A distinctive feature of holistic education is nurturing the spirit. While progressive and humanistic education concerns itself with the intellectual, emotional, physical, social and aesthetic, holistic education centralizes awakening a sense of wonder and awe. The 'big picture' for holistic educators is not the global market economy, it is an engagement in which attention is focused upon the present moment, an encounter with depth. For such encounters, holistic educators point to the importance of creating a culture that demands a slowing down of our busy selves, where we are not taken in by slogans of 'time on task' or 'curriculum coverage' that create an illusion of accomplishment. Instead, what is required is a culture of awareness and reflection. Parker Palmer puts it well - 'teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one's inwardness.' J. Krishnamurti, educator and philosopher, goes further when he advocates an education that 'awakens intelligence.' Rather than a sole focus on academics, the challenge of awakening 'intelligence' for teachers and students is best described in his own words,
I mean by that word [intelligence]-to be very sensitive, not to your own desires, to your own demands, but to be sensitive to the world, to what is going on in the world. Surely education is not merely to give you knowledge, but also to give you the capacity to look at the world… The function of education is to find out how to live differently…in a totally different, intelligent way, knowing you have to earn a livelihood, knowing all the responsibilities … (1978).
He urged an awakening of critical consciousness through education that insisted on an attention to events in the world and simultaneously demanded we be aware of how we look, understand and live in the world. Education in Krishnamurti's terms, is characterized by a 'choiceless awareness' possible through a relationship of mutuality, evident in his question - 'Is the educator getting educated as well as the student?'
In this article I discuss dimensions of awareness in the curriculum as practiced by holistic educators and share examples drawn from Brockwood Park School - a Krishnamurti school in Hampshire, England and Sunshine Day School, a school in the United States that is inspired by holistic philosophies. I present the promises and challenges of incorporating awareness into the daily life of schools.
Awareness: Awakening to an objective space of deep caring
It is important to clarify that the objective space holistic teachers and schools refer to is one of deep caring and much different from cultivating the faculty of neutral or objective observation. The 'neutral observer' who is often lauded in mainstream education is devoid of feeling and compassion. Neutrality serves as a cover for the unfeeling language of official reports, where emptied of meaning, systems get precedence over people and numbers are preferable to the narration of human experience. By contrast, holistic educators draw upon the imagination and the arts to help learners see themselves as embodied forms of intelligence in action rather than as disembodied centers of disinterested reason. They seek to recognize love and imagination along with logic and rationality.
Teachers at holistic schools define awareness first as being 'awake to' limiting patterns of thought and behaviour. This parallels the term 'care'-care for the environment, for the surroundings in which one lives, care for people we are neighbours of that involves a sense of responsiveness to the other.
Creating a space where one can be 'awake' and 'aware, ' students and teachers in one classroom asked a series of questions. Borrowing from Native cultures, they asked questions of themselves and each other that would in their words 'reveal blocks to the heart and mind.' The questions they put to themselves were those that involved music, dance, stories and silence. Sample questions included - when did I stop listening to music, when did I stop being enchanted with stories, when did I grow uncomfortable with silence, when did I stop dancing? These questions, according to Native wisdom, enable us to look our own life stories and become awake to a space of caring.
Awareness: A space of silence
Silence has been regarded as a medium for practicing awareness, releasing ideas and images (Zen) or watch thought (J. Krishnamurti). Listening promotes clarity and discernment. As Mark Twain put it, 'A better idea than my own is to listen.'
Psychologists explain that in a typical group, it takes 15 seconds for a person to break the silence. Silence therefore has to be consciously sought in our otherwise crowded world of sound.
To become aware of the discomfort silence causes teaches us to go behind merely taking in what we see and hear around us to what Krishnamurti means by awareness-'to be alert to the movement of one's own thought, ' or to be aware of our reactions to what we see around us - the movement of our likes and dislikes.
