About 50 years ago, a small but dedicated group of people began challenging American society’s attitudes toward food production. The prevailing opinion at the time was that vegetables should be judged primarily by their outward appearance. Bigger and redder tomatoes were deemed more desirable, and so American agriculture brought in the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that would support this type of farming. But a group, who gradually became known as the organic farming movement, persisted in pointing out that the real worth of tomatoes lies not in their appearance, but in their nutritional content which was being sacrificed in the race to improve the more superficial features. It took awhile, but gradually people began to listen, to the extent that a recent study (see footenote #1) shows that 75% of Americans now purchase at least some organic food.

Today we face a similar misconception in an even more important part of our lives, our children’s education. Everyone wants our children to succeed; the problem lies in how we define success. Much like the misplaced focus on bigger and redder tomatoes, many people accept the theory that student success can be measured by standardized test scores. These tests are mandated in almost all public schools and exercise an enormous effect on our children’s future, as well as on the careers of their teachers and administrators. With such compelling consequences, it is appropriate to ask what exactly these tests are measuring.

Below are some of the topics covered at the fifth through eleventh grade level on one of our most widely-administered standardized tests (see footnote #2). In going through the list, notice not only the number of items you are familiar with, but also how important this information has been in your adult life.

  1. the function of the esophagus
  2. the difference between a stereoscope and a laser light with holograph
  3. the reason fossils are found in sedimentary rocks
  4. the contributions of Hammurabi
  5. the differences between metals and nonmetals
  6. the form of energy released or absorbed in most chemical reactions
  7. the Schlieffen Plan
  8. the Tennis Court Oath
  9. the Social Gospel movement
  10. the Reconstruction Finance Corporation

The point, of course, is not that the Schlieffen Plan, the Tennis Court Oath, or any of the other items might not be valuable pieces of information in their own specialized fields of knowledge. It is rather that in using such relatively obscure data to measure the overall effectiveness of our schools, we make the same type of mistake that people made in judging tomatoes: we are once again focusing on superficial factors at the expense of far more important considerations. When teachers and administrators feel pressured to make sure their students have been exposed to the “right” set of facts, creativity and enthusiasm are quickly replaced with what has been termed “dead-ucation”.

In a recent New York Times article, a teacher questions this emphasis on standardized testing. “This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human. Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920’s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”(see footnote #3)

From an insightful website comes a parent’s indictment of the consequences of dead-ucation. “I saw the light in his eyes extinguishing…These energetic, engaged, accomplished, six year olds turned into twelve year olds who ask ‘Are we getting graded on this?’ or ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ That flame they had at age six didn’t burn out on its own, we smothered it.” (see footnote #4)

And from an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, one of the “winners” in the most recent worldwide standardized testing administered by the Organization for Economic cooperation and Development,“Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.” (see footnote #5)

The time has come to ask what a more “organic” approach to education would look like. What if our schools shifted their focus from the previous list of facts to the following considerations?

  1. How to take initiative and exercise creativity
  2. How to concentrate
  3. How to cultivate a passion for lifelong learning
  4. How to be responsible
  5. How to live healthfully
  6. How to overcome negative moods
  7. How to respect different points of view
  8. How to discern the difference between right and wrong
  9. How to find peace and contentment within yourself
  10. How to know yourself and express your highest potential

You could ask yourself again, how many items on this list have proven useful in your life, and then, which of the two sets of objectives you would rather have as the primary educational goals for your children’s schools.

Yes, a shift of this magnitude will take considerable effort, but no more than that required to switch from chemical pesticides to organic gardening. Traditional subject matter (the tomatoes) will still provide the basis for a well-rounded education, but our approach must be transformed to incorporate these broader, more nutritive elements. Much work has already been done. We need only to share resources and insights, and provide each other with the support to make the necessary changes. The “fruits” of this movement will transform our entire world.

The author of this article, Michael Nitai Deranja, is president of the Education for Life Foundation, founder of the Ananda Elementary School, and co-founder of Living Wisdom High School. He is the author of For Goodness’ Sake: Helping Children and Teens Discover Life’s Higher Values.

1 The Hartman Group Study, “Beyond Organic and Natural”, 2/22/2010
2 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), starsamplequestions.org
3 “What if the Secret of Success Is Failure?”, New York Times, 9/14/2011
4 Montessorimadness.com
5 “How Shanghai’s Students Stunned the World”, msnbc.msn.com, 11/2/2011

By Darshan Lotichius

Two hours every week are spent with five third graders. On my schedule it says I’m supposed to teach them music.

