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What Does “Spiritual Education” Mean?

Preparing children to meet life's challenges

by J.Donald Walters
The first public service that Paramhansa Yogananda undertook after he became a swami was to found a school for young boys. Starting in 1916 in the village of Dihika, Bengal with only seven students, he was “determined to found a school where young boys could develop to the full stature of manhood.” A year later he moved the school to Ranchi and founded the Yogoda Satsanga Brahmacharya Vidyalaya which is still in existence today. Almost sixty years later, in 1972, at Ananda Village, the first Ananda school was founded, based on the ideals and directions that Yogananda laid out about education. Starting also with only seven students, the original Ananda School now has a campus of seven classrooms with ninety students, plus branch schools in Palo Alto, Portland, and Seattle. The following article is from a talk that J.Donald Walters gave in which he discusses the Education for Life system used in the Ananda Schools.

What I’ve tried to do in my life is to take Yogananda’s central teachings and apply them to many fields of life – business, the arts, relationships, raising families, schools, communities, and so on. The education of children was very dear to Yogananda’s heart, but what he actually said about it was very little. Through the years, we have taken what he has given us, meditated on it, and applied our understanding in the Ananda School classrooms in order to deepen our insights and attunement to Yogananda’s vision for spiritual education.

The purpose of spiritual education is to fulfill the divine potential of children, and to prepare them for life by giving them the tools they need to keep on learning throughout the many experiences that will come to them.At Ananda we are trying to develop a system calledEducation for Life, something which is very much needed in society today. The reason for so many of the problems in our world is that we’re giving children what Yogananda called an essentially atheistic view of life. When we rigorously exclude all spiritual teachings and higher values, our children end up getting the message that there aren’t any higher values, and that there isn’t even a God. Children have a natural longing for values and ideals, but our society gives them a universe and a life in which they have no faith. The cynical teachings of modern education are so ego-oriented, and so money and job-oriented that when children grow up cynical and angry at the universe, it’s hardly something to be surprised at. It’s the fault of our society that allows that kind of thing to happen.

When we speak of spiritual education, we don’t mean a church kind of education. What we mean is to help children understand that they’re going to be a lot happier if they are kind to others, and if they work for high ideals. The child who has a little bag of dates and eats them all himself isn’t nearly so happy as the child who shares those dates with others. In all cases, we can see that people who are selfish just aren’t happy, and people who are selfless are happy. They can apply this understanding not only at school, but also at home and everywhere in life. If we can bring this kind of teaching to children, this then is spiritual education.

Another purpose of spiritual education is to build the person on all levels. We are triune beings composed of body, mind, and soul, and if any part of us is starved at the expense of the others, then we aren’t complete. It’s an interesting fact that people who write, as an example of a mental activity, will very often also do something physical to keep themselves grounded. When Yogananda first had an experience of cosmic consciousness, his guru, Sri Yukteswar, handed him a broom, saying, “Let us sweep the porch.” We have to learn to keep these worlds in harmony with one another. If we let one go in favor of the other, in some way we become unbalanced.

Young girl smiling at Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California

An education that ignores individual differences and tries to run children through an assembly line is bound to produce shoddy results. An education that is deep, enduring, and effective must be highly individualized.

In the education of our children, we need to help them develop their characters and their minds, but we must also help them prepare for living successfully in this world. We don’t want them to go out into society and find themselves incapable of relating to what’s going on. They have to have the facts that are a part of our modern upbringing. But they don’t need to have those facts taught to them in such a way as to leave them believing that there’s no value in anything. There is a great deal of emphasis on the wrong things today. The basis of spiritual education is to prepare them for society in a way that will help them to remain idealistic.

Suppose you have children who have learned how to love everyone, who have learned the goodness of life. When they go out into the world they may face hatred, criminal activity, and many other negative things. Will they be able to handle it? This is probably the primary concern that people have with spiritual education. The answer is to be seen in those who live with love. It isn’t as if they become stupid or lose the ability to relate to the world as it is. In fact, the broadest understanding comes from that which is centered in love; the narrowest understanding is that which is centered in hatred. If you’re on the lowest level, you can relate only to the lowest level; if you’re on the highest level, you can relate to all levels. To see that this is true, we can point to examples of people who live that way and who are able to handle life’s many challenges far, far better. I have observed that people who are complete as human beings are generally more successful. A spiritual education can actually guarantee greater success even in the way worldly people define it.

