APV is a unique school in the degree of intimacy with which the teachers live together. We meditate together, we cook together, we work together. How do you think that that closeness of the teacher community affects the school?
I would say even more than physical closeness- living and working physically close together- it is the field of energy that I think is more important, what we call mind field. Originally I was interested in this Buddhist concept called sangha, about twenty years ago. I was exploring- ‘what does he mean by sangha? What does it mean to people living in the world?’ Because in a school situation, you are dealing every day with children, and sometimes with parents. But then I was also thinking of other communities, like ant communities; ants, bees, migratory birds. So it seems that they are governed by some sort of field of energy, where individuals don’t have to make individual decisions. It is something that happens spontaneously. And I think to a large extent human beings have lost it because of culture and civilization, and because of this over-dominance of the rational mind, overdependence on science. I think it is there in human beings, but it is latent, because if human beings have come from all other beings, then we must have it somewhere. We have not used it, but the genes are there somewhere. So this concept of sangha, practicing mindfulness together, working together as a community, it all fitted together in this concept of mind field. What I mean is that you feel oneness, not because of any external pressure, because you are one because you are better able to cope with your situation when you are together, better able to address the challenges that are outside you; it is another thing if you are saying that if I have other meditators around me I feel inspired, and I want to meditate more. I may still get disturbed a little bit sometimes, but most of the time there is some kind of energy in the group that helps, and since meditation was at the center of my life when I started this program, it all fitted together. If all of the teachers live together and meditate together, then that is going to be good for my mediation. And if it is going to be good for my meditation then it is probably going to be good for everybody else also. So that’s what I feel. But if I am externally friendly, only, and I carry resentments and things against other people, then it won’t work. Mind field means that you feel this genuine oneness, which doesn’t mean that there will be harmony all the time, that there will be no conflicts, because minor disorder is part of some larger order. Just as pain in meditation is part of the journey. So we keep talking about it, but we don’t analyze things intellectually, a lot. In other places I have seen people discuss an issue for hours, with no conclusion. Because you are talking from the surface part of your being, where we have our ego. So there is a lot of ego conflict there; even if we are talking with a very civilized language, underneath there is a lot of ego. Here we don’t do that a lot. We just meditate, and there may be suggestions in the meditation sitting, where the guide is giving suggestions that probably drop into the subconscious. This oneness at all levels is, I think, what is important.
You mentioned a proximity that goes beyond the physical; do you feel that this oneness begins with the acceptance and orientation towards a common purpose? In bee communities, ant communities, this harmony emerges not from a confluence of individual goals but from the fact that their goals are harmonized a priori. On the surface level there will be disagreements in a community, but a unified harmony grows from the beginning with a common purpose. People will only come if they already have a qualified belief in the aims and the methods of the school; mindfulness, inner exploration.
Here we remind ourselves all the time: ‘knowledge is that which liberates.’ And from the mystical point of view, once you are liberated you are one with everything. You don’t feel separated from the rest of creation. There is the analogy that we are like waves in the ocean, or bubbles, and each bubble has its individuality, but the bubble bursts and it is water again. Even while a bubble it was water, although it has a definite shape for some time. All beings, galaxies, even universes; they are all part of something else. Call it aether field, call it something else- we call it mind field, and I used this term long ago in one of my books, Dance of the Bee, to avoid other words that are related to a particular religion, like ‘mind of Brahma,’ or something like that, or even words from psychology like ‘unconscious mind.’ I didn’t want to use those words. There’s a field of energy which is primary, which is beyond time and space- even science is saying that now- and from which emerge all manifest realities, including ourselves. So the goal is to touch that reality, because it is that reality that is concealed beneath my form, maybe even concealed on the surface of my form. And once I experience that, personally, I feel an immediate oneness with everybody. So we may begin with a concept: yes, we are one, though I have not felt it. And in order to feel it I have to do a lot of cleansing, and I need to be able to transcend my ego. That is what we are trying to do through meditation, and in mediation there are moments when you seem to be part of a reality that has no time, no space, just a vastness. So I think people get touches of that reality, without knowing it of course, and it dissolves all separation for the time being. After many meditation sittings people confess to me that there was a problem before the sitting, and after this one hour sitting it has gone.
In your view, what is the role of the community in pursuing this oneness? It seems on the one hand to be a very solitary endeavor; one is going deep within the self. But a community, a sangha, seems also to be necessary for this pursuit.