Have I taught music before? Sure! Apart from many individual violin classes, I explored the realm of sound for about 6 years with a previous generation in our school.

We sang long notes and assigned colors to them. We studied repertoire from many inspired music sources in the world. We gave concerts and formed a very nice choir.

Looking back, that one seems easy to me now.

By comparison this one is more difficult.

By comparison? Beware! Never compare!

Why not Sir?

Because by comparing you lose touch with the ability to explore the unique potential of the children that are with you RIGHT NOW!

Thank you Sir.

There we are then, this group, these children…The very thought of not making comparisons already relaxes my heart a little, making it more open and childlike in trying to perceive the music that is waiting to expand in those young minds and bodies.

So…we play the violin together…not bad, many good moments of developing motor skills and sound sensitivity…

Why are some going so much more slowly than others?


Yes, I know Sir, don’t compare.

So, little Mario seems to be in his own world and doesn’t respond when I call him. In fact me calling him signifies an unwelcome intrusion in his private business.

Not really, because I’ve got an idea!

Mario washes the dishes and he does so with remarkable care and calmness.

Then it’s time for composing music.

Composing music? Are you crazy?

Well, this thought from the teachers manual keeps ringing in my mind, always, when I am with children. It says:

Efl teachers find more satisfaction in empowering children to accomplish things than in accomplishing things themselves.

So, Mario, sits at the piano and his job is to find a melody with the white keys, beginning and ending with the central c-key.

I observe him, listen and then try to play for him what I’ve heard, adding some timbre to his melody and a left hand accompaniment.

-Is that what you meant? I play it slowly.

Yes! He sits on my lap and has his hand on my hand that delicately touches the keys.

-What would you like to call it?

-Enchanted sea.

I write down the notes for him, then ask him to copy it and glue it on a sheet of white paper where he can make a drawing around it am
and write his name and the title of the composition on it.

My plan is to teach him to sing the melody with the names of the notes and subsequently to find lyrics for this melody, which is quite special, in all its simplicity.

Then it’s Annabel’s turn. With her I have to contain my tendency to intervene with suggestions. She is not satisfied and keeps seeking.

-Do you mean this, Annabel?


And she continues her exploration.

Finally I get to write down what’s she’s come up with.

But as she starts copying the notes she asks me to make a change.

-Can you please not write long notes? I want a merry song!

Empower her Darshan, don’t impose your own love of long notes!


A slow four quarter beat becomes a faster three quarter beat and Annabel has her song. After she’s finished writing the notes, she starts her drawing.

-How about a title?

-I don’t know!

I start making suggestions:

-The merry-go-round…the dance of the goblins…the party of the elves…

None of these satisfy her

I suggest that she ask for a title that night, before falling asleep.

-It might come to you in a dream!

She looks at me with a healthy dose of reserve, like saying: I might try, but it will be following the will within me, not your will.

And then school is over.

Visit our Education for Life Schools

Below, you will find a series of class outlines that introduce the practice of meditation and the supporting life qualities to groups that include both parents and children. The basic principles are derived from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the traditional source of guidance on how to calm the mind from the yoga teachings of India. Many of the listed activities are drawn from For Goodness’ Sake, a book by Nitai Deranja

Introduction: The Dalai Lama has stated that “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” In Demystifying Patanjali (p.38) Swami Kriyananda wrote: “Fifteen minutes of this practice every day, engaged in by thousands, or even millions, of people throughout the world could uplift the whole planet.”

Opening Session: Can we do it? Let’s try to meditate for 5 minutes. Try to keep your mind focused at the point between the eyebrows. I’ll ring a bell every 30 seconds, and you can count 1 point for every time your mind is focused when the bell rings. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the point of concentration.

After the first effort we can see that concentration is not as easy as it might seem. The problem is restlessness. What is restlessness, and where does it come from? Patanjali helps us see that this outward-pulling force can be weakened by following the yamas and niyamas, guidelines for life that are quite similar to the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the Eight-fold Path of the Buddha. They help us see how we can become more relaxed and calm.

Session 1) non-lying and self-study (introspection and self-honesty)
Theme: Lying distorts our connection with the perfect flow of reality, Truth-telling reinforces our sense of oneness.

