Presenting mindfulness in a secular society

Recently, on the online forum MIEN (Mindfulness in Education), there was a very interesting discussion about how to present mindfulness in an appropriate manner in secular classrooms. One of the suggestions was to simply offer it as attention training, and leave aside the frequent references to “compassion” and “loving-kindness meditation,” and ultimately to leave aside anything that incorporates “social-emotional learning.”

It struck me first that, this attempt to separate cognition and affect conflicts with the almost unanimous view in contemporary neuroscience that thought is always accompanied by emotion and vice versa. Second, it led me to think that substituting contemporary terms for various psychological/brain functions might resolve the issue.

To that end, I put together this brief overview:


We can take this question about mindfulness and compassion entirely out of the sphere of religion, without using the words “mindfulness” and

Over the past 25 years, cognitive, affective and volitional neuroscience, in harmony with findings in integrative clinical practice, have found that the development of the prefrontal cortex is the single most important foundation for the unfolding of the cognitive, affective and volitional
abilities required for good education and good mental health.

To use a simplified version of Dr. Daniel Siegel’s description of these abilities, the prefrontal cortex (or “PFC” for short) has 4 main functions;

*1. Self awareness*

*2. Self regulation*

*3. Response flexibility (including cognitive, affective and behavioral flexibility) *

*4. Empathy and compassion*

To elaborate briefly:


This includes awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and the ways in which they cohere as one’s personality, and the way in which they function in interpersonal relationships and acting in the world in general. Attention is perhaps the single most important way to develop
self-awareness, and in fact, the development of stable focused attention along with open peripheral awareness (functions respectively of the left
and right hemisphere) has been shown in the course of more than four decades of research to have profound positive effects in all areas of
education as well as all areas of mental and physical health.


At a certain point of development, trained attention spontaneously leads to greater regulation of behavior – both “internal” behavior such as thoughts, feelings, moods, etc and “external” behavior – in terms of positive, caring relationships. This in turn leads to improvements throughout all areas of education and mental health.


This function is articular gift of the right hemisphere (as elaborated by Iain McGilchrist in “The Master and His Emissary” and John Yates in his
book “The Mind Illuminated) . Deepening of self-awareness and improvement in self regulation naturally results in a much greater capacity to spontaneously respond appropriately to the needs to any situation. It leads to creativity and insight in science and the arts, in sports, in social interaction, and ultimately, in all fields of human endeavor.


With greater (cognitive, affective, motivational, behavioral and interpersonal) development of these prior three functions of the PFC,
empathy and compassion naturally and spontaneously develop.


So given that this is how the brain works, what should we actually do – in both the world of secular education and secular mental health – to develop the PFC?

The development of the PFC (which fosters greater attention, self awareness, self regulation, response flexibility, empathy and compassion)
can be done in literally infinite ways (and it is perfectly possible to teach people how to develop the PFC *and* develop the skills associated
with “mindfulness” without ever using the word “mindfulness” or even using *any* “technique&quo t; associated with the mindfulness tradition).

You can use methods designed to foster greater attention, you can use methods to improve self-awareness, or improve response flexibility, or self
regulation or improve empathy and compassion.

Because the brain – and body – are so exquisitely interconnected, anything you do to develop one function AUTOMATICALLY develops the other: promote response flexibility, you will increase self-awareness. Promote self-regulation, you will increase empathy and compassion; promote empathy, and you improve self-awareness.

And, more to the point you raise, anything that limits one function, inhibits the development of the other. Without self-self-regulatio n
(traditionally known as ethics – at least, the external aspect of ethics) it is almost impossible to develop self-awareness, and empathy and compassion will be severely compromised. With limited capacities for empathy and compassion, behavior is likely to become very rigid and
inflexible, self-awareness will decrease (and will likely be highly distorted), and self-regulation will deteriorate.

So, if it is correct to say that this is an accurate description of how the brain works, then it is virtually impossible to provide (successful)
attention training without spontaneously improving self awareness, self regulation, response flexibility, empathy and compassion.

If you develop educational and therapeutic methods – in addition to attention training of some kind – for the *explicit *development of these four functions of the PFC, then clearly, the result will lead to further all-around improvement in the PFC, and just as clearly, will not be in
conflict with anybody’s values, since you are just developing the brain as it functions most efficiently and effectively (at least, functions most effectively according to the latest neuroscientific understandings)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

What it really is

He strokes my hair with sunlight
and lays his palm before each step,
so I may tread.

When he whispers in my ear,
the ocean dance begins,
flowing waves of abundance.

My heart is swelling
from the pain of fullness
and his smell in the air.

There is much to say,
but tonight I am drunk
on the closeness of his face.

A word on this love:
every word I write will betray what it really is.

This poetry comes not from words,
only union.

Posted in IPI, Poem, Psychology | 5 Comments

About oceans

It’s settled, its official,
the ocean resides in my heart.

My heart is its birthplace
and it is the home of my heart.

They’re married together by an inseparable knot.

Whether this makes sense,
when it got to this,
how I reached here,
I have no idea.

Because not many years have passed
since it all began.

But it’s not about time,
it’s about oceans.

