12/21 – Wayfinding for Perpetual Well-Being in Higher Education

December 2019 / Feature Articles

Devon Almond

Devon Almond

When a meditation college from Mainland USA identified the most remote place in the world as an ideal location for higher education study-abroad programs, the college initially looked within for commitment from 10 of its current undergraduate students who together formed the initial cohort of an experimental semester in sustainability education. For the college that pioneered the first Sustainable Living degree in North America, the Big Island of Hawai’i would become home to a series of higher education study-abroad programs over the next 2.5 years. Having recently wrapped-up these programs in Spring 2019 with a Leadership in Sustainability professional certificate program, I write this article from a reflective perspective that describes the philosophical contexts of our life-work oriented education – that is, wayfinding for perpetual well-being. Integral theories offer an orienting framework.

Hawai’i as a Laboratory for Perpetual Well-Being

“Aloha is the intelligence with which we meet life.” –  Olana Kaipo Ai (Aluli Meyer, 2013)

For many Americans, Hawai’i with its beautiful beaches and warm weather is an ideal location for a vacation. Digging a little deeper, this tropical paradise with its diverse ecosystems and rich cultures is also an ideal location for vocation. To paraphrase Eleanore Roosevelt, we would benefit from less vacation and more vocation (Living Compass, 2018). Deriving from the word, voice, vocation necessitates listening to the intelligence with which we meet life. In doing so, we might more effectively respond to Parker Palmer’s 1999 inquiry of “Is the life you’re living also the life that wants to live through you?”(6). Personally, this poignant question has been a primary consideration for many years.

As the former director of these higher education study-abroad programs, it was important for me to ensure that both students and faculty practiced listening to the still whispers within and without to allow what wants to emerge to emerge within ourselves, our communities, our practices, along with systems and nature. Listening in this generative way means connecting to the indigenous source of all that is, was, and ever will be. Relating listening to aloha, Le and Shim (2014) acknowledge that “… listening with emptiness means to listen deeply, beyond words and sounds as symptoms” (8). In listening to this presence-of-breath, which, according to James (1994), points to the origins of the word, aloha, we wanted to fully and freely embrace the Hawai’ian word for sustainability, mauo, meaning perpetual well-being.  

As a laboratory for perpetual well-being (i.e. sustainability), it was important for program faculty to develop life-affirming containers that embrace reverence within the various tight-knit communities of the island not as tourists, but as lovers (Sirolli, 1999) and pilgrims (Kumar, 2009) on an odyssey of becoming more and more of who we already are. In pointing to how people relate to the earth in one of two ways, Satish Kumar communicates that tourists value earth strictly in terms of usefulness to themselves, whereas pilgrims receive the planet in a sacred way that recognizes the intrinsic value of all life. As pilgrims, we certainly didn’t want to become “haoles” or outsiders in traditional Hawai’ian communities (Rohrer, 2010). Rather, we sought to embrace local customs and the various indigenous ways of knowing embedded throughout traditional Hawai’ian cultures. These ways of knowing, deeply rooted in the lessons of place, reflect an enduring wisdom that hold energetic frequencies distinct from both the knowledge and information of conventional higher education (Aluli Meyer, 2013).  To demonstrate, Aunty Pilahi Paki, known as the Keeper of the Secrets of Hawai’i, points to the enduring and perennial nature of perpetual well-being (i.e. sustainability) inherent within aloha: 

  • Akahai – grace, meaning kindness, to be expressed with tenderness
  • Lokahi – unbroken, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony
  • Olu’olu – gentle, meaning agreeableness, to be expressed with pleasantness
  • Ha’aha’a – empty, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty
  • Ahonui – waiting for the moment, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance                   (Le & Shim, 2014)

If you have traveled across Hawai’i, you may have noticed that the well-being of aloha spirit, or the subtle intelligences with which we meet life, is often embedded across the islands. This is in part because in the 1980s the Hawai’ian government institutionalized a law that required businesses to embody aloha spirit, which, like mindfulness, is essentially the opening and integration of mind and heart (Le & Shim, 2014). Indeed, you can tell a lot about the people of a place through the institutionalization of its laws. This is an excellent example of institutionalizing kuleana, the Hawai’ian word for responsibility.

