THE SPIRITUALITY OF SEL (Social Emotional Learning)


I have known that many New Age-friendly programs fly under the radar in the schools by coming through as part of SEL (Social Emotional Learning). This allows practices like Mindfulness to enter and be viewed unwittingly by parents as educational and scientific (even though such programs are not) in the schools. SEL is about behavior and thinking modification, not education, and has deeply affected public education curriculum, as well as Christian education, since many Christian schools are adopting some SEL programs (either knowingly or unknowingly).


SEL and Systems

SEL is increasingly connected with Systems Thinking, as delineated here and here:



An essential question for the future of education is how to help students understand and respond mindfully and compassionately to the interconnected systemic challenges in our world. These challenges are both global – like climate change, human migration and poverty – and very local, like substance abuse, stress, and cliques and bullying in school. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the complexity, we believe that the innovations in systems thinking education and social and emotional learning and mindfulness that have occurred over the past two decades can build a cognitive and affective foundation of skills essential for students in today’s world. From Compassionate Systems Webinar page  (Bolding added)



The webinar referred to above includes Peter Senge, who is addressed in the next section. Note the bolded text. Mindfulness is Buddhist-based. Senge is a Zen Buddhist.



Systems Thinking’s Spirituality

This is an overview of what I discovered when first looking into Systems Thinking several years ago. Systems Thinking has many offshoots, such as Centers for System Awareness and many other organizations whose members operate in universities, educational organizations, and more. Systems has deeply influenced education, business, and leadership training with its own Buddhist-influenced spirituality which appears to be secular but is not. I read some of the material by and listened to several interviews of its proponents, including books by Systems pioneers Otto Scharmer  and Peter Senge. Scharmer wrote what is viewed as the groundbreaking book for Systems, Theory-U, Leading from the Future as it Emerges (2016), with the Foreword by Peter Senge.


In the books of Scharmer and Senge, I came across Buddhist and New Age concepts, usually not overtly expressed, but the ideas expressed a Buddhist worldview.  I have zero interest in business or corporate management and dreaded reading these books, so I was quite surprised at what struck me as an underlying spiritual worldview. I came across other Systems spokespeople, listened to podcast interviews, and noticed how many of them evoked a spirituality that I would classify as a synthesis of New Age and Eastern views. Two of them were Systems pioneers Betty Sue Flowers and Joseph Jaworski. Flowers


coauthored the influential book Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future (2004) together with Peter M. SengeC. Otto Scharmer and Joseph Jaworski – a predecessor to Theory U: Leading From The Future As It Emerges.



Another example is Joanna Macy, described as a “scholar of Buddhism, Systems Thinking, and Deep Ecology;”



Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and postmodern science. The many dimensions of this work are explored in her thirteen books, which include three volumes of poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke with translation and commentary.

As the root teacher of The Work That Reconnects, Joanna has created a ground-breaking framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.  Source



There is a page for Joanna Macy and her “Work That Reconnects” on the website for the Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado  Naropa Institute was founded by Chogyam Trungpe Rinpoche (d. 1986;“rinpoche” means “teacher”), who was head of the Tibetan Buddhism stream that I was involved with for about a year.



The topic of Systems is too vast an area that deserves more research than what I can do. What I can offer is what I discovered for those interested in doing further research.



The Systems proponents want nothing less than a paradigm shift  the thinking of corporations and education. This promotion of Scharmer’s U Theory enthusiastically touts its spiritual nature.



As I understand it, these proposals were initially for corporate management but shifted quickly into areas such as economic systems and education. A paradigm shift means changing the worldview of leaders in business, economic, and educational systems to pass on to the employees and students.




One critique of Scharmer’s book, Theory U, writes this:



Theory U claims to link new scientific insights with spiritual elements in a way that allows a new political, economic, and religious practice to emerge. It asserts that in the “development of the fourth field of social becoming” practitioners in business, researchers in science, and those seeking meaning in religion will come together and create a common field. In the words of Otto Scharmer, Theory U is a “new science” which brings to light the “invisible dimension of social processes” which “each of us confronts on a daily basis”. To that end, science must be guided by the “will of wisdom” (Scharmer 2009b: 14). “Today’s transformation of science”—which is the phrase used to proclaim almost every paradigm shift—is “no less revolutionary than Galileo Galilei’s in his day”. And—Scharmer’s proactive immunization against criticism races ahead—resistance from the “incumbent knowledge holders will be no less fierce than what Galileo encountered in his day”. One must ask oneself, he writes, “what the synthesis of science, social change, and the evolution of self” could look like. From “The Blind Spots in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U” by Stefan Kuhl, August, 2016



Please note the first sentence in the above excerpt refers to the “spiritual elements” of Scharmer’s ideas. This is exactly what I noticed when reading Scharmer’s Theory U book although it was rather subtle. I think that most people see Scharmer as a philosopher with innovative management ideas and do not detect the spirituality at the base of it. I think this is true with Peter Senge’s material as well.