Posted in IPI, Poem | Leave a comment

Yoga Psychology in the Schools

Yoga Psychology In The Schools:
Some Insights from the Indian Tradition

By Don Salmon, PhD


I am presently co-authoring, with Jan Maslow, a book entitled Through the Eyes of Infinity. In the book we will examine and integrate the theories and findings of psychology and other scientific disciplines within a larger yogic perspective. As an integrative framework we present an overview of Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo’s psychological thought – which we refer to in the book as “yoga psychology”. In the closing chapters, we describe practical applications of yoga psychology for the development of a new science of consciousness, a new psychotherapy, a new education, and for overall social change. In this essay, I will present some general ideas for reshaping education according to this perspective.

Overview: Introducing Yoga Psychology into the Schools

Everyone seems to be concerned about the escalating problems our children are encountering in their schools, as well as the nature of the educational system in general. The now familiar litany of difficulties ranges from violence in the classroom to attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities, to an increasing diversity in the cultures and languages of students, to the tension between cultivating well-educated citizens versus turning out well-trained technicians and consumers, to the increase in childhood illness and obesity. Collectively, these point to a pressing need for radical new thinking in the field of education.

One could easily enumerate a wish list of needed additions to the current curriculum: new teaching methods; health education; conflict resolution, wider availability of counseling; remedial learning programs. However, without a larger vision based upon an integrative understanding of human nature and development, such valuable additions may lack the coherence needed to make them effective. It is in this regard that the potential contribution of yoga psychology deserves attention. By “yoga psychology” I am referring to the vast body of psychological knowledge which is part of the Indian yogic tradition, as well as the popular postures and breathing exercises more commonly associated with the term “yoga”. The ideas in this paper for the application of yoga psychology to education are based largely on what Sri Aurobindo and his colleague Mirra Richard have written on the subject.
Before considering the possible contribution of yoga psychology, it will be helpful to correct some potential misconceptions. “Yoga” does not refer to a particular religion or sect – it is neither “Hindu” nor “Buddhist”. Rather, as used here, it refers to a profound understanding of the workings of mind and body – one that is fully compatible with the findings and theories of contemporary science. It is a body of knowledge that is “empirical” in the best sense of the word. Yogic practices were developed over thousands of years of careful experimentation, with testing and validation of results amongst a large group of expert practitioners. In addition, scientists have conducted hundreds of studies over the past 70 years, finding a wide variety of physical and psychological benefits associated with meditation and meditation-related practices.1 Among the physical findings have been: lowered blood pressure, improved immune functioning, lowered cholesterol, reduced overall muscle tension, pain relief, cure of insomnia, and reduced symptoms for asthma and arthritis. Among the psychological findings are: improvement in perceptual abilities and reaction time, improvement in short and long-term memory, increased creativity, reduction in the symptoms of phobias, anxiety, panic disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and lowered addiction rates.

In the United States, yogic practices have already been incorporated as a natural adjunct to some educational philosophies. Both Waldorf and Montessori schools – among the most progressive primary level schools – make use of a number of practices drawn from the yogic tradition. In Montessori classrooms, children as young as three years old report great enjoyment of their five minutes of “silent sitting” at the beginning of each day. Waldorf teachers use the principles of meditation and concentration in a wide variety of contexts. In the study of botany, for example, they incorporate sensory and perceptual training; in math classes they use imagery; and to help cultivate a richer understanding of different periods of history, they include exercises in meditative empathy. Yoga psychology has even found its way into the public schools, where counselors are using relaxation and meditation practices to help children with learning disabilities as well as those with social and psychological difficulties. Some classroom teachers have successfully experimented with using simple imagery and concentration exercises to enhance students’ willingness and capacity to pay attention and absorb information.

Principles of Learning from the Yogic Perspective

One way to think of yogic practices is to consider them as various forms of attentional training. As contemporary psychologists have discovered, careful training of one’s capacity for concentration and attention is one of the essential elements for the development of both physical and psychological capacities. As far back as the late 1800’s, William James, the father of American experimental psychology, had the following to say on the subject:
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and the will… An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.2

This comment is interesting for several reasons. James linked attention not only to intellectual education, but to the training of character as well – an increasingly vital concern of many contemporary educators. His last comment – that educators have yet to develop “practical directions” for this essential training – highlights the potential contribution of the yogic tradition which has a wealth of such methods to offer. James had much appreciation for the value of this tradition. In 1904, his friend, Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist monk, attended one of his Harvard psychology classes. Upon seeing Dharmapala sitting amongst the students, James said to him, “Take my chair. You are better equipped to lecture on psychology than I.” Dharmapala went on to give several lectures at Harvard. Following one of these presentations, James remarked, “This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now.” Perhaps James was correct, if a bit premature.3
The role of attention in the learning process has been heralded by recent developments in cognitive science as well. Based on his research, cognitive psychologist Bernard Baars articulates what is unwittingly the fundamental principle of yogic learning: “Paying attention – becoming conscious of some material – seems to be the sovereign remedy for learning anything, applicable to many very different kinds of information. It is the universal solvent of the mind”.4

Cognitive scientists in general are coming to see that learning is a process which, for the most part, takes place spontaneously, with the help of guidance and direction from another. To quote Baars again, “learning is a “magical process… Consciousness [i.e., attention] is a gateway – something that creates access to a vast unconscious mind… [This] suggests that learning just requires us to ‘point’ our consciousness at some material we want to learn… and the detailed analysis and storage of the material will take place unconsciously. Given a conscious target, it seems as if learning occurs magically, without effort or guidance, carried out by some skilled squad of unconscious helpers.”

