Self-inquiry is a process that delves into all areas of concern and conflict in life. Yet its relevance to the psychological well-being of children is largely overlooked because it is commonly regarded as an adult preoccupation. Its importance in the education of children was consistently explored by Krishnamurti while I was at his schools from the 1960s to the 1980s.
As we are aware, children are naturally inquisitive and genuinely interested in life. If we encourage them to address the nature of thought and to explore the impact of labelling upon their minds, they will readily do so with curiosity. Back in school, even at an early age, we began to take an interest in ourselves which naturally correlated with a growing concern for the world we found ourselves in. With great ingenuity, Krishnamurti used this relationship to create a mind open to life-long learning. He succeeded in this by challenging the forces of conditioning throughout our education.
We learnt not to expect ready-made answers to the questions we asked. Instead, we were thrown back questions to consider and answer for ourselves. Krishnamurti taught the art of putting the right questions so that our minds could get to work on them. This trained the mind to be vigilant to the perils of interpretation and prevented it from accepting second-hand information. This art added a different dimension to learning where the onus was upon individuals to keep track of the movement of thought, so that we could review and reflect upon received information and gradually wrestle with the serious issue of the nature of knowledge itself.
This process nurtures greater deliberation from the start. Instead of being conditioned to rely upon hearsay, the learner assumes the responsibility for exploring and challenging knowledge, as a natural given right. This is important because it does not allow the mind to go to sleep, basking in the content of received knowledge. Instead, with such an education, the mind is grounded in vigilance. It remains watchful, learning about the vagaries of thoughts, assumptions, images and myths throughout our lives.
The fact that the word is an approximation of the actual is tangible to a child. Therefore, realizing ‘the word is not the thing’ provides room for a depth of inquiry which continues to inspire one’s curiosity right through life. Initially, insights help children to account for the differences between the ‘word’ and the ‘thing’. Making do with half truths comes at a cost, generating a great deal of anxiety and anguish during childhood and later. For instance, we hardly realize the tendencies in our thought process by which we form and hold on to ‘images’ of others and ourselves, leading to disparities and conflicts with lived reality. Insights into the fabric of thought help to ameliorate the huge stresses involved in bluffing our way through life in the domain of human relationship.
Following this, other insights address the distinctive nature of thought, for instance the appreciation of how thoughts fragment reality. Awareness expands as intelligence awakens to the danger of complacency, as one sees that relying on a fundamentally fragmentary process to interpret truth or reality is bound to be riddled with difficulty. Krishnamurti was constantly addressing the problem of accumulated knowledge. ‘Knowledge is the past!’ he would exclaim, implying that awareness is in the present, is comprehensive, and is therefore directly in touch with reality.
Watching thought soon reveals the mechanics of thinking. Our childhood assertions and deliberations came under scrutiny constantly. We had the opportunity to delve into the nature of self, gender, character and identity, which are all important areas of adolescent inquiry. By proposing ‘self’ as an important subject of study, Krishnamurti engaged us in a discursive inquiry into learning. He was able to ensure that we would not succumb readily to a complacent, conditioned mindset as he worked to create a healthy disregard for the ‘known’.
I often wondered why he used the words ‘awakening intelligence’. Years later, as my interest in education blossomed after the birth of my own children, I understood what he meant by that phrase. He was challenging the notion that thought (and, therefore, language) is the sole arbiter of understanding. Without understanding the nature of thought, how can we address the content of our own consciousness and our mounting discontent with reality?
I feel that it is never too early at school to engage children in this inquiry. Even as one learns a language, the process of self-inquiry can be nurtured through interaction and skilful guidance. This requires affection and respect for the challenges faced by the child who is engaged in the process of converting a seamless world into a network of thought in order to facilitate communication. We marvel at the skill required by humans to do this conversion, but paradoxically we take it as a God-given right, taking refuge in the fact that it is a mark of distinction which sets us apart from the rest of creation.
Distinction, however, comes with greater responsibility. It is important for us to realize that our attachment to a fragmented reality also leads to a life-time of frustration and failure. It inhibits our full potential as humane beings. The use of language inadvertently conditions us to accept fragmented world views. This, as we have seen through the ages, certainly sets us up for inhabiting a world of competing and clashing perspectives, along with violence and a collective sense of failure which results from not being integrated with the whole of life.
Children take time to process the meanings of messages they receive and rely on a whole battery of contradictory information to come to terms with what is required of them. While such complex skills already in place, children are also given the opportunity by such an education to begin watching the bubble of illusion created in order to sustain a discourse with people.
Krishnamurti had the sensitivity to address this challenge and to understand the demands placed on children. With affection and great determination he awakened our interest early, to undermine the authority of the ‘word’ in the hope of freeing us from our initial conditioning in order to savour truth. During our childhood, he was able to hold the door open long enough for us to keep in sight the immanence of life. He was trying to ensure that we did not inadvertently fall into the habit of simply accepting the assumptions implicit in the narratives of those seeking to educate us. Through deliberate, serious inquiry, our curiosity was aroused to look at the way the mind is divided by, and dependent on, language.
I never lost sight of the wholeness of life and the benefit of observation in the nurturing of intelligence. It was this hope that we would one day understand the background from which we operate, and the consequences of responding from a fragmented reality. Having had this insight, educating my own children became of enormous interest in my life. I am convinced that in order to liberate ourselves from a blanket dependence on abstractions, we have to foster an environment where children are allowed to challenge all assumptions in order to address the vulnerable networks of their own emerging and fallible assumptions.
By addressing the forces of conditioning present in education, Krishnamurti held open the door for a complete revolution in education. This revolution is grounded in sensitivity, inquiry and mutual regard for those engaged in the learning process. This will not happen unless each mind explores intimately the mechanisms set in place to define all that can be divined.
Becoming sensitive to the problem of definitions even as we cultivate them has a clear advantage. By sowing the seed of doubt in my mind, Krishnamurti made sure that I would not while away my entire life giving words the benefit of the doubt. I was not fully conditioned to do that. Instead, my education undermined the forces of conditioning laid down during the early years of my life when I learnt to use language to communicate with those who nurtured and cared for me in the nursery. Undermining the authority of the known reinforced my own trust in intelligence as I went through the travails of making sense of a fragmented world.
At his school, we got to live, love and learn, in that order, in a climate free from the pressures of conformity required by traditional and conventional content-based approaches to education. So we had the opportunity to realize the significance of context to content, and we learnt in the long term to place our knowledge in perspective. I was inspired by a sense of wonder at the immensity evident in the greater phenomena of life forever unfolding around me. Understanding the self was just a part of my education, but life remains my true learning ground. In that I can rest assured. I need nothing else.