A good example is Yogananda’s most advanced disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda. He was the chairman of several large companies and owned several others. He had the clarity, calmness, and centeredness to be able to pull back from all the stress and excitement and see the way to resolve difficult issues. The secret of his success was the fact that his consciousness was rooted in God, and in the desire for right action.

Children are born with different inclinations, with different strengths, weaknesses, and educational needs. One of the unfortunate aspects of modern education is the assembly-line approach to teaching where the same information is more or less dumped out to everyone. There isn’t any philosophy; it is just information. Small classes, where the teacher can get to know each child personally, are essential for giving individual attention and for discovering what the natural level of understanding is for each child.

Rajarsi Janakananda, chief disciple of Paramhansa YoganandaParamhansa Yogananda’s chief disciple was James J. Lynn, a self-made American businessman who said he was able to accomplish in an hour what would take others many hours, thanks to his mastery of meditation methods such as those taught at Living Wisdom School. By teaching children kindness, concentration, will power, strength of character, truthfulness, and other higher qualities, life is made richer. These are deeply important to the development of the human being, but such things are not taught today in public education. The ultimate purpose of life is not simply to get a job. So many people live this way and then die, not of old age but of deep disappointment with the life they have led. If you don’t know how to be truly happy, money won’t buy it for you.

Spiritual education is training people for life. How many people get married, and then get divorced because they don’t know how to get along with their spouse? They’re not educated for that. nor for life.

Education, rightly understood, is expansion of awareness. It is preparation for that process of real learning which takes place after we leave school, when we are in the constant struggle, the battlefield of life. By giving children the tools and understanding to make the right choices in life, we can lead them to lasting happiness. Then they will be able to achieve the kind of spiritual victories that are the true meaning of success.

What is Education for Life?

Preparing children to meet life's challenges

What is Education for Life?
by J. Donald Walters (author of the book Education for Life)

What do I mean when I say “Education for Life?” I can present the problem and the solution. The problem is that people in traditional forms of education usually approach it from the standpoint of just preparing a person for a job. But one’s job isn’t the definition of one’s life—it’s only that which enables you to have enough money to meet your needs. Our lives encompass a much broader arena than one’s capacity to earn money. Any educational system that teaches only job skills or offers only intellectual information is neglecting the essential needs of human beings. The solution is a form of education that trains us in that which is most relevant to us—how to find lasting happiness in life.

We deeply need proper training in “how-to-live” skills such as how to find the right mate, how to raise our children, how to be a good employee, how to get along with our neighbors, and how to concentrate our minds so that we can draw success into all our endeavors. There are many such skills that are essential to prepare a child for adulthood, and in traditional education many of them are completely ignored. Education for Life is a system that prepares the child to face the challenges of living as a human being, and helps him to achieve balance and harmony in all he does. What we’re really talking about is preparing everyone, not just children, for true maturity. This is a much bigger concept than just coming of age. As defined it in the book, Education for Life, maturity is the ability to relate appropriately to other realities than one’s own. You’ll find that even people of advanced years are often childish and immature with regard to this definition, yet this ability to relate to others’ realities is what education should accomplish.

You can see this ability to relate to other’s realities reflected in people’s conversation. Many times someone will try to discuss a topic from different points of view, but all they’re really doing is hammering on their own position. When a person has achieved the kind of maturity we’re talking about, he is able to listen to others, to absorb when they’re saying, and to relate it to what he already understands in order to come up with new insights. In this way, a discussion can build new understandings for everyone involved. The Education for Life system tries to point the way to maturity. It doesn’t presume to give maturity, but creates a mind-set that will endure for the whole of life. It provides a direction of growth that people can take all the way into old age and still keep growing so that they find things to marvel at in the world around them.

We find that basically we have four tools that enable us to relate to life. First, we have to recognize that since we live in physical bodies, we can see our bodies as tools for helping us to grow. If we don’t properly take care of our bodies, we may find them becoming our foes instead of our friends. Second, we find that we respond to the world with our emotions. If our emotions are always agitated because of intense likes and dislikes, we will respond emotionally to what others say and not really hear them. We may hear our own idea of what they are saying, but if we have an emotional prejudice, we won’t hear the objectively. Third, if we don’t know how to use our will power to overcome faults in ourselves, or to set goals and accomplish them, then we will never know fulfillment in life. Finally, if we don’t develop our intellect, then we cannot understand things clearly, and our life’s experiences will come through our minds in a dull way.

