I still remember what happened, the day my mother took me to school for the first time. I cried and clung to her before entering the classroom. Once inside, I fell silent. My mother stood on the other side of the window, waved, and stayed until class was over. Every time I looked up at her, she started waving again. I hated going to school. I felt unsafe and found it boring. Then I found the download button, and learning became easy. Soon, I started to identify with what I had learned. I started to use ‘my knowledge’ to outsmart others. And later on, I played ‘strategic’ games so I would win at something, or to feel safe. Knowledge, I thought, was a way for me to control my world: reflecting, analysing, and creating scenarios. By doing so, I separated myself from the experience of actually being in the world. I used knowledge as a barrier between myself and others; as a way to avoid intimacy and vulnerability through smart cynicism. Knowledge had become a tool to separate me from others and the world. Knowledge had become a mother behind a window, waving, without the trust that I could play and connect in the world I was in.
Today’s crisis is not economic, ecologic, political or social; it is what I call the ‘illusion of separation’. We think we are separated from others and the world. And when we think and act based on the illusion of separation, we create a world of fear, anger, aggression, oppression and greed – exactly what is happening now, and which, to some degree, has happened throughout history. The difference this time is that a fast-growing group of people is realising that if we do not emerge from this illusion of separation, discard it, cast it aside, our species soon will die.
Before we can change, we must first understand – experience, even – a fundamental truth. This is that we are all connected. And to understand, we need to transform our relationship with learning, and our concept of what it involves. I would therefore like to explore three ideas that make it possible to experience our common connectedness. Three ideas that can make our thinking and actions wholesome and naturally focussed on common growth. These three ideas are founded in the original meaning of the words: learning, education and school.
- Learning comes from leis, meaning following the track.
- Education comes from educare, meaning to draw out what is already there.
- School comes from schole, meaning doing nothing.
Leis (learning); to follow the track
There is no single moment in life that is ever repeated in exactly the same way. Sounds, colours, memories, what we smell, how our body feels and reacts, what we think and how we interact with everything around us? Reality is changing all the time. Reality is like a track we follow, but which never fully arrives. When we think we are there, we find it has moved, changed. And this is where the word learning comes from: to follow the track. Somehow, we have lost sight of this idea of learning. We don’t enjoy the process of following the track; instead, we are obsessed with gaining as much knowledge as possible. We try to understand reality intellectually. We want to define, keep track of, the ever-changing reality: to capture it. But what we capture by doing this, what we take hostage, is not reality itself but our capacity to learn – our capacity to be amazed by this ever-changing reality. We loose our capacity to be amazed by life itself.
Today, learning has become confused with downloading information. Yes, gaining knowledge is important, but not as a means to control reality.
Goethe, the philosopher and writer, was interested in plants. But he didn’t want to categorise them, study them, just by looking only at their outer forms. No, he wanted to experience plants. In observing them he noticed that when we see something, we do not really see what is actually there. Rather, we project what we already know. We are not experiencing what Is, we are projecting what Was. Goethe’s method was to observe by making space: instead of projecting something, he made space for what could be seen to unfold from its own true nature. What Goethe found out was that when we are present in the world this way, everything is changing all the time. And it’s not only what is seen that is changing, but also who is seeing. By creating an observant relationship with what is seen, you can actually experience the true nature of life, which is the source of everything. From this you feel the burst of creative energy that moves and changes everything, constantly.
By creating an observant relationship with what is seen, you can actually experience the true nature of life, which is the source of everything.
Today, learning has become confused with downloading information. Yes, gaining knowledge is important, but not as a means to control reality. In our ever-changing reality, the knowledge we have has a shorter shelf life than a pack of milk. Knowledge is important when it serves as a scout, enabling us to follow the track of the ever-changing reality. Learn this way and we stop using knowledge to fixate on something, or to make others feel stupid, or as a way to create a barrier between ourselves and others, and start using it as a tool to feel connected and to create.
Educare (Education); To draw out what is already there
Every Wednesday afternoon during high school, I went to visit my economics teacher, who lived on a houseboat. He loved the work of Dutch novelist Jan Wolkers, a writer who was also a sculptor and who wrote like a sculptor: strong words that created images that opened up new dimensions to me. Together, we read Wolkers’s books, and my teacher asked me questions about parts I liked: Why those particular sections? Did I recognise something of myself in them? What do they tell me about my life, my longings, my fears, my agonies, my strategies, and myself?
Those Wednesday afternoons were not about downloading information. Those Wednesday afternoons were discoveries. I read about love and relationships, which were so confusing to me then (and still are, actually), having fallen in love for the first time. I read about people who were having problems dealing with their father, just like me. I read about people who wanted to leave their hometowns to start a new life somewhere else. Who wanted to be someone else, just like me. I learned about emotions: anger, fear, pain, love, shame, joy. Things I did not learn at school. Things I did not learn at home. And not because my parents were intellectual and couldn’t express their feelings. On the contrary, my parents had no education. My parents simply had not learned how to express emotions and were therefore unable to teach me.