In the schools I observed, silence had a space in the everyday life of the school. Beginning with the morning meeting, there was a space for silence at the beginning of class, silent lunches were tried out and students discussed the meaning of silence. Perhaps the most important lesson from silence was the awareness that silence slows down our thought processes enough to be able to listen to our 'inner teacher' and reflect on our conditioning and its impact on our likes and dislikes.
Awareness of the inner teacher
At one of the schools, the teachers and students used a way to become aware and awakened to one's inner teacher by drawing from the culture of the Quaker community. The Quaker community uses clearness committees to create an awareness of one's inner teacher - the assumption is that answers and solutions to questions lie within oneself and therefore we only need a chance to be heard and to speak. The members of the clearness committee ask questions to support the inner journey of one person in the group. The members of the committee are not allowed to fix, save, advise or set the person straight. They are only allowed to ask open straight questions-questions that are not advice in disguise, not leading questions nor questions that have a hidden agenda. The clearness committee exists to help support the weeding of thoughts that get in the way of clarity.
Krishnamurti's words with regard to awareness are particularly relevant here. He asks that we become conscious of our reactions. If there is either justification or condemnation, there is little awareness. Chogyam Trungpa refers to the same state of clarity as 'nowness.' 'The way to experience nowness is to realize that this very moment, this very point in your life is always the occasion.' For teachers, this means having the capacity to let go, be willing to take risks and have the courage to step back and let things take their own course. It means becoming conscious of 'teachable moments.' Teachable moments are those unplanned times when a teacher recognizes that the encounter presents an opportunity for a dramatic shift of some kind, for a change to occur. They are times when a teacher and student can learn together, when a teacher can model curiosity or facilitate mutual learning. At Brockwood Park, a student who had worked hard on an essay, expected accolades and received none, went up to a teacher in annoyance. The teacher who could have responded in a number of ways, chose to listen deeply and seized the moment to say, 'read your essay aloud to me.' The student read several long complicated sentences of the essay and listening to himself read, burst out laughing - 'I cannot understand what I am hearing myself read, but I know what I wanted to say.' In this exchange, the teacher let the student discover the disjunction between the idea and its expression - the student's defensiveness slid away and the teacher had learned to step back before stepping forward to work with the student on the essay.
Awareness: Letting go and being connected
Awareness at times for teachers could be a process of learning to let go or feeling connected to the community of humanity. Several teachers I talked with shared stories of how they became aware of their own teaching pattern and then were motivated to try a different response in the classroom. One teacher for example, rather than trying to steer the distracted student back, simply directed her attention to those whose faces were alive with attentiveness. She moved back and forth from those who seemed inattentive to the next attentive face. By being attentive to the group and to herself, she discovered that the level of attention in the classroom was energetic and alive. In addition, she had broken the pattern of interrupting the class to cajole and persuade the student back into an attentive state. Another teacher pointed out that he learned to step back and let students interact directly with nature. It was not necessary, he realized, to continuously pepper experience with knowledge. He learned not to distract or burden students with content and facts that de-emphasized experiences, restricted students' space to make meaning or ask genuine questions. Instead he now gave students the space to experience nature as if they were explorers, or strangers or even close friends. In this, he had been inspired by Rachel Carson who says, 'I sincerely believe that for the child… it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.'
An aesthetic awareness
Dewey affirms that aesthetic education is the opposite of anaesthetic education. Anaesthetic education is that which deadens us, while aesthetic education utilizes imagination, experience and exploration to stimulate understanding and perception. Using dance or drama can create venues of empathy and liminal spaces of experience where possibilities of transformation exist. Liminal means threshold or a space that is betwixt and between, the edge, the place just before one loses one's balance, a space to which one stretches and a doorway opens. Liminal spaces are new spaces that allow for the recovery of the senses from the assault and overstimulation of daily living and surrounding entertainment. I found such spaces in the dialogue groups at Brockwood Park, in Role Reversal Day where teachers became students and students taught and took charge of the school. Such events served to break down hierarchies and created an awareness of habitual routines ways of being in the school. For example, after a day of being students, the teachers realized how little they ventured into all areas of the school. They looked at school in a new way, both from the point of view of moving to different spaces in the school as well as from the perspective of a student. As one teacher pointed out, 'as a student, the day seemed much longer and slower than it did as a teacher.' These activities develop the capacity to continually adjust 'vision, ' and develop the sight that Seamus Heaney refers to in his poem 'Seeing Things.'