In visiting cultural and sustainability practitioners with a deeply sensed kuleana across Hawai’i’s Big Island, students quickly came to recognize and re-cognize how the nature of work, itself, can be deeply fulfilling and meaningful—what management theorist Douglas McGregor first termed Theory Y and humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, recognizing a transcendent dimension of purposefulness, later identified as Theory Z (McGregor, 1960). Drawing on the work of Kabat-Zinn (1994), many students opened up to noticing what’s noticed, on purpose, in the present moment, with caring intent and compassionate judgement. For example, noticing the daily inspirations, curiosities, and aliveness of kuleana pointed student’s mindsets in very different directions than the Theory X orientation of drudgery so prevalent in students’ home regions across Mainland USA (McGregor).

 From utilizing community-based learning that included embracing the Hawai’ian language, rebuilding ancient sandalwood forests, and restoring native Hawai’ian taro patches, many of us realized the transcendent I-am-ness in ourselves and across Hawai’ian people and places. In doing so, we came to understand how often on Mainland USA, aina, the Hawai’ian word for land, represents a quality that is culturally misplaced, pushed away, and divorced of sacredness like a distant shadow in the progression through the subtleties of modernity and post-modernity. Moreover, we came to realize how many of the pertinent issues to islanders seemed to ultimately be worldview clashes. For instance, Mauna Kea, one of the world’s largest mountains located in the most remote place on the earth, is understandably both one of the most optimal places in the world for scientific research on the galaxy and a deeply sacred place for local indigenous cultures. Aptly, we considered an integral orientation for higher education to understand these issues.

Integral Orientation for Higher Education

“Higher education loses upon the world too many people who are masters of external, objective reality; with the knowledge and skill to manipulate it, but who understand little or nothing about inner drives… We need to stop releasing our learners into the wild without systematically challenging them to take an inner as well as outer journey.” – Parker Palmer & Arthur Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education (2010)

Conventional and alternative approaches to higher education pit themselves against each other not recognizing the blindspots inherent in each approach. Drawing on the work of Esbjörn-Hargens (2005), integral education integrates both the exterior orientation of conventional education and the interior orientation of alternative education as equal and opposite complementarities. Aware that meditation colleges often favor interior experiences at the expense of exterior impacts, the design of our higher education study-abroad programs intended to include the institutional hallmark of meditation to inform, influence, and inspire students’ life-work. Unlike the life-first oriented nature of alternative education, which emphasizes the interior at the expense of the exterior and the work-first oriented nature of conventional education that emphasizes the exterior at the expense of the interior, we aimed to integrate these two approaches into life-work oriented education. As such, the life-work of vocation came to be at the forefront of our programming through wayfinding for perpetual well-being.

Wayfinding for perpetual well-being, represented by cultivating calling, vocation, life-work, kuleana, and purpose(s) are often implicit elements in integral theories and practices. While clearly embedded in integral communities through language, such as the dharmic dance of the evolving unique self (Gafni, 2012) or the Yellow Strategist’s grand vision to self-actualize their work in the world, the largely implicit nature of purposes is unsurprising. This is partially because purposes, which originate in the UL quadrant, represent blindspots in the disciplines of both psychology and spirituality (Gustin, 2017). In describing multiple realms of purpose, Plotkin (2017) points to a realm of purpose that is often missing in integral approaches to human development. Describing a unique and ecologically-grounded realm of purpose, Plotkin suggests that “…widespread access to this realm of purpose would be the single most potent factor in the termination of Western society in its present life-destroying iteration — and in the creation of a just, life-enhancing, and deeply imaginative culture.” (74) This purpose and meaning, which Pink (2011) identified as a core competency in 21st century work, pinpoints a pathway to gently include integral theories in the emerging mainstream of higher education. Gratefully, conventional higher education is also beginning to recognize how purposes represent blindspots across student’s academic experiences (Complete College America, 2019).

For program faculty, integral theories, including those developed by Wilber (1997, 2000) and subsequent theories, offered a profound framework to anchor wayfinding for perpetual well-being in these higher education study-abroad programs. Our life-work oriented education was grounded in personal development, community development, systems thinking, and perspective-taking. As such, our classroom walls included these learning anchors represented in the AQAL quadrants coupled with Integral Leadership Inquiries posed by Vernice Solimar (2011). Examples are “What leadership qualities and values do I aspire to? How strong is my love for the world?” (UL), “Am I walking my talk? Am I embodying my values?” (UR), “As a leader, how I am being with others? Do I communicate with wisdom, peace, and compassion?” (LL), and “Do I understand the systems in which I live? Do I understand the systems I wish to change?” (LR). In addressing these inquiries in an iterative manner, we sought to facilitate transformative learning in a content-neutral way articulated as the “emergence of distinct human capacities in a unique and connected way (that) goes beyond acquiring information and technical skills to developing capacities, habits, integrated skills, and values” (Omer, Schwartz, Lubell, & Gall, 2012, 375). In addition to facilitating the horizontal development of informational education (e.g. acquiring information and technical skills) through, for example, introducing integral theories, program faculty were very deliberate in our quest to develop the vertical capabilities of transformative education (e.g. developing capacities, habits, integrated skills, and values). Ultimately, this life-work oriented education aimed to facilitate students to uncover (i.e. identify, clarify) and unfold (i.e. discern, fulfill) their uniquely-connective places in an evolving world.

