At APV one is engaged in the rigors of daily life, as opposed to the isolation of a meditation center. How do you feel that a meditative atmosphere is maintained at APV?
When we say that the philosophy of APV is ‘knowledge is that which liberates’- in other words, knowledge is for our inner evolution. If that is so, then we can’t have two different things. We can’t have meditation sittings or mindfulness practices on the one side, and look at the rest of life, like teaching or living in the community as a worldly thing. That would be fragmentary. You are doing opposite things. So when this program started, I asked myself- because my central aim in life was to work for my own evolution, and to do any relevant action in the outside world that would help me in this inner journey. And I loved to do education. So now the challenge was, ‘how is it possible to do everything- living in the community, guiding the teachers, teaching, doing work with the land, fetching wood from the forest, cooking, everything- how do we do all of these things in such a way that it is helpful in this inner evolution, or at least is not a distraction?’ So I found that it flows naturally. This quality of mindfulness flows naturally into any action that is meaningful. So there may be actions that do not match with it, and you don’t do them. For instance, attending a meeting where they don’t want to talk about mindfulness at all. Most education seminars these days are like that; you can’t talk about this. They will dismiss it as one of those things, like yoga, that you do for more energy, that you do in order to do something else that you are doing. They don’t accept this in the mainstream general education, I think, as a relevant educational philosophy. That education is for inner evolution. And most people don’t really understand evolution that way we are talking about it. They think evolution only means learning more, increasing the capacity of the brain; we are not talking about that. What we are saying is that you change, like a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. You become a different species, in a way; you become a man from a monkey, something like that. Neurologists are now appearing with the proof. So I think there isn’t any contradiction anywhere. You do all of the things that you are doing with honesty- that is important. All of the moral values that are central for meditation, you have to keep those in mind and then do your work, and there’s no contradiction in it. But then there are people who come with these mixed meditation practices. For instance, they want freedom, freedom to do whatever they like, and at the same time they do not want to care about moral aspects, and they want to meditate and to participate in this life. So for them it is difficult, because there is fragmentation between the way you are living and what you are practicing; these become two different things.
It seems that it is one thing to sit in meditation and to be mindful and to promise yourself that you will be mindful throughout the day, and another to actually maintain mindfulness amidst the bombardment of the outside world. It seems that one must not only practice and then carry and protect this mindfulness throughout the day like a little flame, but that one must also find a way to practice while in the outside world, in concert with the outside world. Do you feel that the curriculum of APV is designed to bridge this gap between meditation and daily life, for both the students and the teachers?
I think the baseline is that it should be interesting for the children, whatever they are learning. If we keep that in mind, that it is interesting for itself, not because it is an important thing for the exam or whatever, not for future- that right now the children are interested in it. That is one aspect. Another aspect is that they will only be interested in areas that they are a bit familiar with. For instance, before we had any musical instruments in the school, you had no way of knowing whether children would be interested. So you have to create different environments and see what children are interested in, and then you build on that. But for that you need to do a lot of research. So what we did- I’ll give examples from math, because math is a very exact kind of subject- we started asking ourselves ‘What does 1/2. 1/3, really mean, in real life? And how do you communicate that to the child?’ First we asked these questions to ourselves, and discovered that we didn’t have a very clear idea of fractions and how to do addition, subtraction, etc. Like 1/2 divided by 1/2, we were taught that you do it like this- write 1/2 and this sign of division you change into multiplication and then flip the other 1/2 into 2/1 so then it becomes 1.
You become a machine.