Activity: To Tell the Truth
Divide into groups of about 5, mixing adults and children, with each group choosing something that only one has done but that everyone in the group will claim to have done. Taking turns on stage, each group describes their chosen action with everyone answering questions from the audience about the action. Audience guesses who told the truth. Members of group describe what it felt like to lie.

Homework: Do whatever you say you’ll do for one day, even if it’s trivial like getting a drink of water. Report results the next day.

Session 2) non-stealing and non-covetousness; contentment and openness to higher truths
Theme: Stealing/Covetousness affirms that what we have is insufficient and that we need something to complete us. Acceptance brings us peace (even though acceptance could just be a first step before we need to put out energy to manifest things or respond to challenges).

Activity: Fortunately/Unfortunately (page 20, For Goodness’ Sake*)

Story: Everything always works out for the best (page 21-22, For Goodness’ Sake*)

Homework: Affirm acceptance of everything that happens for one day, especially if it’s unpleasant.

Session 3) non-sensuality; purity
Theme: The senses are tools for interacting with the physical world. When we let ourselves be controlled by them (instead of controlling them), we lose our centeredness and create agitation.

Activity: Gourmet’s Nightmare (page 54-55, For Goodness’ Sake*)

Homework: Experiment with fasting (partial/full/etc.) for one day

Session 4) non-violence; austerity
Theme: Violence results from anger/irritation/annoyance and affirms that we are unsatisfied with the flow of life and want it to be different.

Activity: Finding an animal/insect/plant/fish that you can follow, observe, and/or interact with for 10 minutes in a loving way

Homework: Spend a day blessing every being you come in contact with.

Extend the meditation each day.
First day: bell every 30 seconds
Second day: bell every 40 seconds
Third day: bell every 50 seconds
Fourth day: bell every 60 seconds=10 minutes, double day #1
At end of week; bell every 30 second to compare how far we’ve come since beginning

Aides to meditation: Straight, relaxed spine with chin up, eyes relaxed (closed or half open), visualization, counting breaths, mantra, chanting….

End each session with short period of yoga postures followed by deep relaxation in savasana, possibly with peaceful music background and/or guided meditation for 2-3 minutes.

When I was growing up, one of the fascinations of childhood was learning to spell the word antidisestablishmentarianism. It was the longest word my friends and I could find and presented a fitting challenge for our budding intellects. (Some will say it has since been surpassed by the likes of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.) Of course none of us had the slightest idea what the word meant and no motivation to find out. Later as a young man though, the word drifted back into my memory along with the curiosity to finally look up its meaning. To my surprise I found that it provided a very helpful clue to understanding something that deeply concerned me, the lack of values and moral direction in our educational system.

The word itself refers to the question of whether or not a country should have an established church, a major concern when the United States was forming since European countries of the time were firmly aligned with either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism. Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were firmly opposed to this practice, and thus we inherited the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

At first, the application of this doctrine was confined to keeping religious prejudices out of our courts and government. Schools, however, were for many years left to reflect the overwhelmingly Christian basis of our culture by incorporating such practices as prayer, the celebration of Christmas, and an emphasis on developing sound Christian values. As our country diversified, people began to challenge this bias in light of the separation clause. In recent decades our courts have consistently, if unpopularly, upheld that it is unconstitutional to impose any religious ethics and practices in a secular institution. Today as we observe the consequences of these decisions, it is appropriate to ask if we are cultivating the kind of society that Jefferson and the others were envisioning, and more importantly whether it is the society we want for ourselves and our children.

When we interpret the separation clause to make it illegal to emphasize moral instruction in our classrooms, we can only offer our children a narrow, superficial view of life that has grave consequences. Most poignantly, we have the school shootings. While the shooters themselves are extreme examples of social isolation, insensitivity, and moral confusion, it will be clear to anyone visiting a typical American high school that there is a strong and growing subculture of our teenagers who share these same negative attitudes toward life. With no positive ideals to aspire to, they “glorify” cynicism, apathy, and decadence. In these circles achievement in academics or any constructive pursuit is grounds for ridicule and ostracism.