There is a striking resonance between these recent discoveries and what Sri Aurobindo described in 1910 as the basic guidelines for teaching:
The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught. The teacher is not an instructor or task-master, he is a helper and a guide. His business is to suggest and not to impose. He does not actually train the pupil’s mind, he only shows him how to perfect his instruments of knowledge and helps and encourages him in the process. He does not impart knowledge to him, he shows him how to acquire knowledge for himself. He does not call forth the knowledge that is within; he only shows him where it lies and how it can be habituated to rise to the surface… Child or man, boy or girl, there is only one sound principle of good teaching. Difference of age only serves to diminish or increase the amount of help and guidance necessary; it does not change its nature.5

Sri Aurobindo and his colleague Mirra Richard in addition to highlighting the spontaneity of the ideal learning process, also emphasized the need for whole community involvement as an essential support for that process. In traditional societies, the entire structure of life was woven together to provide an ongoing learning experience that would naturally and spontaneously equip the child with whatever skills were necessary to function within the community. This is the principle upon which the ancient Indian gurukula tradition was based: a strong community supporting the child’s learning, with a close relationship between teacher and student at the heart of the educational process.
Today’s society is so fragmented that such an organic style of learning is difficult to imagine. However, any significant rethinking of the educational process, would do well to take this into account. Larger community involvement could answer the need for an educational context capable of accommodating a diversity of developmental levels, personality styles and cultural propensities. This is not to be confused with the extreme fragmentation of an open classroom, as it is possible to develop a learning program that simultaneously provides a common curriculum and allows for individual differences within that curriculum.

The question of how to create a supportive context for learning is a large and complex one. A good place to start might be to envision what such an environment might look like. Imagine students from a very young age engaged in a wide variety of hands-on learning projects in addition to book learning. Imagine them creating various mini-institutions with their own governing bodies to address real needs and interests. They’re exploring the science, politics and economics of a particular era through multi-media projects that incorporate art forms ranging from traditional music, dance, theatre and story-telling to hi-tech computer animation and presentation technologies. They’re engaging in research that involves collaboration with various social and scientific laboratory settings.6 They’re learning morality and ethics through constant encounters with individuals – in person and through story and film – who exemplify the ideals of love, compassion, nobility, courage, and integrity.

Now imagine what it might be like if all these projects had as their foundation the cultivation of self-awareness beginning from the earliest age possible. Keeping this image in mind, I’d like to consider in the next section, various possibilities for a yogic approach to learning.
In the face of frightening levels of school violence, apathy, overcrowding and underfunding, there may be a tendency to dismiss these ideas as naïve. I’d like to suggest, however, setting aside all obstacles for the moment – daunting though they may be – to imagine what ideally could be possible, with the aim of perhaps catching a glimpse of some intermediate steps that might work even now.

Methods of Learning from a Yogic Perspective

Undeniably, what most impedes mental progress in children is the constant dispersion of their thoughts…. By his ingenuity, therefore, the educator will gradually help the child to become capable of a sustained effort of attention and a faculty of more and more complete absorption in the work in hand. All methods that can develop this faculty of attention… are good… but it is the psychological action that is most important and the sovereign method is to arouse in the child an interest in what you want to teach him, a liking for work, a will to progress. To love to learn is the most precious gift that one can give to a child: to love to learn always and everywhere, so that all circumstances, all happenings in life may be constantly renewed opportunities for learning more and always more. –Mirra Richard, The Science of Living7

One of the most successful means so far of introducing yogic practices into the schools has been through different kinds of concentration games, particularly those which incorporate imagery and relaxation. Montessori classrooms have a popular exercise called “walking the line,” in which children as young as three years old attempt to walk mindfully along a thin line painted on the floor. Some teachers have had success in helping learning disabled youngsters develop attentional skills by creatively engaging them in simple yoga postures as part of a story-telling activity. Spontaneous games in which children challenge each other to hold their breath could be channeled into teaching deep breathing exercises as a form of relaxation. All of these are simple ways of beginning to develop the capacity to focus attention. In addition, children might be encouraged to bring a heightened awareness to all their physical activities, thus integrating attention as an ongoing tool for physical and psychological development.

