Teaching Indian Psychology — Challenges and Prospects
An application-oriented paper
This article is the transcription, with a few additions, of a talk given on 7/8/2011 at Jain University in Bangalore on the occasion of the opening of the Centre for Indian Psychology.
Indian philosophy starts from consciousness, whereas the Western worldview starts from matter. The Indian worldview posits a Supreme consciousness at the origin of creation, and assumes that in this universe there exists nothing that is not pervaded by consciousness. It sees this consciousness as the fundament of all existence. In ancient texts like the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita we find a psychological approach that is derived from this worldview.
Till now, practically all over the world, the content and method of teaching in classrooms is based on the Western materialistic paradigm— with our senses we perceive the world, and subsequently with our mind we talk about, study, examine phenomena that we notice as distinct from ourselves. Our mind is an instrument for cognition —it measures, divides, analyses, synthesizes such phenomena. Unfortunately, in this approach the subtler layers of consciousness do not get attention. When we teach Indian psychology it is important that this invisible stuff called consciousness gets a place in the classroom. Since we cannot notice or cognise consciousness with our five senses, we lose out on its essence if we use only a purely mental approach while teaching. How to give consciousness its rightful place when we bring Indian psychology back into the classroom? This presentation will discuss some of the ways and means related to process and content of teaching Indian Psychology.
These days we talk of living in a global village, and are able to connect with anyone in the world by pushing a few buttons. Even so, there is still a significant difference in the Western and the Eastern worldview.The Western worldview starts from matter. It sees matter as the base of all existence. With our senses we notice phenomena and consequently study these. The definition of mainstream psychology echoes this worldview. One of the frequently used textbooks of psychology is Morgan and King, and many of us had to learn by heart the definition of psychology mentioned in this book. The first line runs like this: “Psychology is the science of human and animal behaviour…” In other words, psychology studies human conduct and demeanour by looking from “outside” how human functioning manifests in behaviour.
The predominant Asian worldview is founded in consciousness. Likewise, Indian psychology starts from consciousness, from a Supreme consciousness that is at the origin of creation. In this universe there exists nothing that is not pervaded by consciousness — consciousness is the fundament of all existence: if it would not have consciousness, it would not exist.
Till now, practically all over the world, the content and method of teaching in classrooms is based on the Western materialistic paradigm — with our mind we talk about, or study, or examine phenomena. Surely our mind is a useful instrument to come to know about things. It is the instrument with which we distinguish phenomena; we see something and say it is not this, it is that. Or, if it behaves like this it cannot be this, so it should be that. (e.g. a butterfly flies by day, a moth flies at night.) Our mind is the instrument for cognition —it measures, divides, analyses, synthesizes etc. But in this approach the subtler planes of consciousness, always acknowledged in Indian psychology, have no place: they are excluded for the sake of objectivity.
As the Indian worldview starts from consciousness, it is important that, while teaching Indian psychology, this invisible stuff called consciousness gets a place in the classroom. That is a real challenge, for we cannot perceive consciousness with our senses. This may be one of the main reasons why consciousness can be ignored so easily, why so many people can think that we live in a purely material world and label psychology as the science of behaviour, observable with our senses. Considering that Indian psychology is based on consciousness, it is rather obvious that we need a consciousness-based methodology to do justice to it and take care not to study and teach it in the way our present materialist psychology is studied.
How to bring consciousness back in the classroom?
Practically all of us have been taught according to the materialist paradigm, so a shift in approach is needed to arrive at a consciousness-based methodology. The first step is to become familiar with the various planes of consciousness present in oneself, and therefore in each human being. To know and experience consciousness one has to look inside oneself, experience besides one’s thoughts and feelings, also the subtler layers of existence. In this way one gains self-knowledge that can lead to self-perfection, and, what is more, usually after a longer or shorter period, one gets an experience of the highest supreme consciousness. In the Indian tradition, looking within does not mean introspection; it is putting oneself in another, more subtle mode — exploring the inner worlds while “listening” with an intense, fine concentration, trying to contact something that is very profound. As one practises this, one comes into contact with subtler and subtler planes of consciousness till one experiences supreme consciousness. This is an experience that many people have described as a life-changing event. It may take a long time to reach That consciousness, but before this decisive shift happens, one already receives touches of subtler qualities inside oneself — qualities near to the soul that give the feeling of a deep fulfilment.