This absence of positive values is also disturbingly apparent when we shift our focus to another key aspect of society, our economic situation. Here too we find the notorious “villains”, the Bernie Madoffs and Ivan Boeskes who personify unbridled greed, insensitivity, and dishonesty. But once again we can see that they are only the most visible examples of a morally deficient environment that also brought us the credit default swaps and robo-mortgage signings that produced the latest economic collapse. How did we get to the point where our primary financial institutions like Bank of America, J.P. Morgan and others are subject to outright fines in excess of 100 million dollars and “settlements” that run into the billions? [1]

In looking for answers it is instructive to examine how this broader social drama has played out in one particular educational setting. Many of the people in charge of our major financial institutions received their college training at Harvard which lists such people as Jamie Dimon (J.P. Morgan), John Thain (Merrill Lynch) and Jeffry Skilling (Enron) among its graduates. This institution’s response to the crisis of leadership in our economic and financial sectors is revealing. There is a page on the university’s website entitled “Global Financial Crisis Continues: Harvard Economists React” [2] As one might expect, it is a rather imposing collection of articles on the pros and cons of bailouts, regulation, cap and trade, and financial stimuli. While these topics are no doubt worth examining, not a single article addresses “the elephant in the living room”; that even the best economic system will fail us if the people running it are lacking in the basic moral sensitivities.

Harvard was founded as a divinity school in 1636 during the Puritan era of Massachusetts. During the 1800’s it was heavily influenced by the Unitarian Church and was “secularized” under the presidency of Charles W. Eliot from 1869-1909. Eliot’s motivation however, like Jefferson’s, was to promote religious toleration, not the abandonment of the cultivation of moral values [3]. But here again we see
sincere efforts at promoting religious toleration somehow getting sidetracked and leading instead to moral decay. Faced with results so diametrically opposed to the intentions of people like Jefferson and Eliot, it is time to ask ourselves if there is not some basic flaw in our understanding of the relationship between religion and morality.

The Dalai Lama recently offered a profoundly helpful insight into this discussion. In his book “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World” he equates religion with tea. He notes that everyone likes tea, but some prefer it with certain spices, others with sugar, and in Tibet, with a pinch of salt. On the surface there may seem to be broad differences. But he makes the point that the real reason people like tea, is that everyone needs water; and tea is simply a way of meeting this universal need. He goes on to show how religions (like teas) are simply different approaches to meeting the universal human need for morality.

Utilizing this insight we can see that our fear of encouraging morality in our schools is based on a false identification of moral values with a particular religion. Is there really a Christian monopoly on humility? Have the Buddhists cornered the market on compassion? One of the advantages of a pluralistic society is that we have all met kind, honest people who were different from us in religion, ethnicity, and race. On this basis we can begin to see that there are universal values like courage, honesty, and justice that are simply the bedrock of any healthy and successful society.

In separating church and state, we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or as the Dalai Lama might put it, deprive people of water while making sure we don’t impose a particular brand of tea. We are intrinsically moral beings. Would you rather buy your next car from an honest or a dishonest person? The next time you use public transportation, would you rather sit next to a kind or an obnoxious person? By focusing on this universal basis of morality, we find the path that allows us to bring moral training back into our schools, not in the mode of dogmatic indoctrination, but in a spirit of experiential, free-ranging exploration that allows students to examine what really works in creating the happy, fulfilling life that we all aspire to.

Nitai Deranja is the president of Education for Life International and the author of “For Goodness’ Sake: helping our children and teens discover life’s higher values”

[1] (CNN, April 10, 2012)

[2] (http://www.economics.harvard.edu/about/views)

[3] “The second eminent contribution which the [people of the] United States have made to civilization is their thorough acceptance, in theory and practice, of the widest religious toleration.” The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914. Volume XX. Five American Contributions to Civilization by Charles William Eliot

Preparing children to meet life's challenges

By Nitai Deranja, President of Education for Life International

Education for Life offers techniques for transforming education into an integral process which harmonizes book learning with direct life experience and instructs students in the art of living. It is based on the deep insight into the potential of every human being: Nurture creativity, intuition and wisdom in every student, tapping into unexplored capabilities or pure potentiality. Education for Life is a system of education that has the same goal as life itself: progressively to become on every level- heart and mind, body and spirit- more balanced, mature, effective, creative, happy, harmonious human beings.

When you visit an Education for Life School, you will find that each classroom seems unique. There is no standardized “look” to the classrooms, no set outward curriculum that each teacher follows, and no fixed style of learning for students. What then, are the distinguishing features of an EFL school? It is the purpose of this pamphlet to highlight the subtle, yet essential factors that define Education for Life and therefore determine the quality and scope of a child’s school experience.