Building upon the capacity for sustained concentration, one can begin to acquaint the child with the workings of his mind. Current research indicates that for the most part, stand-alone courses in “thinking skills” show little or no transfer to other forms of learning. Sri Aurobindo, drawing on his own yogic experience, as well as teachings from the Indian tradition, offers an example of how one might use a simple activity of interest to the child to develop various functions of the mind in a way that is natural and organic:

We may take the instance of a flower. Instead of looking casually at it and getting a casual impression of scent, form and color, [the student] should be encouraged to know the flower – to fix in his mind the exact shade, the peculiar glow, the precise intensity of the scent, the beauty of curve and design in the form. His touch should assure itself of the texture and its peculiarities. Next the flower should be taken to pieces and its structure examined with the same carefulness of observation. All this should be done not as a task, but as an object of interest by skillfully arranged questions suited to the learner which will draw him on to observe and investigate one thing after the other until he has almost unconsciously mastered the whole.8
We may detect echoes of the learning process articulated by cognitive scientist Bernard Baars: a “magical process” which – given the right situation and context (here a gifted teacher capable of inspiring interest) – takes place “almost unconsciously”. The success of the process, Sri Aurobindo will emphasize time and again, depends upon it being suited to the needs and temperament of the individual child, a principle of learning with which most contemporary developmental and cognitive psychologists would agree.

In the course of what might initially appear to be a science lesson, Sri Aurobindo would have the teacher encourage the child to note ‘the beauty of curve and design in the form” of the flower. He thus uses an act of observation (i.e., focused attention) to cultivate the child’s capacity for sustained attention, and to train his intellect, and his emotional and aesthetic intelligence and sensory awareness as well. Without presenting him with a set of facts, the teacher introduces the child to an exercise in observation. By then engaging his natural curiosity and aesthetic sensitivities, the child discovers a host of facts for himself. In the process, he also develops and refines his intellectual and emotional capacities which, as William James noted, are critical elements in the development of character.

It becomes apparent that from this perspective learning is not a purely rational task of developing purely cognitive skills, much less is it principally about the acquisition of a large body of facts. But this approach needs to be clearly distinguished from the vagaries of some theories of progressive education which refrain altogether from any deliberate development of rational thinking or intentional mastery of factual information.

To continue with Sri Aurobindo’s example of the flower:

Memory and judgment are the next qualities that will be called upon, and they should be encouraged in the same unconscious way. The student should not be made to repeat the same lesson over again in order to remember it. That is a mechanical, burdensome and unintelligent way of training the memory. A similar but different flower should be put in the hands and he should be encouraged to note it with the same care, but with the avowed object of noting the similarities and differences. By this practice daily repeated the memory will naturally be trained…

The teacher should take every care to encourage the perfect growth of this…habit. At the same time, the laws of species and genus will begin to dawn on the mind and, by a skillful following and leading of the young developing mind, the scientific habit, the scientific attitude and the fundamental facts of scientific knowledge may in a very short time be made part of its permanent equipment. The observation and comparison of flowers, leaves, plants, trees will lay the foundations of botanical knowledge without loading the mind with names and that dry set acquisition of information which is the beginning of cramming and detested by the healthy human mind when it is fresh from nature and unspoiled by unnatural habits.9

It is interesting how much of what Sri Aurobindo wrote here, presages the most recent developments in the understanding of how memory functions. Contemporary scientists understand memory to be a complex and dynamic system of interlocking associations of ideas, developed through cultivating meaningful connections between the items to be remembered. The usual tactic of drill and rote repetition is now considered by psychologists to be the least effective method of memorization. Centuries ago, by means of meditative introspection, the Ashtavadhanis, memory experts of South India, arrived at a similar understanding of the way in which memory works, and were able to perform extraordinary feats of mental prowess, simultaneously carrying out up to a hundred complex mental tasks.10 Imagine what might be possible were our children to cultivate their memories in such a rich and integrated fashion – “memory bees” might replace spelling bees in school learning tournaments!

It also becomes clear that Sri Aurobindo is not here presenting a case against the learning of facts. Rather, by providing a natural, organic context for learning that appeals to the child’s native curiosity and fosters the use of the mind, facts are more easily and joyfully learned within the larger context of a rich and experiential understanding. This method offers a practical resolution to the long-standing conflict between fact-based learning and learning-by-doing.

In the same way by the observation of the stars astronomy, by the observation of earth, stones, etc., geology, by the observation of insects and animals, entomology and zoology may be founded. A little later chemistry may be started by interesting observation of experiments without any formal teaching or heaping on the mind of formulas and book-knowledge…There is no scientific subject the perfect and natural mastery of which cannot be prepared in early childhood by this training of the faculties to observe, compare, remember and judge various classes of objects. It can be done easily and attended with a supreme and absorbing interest in the mind of the student. Once the taste is created, the [student] can be trusted to follow it up with all the enthusiasm of youth in his leisure hours. This will prevent the necessity at a later age of teaching him everything in class.11
As Sri Aurobindo here indicates, this is an approach lending itself to a wide range of subject matter. Critical thinking expert Dr. Rachel Lauer was often fond of saying that it is possible to teach all subjects beginning from any single point. The common thread in each case is the yogic principle of direct experiential learning, trusting the mind’s magical capacity to learn in a natural and unforced manner, with careful concentrated attention as the fundamental “tool” for learning.

