an open mind and explore ways of seeing; for example by examining metaphors, ambiguities and paradoxes. They also recommend fostering children's personal awareness, such as by sitting still with eyes closed and attending to the here and now, even for a minute or two, or experiencing as fully as possible the physical act of eating a piece of fruit.

Other authors refer to this kind of activity as ‘stilling' or ‘meditation', and a 2006 study of 10,000 students between 5 and 18 years in 31 schools in Australia found numerous beneficial effects of meditation, including: increased relaxation and feelings of calm, reduced stress, reduced anger, improved concentration, and better interactions with others. Some students described religious experiences during meditation. Admittedly some students became sleepy or found the exercise boring, but others experienced altruistic thoughts and intentions, also a new appreciation of ‘such things as food every day'. [Campion, J. & Rocco, S. (2009) ‘Minding the Mind: The effects and potential of a school-based meditation programme for mental health promotion.' Advances in School Mental Health Promotion 2, 1, 47-55.]

Festival Programmes
To sex and drugs, including alcohol, we must add other intoxicants, which today particularly include wealth, celebrity, power, also the pervasive distraction of electronic media and gadgetry. Any or all of these may be used to fill a spiritual void, a life otherwise empty of meaning; but these substances and activities do not work for long, and can induce dependency. They therefore represent costly, destructive, short-term goals, rather than the enduring means for gaining and retaining vitality, drive, creativity, joyfulness and other virtues.

I have been able to show, in the context of medical education, for example, that spirituality can be spoken, written about, and taught in non-denominational (non-religious) language. [Culliford, L. (2009) 'Teaching spirituality and health care to third-year medical students'. The Clinical Teacher 6, 1, 22-7.] Relating to origins and endpoints, to the discovery of meaning and a sense of purpose in life, spirituality is as relevant in the context of science as in the arts and humanities, on the sports field, and everywhere else in school life. That is undoubtedly why, at Wellington College, it is promoted as one of eight key ‘aptitudes' for learning and for life.

Finally, it seems important to say that students must come to know that they are particularly treasured and valued for who they are, for their unique contribution, and less for only what they do, only for the results they achieve, for what they produce and consume.

Children will learn both by precept and example. It is therefore for those of us with children's education and welfare at heart not only to tell them, but also to show them the way. This means making one's own spiritual development a priority. It means recognizing the path each and every person is on, the pathway towards both compassion and wisdom, towards loving selflessly and being loved in return. Believe me, taking steps in this direction can be extraordinarily liberating, and even - when you get the hang of it - fun.

Copyright Larry Culliford


Larry's books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).

Larry Culliford, M.B., B.Chir. (Cantab), M.R.C. Psych. (UK), is the author of the Psychology of Spirituality and a psychiatrist in Sussex, England.

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