We spoke with Hazemach, a Living Wisdom School graduate who was enrolled at LWS from kindergarten through eighth grade. After graduate studies in mathematics at the University of Bremen, Germany, Hazie joined the staff of Living Wisdom High School of Palo Alto, where he now teaches math, science, and PE.
Q: What age were you when you started at Living Wisdom School?
Hazemach: I was four. My mother had tried various schools for me, but they were all very unhappy experiences. Even at that young age I’d been targeted because I’d never had my hair cut, and I was treated differently for that reason.
I came to LWS in kindergarten. I had started martial arts when I was three, so those twin strains of martial arts and Living Wisdom formed a major part of my life.
Q: Did you find that they blended well? What kinds of teachers did you have in martial arts?
Hazemach: When I was seven I found the teacher that I would end up sticking with. When I got my driver’s license I would drive up to Lafayette to train with him, as I still do, even though it’s fifty miles. It’s interesting for me, because I’ve noticed lately that he has a perspective that’s similar to Education for Life, which is our philosophy at Living Wisdom School.
He always says that karate is different from other sports because when you get the black belt it’s not just a symbol, it’s something that shows you’ve gained a skill that you can apply in every aspect of your life.
He emphasizes how everything we’re doing is about learning life skills. Today he talked about how your English teacher might tell you that you got all the words right, but you weren’t expressing any emotion, and you need to bring that emotional content into your style.
So it’s more than just doing it step by step, by rote. There has to be heart, and there has to be an intensity of feeling in every action.
Martial arts complemented my education very well because it’s such a disciplined space, and at Living Wisdom when I was young I would often do the opposite. I would be a bit of a troublemaker. But when I was in the dojo I was very disciplined and respectful. I would always be very careful with every action, and I always wondered why there was that contrast. But I think it helped me. It was an ascetic practice when I was young that would eventually help me choose a spiritual path.
I was very happy at Living Wisdom School – but I wasn’t happy with the school systems after I left, in the sense that they didn’t bring me the same joy and enthusiasm, and they generally had the opposite effect.
At every single school I went to after Living Wisdom, I felt that it was killing whatever joy and enthusiasm I had. And I was eventually in such a sad place that I knew I needed to be happy again. And when I thought about it deeply, I realized that I’d been happiest when I was at LWS, so I decided to turn my life around, and instead of relying on the external factors to give me happiness, I would direct my own inner life. Which was something I had learned at LWS, and so I began to bring those Education for Life principles into my expression.
Q: How old were you when you made that decision? Were you still in school?
Hazemach: I was about twenty-one. I was doing my PhD studies in Germany.
Q: What was your field of study?
Hazemach: Mathematics. I was doing very theoretical math, very abstract and disconnected from any immediate practical concerns.
It was very beautiful in and of itself, but not for how it could be applied. I think it’s nice when it can be applied, but at the same time it can be very enjoyable for the way it energizes the mind, and that was very pleasing to me.
That kind of abstract study can have a very powerful energy, and it filled me with love and delight. I had this very powerful love for math, and I was devoted to it, and I was ready to spend all my time on it.
In the beginning of college, I did spend all my time on it. There would be times when I would be sleeping and I would dream a solution to a problem I was working on. I’d wake up and I wouldn’t even remember the dream, but in trying to remember it I would have the solution. And then answers would come when I was doing other daily activities. So it was a very interesting field of study.
Q: Let’s work backward. How did you wind up in grad school in Germany?
Hazemach: After my first year of college, I applied for all kinds of summer programs in math. I was trying to get into something called an REU – Research Experience for Undergraduates. Those programs are for juniors and seniors, to let them experience what research is like, and what professional mathematics is like. It’s an important step if you want to be competitive in your grad school apps.
So I was trying to apply after my freshman year, but the budget was low that year, and I later found out that they’d accepted just one or two freshmen countrywide into the many REU programs because there wasn’t the budget they usually had.
Out of desperation, I found a summer program in Germany, and I was ready to go anywhere because I wanted to continue my growth in math.
So I went to Germany for a two-week program. It was called Modern Mathematics, and they would gather professional mathematicians from around the world. It’s a collaborative space for students from age 16 to 20. Later I was a teacher assistant for the camps, but at the time I was a student, and it was lots of fun.
