Ch. 30: Living Wisdom Graduates Enjoy Varied and Exciting Careers


David Kretzmann
Motley Fool Investment Analyst

I attended the original Living Wisdom School from kindergarten through eighth grade, and I graduated from Living Wisdom High School in 2010. I entered Berea College in Kentucky, where I graduated in 2014. I studied business administration and was elected student government president two years.

After graduating, I became an investment analyst at The Motley Fool, a private financial and investing advice company based in Alexandria, Virginia with over 300 employees worldwide, which is where I am today, helping individual investors and evaluating companies and recommending stocks.

When I reflect on my time in the Living Wisdom Schools, I see it as an experience where I learned how to live a good, successful and happy life, recognizing that academics are important, but what really matters when you’re in junior high and high school and you’re coming up into adulthood is learning how to live your life — how to be happy in what you do, make friends with what you do, and be joyful in everything you do.

I’ve carried the lessons from Living Wisdom School with me each day, whether it was in college or now in my career. I’m really grateful for what I got out of Living Wisdom School, and I recommend the experience to anyone.


Mirabai Deranja Commer,
Professional Tango Dancer and Dance Instructor

Mirabai graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz with a BA degree in Astronomy. She now has a thriving business as a tango teacher and performer in the San Francisco area and in Buenos Aires, Argentina.





Shyama Helin
Project Manager, ID Branding

I work with an award-winning advertising and branding firm. I’m married and we own a home in the north end of Portland, Oregon. I graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1995 with a major in Fine Arts.

I attribute my ability to communicate effectively to my Education for Life experience at Living Wisdom School. The small classes and close relationships with teachers and fellow students helped me build strong bonds and gave me the tools to know how to work cooperatively with others.

As a team leader on high-stress projects in my work environment, I consistently rely on the centering and affirmation skills I learned at EFL. I remain closely connected with many of my school friends.

Kai Girard
Mountain Guide, Alaska Mountaineering School,
American Alpine Institute, National Outdoor Leadership School,
and Outward Bound

My early memories of Living Wisdom School include outdoor pursuits that were many and varied. From exploring rivers and caves, to canoe trips and making fires in the rain with our teacher, going to school in the foothills gave us the opportunity to be outside in so many ways.

I connected with outdoor sports starting in high school, and in an even bigger way in college at Seattle University, where I progressed from a rock climber to a raft guide and a trip leader. I now work as a wilderness educator for some of the best companies in the industry.

Being paid to explore, experience, and share the wilderness while participating in fun and challenging activities is certainly a great perk, but the real treat is exploring, experiencing, and sharing the process of personal growth as a facilitator and educator.

Organized classes can convey a certain amount of information, but direct experience, where you’re held accountable to a high standard by nature itself, really makes the lessons stick, and the most impactful learning often comes from the realization that you arrive at upon returning to the outside world. Classes may be convenient, but they remove the accountability of direct experience, where you’re forced to use your integrity and will to survive.

I might never have realized this perspective if it were not for the teachers and educators I encountered at Living Wisdom and later.

The chance to try with your hands and your heart is not commonly given in most schools. The chance to try while being inspired and supported by self-assured, competent leaders is a unique and powerful way to find your interests, your abilities, and yourself. The leaders at Living Wisdom School were the ones who inspired me to know the impact we can truly have on our own lives and the lives of others. They are my role models, and now the wilderness is my classroom.



Keith Ross, Commercial Pilot

Keith flies for MC Aviation, based in Santa Monica, California. He graduated in 2005 from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University with a major in aeronautical science and a minor in meteorology. He was interviewed by Susan Dermond, director of the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon and Keith’s fifth-grade teacher.

Susan: What do you remember about your experience at Living Wisdom School?

Keith: It was all fun. I entered in fourth grade and attended LWS through eighth grade. Of course, like any kid I enjoyed the field trips best. But I remember all of the personal interactions and the friendships with teachers and students.

Susan: What do you think were the advantages of the education you received at LWS?

Keith: The small class size. It meant that we got lots of individual attention. I remember the caring of the teachers and the encouragement to be who you are.

Susan: Was high school difficult after Living Wisdom School?

Keith: No. I graduated from high school with a 4.0 grade-point average.

Susan: Did you notice any differences between yourself and the other kids you met in high school and college that you attribute to your training at LWS?

Keith: Oh, yes. I feel that I’ve really found myself, mentally, spiritually, and career-wise, and I feel that I did it at a younger age than most people.



Gita Matlock
Leadership Coach (

Gita attended Education for Life schools from pre-school to eighth grade. She has worked in non-profit fundraising for thirteen years, after earning a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and a master’s in Nonprofit Administration.

Q: What do you see as the advantages of Living Wisdom School?

Gita: I learned life skills and tools to succeed both in higher education and life. The meditation and centering practices taught me to focus and be calm. The relationships with adults helped me transition very easily into the working world, and the values stick with me in all my decisions.

Q: Was high school difficult after attending LWS?

Gita: No, it was very easy. I knew all I needed to know about how to get my work done and communicate with my teachers and classmates. Most of us who came from LWS ended up in the honors classes in our high schools.

Q: Did you notice any difference between yourself and the other kids you met in high school and college that you attribute to your education at LWS?

