The Story of the Beginning of the Ananda Schools
by Michael Nitai Deranja © 1980
A Search for Direction
THE PLIGHT OF modern education continues to attract an abundance of constructive criticism. In most cases this concern has been expressed in a call for new curriculum materials, better facilities, increased financial support, and more highly trained teachers. Over the past two decades, however, symptoms that range from violence and drug abuse to declining test scores and teacher “burnout” suggest that these traditional solutions are proving to be sorely inadequate. The solutions themselves are obviously good ones; why then the steady deterioration in the quality of our schools?
My purpose in writing this book is to suggest that the error lies not in the solutions themselves but in the context of their application. If we are to be successful in our efforts at reversing the prevailing trends, we will need to pause and reconsider some of our basic assumptions about education. The prevalence of the above symptoms offers strong evidence of a serious imbalance in our understanding of children’s needs. Progress in rectifying this imbalance requires openness to fresh perspectives along with a willingness to experiment with new techniques and methodologies.
My own awareness of these issues sharpened considerably during the Spring of 1972 with the completion of my initial year of teaching in public school. In my classroom I experienced all the trials and tribulations of a typical first year teacher: a lack of understanding about discipline, a lack of background for producing a steady flow of stimulating lessons, and a lack of time to effectively implement the ideas I did have. However, these problems seemed to be a result of inexperience, and I felt that with another year or two in the classroom I would be able to do work comparable to that of the other teachers in the school. What bothered me, eventually to the point of turning in my resignation at the end of that year, was something deeper. Although my insights at that time were vague, in retrospect the basic problem came down to a question of priorities. Underlying all of our activities, the unspoken purpose of the school system was academic competency. It was not that I thought academic instruction unimportant; it was simply that I felt there was more to childhood than learning how to read or do arithmetic. My whole orientation as a teacher though was in terms of academics with little time or energy left over for the other needs of the children.
My concern developed gradually. One morning it would be Angie, my shy, frail second-grader coming to class with tears in her eyes, sitting quietly by herself in the back of the room. I was unable to give her the attention she needed because my primary focus was on the needs of my reading groups. Another time it would be Chuck, my outrageous but energetic disciplinary problem, having an even worse than usual morning. When I finally found time to talk with him, it was to learn he had missed breakfast because his parents were fighting. I could not help wondering how I would have acted if at eight years old I had come to school under those conditions and been told somewhat brusquely to take out my math book and get to work on today’s lesson.
My basic frustration, though, was not confined to these special situations; it centered rather on the growing realization that I simply did not know my students in any real sense. Even in the few cases where I did manage to establish a deeper relationship, it became only too clear that I lacked both the tools and the basic orientation for knowing how to help them grow.
Sometimes I wondered whether my concerns were based on real needs or if they were only a product of my inexperience. These doubts dissolved, however, as I observed what was happening to the older students as they reached junior high and high school. I simply could not accept the preoccupation with alcohol, drugs, and sex; the display of abrasive manners, and the general lack of values as being “normal.” In looking for solutions, I examined such new programs as “Values Clarification,” “Self-Concept Development,” and “Affective Education.” However, the practice of setting aside one or two periods a week for special class discussions seemed to lack the scope necessary for any major breakthroughs. As a result I felt the need to step completely outside the public school system for a better perspective on the overall situation. Perhaps I could at least learn to ask the right questions: What was worth teaching? Was it possible to help students in the more personal aspects of their lives? What role did academics play in this broader context? My search for answers to these questions brought me the opportunity of working with an approach to education which offered the fresh orientation I was looking for. It is the insights I have gained during my eight years as founder/director of the Ananda How-to-Live Schools that I would like to share here with others who are concerned about the adequacy of modem education.
How-to-Live Schools: First Experiences
THE SCHOOL is a part of Ananda Cooperative Village, an intentional community of some 180 adults and children, located on 700 acres in the Sierra foothills of Northern California The community is based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, a modem-day master of yoga and was founded in 1967 by one of his direct disciples, Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters). A primary purpose of the community has been to provide a setting for the application of Yogananda’s principles of How-to-Live Education. First established in India in 1917, How-to-Live Schools provided an educational environment that combined the strengths of the recently introduced British schools with the ideals of the gurukul, India’s ancient and traditional approach to education. Where the British system specialized in preparing students to cope with the complexities of modem culture; the gurukul excelled in developing the spiritual and moral aspects of man’s nature.
In spite of its humble beginnings, a small mud hut and only seven students, the school received a quick and enthusiastic reception from the Indian people. During the first year, the Maharaja of Kasimbazar volunteered to underwrite all expenses and provide one of his palaces as the school’s permanent home. By the end of the second year, when facilities had been enlarged to accommodate one hundred students, applications had reached two thousand. The school’s uniqueness also drew the attention of some of India’s leading public figures. Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel prize-winning poet and founder of his own school, Santiniketan, invited Yogananda for a visit to compare notes on educational ideals. Later, Mahatma Gandhi visited the school and spoke appreciatively of its efforts.
Yogananda’s career as an educator was interrupted in 1920 when he came to America as the Indian delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals. After the conference he stayed in the United States for the remaining thirty years of his life fulfilling his mission of bringing yoga to the West. He felt that the next step in man’s evolution would occur as a result of the harmonious exchange between Occidental material development and Oriental spiritual understanding. The field of education offered fertile ground on which this interchange could take place. In 1925 he wrote:
“I sincerely praise the modem school system of America and its constantly improving methods of intellectual and, to a certain extent, physical, training. But I cannot fail to point out its main, shortcoming: a lack of spiritual background. The system badly needs to be supplemented with moral and spiritual training. The boy who belongs intellectually to class A, or who is a great baseball or football player, often attracts notice and is encouraged by the teacher, but very few observe or warn him rightly if he is leading a dark class D moral or spiritual life.”1
After listening to Yogananda’s description of How-to-Live Schools, the famous American horticulturist Luther Burbank commented, “Swami (a title of Yogananda’s), schools like yours are the only hope of a future millennium. I am in revolt against the educational systems of our time, severed from nature and stifling of all individuality. I am with your heart and soul in your practical ideals of education.”2 Conditions were such, however, that few others were able to appreciate Yogananda’s observations. Before his How-to-Live Schools could be established, the adults, he realized, must first be awakened to the impending crisis that would result from our unbalanced approach to education.
