What Does “Spiritual Education” Mean?

Teacher with young children outdoors at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California

Nonsectarian spiritual principles are a daily feature of life at LWS. Attitudes of kindness, cooperation, concentration, and joyful aspiration are encouraged and celebrated. (Click to enlarge.)

by the founder of the Living Wisdom Schools

The first public service that Paramhansa Yogananda undertook after he became a swami was to found a school for young boys. Starting in 1916 in the village of Dihika, Bengal with only seven students, he was “determined to found a school where young boys could develop to the full stature of manhood.” A year later he moved the school to Ranchi and founded the Yogoda Satsanga Brahmacharya Vidyalaya which is still in existence today. Almost sixty years later, in 1972, at Ananda Village, the first Ananda school was founded, based on the ideals and directions that Yogananda laid out about education. Starting also with only seven students, the original Ananda School now has a campus of seven classrooms with ninety students, plus branch schools in Palo Alto, Portland, and Seattle. The following article is from a talk that Swami Kriyananda gave in which he discusses the Education for Life system used in the Ananda Schools.

What I’ve tried to do in my life is to take Yogananda’s central teachings and apply them to many fields of life – business, the arts, relationships, raising families, schools, communities, and so on. The education of children was very dear to Yogananda’s heart, but what he actually said about it was very little. Through the years, we have taken what he has given us, meditated on it, and applied our understanding in the Ananda School classrooms in order to deepen our insights and attunement to Yogananda’s vision for spiritual education.

An “altar of all religions” in a classroom at Living Wisdom School. The shared principles of the world’s great spiritual traditions give us the scientific formula for success and happiness in life. (Click to enlarge.)

At Ananda we are trying to develop a system called Education for Life, something which is very much needed in society today. The reason for so many of the problems in our world is that we’re giving children what Yogananda called an essentially atheistic view of life. When we rigorously exclude all spiritual teachings and higher values, our children end up getting the message that there aren’t any higher values, and that there isn’t even a God. Children have a natural longing for values and ideals, but our society gives them a universe and a life in which they have no faith. The cynical teachings of modern education are so ego-oriented, and so money and job-oriented that when children grow up cynical and angry at the universe, it’s hardly something to be surprised at. It’s the fault of our society that allows that kind of thing to happen.

The purpose of spiritual education is to fulfill the divine potential of children, and to prepare them for life by giving them the tools they need to keep on learning throughout the many experiences that will come to them.

When we speak of spiritual education, we don’t mean a church kind of education. What we mean is to help children understand that they’re going to be a lot happier if they are kind to others, and if they work for high ideals. The child who has a little bag of dates and eats them all himself isn’t nearly so happy as the child who shares those dates with others. In all cases, we can see that people who are selfish just aren’t happy, and people who are selfless are happy. They can apply this understanding not only at school, but also at home and everywhere in life. If we can bring this kind of teaching to children, this then is spiritual education.

Another purpose of spiritual education is to build the person on all levels. We are triune beings composed of body, mind, and soul, and if any part of us is starved at the expense of the others, then we aren’t complete. It’s an interesting fact that people who write, as an example of a mental activity, will very often also do something physical to keep themselves grounded. When Yogananda first had an experience of cosmic consciousness, his guru, Sri Yukteswar, handed him a broom, saying, “Let us sweep the porch.” We have to learn to keep these worlds in harmony with one another. If we let one go in favor of the other, in some way we become unbalanced.

Young girl smiling at Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California

An education that ignores individual differences and tries to run children through an assembly line is bound to produce shoddy results. An education that is deep, enduring, and effective must be highly individualized. (Click to enlarge.)

In the education of our children, we need to help them develop their characters and their minds, but we must also help them prepare for living successfully in this world. We don’t want them to go out into society and find themselves incapable of relating to what’s going on. They have to have the facts that are a part of our modern upbringing. But they don’t need to have those facts taught to them in such a way as to leave them believing that there’s no value in anything. There is a great deal of emphasis on the wrong things today. The basis of spiritual education is to prepare them for society in a way that will help them to remain idealistic.

Suppose you have children who have learned how to love everyone, who have learned the goodness of life. When they go out into the world they may face hatred, criminal activity, and many other negative things. Will they be able to handle it? This is probably the primary concern that people have with spiritual education. The answer is to be seen in those who live with love. It isn’t as if they become stupid or lose the ability to relate to the world as it is. In fact, the broadest understanding comes from that which is centered in love; the narrowest understanding is that which is centered in hatred. If you’re on the lowest level, you can relate only to the lowest level; if you’re on the highest level, you can relate to all levels. To see that this is true, we can point to examples of people who live that way and who are able to handle life’s many challenges far, far better. I have observed that people who are complete as human beings are generally more successful. A spiritual education can actually guarantee greater success even in the way worldly people define it.

A good example is Yogananda’s most advanced disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda. He was the chairman of several large companies and owned several others. He had the clarity, calmness, and centeredness to be able to pull back from all the stress and excitement and see the way to resolve difficult issues. The secret of his success was the fact that his consciousness was rooted in God, and in the desire for right action.

Children are born with different inclinations, with different strengths, weaknesses, and educational needs. One of the unfortunate aspects of modern education is the assembly-line approach to teaching where the same information is more or less dumped out to everyone. There isn’t any philosophy; it is just information. Small classes, where the teacher can get to know each child personally, are essential for giving individual attention and for discovering what the natural level of understanding is for each child.

Rajarsi Janakananda, chief disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda

Paramhansa Yogananda’s chief disciple was James J. Lynn, a self-made American businessman who said he was able to accomplish in an hour what would take others many hours, thanks to his mastery of meditation methods such as those taught at Living Wisdom School. (Click to enlarge.)

By teaching children kindness, concentration, will power, strength of character, truthfulness, and other higher qualities, life is made richer. These are deeply important to the development of the human being, but such things are not taught today in public education. The ultimate purpose of life is not simply to get a job. So many people live this way and then die, not of old age but of deep disappointment with the life they have led. If you don’t know how to be truly happy, money won’t buy it for you.

Spiritual education is training people for life. How many people get married, and then get divorced because they don’t know how to get along with their spouse? They’re not educated for that. nor for life.

Education, rightly understood, is expansion of awareness. It is preparation for that process of real learning which takes place after we leave school, when we are in the constant struggle, the battlefield of life. By giving children the tools and understanding to make the right choices in life, we can lead them to lasting happiness. Then they will be able to achieve the kind of spiritual victories that are the true meaning of success.

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