Gita: Yes! Many of the kids couldn’t relate well to adults and lacked a sense of self. Each of my friends from Living Wisdom School shares two major things in common with the others: a strong sense of self and an interest in giving back to the world.


Simon Hermann
Financial Institution Specialist at the
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)

Simon graduated Summa Cum Laude from California State University at Chico with a double major in Business and Economics. He now works as a Bank Examiner for the FDIC.

Simon travels around northern California, working with teams that analyze banking institutions’ capital, assets, management, earnings, liquidity, and sensitivity to market risk.

It’s a job that requires considerable flexibility, since he constantly needs to change roles and responsibilities from bank to bank, weekly or monthly, depending on the current assignment.

Simon says his work involves “the review of banks’ sensitivity to market risk. This review includes reviewing the assumptions and outputs of statistical models and simulations. How non-maturity deposit accounts react to changing interest rates is a large part of most model assumptions and is often measured through some form of regression analysis. I also need to understand the economy that our banks operate in.”

Ch. 29: Meet the Parents: Jack Dieckmann

Jack Dieckmann serves as Associate Director of Curriculum at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE).

Jack completed his doctorate in mathematics education at Stanford in 2009. He also teaches methods and language courses in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). He has worked as a public high school math teacher, a professional developer, and an education research associate.

Jack: We’re the parents of Joseph, who’s a student at Living Wisdom High School, and we’ve been with Living Wisdom for more than nine years. Our daughter attends the K-8 Palo Alto Living Wisdom School.

Given that my professional field is education, I spent a great deal of time trying to find the right school for Joseph. I visited and studied a wide variety of schools, I interviewed the people, and I shadowed and observed. And then I came across this jewel of a school, Living Wisdom School of Palo Alto, and I couldn’t believe it. I really could not believe that such a school existed, because I had never seen anything like it, and I had never personally encountered a school like this in all my years in education.

We enrolled Joseph at LWS with Kshama as his first-grade teacher, and it was fantastic. I couldn’t believe that I could leave my child, the most precious thing in my life, leave him there and feel totally confident that he would be loved, supported, and that he was going to grow and be nurtured. I’ve had that feeling all the way through, including his time at Living Wisdom High School, where I know that I’m leaving him in good hands and that he’s not only going to be challenged with a rigorous curriculum, but he’s also going to add meaning to his life.

Public schools do their best, but as a parent who taught math in public high school I know that they are large systems, and that the learning is very often first and foremost about how to obey rules, how to follow, how to be passive, and how to do the homework that’s handed to you. The poor students do the best they can, but there is no sense of agency or active learning or finding their place in the world, or finding meaning in what they’re doing. Adolescence in particular is such a difficult time, and those are exactly the kinds of questions they should be asking.

Living Wisdom offers a unique program that I wish all students everywhere could benefit from, because they are giving the individual student a chance to understand who they are in relation to their world, and not just be sort of college-ready.

That’s a big term now, “college-ready,” but many students, including those who go on to college, and even those who get good college grades, don’t know why they are there, and they don’t know the horizon that they’re moving toward, because they’re just following the rules.

I’m very happy to say that our experience of Living Wisdom High School has been the opposite — that we are not raising a passive rule-follower, but somebody who is trying to understand his place in the world, his purpose in the world, and who is very actively contributing to that purpose.

Ch. 28: Meet the Parents: Esther Peralez-Dieckmann

Esther Peralez-Dieckmann has more than 25 years’ experience in workforce and economic development, human services, and policy advocacy. A respected community leader, she has earned numerous distinctions for her leadership and work on behalf of women, children, and families. .She is currently Executive Director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence in San Jose.

Esther: I feel that the approach they take at Living Wisdom is very practical, because everybody wants their child to be loved, to be safe, and to want to go to school — and we haven’t had any issues with our children not wanting to go to school, because they’ve been very excited every day about going to Living Wisdom.

When it comes to how we educate our children, my stance is practical. We all want our children to be able to get a good job and be very happy in their work, and as somebody with nearly thirty years’ experience in the public, private, and non-governmental sectors, one of the first things I look for, and that I believe we need in the workforce, is people who can think critically, people with empathy, people who understand the needs of others, and who know how to work with other people, and who can deal with adversity.

You need lots of personal skills to have a good career and stay in a good job, and I feel that those are among the skills my children have acquired at Living Wisdom, including the ability to know yourself, to be loved and appreciated for your differences and for all the things you are, and to have the chance to explore and figure out who you are, what you love, and what’s your passion. All of the steps, all of the activities, and all of the outings at Living Wisdom have been carefully designed to accomplish just that.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about resource allocation, because we know that the economy is not great right now, and organizations and businesses are having to deal with severely limited resources. And I believe certain skills the children learn at Living Wisdom will be extremely valuable in the years ahead.

I’m thinking of when we took all of the Living Wisdom students on a camping trip to Malakoff Diggins, a Gold Rush mining site in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

It looked like we might run out of food at one point. We were close to civilization, so it’s not as if we were endangering the children, but we were camping for three days, so we had to keep an eye on our food. I was impressed by how the kids pitched in and cooked, did the dishes, and generally accepted the situation and cheerfully pitched in. When I think of the nine years our family has been with Living Wisdom, I realize that all of those activities and experiences have had a tremendous relevance for helping our children learn to thrive in the real world, and that there isn’t a price you can put on that.

