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 Esotericism in education
- notes from the classroom
by Phyllis Power

A discussion of the value of esoteric concepts in education: informal meditation, the fact of human interdependence, and the role of expansion of consciousness in developing human potential. 

Many people who work in traditional, ëmainstream' areas and who are also involved in a study of esotericism face the challenge of finding ways of linking the two spheres. As a teacher for many years of all ages, from under five to over 70, in the British public sector, I try to bring the insights and experience I have gained from esotericism to bear on my work in education, although the direct connection is often slight.

"The great fault off modern education has been that, with all its advanced methods of training children, it has missed what is most important: namely the lesson of unselfishness. Man thinks that an unselfish person is incapable of guarding his own interests in life; but however much it may appear so it is not so in reality. A selfish person is a disappointment to others, and in the end a disadvantage to himself. Mankind is interdependent, and the happiness of each depends upon the happiness of all, and it is this lesson that humanity has to learn today as the first and the last lesson."   Sufi Inayat Khan, Education from before birth to maturity, Sufi Publishing Co. 1962, pp88-89

The new, expanded knowledge of reality that esotericism offers is alien to most people in education, dominated as it is by the sceptical, concrete-minded 5th ray and the traditional curriculum. Religious education, for instance, is still mainly seen in traditional Christian terms, and in general, the knowledge system that we transmit to pupils is still based largely on empirical, materialist premises.

All the same, there are signs of change, usually on an individual and scattered basis, working towards vaguely ënew age' ideas, even within the curriculum of the public education sector.

"All of us cannot be famous, because all of us cannot be well known. But all of us can be great, because all of us can serve."   Martin Luther King, Jr.

For instance, I have worked with a primary school teacher in a multi-cultural school in the East End of London who taught her nine-year-old class a basic form of meditation. They began the day by coming into the class room absolutely silently, and reading a book of their choice at their tables arranged in a circle which included their teacher's desk. After a while she called the register very quietly and led them into the meditation, which they clearly looked forward to. It established a rare sense of concentration and purpose for the morning's activities.

On a broader front I have worked with a research group who are introducing a ëWorld Studies' programme into the school curriculum. While it has links with other such forward-looking projects as development, peace and multi-cultural education, it is distinctive – and relates to esoteric thinking – in its fundamental premise:

"The modern world is increasingly one world, a single world society in which we are all involved. Its future and our personal futures are inextricably linked".(1)

The programme is designed to develop pupils' consciousness of this interconnectedness both on an individual, classroom level and on a global scale.

In my own work, I have designed ëgeneral studies' programmes for engineering students in higher education based on the concept of change in all areas of life. These made opportunities for the students to examine their own place in a context of rapid change and looked at developments such as the Hunger Project and the Brandt Commission, and at the ënew science' which can bring together the traditionally separate ëspiritual' and ëscientific' fields. I also introduced esotericism as one account of the forces underlying the transitional period in which we are living. In my experience, engineering students in this country do not usually get much in their courses beyond their technical work, but the response has been lively – sometimes positive, sometimes hostile, but nearly always dynamic and engaged.

This kind of piecemeal, fairly modest development is not too rare even within British mainstream education, and is partly a product of our present moderately pluralistic system where, particularly in primary schools, the individual teacher has a good deal of autonomy in her own classroom (though this diversity is threatened by current moves towards much greater centralization of the curriculum).

Anyone involved in esotericism is inevitably drawn towards such initiatives in their area of work – a good number have been described in Share International. However what seems to be lacking is firstly the precision of esotericism and, secondly, the most important fact for those who believe in the Reappearance, the presence of the Christ, now, in the world. Were this to be seen even as a possibility, the impact on our practice would surely be profound.

Apart from such small-scale experimental specific work, esotericism influences my teaching in other, less overt, but important and pervasive ways. There are also established approaches to education which make more sense and become more purposeful when viewed from an esoteric perspective.

Perhaps most central is the notion of education as development. For a very long time thinking on education has been divided into two fundamentally opposed concepts – a ëtransmission' and a ëdevelopment' model. The former proceeds from the outside, assuming that education is a matter of training children, of transmitting to them the skills, knowledge and behaviour patterns that will make them into useful citizens. Originally stemming from a belief that a child needs to be ëmoulded' (by coercion or persuasion), this approach was countered by that of education as development, (education as a ëdrawing out') of enabling each individual to achieve as fully as possible his or her unique potential. This concept was based on a belief in the fundamental worth of each human being.

Current educational practice necessarily synthezises the two approaches to some extent, but the concept of education as development is crucial from the esoteric perspective. Although the notion of ëdeveloping an individual's potential' has become commonplace in education, there is little questioning of what it really means, whereas esotericism offers a systematic and comprehensive account of the process. The concept of development in its basic, esoteric meaning is that as souls, incarnating entities, all human beings are essentially divine and that the purpose of all our lives, whatever stage we have reached, is to move a little further towards realizing that potential.

This understanding of an individual must crucially alter our perception of what we are doing in the classroom and our relations with our pupils. It makes sense of the young child's longing to learn, to master facts, to read, to understand the world, and no less to master new physical skills. It makes equal sense of the feeling of liberation and excitement that I have encountered in teaching a creative writing class to a large group of retired people returning to education. The urge to develop, to move forward on the evolutionary journey, assumes a different meaning in the light of reincarnation and individual evolution, so that a sense of an inner journey can seem more urgent towards the end of an individual's life when qualifications, work and status are no longer motivating forces.

"The end of wisdom is freedom, the end of culture is perfection, the end of knowledge is love, the end of education is character." Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, The Language of Truth, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications, 1984

Expansion of consciousness

The substitution of the notion of education as development by the esoteric concept of expansion of consciousness can further illuminate our practice. We will understand that people are at different stages of their evolutionary development as well as at different stages in this particular life. For a young child, simply learning the names of things can be a liberating advance, an expansion of consciousness; for some people, control over their individual material circumstances represents an expansion, an aspiration realized. Others are quite clearly moving towards a sense of group consciousness and responsibility. For some, the purpose of this life might be to pursue one line rigorously, for others, to develop inwardly without such a clear outer purpose. As we are able, even tentatively, to expand the idea of development by an understanding of the Rays, we can be more useful to those we teach, in the realization that some people have very clear lines of activity that we might be able to ascertain and encourage – however the science of the Rays is so subtle and complex that we need to beware of lapsing into an over simplistic determinism in attempting to apply it.

Above all, esotericism gives us a clear reason for a deep respect for our pupils, whatever they seem capable of achieving – not in comparison with their fellows but in terms of their developing selves. Our task as teachers, drawing both on our exoteric training and our study of esotericism, is to use whatever means we have at our disposal to work as systematically, as rigorously, yet as diversely as possible to enable that development to take place, on all levels. My own touchstone in this is DK's statement at the beginning of Education in the New Age:

"All activity which drives the human being forward towards some form of development - physical, mental, intuitional, social -, if it is in advance of his present state is essentially spiritual in nature and is indicative of the livingness of the inner divine entity".(2)

1. S. Fisher and D. Hicks, World Studies 8-13, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh and New York 1985 (preface).

2. A.A. Bailey, Education in the New Age, Lucis Press, London 1954 p1.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005