One of the professors, in frankness, said that as an American my math background was very unusual, because the U.S. is far behind Europe in terms of math training. So when they saw that I was very competitive with the European students, they didn’t understand how that could have happened.
At any rate, one of the professors took an interest, and he invited me to come study, especially after he looked at my university record and saw that I had exhausted much of the math training that they could offer in my first year. So it was a natural next step.
I had been at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Bard is a very interesting program. They have a bunch of satellite programs, including the one I was at. It’s up in the mountains of Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, and it’s for students who want to leave high school early and start college. The average age is probably 16 or 17 for incoming freshmen, and it’s a very, very good academic program, very advanced and well-rounded. It’s rooted in traditional liberal arts, and the idea is that students need to have a broad grounding in the humanities in order to be true learners. So you can’t just specialize, which is the opposite of what they do in Europe, where they’re less interested in giving you that depth and breadth and you can go straight into your field and specialize.
Each has its advantages, but I’m very grateful for the academics I received at Simon’s Rock, because it broadened my perspective beyond mathematics and into the realm of humanities and more human concerns, which essentially is what led me to questions about consciousness and spirituality.
Q: Where did you go to high school?
Hazemach: I went to Woodside Priory.
Q: After Living Wisdom, what was your experience like at Woodside? Was the transition smooth?
Hazemach: There are many levels to look at. There’s the academic level, and I don’t know how it is for other students, but I know that I tend to have an easier time with academics, so it was an easy transition. I didn’t need to put in all that much work to do very well at Priory academically, because it was just my normal work output, but honestly it was a bit…
Q: You’re trying hard not to say that high school was easy.
Hazemach: [Laughs] I mean, it did challenge me. I took, for example, AP Calculus my freshman year. It was very nice, but I was ultimately really bored with math there, unfortunately. And I’ve had concerns about math education all the way through my PhD. It doesn’t matter that there are aspects that have been really good in every single school, but there are lots of concerns about how we run math education. But that’s a different story.
With Priory, I felt really lonely when I first arrived. I don’t think there was a deliberate culture of kindness there. As an example, it was shocking when one of the students early on started speaking to me very meanly, and intentionally saying very mean things. I just couldn’t understand what was the purpose of this. So I laughed, and of course that made him even meaner to me. He was like, “Wait, what is wrong with you? Why are you laughing?” After that he left me alone. So it worked, he left me alone and he didn’t talk to me again.
But, yeah, it was definitely a very different type of environment. Because, at Living Wisdom, they don’t just let the students act out however they want and create a student-run culture. The teachers take a direct hand in making sure the school space is kind, it’s caring, it’s compassionate, and it’s fun. All these types of things.
Q: Did you feel at Living Wisdom School that you were connected to the other kids around you? It’s a constant theme when you talk with the administrators and teachers at LWS. From your perspective as a student, did that actually happen?
Hazemach: Yes, I definitely felt connected.
Q: Did you feel that you had a lot of friends at Living Wisdom?
Hazemach: Yes, I never felt that I was without friends, and I always felt happy there. And that’s something I noticed when I visited the elementary school last year. I walked in, and it was just happiness everywhere, just bubbling joy. And you don’t see that, I think, very much.
I did a little bit of substitute teaching at other schools, and it just wasn’t the same environment. I remember learning conflict resolution when I was a little kid, and how to maintain really good relationships with people, and how to empathize or sympathize or at least be somewhat compassionate for other people’s realities so that you can get along. And it wasn’t just in terms of your own age group. In a lot of schools, they have these giant classes, and you’re only interacting with others of your own age. So people start to feel like it’s normal to interact only with others of their age. And then they feel like that’s the right thing to do, so you don’t see much interaction across age groups in the culture, which is very unfortunate.
At Living Wisdom, even as a little kid, the older students would spend time with us, and I really felt that they were my mentors. And then as I got older I played the same role for the younger students, and I learned how to be an older brother in the sense of how you can really engage and bring forth delight in the little kids and have fun with them.