There are two things. First, in order to battle the barriers, like laziness and mood swings and negative emotions- if you are all alone there is no check. Even the very physical things like getting up early, or when it is cold in winter, to have the courage to sit for one hour on the cold floor; those physical things become much more effortless when you see others doing it as well. And then I think in a group, invariably, when you are low somebody else is high, and because somebody is high, that helps you to go beyond your low. And the other way around as well. Sometimes there are many people low, there is some problem- there are times when I feel that everybody else is low, but for some reason I am high, and I say ‘There is no problem!’ And we do a sitting, and it seems that it helps. So I think community is a huge support, not just physically, not just as encouragement, as inspiration, but also deep down there is some kind of field, probably, and that field is strengthened by the presence of more people. Maybe like this hundredth monkey example; when there are ninety nine monkeys a behavior doesn’t affect the whole species, but add one more and it starts flowing. So I think the presence of more genuine meditators helps in every individual effort.
It almost seems as if beyond support and encouragement, beyond the comfort of seeing others seriously pursuing the same thing as you, that individual progress in mindfulness must, by the nature of things as understood in mindfulness, this going beyond ego and ego-centered boundaries, help others in their effort, spread to their effort, just as their progress spreads to you. It seems very difficult to make genuine progress in pure solitude; one can hone one’s attention and examine deeply the self, but by being alone always one seems to be affirming the ego, insisting on an egoism.
And there are other things- many things surface in the presence of other people. Living in a community, there may be disagreements on many things. I like one dish, but somebody else doesn’t like it- there may be disagreements in many places. And that may touch off something in you, something may come from your ego; that my suggestion is more important, whatever. So this seeing of your deeper self, especially the negative side, becomes so easy when there are other people around. And also it’s training- there is a disagreement, so what do you do? Like anger- you are angry that somebody else is not listening to you. If nobody was there you would probably not have this opportunity. But now that you have seen it, what are you going to do with it? All of these things are meditation. Are you trying to justify your anger by finding out what is wrong with the other person, or are you able to see that this is an opportunity to work with your anger. So the community causes the rising of your negative side, and also your positive side, because many times another person challenges you in a positive way, and you surprise yourself. Like there are times when I feel that I am sick and I will not be able to do the sitting, so after fifteen minutes I will request for everybody to continue meditating in their own rooms. And once I sit, because I sat only because of these other people, one hour is over! And I feel that I am not sick anymore. This one hour has done something to my body. And all of these things happen, I feel, because of the community.
Alone we are very good at comforting ourselves, exposing ourselves only in ways that we are comfortable with. In a community you are drawn out in all aspects.
And then that teaches you more about yourself everyday, because otherwise we have a fixed definition of ourselves. We are alone, and so we live in the same way day after day, especially regarding emotions that come to the surface, because we label it and there is nobody else to challenge that label. But in a community that is not so easy.
And then the school becomes an extension of this mind field, another community for five hours every day, from the first bell to the last. I think the teachers, because they work together and have this deep connection, are able to help the children create the same kind of community for those hours. Some people come and they try to note what we do every day: ‘okay, first bell at 9:30 and then they do this and this.’ But they can’t catch the essence this way, because it is this mindfulness at all levels, not just the sitting. The sitting helps, probably, to carry the mind field without us knowing it. And then many things become easy in the school; things like discipline, relationships, learning. They all become much easier than if we didn’t have this practice of mindfulness.
Do you feel that the teachers bring what they’ve learned from living in this community to the extended community of the school?
Definitely. It’s a process. A new teacher comes in the beginning not because of mindfulness- they don’t even know we practice mindfulness- and they come loaded with their worldly expectations, and it takes them a couple of weeks to realize that there is something else here; and I think that is our deepest urge as well. I think they sense something vital, and they want to be part of it. So there comes a time- one month, two months, depending on the person- that the person begins to appreciate and begins to practice more and more mindfulness. So we have teachers who joined eight months ago- they didn’t know anything about meditation- and after eight months that is all they talk about. Now they want to live that way, and other big questions emerge. Should I get married? What should I do for a living, if I leave? Will I be able to find other meditators if I leave? All these questions that didn’t exist a year ago. And I’ve seen in the classes that even children now request it, the children remind the teacher: ‘Shall we do five minutes of sitting?’ Even kindergarten children seem to get something out of it. You see that without telling them anything, some of them from the very beginning seem to be very deep somewhere, when in meditation. There must be something, something must be happening to this child.
And it seems that might be another benefit of a community, that when it grows large enough and strong enough, and somebody new comes in and sees all of these people practicing seriously, that that might be the thing that provides them with the initial spark of qualified belief that gets them to begin to practice. It’s easier at first to go along then insist upon your own personal routine. A community can implicitly impart its values.