First and foremost, EFL teachers are trained to appreciate that life itself is a school. Throughout our lives, the events that come to us offer a series of lessons that can lead to an ever-deepening sense of personal fulfillment and happiness. Put slightly differently, life continually offers us the opportunity to expand our consciousness. From this perspective the primary goal for the years of formal schooling becomes the development of the skills and attitudes that will help us take full advantage of these life-lessons.

A hallmark of an Education for Life classroom then will be the modeling of a cheerful openness to life and the unexpected lessons that might come our way. Although teachers will bring appropriate lesson plans to class, there will always be a readiness to embrace and make use of whatever special experiences a particular day presents. In the early grades opportunities for growth might present themselves through an unexpected visitor, unusual weather, or a spontaneous incident from the playground. In later years there will be a concerted effort to involve students in the broader streams of life outside the classroom. In every instance, an EFL teacher will strive to help students discern whether their responses to new events produce an expansion or contraction of consciousness. Specifically, the teacher will guide students from reactions of fear toward courage, from judgment toward compassion, from sadness toward joy. In our school’s philosophy this directionality of attitude is referred to as “Progressive Development.”

This focus on the gradual expansion of the student’s consciousness leads naturally to the next essential component of an EFL classroom, a child-centered curriculum. While every school must address the standard topics of modern education, the EFL curriculum will be child-centered in the sense that the teacher looks primarily to the students’ readiness for particular kinds of growth in determining the specific activities that will take place in the classroom. By knowing each student’s interests, talents, and potential, the teacher is able to present the lessons in a manner that maximizes student involvement and progress. Thus while a teacher may work with the same basic material over a period of years (fractions, world history, etc.), each class will manifest a unique expression of the learning process. EFL curriculum categories such as Understanding People, Cooperation, and Wholeness, as well as our small teacher/student ratios, facilitate this approach to learning.

The emphasis on a child-centered curriculum also contributes to a feeling of mutual respect between teacher and student. In paying close attention to individuals, the teacher develops an appreciation for each student’s positive qualities. Children, on the other hand, sense that the teacher is seeking to adapt the learning process to their interests and abilities as opposed to imposing a rigid program of prearranged lessons. In this way teacher and students can partake in the excitement of co-creating the curriculum.

The final characteristic of an EFL classroom is also rooted in the goal of preparing children to find happiness and fulfillment in life. In responding to life’s challenges, we have four primary tools at our disposal: the body, feelings, will, and intellect. The proper development of these “Tools of Maturity” lies at the heart of Education for Life. In our schools we emphasize one of these tools in each 6-year cycle of the child’s growth.

The stage from 0–6 encompasses the “Foundation” or preschool years. During this period the child is primarily occupied with learning to relate to physical realities, especially those of the body. An EFL preschool will promote physical vitality through a healthy diet and generous amounts of exercise, sunlight, and fresh air. Frequent nature outings will be interspersed with activities specifically designed to promote physical agility and coordination. The Foundation Years are also a time for cultivating the physical senses through creating a beautiful classroom environment and involving the children in painting, crafts, music, dance, and other activities that refine the children’s capacities for hearing, seeing, feeling, etc. Storytelling and role-playing are popular venues with this age for sharing initial insights into human behavior. The preschool years also provide an opportune time for cultivating uplifting habits of cleanliness, cooperation, and truthfulness.

The next cycle of growth covers the period from 6-12, the “Feeling” or elementary years. During this stage we shift our emphasis from the body to working with and through the child’s emotions. For a beginning step, children are helped to notice the different kinds of feelings and their varying effects on people. Students learn to appreciate and cultivate the uplifting influences of kindness, cheerfulness, and even- mindedness. Conversely, they can learn to redirect the disturbing energies that produce anger, greed, and jealousy. Techniques for working with these energies include breathing exercises, affirmations, yoga, and meditation. Of crucial importance during these years is the cultivation of the calm, centered state that leads to clear intuition. As their capacity for refined feelings develops, students learn to discriminate between the positive and negative effects of different kinds of activities and environments. Teachers will also utilize feelings as a powerful stimulus for other kinds of learning by emphasizing the awe of nature and scientific exploration, the sense of order and symmetry in mathematics, and especially the encouragement to be gained from the study of inspiring and saintly people.