Fortunately, he summarized his seed thoughts in three basic documents: first, the Psychological Chart, a comprehensive questionnaire developed in India (circa 1918) for ascertaining the basic cultural, physical, psychological, and environ mental factors contributing to the child’s nature; second, the “Balanced Life,” an article (1925) that defines the How-to-Live curriculum by listing specific goals for the harmonious physical, mental, social, and spiritual upliftment of the student; and third, a chapter in his book Autobiography of a Yogi which describes the daily activities of the school in India. Here he comments on the agricultural, industrial, commercial, and academic programs of instruction, the regular periods of outdoor study and work, the variety of pets, the participation in competitive sports, and the special classes in yoga postures and meditation. These three resource articles were complemented in the summer of 1978 when Kriyananda outlined a series of six year rhythms or cycles in childhood that suggest important considerations for the timing and style of presentation for How-to-Live principles.
I wish I could say that coming into contact with these writings on How-to-Live Schools immediately answered all my questions. As it was, I first reacted to the “Balanced Life” article as a more or less typical compilation of such moral principles as honesty, kindness, and perseverance. The Psychological Chart seemed a rather involved series of questions, many of undetermined importance in my work with the children.
Failing to grasp the significance of these works, my initial goal was to set aside all the usual assumptions about how a school should operate in order to get at the basic issues involved in working with children. Since only one of my seven students had previously attended school, few, if any preconceptions existed on their part, a factor that contributed to the purity of the experiment in sometimes unforeseen ways. I remember finding an old bell that I hung up with the thought that it would make an appropriate way of beginning the school day. When I rang it on the first morning of the fall term, most of the children looked up briefly from their various activities to find out where the noise was coming from. One or two thought it looked like fun and came over to see if they could have a turn. None shared my association of bell ringing with the start of school.
With the children’s help the questioning of basic routines gradually extended into all areas of the classroom. Reading, writing, math; schedules, assignments, expectations were all sacrificed for the sake of finding out just what would happen if you let seven young children and one inexperienced teacher spend time together in the semi-renovated chicken coop that served as our initial schoolhouse. As might be expected, the initial experience was somewhat chaotic. Bullying, name-calling, teasing, and arguing were among the first forms of behavior to fill the vacuum created by the lack of structure and direction. Fortunately for the children’s sake, I soon began to make the kind of observations that have helped me understand and utilize the subtle yet exceedingly practical implications of Yogananda’s ideas.
Over the years a definite framework has evolved for meeting the overall needs of the children. The rest of this book will present this framework for How-to-Live Education in four steps: first, that there is a dimension of consciousness underlying our lives that expands progressively from a selfish preoccupation with personal concerns to a joyous appreciation of the interdependence and oneness of all life ; second, that there are a number of physical, mental, social, and spiritual factors that contribute to growth along this dimension; third, that childhood offers special opportunities for development through a succession of rhythms or cycles; and fourth, that the sensitivity and awareness of the teacher is an essential ingredient in helping the child toward the realization of his highest potential.
The Dimension of Consciousness
IN THE WEST moral education has traditionally been confined to the learning of a set of abstract dogmas that are used in judging the rightness or wrongness of a specific thought or action. The task of life lies in the struggle to conform one’s behavior to these standards of conduct. By contrast, Yogananda sought to show that these external codes are in fact derivatives of a deeper, more responsive dimension of morality that forms an integral part of life itself. From this perspective the rules & regulations become aids in helping us refine our sensitivities until we can directly and clearly experience this dimension for ourselves. The growing sense of joyful self-integration that accompanies the harmonizing of our behavior with this inner guide offers a pleasing alternative to the stark adherence to rigid moral codes. Far from being a system of lifeless abstractions or arbitrary social conventions, moral education becomes a practical means of learning to choose those ways of living that are most conducive to lasting contentment and fulfillment.
Yogananda’s description of this direct, personal basis for morality is by no means unique. In our own tradition we have men like Jefferson, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King whose words and actions were motivated by an immediate sense of morality that required them to challenge the social mores of their day. Until recently, little attention has been given to the implications of this approach for society in general and classrooms in particular. The work of Leonard Kohlberg, Harvard professor of Education and Social Psychology, has given considerable impetus to interest in this area.
Comparison of Kohlberg’s Stages and the Indian Caste System
|Directly attuned to the inner self as a source of moral direction and
|Inner directed but requires support from like-minded people
|Concerned with helping others through use of existing social order.
|Concerned about needs of family, close friends, etc.
|Works only for direct personal gain.
|Works only when required to.
