The development of thought is only one aspect of developing a human being. This is the sum total of what our education systems have focused on so far. What is missing is the cultivation of ‘being.’ We can think of the first part of the term, ‘human,’ as referring to our thinking aspect—that which can conceptualize, rationalize, reason, store and manipulate knowledge, and we can think of ‘being’ as exactly that—being—or, that which is NOT any of those things.
So, what does it mean to be? (Don’t worry, I can feel your ‘touchy-feely’ radar alerting you and the reference here is to much more than a superficial understanding of it as often seen with the introduction of mindfulness and meditation to yoga studios and classrooms—though this is a wonderful start. So, stay with me.) If you prefer, you can think of it using the term “ontological”—the nature of being. Look it up and you’ll see it referred to as a “philosophical” and “metaphysical” term; it makes it sound like there could really be something to this, doesn’t it? Something significant. An investigation into this thing we call “human being.” Who are we? In my experience, we are driven by this question, which is to say we are asking, and attempting to find an answer in how we live our lives whether we know it or not.
We’ll get to ontology and what it has to do with education in a minute. For now let’s look at the evidence.
If you doubt that something other than the development of thought is needed in our systems of education, that they are doing “a fine job,” look at the state of the world. Look at the destruction of the life systems that support human and other species’ habitation and thriving, look at the prevalence of condoned violence on the world stage, look at the vastness of the scale of human poverty, look at the corruption at the highest levels of corporate and state decision-making, and look at the epidemic of human anxiety, depression, drug use (both illicit and prescribed), and even suicide. (For a brief, excellent summary of plant, animal, and language extinction, look at Zander Sherman’s The Curiosity of School, p.333.)
One cannot look at the reality of the world and say that a) our education systems have NOT contributed to this in any way (How could this be so? The world is made up of you and I, the world is not some thing ‘out there’ that is separate) and b) that our education systems are adequate. Or, if you like, consider Sherman: “In the face of these facts, it’s impossible not to wonder if they represent the choices of an educated planet….No species in its right mind would seemingly choose its own extinction. The fact that humans appear to be on this very path speaks to the profound inadequacy of regular, everyday education. The institution we’ve relied on for this service is clearly not living up to its job.”
Or, if you’d prefer, look a little bit closer than the world ‘out there.’ Look to yourself. Do you feel at peace with life? With yourself? Are you satisfied with the quality of your relationships? Are they free of conflict? Or, are you at the mercy of your emotions, thinking that it must be because of your job that you’re not happier, or your lack of money, or your body… Do you feel that your life has meaning, or are you searching around for a purpose, unsure of where—how—to look? Do you sleep well? Worry about your children? Do you feel that this is ‘just part of life?’ Do you have questions and find the answers that others give somehow do not satisfy you, that you’d like to know what is true for yourself? In short, do you know beyond a doubt who you are and feel a tremendous aliveness in simply being alive? If not, you might want to consider that there was something missing in your education. Something crucial.
There is not only a huge possibility in the opportunity of education (when you think of the time spent there between the ages of three and eighteen), there is an obligation. And it is not being met. Indeed, it is not even being attempted.
Once upon a time, education purportedly (if covertly) was for the purpose of creating and maintaining a healthy economy for the nation-state (yes, this was the purpose—you may not have stopped to consider, What are we educating for?), or in other words, to create producers (to have money for taxes) and consumers (to pay taxes). One listen to a report on the state of the economy will reveal that it is not doing this. The nation’s economy runs a deficit and there is a small percentage of the population who can be said to be producing adequate income to live on comfortably, or ‘healthily.’ (Yes, in the western world we need far less than we think we do to live comfortably, and even with this reality, many people struggle to pay for adequate housing and food. And they’re not generating a lot of tax dollars through either production or consumption then either.)