Parents and teachers are often puzzled by children who do poorly in school but manage to master an astonishing amount of information with near-expert understanding when they pursue, on their own, a subject that is of great interest to them. Paul Goodman, an educational reformer active in the 1950s and ’60s, went so far as to suggest that a 13-year-old of average intelligence, encouraged to explore his environment along lines similar to those suggested by Sri Aurobindo, could master the entire elementary school curriculum (the first 8 years of schooling) in one year. While one may question Goodman’s “one year” estimate, given the kind of basic yogic training in concentration and attention that Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Richard have described, children might well astonish us by demonstrating a learning capacity far beyond what we now believe is possible.

Education for Self-knowledge

So far, we have touched upon physical, emotional and intellectual aspects of learning. Might it be possible, in our present, secular society, to bring in the spiritual aspects of yoga psychology as well? Mirra Richard and Sri Aurobindo give us some clues as to how we might point a child toward a greater reality and deeper part of themselves without violating secular norms.

Both Richard and Sri Aurobindo, in line with all eastern spiritual traditions, have said that every child, if encouraged to look within, will find an aspiration to grow, to develop, to “become” someone, to realize his or her uniqueness. Richard speaks of this aspiration in terms of knowing one’s “highest ideal” and organizing everything in one’s life around it. To put this into practice, she suggests, in line with all yogic discipline, one begin by becoming fully conscious of the workings of one’s mind and body:

“The first step is to become conscious of yourself, of the different parts of your [mind] and their respective activities. You must learn to distinguish these different parts one from the other, so that you may find out clearly the origin of the movements that occur in you, the many impulses, reactions and conflicting wills that drive you to action. It is an assiduous study which demands much perseverance and sincerity. For man’s nature, [especially] his mental nature, has a spontaneous tendency to give a favorable explanation for whatever he thinks, feels, says and does. It is only by observing these movements with great care, by bringing them, as it were, before the tribunal of our highest ideal, with a sincere will to submit to its judgment, that we can hope to educate in us a discernment which does not err.12

She further suggests the exercise of taking time each evening to go over the activities of one’s day, seeing to what extent they were or were not in conformity with one’s highest ideal. Without involving any suppression or coercion of the mind, she suggests carefully observing what desires, fears and other motivations supported one’s actions, and through developed concentration to gently draw the energy of the mind away from those that are contrary to one’s highest ideal. Finally, one can visualize oneself carrying out the actions of the day in a way that is in harmony with that ideal.

Through experimenting with exercises such as this, children might begin to experience the value of self-knowledge. If presented in a non-dogmatic, non-sectarian atmosphere of open exploration, they might foster as well a feeling for the mystery of nature and the miracle of human consciousness. In order to leave the mystery intact, it would be important when presenting scientific knowledge to do so in a way that is neutral and agnostic. The common practice has been to couple the findings of science with the doctrine of materialism, which is directly at odds with the possibility of a non-material spiritual reality. One would need to conscientiously and explicitly acknowledge the inability of science – at least, as presently practiced – to account for the origin of its laws of nature, to determine the presence or absence of conscious intelligence throughout the universe, to identify the impetus behind the evolutionary process; or to explain how consciousness managed to emerge in an apparently unconscious universe.

Children at a very young age have a natural hunger for understanding why things are the way they are. This is not an intellectual interest but a basic, existential yearning for meaning. By developing attention, concentration and self-knowledge within a loving and supportive environment, the mystery of life can be celebrated, perhaps nurturing the seeds of a society in which love of truth and compassion for all becomes the basis of community life.
Earlier, I asked the reader to set aside skepticism about the possibility of immediate implementation of such reforms. However, the introduction of such an approach into our current educational system is not quite as far-fetched as it may have at first appeared. Beyond inroads already evident in the schools, there are yoga teachers both in the United States and in India who have reported great success in introducing yogic practices for the development of mind and body in prisons. Lower recidivism rates show a long-term effect of such programs. And these are not white-collar prisons; the inmates are seasoned criminals, many of whom have committed violent crimes. If attentional training based on yogic principles can work in prisons, is it so difficult to imagine they could work in our schools as well?

Recently, David Igleheart, a writer of childrens’ books, visited the Sri Atmananda Memorial School, a school in Austin, Texas based on principles remarkably similar to those described here.13 Igleheart describes one of the “classes” he witnessed:

One day the teachers took a group of six- and seven-year-olds on a walk to the creek on the far end of the school for a nature study. They had planned a variety of lessons, but when the children reached the edge of the creek, they saw a blue heron just as tall as they were on the opposite bank. The children watched the heron, the heron watched them, and then it spread its great wings and flew away. “Wow,” one child said. “How can that thing fly? It’s as big as us.” And, with what could only be called incipient scientific curiosity, all the children started talking about this remarkable fact. Fortunately the teachers recognized an unplanned opportunity. “We have a library with lots of books,” one of them said. “We could go there and find out.”
The children, and their much-exercised teachers, literally ran back to the library. The teachers found encyclopedias and picture books and read to them everything they could find about how birds fly. The children created replicas of lightweight wings and hollow bones and displayed their work so the parents could see. They made posters, which require fine motor skills, and stories and explanations requiring letters and vocabulary. A series of activities ensued that lasted throughout the school year. The children identified and studied all the birds that appeared on the campus, and then every animal, their habits, and the way they fit into ecological systems. Several years later, they are still building on these projects, to study everything else in the world.14

Igleheart observes how attentive questioning from caring and supportive teachers fosters the kind of concentrated observation recommended by Sri Aurobindo. In this example, a simple nature walk is the beginning of an ever-expanding learning experience. As impressive as he found this excursion, Ingleheart was even more amazed by the many anecdotes he heard “about children who didn’t want to leave at the end of the day, and who voted as a group to have a shorter break between semesters because they couldn’t stand to be away from school.” What impressed him most of all was the self-confidence of the children. When asked whether they might later have difficulties after going to such a unique and nurturing school, one answered, “Of course not. We know what we’ve learned. We know how to learn. And we’re confident.”