A short side-loop
It may be good to make a short side-loop with regard to concepts like soul, higher planes of consciousness and asceticism, because many people equate subtler or higher levels of consciousness with asceticism. When we go back to the foundation of Indian philosophy and study the perennial wisdom of the Vedas, we do not find an ascetic but a life-affirming approach. The rishis were not ascetics; they embraced life. Many of their hymns are an invocation for the increase of the higher powers of consciousness in themselves, and for integration of these higher powers in all their daily actions. To experience and integrate these higher energies in thought, feeling and action gives another quality to life. So, the foundation of Indian psychology laid down by the rishis, does not ask for the denial of life proclaimed by the ascetics in later ages, but seeks to bring about a fuller engagement with life. In this context ‘integration’ means that the higher powers of consciousness must suffuse, as much as possible, all our thoughts, feelings and actions. Deep within us are the qualities of our soul: eternal beauty, eternal love, eternal wisdom, eternal strength. How different our world would look if we would make these more actively present in our daily life!
This paper started by saying that according to Indian psychology a supreme conscious energy created this world and that as a result this original consciousness is embedded in each and everything: it is this supreme consciousness that keeps balance between the billions of galaxies that wheel in the universe; it is this consciousness that also makes a tiny flower bloom near a softly gurgling stream in the forest. In our lives it is this consciousness that makes us exceed ourselves in whatever field we choose. It is this consciousness that makes us do acts of true goodness without any strings attached — true unconditional action, not needing anything in return, is always guided by the higher energy of the soul.
The Indian view of consciousness — How consciousness is, in various degrees, embedded in each and everything.
We human beings are, till now, supposed to be at the top of the evolution. The different parts of our being (body, life energy, volition and emotion, mental processes) are various forms in which consciousness expresses itself, and in each of these manifestations it is embedded to a different degree. How? We all know that matter was created first. In matter, the subtle "stuff of consciousness" is totally embedded. All that consciousness does in matter is, that it preserves its particular form. In other words, it is consciousness that keeps rock as rock, wood as wood, and rivers as rivers. During the evolution that took many millennia consciousness gets slowly released. We find that a bit more consciousness is expressed in each new evolutionary form; a little shows itself in plants, and some more in animals. In human beings we find that it is again less embedded. This means that more of that original consciousness is expressing itself in and through us. In plants there are the first sensitive reactions; a cat is more conscious than a crocodile; we humans are again more conscious than a cat. Human beings have the gift of a developed mental consciousness. We are not only capable of performing a whole range of mental processes, but we are also the first living creature that is aware of itself. Our developed mind enables us to look at ourselves; we have been entrusted with the gift of self-awareness. Because of this we can become conscious of the choices we make. I say become conscious, for most of our choices are not yet fully conscious. This less conscious life is a phenomenon that we still share with the animals. But humans have at least the possibility to make an effort to look consciously inside and then act on this. If we do not do this, many of our actions are driven by forces we are hardly conscious of, e.g. preconceived ideas stemming from the place or country we were born, conforming ourselves to the social layer of society in which we were born, peer pressure, gluttony, etc. It takes a conscious effort to look inside and become aware of the various layers of consciousness at work in us so that we can take charge of the actions and reactions of our surface nature instead of being driven by them.
The main planes of existence
I will mention here only some of the most prominent parts and planes of a human being, just enough to show that Indian psychology is the result of a minute study of what goes on inside a human being. Over the ages, a very detailed “map” of human existence has been worked out by seers and acharyas. (See for example, Cornelissen (2011), Types of Knowledge and what they allow us to see) At the surface we have our physical, vital and mental consciousness. In our daily life these mix constantly, for instance in the early morning when we go out on the veranda and take a deep breath of fresh air, all three are involved: our body inhales deeply, we are enveloped by a feeling of well being and maybe we say to ourselves, “What a lovely morning”. When we go much deeper inside, there is for body, emotion/volition, and mind each, a plane of pure physical, pure vital and pure mental consciousness, the annamaya purusha, pranamaya purusha and manomaya purusha. The manomaya purusha, for instance, gives us silence in the mind. For contacting these pure planes a sustained effort is needed for, as was pointed out, in our daily existence they are always mixed and less pure. We human beings also have been given a soul. The soul is a spark of the highest Supreme consciousness and it upholds our earthly existence. The soul, antaratman or chaitya purusha, is situated behind the heart. Consciousness exists in us in its absolutely purest form only in what we call the soul. Our soul is eternal and incarnates each time it comes to earth in a new body. Our physical, vital and mental instrument we have for the duration of one life; each time in a fresh configuration whenever our soul takes the plunge. Lastly, we can contact the spirit or atman just above the head. It is self-existent and not dependent on the body. The atman is a wide cosmic consciousness and is available in the same manner to all. On the other hand, each one of us has a unique soul. Our soul is in each one of us a unique expression of Supreme consciousness, it is our true individuality or svabhava.
