This guest post by Rev. Sam Wernham explores the pressures and joys of learning outside of the formal education system. This post forms part of our education and wellbeing series.

Guest post by Rev. Sam Wernham

I wake in the early morning to the sound of the seagulls thudding down onto the roof and then noisily trading insults with the crows in the huge oak that fills the view from my window. Suddenly, I am inspired by the thought of writing about education and wellbeing and feel I have learning experiences to share…

Then I lose it! I get up and start researching theories on ‘transformative learning’, reading reports and books and an hour later I don’t feel wiser or more articulate, but just stupid, depressed and disempowered. Why did I ever think I could write a post for the Network of Wellbeing?

Finally sitting down to write now, I reflect on how often I’ve felt this way during my many years of formal education in school and beyond. Sometimes learning has seemed to be ‘out there,’ a power that belongs to others and ‘something’ to acquire or compete for, to succeed at… or to fail in and more of a source of stress than wellbeing. Yet perhaps learning can also be more than acquiring knowledge and skills, and not so much about ‘becoming better’ in some way, but more about welcoming more fully who we already are – about learning to be.

Relational Learning

I seem to learn the most in relationship and especially in contexts where I feel connected and cared about, even when challenge is part of the mix. These may be human relationships or those within the wider family of life. Much of my current work as a psychotherapist, priest and teacher is an on-going process of discovering how to enable different contexts for ‘relational learning’ both interpersonally and intrapersonally. As one of the writers I ‘lost myself’ to earlier says, “For adults one of the biggest barriers to learning is psychological.”

The psychologist and priest, Frank Lake, wrote about how the earliest stages of our lives are vital in ‘learning to be’. We each discover our own sense of being through receiving a good enough holding within our relationships with our parents and primary care givers. Contemporary mindfulness writer and practitioner, Franklyn Sills, describes how this, “sets the stage for the internalisation of both a unified sense of being and an underlying sense of wellbeing.” This need at the root of wellbeing, of being both received and given to with love and respect recurs throughout life. Many of us are wounded in this learning, such that finding safe spaces in which to heal and discover supportive ways of ‘learning to be’ in relationship with our selves and others are vital.

Lake goes on to describe how an authentic sense of ‘status’ is based on ‘being’ more than ‘doing’, on a lived experience of authentic self expression and relational engagement which then enables personal ‘achievement’ expressed through compassionate service to the world.

UNESCO has published two educational reports in recent decades, ‘Learning to Be’ (1972) and ‘Learning: The Treasure Within’ (1996) out of which came a commitment to ‘Four Pillars’ of ‘knowing, doing, relating and being’ in learning. A report from Brussels this year states that, “In order to seek the treasure within, the learning process and its final assessments need to envisage the person as a whole. This means looking at what a learner’s needs are, and thus, accepting the diversity of learning, what a learner’s specific potential and interests are… Only by learning how to learn and understanding who you are, can you build the foundation for understanding others… Learning, lifelong and life wide is in the context of the community but also contributes to the community.”

A Learning Community

So what might a supportive and enlivening learning community look like? There will be many different examples but I’d like to simply share one picture from my own experience of founding a particular learning community called River Dart Wild Church.

‘Church’ has been a wounding learning experience for many of us, where the ‘lessons’ seem already fixed and ‘faith’ can feel like my experience of schooling, a power that belongs to others, something we either submit to or reject, rather than some inner wellspring uniquely emerging from within our own experience of being alive. So…

Imagine you are going to a completely different kind of ‘church’ one that you may not have visited before. You arrive at the location in the open air, beside a river as the tide is turning. Gathered under the trees nearby are a diverse group of people, most of whom you don’t know. Each picks up a paddle and life jacket and steps into the large canoe waiting by the shore. Together you start to paddle silently towards the sea. It’s not that easy learning to make your own strokes and come into rhythm with each other and sometimes paddles clash or showers of water soak you or neighbours. But gradually there’s more often an experience of working together, of flowing with the tide, of riding waves and wind. There are moments when one takes a pause and is supported by the others. There are moments when all still and drift, to be carried by the river herself. Moments to gaze at the seaweed wrapped branches on the shoreline, at the egrets fishing or the sleek head of a seal… to remember being in communion with all life.

This is a glimpse of the most recent gathering of Wild Church, as we completed a two year pilgrimage along the River Dart from source to sea. It’s been both incredibly simple and deeply profound and perhaps it’s the listening space of silence that is the magic ingredient in being with each other and the natural world we are part of. So I come full circle and return to my waking with the sound of the seagulls, recognising now those moments of being in relationship with myself and in community with the birds and trees and now finally woven together in my own way with the wisdom in those books and reports. I guess I’m hoping to encourage myself as much as others, that ‘learning’ can be a process of welcoming more of the wholeness of ourselves and each other and that simply ‘being’ more deeply present can lie at the heart of both learning and wellbeing.

Get involved

In October, Wild Church launches its new monthly pilgrimage programme with the aid of a grant from the Totnes Wellbeing Fund. Those based in or around Dartington in Devon may like to get involved.

‘Meetings with Remarkable Trees’ kicks off on Sunday 9th October with a fundraising ‘Wild Harvest’ event at Dartington Church at 3pm. Everyone is welcome to join us for poetry, storytelling and cake from 3pm and at 8pm for an inspirational talk on spiritual ecology with Peter Owen Jones, BBC TV presenter of Extreme Pilgrim.

The next event is with Wild & Curious on Sunday 30th October, which will introduce the Dartington chestnut trees. After that, Wild Church will meet on the second Sunday of the month from November onwards.

To find out more about all these events visit Wild Church you can visit their website:

References used in this post: * Clinical Theology (1986) F. Lake * Being and Becoming (2009) F. Sills * Education for Personal Development and Wellbeing (2016) Report by the Lifelong Learning Interest Group.

Photos used in this post: Image 1 taken by Meredith Tam Wernham and images 2 and 3 taken by Beth Thomas.