The Austin Texas school is modeled after the Sri Atmananda School in Malakkara, Kerala, a school which has won respect and awards both in India and worldwide. In his article, Igleheart notes that the heart of the educational program is based on the Indian gurukula tradition. The idea that human beings possess an innate aspiration for inner and outer growth is a core idea throughout Indian thought. This idea is not foreign to contemporary theories of human learning. A significant number of theorists, particularly within the humanistic tradition, have been inspired by this quintessentially Indian perspective.15
I hope I’ve managed to convey the idea that educational methods based on the yoga tradition are practical and can work when the proper institutional and cultural supports are in place. If enough people become inspired by the potential value of this approach for children and ultimately for the health of society, they may work toward allocation of the necessary resources to create the support for such methods.

The discovery that education must be a bringing out of the child’s own intellectual and moral capacities to their highest possible value and must be based on the psychology of the child-nature [is] a step forward towards a more healthy because a more subjective system; but it still [falls] short because it still [regards] him as an object to be handled and moulded by the teacher, to be educated. But at least there [is] a glimmering of the realisation that each human being is a self-developing soul and that the business of both parent and teacher is to enable and to help the child to educate himself, to develop his own intellectual, moral, aesthetic and practical capacities and to grow freely as an organic being, not to be kneaded and pressured into form like an inert plastic material. It is not yet realised what this soul is or that the true secret, whether with child or man, is to help him to find his deeper self, the real psychic entity within.

That, if we ever give it a chance to come forward, and still more if we call it into the foreground as “the leader of the march set in our front”, will itself take up most of the business of education out of our hands and develop the capacity of the psychological being towards a realisation of its potentialities of which our present mechanical view of life and man and external routine methods of dealing with them prevent us from having any experience or forming any conception. These new educational methods are on the straight way to this truer dealing. The closer touch attempted with the psychical entity behind the vital and physical mentality and an increasing reliance on its possibilities must lead to the ultimate discovery that man is inwardly a soul and a conscious power of the Divine and that the evocation of this real man within is the right object of education and indeed of all human life if it would find and live according to the hidden Truth and deepest law of its own being. That was the knowledge which the ancients sought to express through religious and social symbolism, and subjectivism is a road of return to the lost knowledge. First deepening man’s inner experience, restoring perhaps on an unprecedented scale insight and self-knowledge to the race, it must end by revolutionising his social and collective self-expression.16 –Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle


