Education as if People and Planet Matter
The squirrel scampers across the forest floor. I’m observing this from a bench in one of London’s ancient woodlands. Wondering why being in nature has such a restorative effect. Of course the answer is in the phrase ‘being in nature’. The squirrel is simply being its essential nature and so too are the trees. Something we humans are not very good at. We recognise this but then we look in horror at the damage we are doing to the environment. As climate change presses more and more into our awareness, we want to do things differently and quickly too. Where do we look? Perhaps to a new generation of young people. I am optimistic that we will see a new generation of leaders with less of the baggage that those now in power carry. But what kind of education should we offer them?
Many of us know that the system of ‘education’ is broken. This is the system that has trained people to follow a collective paradigm that is damaging people and planet. The disconnection is readily apparent in a phrase like ‘throw it away’ which pays no attention to where this mysterious place ‘away’ actually is or how it may be affected by what we discard. So a generation of people follow the drumbeat of having more and externalising costs which we dump on the environment as destruction of life and toxicity.
We know what education means. The word comes from Latin - ‘ducere’ meaning to lead or draw and ‘e’ or ‘ex’meaning out of. Thus education means to lead or draw out what is already within. To elicit from our charges the essential nature and potential of new beings, helping them to discover life through experience and from there to cultivate ideas, leading to comprehension, intellectual development and most of all wisdom. Steiner, Schumacher and many others pointed the way a long time ago. But still we continue our obsession with mind and especially intellectual accomplishment as if it were a panacea. None of this is to deny or diminish the huge contribution to human life of intellectual development. Rather, to avoid its pursuit at the expense of other qualities.
Consider things from a different perspective. Reflect if you will upon all the broken and bleeding bodies that throughout history have covered the Earth as a consequence of war. Consider all the agony we have inflicted upon ourselves.,
The cause of all this agony begins with the essentially sociable nature of being human. We all want to belong. But what do we belong to? Do we belong to each other as a community of people with common interests? Probably we do, at least in part - and the answer will of course be very variable amongst cultures, identities, localities and layers of society. But, however consciously or otherwise, most of us belong in our different ways to ideas. This might be a club or gang, a nation, religion or any set of beliefs. Ideas can easily turn into ideology. And so men (mostly) have gone to war based on an idea - ‘my idea is better than yours and (worse) it’s God’s idea’. Sadly, even when traditional warfare is absent, it seems that we’re still fighting each other on social meda and elsewhere. And the weapon of choice is mindlessness.
How do we dismantle this absurdity? I suggest that it is by rendering it normal to ‘go within’ and discover the truth there rather than relying on what we are told, or even told to believe. But truth is not all that we shall discover when we go within, not if we do the job properly. We shall also discover what we don’t like about ourselves. The things we have kept separate or hidden, sometimes even from ourselves. Within each of us -even amongst those considered successful in society’s terms - is a personal history of unreleased pain and delusions (about ourselves or society). It is this that drives our behaviour, limits our freedom and gives us a sense of self, embedded within our comfort zones. How do we change this?
Recently it has become increasingly common to talk about ‘mental health issues’. Whilst this is a useful step forward I do believe the phrase itself reflects the societal preoccupation with mind. Anyone who makes a true bid for freedom will quickly discover that to a large extent the mind is the problem. Often we have become enslaved by it. And the cause of this is surely the nature of our education system which elevates mind and intellect to an unnatural degree, perhaps through a monoculture of relentless testing. One sure sign of enslavement by the mind is when we spend a huge amount of time living in the past (dwelling on events which cannot be changed, or regretting choices) or living in the future (with constant anxiety or worry about things that may never happen). So one way to effect good mental health and have the mind serve us rather than the other way round, is to cultivate the practice of living more fully in the now. It may be necessary to learn from the past or to allow or plan for the future. But not as avoidance of the now!
Despite welcoming more attention to mental health there is a part of me that wants to say ‘please stop talking about mental health issues’ Instead I would like to hear more about mental and emotional health together. The two very often go hand in hand, sometimes in an unholy alliance that keeps us stuck in a comfort zone of limited freedom, based on what we believe ourselves to be. So how do we dismantle this personal biography? The journey will be different for each individual but noone does it alone. We need others to help.
As someone of retirement age I have spent most of my adult life on this journey of discovering how to purge my own mental and emotional history. In this I was helped by many people in a variety of therapeutic or healing modalities. During this journey I often fell into the trap of hoping to discover insights or information which would enable me to think or learn my way to freedom. Eventually I realised that most of all I needed to experience myself differently. Cathartic release of emotion was part of this. Learning concepts and understanding self had a part to play but for me the greater part was emotional freedom. Initially I had very little idea that there was anything to be freed.
What I would really like to see become much more commonplace is the discipline of freeing oneself from personal biography, discovering and living one’s essential nature. And for this process to be part of public debate.
I do believe that for us ‘baby boomers’ and the next generation of adults after us, this is our opportunity and responsibility. It is not enough to support the newest generation by rediscovering true education. Education is not only for children. As adults we must participate in the process by educating or reeducating ourselves, drawing out our essential nature by disintegrating the mental and emotional history that gets in the way. As this becomes widespread, the absurdities of human behaviour (which otherwise we know will be modelled by the next generation) will begin to disappear, be they greed, social injustice and inequalities of all kinds, or lack of respect for the environment. We know that people and planet matter. Although there is important work being done and yet to be done in taking care of the environment, I believe that if we do not wake up - and change our behaviour - as a collective quickly enough, the Earth will take care of itself - if necessary at our expense - and we will likely perish. Climate change is the clearest warning yet but Earth is speaking to us more loudly in many ways. Our task then becomes one of saving ourselves as a species and we will have to do it in relationship to the Earth. This is not the exclusive work of our children.
And here is a way. Go within. Discover your essential nature and live as that. Just as the squirrel does but with all the gifts and wisodm of being human. And if you think that is already your life, at least allow the possibility that there may be a restriction you are unaware of. Intimate relationships are often the best indicators because sometimes others can see what we cannot or will not see for ourselves. Furthermore the physical body will speak of that which is held separate and needs to be met. So listen to the body.
If we could clean up our act as well as cleaning up the mess we have made of the environment, we could enjoy a golden age of human existence. The way may not be easy but the ingredients are simple. Go within. Live in the now.