Yeah. It was a mystery to us- why do it like this? So we asked these questions. What does it mean in real life? How do you divide 1/2 with 1/2? And so on. Through that we got very interesting methods, methods that link real life and meaning with whatever you are teaching. Although we haven’t been able to do that in every subject, we have done a lot of work with math, a little bit with geography, and now we are moving into other areas. Our aim is to relate everything to real life, because all of these subjects are about life, basically. And they become abstract only when we forget real life, when we are just limited to the printed page. If we do that, plus if we are honest in the class, like if a child asks a question and you don’t know the answer. Just say ‘I don’t know the answer. Let us find out. We’ll find out.’ In our classes children don’t hesitate to say ‘Sir, maybe you don’t know the spelling. May I go to Mohan-sir, or somebody else?’ And the teacher doesn’t feel insulted. We say this is information, not real knowledge. These days we have internet; you don’t have to keep everything in your head! People have these mobile phones, you can find information in less than a minute. So why bother about keeping everything in your head? And we say ‘This is information; it is useful in some ways, but it is not directly linked to your evolution inside.’ As human beings we have this curiosity to explore the outside world, to ask questions like ‘Why do we have seasons? Why do we have day and night?’ And so on. So can we explain those things in interesting ways, so that children are energized and more inquisitive, and at the same time understand that this is not for the future, that they do not have the future dominate their mind when they are learning? Though of course these things will be useful in the future, in many places. But basically that they are learning out of interest. So if you look at meditation as living now, with full energy- when you are interested in a subject and you are learning it out of that interest, you are in the now at that time. You are not obsessed with the future or the past. You are not occupied with anything other than this moment and this thing that you are doing. I think this is one of the keys for our teachers. If we can make something very interesting and at the same time very meaningful, related to real life, we can also make it interesting in a less meaningful way. Like you can make a game that makes it interesting, but is not linked to real life and doesn’t have much meaning in it. But if you also link it to real life, which means local culture, local environment, and what the children already know, what kind of attitudes they have from their background, you can use all of that previous knowledge, and then you go from there to this new area, whatever you are teaching. So that, I think, is not a contradiction with meditation. It actually is, in some way, a kind of meditation.
Meditation seems to be an awareness- an awareness of the present moment, of the body, of the mind- and the way that APV approaches the introduction of a topic to a student, which is so important in getting them interested, is to connect it with the way that a child is aware of the world, not so abstractly but through the body, through sensations, through direct perceptions. It seems that when you present a topic in this way you make it an object of mindfulness; it becomes an extension of a child’s natural mindfulness. The topic is not abstract, or far away, rather one is learning about something that is an extension of one’s self and one’s awareness. Not an addition to mind but an enlarging of mind.
And there are other dimensions to it, for the teacher. A teacher can do all of this with less or more mindfulness. Like if I am teaching the children and at the same time I am aware of my body and also my mind- what else is going on in my mind? Because if I am fully there, mind makes many links right there in the class. In the class your mind will connect that topic with many other areas that you had never thought of before, because of your total presence. And then the emotion, the feeling- if you look at children as infinite beings with infinite potential, this needs to be cultivated. I think those elements also go into whatever you are doing; they touch children in some area of their being.
You mentioned almost a collaborative environment in the classroom; that the children will challenge the teacher when it’s appropriate, and go to other teachers. It seems like that begins with the teachers seeing the children, like you said, as these infinite beings, as people, not students or subjects, but people with a unique perspective on the topic that they, the teachers, can learn from.
Right. In fact, we learned many of these techniques because of this challenge that came from the children. They ask something which may not be directly linked with the technique that you eventually discover or invent, but it starts from there. They ask something, and you move in that direction, and you find new things.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the way the APV syllabus is directed towards this goal of mindfulness?
Yeah, I would like to say that when say ‘syllabus’, we should keep in mind everything that happens in the school. We start with active meditation, observing nature, seeing with the whole body- these are the instructions for the children and ourselves, to look at everything with your whole body with every breath. So you are aware of your breath, you are aware of your body, you are aware of what you hear, what you see, what you touch, the sunshine, the touch of the wind, the weight of your body. We say that your weight should be equally divided on your legs, so feel your weight on both the legs. And all of these are meditation techniques, actually. Then we do sitting meditation, then we do music. So what does all of that do to the brain of the child? If we don’t keep that in mind, then I think we are left with a very narrow space within which we are discussing teaching and learning techniques. All of this is part of the syllabus. So I would say that many of the things that are happening at APV in terms of teaching subjects would be very different if we did not have music or meditation or this friendly, free relationship between teachers and children, with no inhibitions in the sense that the teacher is not scared of being challenged or being caught not knowing something. We don’t want to keep everything in our head, and we tell the children that. Once a visitor came, and she wanted to prove that our children don’t know much, because I think she was against APV. And she asked the 3rd or 4th graders ‘What makes ocean water saline?’ And they couldn’t give the answer that she wanted, and she said ‘You don’t even know this?’ And the children said ‘Do you know? You tell us.’ And they were so relaxed, and she was furious that they don’t know and yet they don’t look afraid or worried. And then we told her ‘This is information, and you don’t know for sure either. How do you know? You read it in a book, didn’t you? It is somebody telling you that there was a lot of salt on the surface of the Earth and the rivers carried it- how do you know? Tomorrow they may come up with some other theory- they may say that there are volcanic eruptions, and much of the saltiness of the ocean is because of that. Who knows?’ So we also are honest with the children when we say these things. We say ‘This is what scientists believe.’ And when a child says ‘What do you believe?’, you can say ‘I don’t know. But I am open to all of these things. I am listening to these people, because I have no way of finding out. I don’t care; it is salty. That is enough. Ocean water is salty; that is all that is useful for us. What made it salty doesn’t matter.’