That happens to all the new teachers and children. First they want to know if it is genuine, I think. So their very first instinctive understanding it that it is genuine. Whatever they are doing has a very deep meaning for them. Because of that they want to try it, and they get a taste of it within a few days. And once they do that, things become easy. And I am very surprised that people are so motivated to learn things that they hated before, like math. They want to learn more and more of everything, and they put a lot of effort into it. They see meaning in things that were meaningless to them before. Like, ‘Why learn math if you don’t need it for a job?’ But now they see that there is a kind of joy in learning it. It probably has to do with the growth of the brain, that the brain wants to wake up and form new energy pathways. They all help each other in some way as well; if I learn math that probably helps in mindfulness. After all you have to pay attention to these new things, and whenever you learn something new there is some creative potential there, which means that you are creating a new part of the brain in some way.
I’ve always found that when I take an interest in some new area, the first thing I really learn is just how little I know about it, and how much there is to know. What before was some concept, a gray undefined little thing, becomes an entire unexplored world. The revelation of my ignorance grows faster than my knowledge of the topic; the more I learn, the more I realize all that I haven’t learned. And it is because, like you said, learning opens up the brain and lets us see things that we did not know existed. We move from unrecognized ignorance to recognized ignorance in learning, continually.
The same happens to the students. I am teaching math to 7th and 8th grade and there are times, sometimes half an hour, when nobody is asking me anything, because they want to find out the answer themselves, they want to work it out. And then there are children who want new kinds of problems, not from the book. They have done the book and want something challenging. So it gives them joy. They have totally forgotten exams or grades or competition. And I see that first a child tries and tries, and then they go to another child: ‘Can you give me a hint? How did you do this?’ And then they continue working on it. So the joy of learning, which I think is helpful in mindfulness in many ways, if you can use it in that way. That is spreading and deepening in the school. Teachers, of course, often feel that they are not able to meet their expectations, because children are children, they have so much energy, and teachers don’t have that much time to create new activities. But that is not a problem, because children are flexible. If they want something and see that the teacher cannot do it, they move on.
Curiosity takes a tremendous amount of energy. That it’s there in the children seems to me an indication that something is being done right. This curiosity seems to present itself in connection with an object, but really it is just curiosity for anything manifest; once learning has been connected with this inner revelation, it is a desire to observe anything equally, the sense that everything is immanent with instruction.
And I would say that learning becomes much more spontaneous when there is this mind field, this sense of community working together. So we could say that there is collective intelligence at work, which means that you are teaching to one person and it is in some way helpful to another person who may not even be there, because of this spread of collective intelligence. Otherwise I would be surprised at how eight year old children can play the drum so well. Nobody has taught them, they have not touched a drum before, but some of these 2nd and 3rd graders play so well. There is no tradition of drumming anywhere in the village. So where did that skill come from? Mystics may say that they were a drummer in their past life- maybe. But then to use that potential from the past life you need this kind of environment.
You mentioned bees before, and they’ve actually found that when bees move between multiple flowers, they travel by the most maximally efficient route, a problem that we need an advanced computer to solve. The bees do this complicated math instinctually, seemingly with the intelligence of the species.
I would say that there are two things that this mind field does. One is that it changes the capacities of people, within seconds maybe. The mind is changing, the mind is able to learn more, to go deeper, to expand. Another thing is that it makes learning easier, because of this collective intelligence, because of so many people in that field together, so many minds. It spreads around, it seems. So every individual mind is becoming more able to learn. It has a greater capacity to learn, and it gains new ways of learning, being in touch with this field. I’m not able to put it very precisely. But it is not that the mind is going to grow at the same speed here or anywhere else, and here this mind is able to learn more, because of this environment. I would say the mind itself is changing. It is learning more because of this environment, because the environment is changing the mind itself.
The mind becomes more responsive, and that seems very connected with mindfulness, in which one patiently observes the body and becomes alert to these subtle, minute sensations that passed by one’s attention before.
Yes. So one of the questions I keep asking myself is: How do you tell this to people, to education professionals, to governments? How do you tell them that they are spending a lot of money and time and resources in order to make learning possible when they could have done that with very minimal expenditures and time and resources if only they had a different approach? Because they are making tremendous effort through teacher’s training, through creating libraries and labs and this and that, hoping that because of all of this learning will become easier. But if you go to those places you find that the teacher is not so motivated- they do their job, their duty, and they are paid, but they are putting in a lot of futile effort, because the approach is wrong. To inspire children is so difficult in those places. They are not inspired. They are bombarded with all kinds of different techniques and materials, but they are not inspired. So children have to work very, very hard because they are not spontaneously interested, but they have this fear; fear of exam and career and parents and this and that. So basically fear drives them; it is not interest.