The article continues:


Later, when it comes to documenting the scientificity of the theory, Otto Scharmer does not provide quotes that reference specific page numbers in the scientific works of others, as is customary in academic research. Instead, he mentions in his foreword that the elaboration of his theory was informed by the thinking of a wide range of prominent thinkers, among them Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jürgen Habermas, and Peter Senge, not to mention “some of the old masters” such as Aristotle and Plato. This is followed by additional references that are specific for his approach such as his “encounter with the work of artist Joseph Beuys” and the work of Rudolf Steiner, whose “synthesis of science, consciousness, and social innovation” was a significant source of inspiration. (Bolding added)



Please note that the names in bold are those of people who had spiritual views that were/are significantly non or even anti-Christian. Nietzsche is famous for his God is Dead ideas and his advocacy of a “superman” idea (adapted by Hitler). Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party  with troubling views about God.



Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and other books, is a Zen Buddhist and appears to be a New Ager as well. Senge is doing work in the SEL areas.



Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who called himself a “Christian mystic,” was not Christian at all. Steiner left the esoteric group, the Theosophical Society, and started his own teachings, called Anthroposophy, garnering followers around the world. Steiner still has followers today and a legacy through methods he started such as Biodynamic Farming and the Waldorf Schools, both of which are based on Steiner’s esoteric, non-scientific views about nature and man. I knew followers of Anthroposophy when I was in the New Age, and my son attended a pre-school run by a member of Anthroposophy who was a trained Waldorf teacher.


When I first looked into Systems Thinking and read Scharmer’s book, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of Systems, of how many people are involved, and the networking done between Systems and business and educational organizations. It is actually too formidable for me to pursue beyond initial investigation as my ministry deals with many other areas.


I would like to point out that those in Systems and SEL believe what they are doing is good. The spiritual views embedded in Systems and SEL are probably not recognized by most who find these ideas positive and intriguing.



Now we come to, CASEL, an organization founded to promote SEL programs.



Founded in 1994 by a group that included Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence, and educator-philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller Growald, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has been a pioneer in the fi eld of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). With the mission of establishing SEL as an essential part of every child’s education, CASEL, a not-for-profi t organization based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, provides national and international leadership to enhance scientific research on SEL and to expand the effective practice of SEL in schools. – Excerpt from Casel Briefs, December, 2007  (please go to link to read more about the funding and other issues; this article is focused only on the spiritual issues).



I have addressed Daniel Goleman several times in my ministry. Goleman, a psychologist with a degree from Harvard, collaborated with the Dalai Lama over at least two decades to introduce the Dalai Lama to scientists (this is one way Buddhist meditation has become touted by neuroscience which led to the influx of Mindfulness into schools and businesses), and he even wrote a book about the Dalai Lama, Force For Good. (Source, “What the Dalai Lama taught Damiel Goleman about Emotional Intelligence” by Andrea Ovans, Harvard Business Review May 4, 2015 ). This was done largely through the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institure. Goleman is listed as a “founding steward” along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Zen Buddhist who developed the first MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1970s.




Goleman also heavily promoted a breathing program for young children in schools called “Breathing Buddies.” He did not come up with this method but when he found out about it, he promoted it. Controlling and manipulating breath is a central tenet of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual teachings and practices, due to their view of the breath as being a connection to spiritual energy or as a way to transcend the body and mind.



The image for this article is a screenshot of Goleman on the Omega Institute website.  (I was unable to include the word Omega in the screenshot). The Omega Institute is a thoroughly New Age organization I have known about since I was a New Age astrologer in the 1980s.



Founded in 1977 by Eastern scholar Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, holistic medical doctor Stephan Rechtschaffen, and educator Elizabeth Lesser, Omega was conceived as a university for lifelong learning. We took our name from the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a 20thcentury Jesuit priest and evolutionary biologist who spoke of the “Omega Point,” or the point of unity toward which all of life is evolving. This movement toward unity, balance, and wholeness—within an individual and in the culture at large—is also expressed by the word “holistic.” And so, Omega Institute for Holistic Studies was born. Source, Omega Institute Website



Goleman’s “emotional intelligence” has been heavily criticized. See critiques here and here.