So we have these four basic tools that enable us to grow toward ever-greater maturity: the body, the emotions or feelings, the will power, and the intellect. I’ve observed that the first six years of a child’s life tend to be the period when they have to learn how to get their bodies under control. You’ll see a child of four running down an aisle and knocking over a chair, or falling over something because he didn’t look down. It takes a lot of energy to somehow learn how to get this body working well for us.

During this period from one to six years, it’s important to teach children how to use their bodies to grow in other ways of understanding. For example, drama and dance movements, especially in the first six years, can be extremely important because children learn with their bodies at this stage. If through drama they can act out positive attitudes, or through dance they can be taught movements that help them express expansiveness, then they’re learning in a way that’s appropriate to that level of development. They can be shown those kinds of physical gestures that come with selfishness, for example and those that come with being generous and kind. This can be done in an amusing way so that it’s a game, and they can learn by imitation.

Often we can observe that if a person is unhappy, he’ll tend to look down, to slump forward, or to lean on a table. But conversely, our physical bearing can also influence our thoughts and feelings. If you’re feeling happy but slump forward with your head in your hands, you’re more likely to become open to the thoughts and feelings of depression. If on the other hand, you can sit up straight and look up, you find that this posture helps your emotions and will power. It’s hard to feel that you have a strong will if you sit slumped over. But if you sit straight with your chest up, it’s much easier to affirm that you’re strong and able to combat this difficulty or overcome that obstacle.

As the child matures and the intellect is brought into play, it’s very important to understand the effect of physical posture on our mental functions. The seat of the intellect is located at the point between the eyebrows, or the frontal lobe of the brain. Physiologists say that anatomically this is the most advanced part of the brain and it’s from here that we reason. If we can learn to bring our energy upward to this part of the brain, we find that we can think more clearly. If, however, we allow our energy to sink downward, it’s much more difficult to think deeply.

The next tool of maturity is the feelings, and these come into play during the next six year period from six to twelve. At this time, it’s easiest to instruct children through their feelings, and to inspire them through stories of heroism and courage. It’s essential to give them fitting role models to follow—to talk about people throughout history who have done inspiring, great and beautiful deeds. There are so many such stories, but in our day and age it seems to be a practice to show that these heroes weren’t all that great after all. It seems to be the cynical philosophy of our time to bring people down to the lowest common denominator. I think that there are great things that man is capable of accomplishing, and we should explore that potential during these “feeling years.”

Then we have years from twelve to eighteen—the terrible teens! This is the time when children want to express their own individuality. In theory, at least, it could be a beautiful time, but in our culture in America, it’s a period of rejecting the family, tradition, and authority on most levels. Yet it is also has a positive side—affirming strength of will and independence. If we can then encourage the development of will in wholesome ways through offering challenges and encouraging service to others, we can help those children develop self-control and discipline. This will help them from falling into the bad habits that weaken their will that many acquire during their teens. If you affirm your ego and your own desires with the attitude of “what I want is all that’s important,” you become contractive and in the long run weaken your will. This self-focus and defiance may strengthen self-will, but that’s not the kind of will we’re wanting to develop. Rather we want to help teens acquire the kind of will power that helps them overcome the real challenges they’ll face in life.

Finally, we reach the ages from eighteen to twenty-four years when many children go to college, and you find them sitting around coffee tables talking about Life, with a capital “L,” and discussing the great thinkers and philosophers throughout history. At this time, we consciously need to try to develop their intellects and help make their thinking clear. It takes 24 years to get all these tools of maturity—the body, feelings, will, and intellect—developed and harmonized so that we can continue to grow throughout life. It shortchanges us to think that we’ve been completely educated when we leave school, because education essentially begins then. These four tools of maturity help us to grow all the way through life and not become a spent force by the time we’re forty.

We are now living in an age of energy where we understand that the universe around us is essentially formed of energy, not matter. This vision of a more fluid reality demands that we get away from dogmatic thinking where we see things as absolutely this or that. They can be BOTH! Instead of “either/or,” why not think “both/and”? So we have come to the point of accepting a more sophisticated approach to education, to logic, and to moral values which is directional, not absolute. This Education for Life system reflects and ever-expanding view of reality in which the child, the adult, and, on the deepest level, the eternal soul can grow to embrace broader and broader realities, until at last we can glimpse the Infinite Consciousness.