It is through our physical senses that we explore physical matter, which our mind processes; likewise, it is through consciousness that we can explore the planes of consciousness and the role and degree of embeddedness. Let us not forget to give it its due while teaching psychological concepts. The beauty is that Indian psychology studies the whole ladder, from total embeddedness to completely free pure consciousness. If we start the practice of looking within, a whole range of new experiences is waiting for us.
Human development and the evolution of consciousness
As is explained above, embeddedness of pure consciousness is maximum in matter and gets increasingly released — the story of earthly evolution. For manifestation in this grosser material environment a soul has to submit itself to the mind-heart-body triad. This means that the soul cannot manifest freely but is constrained by the grosser consciousness of the surface nature. Over the ages Indian psychology studied and developed various methods for making the surface nature more refined, more receptive for these subtler planes of consciousness, so that pure consciousness can manifest through a human being without distortion. There are three main lines of progress that together cover the whole range of individual human development and action. To begin with there is the progress within a part or plane of the being, like mental progress, physical progress from learning to walk to becoming an outstanding 100 meters runner, and so on. The other line is to extend our range of consciousness: the progress from one plane of consciousness to another, going deeper within to find pure consciousness and especially our soul, and also to go "higher" and contact the planes above the mind. (See last diagram in Cornelissen, 2011). Within each plane of consciousness we have the scope to develop the skills, capacities and qualities belonging to that particular plane. The third line is that in each birth we have not only the possibility of making the surface nature (body-heart-mind) more capable, more plastic, more refined, but we also have the possibility of making the surface nature more ready to receive the Supreme consciousness of soul and spirit. We talk about life-long learning and these three processes described here can indeed go on till the last day of our life. The first one means that all through life we can develop new skills, capacities and qualities of the mental, emotional and volitional existence and refine the ones that have come natural to us each time we take birth — our individuality for one life. The second one means that we make an effort to contact increasingly the inner and innermost planes by deepening and heightening the contact with the purushas, the soul and spirit. Indian Psychology sees our soul, that unique spark of supreme consciousness in us, as our real or true individuality. The third one is that we make a conscious effort to integrate the first two, to suffuse our surface nature with the qualities and powers of the higher planes.
How should this worldview affect our teaching of Indian psychology?
When we teach Indian psychology we should not miss out on the higher and subtler qualities of existence that are an integral part of the Indian worldview. This applies to the content as well as to the process of teaching. The whole ladder of consciousness (from Nescience to Transcendence) is to be part of the science of Indian psychology.
We have seen that teaching Indian psychology needs an integral approach. We miss the essence if we approach it only with our mind. A purely mental approach, talking about it without experiencing it, will not do. In the classroom we must try to be in contact with the subtler layers of consciousness when we talk about them. If we teach Indian psychology simply as a mental subject without embracing the underlying experience we have made the study of consciousness a dry mental exercise.
Summing up, teaching Indian psychology calls for another attitude: we must make an effort to put ourselves in another mode in order to experience the higher and deeper planes of consciousness — a kind of intense and concentrated “listening” to the subtler planes of existence. It is my personal experience that when this concentration is present in the teacher it will spread out in the classroom and reach the students.
A closer look at teaching practices appropriate for Indian Psychology
As mentioned above, a human being has three lines of development available to him/her.
* The first line of development
After taking birth we start with making the surface nature (body, heart and mind) more capable, more plastic and refined. We learn to walk, to talk, etc. Science shows that over the ages this process is accelerating; athletes run the 100m ever faster; scientists probe deeper and deeper into space, and so on. Unfortunately, in formal education we still concentrate mainly on rote learning and administer tests that assess how well students can memorize. Education could do so much more for all-round development.