One of these critiques lists several salient points, including:


      1. He makes unsupported claims about the power and predictive ability of emotional intelligence.
      2. His own, self-created definition of emotional intelligence includes aspects of personality and behavior which are not correlated to emotional intelligence as it is scientifically defined. He also interchanges terms such as emotional literacy, emotional health, emotional skill, and emotional competency. He never defines any of these other terms, but he equates them all to emotional intelligence.
      3. He tries to make us believe he is presenting something new, when in fact much of what he is reporting has been studied for years under personality research.
      4. He implies that anyone can learn emotional intelligence and fails to acknowledge either the relatively fixed nature of the personality traits he includes in his definition of EI or the differences in innate potential among individuals.
      5. He presents himself as the sole expert in emotional intelligence and fails to give adequate credit to Mayer, Salovey, Caruso and others.
      6. He represents his work as “scientific” when it does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.
      7. His personal beliefs about what is “appropriate” contradict the academic theory concerning the value of our emotions. He still seems to regard emotions as largely something to be controlled and restrained, rather than something to be valued.



It is likely that the reason Goleman seems to view emotions as something to be controlled and restrained (point 7) is due to the influence of the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist beliefs about emotions. Emotions in Buddhism are part of the false self that has no substantive existence but as part of the five skandhas (or aggregates), they cause one to think he or she does have such an existence, and therefore causes the person to become more attached to this life, which results in rebirth (the goal is to escape rebirth). So emotions are a negative factor if indulged in or viewed in positive ways.



On a page giving Casel’s history is this:



CASEL’s goal was, and still is, to establish high-quality, evidence-based SEL as an essential part of preschool through high school education. In 1997, nine CASEL collaborators co-authored Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, which formally defined the field of SEL. Over the following decades, a large body of research demonstrated the effectiveness of SEL for supporting students’ academic and long-term success. Demand for SEL surged among teachers, school leaders, district administrators, policymakers, parents, employers, and students themselves. Increasingly, schools, districts, and states across the country are adopting and implementing evidence-based SEL strategies to support local priorities.


I would not give credibility to the “large body of research” because it is likely that such research was done at the request of those promoting SEL values and goals. Moreover, how can some of the claims CASEL supports in SEL even be measured? As one critic points out:


“I’m not convinced, though, that these explanations do much to address critics’ main concern, which has to do with the sheer number and variety of things that have been collected under SEL’s umbrella. As Harvard professor Martin West argues, SEL seems to be a catchall term, applied to just about anything that is “not directly measured by standardized tests,” such as grit, mindset, the 4Cs (creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration), habits of mind, and resilience (Kamenetz, 2017). And as other critics have noted, “Common terms for this set of skills include character education, personality, 21st-century skills, soft skills, and noncognitive skills, just to name a few” (Jones & Doolittle, 2017, p. 3).” From an article by Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas School of Education



Nevertheless, if anyone wants to delve further, check out whether the studies for the research were done by independent unbiased third parties, if the studies were done over a period of time, and if the results were published in peer-review journals. One problem would be that the education field is so saturated with SEL that any journals publishing such articles might be biased toward SEL. I recommend reading the entire article by Yong Zhao to see what concerns already exist with SEL.



CASEL has many proponents and facets, such as the 7 Mindsets. I have not even tried to explore how many there might be, but see the next section for another one.



Conscious Discipline

I was asked about a program for schools called “Conscious Discipline.” The word “conscious” made me think of Buddhism and Mindfulness (Mindfulness is Buddhist in origin and nature), and sure enough, on the site I found references to Mindfulness. In fact, on this page it states that “Conscious Discipline is based on Mindfulness research” (Look in the box labeled the “Seven Powers”).



The term Conscious Discipline” may sound good but should raise red flags because at first glance, it makes no sense. Would not any good form of discipline be conscious? Well, not for those who promote this program because “conscious” has meanings outside of what most people would infer from that word. Be aware that the redefinition of words is a big part of the wave of New Age-Eastern-Secular thinking in the culture.



The mindfulness references made me think of SEL, or Social Emotional Learning. Sure enough, it turns out that Conscious Discipline is a part of SEL. I have warned before about SEL because I consider SEL to be a form of behavior training, not education, based on secular and Buddhist concepts and values.



The popular animated film “Inside Out” is a taste of how Mindfulness sees the mind. Emotions are semi-independent or even independent of the mind and can be tackled according to the values of Buddhism. My article on this movie goes into detail about this, including how many psychologists recognized the Buddhism in this film in an enthused manner.



Buddhism has widely influenced secular psychology (please do a search of Buddhist influence on psychology because there are too many links to include here), and since secular psychology is a component of SEL, it is not surprising that there are Buddhist footprints in it.



Some Christian schools, including pre-schools and daycares, have already have adapted a program like this or another SEL program without investigating, or without being discerning when investigating. Schools and parents need to know about SEL.