Q: I was doing some work for Helen, the school director. She wanted to have more information on our website about kindergarten, for parents who were looking for a place to start their child. So I spent a lot of time with the kindergarteners, including the partner reading and partner walks with the older children. And observing the interactions they had, it was moving how the older ones were genuinely sweet and kind to the younger ones and taking care of them. It was an exercise in creating a positive school culture, and it was quite wonderful.
Hazemach: I felt that all over again not long ago when I visited LWS with one of my high school students. He’s a junior, and in the beginning of the year he was very shy and withdrawn, and it was very difficult for him even to start talking. And, fortunately or unfortunately, he didn’t get his permission slip signed to go on one of the high school service projects, so Kshama said, “Okay, you’re going to go with Hazie.” Because I also teach PE for the kindergarteners at LWS. She said, “Your service today is going to be helping Hazie with PE.”
So he had to come with me, and from what I could tell he had no experience working with little kids, so at first he was very much not sure what to do. But the kids just pulled him out of his shell. They sent so much love to him. They ran up to him, they were hugging him, they were grabbing his hands and asking him to play with them. They were the ones who pulled him out of his shell.
So that was amazing, and he started expressing himself, and as I was watching him play with them it felt so good to see that.
So it’s not just the older students serving the younger ones, it’s actually the younger students reminding the older students of a kind of relaxed openness that they might have forgotten in their years of being socialized to what the teenage culture is in our society today, which is oftentimes unauthentic and withdrawn.
Q: Did you learn those skills at Living Wisdom, of relating to others?
Hazemach: Yes, we did. There are bound to be conflicts. I remember a new girl who came to our classroom in second grade. She had experienced a lot of bullying, and she felt very, very self-conscious. When she arrived she was very sensitive, and she would cry very easily. I didn’t have any ill will to her, but I didn’t understand why she was crying, and I wondered, what’s wrong with this kid? Why is she always crying? And it augmented the problem because we were second-graders and we didn’t know what was going on.
We would ask her, “Why are you crying?” And she’d feel like we were bullying her. But we couldn’t understand what was happening.
So a teacher stepped in and helped us understand the issue. And we were receptive enough to understand that it was a difficult reality for her, and that we weren’t being expansive, and we needed to see that, okay, she just has a different reality, and there’s no reason for us to be treating her in a way that makes her feel marginalized all over again. And after that, I remember feeling that she was a close friend. I had lots of those experiences.
There are bound to be conflicts, and it’s part of growing up to have conflicts and learn to resolve them and get along.
I learned an important lesson after I left Living Wisdom. I was at a summer camp with Zachary, one of my classmates at Living Wisdom, and I had a conflict with somebody at the camp. I’d gone to the summer camp for at least five years, and I decided to break out of a ceremony, which you weren’t supposed to do. So I broke the ritual, and it made her really upset, and she didn’t want to speak to me or look at me.
I thought she was being ridiculous because, yes, she’d also been there many years, but I had spent a lot of time with the ritual, and I felt I could break it if I wanted to. It was immature, and Zachary said to me, “I know you think you’re right, but don’t you value your friendship over being right?”
I think it’s a really good example of how an EFL wisdom principle was kicking in for me. Isn’t getting along well with others and having social harmony more important than just being in the right? [Laughs]
Later, I could say, okay, that was immature of me. But even in the moment it was all I needed, and I apologized to her. I said, “Look, I know we’re coming from different places, but I’m sorry for causing the social disharmony,” and we were able to make up and be friends.
There are ways we can deal with those conflicts with people, and as I’ve walked through life, I’ve always known that I was able, by deliberately expanding my consciousness, to let go of whatever I was holding onto and relate with others and maintain a harmonious situation with them.
It doesn’t mean that I would passively let people walk over me. But it meant that I could choose harmony. And I could choose it even when people were difficult to deal with, just let go of my pride and get along with them.
I don’t know if all of the Living Wisdom graduates have learned those lessons as deeply, but when I had conflicts with people and the feeling wasn’t harmonious, I was always able to remember that harmony and happiness was a choice.
I was always aware that I could choose a wrong decision if I wanted to – maybe I could say, “I’ll try something different this time – I want to see what happens if I argue, and if I don’t stick with harmony.” And over the years I learned that harmony is the right way to go.
