Becoming Whole: Education and Ecstasy

Seven Principles of Contemplative Education

Henri Matisse, Icarus 1947

Henri Matisse, Icarus 1947

In what way do we cultivate the intelligence of the mind, the wisdom of the body, and the knowing of the heart? Where and how do we learn to make well-reasoned, responsible, and ethical decisions? Did you learn this in school? I certainly didn’t. And . . . why not?

We must face the facts. They are staring us in the face, with a wrinkled gaze. Have been for over one-hundred years now. Modern education is woefully inadequate. We know by now that the mere acquisition of facts and figures do not make genuine, whole human beings. Nor do they contribute to the growth of wisdom or authentic being. Nor do they engender the empathy and humanistic perspective needed to heal the planet, or prevent conflict and war, or solve the intractable problems of poverty and overpopulation, or assist in the global perspective necessary for growing our world towards peace and prosperity and liberty for all human beings.

I hated school. I wanted to have fun learning, to cultivate my passion and curiosity, and to engage my creativity. But, school as I knew it was boring and listless, smothering the creative fire of learning. Then, I delightfully discovered George Leonard’s book, Education and Ecstasy. In it, he quotes Einstein: “It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.… It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.” Leonard claims a large part of the the goal of education is “the achievement of moments if ecstasy. … When joy is absent , the effectiveness of the learning process falls and falls until the human being is operating hesitantly, grudgingly, fearfully at only a tiny fraction of his potential.”

Wow. I liked that and wanted to emulate those sentiments, the search for ecstatic learning.

Old Baldwin High, Maui, HI © David Ulrich

Old Baldwin High, Maui, HI © David Ulrich

But,  I couldn’t change my teachers nor my school’s curriculum. However, what was within my power was to find the resolve to become the kind of teacher someday that I would want to learn from.

According to Leonard: “The master teacher is one who pursues delight. … To follow ecstasy in learning in spite of injustice, suffering, confusion and disappointment is to move easily toward an education, a society that would free the enormous potential of man.”

In dealing with ecstasy, as with all powerful forces, context is crucial. The context I have suggested is neither wantonly Dionysian nor the purely contemplative,  but the educational. Ecstasy is education’s most powerful ally. It is reinforcer for and substance of the moment of learning.”

We must still the mind yet open the heart.

I am reminded here of the Zen story where a visiting professor comes to the home of a tea master for the tea ceremony. With great attention and care, the master prepares the tea — with a seriousness of intent, reverence of attitude, and a joyful, lightness of action.

When the time finally comes to receive the tea, the professor holds out his cup in anxious anticipation; the tea master pours the tea, and continues pouring until it is flowing out of the cup, on to the professor’s lap and down to the floor. The professor protests, and is stopped in mid-sentence by the master, who says calmly: “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can you possibly learn Zen, without first emptying your cup?”

We need to find the way towards openness and deeply-felt authentic inquiry. The Dalai Lama speaks of educating the heart. Naropa and other universities are experimenting with models of what has become known as contemplative education. What is contemplative education? How might it penetrate to the ordinary college, and even secondary and primary classrooms and curriculum? While many answers have been sought to this question, I propose seven principles of contemplative education that could serve the aims of stilling the mind, opening the heart, and sensitizing the body

1.) The quietness of the mind. Indeed, Krishnamurti asserts, in a discussion with physicist David Bohm, that the “quietness of the mind is intelligence.” Learning takes place through an open, receptive vehicle, and the mind can be trained release its grip from its many stray associations and wanderings. Attention, can, and must be cultivated for impressions of the outer world to penetrate deep within us. Further, intuition and insight make their appearance through the capacity of the mind to attend and listen. Naropa quotes William James: “The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

2.)  Education of the whole person. The intelligence of the mind, the wisdom of the senses, the attuned sensitivity of the feelings, and the small, still voices of intuition and revelation can be cultivated, indeed must be approached with equal attention. What is the necessary role of the body and feelings in encouraging insight and understanding? What is their respective contribution to the digestion of and response to impressions from the outer world? Must Descarte’s formulation “I think, therefore I am” continue as the a priori model for the educational process?