Down between the lines…
In that utter visibility,
The stone's alive with what's invisible.
By this we are reminded that the aesthetic experience is about perception, it is about experiencing stillness and reading between the lines. It means being aware of what is not experienced or not fully understood through mere interactions, but may be intuited through awareness. For example, one student at Brockwood pointed out that despite role reversal day, it was impossible for teachers to experience the anxiety of a teenager's life. In such cases, empathy and imagination helps us to read between the lines and intuit understanding.
Challenges to nurturing awareness in the classroom
For teachers, our first challenge is to be open to the wisdom of children. J. Robert Oppenheimer once said - 'there are children playing in the streets who can solve some of the top problems in physics because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.'
A second danger is that of becoming prescriptive, of adopting courses and to-do lists and even scripts that teach awareness. This was the danger that Krishnamurti alluded to when he pointed out that there were schools that taught people how to be aware or how to be attentive. Rejecting method in this area, he instead urged an awareness that is meditative and holistic, one in which attention, energy and awareness are brought together to heighten sensitivity. I observed teachers and students engaged in dialogue about life and current events that brought together these elements. One example can be found in the Global Issues course at Brockwood Park. All students and teachers engage in dialogue on topical social and political issues. They go beyond investigating the global and local impact of issues and look at what gives rise to a particular point of view and the ethical implications of the same. A second example is a small group that meets every morning to examine problems of living in a community at the school. In both cases, teachers and students are examining their relatedness to the world or their relationship to the whole.
When Krishnamurti suggests that we be aware, he is referring to a choiceless awareness, one that is all encompassing and does not separate sensory perception from our responses to it. By this he means being able to see multiple and complex layers simultaneously. In the classroom this could translate as becoming aware of not only our responses to a situation but also being able to perceive the conditioning and pattern behind that response.
What can schools and teachers do?
Perhaps the best advice comes from Krishnamurti who says- 'when one is aware of not attending, that is attention.' If we want students to be startled by new possibilities, and if education is an initiation into multiple and new spaces of seeing, hearing, feeling and becoming aware, then it is important that we create spaces for students that allow for 'the faculties of the soul' to speak (Steiner). As teachers in such schools advise,
- Be with students at least for some time rather than engage in activity all the time.
- Ensure there is free time for students and teachers
- Ensure there is reflective time for teachers and students
- Create opportunities for creative expression and for spontaneity
Conclusion: Bringing the inner life into school
Awareness includes caring, being awake, connected, listening and engaging the imagination and empathy so that we are led towards thoughtful considerations of what it means to be aware of the outer world and of our inner lives. Holistic educators concerned with developing the spirit of students and being attentive to life and relationships, bring into the classroom an engaged pedagogy of care that is radical in its intention to provide spaces for change. In an educational world that is increasingly obsessed with testing, accountability and standards, holistic educators offer an alternative space, an inviting space that nurtures the heart and soul of an education of integrity. Creating spaces in schools and classrooms for the practice of soul education such as awareness helps us to move towards a holism in education that focuses on going beyond conditioning while building an ethical way of life.
Carson, R. (1958). The sense of wonder. Harper Collins.
Heaney, S. (1993). Seeing things: Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Krishnamurti, J. (1975). Beginnings of Learning. Harper and Row.
Steiner, R. (1996). The Education of the Child and Early Lectures on Anthroposophy. New York: Anthroposophic Press.
Dr Raji Swaminathan is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Her areas of teaching and research are alternative and holistic education, urban youth and social justice issues and student engagement. She draws on the teachings of Krishnamurti to inspire and inform her work in these areas. She is a former staff member of two Krishnamurti schools and continues to visit both schools and sustain conversations with friends and teachers.