The deliberately developmental practices of faculty, along with the meditation practices instilled by the college, ensured that we made room for “I,” “We,” and “It/s” space practices with students. For example, each morning, we utilized our retreat-like setting in the Hawai’ian jungle to dig into sentence stems to uncover and unfold our current state of being and our aspirational becoming individually and collectively. At the start and end of each residential program, we utilized sentence stem evaluations as a marker to measure attitudinal changes in each of the quadrants. In addition to experimenting with 360-degree evaluation processes, we also embraced the continuous improvement process of kaizen with each iteration of programing becoming more nuanced, refined, and fuller. Throughout the programs, we sought to ensure students held deep commitment (UL), wide support (LL), clear challenge (UR), and, through this way-finding for perpetual well-being, created space for systemic impact (LR). To achieve this integral embrace, we relied on Scharmer’s (2016) Theory U as an implicit framework. In my experience, this integrally-informed framework is often used in integral leadership programs. To demonstrate how Theory U was instituted in our programs, I offer an example from the most recent Leadership in Sustainability Certificate professional certificate program:

  • Phase 1: Becoming oriented to aina, accessing our eyes to observe and ears to listen to allow what wants to emerge through contextual learning, we settled into a very comfortable retreat-like setting to gradually let go of our orienting assumptions from Mainland USA, while gently inquiring into “Who is the self? What is my work?” From there, we engaged in a variety of field visits with local cultural and sustainability practitioners. We were “waking-up” into the new intelligences with which we meet life, while also establishing an enduring stability in our home terrain.
  • Phase 2: The next layer of programing was disruption. With camping gear packed, we drove to the other end of Big Island often frequented by heavy rainfall to camp at an intentional community with outdoor showers, composting toilets, and a radical ecological thrust to live in harmony with aina. Despite having recently been directly impacted by the eruption of Pele, the Hawai’ian mythological volcano goddess, the heart-warming community overwhelmingly embraced a serene acceptance of Mother Earth. We were “waking-up” into an additional layer of new possibilities of being and becoming.
  • Phase 3: Our return to the comforts of the retreat-like setting offered students space to make object what was earlier subject (Kegan, 1998). Through this reflection, students began to integrate the experiential learning with their next steps in life upon returning to Mainland USA. As the masculine-oriented Hero’s Journey (Campbell, 1990) and the feminine-oriented Virgin’s Promise (Hudson, 2010) was navigating towards the actualization at the top of the U, students were clearly wayfinding for perpetual well-being (i.e. sustainability).

Wayfinding for Perpetual Well-Being in Higher Education

“The navigator is at the center of a circle of sea and sky, trusting mind and senses within a cognitive structure to read and interpret nature’s signs along the way as the means for maintaining continuous orientation over vast oceanic distance to remote, intended island destinations.” – Will Kyselka, The Hawai’ian Sky (1989)

Hawai’ian wayfinding traditions offer a suitable setting to contextualize this life-work oriented education. Nearly two millennia ago, Polynesian wayfinders set sail into the Pacific Ocean in voyaging canoes on a hero’s journey that would lead them to what would later be known as the Hawai’ian islands. More than these wayfinders viewed themselves as explorers in pursuit of discovering or finding a series of remote islands somewhere “out there” in the ocean, these wayfinding traditions, like the most generative approaches to career development, are grounded in an inner knowing that by setting sail in the direction of our destiny, dharma, or telos, new emergent landscapes reveal themselves. This is to say that as or more potent than exploration-based discovery of some external entity is vision-based creation of that entity from the inside-out. Aptly, Henry David Thoreau’s (1910) reflections on his woodlands sojourn in which he sought to live deliberately, reflect on citizenship, and discern the nature of life and work, wisely concluded:

If you march confidently in the direction of your dreams, and endeavor to live the life you have imagined, you will meet with success in untimely hours. You will put some things behind you and pass an invisible boundary as new universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish around and within you… If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now, put the foundations under them.