In a cross-cultural study of moral development,3 Kohlberg found in every society a common progression which he classified into three levels- Preconventional, Conventional, and Principled with each level divided into two sub-stages. At the Preconventional level people make their decisions on the basis of avoiding punishment (stage 1), or satisfying their own needs (stage 2) in the sense of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” At the Conventional level people make decisions in accordance with the expectations and needs of a peer group which might be limited to a family or community (stage 3), or include the broader considerations of nation or world (stage 4). Here the goal is the maintenance of the existing social order. At the Principled level people begin to act in accordance with ideals that transcend existing social convention, initially on the basis of the support derived from other like-minded people (stage 5), The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offer prime examples, and later solely on the basis of their inner allegiance to such principles as justice, equality, and human dignity (stage 6). In Kohlberg’s words: “Our studies show not only that the same basic moral concepts are used in every culture, but that the stages of their development are the same in every culture. Furthermore, our experimental work has demonstrated that children move through these stages one at a time and always in the same order.” 4
Interestingly enough, the Vedic era of India which developed the gurukul that Yogananda used as a model for How-to-Live Schools, also recognized a parallel system of moral progression (Table A) which served as the basis for the original caste system. In that period caste was determined solely on the basis of personal character, not on heredity. It proved an important means for both effectively matching individual capabilities with social roles and for generating a dynamic sense of moral development throughout society. People operating at the least developed level, Sudras, simply lacked the motivation for any kind of behavior apart from satisfying the most primitive human needs for food, shelter, procreation, and diversion. As a result these people were guided toward servant type positions which provided close supervision and therefore constructive, if externally enforced, motivation for their activities. People at the next stage, Vaisyas, had learned to be energetic, but only when their own material interests were at stake. These people were encouraged to utilize their motivation for personal gain by engaging in agriculture, the trades, commerce, and business life in general, thereby indirectly helping the overall needs of society while serving their own self-interest. Those at the third stage of development, Kshatriya, had learned that the accumulation of possessions and status does not lead to any real sense of fulfillment and had begun to expand their scope of concern to include the needs of others. They were able to actively express this concern by serving in various public interest capacities and also as warriors since in this latter role they were willing to give their lives for the benefit of others. Those at the Principled level, Brahmins, were capable of thinking and acting in accordance with their inner awareness of dharma (morality) and had the responsibility for the overall spiritual upliftment of society. The system helped each person maximize his development by putting him in the position that matched his level of motivation. At first it was not a fixed or contractive system, but fluid so that as the person’s character evolved, there was a corresponding shift in his social position and responsibilities. Later in India’s history the system became hereditary, lost its original purpose, and degenerated into the tool for social discrimination that we are familiar with.
In our own culture this same progression of consciousness can be observed. The modern-day Sudra might spend his time eating, sleeping, watching television, and in general expending as little effort as possible in leading a vegetative type of existence. The Vaisya level of consciousness is aptly captured in the recent bestseller, Looking Out for Number One. Here, the motive for activity is always some form of personal gain. Kshatriya types would tend to be drawn to such fields as social welfare and, ideally at least, politics where they could help meet people’s material needs for food, clothing, shelter, etc. Finally, the Brahmins of our day include those who, regardless of social standing, live their lives in a way that serves as an inspiration to those around them. While appreciating the Kshatriya’s approach to service, a Brahmin realizes that the goal of existence lies in helping bring people to a greater, more inward sense of joy in their lives. His form of service lies in the spontaneous, unpretentious sharing of his own high level of consciousness as it manifests in such qualities as peace, kindness, and enthusiasm. After an encounter with a person of this type, one carries away the definite, if unexplainable, feeling that somehow life is less burdensome and more cheerful.
What is outlined here is a spectrum of moral and spiritual development (see appendix) that can be used to understand the basic progression of values and awareness that exists in any culture. The insights gained from this perspective can greatly facilitate the process of human development. In a society such as ours which fails to take into account the fundamental importance of this aspect of human nature, serious imbalances occur. Nowhere is this situation more apparent than in today’s classrooms.
The following experiment was suggested to me as a means of gaining a firsthand impression of this phenomenon. Visit one of the local kindergartens and observe the joy and enthusiasm of the children; their openness and interest in all of life’s experiences can be easily discerned. Then, walk to a typical eighth or ninth grade class. In most cases the freshness and vitality of the younger students will have been replaced by a heavy sense of boredom and mechanical involvement with the day’s assignments. The prevalence of this trend is strong enough to suggest to many that a gradual deterioration of enthusiasm is simply part of the human condition. From the perspective of How-to- Live Education, however, this situation is seen as a direct result of the failure to work actively with children in cultivating their moral and spiritual potential. If we want a child to master calculus, we have to give him explicit instruction in arithmetic and algebra. Similarly, if we would broaden and deepen the characteristic joy of early childhood, we must work directly at helping the children learn the lessons of life that lead toward this goal.
By ignoring the need for moral and spiritual development, we have not succeeded in escaping its influence; rather we have stumbled into the pattern of setting up our schools as predominately Vaisya or stage two (Kohlberg) institutions. In a motivational system based primarily on the grading system or the hope of a future high-paying job, we appeal only to those students who are interested in the accumulation of status or wealth. For those students operating at levels both above and below the Vaisya level of consciousness, the system simply does not work. The dysfunctional, semi-delinquent students that exist on the fringe of any campus are unaffected by the appeal of this type of reward, seeking more immediate, tangible levels of fulfillment. For different reasons, another section of the student population is similarly unimpressed by the promise of this reward system. When this group’s needs for higher levels of moral and spiritual awareness go unmet, the resulting frustration often manifests as alienation, confusion, and apathy. Even for those students who do respond to the prevailing system, we offer no direction for the further refinement of their moral sensitivities; no sense of idealism that can inspire their efforts when they come up against the inevitable limitations of this stage of development.
From this perspective it is no wonder that so many of our students are becoming “turned-off” to life in general and to school in particular. Lacking the support of a value system that corresponds to their level of development, there is simply no incentive for the constructive use of their energy. When life is experienced as being essentially meaningless, the urge to indulge in the escapist or destructive behavior patterns so commonplace among today’s students is hard to resist.
If, however, we utilize the insights gained from the caste system and Kohlberg’s work, it is possible to create alternative approaches to education that correspond to the various developmental levels of the students. For the Sudra child, the primary need is the arousal of energy. External motivation and even coercion are needed for helping this child become involved in even the most basic kinds of activity. At the Vaisya stage, motivation depends heavily on outward reward systems as the child learns the lesson of self-discipline. Here, the classical psychological studies in operant conditioning offer many insights for guiding the child’s behavior into constructive channels. For Kshatriya students, education must focus on providing opportunities for developing and expressing their concern for helping others. Finally, at the Brahmin level the emphasis lies in cultivating the students’ potential for experiencing the subtler levels of spiritual awareness.
As a simple example, asking a Vaisya child to sweep the floor just because it is dirty is unrealistic in that it fails to appeal to his interest in personal gain. Threatening him with “Sweep the floor or else,” will probably get the job done, but offering a candy bar for the job is a means of stimulating his growth since he now has to exercise judgment in deciding whether or not the chore is worth doing. Similarly, a Kshatriya level student, who is capable of choosing to sweep the floor simply as an act of service, will feel demeaned by the use of threats or promise of rewards. Moreover, his potential for creative, serviceful behavior goes unnoticed and therefore unchallenged. This pattern of motivation provides a model which can be applied to schoolwork, interpersonal relationships, personal growth, or any other area of student endeavor.