It’s not about knowing why the ocean is salty, it’s about tasting the ocean and knowing that it is salty.
Right. And not confusing it with other water. Not saying that we can drink this water. If we know that, that is enough; don’t drink ocean water.
For the teachers there is a continuity between mindfulness practice in the community and in school. How do you encourage this kind of continuity in the students? When they leave at 3 in the afternoon, they go home and they are in a different world. How do you encourage the students not to have a hard boundary between the environment of the school and that of the outside world, to be mindful at home as they are in school?
I would say that the children see an immense value in the school’s education in the time that they are in the school. And to some extent they carry that quality with them. I wouldn’t agree that they are with us only for five hours and then the rest of the nineteen hours they are at home and therefore they will forget everything. It’s not that. This is quality time for them. Suppose you love some person, and you meet that person only for ten minutes everyday, but those ten minutes are so valuable that they energize you for twenty-four hours, and the next day you wait for those ten minutes. So here it is about five hours everyday. And I think if the children were with us all the time, of course they would be able to practice more, but then the good thing about going home is that they probably touch their parents, their family members with this, to some extent. Maybe not directly, but indirectly some quality goes there. Especially as time passes and we have the next generation; some of our children are adults and they will very soon get married- some have already gotten married, maybe. And they know what it is. So they must have spread it to some extent among their family members and their friends. So there is more of a spread effect in this case, when children everyday go home. And maybe it gets diluted a little bit everyday, but then there are children who practice even at home, and they tell us ‘Yes, I practice when I go to bed, and nobody knows, but I sit for some time.’ There are children who tell us that they cured some very deadly disease with meditation. There was a child who was going to be operated on, due to some kind of heart problem, and probably the doctors were saying ‘One day, eventually, we will have to do surgery on his heart.’ And now he’s fine, he’s fit, after five or six years of staying in APV. He goes home everyday and works a lot at physical work- a Nepali kid, so he has to work a lot at home- but he’s fit now. I used to notice him practicing meditation, even during interval some days. Because he had started believing that this was very good for his body, of course for his mind also, but he was worried about this surgery. And now he is fit. So I think a lot of what children go through at APV stays, and grows as time passes, in spite of the fact that they go home everyday and maybe lose a little bit. In the end they gain a lot.
The amount of time, it seems, doesn’t matter. If APV is doing its job right, two minutes could be sufficient.
This reminds me of a poem that maybe Robert Browning wrote. I forget the details, but there is one of the dirtiest lanes that can exist on this planet, and somebody’s walking down this lane. And there’s a description of the filth, of the stench all around, there are butcher’s shops and cobbler’s shops- a very dirty description. And there is this young man walking as if it is a lane in heaven, because there is some kind of otherworldly light in his eyes. He’s so high, and then the poet says the reason why he is high is that at the end of the lane there is a curve and a tree, he will stand there and then this girl will come on the roof- maybe only for three minutes, combing her hair, and she will look at him, maybe for one minute. And that’s it. That one minute changes this whole street, changes all of the dirt, or maybe makes it insignificant. Because he is high, he is in some other world. He is not bothered by any of these things. And all the other people are miserable there. They say ‘What to do? We have to live here. We are so miserable.’ But this young man says ‘I don’t have to live in this place, because of that one minute. I think what is important is the quality, and I think the children carry that quality with them wherever they go. Its intensity will go down and up, depending on where they are. At APV they may be high, when they go home it may be a bit low, but it keeps increasing.