Reading books was reading about others’ lives, lives that is was also possible to live. It opened up my imagination. It created compassion. Because, although the characters in the novels were quite different to me, I also found similarities: all the characters involved, including the person reading about them, was longing for love, longing for recognition, longing to feel and be safe.
Something else also happened during those Wednesday afternoons. When I was young, I wrote short stories, poems, probably as a form of escape. My literature teacher hated my stories and poems because my grammar was horrible. But, despite my bad grammar, my economics teacher was drawing out what was in me; he saw I could write stories and suggested I enter writing contests. He encouraged me and sparked an enthusiasm in me that led me to study grammar, which I now found much easier and more natural, coming as it did out of inspiration, instead of failure. I am grateful for his support, which eventually led me to become a novelist. I wrote my first novel two years ago, and my second will be published this summer.
Socrates encouraged his students, stimulated them and sometimes gave gentle massages to help in delivering the baby, to help release the authentic knowing that was already inside his students.
My Wednesday afternoon teacher didn’t see education as being about delivering external knowledge, but as a process in which you facilitate someone in such a way that he or she discovers their own uniqueness. What my economics teacher did was do something that resonates with the original meaning of education, educare: to draw out what is already there (inside).
Socrates had a beautiful metaphor for the education I experienced with that teacher. Socrates saw himself as a midwife, someone who is not himself in labour, but who is helping a mother to give birth to a child that has been growing inside her. Socrates encouraged his students, stimulated them and sometimes gave gentle massages to help in delivering the baby, to help release the authentic knowing that was already inside his students.
Education should go back to educare, to draw out in students what is already in them. Today, most students feel they are not good enough; that they have to change themselves to fit into the system. This leads to high dropout rates and burn outs.
Schole (School): Doing nothing.
Ten years after the Wednesday afternoons with my high school economics teacher, I met another mentor. I was in my thirties and my life had completely changed. Somehow, I had become successful as a marketing consultant, but I had also had to deal with the losses of my mother and younger brother. Yet despite those losses, I felt strong and thought I enjoyed my work; I thought I felt alive, until I had to give a presentation, and collapsed – fainted. I had a burnout. I tried to overcome it the same way I had become successful: by working like hell, this time to get better. But my willpower made it worse; panic attics joined fatigue. Doctors told me to rest. So I did, for years, without improving, until a friend introduced me to a martial artist, a young guy, seventeen at that time. He told me he knew what was going on and offered to help, for free. The only thing he asked was my commitment and trust: to train as long as it took to feel better again. The training was simple: not doing anything. I just sat or stood in a simple position for hours – no tasks. If a story sprang to mind, he stripped it bare. Stories about who I thought I was.
Through gentle self-exploration, I realised that my entire identity was actually a collection of fear-based strategies.
For example: I thought I was an empathetic guy. But through self-exploration I realised I had become empathetic because I was raised in an unsafe environment. I needed to put myself in my father’s position to read him – to know if it was safe to be around him. I used this strategy long after I left my parents’ house. I wasn’t really interested in other people, I wanted to feel safe and I was using empathy as a strategy for that. My empathy was fuelled by fear, and egotism.
Through gentle self-exploration, I realised that my entire identity was actually a collection of fear-based strategies. I had clung to stories, just as I had clung to my mother when I went to school that first day. And by letting go, a shift occurred: from living solely from my head, I suddenly became aware that I had a body with all kinds of sensation. Tracking those sensations, including what I had called pain and anger, made it possible to release those oppressed sensations from my nervous system. My health improved.
And something else happened, too: another consciousness arose. Without knowing it, I underwent a naked confrontation with reality that gave rise to a deep connection. I felt in every cell of my body how deeply connected I am with others and Earth. That feels powerful, safe and loving.
This experience is not vague; on the contrary, it is concrete. What has become vague, faded, is the form my consciousness used to take: knowledge fuelled by fear, with dissociation/ disconnection as the result. You can be well educated, but still not haven’t learned anything if you haven’t experienced the wholeness of being. Being ‘not-knowing’ opens up the possibility to act and think intuitively from a deep connection, and with only one result possible: pure goodness for everyone.
We therefore need to go to schole, school, and not just students, but all of us, including our leaders. We need to be humble in the face of our ever-changing reality, the complexity of life. By doing so, we become connected to the source of life, to the all-ness of being. This ‘resourcing process’ activates the empathy, intuition and spontaneity needed to create a culture of common growth.
I do believe we can create a world of common growth. But we shouldn’t try to change systems to do so. I have never met a system. I have met people, though. And I do believe people can change. I don’t believe I can change other people. But I do believe that I can change myself and become an invitation for change for others. And by doing so, by acting, thinking and relating differently, from love and clarity, change will happen all around you, us– naturally.