Perhaps the main roadblock to an active program of moral and spiritual education has been the belief that such training is in conflict with our tradition of the separation of church and state. It is intriguing that both Yogananda and Kohlberg, in coming from such widely divergent backgrounds, cultures, and even eras, should offer almost identical responses to this concern. In the “Balanced Life” article Yogananda states:
“Educational authorities deem it impossible to teach spiritual principles in public schools because they confuse them with a variety of conflicting forms of religious faiths. But if they concentrate on the universal principles of peace, love, service, tolerance, and faith that govern the spiritual life, and devise practical methods of growing such seeds in the fertile soil of the child’s mind, then the imaginary difficulty is dissolved. It is a great mistake to ignore this problem just because it is seemingly difficult.” 5
In his paper entitled “Moral Development and Moral Education” Kohlberg writes: “We also have found that the sequence (of moral development) is not dependent upon holding the beliefs of a particular religion, or upon holding any religious beliefs at all; no significant differences appear in the development of moral thinking among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and atheists … The notion that public moral education is a violation of the civil rights of children and parents is based on a misconception of the nature of morality: the misconception that morality is a private belief system like a religion … The moral basis of the Constitution and the major moral values of our society are the principles of justice which we say are the core principles of any mature morality.”6
What we finally have then is a clear, non-sectarian framework for working with the moral and spiritual needs of our children. In defining the basic progression of consciousness and providing for each stage of development, we can help students understand how the most personal aspects of their lives can be enhanced by learning to work in harmony with universal truths and principles. Qualities such as enthusiasm, justice, and kindness cease to be abstract concepts and instead serve as guidelines for solving such practical problems as how to work with creativity and enjoyment, how to gain control of moods, how to get along with others, and most importantly, how to find a basis for lasting contentment, meaning, and joy in one’s life. It is in helping children learn these lessons that a How-to-Live School specializes.
The Balanced Life and Meditation
IN GRASPING this expanded vision of the child’s potential, I reached the turning point in my search for an understanding of the basic issues in education. The overall goal of moral and spiritual development served as a basis for deciding what was worth teaching, as a direction for guiding my efforts in helping children with the more personal aspects of their lives, and as a context for developing an approach to academics that could serve a purpose broader than intellectual training. It was at this point that Yogananda’s “Balanced Life” article took on a new significance for me. I now realized that his outline of goals for physical, mental, social, and spiritual development was based upon a comprehensive understanding of how to help students progress along the dimension of consciousness. His definition of a “balanced life” included instruction in such key areas as how to become energetic, self-disciplined, socially sensitive, and spiritually aware. Only when all of these lessons had been mastered, could a child be said to have realized his highest potential.
Under the heading of “Science of Body Care for Practical Efficiency,” Yogananda stresses the importance of the usual concerns for good posture, cleanliness, exercise, and regular habits of eating and sleeping. He also includes the less commonly heard practices of partial fasting, physical endurance (learning to overcome unnecessary sensitivities to cold, heat, strain, etc.), sexual control (as a means of conserving and constructively channeling creative energy), and a unique series of recharging exercises which can be used to bring fresh energy into the body at will. Through these practices the child becomes aware of how energy is produced and expended in the body and is therefore capable of approaching life with increased vitality and enthusiasm.
Under the heading of “Mental Engineering” Yogananda describes how a person’s energy can be drained or diverted through negative emotions (fear, despondency, anger, and worry), the inability to regulate sense indulgence, and the tendency to give up in the face of difficulties. The situation can be compared to an attempt to pour milk into a bucket riddled with holes. A child is helped to see how his energy, like the milk, is drained through holes of negativity. Once he becomes aware of their devitalizing effect, he can be helped to plug these holes through the development of cheerfulness, will power, and self-discipline.
In the category of “Social Arts” Yogananda outlines ways a child can become sensitive to the dissonance created by selfish activity in contrast to the harmony engendered by consideration of others. Through this awareness the child learns to seek fulfillment in terms of an ever-widening circle of concern and service.
In the final section of “Applied Spiritual Sciences” Yogananda provides several examples of how man’s highest potential for moral and spiritual development is realized through experiencing and manifesting the soul qualities of love, wisdom, and joy. With lessons in energization, self-discipline, and social sensitivity laying the groundwork for spiritual awareness, further growth is directly facilitated by the practice of meditation. In this part of the curriculum the goal is to help the child discover the more inward aspects of his nature. In meditation the child achieves progressively deeper levels of physical, mental, and emotional relaxation that gradually free his mind from outward concerns. In this interiorized state of consciousness the child can directly experience love, wisdom, and joy as essential parts of himself. From this point the challenge becomes one of learning to bring these qualities into the outward activities of daily life.
To help the children I have adapted a chart (Table B) that illustrates the various steps of meditation. While each step represents a specific level of attainment, progress is not strictly sequential since daily fluctuations occur in a person’s energy level. For example, one day the obstacle is physical restlessness, the next day emotions. On the third day pure consciousness is experienced, while on the fourth physical restlessness is again the problem. What the chart offers is a series of checkpoints for helping the child to achieve deeper states of awareness.
Steps in Meditation
5) Higher self
source of love,
wisdom, and joy
4) Ability to focus attention
on states of pure consciousness
3) Control of thoughts
2) Control of emotions
1) Control of body
Yoga postures assist in the initial step of physical relaxation by allowing the student to become aware of and release bodily tensions thereby eliminating the need for restless movement. Although the relationship in the second step is less apparent, the practice of breathing exercises is a principal means to emotional relaxation. * Next, various concentration exercises free the person’s attention from his usual thought patterns, making mental relaxation possible. The child then moves to the fourth step of steady, one-pointed absorption in the state of pure consciousness. Finally, at step five the child attains a clear, direct experience of his higher self.