It calls to mind a story that Goenkaji told, in which a very foolish king is walking around his courtyard and steps on a rock, and gets very angry and orders that the entire courtyard be covered with carpet, and his advisors respond ‘Why cover the entire courtyard with carpet? Why not wear carpet on your feet?’
Yes. And earlier we were talking about how we teach, and we call it ‘link syllabus.’ We coined this term, which means that whatever you are teaching, link it with this inner evolution, as education should be ‘that which liberates.’ So if we see on the surface that much of the syllabus is not that kind of knowledge, it is not going to lead the children to this inner evolution. Okay, then can you present it in such a way that it does so? And there are many ways of presenting. Like we have stories for teaching (a + b)2 = a2 + b2 + 2ab. It’s a kind of drama that children do, and in the drama this formula comes in a very meaningful way, in a very relevant way, because the whole drama is based on this. So you can present things that seem like the driest things in interesting ways. That is the challenge for teachers, and that is what gives us new energy. It is not static; next year the syllabus will not be the same, even if I am teaching the same class, because the teacher is always looking for new links and new ways of presenting. For me, personally, the reward is that I want to challenge myself in the class. I deliberately touch areas that are not clear to me, and then children ask questions, and then that does something to your brain; you start seeing many links, after some time. And you discover after the class that something new was invented, because of this positive pressure. So all of that would be missing if we had a static syllabus. When we talk about a lesson plan, the implication is that you already know what you are going to teach, every detail. But we don’t know. And many times we don’t even know that today we will touch this chapter. Suppose you want to teach day and night today; you may have some activities in mind, but the children may not want to learn geography that day. So the teacher goes prepared. There are many, many days in which this happens. Children say ‘Geography? No, not today. Let us learn something else.’ And because teachers are free to teach anything- there is one teacher for each class- they can design the whole day, they can change it anytime. Some days children want to go to the forest. We talk about preparedness, rather than lesson plan; the teacher goes prepared for anything, including what they want to teach today, whatever activities they have in their mind. But they are ready to put that aside, if need be.
It seems like the first, most important step is inducing this interest in the children; getting the children to see the thing not necessarily in the way you want them to see it, but to see it as a real, manifest thing. And out of that flows these natural questions, all these different links of meaning. Do the teachers ever bring problems to you in regards to this flexibility? That they feel they are being led too far off track?
They do. I discovered that when I present things here to the teachers, they seem to understand, but I’ve found that some teachers may not want to do that in the class, maybe if it’s too difficult. So I found another way. They would ask me to come to class, and I would start a topic in the way we had already discussed, for ten minutes, and then I would leave the class to the teacher. And then the teacher would be stuck, because the teacher is not ready for that, and later the teacher would complain: ‘You just left! You started something that I didn’t know.’ But because of that pressure, the teacher would say ‘Let us do it tomorrow.’ And now the teacher is learning with so much more interest, because tomorrow the teacher has to work with the children again. So it is also a matter of pushing people in a good way, towards light. The same thing happens in meditation. New people many times do not want to get up so early, at quarter to four, especially in winter- who wants to get up and sit on the cold floor? And yet they want to try it. So there is a conflict- their mind may be ready, but their body is not ready. Or something is missing, the discipline is missing, and yet there is the desire to try it. So they need help. But slowly the same people who found it very difficult start enjoying it after some months. The same thing happens in the school. People who found it very difficult, who were not interested in children so much- they would say it later, like after one year: ‘In the beginning I said I was very interested in children, otherwise you wouldn’t let me teach, but actually I wasn’t interested in teaching. But now it is enjoyable.’ I think as human beings we need someone to be cruel in a nice way to us, sometimes. Otherwise we are too lazy. Even if we have the desire, there is not enough energy. And I do it with myself, also. Like with music. I couldn’t play the harmonium while the children were singing in the assembly, so I just pressed two notes, the bass and one more note that matches with it, and that was enough to keep the tune on track. But then, slowly, I started challenging myself- can I play? I would try a little bit, little bit, and I learned. Then the next challenge was- I know how to play the harmonium, but am I aware of my body while I am playing? And that became the next dimension. I started catching myself thinking about the next prayer that we were going to sing, or something that just happened, one child came late, when the assembly is over I want to ask this child about being late. And this is when you are playing and the children are singing- so I catch myself doing that and ask myself to be quiet. Later, if you remember, ask him; if you don’t, it doesn’t matter, some other time. So to be aware of your body, to be aware of your mind. Then I discovered that I tense up some of my muscles unnecessarily while I am playing harmonium. So now I focus on those muscles; they should be relaxed. You are playing this instrument with your hands, your back muscles have nothing to do with it, so why are you tensing up? So you can add those dimensions, and it becomes so exciting. Those twenty minutes become like meditating while walking on a tightrope.
