Schools have historically provided refuge for notions of what is right in the world. Recent events are sadly expanding the spectrum of challenges facing our public schools. From shocking and life-altering violence to the challenges of what students can and cannot read, communities struggle to understand their role in supporting healthy and whole child outcomes.
Social-emotional Learning (SEL), a focus of schools that once felt like an automatic to be fully embedded in education, has also felt the collective wrath of a society unsure of what constitutes ‘right’ from ‘wrong.’
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the preeminent SEL research and practice body, finds that when students have supportive relationships and opportunities to develop and practice social, emotional, and cognitive skills, academic learning accelerates. With meta-analysis across 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students, SEL programs produced 27% improvement in academic performance, and 24% more would have improved social behaviors and lower levels of distress.
Proponents define social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals.
The documentary Chicago: America’s Hidden War demonstrates the lasting impact of violence on the daily fabric of school children’s lives. Witnessing the death of fellow students while surrounded by violent crime is a constant stressor for children. Outside of the long-term psychological effects that carry over to adulthood, there is an immediate consequence to student concentration and overall classroom learning.
The question becomes, what direction should our gaze fall in to find an emotional footing to sustain the current societal climate?
The adults in the room are turning to education outside traditional paths to gain perspective. Matt Kahn, spiritual leader, author, and educator noted in Watkins magazine as one of the top 100 most spiritually influential living people (alongside the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle), is bringing a message of healing, heart, and unity. Kahn is the author of numerous books, including his second work, Everything is Here to Help You, featured in the “Be Kind” box by Ellen DeGeneres.
His most recent book, All For Love: The Transformative Power of Holding Space, is receiving early accolades sure to bolster his already widespread YouTube presence as “The I Love You Guy,” with over 20 million subscribers.
This reporter sat down with Kahn for a very engaging conversation spanning self-awareness, transformation, and the role education can play in developing emotional learning environments that prepare and bring consciousness and expression to all involved.
Rod Berger: I want to understand the origin of healing for you. Can you take us back to your early days and your recognition of the emotional radar that might have been tuned at a different level than the kids around you?
Matt Kahn: When I was a kid, I was confused by other people’s experiences and couldn’t tell where my experience began. I believed that others didn’t like me if they weren’t overflowing with joy. I was the exuberant, enthusiastic kid who would come into the playground as everyone’s best friend. If people didn’t meet me completely open, I felt rejected.
I didn’t know it then, but my family dynamic had created energetic or vibrational codependency, where my job was to cheer everyone up. As long as everyone was happy, I felt accepted by people. It was a coping mechanism that I developed very early.
I was raised in a family of great love but with extreme emotional volatility. I learned to survive my household by managing my parents, which taught me how to manage people. However, as an empath or someone who can feel other people’s emotions, I was constantly in a state of management. If people weren’t happy, I believed I was on the chopping block to be rejected.
It was an interesting mixture of being confused by my experiences, being incredibly codependent, managing most of my relationships, and feeling a deficiency of connection by living that way. These became the building blocks for what would set the stage for incredible healings and revelations in life. I became very aware that within me and all beings is the light of spirit. I began connecting with that more, becoming part of the transforming agent throughout my life.
Berger: Could you give an example of when you discovered the lens of an empath. What was the biggest change you noticed within yourself that you now carry over to your work?
Kahn: There was this guiding voice, feeling of “Watch this, record this, study this.” It was part of managing. I was my parents’ marriage counselor since 11. Intense emotions, but I didn’t have any options. I adapted to intensity.
I became aware of the bigger revelations of gifts awakening within me. It brought me relief when I could feel other people’s experiences and pains. I could feel from their body what they may not be able to put into words and a recognition that it’s not the same as walking in their shoes.
Berger: When did your understanding of self truly heighten in you to do what you do today?
Kahn: It all started clicking for me when I was a young adult. A certain grace opened up in me. There are a couple of things that I noticed when it happened. One is I had this spontaneous new ability to be completely honest about my experience without feeling embarrassed. I found a sense of power in being more authentic than I had ever been throughout my life as a young child.
When I woke up, I could be honest about my experience, not my perception of other people, but open with myself and my vulnerability. I found the deeper I went into the guts of my experiences, the more relief I felt.
Individuality Impacts Perception
Berger: Can you discuss the challenges of gender and how it defines perceptions? In the case of males, the sense of humility, shame, and perception of self can often get in the way. You are an outlier in many regards, but could you talk about gender perspectives?
Kahn: The male and female energies, both polarities, exist in each human being in varying degrees. I’ve always felt different, and acting helped with a grounding at a young age.
I see the masculine energy as an unconscious wound that tends to hide in deception. I think the masculine uses the ability to deceive, to hide wounds that they believe will make them look less lovable and less attractive. It’s really the fear of persecution.
We can also look historically and say that the unconscious masculine, in a thirst for power and greed on a considerable level, has caused persecution. Our job as souls in a masculine body is to heal lineages and generations of atrocity and war by removing the armor and helping dissolve the battlefield of difference. I heal victims; I heal predatory behavior because my life is dedicated to wiping injustice, cruelty, and abuse off the face of the planet.