Although full realization of this final state can require considerable effort, an increasing awareness of these higher levels of consciousness has proven to be a realistic goal for every student in the school. As the children have grown in their expression of the qualities of sincerity, peace, kindness, and joy, my appreciation of the practicality of Yogananda’s insights has deepened accordingly.
Six Year Rhythms
WHEREAS the “Balanced Life” article outlines the lessons children need to learn for moral and spiritual advancement, Kriyananda has provided complementary insights into the “hows” of childhood learning. During the first twenty-four years of life (the time span associated with the traditional Indian concept of childhood), the child experiences a series of six year rhythms or stages that highlight particular aspects of his development. From birth to six the child is primarily concerned with learning to control his body. In this stage he is acutely aware of his immediate environment as he struggles to coordinate his physical activity with the “givens” of the world around him. Between the ages of six and twelve the child’s awareness of feeling becomes predominant. Here his concern is not so much with simply fitting into his environment, as it is in experiencing the variety of emotional reactions that accompany his activities. Around twelve the focus shifts again, this time to the exercise of will as the child strives to become an independent agent in preparation for adulthood. Finally, at about the age of 18 the mind develops to the point where the world of ideas and reason commands center stage. By taking into account the special sensitivities of each stage, the teacher is better prepared to facilitate the child’s overall development.
The child’s initial immersion in his surroundings is what Maria Montessori refers to as the period of the “Absorbent Mind.” Not only physical coordination, but also the use of the senses are primary concerns for the child of this age. He is now, more than at any other stage, highly susceptible to the influences of his environment since this is where his attention is focused. At this point it is especially important to structure the environment in accordance with the values that will prove most beneficial to his later development. If the physical environment is neat and orderly, the child will imbibe these qualities. On the social level an attitude of kindness in the classroom will bolster this quality in the child. Most importantly, if the behavior of the teacher manifests a sense of peacefulness and concern, the child will absorb these attitudes. Even the key values of energy, self-discipline, and concern for others that Yogananda emphasizes in the “Balanced Life” can be developed through the medium of imitation and habit. For example, by learning to simply say “please” and “thank you”, the child takes an important first step toward the more long-range goal of social sensitivity.
Of special consideration in a How-to-Live School is the development of the capacity for relaxation. By becoming aware of and learning to release bodily tension, the child’s natural interest in body control can be directed toward experiencing a state of deep stillness. The various yoga postures are ideally suited to this purpose and can be introduced as a game. The book Be a Frog, a Bird, or a Tree by Rachel Carr offers many such activities. The enjoyment of these periods of physical relaxation provides a bridge to the deeper levels of inner peace experienced in meditation. Though these latter sessions are brief, three to five minutes on the average, the awareness of inner qualities comes quite naturally to children of this age, perhaps because they are still unencumbered by the emotional and intellectual entanglements of later life. In any case their appreciation of this habit of calmness carries over into other areas of activity.
As the school has evolved, a marked change has occurred in the behavior of the children. Whereas initially the disruptive conduct of one child was likely to ignite the restlessness of the entire class, they now show a greater sense of discrimination and self-control in choosing the kinds of behavior they want to take part in. One of our five-year-olds put it succinctly recently when she was overheard telling a classmate that she didn’t want to play with him that day because she would only “get all crazy.” In a similar way when the children of this class are given the opportunity to choose between a noisy and a quiet lunchroom environment, they invariably choose the latter. In situations such as these, the children are beginning to show the benefits of their training by creatively altering their environment in accordance with values that are meaningful to them, or as Yogananda would put it, learning to become a “cause and not just an effect.”
This awareness of how circumstances and attitudes affect behavior becomes even more pronounced between the ages of six and twelve. During this stage it is important to deepen the child’s appreciation of the habits he has formed by drawing his attention to the feelings experienced in various situations. How does it feel when he cooperates with other children? When he is peaceful? When he works with enthusiasm? For example one of my new students this year was a nine-year-old boy with a built-in negative attitude toward math. The start of any lesson would produce a frown and corresponding slump in posture. Needless to say, little learning took place. After a few days I suggested an experiment and asked if he would try working as hard as he possibly could for five minutes. He agreed, and we set the timer. When I returned, he had more than doubled his previous day’s work. More importantly though, I asked how he felt after that burst of energy. “Great,” was the answer. I then spent a few minutes drawing his attention to the fact that the math assignment was the same as the day before and asked why he felt so differently today. Gradually he was able to see how his change in energy level had produced a change in the way he felt, and that enthusiasm was something that he could generate himself without waiting around for some “fun” activity. The lesson has proven to be an important one as it helped him to see the practical benefits of cultivating this particular quality in other areas of his life.
It is especially important that adults working with this age group live up to the old maxim, “practice what you preach.” To speak of enthusiasm, self-control, or kindness without lending the support of personal example, is to ignore the child’s awakening interest in seeking out models for his own behavior. This “hero-worshipping” instinct offers a wonderful opportunity for introducing the child to the very best in human potential. While the immediate behavior of the teacher provides a ready example, stories of the great men and women of history, mythology, and fiction can provide supplementary fare for the natural idealism of this age. In the Ananda schools our collection of stories about the saints and heroes of India’s culture are literally falling apart from the constant use given them by the students. When, however, these idealistic inclinations are not catered to in any constructive fashion, the child turns to less inspiring examples. A poll of high school students published in a May 1979 issue of Senior Scholastic showed the ten most admired people to be athletes, movie stars, or rock musicians, all of whom were chosen for their “star” status rather than for any outstanding character traits.
A further unique aspect of this six-to-twelve age is the children’s ability to stand back from their behavior and listen to suggestions about how they might make improvements. Whereas in earlier years this ability is hindered by a lack of mental development, the limiting factors of adolescence will include a strong sense of identification with existing behavior patterns along with a decreased willingness to accept guidance from adults.