*The second line of development
Every time we come down to earth, we are given the opportunity to actively search deep within ourselves for the soul. We also can connect to the spirit, which is always available to whosoever makes an effort to contact it. The Western model of education, that has now spread all over the world, has practically neglected these two aspects. Moreover, Christianity, the religion of all the Western seventeenth century colonising countries, discarded the concept of reincarnation during the early centuries of its organisation. The main reason: it gave the rulers more power if people would believe that they had only one life. The church and science parted ways at the beginning of the Renaissance and so the deeper and higher layers of consciousness were not an integral part of formal education.
*The third line of development
During each life we have the opportunity to make the surface nature more ready to receive the divine consciousness. This is part of a process that spans many lives. To begin, one has to quieten the mind (but not to numb it); one has to calm the vital (but not to suppress it), and one has to let the body cells become receptive to the higher forces. In this way we will slowly shift from the ego-individuality to the individuality of our soul. All these changes make the thoughts, feelings and actions ready to “listen to” and to receive a higher consciousness.
India has throughout the ages recognised that every human being is graced with a soul, and found multiple ways to pay reference to this and weave its presence into daily life. Acknowledging the soul and spirit was in India an integral part of education. This process was broken in 1835 when the British colonizer through the Minute on Education enforced a wilful change to break the strength of the Indian culture. It was decided that in schools English would become the main language. Through this, social control was exercised and consequently it became one of the means for the imposition of Western ideas. The oldest Indian Universities (Calcutta, Bombay and Madras) were established by the British in the three Presidencies in 1857, directly after the Mutiny, “to create an educated class that would help them rule India”, to use the words of Dr Fredrick John, the education secretary under the Governor General Lord Canning.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Calcutta) One doesn’t need to be a great psychologist to realise that by giving prominence to Western psychology in Indian Universities we still turn ourselves away from the more complete and rich understanding of a human being that Indian psychology presents.
When we keep the above in mind, it follows that for successful implementation of Indian psychology certain fundamental shifts are needed. This paper discusses three of them: Those related to content, to the process of teaching, and to the attitude of the teacher
We deal here with two factors: choosing the content and the content as a means for self-development.
How to choose the content?
Indian psychology deals with a long ladder of planes of existence from Nescience to Transcendence, and has been refined and re-interpreted over many ages. As a result it is a vast subject. This means we can never be complete when designing a course. Moreover, when we would try to teach an overview that can be learnt by rote, we destroy the essence, for we would deny our students the precious gift of experiencing and exploring the various types and levels of consciousness for themselves.
Present the viewpoint of Indian psychology in regular courses
Designing a new course in Indian psychology takes time. But one can start immediately with including what Indian psychology has to say when one discusses in the class a concept that is part of a course on Western psychology. For instance, the chapter on Motivation and Emotion in Baron (2007), or the similar chapter in Morgan and King, can be enriched with articles on motivation and emotion from the viewpoint of Indian psychology. The last few years quite a number of books with papers on diverse aspects of Indian psychology have come out, and recently Indian journals of psychology have also published papers related to some important aspects and main texts of the Indian tradition. There is now already quite a bit of study material from the Indian perspective that can be used in the classroom. The website of the Indian Psychology Institute (http://www.ipi.org.in/) is a good resource for more detailed information on this.
Designing a semester course on Indian psychology
The happy news is that at present at least eight universities in the country offer MA/MSc courses in Indian psychology. More information about this is provided at http://www.ipi.org.in/second/teaching-ip.php The departments that are running these courses will be able to provide useful information.
Designing a course is not so easy because the body of knowledge is so large that one cannot cover it completely. It is good practice to choose topics that are close to the heart. Your enthusiasm will transfer to the students and make them interested in it.
It seems that there are as yet no undergraduate courses taught. Hopefully this will change so that the students from the beginning are made familiar with the rich source of psychology of their own culture.
Let the content be a means for self-awareness and self-development.