1. Murphy, Michael (1997). The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research with a Comprehensive Bibliography 1931-1996. Institute of Noetic Sciences: Sausalito, CA. I’m using the term “meditation-related” to refer to all forms of what could be considered to be attentional training, including imagery, biofeedback and hypnosis. The major difference between meditation, biofeedback and hypnosis is that meditation involves self guidance, whereas biofeedback and hypnosis require an external guide, in the form of the hypnotist or the biofeedback equipment. Though imagery is often presented by another (as in the practice of guided imagery) it can also be used by the individual (as in Jung’s active imagination or Tibetan Buddhist tantric exercises in mandalic visualization).
2. William James, cited in Wallace, Alan (2000). The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness, p. 98. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
3. William James, cited in Scott, David, (2000). ‘William James and Buddhism: American Pragmatism and the Orient’, Religion, XXX, p. 335. The extent to which James was inspired by Indian philosophy is not generally known. For example, almost all writers attribute the phrase “stream of consciousness to James. However, James, with full awareness of the source, simply translated the Pali phrase vinnana-sota, which literally means “consciousness-stream”, and refers to the Buddhist notion of the flowing impermanent nature of the contents of consciousness.
4. Baars, Bernard (1997). ‘In the Theatre of Consciousness: Global Workspace Theory, A Rigorous Scientific Theory of Consciousness’, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, IV, p. 304. Email:
5. Sri Aurobindo, (1976). Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Education, p. 20. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.
6. Who knows, by the time a truly integrated community of learning has developed, perhaps technicians will have developed 3D holographic technology which children could use to create virtual learning environments.
7. Richard, Mirra, (17). Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Education, p. 115. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.
8. Sri Aurobindo, (1976). Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Education, pp. 44-45. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.
9. Sri Aurobindo, (176). Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Education, p. 45-46. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondichery, India.
10. Wood, Ernest, (1936). Mind and Memory Training, pp. 128-129. The Theosophical Publishing House, Ltd. Madras, India. Here is an example of the abilities of the Ashtavadhanis – memory experts – of South India. These experts have through long training learned to simultaneously keep in mind dozens of mental tasks. Colonel H. S. Olcott describes an occasion in which a memory expert “simultaneously kept in mind and did the following eleven things and afterwards correctly repeated the whole:
1. Played a game of chess, without seeing the board;
2. carried on a conversation upon various subjects;
3. completed a Sanskrit verse from the first line given him;
4. multiplied five figures by a multiplier of four figures;
5. added a sum of three columns, each of eight rows of figures;
6. committed to memory a Sanskrit verse of sixteen words – the words begin given to him out of order, and at the option of the tester;
completed a ‘magic square’ in which the separate sums in the several squares added up to a total named, whether tried horizontally or vertically;
7. without seeing the chess-board directed the movement of a knight so that it should make the circuit of the board within the outline of a horse traced on it, and enter no other squares than those;
8. completed a second ‘magic square’ with a different number from that in the above named;
9. kept count of the strokes of a bell rung by a gentleman present;
10. committed to memory two sentences of Spanish, given on the same system as #6.
This account of Colonel Olcott was described by yoga scholar Ernest Wood, who himself witnessed a demonstration in which an audience composed of one hundred individuals each gave a memory expert a task to complete:
Several gave [the pandit] sentences composed of five words, each person using a different language – Gujarati, English, Sanskrit, Persian, Hindi, Mahratti, French and Latin – and the words were given out of order. One sitter gave moves in a game of chess. Two others gave figures to be multiplied and added together. Another carried on little conversations with the pandit on various topics. Another struck a little bell a number of times on each round. There were calculations of dates, completion of short poems and other items. After the hundred points had been made the pandit meditated for a little while, then answered questions related to the items, and finally repeated the whole.
11. Sri Aurobindo, (1976). Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Education, p. 46. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.
12. Richard, Mirra, (1976). Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Education, p. 89. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.
13. Igleheart, David, (2002). A Rmarkable Indian School Goes West.
14. Igleheart, David, (2002). A Remarkable Indian School Goes West.
15. For example, Carl Rogers, one of the foremost theorists of 20th century psychotherapy, reports that his theories regarding the inherent self-actualizing tendencies in human beings were inspired in part by his studies of Buddhist and Taoist texts. In an essay on the development of his thinking, Rogers says, “Leona Tyler… pointed out to me that my thinking and action seemed to be something of a bridge between Eastern and Wetsern thought. This was a surprising idea, but I find that in more recent years I have enjoyed some of the teachings of Buddhism, of Zen and especially the sayings of Lao-tse, the Chinese sage.” From “My Philosophy of Interpersonal relationships”, p. 41 in “A Way of Being”, by Carl Rogers, published in 1980 by Houghton Mifflin, Boston. See also his 1978 essay in the same volume, “The Foundations of a Person-Centered Approach”.
16. Sri Aurobindo, (1972). The Human Cycle, p. 32. Volume 25, The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, India.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Whose kite is the sun?

Whose kite is the sun?
Who fills the rosebud’s red?

Who drinks from the moon-jug
and spills out the ocean?

Who led my hands unchained,
to join the white-winged free bird,
laughing from above
at the prison in the playground?

Now they’re busy lighting fires
by a tent pitched in the stars
for the face inside my heart.

Who filled my pot with honey
and let me in tonight?
Who smiled with my lips?

Dervish-heart growing fuller,
with every silent drumbeat.

Posted in Poem, Psychology | 1 Comment

Integrating contemplative practices


The intention to open to the presence and action of God/The Dharmadatu/Allah/a well harmonized brain functioning intuitively beyond the small self (ie surrender of the small self to a greater functioning). As Krishna puts it at the end of the Gita, “Abandoning all Dharmas (practices, rules, guidelines) surrender to Me, and let Me do the rest.”


Mindfulness: Balancing narrow and wide focus attention (concentration, open awareness), zazen, tantra yoga practices of mindfulness and open, spacious awareness


Loving kindness, Compassion, Forgiveness, gratitude, reverence, prayer, tantra yoga practices of heartful awareness and surrender


Mindful CBT, science and non-duality, interspiritual meditation, creative visualization, sustainability

PREPARATION (using body and energy)

Breathing, relaxation, kundalini yoga, tantra yoga

KARMA YOGA: (bringing together the skills of surrender, mindful attention, heartful attention, reflective inquiry

1. Mindful and heartful attention in action: mindful eating, simple living, mindfulness at work, mindful leadership
2. Selfless service: Caregiving, Selfless service,
3. Art: Contemplative art, storytelling
4. Science: science and nonduality
5. Relationships: parenting, marriage, childbirth, coming of age
6. Healing: 12 step outreach, mindfulness in correctional institutions
7. Education: Mindfulness in schools
8. The body: aikido, tai chi, walking meditation
9. Nature: environmental mindfulness and mysticism,

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ocean of Light


Never could I have dreamt
of the Beauty
of floating in an
Ocean of Light
enveloping gently
all that I am

where it starts or ends
is not skin
or centre of sight
which lends itself
to the perception
but merely is
a contraption for
the centreless centre
the stuffless stuff

The One Light
that gives itself
to all
to see itself
and laugh

Posted in Poem | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Christmas Story

This story was read aloud on the US National Public Radio show, “This American Life.”


