The Soup of Well-Being
– excerpted from a full interview done for The Trumpeter, Shambhala Elementary School Newsletter, March 1995
An interview with Beth Sutton, director of Enki Education – (revised April 7, 2005)
Trumpeter: the question “What is Shambhala education” continues to percolate, both inside our school and in the community at large. Some say the Enki approach, which we use here, seems to have a lot in common with Waldorf Education. We describe ourselves as “arts-based.” Since many of the people involved in this particular school are Buddhist practitioners, some people wonder if this is a Buddhist Education. Can you say in essence what makes this school Shambhalian?
Beth Sutton: There might be, actually there already are, many different expressions of Shambhala education. But I think as sort of bottom line reality for any Shambhala School, and the same is true for any Enki school or homeschool program whether it is formally a Shambhala school or not, lies in the fact that at the heart of these teachings is the understanding that human wisdom is found everywhere – in all people, in all cultures, in all times. Whether we are talking about Buddhist Education, Christian Education, or Secular Humanist Education, the heart is the same. Enki Education is not a recipe; it’s an outlook and it will unfold somewhat differently in different situations but we will always be looking to honor and cultivate that basic human wisdom and vitality, seen as the center of all these contemplative and humanistic traditions, both religious and non-sectarian.
Trumpeter: I’ve heard you describe these teachings as a mirror which reflects a truth that is both universal and personal at the same time. Could you say something about that?
Beth: If you remember a moment in your life that had a quality of real seeing or understanding – the famous “Ah haa!” or “Ohhh!” experience – I think you’ll recognize what I’m talking about. Everyone has had many experiences of this. Maybe it was triggered by a parent, a teacher, a spiritual master, a lover, a friend, the grocer – even an enemy. When someone shows you something which touches your precise experience, when you feel fully seen or heard, you’re touched on a totally personal level and in that moment you are also very connected to the pulse of being human.
Fortunately for us all, our most unique, secret, hidden place is also shared by human kind. That is seems to be how it works – the door to ourselves is the door to everyone else too. I know that this is core to the Enki teachings, I believe it is core of any spiritual or contemplative teachings, including the Shambhala teachings and Buddhist Education. It is at the center of the Enki approach to teaching and learning. As far as I’m concerned, this process of mirroring is present whenever true learning takes place, in any school, anywhere in life, regardless of philosophy or methodology or intent.
Trumpeter: What exactly you mean by “Mirroring”?
Beth: Well, you can see children trying to find this experience, this sense of being reflected or mirrored by the world, in the books they love. Look at the two year old begging for “Where the Wild Things Are”, again and again and again. What more perfect example of “Wild things” could there be than a two year old? Or look at the early adolescent girl who is held captive by “The Diary of Anne Frank”. This story is painfully personal, and it is the story of every teen internally locked away in her own world. This mirroring is a natural human process. The difference here is that in this approach to education we choose to work with it actively and consciously in every single aspect of our curriculum and methodology.
Trumpeter: How does this work in the classroom – say in grade 2?
Beth: If you look at second graders, in any school system, chances are you’ll see very active children. If you watch them in the playground they cast a mischievous, sideways look at you as they run by. Often you overhear a lot of teasing and trick playing. Almost invariably, you see them playing partner clapping games – “Playmate, come out and play with me” or “Miss Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had the bell …” . Later, in a quiet moment, you may find them drawing pictures of the latest super hero or of beautiful kings and queens. Our starting point is to look at the children’s play and see who they are, what they’re telling us about their inner world, their longings, their needs, and their developmental capacities. Rudolf Steiner was particularly gifted at making this the kind of observation and has been able to shed a tremendous amount of light, and offer valuable guidance to the choices we make. But no matter what we use to enrich our observation, it is still our own observation that is our starting point; it is our continual checking point, and the place we look to judge our results. This is where we discover what kinds of stories and activities, what academic challenges and what social ones, will be most nourishing for the children at any given time.
So in the second grade, whether using the classroom or homeschool curriculum, we work with stories of tricksters, stories in which each character embodies a different human energy. The trickster prods and provokes everyone else until a great display unfolds. Each character or energy is welcomed and delighted in. Nothing is rejected or suppressed, just explored. Hearing these stories the children have a safe way to explore their own new and wild energy, honoring it without fear of its impact.
Just as the children balance their play with a quiet moments of looking for heroes, we balance the trickster stories by telling of “wise elders” – real men and women such as Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Franklin, Milarepa, St. Elizabeth, Black Elk, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, the Baal Shem Tov, and so on. The longings that drive the super hero fads can find real nourishment in these stories, giving the children the food they need to grow. And, peeking into our grade two classroom, you will see that as the children hear about Black Elk or Stalking Wolf, their clapping games are transformed into the stone and stick games of the Plains people, complete with songs and clapping and passing. The clapping games are just as easily transformed into active memorization of the multiplication tables, as well.
The central principle here is that we can trust the children to guide their own growth. Although their words are usually quite misleading, if you watch them, you will see that they are asking for exactly what they need at any age. Our job is to mirror back to them an uplifted experience of what they have requested. In this way, we bring them into their own wisdom and a sense of the dignity of humanity.