Once upon a time education may also have purportedly been for the purpose of allowing individuals to become successful—even happy, self-realized (though this last idea of education to the extent to which it existed was lost at the end of the Renaissance)—in their lives. That the current norm of interpersonal relationship is at best mild, continuous conflict (yes, it’s true: take a close look) and that the norm of the individual psychological state is at best mild, continuous conflict, it follows that our education system is doing no such thing. (See the comment above re: record levels of anxiety, depression, drug dependency, and suicide.) It would seem that those who do become successful, do so largely (and not entirely) despite—not because of—their education. They manage to find that which they love to do, that lights them up and gives their lives purpose and meaning and allows them to express some essential part of themselves creatively. And then they set about discovering for themselves what they need to learn in order to satisfy these criteria. And they do it. These people are often quoted as saying that their ‘real’ education came from outside of school, either concurrently or subsequently or both.
So to talk of reconceptualizing the education system and introducing something entirely new is not out of some desire to ‘stir things up’ or ‘fix what isn’t broken’ or to implement a new theory based on an education minister’s whim, it is to address the utter inadequacy of the system as it stands now. It is to address the destruction that the education system is creating in the name of learning.
How destruction? Some of it is already listed above and the rest, well, I really took more than two hundred pages in a PhD dissertation to properly explain it, but simplified it goes like this: when you take children starting when they’re young and you ostensibly ‘teach’ them everything they need to know that’s important about the world (knowledge) (I would argue this is absolutely the implicit message) or how to go about knowing it (skills) then they believe that who they are is the mind. The intellect. Thoughts. This reasoning ability. That there is nothing else. Life is thought, end of story. Why would they think otherwise? Do you?
And so this is how thought is allowed run amok, how it gets to be in charge. And here’s the kicker: thought isn’t intelligent. It’s not even a thing. As Esther Veltheim says, “What needs to be understood is, the mind doesn’t think, the mind is thoughts.” In other words, your brain-mind is not an independent generator of intelligent thought; rather, it is made solely of thoughts that have been and are being thought. That’s it. It’s like a massive filing cabinet that stores the beliefs of cultures and generations. Krishnamurti calls it “conditioning of the mind.” It might help to introduce here the possibility of a distinction between “intelligence” and “the intellect.” If you can entertain the notion that intelligence arises from something/somewhere other than from the intellect, then we have a beginning.
The mind is akin to an assistant—the one who takes delivery of the task to perform and completes it. It cannot of itself determine which tasks to perform. That requires intelligence of a higher order. Here’s an example: the invention of the atomic bomb. A high level of intellect made it happen, and perhaps an absence of intelligence. Or, as Eckhart Tolle puts it in A New Earth, “intelligence in the service of madness.” “Splitting the atom requires great intelligence. Using that intelligence for building and stockpiling atom bombs is insane or at best extremely unintelligent. Stupidity is relatively harmless, but intelligent stupidity is highly dangerous. The intelligent stupidity, for which one could find countless examples, is threatening our survival as a species.”
So, it’s in service of this “intelligent stupidity” that are education systems have been designed, not knowing there was this outcome, or any other possibility. In short: most of us do not know we are not our thoughts. (And, incidentally, do not even know what that means, what experience that is pointing towards.) Here’s a simple experiment: find something you’re thinking (it could be “This article is ridiculous”) and ask yourself, “Who would I be—who am I—without that thought?” If you can experience yourself outside of this thought, then you are not your thoughts.
If you are an exception and see that you are not your thoughts, how did you come upon this insight? My guess is through great pains to unlearn what you were taught in school implicitly about who you are—who humans are—and what life is. And my guess is that it came to you as a last ditch effort when you had suffered enough—tremendously—and started to question everything you were taught was true. And my guess is that by default, most of you reading this unknowingly think you are your mind, your thoughts. And they—not you—are running your life. And they are creating all the war, all the conflict, all the problems that exists in the world, in your world.
This last statement is bound to create a lot of angry reaction. Fair enough. We don’t like to be told we’re at fault. But here’s the good news: you’ve done it totally innocently, and, seeing all of this—this whole equation of how the world we have is created—you finally, finally, have agency. In other words? You can do something about it. You can finally see with absolute clarity why your life, you—and life out there in the world—is not how you want it to be, why it doesn’t seem to be ‘working’.
So when ontology is talked about, it is really to ask, What else is there other than thought? and How do I come upon it? and Who am I if not thought? and What is thought exactly, what’s its nature? How does it function in my reality? Or, what is the relationship between thought and me?