Properly understood, the “Willful Years” from ages 12-18 present some of the greatest opportunities for the child’s development. Adults can help students avoid the self- involved negativity and rebelliousness that can plague the junior and senior high school years by encouraging positive applications of the will. Realistic, yet challenging goals must be set for these young people; goals that are in accordance with their own higher sensitivities as well as their individual talents and interests. Through faith in their positive potential and consistent adherence to appropriate disciplinary procedures, adults can support the students’ efforts to gradually learn such lessons as perseverance, self-sacrifice, responsibility, and self-control. Classroom applications of this approach will emphasize a “hands-on” style of learning where students can apply their energies to life-like situations. Science projects, debates, service projects and challenges of physical endurance are especially appropriate for this age group. A primary goal of the EFL teacher is to help each student identify and realize individual areas of expertise, thus providing a basis for the healthy development of the will. In an EFL school students of this age are asked to share in the responsibility for financing field trips and other special activities, even to the point of earning part of their tuition.

The final EFL cycle covers the “Thoughtful” or college years from 18-24. During this period the intellect is trained to work in conjunction with the three complementary tools of the body, feelings, and will. Intellectual insights are coordinated with the energy and enthusiasm produced by physical vitality, the intuitive feel for the rightness of an idea that comes from clear, calm feeling, and the ability to overcome obstacles that results from a dynamic application of the will. In this way the intellect becomes an effective tool for gaining the insights needed to lead a productive and fulfilling life.

Supporting Children and Teens in Discovering Life’s Highest Values

This article is excerpted from For Goodness’ Sake: Helping Children and Teens Discover Life’s Higher Values, by Nitai Deranja, founder of the first Living Wisdom School, Nevada City, CA.

It is easy to embrace the idea of nonsectarian spiritual values when we focus on a few key ones: kindness, courage, willingness, self-control, honesty. Who could disagree with the importance of these values or attribute them exclusively to any one religion?

In the joy we feel in helping others, the sense of satisfaction that comes from doing our best, and the peace of mind that results from telling the truth, we experience how much these values improve the quality of life.

As our world grows closer together, we can readily see that these values are part of everyone’s heritage, regardless of religious background, and offer a basis for emphasizing the oneness of the human race. On an individual level, they contribute mightily to a sense of self-worth.

A transforming experience

During my eighth-grade year, I had a chance to experience the transforming effects of one such value: compassion. The end of the school year was approaching but, due to heavy rains, my friends and I couldn’t use the playground. So we began to meet in the boys’ bathroom, a place of relative freedom in a Catholic school run by women.

In our advanced state of boredom, we started matching pennies, a game in which two people flip coins, with the winner keeping both pennies. Soon we were smuggling dice, cards, and poker chips into school. Inevitably, we were discovered and marched to the principal’s office.

After being chastised, we were punished with the loss of two weeks’ lunch recess. Our classroom teacher, Sister St. John, was assigned to supervise our punishment. Since this meant giving up her precious midday break, we expected the worst: sitting in silence for two weeks; writing, “I will not gamble” five thousand times.

Compassion and good will

To our astonishment, Sister said we had the choice of going through some unspecified eighth grade equivalent of “hell,” or something “better.” She then handed out copies of Pitch Black and the Seven Giants, a play with a “reforming” message. We readily chose the play, and thus began two highly enjoyable weeks of rehearsals, capped by a performance for our class.

My friends and I were stunned. What had happened to the punishment? The sense of guilt and shame? The end result was that Sister’s compassion and goodwill succeeded beautifully in lifting us out of a rather dark and negative state of mind.

The experience affected me deeply, and I absorbed the seed-thought that there might be other motivations for being good than fear of punishment.

A Master is not sectarian

This seed began to sprout with my involvement in the first Ananda Living Wisdom School in 1972, which was envisioned as spiritual, non-sectarian, and open to all. But I wondered: “What did ‘non-sectarian’ mean?” My own parochial school experience had left me so distrustful of spiritual indoctrination that I hesitated to share even the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda with the children.

When I took this dilemma to Swami Kriyananda, his answer was brief and to the point: “Nitai, what could be more nonsectarian than a master?” Soon after, I came across an important article by Yogananda:

Educational authorities deem it impossible to teach spiritual principles in public schools because they confuse them with the 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 methods of practically growing such seeds in the fertile soil of the child’s mind, then the imaginary difficulty is dissolved.

Encouraged, I began having classroom discussions on such values as honesty, kindness, and cooperation. We also read books about people who demonstrated these qualities in their lives. The students were developing a good intellectual understanding of the concepts, but, unfortunately, their behavior remained unaffected.

Then a remarkable thing happened. One morning it snowed.