If you’re looking at Living Wisdom as an option, I can say that you really should look at the total educational experience, and how you can raise children who’ll never want to stop learning. Because that’s really the way to advance in a career: by being always eager to learn, while loving the process and knowing how to think of others.

We’re trying to solve the problems that are affecting our world, and we urgently need thinkers like the students that are coming through Living Wisdom.

Ch. 27: Happiness, Success, and the TK-8 Curriculum

The Education for Life curriculum encompasses six areas. Each area embraces a special body of learning, together with personal qualities and attitudes that lead to a happy, successful life.

1. Our Earth/Our Universe

These activities expand the students’ awareness of the physical world. We give them a vision of the orderliness of the universe, appreciation and reverence for our place in the world, and an awareness of our shared responsibility for the well-being of the planet and of all creatures.

Our Earth / Our Universe helps the students understand the countless ways all life is interconnected. They move between hands-on observation and immersion in the academic subject matter, driven by a sense of adventure as they discover the mechanisms through which all aspects of the physical world are linked together.

“Science” can evoke images of people with withered hearts studying meaningless minutiae in sterile laboratories, and that’s unfortunate, since the sciences as taught in the Living Wisdom Schools are rated by the students as being among their most interesting, engaging, and fruitful subjects. It’s why we call this very special part of the curriculum “Our Earth — Our Universe.”

Our Earth — Our Universe embraces all branches of science, yet it suggests their connections, the orderly oneness of the cosmos, and the sense of awe before the wonders of creation that Einstein said is the essence of scientific discovery.

Instead of limiting our students to participating in life’s wonders as secondhand observers, we invite them to feel themselves part of the great mystery by giving them direct experiences. Our Earth — Our Universe encourages them to see the particular and universal in relation to each other. For example, we may ask them to ponder how physical laws provide a model for many areas of their lives — how Newton’s law of motion suggests a universal principle of action and reaction that operates in our relationships, and in the consequences of our thoughts and actions.

From a lifeless catalogue of facts, Our Earth — Our Universe lifts them into a view of reality that they can connect with in heartfelt and inspiring ways.

The separate sciences are not taught as compartmentalized disciplines, but as a unified totality that can be viewed from different angles. The discipline of scientific inquiry reveals in all nature a dignified coherence that mirrors the goal of education itself: true maturity. It’s easier to relate to diverse realities, when we can see them in meaningful relationship to one another, and finally to ourselves.

Our Earth — Our Universe embraces all branches of science: physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, general science, botany, geology, and anatomy.

Our Earth / Our Universe develops the following positive qualities:

Attitudes of care. The Japanese conservationist Tanaka Shozo said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.” We help our students feel their place in nature and their connection with all living things. Feeling connected engenders attitudes of caring.

We encourage the students to interact with the physical world with appreciation. We help them understand the underlying structures of the cosmos with a curriculum that is designed to elicit their enthusiasm, through guided discussions, field trips, and science fair projects. We help them understand how they can apply the scientific method in creative ways to express their understanding of fundamental principles.

Curriculum for Our Earth / Our Universe:

Interdisciplinary science (overview) Biology
Botany Geology
Anatomy Physics
Astronomy Chemistry
Ecology and sustainability  

2. Personal Development

In the Living Wisdom Schools we nurture three areas of personal growth: physical, mental, and spiritual; and we help each student grow toward realizing their unique, individual potential in each area.

We give our students tools to pursue their inner growth. We help them understand their unique learning style, and we tailor the curriculum to stimulate their enthusiasm for academics and personal achievement.

Personal Development cultivates the following positive qualities:

Perseverance. We help student to experience the joy of overcoming challenges by analyzing obstacles and applying the right tools to find solutions and achieve their goals. Daily success experiences of success develop their self-confidence to welcome challenges as opportunities to experience the joy of mastery.

Self-control and joyful self-discipline. Learning to control their own physical, mental, and emotional energy opens portals for the students to understand and relate appropriately to others’ realities. In a climate of calm self-restraint and respectful appreciation, attitudes of kindness and compassion flourish.

We help the students develop joyful self-discipline by teaching them how to be calmly aware and mentally focused while completing their academic work and interacting with others.

Subjects that foster growth in Personal Development:

Physical education Sports
Health and hygiene Mental skills such as concentration, memory development, and organization
Math computation skills Any subject matter that involves memorization
Long-term projects Learning new tasks such as CPR, typing, etc.
Developing and applying positive personal qualities such as gratitude, contentment, honesty, servicefulness, and responsibility Self-Expression and Communication


3. Self-Expansion and Communication

Learning to express ourselves effectively is essential for academic achievement and for our ability to interact meaningfully with others.

Recognizing the importance of these skills, we carefully and consciously help our students develop clarity of thought and creative self-expression. We help them learn to express their ideas and feelings verbally and in their schoolwork.

Our students develop writing skills that give them a tremendous advantage when they enter high school. Our graduates routinely thank us for giving them a head start in writing well-thought-out, creative papers and research reports.

