What does it mean to be educated? Is it to conform to the pattern of society, acquiring enough knowledge to act skillfully in that society? Does to be educated mean adjusting oneself to society and following the dictates of that society? Is education merely to cultivate one segment of the mind to use knowledge skillfully?
Knowledge has become the factor of conditioning the mind to a certain pattern according to which it acts. We are asking if it is possible to educate human beings from childhood and beyond to nurture the whole outward and inward totality of man. Is it possible in our life to educate ourselves completely, totally, inwardly as well as outwardly?
Some of you might be really pleased to hear that mental health is on the radar of the Ontario government (and other places around the globe)—so much so that it’s making its way into schools. At least, in theory (i.e. in policy documents where they outline their goals). I’ve been reading them over lately as I prepare to write a proposal for the university where I’ve been teaching, on introducing The Work of Byron Katie (or, Inquiry Based Stress Reduction) to the Bachelor of Education students and faculty as a tool for wellbeing and self-understanding.
I feel excited and hopeful as I see that education decision-makers are a) recognizing that personal wellbeing is a significant issue and b) feel that schools can and should do something about it. I agree wholeheartedly. This is a start to what I’m hoping will become a flourishing focus on the self, not by way of seeing counsellors or in remedial or add-on programs but in the curriculum itself. (In addition to ‘self-understanding’ I also sometimes refer to it in part as ‘emotional intelligence’ and in whole as ‘education for enlightenment.’)
What I would love to contribute to this conversation on “mental health and wellbeing” (as the government documents refer to it) in education is to look at the lack of mental health and wellbeing as symptoms rather than as cause. In other words, mental ill-health is not the cause of stress, depression, and anxiety but rather mental ill-health itself is a symptom. (A symptom of what, we’ll look at in the next blog post, because believe it or not, we have to cover a lot of preliminary ground first.) We gather together concepts like stress, depression, and anxiety and collectively refer to them as mental ill-health. So, mental health issues, then, are symptoms not cause.
This is important to realize because it’s the difference between treating mental health (i.e. ourselves) as the problem that needs to be fixed, and, digging underneath to discover what the causes of mental unrest are. One will not amount to significant change and one really, really will. It’s the difference between looking for the cure for cancer and looking for the cause. (It’s always struck me as odd that the medical community and fundraising groups refer to the “cure for cancer,” as it seems to be akin to looking for a container to catch all of the water gushing from the leaky faucet rather than looking for the shut-off valve. This concept is what’s given rise to the phrase “bandaid solution.” In other words, we’re not really fixing it at all.) So, discerning between what is cause and what is symptom of the cause is an important place to start.
Let’s look at the term for a minute. “Mental health” loosely means to feel fine emotionally (we can already see that it might not be as straight forward as we think, seeing as we’ve brought emotions into it), such that one can cope with the day-to-day tasks of life. It also means to agree with the collective on the (apparent) objective reality. It’s considered ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ when the mind in this state and considered ‘abnormal’ or ‘unhealthy’ when it’s not. Another way of putting this is, it’s assumed that mental health is the baseline—it’s what’s given to (most of) us. We didn’t do anything for it, ergo we don’t need to do anything with it, or to maintain it.
The problem is, this ain’t true. Even this maintenance idea is questionable. How do I know? Look around you.
What we have in modern society by and large is wide scale mental un-health. And it’s seen as normal because it’s what the norm—the dominant expression—is. Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and other spiritual teachers and mystics from ancient times ’til now describe or use a different word: insane. I.e. not just unhealthy but insane.
But let me soften it for the time being, and just suggest it this way: none of us is perfectly healthy mentally and all of us need to work with the mind. How do I know? Do you feel stress? Do you worry about your kids, your parents, death? Do you yell at your kids? Get angry at your spouse? So you’re not at peace all or maybe even much of the time? And you think if you just lost some weight or had more money or had the relationship or knew your purpose in life or had more time ____ (insert yours here)…you’d be happy. That’s how I know. Welcome to the human condition, I like to say. (Until it’s not, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.) The idea here is to consider the possibility that what is considered normal is not in fact normal (i.e. our natural state, our “resting” state if you will).