Snow is unusual at Ananda, and I’d have been a complete ogre not to go along with the children’s pleas for a special recess. I stayed inside watching from the window, enjoying the exuberance of their play. However, in a few minutes there was an inadvertent shove, then a wayward snowball, and the whole class was angry with one another. I rang the bell and called the students in.

An impromptu swearing-in ceremony

After a calming-down period, we sat on the carpet for a discussion circle. We had previously been discussing the quality of cooperation, so I said: “Anyone who wants to go back out will have to take a pledge to practice cooperation. If you behave otherwise, you’ll have to come back in.”

We had an impromptu swearing-in ceremony as the students solemnly pledged to cooperate with one another. Back in the playground, there were a few nervous glances in my direction and some overly polite interactions, but gradually everyone settled into wholesome, cooperative play.

Later, when I asked the children which recess they had enjoyed more, every hand quickly went up in favor of the second one. Everyone agreed that the practice of cooperation had made all the difference. If I had any doubts about the power of this incident, they evaporated as I watched the children maintain their cooperation over the ensuing months.

Feeling the effects of behavior

Here was the alternative I had been searching for. First with Sister St. John I had witnessed the transforming effects of her compassion. Now my students had discovered how the quality of cooperation could make their recesses more enjoyable. Clearly, it was direct, personal experience that made it possible for children to appreciate why they should incorporate positive values into daily life.

I began using games, role-playing, and other activities to help them gain their own experience of the different values-to enable them to feel the effects of positive and negative types of behavior. This was the beginning of a non-sectarian, spiritual foundation for the school.

A “service adventure” to Mexico

The humorist P. G. Wodehouse wrote, “There is always a fly in the ointment, a caterpillar in the salad.” In our school the “caterpillar” was puberty.

As the children reached the teenage years, a different approach was needed as restlessness and boredom began to threaten the foundation of good character developed in their younger years. No longer was it enough to learn about values within the confines of the school campus; teens needed more challenging scenarios.

The solution was “service-adventures,” the first of which took us to a Mexican orphanage where the students spent two weeks immersed in a lifestyle completely foreign to them. This new context provided many opportunities for them to renew their appreciation for such qualities as calmness, kindness, and truthfulness. As the trip progressed, their better qualities again began to shine forth.

When we returned, the students had changed in lasting ways. They were more accepting of younger children, more open to adults, and less competitive with one another. With the haze of discontent lifted, here again were the young people I had watched grow up as cheerful, exuberant children. (And who later matured into thoughtful, responsible young adults).

The turbulence of restlessness

For most children, the greatest obstacle to the discovery of values is restlessness. Restlessness can be caused by emotional trauma or an unhealthy diet. But the most common problem is over-stimulation from too much exposure to videos, computer games, music, and TV.

Helping children calm the turbulence of their bodies and minds enables them to develop the sensitivity necessary for an appreciation of values. With children (and adults) the best tools for achieving this are yoga, meditation, and introspection.

One experience stands out in my mind. I was leading a group of teens through a series of calming yoga exercises. One girl, however (the most restless person in the class), seemed untouched by the practices. To help her, I came up with a little experiment.

At the end of the next session, I asked everyone to remain on the floor while I came around to test each one by gently moving an arm or leg. I explained that the flexibility or limpness of a limb would be a good indicator of the student’s level of relaxation.

As I made my way around the room, all the students were relaxed until I came to the girl. When I lifted her leg slightly and then released it, it remained suspended in the air! Somehow she’d never connected the concept of relaxation with a physical sensation. With a little extra help, she finally got the idea.

The words “fairly shine”

Non-sectarian spiritual values are the jewels of human existence-Cheerfulness. Forgiveness. Courage. Even-mindedness. Concentration. Patience. Integrity. Sensitivity. Trust. Cooperation. Sincerity. Will Power. Peace. Compassion. Self-Control. Enthusiasm. Honesty. Love. Joy. The words fairly shine on the printed page.

Working with children has enhanced my appreciation of how these values improve the quality of life for both adults and children. How can anyone overcome difficulties on the job without perseverance? How can parents respond effectively to the needs of their children without empathy? How can a person stay out of debt without self-discipline?

Just as it is crucial to understand the laws of gravity and acceleration before one can become an engineer, so also is it essential to develop qualities like cooperation, cheerfulness, and concentration before one can hope to find success and fulfillment in life. Indeed, these are the qualities that enable one to meet life’s countless challenges.