3.) Integrating creativity and the arts. Numerous studies have confirmed the deep connection between genuine intelligence and creativity. Contact with the arts assists students in forming connections between mind, body, and feelings, as well as contributes to the capacity for critical thinking and creative problem-solving. Further, creativity is the natural birthright of human beings and can, and indeed must be, cultivated and encouraged to nurture whole human beings and responsible citizens. For a full discussion of this, please see my  book: The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity.

4.) Cultivating perspective, compassion, and empathy. This principle relates to finding a relationship to something larger than we are — regardless of our belief systems. Whether one calls it nature or God or human society or the universe, it means going beyond our egocentric boundaries to include others and the world itself. To encourage, nurture, and cultivate both depth of inquiry and a broad, humanistic perspective. What many contemporary students lack is any form of a durable connection to a larger dimension—social, cultural, historical, psychological or spiritual—and the discipline required to maintain and deepen that connection.

5.) Know thyself. The first goal of education ought to be helping the student discover something of themselves and for themselves. The practice of observation, of both oneself and the world-at-large, needs to be reinforced in contemporary education. Carl Jung once wrote: “ The individual is the only reality. The further we move away from the individual toward abstract ideas about Homo Sapiens, the more likely we are to fall into error. In these times of social upheaval and rapid change, it is desirable to know much more than we do about the individual human being, for so much depends on his mental and moral qualities… Psychology (or teaching) inescapably confronts you with the living relations between two individuals, neither of whom can be divested of his personality, nor, indeed, depersonalized in any way.”

6.) Incorporating the first person, second person, and third person into learning. Learning needs to extend beyond the mere acquisition of facts to incorporating one’s own experience and discovering one’s own standpoint, to sharing and exchanging with others (genuine Socratic dialogue), as well as a thorough examination of the subject-at-hand. Here, intelligence can be extended to the practice of collaboration and the ideal of a true “collective intelligence.” The dynamic, reciprocal relationship between me, you, and we can bring startling new insights and expanded dimensions to the educational process.

7.) Living in the world. Education can neither be divorced from our own experience or the current realities of the world itself. We learn of the world, as we are deeply engaged within the world. Most wisdom teachings of today recognize the importance of pursuing inner work in life, of using one’s life and the world as one’s teacher — and to be of service to the world and others. Photographer Cartier-Bresson writes: “I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds — the one inside us and the one outside us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.”

These seven principles are holistic, universal, and entirely in accord with recent findings in modern psychology, especially the growing field of transpersonal psychology. A new model for contemplative education in our times is eminently practical and attempts to solve many of the weaknesses of today increasingly outmoded educational systems. In our stubbornly democratic society, we must strive to get beyond the fear of instilling in our students a larger perspective on life that includes the whole person and acknowledges such ideals as mindful attention, compassion and empathy, and the cultivation of the deeper aspects of the mind — such as intuition, wisdom, creativity, and inner quiet.

Regrettably, many contemporary educators equate meditation with religious thought, and holistic approaches to learning with specific belief systems. What we seek, I believe, is a broad, humanistic perspective that is respectful of, and inclusive of, diversity and differing worldviews, but rooted in our shared humanity and the commonality of the human condition. And it must be based upon a firm commitment to the growth of the individual — in talent, wisdom, and being — and the corresponding evolution of human society.

To borrow a phrase from Ken Wilber, we must replace our current emphasis on translative thinking – or the mere interpretation of facts and figures — in academia to transformative practice, where growth of being, original thinking, and the cultivation of wisdom begins to occupy a more central role in today’s classrooms. If we can implement even a small portion of this large aim, think what the results might be, for both the individual and society. The potential is truly awe-inspiring in its long-term implications.

There is a sentence from Elie Faure which has haunted me since my adolescence: ‘The only man who adds to the spiritual wealth of humanity is the one who has the force to become what he is.’

—   Henri Tracol, journalist, photographer, and sculptor

Adapted from Be Still and Know: Visioning Contemplative Education by David Ulrich