Q: Conflict resolution is a major emphasis at Living Wisdom School. From what I’ve observed, the teachers talk about it all the time, and nothing ever gets overlooked. If the teacher notices it, they aren’t going to let it slide because they’re busy, or because we have to get through math class. It’s part of the teachers’ training to always intervene and do something about it.
Helen had a meeting recently with several local high school principals. They were asking her what makes LWS unique, and one of the things she mentioned was that we don’t have bullying at our school. And she said that there was total silence, and she could hear the gears turning in the principals’ heads, because they were thinking, “We have bullying.”
Gary, the middle school teacher, talked about a situation that parents and educators face today, and that they don’t know how to resolve, which is that they want the kids to be extremely competitive, but at the same time they’re saying, “Oh, we don’t want to go too far in that direction, because we want them to be nice, too.” And the kids have no trouble recognizing the hypocrisy, because all of a sudden you’re asking them to turn around and be nice to one another. And in the next minute they’re supposed to be competing fiercely in academics.
What was your academic experience like, in that respect, at Living Wisdom School? I know that the teachers challenge people at their own level.
Hazemach: Yes, there was no top or bottom at LWS. I remember feeling a bit of competitiveness with another student, but it was never felt or encouraged in the classroom. There was no classroom activity that fostered that competition. I don’t think I ever competed within school. It was just a feeling I had because I knew about his extracurricular activities and what he was doing well at, and I was doing all these things, too, and there was that question, okay, so which one’s higher?
But the school didn’t foster that. And then I’ve also had experiences of people who felt threatened by my presence, and they would start trying to be competitive with me. Maybe my mom was competitive with that boy, and she was telling me I had to be better. [Laughs] But I didn’t want to care about that, so I just said, “Okay.”
The karate dojo is a space where every single moment is competitive, but it’s a very healthy version of competition where the goal is to bring out the best in others so you can try to rise to their best. And when you rise, they try to rise also. But you don’t ever try to pull anybody down. You want others to improve. You want others to be better than you so that you will have an ideal to work up to. So everybody’s scaling each other up.
That’s a model of competitiveness that I’ve never seen outside of the karate dojo, really. And it was amazing for me, just absolutely amazing. I think it was one of the best experiences for my development.
I often hear people talk very negatively about competitiveness, and I don’t think it needs to be, when there’s the attitude that we are all lifting each other, and we are inspiring each other to rise to our potential. It’s so beautiful, when you want others to be better so that you can be better.
In karate, one of the masters said, “Whenever you see something good in others, ask yourself, how can I try to work toward that? And whenever you see something negative in others, immediately pull away and think to yourself, ‘Okay, how can I make sure I’m not doing that?’”
Because it doesn’t matter. You’re not trying to identify, “Oh, this person is good or bad.” It’s, “How can I continue improving myself?” And that’s not egotistical. That’s the opposite, actually, where you’re deliberately not comparing egos anymore.
Education for Life does it very well, too, where you’ll have a child whose consciousness is very light and expansive and caring, and who’s working with students of lower “specific gravity,” and they’ll lift the ones who are heavier in their consciousness. So it scales downward. And then the teacher is lifting the students who are lifting the ones below them.
So you have a culture where everybody’s lifting each other, and you see that there are differences, but you want others to do really well, and it’s ultimately all about helping the whole group rise, and creating a group consciousness that is higher.
Q: The school has a tremendous emphasis on the arts, especially the theater program. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Hazemach: Theater was my favorite part. [Laughs] It was so exciting. All of a sudden you had this outside responsibility and you could leave class to prepare for this very big performance. Very, very serious. And the teachers take it seriously also – it’s not just some superficial little play for kids. Kids are putting on the play, but it’s not just that; it’s meant to be inspiring and uplifting and meaningful for both the actors and the audience, and you learn so many skills when you’re on stage. I think you can see that in the LWS graduates.
I talked about this with Kshama (the principal of our high school who formerly taught second and third grade at LWS) – how teaching is like acting. You have to go up there and engage people. You have to hold their attention, you have to draw them in, you have to be magnetic, and you’re going to be doing that throughout your life whatever your work is.
You can see it in the Living Wisdom School graduates, that they really know how to engage a person and draw them into conversation and magnetize something positive from the experience. And it’s all part of the learning that happens in the theater program, learning how to interact with people in a dynamic way.