Well, it all began at Christmas two years ago when my daughter was four-years-old. And it was the first time that she had ever asked about what did this holiday mean. And so I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she want to know more about that, and we went out and bought a kid’s Bible and had these readings at night. She loved them– wanted to know everything about Jesus.

So we read a lot about his birth and about his teaching. And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And we would talk about those old words and what that all meant.

And then one day we were driving past a big church, and out front was an enormous crucifix. She said, who is that? And I guess I’d never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of, yeah, well, that’s Jesus, and I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.

It was about a month later after that Christmas. We’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. It was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools, so Martin Luther King Day was off. So I knocked off work that day and I decided we’d play, and I take her out to lunch. And we were sitting in there and right on the table where we happened to plop down was the art section of the local newspaper.

And there, big his life, was a huge drawing by like a 10-year-old kid from the local schools of Martin Luther King. And she said, who’s that? And I said, well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King, and he’s why you’re not in school today. So we’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life. And she said, so who was he? I said, well, he was a preacher. And she looks up at me and goes, for Jesus? And I said yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.

And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything so you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything. So I said, well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message. She said, what was his message? And I said, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like. She thought about that for a minute, and she said, well, that’s what Jesus said.

And I said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And she thought for a minute and looked at me and said, did they kill him, too?

Posted in Society | Leave a comment

The start of the disciple’s journey

For the longest time I had always imagined that the only reason one goes to a Guru is because one is unable to deal any longer with the blows Life has meted out to you. The blows can be various: a deep existential crisis, a broken relation, a persisting physical pain, an emotional imbalance, the death of a loved one, a sense of meaninglessness or a complete lack of direction. Life has no shortage of presenting us with difficulties. And yet, we all devise ways to learn to live alongside this pain till one fine day having spent all our strength trying to deal with it we give up. We are left with an aching empty space right inside of us and a deep sense of fatigue and resignation. It is this complete acceptance of defeat and failure that finally makes us humble enough to ask for help from a higher Source. And then at last we begin our journey to find Someone who can help us figure out the mess we have become. Apparently it is in this state of complete misery that one is ready to become a disciple.

But my study in the Guru Disciple Relationship (see my first blog) proved this assumption quite wrong. Before the interviews I was sure the most common answer to the question, “Why did you look for a Guru?” was going to be, “because I was in pain.” I was completely wrong.

During the interviews, one of the areas we spoke about was how did the journey of the disciples begin. And to me the answers to this query were the most unexpected and revealing. To begin with most of them did not go out to seek a Guru; according to them it was the Guru who found them. The common belief in the Indian tradtion says that when a disciple is ready then the right Guru comes along. And this is excatly what happened to most of them. Exploring further I realized what it meant for a disciple “to be ready.”

To give you an example, X was a person leading a normal, succesful life. Having studied in Oxford, he was doing the work he loved, earning well, did not have any major difficulties. One day a friend asked him to parcel a book to India. While packing it he glanced at the cover. The cover had a photo of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Just by looking at the photo something stirred deep inside him. There was an instant recollect and a reconnection that took place and before he knew it he had found his way to the Ramana Ashram in Tiruvanmalai. The next 40 years were spent in the Ashram, serving the Guru. In an instant the entire course of his life had changed. The right place, the right time and the right circumstances lead him straight into the loving presence of his Guru.

And this was the case with almost all of the disicples I spoke to. For many of them it was one chance meeting, or one powerful experience or a set of simple co-incidences that helped them start their journey.

But their “readiness” also included another, more hidden aspect. They all spoke about an innate aspiration, a deeper urge to understand the meaning and purpose of their lives. They were looking for something, not sure what, but the search was on. Many of them, since their childhood, had a natural opening to a vaster and deeper approach to life and the world. An inherent faith in something beyond themselves and this world kept their quest alive.

And this quest was supported at times by their family, or a teacher or a series of experiences or regular visits to the Himalayas or simply by reading books. These outward aids helped them continue to explore the “not so apparent” aspects of life. The simplicity and sincerity towards their quest is what made them ready for their Guru. It was clear that before they became disiciples they were already seekers. And once the Guru found them… the rest was history!

Posted in IPI, Psychology | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Where is Martin Neimoller?

Televangelist Pat Robertson said Trump was a “harbinger of the Apocalypse” and the return of Jesus was imminent.

“Now we have a man of God back in the White House, Jesus Christ will soon return,” said Robertson. “Sure, he’ll massacre all the atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, yoga practitioners, witches, psychologists, Scientologists and alien worshippers, but once that’s done we will have 1,000 years of peace on Earth.”


I grew up an atheist. I was a Sufi (Muslim) for 2 years. My background is Jewish. I have “practiced” within Hindu traditions. I have been a yoga practitioner for over 40 years. I know people who are devoted Wiccans, and I am a psychologist (don’t have much contact with Scientologists and alien worshippers, though).


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Neimoller

PS: Robertson didn’t really say that, by the way. The quote is from a satirical site. But did you think for a moment he really did?

Posted in Society | Leave a comment