Even on under-graduate level, most exams are based on learning by heart. Memorizing is just one aspect of our mental capacities and it is becoming less and less important. In an age where facts and concepts are directly available on the internet, memorizing can take a back seat. Now that web access is available practically all over the country, we have in academia the opportunity to concentrate on developing a more complete range of mental capacities in our students. After all, colleges and universities are meant for research and scholarship. For the discipline of psychology, just developing mental capacities is not enough. For a complete development of the personality, the volitional and emotional parts of the surface nature are also to be studied actively; not just studied with the mind, but studied through experience and self-reflection. Our present education does a poor job as far as a comprehensive development of the human being goes, but it is in our hands to change that and help our students to actively experience some of the concepts of the course.
There is more. When our thoughts, feelings and actions are increasingly influenced by higher levels of consciousness, we become better human beings. Here, Indian psychology can fulfil a much-needed role. In this fast changing society many of us, students as well as teachers, are looking for inner stability, an inner anchor. How will we find it?
It has become evident that the moral constructions we grew up with were not able to withstand the change of times in a positive way. Fortunately, there are perennial truths which India has preserved throughout the ages. Can we integrate them in our teaching? Integrate them without imposing them on the students, but, where possible, by trying to awaken deeper layers of consciousness? This means that from a teacher who instructs and informs, we must make an effort to become a helper and guide.
What does this changing society and this being a helper and a guide mean for our teaching?
Some practical suggestions are mentioned here point wise:
- Integrate life: start a class, a new topic, from the students' life experiences.
- Start with discussing the problems of the students, and see how these fit in the syllabus.
- Respect your students; it is not easy to grow up!
- Show them short clips of movies to explain a construct; show them short documentaries on social issues, advertisements; then break up in discussion groups with a related deep question, but before starting these groups, first give them 5 minutes to think for themselves!
- Arrange discussions in small groups on a relevant question: e.g. What is right action? (This is a question that is an opener for deep discussions. One could show beforehand a clip from the movie Rang de Basanti, and a lively discussion will be ensured.)
- For teaching psychology, we can also get inspiration from the Indian scriptures, for example listening to the content of the dialogue of Krishna and Arjuna.
The main idea is not to pour out facts from the course book for the students to take in, but to help them first to experience for themselves what the particular content or construct is about. After the self-discovery and discussion, the particular content will be understood from within and owned by each student. This is a result that a plain mental approach of just reading and explaining a page from a study book will never give.
The process of teaching
We can derive inspiration from the Indian scriptures with regard to the process of teaching. How does Krishna do it? Is he the instructor who mentions what to do and how to live? No! We educators can learn a great deal from the process of teaching that Krishna follows and so enhance our own teaching process. What is Krishna doing? He meets Arjuna during an existential crisis in his life. Arjuna is at a point where any decision he can think of has consequences that are shattering profound values in him. If someone comes to us for guidance in a crisis situation, most of us are only too eager to tell or instruct the other what to do. The Gita shows a wiser way. Similarly, especially for our students being budding psychologists, it is important not to tell them directly what to do and what not to do, but to let them find that out by themselves. Krishna is the charioteer — the guide in the action; he points out the necessity of action in this world. As Friend, Helper and Guide he makes us see the possibilities of how we can go through struggles in life, and how we can help others with their struggles in life. What is the process by which he makes Arjuna aware what he can learn from the situation he is in? Krishna tries to awaken an inner voice – he helps Arjuna to become aware of the various levels of the inner worlds. He asks questions that help Arjuna to look deeper and deeper within. In step with Arjuna’s answer, Krishna then asks the next question.
We learn from this dialogue that motivation and action can be guided and take place on many levels of consciousness. Arjuna has not yet received the highest or deepest inner knowledge. While inspecting the army he is about to fight, he gets alarmed when he sees who all he has to fight with. He is in a double bind: he shrinks from the slaughter when he realises that he has to fight his own gurus, elders and family members. On the other hand, not to fight is against the dharma of the Kshatriya. Not to live according to his dharma is unrighteous behaviour and a grave error, an evil deed. We can identify with him, with his emotions. In our own life we have these situations, maybe not as serious as Arjuna’s ordeal, but still, situations where we are forced to make choices that have consequences and where none feel right. For Arjuna not to fight seems a very low deed. But why should he fight and for what? For the moral laws of the family? This family and these standards that will be destroyed during this war? He is shattered. So he asks Krishna to give him a clear rule of action; to tell him a path that can restore his confidence.