This special openness of the six-to-twelve period offers an ideal time for helping children learn to work constructively with their emotions. An example is provided by another of my nine-year-olds who brought with him a pronounced moodiness that manifested as a whiney-voiced negative attitude toward activity of any kind. In one of our conferences I asked how it felt to be in a mood. He described the sensation in terms of being caught in a tar pit. Out of this conversation we came up with the following gradation of moodiness: first, “dusty” when the moods begin to manifest because, like dust they can be brushed off easily; second, “muddy” when they start to settle in because getting clean takes more work; and, finally, the tar pits when their hold becomes overpowering. This descriptive technique provided a means of helping him gain control of the moods since I could help him see when things began to get a little dusty or muddy. When the situation reached the tar pits stage, I would realize there was nothing I could do directly for a while and shift instead to keeping unnecessary demands from being placed on him, much as if he were physically ill.
This openness to change begins to fade around the age of twelve with the child’s growing need to establish a personal sense of identity. Being a good dancer, a helpful person, a selfish girl, or a moody boy takes on significance beyond that of earlier years in that the young person consciously defines himself in terms of these qualities. To ask that these characteristics be altered, is to threaten the newly-acquired and therefore closely-guarded sense of identity. To continue to exert a positive influence, the adult must learn to work in harmony with the young person’s need to express his individuality. This can be accomplished by identifying the most constructive aspects of the child’s personality and then challenging him to excel in this area, supporting his efforts whole-heartedly even if the immediate goal seems less than inspiring.
Learning to overhaul an engine, take care of horses, or even conjugate Latin verbs can provide a solid foundation for developing the will power and self-confidence that lead to greater accomplishments in later life. Of course, the more closely a child’s sense of identity corresponds to qualities such as enthusiasm, self-discipline, and kindness, the more rapidly his evolution of consciousness will proceed. When less positive values have been chosen, progress will be slowed, not only because the values themselves are flawed, but also because laziness, self-indulgence, and the like necessarily restrict the opportunities for benefitting from constructive adult guidance. As this openness to suggestion diminishes, the young adult can be said to have graduated from the garden of childhood to the school of hard knocks.
Finally, during the 18-to- 24 year period an in-depth analysis of the “whys” of behavior becomes productive. Of course, it is helpful to spend some time answering why-type questions with even the youngest child, but it is only at this later age that the necessary foundation of awareness and will power exists for making prolonged intellectual investigations meaningful and worthwhile. It has been my experience that a premature emphasis on discussing the reasons for specific kinds of preferred behavior, too often results in young people who think that knowing what should be done somehow eliminates the need to actually put their knowledge into practice.
By taking into account the special opportunities for growth present in each age, a How-to-Live School seeks to maximize the child’s potential for overall development. The habits gained in early childhood are shown to have definite, practical benefits during the middle years. With these observations the teenager has a basis for constructively exercising his freedom of will instead of blindly rebelling against dogmatic family values. Finally, the young adult can develop his intellectual potential by referring to sound personal experience instead of appealing but unsubstantiated theory.
The Role of the Teacher
THE EFFECTIVENESS of any system of education is to a large extent determined by the capabilities of the teachers. In a How-to-Live School this consideration is especially important since the quality of :the teacher-student relationship plays such a vital role in the child’s development. If the school is directed by people who are in touch with their own inner qualities of love, peace, and wisdom, then the school will be marked by a freshness and joy that permeate the entire curriculum. When this level of attainment is not present, the uncreative implementation of even the most enlightened system can only produce an overall impression of dullness and sterility. Therefore, the cultivation of the teacher’s level of sensitivity and awareness becomes an essential part of How-to-Live education.
It has been my experience that regular, deep periods of meditation provide the most direct means of effective teacher preparation, even taking precedence over time spent on lesson plans or background preparation. The benefits of such practice can be observed in an increased awareness of student needs, a more refined approach to discipline, a deepened capacity for loving relationships with the children, and a more sensitive appreciation of the opportunities that each aspect of the school day offers for enhancing the overall growth of the students.
On many occasions I have found that by coming to school in a calm, centered state of mind, I am in an excellent position to adjust to unexpected variations in individual and class needs. An incident that stands out is a morning when I arrived at school to discover that most of the children had been out quite late the previous evening attending a movie. While it was our routine to begin each day with a session of prayer, singing, and meditation, I could see that the children’s energy level was so low that only frustration and antagonism lay ahead if I tried to push through with our accustomed schedule (even though at other times a vigorous push has provided just the needed element for snapping everyone out of a lethargic state). The solution on this occasion was to have everyone bring a blanket out to the hillside by the school. After they had all lain down to enjoy the morning sun, I brought out my guitar and sang to them for the next forty-five minutes. Two or three of the children fell asleep while the others lay quietly and rested. After the session their energy level was such that we were able to go back into the schoolhouse for a productive session of classes.
This sensitivity to energy levels is also an invaluable tool in learning to be an effective disciplinarian. Whereas a teacher can initially be oblivious to behavior problems until they manifest on such levels as arguments or fights, meditation helps develop the level of sensitivity needed for discerning the earlier stages of student frustration when corrective action requires a minimum of effort. In these instances the teacher’s intervention can be offered in support of the child’s own intentions for overcoming negative behavior. In working with the moodiness problem described earlier, my comments are initially directed toward reinforcing the boy’s desire to avoid moods. If my help is delayed until the cycle is more advanced, the more typical style of discipline will be necessary where the child experiences me as an antagonist.
Even in these latter situations, a sensitive teacher can greatly facilitate the child’s development. While most discipline is meted out in response to the child’s outward behavior—-it’s against the rules to throw snowballs—real growth for children is dependent upon the adult being aware of the intent behind the activity. For example, through the first five exchanges of snowballs, the child may simply be engaged in good, clean fun. When one hits him in the face, however, and his anger is aroused, a good teacher should notice the change in attitude and proceed accordingly.
The validity of the discipline can often be verified by observing the reactions of the children. To take the snowball example, if I apply discipline during the fun stage, my behavior will be considered an unwarranted intrusion. While I can obtain compliance through the assertion of my will, there occurs a definite loss of respect for me as an authority figure. At the other extreme, if I fail to take action when the change in attitude occurs, I also lose the child’s confidence through being indecisive or unobservant. When, however, I am able to come in on the right snowball and provide proper discipline, I have observed that temporary expressions of antagonism quickly yield to more enduring states of calmness and harmony. My conclusion from these observations is that children, especially those below the age of twelve, possess an intuitive awareness of the moral dimension, but lack the maturity and self-discipline necessary for consistently acting in harmony with their inner guide. When the child is drawn into activity that goes against his sense of rightness, the discipline provided by a discerning adult is experienced as a welcomed sign of caring even though there may be a superficial show of resentment.