Language Arts at Living Wisdom School conforms to our school’s focus on teaching young students to be enjoyably immersed, enthusiastically engaged, and creatively insightful.

The students receive intensive help with vocabulary development. Through constant feedback, encouragement, and hands-on instruction in copyediting and rewriting, we teach our students to write and speak in a manner that communicates clearly to the reader or listener — a rare and extremely important skill for success in business, technology, and academia.

Lessons in Self-Expression and Communication foster the following positive qualities:

Honest, objective introspection

Clarity of thinking

Clarity of expression


We measure the students’ growth in this area by the clarity of their written and oral communications, the originality of their work, and the degree to which it reflects honest thinking and enthusiastic engagement.

Subjects that foster growth in Self-expression and Communication:

Mathematics Writing mechanics
Creative writing Interpretive dance
Music composition Music interpretation
Computer programming Creative problem-solving
Engineering The use of the voice as a vehicle for self-expression in speaking and singing
Public speaking Insights for developing creativity
Visual arts Drama
Vocabulary development Foreign languages

4. Understanding People

The elementary years from roughly age six to twelve are the time in a young person’s life for refining the ability to feel. The quality of instruction therefore has huge repercussions for the student’s life in high school and beyond, since feeling is the faculty that enables us to tell right from wrong, and to act rightly, with respect and empathy for the realities of others.

Our practical approach to helping the students develop these important life skills permeates their every day at Living Wisdom School.

The primary medium for students to learn to be aware of their feelings and direct them in positive, expansive ways is the arts. We therefore encourage the honest expansion of the students’ calm, perceptive feelings through theater, music, the visual arts, and by observing and guiding them as they learn to interact and communicate meaningfully, with awareness of how their words and actions may affect others.

We employ effective conflict resolution methods that transform disagreements into experiences of personal expansion.

We help the students discover how they can achieve what all human beings everywhere desire most deeply: increasing happiness, and freedom from suffering, by becoming aware of the actions and attitudes that lead to lasting happiness and inner freedom for themselves and others.

The ability to understand others opens portals for insights into ourselves. Our students discover the rich rewards of learning calmly, without judgment, from their own successes and missteps, and those of others. Through their daily interactions, they learn these lessons up close and in three dimensions, with lasting positive effects for their character formation and for developing a strong sense of values. As their understanding grows, they gain a deepening ability to empathize and feel compassion for others — and themselves.

Lessons in Understanding People foster the following positive qualities:

The ability to understand the underlying impulses and motivations behind the actions of others

The ability to recognize similarities between others’ motivations and their own

The ability to translate other people’s experiences into wise insights to guide their own lives

The ability to enjoy positive interactions, by drawing on their understanding of behaviors that create harmony, cooperation, and happiness for all

Growth in this area is evidenced by the skill with which the students interact harmoniously, and the choices they make. We can also monitor growth in this area through the insights they express in their discussions and schoolwork.

Subjects that foster growth in Understanding People:

The study of other cultures and their customs and beliefs Geography
History World religions
Psychology Travel
The study of the lives of great people  

5. Cooperation

We teach our students practical skills for cooperating with others. They learn from their own experiences that cooperation is an enjoyable and productive way to work.

The ability to cooperate will come more easily to some students than others, but the environment and culture at LWHS ensure that every student will experience the joys of working and playing in an atmosphere of self-expansion, harmony, and inclusiveness.

The students are given endless opportunities to practice cooperative attitudes and gain skills that will be invaluable in all areas of their lives — in their career, relationships, and in raising their own children.

Our instruction is practical. We are focused on understanding the needs of the individual student and adapting our instruction accordingly. The teachers give extremely careful attention to observing the student’s nature and tendencies, and to helping them rise to their own best level of academic and personal performance.

The roles we may be called upon to play in our lives as students, employees, partners, and parents will inevitably involve other people. Where harmonious relationships lead to greater happiness in every area, a lack of harmony is bound to erode our happiness and success. Refined cooperative skills will make our interactions with others far more satisfying and successful.

Lessons in Cooperation foster the following positive qualities:

The ability to be flexible and not overly attached to our own opinions and desires

A genuine caring for the well-being of others

An ability to compromise gracefully without compromising our principles

An ability to learn from others

Flexibility in our thinking

We will be able to observe the student’s growth in this area in the harmony and effectiveness of their interactions with others.

Subjects that foster growth in Cooperation:

The study of human cooperation in the contexts of history, science, literature, economics, the arts, business, etc. Supportive leadership
Listening skills Etiquette
World language and culture  

6. Wholeness

We achieve an inner sense of wholeness when we can bring our five Tools of Maturity into a harmonious balance of body, heart, will, mind, and soul.

This area of study focuses on how the separate curriculum areas blend and overlap each other, and how each enhances the others. For the individual student, Wholeness reflects how their experience of Education for Life has helped them become a well-integrated, mature young person.

Lessons in Wholeness foster these positive qualities:

When we’re facing challenges, Wholeness helps us draw on a diverse range of personal qualities and identify external resources to solve the issues at hand.

Wholeness increases a child’s ability to face each situation by looking at it from a variety of perspectives and discerning which is/are the most appropriate to the present circumstance.