Now, what does Krishna, this perfect teacher, answer? Does he tell Arjuna you must do this and that? No. He questions Arjuna in a very meaningful way and by these questions, he guides him in such a manner that Arjuna himself starts looking for new answers. Krishna’s guidance is such that he helps Arjuna to reach deeper and higher levels of consciousness. In the Gita, Krishna inspires Arjuna with every question, till he discovers his soul and realises that action can be guided by the soul. That deepest or highest level is in harmony with Arjuna’s swabhava, and Arjuna is ready to discover this and leave behind his notions of caste and family.
What can we learn from this? In this questioning search, Arjuna realises that it is for him to find a new law of life and action above the rule of ordinary human existence, by turning to his soul for guidance. It tells us that in life, while making choices, one has the potential to climb from a moral law to a higher ethical law, and finally to a supreme spiritual law.
This specific process of the teacher as a helper and guide is part of the perennial wisdom and it is as relevant today as it was so many ages ago. We may not be able to reach the profoundest level of the soul but teaching Indian psychology asks each one of us is to find a progressive balance between inner growth and outer action. This will differ from person to person and from life to life. The essence is that we become aware of the inner worlds and that we integrate them in our personal and professional life. Much is gained when we as teachers become aware that this balance of inner life and outward action can be progressive, slowly leading to a progressive expression of the divine reality in us. We may start from wanting to be a good teacher and through that aspiration contact ever higher and deeper levels in ourselves. Each one of us has a soul that will manifest a unique presence of the Supreme! Last but not least, becoming aware of our own higher and deeper levels of consciousness helps us to understand better how to help and guide our students to discover and experience the many qualities of various levels of consciousness.
Learning is a process. The important things we don’t learn in one day. Similarly, teaching is a process, and the dialogue of Krishna and Arjuna gives us insight in the perennial truth of true teaching: helping students through questioning to find true knowledge for themselves. The best teacher is not the one who instructs, but the one who helps students to find their inner teacher, their inner anchor. “All life is yoga” (p. 4) and “Yoga is nothing but practical psychology” (p. 58), says Sri Aurobindo in his book The Synthesis of Yoga, in which he describes many psychological processes. These two short quotes say that living can be a conscious effort towards self-perfection. When we try to have greater mastery over the level of consciousness from which we want to live, our life gets another quality. When we come closer to the soul forces, and when we let these guide and influence our thoughts, feelings and actions, we are on the path to self-finding and self-fulfilment. What is more, doing so helps us to understand others better. The more we make choices based on deeper and higher levels of consciousness the more fulfilled and meaningful life becomes.
A practical question from the sidelines
What to do with plain facts, like names and dates? These can be given in a handout and the students can familiarize themselves with these at home. It is a pity to use precious class time for that. We can always give a few minutes for questions and answers related to these handouts. In this way, we have extra class time that we can use meaningfully for discussion and dialogue and reflection about theories, concepts or constructs. In case this is felt as a daring proposal, I would like to refer to what Sri Aurobindo wrote on the methodology of teaching. He was the first principal of the First National College in Bengal (1906), a college that was founded to counteract the British oppression and to give the call for swaraj and swadeshi a concrete footing. In this capacity he wrote several essays in which he makes bold statements related to teaching. He mentions three main principles. Here we mention only the first principle that starts with the words “Nothing can be taught.” (Sri Aurobindo, On education, p. 20; see also Huppes, Psychic Education, A Workbook, p. 132). Sri Aurobindo continues
The teacher is not an instructor or taskmaster, he is a helper and a guide. His business is to suggest and not to impose. He does not train the pupil’s mind, he only shows him how to perfect his instruments of knowledge and helps him and encourages him in the process. He does not impart knowledge to him, he shows him how to acquire knowledge for himself.”
Doesn’t this echo the way Krishnna taught Arjuna?
The attitude of the teacher
Before considering attitude in more detail, I would like to devote a few lines to our students, our present-day youth. At present, India is going through a period of transition. Especially during the last 10 years economic, social and moral values are challenged constantly. How do we find our balance, personally, — as parents bringing up children, as teachers teaching adolescents or young adults in a world where the media with their own technology and own value system, if we want it or not, intrude into our lives and the lives of our children. How do our students find a way to cope with this? All these rapid changes make that for today’s youth it is not so easy to grow up in a society where age-old constructions like the joint family are crumbling fast, where the multinationals, the media and social networking sites in this age of the web offer radically new values. How and where do they find true support to sort out their confusions, to get an inner stability not based on peer pressures and the like? How will they become good psychologists if they hardly know themselves; if they have not pondered deeply over questions like “Who am I”; What drives my motivation?”; “What are my aims in Life?”
