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Learning by Heart

So how does an education of the heart differ from an education of the intellect? I suggest that it describes a journey towards knowing our place in all things … a

noetic education .

Noetic Education is driven by asking the right questions … rather than claiming to have right answers.

A noetic education understands

that what defines us is not the answers we provide others, but the

questions we ask of ourselves.

Noetic Education starts from within us … not as an imposition.

A noetic education prizes a truth garnered from personal experience and direct confrontation with our own reality. Modern education values only

those facts that are derived from experts. Thoreau clearly experienced thevalid authenticity of personal experience when he wrote: “What lies before

us and behind us are small compared to what lies within us.” “The intellect is of two kinds.” wrote Rumi, the eleventh century Sufi

mystic, “The first is acquired. You learn it … from books, teachers, reflection and rote, from concepts and from excellent and new sciences.

Your intellect becomes greater than that of others, but you become heavily burdened because of your acquisition … Seek the fountain from within


Noetic education exists in the world of experience … not observation.

One look at the lecture hall of any typical college tells the story – students prize the back rows and shadows rather than risk the

experience of a first row seat and the professor’s direct gaze. A noetic education is grounded in the student’s unique experience of reality and

their relationship to what brings meaning into their life. This authentic reality provides the unique “terra firma” where each of us can discover our

calling carved out of a landscape of experience. “Wisdom is not an object to impart,” writes the Buddhist nun and

anthropologist, Joan Halifax. The wisdom of self-knowledge can only be discovered. Vicariously taking on someone else’s reality will inevitably steal away our

innate vitality. Authenticity born out of personal experience is the life blood of our self expression and our place in the world. In this poem, Maria

Rainer Rilke captured the consequences of an inauthentic life:

“The man who cannot simply close his eye

Knowing that there is image after image

Far inside him, quietly waiting until night

To rise all around him in the dark

It’s all finished for him,

He’s just like an old man”

Noetic Education is founded on community … not competition with one another. Thomas Merton discovered his true relationship to all the

world through his contemplative practice; “The purpose of education” wrote Merton, “is to show a person how to define himself authentically and

spontaneously in relationship to the world … In the absence of communal virtue … Intellectual rigor becomes intellectual rigor mortis.”

The twentieth century German philosopher Martin Buber wrote; “To be human is to be relational.” Quantum physics lends his argument scientific

support. Everything exists only in the context of its relationship to something else. Our calling can only be discovered in our relationship to

the world, it can never be the product of our own desires. Our vocation can be heard in the voice of our community calling out to each of us.

Every sentient being has a place calling out to be inhabited. Mary Oliver announces our communal place in her poem:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things”

Noetic Education is rooted in joy … not in fear” “

The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed” wrote Mahatma

Gandhi. A noetic education leads us into the experience of abundance, rather than a fear derived from the belief that the universe is incapable of

supporting our real needs.

Noetic education occurs beyond temporal limits … it is not held hostage to the clock.

The lives of our students are measured in fifty minute increments. Each lecture becomes a frantic attempt to consume, or

be force fed, as many facts as possible. Each student experiences themselves captives to the hands of a clock. A noetic education fosters

stillness as an opportunity to settle the mind and a window for the student to experience the wisdom of ultimate reality.

St Augustine wrote, “If only

our minds could be steady, they would be still for a while, and, for that short moment, they would glimpse the splendor of eternity which is forever


More recently, D.H. Lawrence urged us to become receptive to the wisdom that emerges from the experience of stillness when he

wrote; “One’s actions ought to come out of an achieved stillness; not to be

a mere rushing on.”

A Noetic education seeks out the experience of beauty … not the creation of mundane ugliness.

Too many of my fellow physicians experience themselves as inhabiting a world of ugliness. The sequestered

world of our hospitals and nursing homes seem to have become the seventh circle of hell. Our doctors and nurses see only catastrophe. An old

man, living out the last few days of life is seen only as a failing organ system to be experienced only as the stench of his incontinence. We have

been trained to disregard the beauty of a life measured in a loving wife and the generations of children to mourn his passing. We have been

blinded by our medical education to the beauty that is to be found in the recognition that despite all the suffering of this life, the world goes on –

carried forward by some ineffable grace.

Noetic Education is founded on mentorship … not simply instruction.