Wholeness is reflected in our ability to look past the small, separate details of a situation or a person and see the big picture.

We can monitor children’s growth in this area by observing their actions and their results. When interacting with others, or when facing challenges, are they able to respond in ways that bring about positive change? Do they habitually apply the skills most appropriate for the people and situations before them? Do they demonstrate a commitment to living by their highest ideals?

Subjects that foster growth in Wholeness:

The following academic subjects influence the students in ways that cross domains. They will frequently expand the student’s awareness by helping them be more energetic, creative, insightful, sensitively aware, and happy.

Music Meditation and other centering practices
Art Literature
Philosophy Religion
Nature studies  


Ch. 26: Can the Arts Help Children Excel Academically?

A Professional Musician Shares His Views

When David Eby isn’t teaching music to children at the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon, he’s a professional cellist with The Bodhi Trio, the Oregon Symphony, and the Portland Cello Project.

David also teaches cello at Lewis and Clark College. He leads the Advanced Strings at Oregon Episcopal School, and he’s a Teaching Artist for the BRAVO Youth Orchestra, an El Sistema program that brings classical music training to disadvantaged youth. David lives in south Portland with his wife Madhavi, their daughter Caitlin, and their Manx cat, Maggie.

(Visit, where David shares his insights on meditation for musicians and the spiritual healing power of music for our lives.)

David has taught in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than sixteen years — initially for two years in Portland, then twelve years at the original Living Wisdom School at Ananda Village near Nevada City, California, and now again in Portland.

Q: David, let’s have an informal conversation about the role the arts can play in helping kids be happy and successful in school and in their lives. Have you given much thought to the role of the arts in children’s development, particularly during the “Feeling Years” from 6 to 12?

David: My daughter Caitlin is in sixth grade now, and she’s performing with the Pacific Youth Choir in Portland. They sang Mahler’s Third Symphony recently with the Oregon Symphony, and it was a spectacular, high-powered event — Mahler can be pretty heavy, but she was moved to tears by the beauty of it.

Caitlin gets a great deal of joy from music, theater, and writing, and she’s very passionate about it. She grew up in the Living Wisdom Schools and now attends the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy in Portland. I’ve taken her to choir practice since she was a tiny tot, so she knows our entire repertoire inside and out. (laughs)

In my own life, the arts have been a foundational theme. When I first picked up the cello at age six, I immediately knew with a solid intuition, “This is my instrument!” Music was a constant throughout my childhood, and playing cello and singing gifted me with many incredible experiences.

It was during those wonderful years from six to twelve that my heart was most open and that I was able to experience something greater than myself through music, call it a higher inspiration, God, or my own highest potential. I believe the name doesn’t matter so long as we recognize the amazing things music can do for us.

There are two aspects to music. There is, of course, the purely physical, sonic experience. And then there’s the interior, subjective response. The sonic experience is what the sound waves are doing to our bodies.

Many studies have shown that music, especially playing a musical instrument, builds important connections between the two hemispheres of a child’s brain, and that when the child is having a musical experience many areas of the brain become engaged.

Music touches a number of brain areas simultaneously. When we’re performing, the whole brain lights up in a striking way that we can see on scans. Those effects happen also when we’re passively listening to music, but to a lesser degree, and even when we’re just thinking of music that inspires us.

So there are those purely physical effects, but there are also other, “energetic” impacts. By energetic, I mean effects of sound that can touch us in deeper ways. They are what moves us to say “Wow! Oh my, that piece really moved me!” Or “That music struck a chord with me — I really resonated with it.”

It’s something I think we can safely say lies beyond our ability to perceive intellectually, and beyond the simple effects of sound waves on our body and brain. There’s something deeper than the physical beats and sound waves that music can awaken in us.

Unfortunately, a great deal of popular music today is nothing more than computer-generated sounds, beats, rhythms, and special effects that are designed to impact our brains as sensual “ear candy.” And while it can get our energy moving and excite our emotions, when it’s over it just dumps us back out on the curb again.

I’m deeply intrigued by a kind of music that does the exact opposite — a music that bypasses the mind and draws us inside to touch on something larger than the little ego, and that we instinctively recognize as a very real higher part of ourselves.

Q: Are there levels of uplifting music? For example, music that can raise our mood, and other music that can take us to higher places?

David: I’m convinced it’s true. I once coached at a music camp where an amateur quartet played a Schubert piece. It was lovely — Schubert wrote some incredibly inspiring pieces, and some of the Schubert songs have a powerful ability to cheer us and make us smile and feel that life is good. But I believe there are even higher levels. Brahms said that when he composed music he would come in contact with a divine presence that was “superconscious” — he used that word — and that it was from that level that he received his inspiration.

I’ve found that music is a kind of road map for my life, like a source code that can capture inspiration and the wonderful consciousness that great composers can enter and bring down into their works.

We’re given these dots on a page, and when we perform them there’s a light that goes on at some point on the scale of inspiration. Then you can play the notes, and if you can carefully tune into the present moment and be completely focused and receptive, you can bathe in a ray of that great light. You can become immersed in the same inspiration that the composer experienced. And if they received it from a high place — for example, a Handel clearly did when he composed the Messiah — you can feel it touching your soul.