Many schools I’ve seen advertise themselves by their abundance; well-stocked laboratory, fancy gym, all these things that they have. But those things simply presented don’t interest a child; a child is just as happy with a stick as with an expensive phone. There’s no spirit to these bells and whistles; they are there to impress the parents and the teachers, not the students. These schools seem designed to be places that the parents would want to attend, without thought for the child. How do you feel that you can express this philosophy to cultures that are very far removed from viewing mindfulness as a viable educational tool?
Well, there are some schools in India that trying to do it; what they do is they have all kinds of stuff, and also want to fit mindfulness in. Sometimes they play a tape for ten minutes, giving instructions. A Delhi teacher was telling me ‘We don’t have any space where all the children can sit together, so children do it standing.’ So they stand in their classrooms for ten minutes, and there is this tape. And I asked this teacher, ‘Are you a meditator?’ And she wasn’t; none of the teachers were. So how is it going to be successful in that school if teachers don’t really believe in it? I think that many things need to happen before mindfulness becomes part of schools. Before that it has to become part of life, at least for teachers. So one hope is advances in neurology- though it has been around for a long time, there is nothing about mindfulness in the mainstream syllabus anywhere yet. They don’t talk about the impact of mindfulness on the brain and neuroplasticity. But the science is progressing at a rapid pace. In ten years time I think it may become part of the textbooks in neurology. It may become essential for medical students and educationalists, all those disciplines that have to do with the brain and the body. Another thing that needs to happen is that the materialistic approach has to be somehow challenged by this kind of knowledge, once it becomes more and more a part of the mainstream. It may happen through medical science, if there are lots of diseases that medicine cannot address, and there are special doctors that may begin to suggest meditation. There may be hospitals where doctors are meditators, and they introduce it as a treatment. We saw a video of a hospital in China that did this. Once it becomes part of many disciplines, and as it once again becomes a part of real life, like yoga is for some people, though by yoga they mean these postures, which is not the meaning of yoga. Patanjali never talks about these different kinds of posture; he says posture means you can sit stably for a long time, and yoga means you are doing nothing in the mind, lack of action in the mind. That is his definition of yoga, which has been lost. So I think what we have right now is a continuation of the industrial revolution and the science that developed at that time, started to develop a little earlier, during the Renaissance in the West, which said that through our reason we can find out the secrets of life, and then we can change nature and we can dominate nature. And this science has created so much stuff, and so much knowledge, which has been so impressive, and I think all of the current systems- governmental, economical, political, even social, are governed by that. They also have religion on the other side- many people want to believe in religion, but then it doesn’t match. Religion says one thing, science says another thing; so religion has slowly shrunk to ritualism, to worshipping a deity or performing a ritual, because the other reality, that people have to live, is governed by science. Then governments, NGOs, they also are governed by materialism. For instance, as you mentioned, once you have money you can create a good school, a good library, playground, buildings, computers. And they forget human beings. They forget the emotions and the inspiration; the things that go with learning, the joy of learning. But joy has nothing to do with all of those things. Once people begin to see that there is much to mind and to learning and to living, and once they begin to listen to the mystics, and once mindfulness begins to be seen as a scientific thing, and more and more people begin to practice because it is part of the curriculum and part of trainings, I think only then will it spread. But right now it can be spread through individuals, because there are many people, probably a few thousand at least, who are very interested, and they are looking for small experiments on this globe. They are hoping that something is happening somewhere. And I think that is the hope; one lamp here, one lamp there, one lamp there. And it will spread, slowly.
What Patanjali said reminds me of something that Pascal, a great French Christian philosopher and mathematician wrote, something like ‘all I ask of religion is that it teach me to sit quietly in a room.’
Right. And these days they have begun to say, and I think science is beginning to prove it, that when you sit and you calm your mind- my mind is like a bucket under a tap with water that has a lot of impurities, and then you let it stay and it settles down and you have a calm mind, then it has a vibration that spreads around. And there was a scientist saying that it spreads for several kilometers. So if that happens, if it spreads, then this means that people who are genuinely practicing mindfulness are connected, are touching each other. And that will draw them together, somehow they will be attracted to each other, they will find each other, and then the effect multiplies. This small school has probably touched directly a few hundred children over the last eleven years, and their families indirectly, and now they will get married and it will keep on spreading. Every year there are new children, and the children who are with us for five or six years- that is a long time, even if they only practice for a few minutes every day. That is enough; it will bear fruit somewhere. And it has a tremendous healing effect- one day we should talk about it. In the beginning a lot of healing takes place, because the brain is in disorder. It has to be; society is that way, and all of us have come from the world, from society. So every brain has a serious level of disorder when you are talking about the capability of this brain to be a part of the mind field and help children in that way. In the beginning it is not ready, so at first a lot of healing takes place very fast. So then we reach a level where we are able to do good, or at least not disturb what is happening, and it grows from there. The same thing happens with children; it takes a few months, and then you can see something else in the child’s face.