You might think, oh, it’s just acting, but the way we do it, you have to project your energy. And that’s a really important skill throughout your life – when, for example, you’re speaking to a group of people, and you can project your energy. And then you can see that the people who haven’t learned to do it have never been as successful.
I remember how authentic it felt when I played certain roles; for example, St. Francis. One of the criticisms I received when we were rehearsing was, “You need to approach people with inner peace. You have to share that peace with others. You can’t just be telling people to do this and that, you have to shift your consciousness into inner peace.”
I remember thinking, “That’s groundbreaking.” It was acting from an authentic place, and some of the students had authentic spiritual experiences during the theater program.
I’m reminded of how Yogananda listened to a famous choir, and he said afterward, “Technically it was beautiful, but there was no real devotion in your hearts.”
There is a culture of profound genuineness in the theater program at Living Wisdom School, because the purpose of the plays is for the children to attune themselves to the consciousness of these inspiring historical figures, through the poetry of their words and the songs and movements.
The goal isn’t just to play a role well technically. When I was in high school, I noticed that the actors didn’t feel that sincerity. I felt that they were always just putting on a face that would suit the moment, without any inner sincerity that I could feel – I couldn’t tell where their heart was.
The acting experience at Living Wisdom was from the heart. It was from an authentic, sincere space, and then you could project that energy without putting on a mask. And in the process you were expanding your consciousness, and expanding your authentic experience into new realms.
Q: Watching the plays over the years, I’ve always felt that the kids had an inner feeling for the roles they were playing, and that they were wanting to give the audience something meaningful.
Hazemach: I was able to watch one of the plays for the first time last year, because I had only ever acted in them. And I was so moved. I was so inspired, because the student actors actually became the essential vibration of the saint they were playing. And through acting the lives of these great, inspiring figures it’s giving them a very powerful experience.
Q: It’s interesting that you’re able to look back and enjoy your memories of Living Wisdom School. And now that you’re teaching at Living Wisdom High School, how has that been for you? You mentioned that you had previous teaching experience.
Hazemach: I was teaching grad students and some undergrads, and it was very different from the teenagers. [Laughs] Grad students know what they want to be studying, and you can give them a task and know that they’ll be motivated, and they’ll do it. But with the high schoolers you first have to inspire them and get them interested.
And then there’s a whole cultural background that we’re fighting against. There are so many habits and understandings that they’ve developed – for example, that it’s not cool to be enthusiastic, it’s not cool to like something too much, it’s not cool to enjoy your school subjects. It’s something you might get made fun of for, or get bullied for. It’s something I experienced after I left Living Wisdom School, that all of a sudden liking things and enjoying things brought negative attention to me.
It’s very odd. Very, very odd. But it’s so rewarding to watch the progress that the LWHS students are making. It feels like we’re making a difference in their lives.
The school culture in this area is deeply focused on the test-taking side of things, so it’s hard for the students to see beyond test results as a measure of the progress they’re making.
For many of our students, it’s a source of inner turmoil. How much progress am I really making, if I’m not spending all my time preparing for tests? Shouldn’t that be where my time needs to be spent? If I spend too much time in nature, if I spend too much time taking care of my body, if I spend too much time learning to socialize, if I spend too much time in service, I must be falling behind.
Q: Which is completely misguided.
Hazemach: It’s completely misguided.
Q: There’s a book called The Happiness Advantage that shows why it’s misguided. It was written by a psychology professor who taught the most popular course at Harvard, on happiness. He’d served as a proctor, advising the incoming freshmen, and after hundreds of visits to Starbucks with the first-year students he began to notice which ones were most successful. And he realized that it wasn’t the students who buried themselves in the library stacks intent on grinding out good grades, it was the kids who knew how to be happy. They were socially aware and engaged – they would create study groups and ask their professors lots of questions. Shawn Achor, the author, now consults with corporations on creating happy cultures.
Hazemach: Don’t we learn things better when we’re having fun? I’ve heard of studies that support it. When I started working with one of our students, she was studying 24/7. She felt she needed to be always studying, and that she couldn’t be doing anything frivolous, like going on outings. So there was a lot of tension in the beginning of the year because we were spending time in nature and service.
