After her bedtime story one night, I was surprised to hear my seven-year-old daughter announce that she saw her angel on occasion. Since it came from a child who usually wants to stay up a little later, I presumed that this announcement had had the desired effect: I slowed my exit and sat on the edge of her bed. I asked her if she saw her angel right now. "Just a minute," she replied. I watched her lie on her bed, close her eyes, and start to take deep, rhythmic breaths. We had never spoken of angels, meditation, or the like in front of her, and had she ever seen anyone do yoga that we know of. While I was not sure what she was doing, it was clear that she knew.
After a few minutes she announced, "Okay, I can see her now." A little startled, I stumbled for questions, and then asked her how she and her angel talked to one another. She reported, "It is kind of like thoughts and pictures all together." I began to ask questions about life, about what the angel was there for, about advice she had for my daughter and, mostly as a test (as I am a good social scientist), about any insight and advice she had for me.
In response to each question, my daughter would pause for a moment and then offer a reply. What was most significant about this whole scene was not that she claimed to be talking to an angel (kids have rich imaginations and might talk with anything); it was the quality of her responses. This perky little girl spoke with a profound depth and wisdom that seemed simply extraordinary and very much out of character. Her answers and comments were elegantly simple the kind that cut right to the heart of the matter and deeply insightful, offering the kind of crystal clarity and remarkable depth that I had not heard from her, and rarely have heard from even the very wisest adults I know.
After about 15 minutes of this dialogue, my daughter started to wiggle, and it appeared that our conversation was nearing its end. I squeezed in one more question: "What does your angel do for you?" She said that her angel reminds her that she is loved, and she described being provided guidance and comfort. She gave me the impression that her angel does not solve problems so much as she provides a bigger or more penetrating view of the issues at hand, giving her a vantage point that seems to help her to center herself, calming worry and doubt. Our conversation seemed to be finished as my daughter shifted back into a sleepy seven-year-old. We said goodnight, and I left her room a little dazed.
Since that time more than three years ago, I have discovered hundreds of children who describe profound spiritual experiences, as well as adults who recall remarkable encounters in their childhood that have shaped the rest of their lives. As rich as my daughters particular encounters with her angel are, they represent only one kind of experience that can be called spiritual.
For example, Kim claims to hear the internal dialogues of others in a form of deep empathy. At eight, Denise asks profound metaphysical questions and then answers them with astonishing wisdom. Laell, 13, reveals the wisdom of her "spirit guides," including information about me in our first meeting that she could not possibly know through conventional means. Five-year-old Eryn sees auras, which offer her remarkably accurate information about those people with whom she comes in contact. Marc, five, tells about a near-death experience in which he accurately describes the events surrounding his recovery from the perspective of above the operating table, even though he had no recorded brain activity at the time. Recalling looking at a fence woven with honeysuckle at three years old, Dana describes a moment of unity and perfection that is indistinguishable from accounts of saints and mystics.
Children have all sorts of rich experiences that we name as spiritual, although generally they do not have the benefit of conversation, comparison, and guidance that might help them to develop and integrate these natural ways of being. The need is to help children refine rather than repress their spiritual sensitivities, integrating a spiritual consciousness and multiple ways of knowing into everyday life.
The research we have gathered provides evidence that overturns the prevailing notion that children really dont have a spiritual life. While they may not have adult language or accepted conceptions of divinity, children clearly describe authentic spiritual experience, and these are often moments that shape the rest of their lives. They experience wonder and awe, intimate connection and communion with the worlds of matter and mind, they relate to the world with compassion and experience interconnection, they express an openness to creativity, experience profound joy and a sense of unity, have a "long view" of life and death, and often form ethics borne of firsthand experience.
At times, they also have difficulties: experiencing things that others may not; knowing in ways that may not be acknowledged, understood, or easily integrated. Often, they learn that it is not safe, sane, or acceptable to see, hear, or think in ways that come so naturally to them. They learn quickly that there is a right way to think and see, and that they had better learn it if they want acceptance and approval. The result is often confusion and frustration that may ultimately lead to self-betrayal; access and trust in their own knowing is closed off.
Childrens spontaneous ability to shift states of consciousness, access information and wisdom, ponder profound metaphysical questions, express understanding and compassion, and experience multidimensionality is unacknowledged or misunderstood. Ultimately, the goal of our work is to help children refine rather than repress their knowing, to integrate rather than dissociate their spiritual lives. For adults, the goal may be to resurrect our own knowing in service of the growth of wisdom and love.
Tobin will be in Seattle November 1 from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at 5031 University Way NE, Room 110, for a free event about childrens spiritual experience. Please join him to listen and to share experiences, to network with one another, and to seek and share insight into the spirit of children. For information, contact <firstname.lastname@example.org> or <email@example.com>, or telephone (770) 836-8584.