The Education We Didn’t Get

I love the idea of education as a way of learning the nature of the universe, and as a kind of training one undergoes that transforms one’s being, even makes one into a master of something.

As a kid I was thrilled by Harry’s education in the Harry Potter books, where he studies not only how to cast spells and master wizardry, but also potions, divination and the natures of different magical beasts.

I also really enjoyed reading about Eragon’s education in Christopher Paolini’s book Eldest. For those who didn’t read those books, Eragon is a special individual who becomes a dragon rider, and at a certain point in his journey he goes deep into the woodland part of Algaesia, where the civilization of the elves is located, to train with a thousand-year old elf, sage and dragon rider named Oromis. During his training under the master rider, Eragon undergoes a kind of education that combines textual study and hands-on practice as a sorcerer and warrior. He disciplines himself in casting different spells at will, attuning to the energies of all beings around him through meditation, wielding swords and dueling, and of course communicating telepathically with, and riding, his dragon. He trains to become a master rider.

These are, of course, the educations of mythic heroes in fictional universes. Yet over the past year I’ve noticed that there have existed similar kinds of education in the world. We just don’t practice them anymore, in general, and no one tells us about them in school.

For example, in reading Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot, I found that philosophers in Ancient Greece and Rome would become apprentices and disciples of master philosophers who would teach them to contemplate the nature of reality, meditate, and discipline their behavior to conform to the wisest mode of conduct. In some cases this may have involved rituals and initiations where the philosophers would experience reality from a radically different point of view through the alteration of consciousness. We don’t know as much about these ceremonies as we’d like to, but we can see in the writings of people like Plato and Plotinus evidence of mystical experiences of Oneness and Eternity that challenge our customary notions of what is ultimately real.

Another example comes from a retreat I attended, in Teotihuacan, Mexico, where our guide (and master in the Toltec-lineage) informed us that, contrary to popular belief, the plaza and pyramid ruins at Teotihuacan were the site of a spiritual university or “school of enlightenment.” While this can’t be proven with historical evidence or argumentation, experiences that people had while on the retreat point to there being something very special about the ruins. An energy can be associated with a place, as for example you can feel, if you’re sensitive, the energy of a busy, crowded city, which is quite distinct from the energy of a quiet place out in the mountains.

These different kinds of education are notable for two reasons. One, because it’s awesome that this kind of education is possible. Two, and more importantly, because we didn’t get this education growing up in the modern world, and it’s essential that we become aware of what’s possible for us as conscious beings with huge, untapped potential and as creators of reality.

Compared to all the things no one told us about, the quantity of subjects and information, as well as the way we were taught, is astounding. For the most part our education–and this seems to be “global fare”–is almost exclusively focussed on training our capacities to work with numbers and words, in analytic and logical ways, and to absorb and regurgitate numbers and words in the right sequences onto tests. It’s a highly left-brained approach (in the way I was using that term in the last post).

Now, there’s a lot to be said about this. Of course we should teach our kids to read, do math, analyze texts, do science, and all that good stuff. It’s important. And there are some things our education system does well. On the other hand, there are ways that it operates that makes you wonder if we aren’t just training kids to be “good capitalist workers” and people who follow the pre-established rules of society, not question them. We ought to consider this as well.

However as an enthusiast of philosophy and spirituality I want to draw attention to all the opportunities we have to create more awesome lives and a better world for everyone through education at the primary, secondary, collegiate and graduate levels, by beginning to expand our curricula to our other forms of intelligence and modalities of being.

The introduction of meditation and mindfulness into schools is just the beginning. These practices bring in another dimension to education so that it’s not just training the thinking mind but now we are training awareness, as well, to focus on the present, which has neurological and emotional benefits. (As Hadot describes in his book, the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of the Hellenistic period also practiced focussing attention on the present moment, so as to best attain virtue and happiness, respectively.)

In the same vein, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen monk, has suggested teaching mindfulness of emotions in school so that people can learn to “make space” around their emotional reactions and not have to act them out. They can learn to express their emotions in a healthy way and at convenient times. This would be transformative if implemented on a large scale.

More than that, imagine if we had actual courses dedicated entirely to understanding emotions. Imagine if people learned about the neurological and lifestyle benefits of gratitude in a lecture, and then spent time practicing gratitude through journaling or meditation in the same class period. Imagine if, in school or on a campus, you walked around and everyone was either in a state of gratitude or had a “gratitude program” running somewhere in their brain. That would be amazing.

Now imagine if we had another course on “belief systems.” Imagine we developed interactive courses where people actually examined their own beliefs and how those beliefs shaped their moment-to-moment perception as the course progressed. Suppose there was not one course but “Beliefs 1” and “Beliefs 2,” where in the second course you would identify and investigate the specific beliefs that human egos tend to adopt and the specific behaviors that result from those adoptions. Combined with meditation practice, this would be life-changing.

Really, the list of what we can do goes on endlessly. We could have courses dedicated to studying and experientially investigating the “somatic intelligence” of the body a la Vajrayana Buddhism. We could study different states of consciousness, psychic abilities, healing modalities, and science-spirituality intersections. We could dedicate entire days and weeks to exploring art forms, music, and animal consciousness (a la Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus). We could balance hands-on and practical experience in these fields with theoretical knowledge, and self-directed/student-directed initiatives and courses of study with community involvement. Etc. Etc.

…At this point in time there are cultural barriers, ideological barriers, and barriers of esoteric knowledge to making anything like this happen on a wide-scale. At this point, it’s just a beautiful dream. Yet merely talking about it like this puts the ideas out there and begins the inner revolution. In time humanity will either evolve into higher consciousness, implement new kinds of education, and be able to save itself from ecological destruction and apocalyptic warfare, or the species won’t survive.

With any luck, we’ll rise to the challenge and enter into a new stage of evolution. In the meantime, this kind of education remains something that each person must pursue through their own initiatives. But that makes it all the more special, too.

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