Trumpeter: Some of what you’re describing sounds like Waldorf education. Is this approach different in any basic ways?
Beth: You originally asked if we were a Waldorf or a Buddhist Education, Arts-based or something else. The answer is yes, we’re all of those. But that list could be longer too. It could include other cultural and educational traditions. We focus on seeing human wisdom and vitality wherever they arise, so we look into all available corners for that wisdom. That foundation is quite different from the Waldorf foundation, and while we are grateful for all we have gained from Rudolf Steiner’s amazing work, Enki grows from a very different core philosophy and thus us a very different education.
As this school grows and more stories, songs, and rituals unfold, this will all be more evident. There will just as easily be questions about whether we are a Christian, Islamic, scientific, Native American, African, Montessori, or Buddhist Education, and so on. People will also recognize the skill mastery techniques of traditional education and the integrated project learning of theme-based education, along with many aspects of the Waldorf Inspired Programs. But for us the answer to what we are will continue to be the same: we’re focused on honoring wisdom and vitality wherever they arise. We want the child to experience himself – his struggles, his successes, his dreams – in every man. That’s what makes this a spiritual, yet not sectarian approach.
Trumpeter: That sounds like it could be a very rich curriculum, but how do you prevent it from becoming an eclectic hodgepodge.
Beth: If we just looked at the world around us and took whatever we like and mixed it altogether, I think we would wind up with what my sons used to call “Pirate knock-out” – many children call it everything putting, add a little vinegar and it explodes! If you look around you can see that this is what happens in many of today’s “eclectic” schools. We’re more interested in creating a nourishing and elegant soup. Basically, all the ingredients have always been here, that’s the nature of being human, of being in the world. We’re not inventing something; we’re working with the same ingredients available to everyone. It’s just a particular mix, making this particular soup.
Trumpeter: How do you decide what to include in the mix at any given time?
Beth: Well, to continue with the soup analogy, you need to know if you are making minestrone, carrot, or French onion. That knowledge is what will guide you in your choices. We need to know what kind of soup we’re making. The answer for us is quite simple. We’re after a soup that will nourish the children’s sense of well-being, their sense of confidence and interest in the world. All the academic, artistic, and social skills are ingredients in that soup, but they’re not the soup. We define well being as a harmony, or integration of body, heart and mind.
This sense of integration is our center pole, our guideline. If an “ingredient” – whatever classroom activity it maybe – contributes to the children’s well-being in any particular moment, it is appropriate; if it doesn’t contribute is not appropriate, no matter how happy it makes the children are how clever or glamorous it may be.
Trumpeter: It seems like the approach you’re describing would demand a lot of the classroom teacher. He or she would have to be very sensitive to the children’s underlying state of being, moment to moment.
Beth: Yes. The teacher must always be ready to meet the moment. You have to have a clean palette because we’re going to flavor soup by tasting it. That’s really all we can do – all the recipes in the world won’t replace the experience of tasting of the soup. However, if we just ate chocolate or hot sauce will have a warped sense of what we’re tasting. So we begin with the basic clear water rinse. Even the fancy sorbet is too much. Just clear water. In this approach, that is the teachers’ meditation practice.
For the teacher, we believe that the most important aspect she can cultivate is her own state of being, her intuition, and her connectedness. All the great materials and clever schemes in the world can never replace this. Central to this cultivation is the disciplining of her mind and integrating her own body, heart and mind. To this end we work with a nonsectarian, mindfulness meditation practice as an ongoing part of our work as teachers.
This particular practice has been used in many traditions throughout the world; it is used in Buddhist education, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and many others, and is currently being used in stress-management programs at high pressure businesses and in hospital programs for those suffering from stress disorders. In this meditation, we simply sit down and bring our attention to our breath, gently noticing its path as it flows out. As we discipline our attention in this way we quickly notice how tremendously unruly our thoughts are. This noticing and returning to a focused attention is the mindfulness. Over time we naturally become more and more settled. Our thoughts and feelings do not carry us away with such force. The simple act of sitting still and noticing what arises, rather than acting on or reacting to it, brings a kind of fearless openness.
With the knowledge gained from her training and the openness gained from her meditation practice, the teacher has the tools she needs. Now it is up to her to approach the classroom door thoroughly prepared, but on turning the knob she has to drop everything and enter the room with a real openness and trust in her knowledge, experience, creativity, and compassion. I once heard a very experienced teacher describe this as “entering the room simple, naive, and awake.” Each teacher has to have to freedom to follow her lesson plan exactly, modify it a bit, or throw the whole thing out – depending on how she reads the needs of the class. Whatever she chooses it must come from the place Suzuki Roshi calls “Beginner’s Mind”. One could say that beginner’s mind is the clean palate; mediation is a way to cultivate it. That is what allows us to discriminate what needs to be added to the soup, and it is what allows us to “taste” when the mixture is really harmonious and nutritious. And that is what we are after.