And that goes back to your point that in order for mindfulness in education to spread it has to first take root in the teachers. It won’t work to impose a syllabus of mindfulness if the teachers don’t practice or don’t have some qualified belief in the benefits of practice.
Of course. And you can’t impose things on teachers, because then it goes against what we are talking about. The teacher is motivated, therefore if there is a person who is not going to teach but is going to help create this school, a trainer or a manager or a principal, that person has to first learn, and have this inner journey. And then that person will be able to help teachers, and not be a burden on them. Otherwise, if teachers are practicing and the person who has power over them doesn’t practice, isn’t a meditator, it is never going to work. Actually I have seen this happen in one organization; the people who started the schools, they practiced a little bit in the beginning and saw that it is very fruitful, but they saw it from a different angle, that if teachers begin to practice meditation they will be able to teach better, and the results will be better, and therefore their work will be seen as superb. This goes against meditation; you are not worried about how the world will look at you. And they tried to train their teachers, force them to do ten day meditation courses year after year, and eventually these teachers started hating meditation. And apparently they were also teaching children meditation, because they were told to do that, but it was all a kind of meaningless ritual, a kind of burden. And it didn’t bear any fruit; it actually proved to be negative. So it has to start from the top. The teachers have to be free and guided at the same time. Free in the sense of this inner journey, free to explore, free to create. And yet guided in the right way. These two factors are essential, rather than what they talk about these days: ‘Oh, a new school! How much money do we have?’ The very first thing they worry about is money. And I think money will come from somewhere, we will do something for that, but the first concern of a school is not money. It is people, it is teachers, individuals who are fired with this idea that I want to continue my journey, and I want to help children. And then it becomes a kind of environment that helps both children and teachers. It is good for everybody because society sees it as a school and so they don’t interfere in it, because you are also doing what other schools are doing, you are teaching them all the subjects and they are able to pass the exams. So parents will be satisfied with that aspect. It is a school, but you are doing it in such a way that children are learning and expanding and growing, in the real sense. And it is much easier for them than for other children to pass the exams. Our children are passing these government exams once they graduate from here and go to high school. They prove to be so bright there! Many of them who had learning difficulties with us- when they were in 8th grade we didn’t know how the child was going to do in 9th and 10th. And then we hear after two years that he came first in the class, and we ask the child ‘What happened?’ He says ‘I don’t know, but I took it as a challenge; they have these textbooks, they want us to learn them in their way and produce the answers in their way. Is that so difficult?’ So they have this energy to do that, even if they don’t see it as having much meaning. But since they were there they took it as a challenge. So yes, the beginning is those teachers. The beginning is creating individuals, not funds. That should be the first point. Once you have those people you can think about other things, and it won’t be so difficult.
I think one of the reasons they do so well on these later exams is the lack of stress they bring to it, that overwhelms other children- if I don’t do well on this, my future is ruined. The APV students come to it as a game or a challenge, as you said; something to be figured out for the sake of itself. It reminds me of a story my grandfather told me, that when he started college he didn’t really go to class and got mediocre grades, until my grandmother suggested to him that he try going to class. And when he did he had this revelation that, holy crap, they’re giving away the test answers! They tell you what is going to be on the exam, and how to answer! What could be easier than that?
And also in other schools they do so many things every day that create stress. Every day the way they do their assembly, the way they teach, the relationship between students and teachers; it is all stressful. And there is no music, no mindfulness practice. All of those things create this daily quota of stress, and it goes on and on, accumulating. I think it hampers the growth of some parts of the brain. Here, just this lack of stress, even if we weren’t able to do positive things, creative things- just this lack of stress alone is a huge advantage, because it allows the brain to develop.
With this stress, children develop almost an aversion, an allergy to school. They come to dread it. At APV just this lack of an association of school with a punitive atmosphere, with tedium, is immensely helpful.
And we have enough evidence now that this interest can be developed at any age. I see teachers, some of them in their thirties, now getting very interested in math, which they had always hated. Interested in the very basics of math- what is 1/2? And how do I communicate that? The second thing is this communicative aspect: how do you communicate the real meaning of 1/2 + 1/3 makes 5/6 to children? So this means that their brains are developing; the parts of their brain that were supposed to develop when they were 11 and 12 are developing now. Like curious, interested children, they are learning.