It’s important to recognize that the male gender has been a proponent of overpowering marginalization, attempting to have more while leaving others with less. Unconscious behaviors of scarcity, survival and struggle are part of the mix.
My life purpose is to look at my skin color and gender and say, “I’m going to be a course corrective experience.” So as a man, I take off the armor and defense and let my heart lead the way. I use the mind, so the rational and the heart can work together.
Berger: I recently interviewed Irshad Manji, who works with moral courage on her platform and has done some fantastic things. She corrected me when I spoke about the male gender and fragility, pointing to the fact that human fragility should be the focus. Can you expand on the idea of human fragility?
Kahn: When I think of fragility, I think of uninformed sensitivity. And sensitivity is the ability to feel with awareness. Fragility is where the human consciousness begins its journey.
A societal theme is repeatedly happening and will continue until the world starts opening up and connecting. The theme is absorption foreshadows transcendence. Because we are transcendent collectively, we must first fully absorb it.
There is an absorption of systemic racism seen in the George Floyd incident. Women (the Divine Feminine) are rehashing persecution with Roe v. Wade, but there is an absorption of that too. Right now, all the camps and sides are absorbing separation, differences, and judgment, eventually leading to transcend it in time.
It’s easy to be distracted by the flashy news headlines, pulling people into separation. But peace flourishes in the state of unity consciousness. If we’re going to be in unity, we must first absorb the drastic separation, so there is somewhere to go. Pressure is building for a giant existential release, allowing us to know one another as individuals and counterparts of the same consciousness.
Emotionally Intelligent Education
Berger: How can we move from being a very reactive society to being proactive, and where do you believe education fits into that role? How can we support the next generation of teachers and educate parents and communities to recognize a young Matt Kahn or the kid in the back of the class that isn’t receiving attention?
Kahn: I think we are at a time in history where we must also include an equal amount of emotional intelligence in learning. The real world asks for many emotional intelligence skills. If school is the preparatory environment entrusted, there needs to be a focus on preparing youth for life.
There needs to be more training, emotional intelligence, and an awareness of what feelings are trying to evoke to develop the self-worth skills that say, “I’m not getting this from this person, this parent, or whomever, but how can I give it to myself?”
When talking about emotional intelligence, we should also include the importance of artistic self-expression with more arts and music in schools tied to funding.
Education can be holistic and balanced, providing options and experiences in many areas to see how children connect to various fields. A kid might respond to athletics, the arts, poetry, music, or fields that ask for empathy and care. Bringing in experiences for things like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, practice, kindness, and self-love is also important. It’s about exposure to experiences that will allow human beings to better prepare for the world they’re entering.
What I would love to see taught in schools, as a core curriculum, is understanding the winner’s role and how competition is about two sides. Talking about this subject is really about the ability to overcome our fears.
Berger: You speak of authentic experiences. There appears to be a concentration with youth today through social media and other platforms affecting how they look at themselves and feel the need to present to the world. There’s a pressure to document life and have followers that are not realistic or necessarily healthy from an emotional perspective. Can you discuss reality vs. perception?.
Kahn: I love this conversation. In this social media era, self-worth is driven by popularity. People from a very early age are almost monetizing themselves. From a spiritual perspective, if people are conditioned to define their self-worth by social media popularity, their sense of self is from a space of objectification.
Some wounds occur when we are treated more like objects than holistic expressions of spirit. Past pain is often the result of objectification on so many levels. That mentality says, “if I’m a good object, that means I’m doing good.”
It goes back to absorption foreshadows transcendence. We are absorbed in one of the highest spikes of socially acceptable objectification, and it’s setting the stage for us to start waking up collectively to know ourselves more than an object of someone’s desire. To understand ourselves as the consciousness knowing itself through the breathing, growing organism of a human being.
We create a shelf life if we see ourselves as products on social media. The purpose of spiritual expansion is to wake up from the cycle of birth and death and realize that we are actually timeless beings in these bodies. We are putting these bodies on a field trip to say, “Here’s the world we live in; let’s evolve, grow, and make this world better than we entered.”
Berger: What is your relationship with success, considering the humility you bring to your practice and life?
Kahn: My focus on love is the core element of my deepest, most provocative spiritual journey. I define success by the passion I have for service. The applause I get reflects the purity of my service. The number of people appreciating my work shows me how many people I am serving. What I offer in terms of clarity, the healing energy that people feel around me, and the transformation impact I make shows me how much passion I have for service.
Education has, for generations, found comfort in knowing the proverbial ‘answer.’ The challenge to this legacy paradigm may just be the variation emotionality brings to people of all ages and stages of life.
The efforts of CASEL and the Matt Kahn’s of the empathy world can serve as both opportunities for learning and a societal litmus test for the current status of how we can educate and support those generations tasked with taking the baton from the adults in the room.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.