But I’d watched her studying, and I’d seen that she wasn’t being productive. She was trying so hard, but she couldn’t focus and so she was falling asleep, and she wasn’t enjoying it.
She said something beautiful recently, “I just wish everybody could recognize that all the other stuff mattered.” Because we spent time in nature and we did our studies outdoors, and she said, “It was so interesting, I didn’t get sleepy. I could actually focus on my work.”
Q: Because her body was relaxing, and her heart was being nurtured.
Hazemach: Exactly. Before, she didn’t want to be interacting with the teachers; she just wanted to teach herself by studying and studying because she thought it was the way to learn. And then she discovered that she could enjoy it more if she heard the teacher’s perspective on why it’s fun and interesting. So her subjects are becoming more interesting to her, and the service projects feel a lot more meaningful, and she’s starting to ask deeper questions.
She said her biggest question right now is, who is she really? And, what a question, you know? But that’s what we’re hoping for, that they are asking big, important questions like that, “Who am I, really?”
And that’s the first step. The first real step to true growth is when you can ask those big questions – who am I and what am I here for? And not just put your head in the sand and study because that’s what everybody else is doing.
Burying yourself in books is not going to take you to happiness, which is the ultimate goal, right? The ultimate goal is to discover joy, and people mistakenly believe they’re going to find it through studying all the time. But it doesn’t get results.
Q: Shawn Achor concluded from his research that we have it backward in our society – you study so you can get money and be happy someday. Only it doesn’t happen because “someday” never comes and you keep thinking that just one more thing will finally make you happy. But if you can be happy in the moment it’s a powerful aid to getting the external rewards you might be looking for.
Hazemach: I remember having so much fun with basketball, and how I played better when I was having fun. But when I got to high school the coaches were very intense, probably because their job is on the line, and a number of us couldn’t play to the best of our abilities, and we didn’t enjoy it, and it was scary because we were constantly in fear of the coach getting angry and yelling at us.
We were successful insofar as we put in a lot of work, but we could never achieve our true potential because we were being held back emotionally and we were constantly being forced to externalize.
And, in the meantime, we were internalizing all this anger, and we would get upset at ourselves every time we made a mistake. You can’t play freely if you’re getting upset at yourself. It’s one of the biggest blocks I’ve seen for athletes, where they’re punishing themselves inside for their errors, and for not playing perfectly.
Q: There were two sports psychologists in the 1970s who studied the qualities that separated extremely successful athletes from the people who could never quite make the breakthrough into the top ranks. They found that the best athletes were able to change directions. They were able to say, “Maybe I goofed up, but the game starts now.” Whereas the second-tier athletes were blaming themselves, getting down on themselves, beating themselves up and lashing themselves for their mistakes.
Hazemach: It’s something I learned in karate, where it’s called beginner’s mind. It’s a Zen concept, and we don’t actually use those terms in karate, but it’s there in the culture, where you are always approaching things as if you’re a complete beginner.
When you get your black belt, one of the questions on the test is, “What does the black belt signify?” And the correct answer is that it’s the very beginning. You’re just starting, and you constantly come to it with the attitude that I’m just a beginner, so you don’t get hard on yourself for making mistakes. You’re never looking down on yourself, “Oh, you’re so bad.” You’re saying, “I am always in the place of a beginner, and there is always an upward direction for me to go. There’s always more for me to reach up to.” You’re always trying to improve from where you are. It’s very powerful to be able to forget all the negative things and start fresh.
Whenever I made a mistake, I would laugh. That was how I broke the tendency to get discouraged. I would laugh. I have the same problem with piano, and whenever I make a mistake I laugh, “Oh, that sounded funny.” And I’ll move on. I wouldn’t laugh at other people, and it’s not a mean laugh, it’s just about not taking life so seriously. At the end of the day it’s something we can laugh at and enjoy and have a lot of fun with.
It’s fundamental to the approach we take in the Living Wisdom Schools, where mistakes are taken lightly because they’re an expected and necessary part of the learning process. It frees the students from the tremendous pressure that comes from the idea that you’re either perfect or you’re failing. It allows them to move on without beating themselves up, and just find the joy in fixing the mistakes and moving on.