We need to understand what this thing we call ‘mind’ is and how it functions in us. Isn’t that how you interact with the world, after all, through your mind? So, along with all of our subjects in school, we need to add the study of ourselves.
So far we’ve got our physical selves included in the areas of biology, physiology, and chemistry, among other sciences. Neuroscience in particular is studying how our brains and nervous systems function. (Notice: brain, not mind, which should prompt you to wonder what, if any, is the difference.) And we’ve got branches of philosophy, especially metaphysics to attempt to figure out what we can know for sure, what’s true, and who we are. (I’ve got friends who have PhDs in philosophy whom I count among the most messed-up and confused people I know, but that’s for another blog post.) And of course, we have my favourite, what we call literature—poetry, novels—and art in all its forms that also are attempts to arrive at the truth of who we are and/or to express it. In one way, you could consider the major focus of school as being about the study of ourselves.
What is missing is an experience of ourselves that we can understand. Learning from the inside out. Or, experiential learning, as I sometimes refer to it. It’s you, yourself, as the learner and the teacher. In this way we can go beyond concepts—beyond the intellectual, the theoretical—to experience what’s true. Seems kind of incredulous, huh?
And before you immediately reject this simultaneity of learner and teacher as antithetical, I’ll let you know that there’s an accepted (as much as anything is ‘accepted’ in the academy) research methodology called “autoethnography.” You can look it up. I used it to write my PhD dissertation. It’s really based on the idea that we can only truly know our own experience, that anything ‘objective’ is impossible because it discounts the observer—the one who is looking.
But I’m not here to convince you of anything. Quite the opposite, thank God. The whole point of sitting in your own experience of self and mind is that you get to experience what’s true for yourself. You’re not taking someone’s word for it. Which has never been and never will be enough to still your mind anyway.
Which brings us back to emerging possibilities for addressing mental health and wellbeing in schools. And to sum it up very briefly, here’s what I’d like to see happen:
1) Look at the causes of lack of mental health and wellbeing.
(Oh, I found them: believing thoughts that are not, in fact, true in our experience. But I’m getting ahead of myself…)
Look at mind. What is it doing? Notice the relationship between thought and emotion. And we’re not going to any sort of book or internet site or expert to get these answers. We’re going to ourselves.
Take a look at what you’re believing about life, yourself, others and take it one concept at a time. There’s no short-cut here: in order to see what your mind is doing so rapid-fire, you need to slow it down by investigating one concept at a time. There’s a really succinct tool to do this, to investigate, consisting of four questions. They are:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react when you believe this thought?
4. Who would you be without this thought?
Apply these 4 questions to your concept, and remember, where you’re going for the answers is yourself. So ask yourself, or get someone to ask you (I find this easier for me) and look inside yourself for the answer.
If this all sounds a little hokey to you, I invite you to: a) Try it first and b) Consider that those who have questioned their minds—worked with their minds and understood their minds—are the most peaceful and wisest people I know. And the great prophets, mystics, and philosophers throughout history are also these people; they understood that in order to understand life they must first understand themselves. And it all came from looking for themselves (i.e. doing it themselves without the aid of another), at themselves. This is self-education. This is self- understanding.
It’s the beginning of understanding—seeing—how the mind works and what you do, in fact, know, and what you’re instead assuming. It takes you into the realms of what you can and can’t know. It takes you into and beyond the intellect. It takes you into an experience of yourself. It is what it means “to educate ourselves completely, totally, inwardly as well as outwardly” (see Krishnamurti quote above).
Oh, and remember that list I started above, about what I’d like to see happen in mental health in education? We had a 1). “Look at the causes of lack of mental health and wellbeing. And there’s no 2). You’ll know what to do once you see cause. In fact, seeing it is the doing.
It’s my hope that the “mental health and wellbeing” mandate will act as a portal through which the most important subject and experience of all can finally take its place in the curriculum.