The obstacles to knowing when and how to apply proper discipline are usually emotional or intellectual in nature. For example, a resentful or depressed teacher will necessarily be affected by his own emotional state and therefore less able to attune sensitively to the needs of the students. In a similar way the teacher who is too closely tied to his abstract ideas about child development will often interpret behavior to fit his concepts instead of being open to the uniqueness of the situation at hand. Since meditation works directly on developing the ability to calm and clarify the emotions and thoughts, it offers an ideal means for improving one’s perceptions of student behavior.
A further use of meditation lies in providing teachers with a means for contacting their inner resources of love and joy. From this basis they can establish the kind of relationships that are essential in a How-to-Live School. My own education in this matter was provided by one of my first students, a small, super-charged five-year-old whom I’ll call Larry. On first impression I was tempted to label his behavior as anti-social, but refrained out of a dislike for using understatements. At this point in his life Larry experienced learning situations as contests to show who could learn the most or the quickest. He viewed group discussions as opportunities for getting other people to agree with him. Play periods became scenarios for the exhibition of outlandish behavior. When other students reacted with annoyance or boredom, his frustration often manifested as a temper tantrum. In every situation it was how much can I get out of this activity, how much entertainment, how much attention. Needless to say he was not exactly the teacher’s pet. However, he was one of my students, and he very obviously needed help.
In working toward a solution I tried all kinds of reward and punishment variations. None seemed to help, and during his frequent tantrums my only alternative was to physically pick him up and carry him the short distance to his mother’s house. After this had gone on for several weeks, I realized that in all my interactions with Larry I had been focusing on his negative behavior and dealing with him as a “bad boy.” With this orientation it had been impossible for me to express any genuine concern for him. The best I could do was a kind of detached positive reinforcement. The answer I realized lay in learning to love him. The first step involved inviting him to spend the night with me. After overcoming the fear of what might happen to my home, I saw that in giving him my full attention, I could notice certain qualities that were at least likeable. From that point on I tried to relate to his positive side especially where discipline was concerned. For example, instead of punishing Larry for being bad, I would do everything I could to help him see that he was being punished for letting himself slip into bad behavior. A subtle point, perhaps, but important in that it gradually helped him to begin to think of himself as a basically good person who occasionally made mistakes.
On a deeper level, though, I found I was able to relate to Larry more effectively as a result of the calmness and joy I was experiencing in meditation. When these qualities found expression in my actions and tone of voice, I found corresponding improvement in his behavior. In this supportive environment, he showed a greater willingness to stand back from negative behavior patterns and allow his own higher qualities to come forth.
Once the bridge of a trusting, enduring teacher student relationship has been built, the Psychological Chart provides a further means of enhancing student growth. Developed by Yogananda for use at his school in India, this chart contains a broad series of questions that uncover the various physical, psychological, hereditary, and environmental factors that influence the child’s development. In addition to the usual questions about age, weight, diseases, and general physiological condition, the chart also inquires into such areas as the quality and quantity of attention paid to the child, the kind of company he keeps, his attention span, his powers of memory, imagination, and reason, and the quality of obedience the child usually shows. Finally, there is a comprehensive list of character traits against which the child can be compared. As a result of this inquiry, it is possible to determine the specific qualities a child is ready to develop. As might be expected, in my work with the students I have yet to find two children working at exactly the same level. With one child it will be overcoming the habit of lying, for another developing self-confidence, for a third learning how to help others in subtle, non-coercive ways.
In every case it has been possible to identify one or two particular areas of concern and carry them into my everyday interactions with the children. At first I thought this dual focus on academic and moral issues might prove a burdensome task in my teaching. With practice, however, I found it surprisingly easy, even when working at such mundane activities as math or reading. For example, my initial tendency had been to focus on how to best convey the particular lesson, taking into account only the child’s immediate interest in the subject at hand. In utilizing the approach desired in a How-to-Live setting, I realized it is more important to keep in touch with the broader perspective of how the particular academic lesson affects the more long-range goals of character development. I would ask myself, “Is there a sense of hurriedness or impatience on my part? Is something diverting the child’s attention from the lesson? Is there a clear sense of communication?” Although it is entirely possible for me to ignore these factors and force the child to complete his lessons, I have found that in the long run the child’s overall growth will be impaired. In these situations the child senses that his own well-being is less important to me than the transmission of knowledge and begins to close off to school in general and me in particular. Conversely, when the child feels that I am truly concerned about him, I have noticed an increased openness to instruction on all levels. In several instances, for example, I have found that students who developed a pronounced dislike for math while attending more traditional schools, gradually grow to enjoy the subject when they experience it as part of an integrated curriculum designed to meet their overall needs. For example, one girl expressed surprise at finding mathematics to be among her favorite subjects when success in this field proved an important means of meeting a more basic need for self-confidence.
With practice one can develop a definite feel for the kind of interaction desired and take appropriate steps to adjust the lines of communication before going on with the lesson. Sometimes this may entail only a short comment on the child’s energy level or a brief glance to establish eye contact and reassure the child that his welfare is still of prime importance. On occasion, though, it will mean postponing the lesson until both teacher and student have had time to contend with the interfering issues.
The How-to-Live School Day
THIS CONCERN for the children’s overall growth also serves as the basis for considering the needs of the whole class. Here, the teacher’s primary concern will be for the quality of energy present in the room. If there is a balanced program of physical, mental, social, and spiritual activities, a sense of harmony and vitality will exist. When this state begins to deteriorate, it is time to readjust the mixture of attitudes and activities that make up the school day. Most obvious of course is the amount of time spent on academics with both too little and too much emphasis being harmful. Physical education, art, and music are also areas of concern. In a How-to-Live setting, though, a number of other factors must be taken into consideration. Do the children have sufficient time to interact with each other? Do students have a chance to be alone? Is every child able to meet individually with the teacher on a regular basis?