It’s like a drug that’s concocted from a very effective prescription for bringing your consciousness into a happier place. It starts with the realm of pure ideas — the dots on the paper — and then you use your energy to create a sonic vibration that moves those ideas into a place deep within us.

For me, it’s like nature — it’s one of those rare precious things in our lives that can awaken a remembrance of a beauty buried deep in us all, and an understanding of where our truest fulfillment comes from.

Our greatest fulfillments never come from anything material. When you hear music, can you put your finger on it? Can you capture it? It’s played, and then it goes away. It’s completely immaterial, yet it’s one of the greatest gifts God has given us, because it can take us into a kingdom inside where our universal birthright of happiness is already perfectly present and eagerly waiting to fill us.

Q: While you were growing up, and in your career as a musician, was there a point where you felt there was a ceiling on the inspiration of the kind of music you were playing?

David: (laughs) First of all, when I was in the Feeling Years from six to twelve I was a complete music snob! My teacher had to pull me aside and say, “David, I’m afraid I have to give you an unsatisfactory grade, because your attitude has been really, really bad in music class.” I wasn’t quite present enough at that age to be able to snap out a sassy reply — “Yeah, well — this music is horrible!” (laughs)

But it was. It was totally, totally uninspiring! At the same time, I was deeply moved by the folk songs of the 1970s, especially the tunes from Godspell and others. My Dad is a Presbyterian pastor, so I grew up with an awareness of the inspiration of Spirit, and I had many experiences that reassured me: “As long as I have music, everything will be okay.”

I had some amazing inspired experiences that carried me through high school. But then, toward the end of college, after a great deal of formal training, I woke up one day in a kind of panic, wondering, “My gosh, what have I done with my life?”

I thought, “I’ll end up playing in an orchestra surrounded by miserable, cynical, jaded musicians, of whom there many, and uninspired conductors, and an audience that’s dwindling, and music that, for the most part, isn’t inspiring at all.”

There’s lots of inspired music, but orchestras often have to program “new music” to win the grants that support the inspiring stuff, and it’s very unfortunate that in our contemporary music we have a great deal to learn about inspiration. Today it seems that the more atonal and outrageous it is, the better the music is regarded. It certainly can be powerful, but not always in a good way. Uplifting? Hmm, I don’t think so.

So I put my career on hold in my late twenties, and I went off in search of the lost inspiration — and, interestingly enough, I eventually found it.

At first I was looking for a way to serve society through music, because I felt it would at least be heart-opening and fulfilling. So I joined a troupe of storytelling musicians who were performing for children in the Feeling Years from six to twelve. We took popular stories and set them to music, and we would act out the characters while we played, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

I remember playing the Mayor of Hamlin for a season — I would strap the cello to my body and we would play and sing and enact the story, and for a long time I felt inspired, because it was serving the needs of young children who desperately needed upliftment through the arts.

But then after a time I began to feel that it was too much “art for art’s sake,” with no true higher purpose, so I began working with the Suzuki Method, which is founded on a beautiful concept of nurturing children who may never become professional musicians, but who will be human beings with beautiful hearts. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I wanted something more.

I wanted to be surrounded by people who weren’t only practicing good teachings, but who were looking for Truth writ large, because I knew that there was a level of music that could truly touch my soul, and it was the kind of music I was longing to explore and perform. And that was when, thank heaven, I became a music teacher at Living Wisdom School in Portland.

I had quit professional music at that point, and I dove headfirst into teaching those kids in the Feeling Years, and it was the hardest job I’ve had, because it took tremendous energy to manage the kids and connect with them.

I had a class of all girls and one very shy boy who was overwhelmed and wasn’t able to put out much energy, so for the first two years I had the typical, terribly difficult, soul-searing experience of being a novice teacher.

Then we moved to Ananda Village, where I taught music at the original Living Wisdom School for twelve years, and it was a very, very successful, incredibly fulfilling experience.

Q: Here in Palo Alto, the directors and teachers at the Living Wisdom School often have trouble persuading parents that engaging kids in the performing arts has a profoundly positive effect on their academic performance because there’s a strong component of feeling in the learning experience, and it needs to be cultivated as a cornerstone of the academic curriculum.

One of the students is an extremely gifted young classical pianist. He just finished third grade, and you can see that he’s totally focused and engaged when he’s performing, and that it carries over to his studies and his interactions with the other children and the teachers.

In your teaching, have you noticed that young children’s lives are improved by the time they spend with the arts?

David: Without the slightest question! One of my first students in Portland was Keshava Betts, who’s in his late twenties and plays cello very inspiringly.

Keshava realized as a very young child that whenever he was feeling low, he could pick up the cello and play and he’d feel better – and that’s a huge gift. Being able to access such a powerful tool to raise our consciousness is one of the most priceless skills we can learn.

