Over the centuries, the theories we have devised have gradually changed our image of ourselves, and in so doing they have subtly altered the contents of consciousness. True, consciousness is a robust phenomenon; it doesn’t change simply because of the opinions we have about it. But it does change through practice (think of wine connoisseurs, perfume designers, musical geniuses). Human beings in other historical epochs—during the Vedic period of ancient India, say, or during the European Middle Ages, when God was still perceived as a real and constant presence—likely knew kinds of subjective experience almost inaccessible to us today ... Meaning does change structure, though slowly. And the structure in turn determines our inner lives, the flow of conscious experience.

Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel

We haven’t really paid much attention to thought as a process. We have engaged in thoughts, but we have only paid attention to the content, not to the process. Why does thought require attention? Everything requires attention, really. If we ran machines without paying attention to them, they would break down. Our thought, too, is a process, and it requires attention, otherwise it’s going to go wrong.

David Bohm, On Dialogue

One of Krishnamurti’s key concerns in setting up his schools was the possibility of learning about ourselves—the complex, dynamic inner emotional and cognitive landscape that is our daily life. He stressed that this ‘learning’ has some basic properties: it is not a cumulative, linear process; it is based on a continuing living awareness of the processes of everyday life; and that for it to happen, there must be an environment of security, not an environment based on fear, reward and punishment and authority. Of course, he also went on to state that ‘learning’ can have a profound and shattering impact on the consciousness of the individual and, by implication, on social and global structures and processes.

It seems possible, in order to facilitate this learning in schools, to remove some of the grosser frameworks that bring about fear and insecurity in the child. Removing the obvious pressures of reward and punishment reassures the student that she can approach adults and peers in her life with a broad feeling of trust and acceptance. Doing away with competitive structures such as exams can promote a basic sense of pleasure in learning academics and other life skills. The benefits of such a humane approach to education, one that emphasizes the child’s well-being rather than humiliation and fear as the key to motivation, are very real and apparent.

However, even if you explicitly set out to create an environment that is focussed on self-understanding in a non-punitive environment, there is still fear and insecurity in both adults and children. Removing ‘external’ forces such as exams and seeking to fix the environment may be only a partial step. For example, children still look upon adults as authority figures, with all the subtle undercurrents that this implies! They compare themselves with each other in different dimensions: looks, ability, popularity. There are very tangible pressures regarding their peers, how they will fit into their peer group, whether they will find acceptance. There is the inevitable sense of loneliness, of being an outcast. The bonds of friendship and companionship can be both enabling and tremendously fragile. Life without exams can bring about a sense of drift, of complacency. And finally, particularly among the older ones, there is worry about the future, about livelihood and identity. All of these emotional currents are of course very much a part of the adult’s life as well, albeit in a modulated form.

So we are not looking to ‘fix’ the environment to address these powerful emotions; they just don’t seem to go away, but rather assume subtler and finer forms. The attempt, rather, is to nurture, in a cooperative manner, some questions and approaches, necessarily tentative and sometimes tenuous, connected to our inner lives, against a broadly sceptical and investigative backdrop.

In the Krishnamurti schools, there is often a deliberate attempt to create dialogue spaces every week, in which children and adults look together at the complexities (and sometimes the simplicity!) of our shared emotional lives together in a manner that tries to be investigative rather than prescriptive.

A deep insight into our psychological lives and patterns carries the possibility of a radical change that moral prescriptions, rules and punishments simply do not. A brief flash of insight in my brain carries far more authenticity and weight than a dreary system of dos and don’t s, poorly understood, vaguely resented.

Many simple aspects of daily life lend themselves to creating this atmosphere of reflection and questioning. Among younger children, daily incidents are often focal points for creating a reflective atmosphere (why do we like to hide each others’ shoes? Why are we in such a rush to be first in the queue?) With slightly older children, in the Middle School, the questions in the dialogue space can become slightly more abstract: for example, do we see that our relationships are fraught? In what ways are they problematic? What does it feel like to be jealous? With the seniors, we try together to be aware of our inner landscape on an ongoing basis, in a dynamic fashion. We try to be aware of the fact that this inner world has a life and complexity and structure of its own that may be (to some extent at least, or a large extent?) quite independent of ‘external’ events. This is quite an abstract jump and it is a still question to us whether it is appropriate to pursue such lines of enquiry with this age group.

The format for such dialogues is simple: we sit together, adults and students, and we can take up any question that anybody brings up. There are no ‘rules’ regarding these questions. The idea is to investigate in a non-hierarchical, non-prescriptive and open manner. In reality, of course, there are many snags! Adults are quick to jump in and direct the flow of meaning, interpret the children to each other and clarify problems. Children often seem stuck in a web of intense self-consciousness, brought on more by the complexities of the peer dynamics rather than ‘fear’ of the adult. The beauty of the structure is that these very blocks can become part of the fuel for dialogue! There are no static, perfect answers that we aspire to. We would like to open up psychological questions that as a group we can understand together in a simple and non-judgemental fashion.

One ‘experiment’ we tried with the senior students over a term was to sit quietly for about twenty minutes in a session, and spend the remaining hour looking at what we went through during those twenty minutes. Another exercise we try (with almost the entire school, except the very youngest ones) is to spend half an hour every evening in school quietly, being outdoors and not occupied with any specific activity (reading, sketching etc). Apart from these, we can as educational institutions build brief yet quite deliberate moments during the day in which there is a pause, a slowing down of both the inner and outer sense of rush, a pause during which a sense of scepticism and wonder can take hold.

It is important to us that the adults are excited by these questions and experiments, independent of their impact upon children, and that the teachers have regular dialogues fuelled by our own curiosity and discoveries about our psychological lives, the process of identity formation, the ways in which emotion guides our perceptions, and all the other subtle and fascinating processes of our inner landscapes.

It is also important to us that this questioning spirit is not just restricted to specific times of the week, but rather that the energy of the questions spills over into the most mundane and everyday events. Unwashed plates, dripping taps, the huge sense of rush that is evident in our lives, our incapacity to be sensitive to the needs of others in so many areas: any of these issues, so obvious in daily living, can be the focus of our investigation and can quite naturally lead into deep areas of questioning.

Trying to do all of the above is like walking a tightrope: balancing seriousness with humour, deep emotional currents with lightness. We would like to emphasize a broadly scientific approach to self-enquiry, one that recognizes that individual opinions and feelings, however deeply held, must give way in the face of collective, abstract insights. There are of course many traps for the unwary: our tendency to use our life histories and anecdotes as ‘evidence, ’ our very deeply rooted biases that lead us to very partial outlooks, the sketchy details revealed by our observations. In spite of the pitfalls, we would like to communicate to young people, and to rediscover for ourselves, that this process of self observation and learning is immensely valuable and enriching, and that it has repercussions that stretch far beyond our personal lives and immediate circumstances.