Other activities that have proven helpful in working with this overall balance of classroom energy include meditation, recharging exercises, journal-keeping, service projects, and apprenticeships in the community. Group meditations provide the opportunity for helping everyone re-attune themselves inwardly, especially when group energy has become scattered. As a rule we try to begin and end each school day with a short two or three minute meditation accompanied by a longer ten to fifteen minute session (for older children) just before lunch. Because of a noticeable flagging of energy during afternoon classes, we instituted the practice of ending the lunch break with a brief set of recharging exercises which can also be utilized at other times when the energy level has dropped. All of the older students are encouraged to keep journals as a means of recording their progress in the development of specific qualities. These journals are usually shared with an adult, other than teacher or parent, who serves as friend and counselor. Service projects have proven to be an effective means for helping the children develop their level of social sensitivity. These activities have included picking up trash, chopping wood, digging ditches to prevent’ erosion, and any other project that fits the criterion of helping meet the needs of others. Apprenticeships provide an opportunity for the more mature students to spend time working in a community business. (Our unique village setting provides many appropriate situations including the market, print shop, dairy, and craft shop.) Here the children can learn to apply their How-to-Live lessons to the challenges of the adult world.
By observing the interplay of energies in the different kinds of activities, the teacher can adjust the schedule to meet the changing needs of the students. Flexibility in maintaining this dynamic balance of physical, mental, social, and spiritual pursuits is essential for insuring the child’s long range growth.
Academic instruction itself has played a vital, if changing role in the growth of the school. As must be obvious by now, the need to gain a working understanding of the How-to-Live approach took highest priority during the school’s formative years. In this stage the emphasis was more on developing the “hows” of learning rather than the “whats” with the instructional materials and objectives being of a fairly standard type. Recently, though, the teachers have begun to examine each of the traditional subject areas to uncover their distinctive contributions to a full How-to-Live curriculum. Mathematics offers many opportunities for sharpening the faculties of reasoning and concentration, thus building the mental strength necessary for the expression of will power. English encourages a heightened awareness of thoughts and feelings through the challenge of expressing them in a clear and precise manner. History provides students with illustrations of the consequences of different behavior patterns. As these initial insights are refined, the students will be able to see the application of How-to-Live principles in all areas of their studies.
Evidence of the tremendous potential here is provided by Joseph Cornell, our nature awareness expert. In his recently published book Sharing Nature with Children, he presents a highly creative and enjoyable approach to nature study that ties in directly with the goals of How-to-Live Education. One of the chief purposes of the book is to show that in addition to facts, nature education can also teach such human values as calmness, appreciation, and heightened awareness. For example, in an activity entitled “Meet a Tree” the child is blindfolded and guided toward a particular tree. By touching, smelling, and listening, the child tries to develop an awareness of its special characteristics. After being led back to the starting point via a circuitous route, the child takes off the blindfold and tries to rediscover his tree. The opportunity for increased levels of awareness and appreciation is demonstrated by the fact that even after many months, children will make a special trip to that part of the forest to renew friendships with their trees. Interest in learning more about trees follows naturally from this experience.
The possibilities for utilizing this aspect of the curriculum for uncovering the hidden potentialities of the child are conveyed in the preface to another of the activities called “The Silent Sharing Walk.” Here Joseph writes: “All of us have experienced an expanded sense of freedom at times when our awareness went out to include more of the surrounding life as part of ourselves. At such times, our spirits rise with the soaring vulture, tilting and swaying high above. The wind may seem to breathe life into every passing tree; a frightened covey of quail explodes in flight leaving our bodies trembling with a nervous thrill; or the steady roar of a swollen mountain stream, tumbling through a gorge far below, calms us and takes our thoughts high over the mountains into the unknown … I have come to realize that when … we enter the world of nature in a spirit of openness, splendid experiences come to us unsought.” 7
The next stage of the school’s evolution will explore every aspect of the curriculum for insights and experiences such as these.
A STRANGE WAY to head the closing section? Perhaps, but appropriate to me in several ways. Most directly this book turned out to be the thesis for my MA degree, years after I’d abandoned hope of finding a topic that could motivate me to put out the required effort. On a deeper level the completion of this work marks a transition for me personally as well as for the school.
For seven years I’ve had the remarkable opportunity of working in what has amounted to a private educational laboratory. The school was small, less than 20 students until two years ago. Parents were patient and supportive. The students? … well, many-faceted, but always manifesting generous amounts of youthful exuberance and resilience. As the school’s goals and objectives have evolved, it has been the children who constantly provided the necessary feedback through their steadily improving attitudes and behavior.
Now this initial phase is over. The goal of the school has been clearly defined as one of facilitating children’s evolution toward greater levels of wisdom and joy. The specific qualities of enthusiasm, self-discipline, concern for others, and inner attunement have been identified as the means of progressing toward this goal. The tools needed for nurturing these qualities have been found to include an uplifting environment, supportive parents and peers, a balanced schedule of activities, and, above all, sensitive and inspiring teachers. The chief avenues for implementing the program have been discovered, especially meditation and the teacher-student relationship.
A good beginning, but still only a commencement. The existing facilities have been outgrown and a completely new campus is in the planning stage. Many wonderful, new teachers have been drawn to the school recently, especially since the establishment of our teacher training program. They are currently engaged in developing the How-to-Live academic curriculum as well as exploring new techniques for directly facilitating the evolution of consciousness in the students.
In defining How-to-Live Education as non-sectarian, Yogananda wanted to make this approach available to all who are committed to the search for truth. While specific applications might focus more intensively on Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even non-religious paths, the basic principles can be useful to all. Workshops can be offered to interested groups. Branch schools can be started. Especially, there is the critical need for exploring ways of adapting these ideas for use in public school classrooms . . . which is about the point where I came in. Hopefully now, other new public school teachers who are as frustrated as I was will be able to look to How-to-Live Education as an answer to their needs.