The English word “mentor” is derived from the Greek root

men meaning “to remember, counsel, and think” and the Indo-European

word mens meaning “mind”. Our mentors act as journeyman on the

unique path each of us must travel in rediscovering our calling. Just as

Mentor guided the young Telemarchus in Homer’s Odyssey through the

turbulence of his inner conflict ; every young person requires a mentor

who is attentive to the strivings of their soul. Unfortunately, too many of

our young people continue to wage war with themselves and each other,

bereft of journeyman to their calling.

Mentorship demands courage of both the student and his mentor. Rumi

captures the ecstatic agony of his own journey to self-remembering in the

arms of his mentor Shams:

“I groaned, He burnt me while I groaned.

I fell silent, his fire fell on me.

He drove me out beyond all limit,

I ran inside, he burnt me there”

Noetic education is founded on reverence … not subjugation.

Our children are taught that safety and happiness can only be found indomination. In our schools, knowledge has become the language of

control in a world where each of us is told to “climb our way to the top”. Our science has become a tool for subjugating nature and our art the

profane possession of capitalist greed. “The physician is only the servant of nature, not her master” wrote the

medieval Persian physician Paracelsus. However, as a modern scientific physician I have always been told that I alone control the mechanics of

healing. My professors demanded my competency and taught me that our

brilliance would one day defeat death itself. My grandiose “folie de science” was dispelled in a most unexpected place.

Sitting in the Amazon jungle with Danielle Wachapa, a shaman of the Shuar tribe, I experienced my place in a world that reached out to me in

the reverent embrace of a million life forms. Shiva’s dance – pregnant with possibilities. Danielle reminded me that healing was a gift that came

through me, not from me. “The important thing” he said, “is the spirit of the plant, loving it, respecting it, feeling its strength.”

Noetic education demands a personal transformation .. not simply the accumulation of facts.

Gandhi admonished us; “You must become the change you wish to see in the world”. The journey towards

wisdom inevitably leads us into the unknown landscapes of soul.

“Knowledge studies others. Wisdom is self-known” wrote Lao Tzu.

Only after we have been forged in the crucible of our own hero’s

journey can we become fully alive to our place in a universe that is

large enough to contain our true calling.

Noetic education demands authenticity … not role playing.

Too many of my fellow physicians are straight-jacketed by their white coats. Our claustrophobia is rewarded with a professional detachment that we

believe will protect us from the experience of our patients’ suffering. A noetic education demands that we have the courage to be human

beings, not professionals, bearing witness to life’s torments and joys.

Noetic education finds more truth in silence … than in words.

“It is in the silence of the heart that God speaks” wrote Mother

Theresa. Vocation is about listening to the silence of a world not

drowned out by our own needs. A noetic education understands that

wisdom is to be found in discovering things are they really are … not

as we need them to be. The clamor of our voices has deafened us to

the cries of a world torn apart by our need to dominate.

Noetic education thrives on change … not on maintaining the status quo.

Every life should be a revolution. Education should flame our souls with the desire to grow into something more sublime.

Unfortunately, our current educational system feels threatened by fresh visions of reality. Success, we are told, can only be measured in

standardized exams. Transformation cannot however be denied – without it our world cannot survive.

Johann Goethe poignantly capture the ecstasy and necessity for

transformation when he wrote:

“Distance does not make you falter,

Now, arriving in magic, flying

And, finally, insane for the light,

You are the butterfly and you are gone

And so long as you haven’t experienced

this: to die and so to grow,

You are only a troubled guest

on the dark earth”

Noetic education embraces mystery … not the delusion of


Mystery brings us into the experience of awe for a universe

that we will never really understand. In this humility we find our true

place in a world that asks only that we be present to her needs. Our

calling is nature’s place for us. The moment we deny our calling, our

nature begins to die. The poet James Baldwin recognized this when he


“The moment we cease to hold each other

The moment we break faith with one another

The sea engulfs us and the light goes out”

It has been more than two millennia since “modern mankind” discovered the

power of the scientific method. “May God us keep from single vision and

Newton’s sleep” wrote William Blake. The power of our science is now capable of

unleashing nightmarish realities for our planet – only an education of the heart is

capable of leading us back to the power of our purpose.

Only the heart can awaken us from Newton’s sleep and bind us all in this wild

passionate embrace we call life.

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