One night many years ago, I came out of a terrible opera rehearsal, and as I drove through the rain I felt utterly drenched by the misery of it all. And decided I might as well practice singing a solo that I was scheduled to perform, from an oratorio called “Christ Lives.” It was just a way to pass the time on a miserable drive, and I wasn’t expecting any great change in my consciousness. But then — whammo! — I felt such a tremendous current of joy that I actually had to pull over to the side of the road to avoid being dangerously distracted. I thought, “What in the world just happened?! I don’t understand this. How did this happen?” (laughs)

The song was very simple — it stayed within the octave and wasn’t sophisticated at all, yet it left me wondering, “How did this move me so powerfully? How was it able to change me in an instant?”

It helped me understand that music can hold a vibration of consciousness, and that when we wander into an inspired piece of music, it suddenly feels as if we’ve walked into a beautiful temple. When we walk into a holy place we feel uplifted, and when we walk into a holy song the same inner change occurs.

It’s why I feel it’s such an profound responsibility to provide uplifting music for children. At the school in Portland now, I am constantly witnessing how, whenever the children walk into these pieces, it changes them. I feel it’s very important to provide those opportunities for them to explore the higher places in themselves.

It’s not something you can drive into them. “Now I want you to feel!” (laughs) You can’t force it, and the same with adults, there are adults who love listening to the music, but maybe they have a hard time tuning into the inner experience, and it’s a joy to help them find that happiness.

I’m working with a music education program called El Sistema that was started in Venezuela in 1975 by an educator, musician, and activist, José Antonio Abreu. It brought intense classical music training to the slums, the barrios, and it transformed the society, to the point where 80 percent of the doctors and lawyers and educators came up through this system as children. And that’s an amazingly statistic!

We’re working with children in an impoverished area in north Portland, and it’s hard to measure the changes in just the last three years, but we’ve seen an incredibly positive development of personal skills, confidence, and social maturity.

Q: These inner changes are starting to be documented by science. It’s been shown, for example, that in the presence of expansive feelings of love, kindness, and compassion the heart’s rhythms become extremely harmonious, and those harmonious vibrations have powerful effects on the body and brain. They’ve found that in school districts where they’ve taught heart-harmonizing methods, including methods that use music, the children’s grades improve.

David: A wonderful thing about music is that it brings the children into an uplifted, happy place in themselves, without having to nag them into changing. (laughs) They don’t need a teacher or parent yelling at them, “Change your energy!” And the kid is going, “I don’t know how!” But if you get them performing uplifting music, it puts them in the right cycle effortlessly.

It’s been great fun to have the children perform only very high kinds of music for a period. I was amazed by how the kids never tired of it, and if they wanted to learn new songs, we were fortunate to have hundreds of pieces to choose from.

Through music young children are able to tap into a higher awareness that will stay with them, without having to struggle to quiet the mind. We would sing positive, uplifting songs that they loved — like “Mañana, Friends,” or “A New Tomorrow” or “If You’re Seeking Freedom,” and it was amazing to see how their mood would change.

Ch. 25: Rose Atwell: LWS and LWHS Alumna, Teacher, Actor, Chef

A conversation with a Living Wisdom TK-8 School teacher and alum.

Q: What was it like to be part of the first graduating class of the original Living Wisdom School High School in 2001?

Rose: One of the beautiful things I especially remember from my years at LWS and LWHS is the Service Adventures.

Our school motto was “Service, Adventure, Self-Discovery.” Once a week, we would serve at a women’s shelter or a home that took care of the elderly, or a school for kids with special needs. Reaching out and serving was a highlight of the week for us, because it made our lives so much more meaningful, and it gave us a sense that we could play a helpful role in the wider community, even as young people.

For me, the particular strength of the program was that it allowed us to have adventures and explorations as very young students, along with a very strong academic program, side by side.

Our first year, we traveled across Mexico in a bus, and it was a huge adventure. I remember how we got stranded in the desert temporarily when a flash flood blocked the road, and how we got stranded in the mountains in the snow. It was a super adventure, and I remember totally loving every moment of it. These were high school trips, but I have equally fond memories going back all the way through the earlier grades at LWS.

When it came to academics, my experiences were equally fantastic, because you had so much one-on-one attention that you really couldn’t slip behind. You were working so closely with your teachers every day, and whatever needed to be addressed would always be dealt with right away.

Even when we were travelling, it didn’t interfere with academics. I remember taking a final exam in algebra on the flight home from Italy. So it really didn’t matter where we were, because we could have these amazing adventures and get really good grades and go to college, and even if it didn’t look a certain way, with a box around it like a traditional high school, it was wonderful.

Rose is an enthusiastic gourmet vegetarian cook.
Here, she leads a weekend workshop.

After graduation I ended up at UC Santa Cruz, where I had a great university experience and received a wonderful education, so there wasn’t a conflict between the way we were learning at LWS and the way I approached my studies at a top-flight university.

The teachers at LWS challenged each of us to go at our own best pace with the curriculum, and we had wonderful specialty teachers. That was a beautiful thing about the school, that people from the surrounding community who had gone deep in their fields were ready to share their wisdom and experience with us.

At LWHS we were part of a large community of really smart adults We had a plethora of highly educated, well-rounded specialty teachers who were enthusiastic about giving us deep information on a variety of subjects outside of what we were learning from our core teachers.

Traveling at a young age was a tremendously important experience for us, because it helped us develop compassion and a strong sense of wanting to be useful in the world, and the confidence that we could truly help.