Should we tell them directly what is right and wrong? What they should do and what not? If we do this, how will they find their meaning in life?
The spoon feeding and learning by heart in education has hardly allowed them, (and us when we were students) to think for themselves. How will they find out what really motivates them, their aim in life? They need space and a helping hand to get away from pre-conceived ideas, peer pressure and similar ills, to find out who they are. A pointed finger will give them the feeling that they are not understood and drive them even closer to peers and social networking.
The good news is that as a developing country there is in India much more variety in job opportunities than 20 years ago, and this provides many more possibilities to give meaning to life. The bad news is that a very materialistic culture is trying to establish itself under the name of development, promoting consumerism and pleasure-seeking in every possible way. Unfortunately, this is ruining not only the ecological balance almost to a breaking point, but also trying to enforce a post-colonial mindset as the ideal way of living. Putting a question mark at this life-style is not to renew old rituals or the idea of asceticism; it is to ask attention for the fact that the concepts and processes of Indian psychology have a potential for lasting fulfilment.
Related to attitude, what does this imply?
Our students will feel supported in their struggle to give meaning to life, and will get an opportunity to come to know themselves if we look at the facts and circumstances of their lives as occasions for self-development. An easy phrase to remember is that as a facilitator we must go from the near to the far. We start from the world of the students and gradually try to widen their awareness and insight. If we as teachers of psychology are able to create an environment of trust, they will be willing to look into themselves without fear for judgment or rebuke. Sometimes the outer appearances may shock us, but at such times it is even more important to guide them, without imposition, to have an impartial look at their own inner worlds. Something in us may shrink at their follies but much is gained if we can develop largeness of heart. For this we must be able to rely on our own inner anchor. The impact of the media and globalisation make age-old values crumble down before new ones are in place. Under these circumstances authenticity and self-reliance become important faculties. Much is gained when we can make students see that there are many selves and that self-awareness is a key to conscious choices. Studying psychology provides a marvellous opportunity to look inside oneself and find an inner anchor.
To create an environment to bring out the best
Every human being has a soul and that means that there is true goodness present in each one of us. Sometimes this is covered or overpowered by negative circumstances and powers but that can change for the good. What helps us to get largeness of mind and heart and become a helper and guide and not a controlling instructor? Have we looked enough into ourselves to know what all is driving our motivation. Are we aware what is it that makes us act from that largeness and what takes that away, makes us shrink so that we feel the need of controlling instead of understanding with empathy? In each one of us there are soul qualities waiting to manifest and it is important that we create an atmosphere in the class in which the best possible can happen: an environment of acceptance, trust encouragement. A quiet harmony that helps students reflect on concepts and how they play out in oneself and in daily interactions. A surrounding that stimulates to go deeper within and gain insight in understanding oneself more profoundly so that one can face life confidently. Another way of saying the same is that a teacher can be like a good gardener, first tending the seed that is already present within each student, caring to provide the right amount of sunlight, shade, water, sometimes a temporary support, trusting that in this way the leaves and buds will sprout; and when the buds start blooming is full of gratitude for the bouquet that has started blossoming before his eyes.
Many of our students may not be spontaneously spiritually inclined, but there is always a ”best” in them. Similarly there is always a “best, or a highest” in you. Let it speak, help it to come to the foreground. Be respectful, welcome variety — in God’s creation there are no two leaves the same. The beauty of this process from instructing to invoking is that while helping our students grow, we ourselves also grow into better, wiser human beings. And through that this world may grow a little bit into a better place. Is that not a marvellous prospect!
I would like to end with a quote that embraces all I tried to share:
…those who live most powerfully in themselves, can also most largely use the world and all its material for the Self, - and, it must be added, most successfully help the world and enrich it out of their own being. ….This is the truth the developing existence teaches us, and it is one of the greatest secrets of the old Indian spiritual knowledge.
Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India, p. 49