To go back to the flexibility in the classroom, it seems that in order to not resort to being a disciplinarian, or to this rigid syllabus, the teacher first has to almost see the topic like a child, to understand it like a child would, and then when the topic is presented to the child it doesn’t seem like a command from on high, but rather as a suggestion from an equal. Rather than damming a river, gently diverting its flow.
Right. Here we come up with lots of ideas for any class, and if a teacher is more interested then more ideas are generated. If a teacher is not very interested it may be because the teacher is new or afraid or whatever. At some point, I think, all the teachers get interested in this, and lots of ideas come up. Then they try the idea that they are comfortable with, and many times the discovery is very surprising. I suggest something which I don’t know will be successful or not, and the teacher comes very high- ‘This idea was such a great fit!’ So living together helps a great deal. Since we are living together we discuss all of these things- the children, problems in the class, and so on. On the one hand the teacher is free to do anything; on the other hand the teacher is challenged to excel, because otherwise the children will go to some other teacher. This keeps happening here, many times; sometimes the children do not accept a new teacher, and they say ‘No, we will request that sir or that madam to come to our class, because you are not listening to us, or whatever.’ And the teacher cannot just shout at them to shut up. If the teacher does that, the children will definitely make it an issue and report it to other teachers, older teachers. So on the one hand you are totally free; on the other hand, you have to be very aware and very mindful. Here we discuss how all of these things can help us to be more mindful, because our first thing is our own evolution. If we are right in that, if we are working on that, then everything else will happen in the most excellent way. We believe in that, and now we have experience to back this, that if you are working on your evolution, you find ways of doing everything that you have to do with so much energy. We discuss that a lot here. And sometimes there are problems; problems come from children who come from government schools or other schools where they get beaten up, where the syllabus is static, where teachers are disinterested, talk like machines. They come here, and they see that nobody is punishing them, their teachers are like friends, and they want to take advantage of that, for some time. Once in a while we have to talk to those children, say that we can be very strict with you, if you like, but you don’t want that, do you? You like this school because people are friendly, but you have to value that. It takes time, but most children understand.
Freedom is its own burden.
Freedom, I think, is a huge responsibility. Like in meditation, you are free with yourself for one hour, in a way. But you can only be free in that area if you follow the discipline properly. It is like playing an instrument. I’m playing an instrument, and I have freedom; you ask me to play something, and I can play it. I can play anything, I am free there, but I can only play if I know how to play properly.
You stand in front of an instrument that you don’t know how to play, you have complete freedom. You can bang whatever you want, play however you want. But this open freedom is a limited freedom. There is a hard ceiling of your own capabilities. With discipline you find that your freedom becomes more expansive. You stand in front of the class with the freedom to say whatever you want, discuss whatever you want, but without discipline you’ll find yourself saying the same things. You’ll bore yourself.
Discipline is not in a zero-sum relationship with your freedom, which is unlimited; it doesn’t take from freedom, but rather fills in the gaps of its infinity.
And you realize that beauty comes out of that discipline. You want this to sound beautiful, to sound perfect, you want people to enjoy it. That will happen only if you play it properly, which means you have to be very alert and skilled and practiced. And the same goes with teaching, or with anything.