We could sum up this question-asking with one term: inquiry. The discerning person will quickly wonder, But isn’t it thought you are going to to ask these questions, and thought that will answer them? Aha! Excellent question. My answer? Find out. This can be the only answer, for any other will be a thought. A concept. Either you experience what’s true for yourself, or you think something. No other possibility exists. How could it? Thought, experience: notice if these are the two things that are happening in your awareness.
How, without turning to the movement of thought? Well you could go to the philosophers, the ancient scriptures (the Tao, the Talmud, the Koran, the Bible), the Sufi masters, Buddha—i.e. you could look outside yourself. As we’ve done. And you can take what these people and things say and turn them into concepts (which is how dogma is created) or, if you’re lucky, you can experience for yourself the truth inside yourself of what they can only point to.
Or, you can go directly to yourself. Either way you have to at some point experience what’s true if you want to go beyond concepts. By definition. You as the discerner of what’s true, for you. What an extraordinarily subversive (blasphemous, even) proposition. You, the arbiter of truth.
I call it the Ground of Being, this place of directly experiencing what’s true rather than mediated through concepts. And we’re each looking for it, I promise you. (Although the point is not to believe me, of course, but to test it for yourself.) A place where you can know for yourself what’s true beyond a shadow of a doubt. A place where your mind can finally rest in certainty, and paradoxically, the place where it also becomes completely open. In giving it a home, you’ve allowed it to gain the world: it has no limit, it can go anywhere, it’s infinite. It lives in a permanent state of not-knowing and is finally at home in this. It turns out that this not-knowing is what we were wanting to know, in a manner of speaking. So you can see how that would be impossible: not-knowing and simultaneously knowing. Unless….unless…a) knowing exists also, or ultimately, somewhere beyond the mind and b) we allow for paradox.
If your mind is now thoroughly confused, good. You may be comforted to know that Zen “koans” exist exactly for this purpose, to baffle the mind. A sort of short-circuiting that allows you to emerge. The you that is not your mind. Perhaps you are noticing it even now as you read these words, something that passes all understanding.
When I refer to “inquiry,” I am referring specifically to a set of questions put to a concept, any concept. These questions allow for self-education, that is, you (though not your intellect, and we’ll get to that) as the source of the answers. Remember those above, who started to question everything they were taught? Their questioning—perhaps not even conscious to them— would have consisted of the first question: Is it true? And they would’ve found themselves in one of two places after that: either with a “no” or with a “I don’t know.” And likely their questioning ended there. But what a wonderful beginning! What a wonderful question to ask oneself!
And here is the rest: Can I absolutely know it’s true? How do I react when I believe this thought? Who would I be without this thought? Simple self-inquiry. Asking it of the self and noticing what is true. These four questions in themselves are extremely enlightening, and yet, there is even more. We can experiment with asking ourselves if the various opposites of the original thought/concept could be as true or truer. And see what we notice.
Krishnamurti referred to this “noticing” as meditation. So does Byron Katie, who has been instrumental in bringing this self-inquiry process to the attention of thousands. In other words, meditation is allowing the part of you (let’s say it like that with the awareness of the limitation of words) that is other than your intellect to respond. It’s a process, a state, of transcending thought—the intellect—to experience the deeper knower in you. That which is intelligence itself. The thinking mechanism is not involved.
So for all of you who have struggled to ‘still your mind’ in the name of meditation, good, because it’s not possible to will it to stop like that. So you’ve noticed that. And not only that, but what if those thoughts come bearing gifts? What if, in taking them in and questioning them, you receive the keys to the kingdom, without which you would never have understood (by which I mean, realized—again the limitations of language)?
The answers may have been closer than you thought all along. Literally. Closer to you than thought itself.
When our education systems begin to include this, when the curriculum recognizes the incredible significance of self-inquiry, when the nature of the intellect is understood, when we start to realize that it’s in the asking of questions where our power lies…we will be serving our children, humanity, and all life everywhere to the utmost of our capability. Is that true? Notice. It’s for you to determine.
© Kathryn Jefferies, 2016