This creative advance into the enduring essence of solitude, stillness, and silence that pervades at the bottom of Theory U represents the summit of the career development process. It is here in this place of life where we generatively consider questions like “Who is the self? What is my work?” and “How can I serve profoundly?” Miller’s (n.d.) integral career development process suggests that this Creator archetype ultimately asks “What do I do that no one else does?” in contrast to the more foundational exterior-oriented archetypes, such as the Craftsperson, who asks “What skills do I have or need to acquire for this?” or the Manager, who asks “How do I organize and market these skills?” Clearly, this Creator archetype requires the capacity to listen to the depth structures of the implicit voices calling us into purposeful action in the world – in short, the higher the castle, the deeper the foundation.

In many ways, the Hawai’ian wayfinding traditions of vision-based creation reflects a calling orientation to our work in the world. As Wrzesniewski and colleagues (1997) describe, people tend to orient to our work in one of three ways: a job orientation, a career orientation, or a calling orientation. In short, this spectrum spans from the “outside-in” directive of the social self to the “inside-out” orientation of the essential self. In being guided by the essential self, Beck (2001) points to wayfinders giving attention to the north star that calls them into the next steps of their hero’s journey. In the same way, the Hawai’ian wayfinding traditions involve both inwardly conjuring up islands from the depth structures of the ocean and also being guided by the external patterns of birds, winds, stars, waves, and the sun.

By including both inner and outer compasses in our life-work oriented education, we wanted to facilitate students to both find what they were looking for and also “wake-up” to new emergent possibilities for their lives – that is, to both discover from the outside-in and create from the inside-out. For example, to embrace work in the world that touches into the overlapping nucleus of deep commitment to one’s passions, talents, values, and blisses (UL), clear challenges that embody one’s strengths, skills, and purposeful action (UR), wide support to collaborate with others to address a need in one’s “world” (or culture) (LL), and systemic impact that delivers economic return for one’s work (LR). Reflecting on Wilber’s Big Three, vocation pivots on the nexus of self, society/culture, and service (Palmer, 1999). As such, I propose that life-work oriented education can spark what might become a BOLD being and becoming orienting life direction – a north star, of sorts, that facilitates wayfinding for perpetual well-being in higher education.

Other educational initiatives are also guiding students as wayfinders for perpetual well-being in higher education. In conventional higher education, Complete College America’s (2019) Purpose-First Strategy identifies a clear purpose as the missing link between first-year programs, educational pathways, and career development. Amongst many alternative education examples is the Wayfinding Academy, which is a micro-college in Portland, Oregon, that uses way-finding to anchor its “anti-college” higher education movement (Worthen, 2019). Amongst the most integral and comprehensive of wayfinding initiatives is the Stanford University-supported Project Wayfinder, spearheaded by Patrick Cook-Deegan and colleagues, which “… uses a wayfinding metaphor to equip our next generation with tools to unleash purpose in their lives and meaningfully contribute to the world they are a part of” (Project Wayfinder Education, 2018). This integrally-informed methodology begins with first-person self-awareness, then expands to looking outside of the self to second-person communities and the world (i.e. world awareness), before growing into third-person empowerment to pragmatically make things happen (i.e. purposeful action).

Closing Reflections

In reflecting on our life-work oriented education that wrapped-up in early 2019, I believe we were effective at “waking-up” students to new, emergent landscapes of possibilities (i.e. self and world-awareness), but ultimately the “growing-up” of these possibilities into purposeful action also necessitates re-integrating this contextual learning back into the habitats of graduates’ lives on Mainland USA. While program faculty offered several post-program coaching sessions to facilitate this integration, the lasting impact of the study-abroad programming simply is not clear.

That said, first-hand observations support Lynam’s (2014) findings that learning about human development can, itself, be transformative for sustainability students in both personal and professional manners. Whatever the case, with purposes, like the perpetual well-being of sustainability, becoming increasingly important in life and work (Izzo & Vanderwielen, 2018), we are wise to embrace the life-work oriented waves that are beginning to sweep wayfinding for perpetual wellbeing in higher education into the emerging mainstream.


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About the Author

Devon Almond is fascinated by leading-edge higher education and transformative community development in small towns and small colleges. Place-based research interests involving community colleges, tribal colleges, and college towns allowed him to travel to over 400 college campuses and hundreds of small college towns across North America. Devon has served in professional, academic, and consulting capacities with several rural and remote-serving colleges and universities–from the Yukon, across Western Canada and USA.

One thought on “12/21 – Wayfinding for Perpetual Well-Being in Higher Education

  1. Lesley

    Wayfinding seems well positioned as part of an education program.
    In this case you could not be anything but ‘ haoles’, since that is based on origin.


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