Here in Silicon Valley, we have one of the best living standards on the planet, and to learn to see other realities and understand the bigger picture was invaluable — to be able to travel and experience other cultures, and share in the happiness that comes from serving.

Q: You were accepted by UCSC which has high admissions standards — how did that come about?

Rose: The story began in my junior year, when our teacher and school principal, Nitai Deranja, took the whole school to Italy for six months. Of course, it was awesome! (laughs)  Then I enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College, because I had adult friends in the area that I could live with.

After a year of junior college, I was accepted at Dominican University in San Rafael. I thought that Dominican might be a great place, because it was a small school with a beautiful campus, and I felt it might be compatible with my spiritual life; also, they had a condensed four-year program for teachers. But the school wasn’t what I expected. It had a much narrower belief system than I was used to, so I left and returned to Santa Rosa JC, which is one of the top junior colleges in the country, and I believe I got a better education there than anywhere else. The school is well-endowed, thanks to the legacy of Luther Burbank, the great botanist who lived in Santa Rosa in first half of the 1900s, and I felt that it had a special blessing, a Burbank blessing, and I had a fantastic experience there. Then, after two years, I applied to a number of UC schools, and I chose Santa Cruz.

Q: Who wouldn’t?

Rose: (laughs) Yes, it’s beautiful. But, honestly, Italy was the most amazing experience of all. The six months I studied there were one of the most incredible blessings of my life. I was able to go to a school where all the things I loved and that were most dear to me, and most filled with growth for me, were combined in a single place where my personality, my heart, and my soul were deeply nourished.

Q: Where did you live in Italy?

Rose: In Assisi, at the Ananda Europa community. I did some work trade hours, serving in the kitchen and learning lots of practical skills. I’m a part-time cook now, and for several years I managed a group kitchen and taught cooking workshops, because it’s something I love and that I discovered working in the large retreat kitchen in Italy.

I’m also a singer, and we had an amazing experience in Italy, touring all over Italy with a choir and singing to large crowds in huge cathedrals. At one point, all of the other sopranos got sick. The director had heard me sing solos from the oratorio that we were performing, so about an hour before the performance the other choir members were saying, “Rose can sing that solo!” So I sang my first solo at a big Italian church that was filled with people, and there was a huge blessing in it.

My schooling with LWHS, and most particularly during the Service Adventures was absolutely wonderful. I took tests in buses and taxis as we traveled from place to place (laughs), but the focus of the school included many aspects that were profoundly meaningful and growth-filled for me.

It was such a different educational experience, and I absolutely loved it. I fondly remember traveling all over Italy while we were learning at the same time. I took three hours of Italian every morning, and I ended up learning Italian very functionally. I totally loved the Italian culture, which is very beautiful to me.

Q: Was it a major adjustment to go from a small private high school and a rural junior college to a major, formal university like UCSC?

Rose: Actually, the transition from high school to junior college was the major adjustment — not academically, but because I was very interested in yoga, and I wanted to deepen my spiritual life. My spiritual life was very important to me, and it was very deep, but then I had a session with a Vedic astrologer who said, “You’re going to be out in the world for a time.” I remember protesting, “Oh, no!” But he said, “You’ll be fine. This is important. You have to balance your interests and get some experience in this way.”

It was hard, because I’d been totally immersed in a spiritually uplifting environment, and now, here I was, out in the world where I couldn’t relate to anyone my age. Then, at Dominican University, I finally decided, “No way!” and I came back and adjusted to what was best for me to do.

Entering UCSC was another big adjustment. It was a challenge. I knew that it was something I had to do, but it felt like I had my feet planted in two boats, and for a while it was very hard to hold a deep yoga practice in that environment, so I was very conflicted.

Q: What were you studying?

Rose: I had originally planned to study liberal arts and literature and get into teaching, but I ended up taking so many theater classes at the junior college and loving them so much that I ended up majoring in theater. Theater is a form of community, when it’s done properly, and I loved that aspect.

I enjoyed my junior college theater program more than anything else. At Santa Cruz, there was a clique of students in the theater department who wanted to get ahead, and I wasn’t attracted by that. I was taking theater to get a teaching credential and because I loved it.

The junior college drama department was very different. It was built around community theater, so there were people in their sixties acting alongside us, just because they loved theater. Then you had the first-year college students, and a few people who were deeply serious about theater as a career, but we were all part of a family, and I enjoyed that aspect very much. I wasn’t concerned about getting accepted by Juilliard, as some of the others were, because theater for me was about self-expansion and fun.

Q: What are you doing now?

Rose: I’m a teacher. I teach music, theater, and PE at the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, and I teach cooking and yoga and meditation to adults. These are all things I love to do.

Q: Do you feel that your life has come full circle?

Rose: In a way. I’m eager to build on what I’ve learned, and to assimilate new ways of sharing and learning, and to keep growing. I could probably go deeper in the arts, but I would also love to incorporate nature and sustainability more in my teaching, and explore how we can care for our planet and learn to grow our own food. That feels very important to me.

All in all, I would give Living Wisdom my highest personal recommendation to parents and who are looking for a great school where their kids will absolutely grow, academically and personally. So here’s my personal shout-out: “I recommend Living Wisdom School!”