I was living at Ananda Village in the mid-80s when Swami Kriyananda invited me to the early meetings on the ideals discussed in Education for Life, which he’d just finished writing. Everyone at that meeting was enthusiastic about disseminating these ideals, all derived from Yogananda’s teachings, and as an educator I was thrilled.

Radical answers to today’s problems in education

Six years ago I became director of Ananda’s Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, which is based on Education for Life principles, and I found myself right in the middle of a revolution. Education for Life has given us radical answers to the problems in education today, not just for devotees but for everyone.

Not long ago a woman came to check out our school for her child. She said, “Every school in this area promises to deal with body, mind and spirit. They all promise to create moral, ethical individuals, and to work with students’ emotional and social challenges. But you are the only ones that seem to be doing it.” This was an exaggeration, perhaps, but she was tuning into something.

Another time a professional, who specialized in assessing children with possible learning challenges, said to me, “I go to all the schools in the area. I test the kids and talk to the teachers. And your school is the optimal learning environment.” But she couldn’t say why; she couldn’t put a name to it.

They’re exuding joy!

And then one day, when I was giving a tour to prospective parents, there was a young woman who asked questions that allowed me to address all the important issues. After everybody left, she stayed.

“I have a confession to make,” she said. “I’m not a parent. I’m really a spy.” It turned out that she was working on her PhD dissertation in education and child psychology and was visiting all the schools in the area.

She continued, “I knew this place was different when I stepped on the grounds. But I didn’t know why until I saw the kids.  Your kids smile a lot.  They’re laughing. They’re exuding joy. You don’t find that in other schools.”

What these people had tuned into was the consciousness with which our teachers and children come together to learn—the consciousness of joy in everything. The premise underlying Education for Life is that the sole purpose of life is to learn who you truly are. And who you truly are—beyond the body, mind, and personality—is the soul, and the soul’s nature is joy.

Our job is not to “fix” them

I say to parents of prospective students: “What we’re doing here may look on the surface pretty normal, but this is a radical approach to education, and it will challenge all of your traditional notions. It’s radical because, first and foremost, we’re addressing the original goodness in our children. And when you do that, the whole educational scenario becomes positive, affirmative.”

The children who come to our school are accepted as souls, sparks of the Divine who carry within soul perfection. Our job is not to “fix” them or prepare them for the new global economy, even though all that will conceivably happen.

Our job is to give them the tools that will enable them to express their unique gifts. In order to do that, one has to define education in terms of life’s true goal, which is Self-realization. And then, one has to shine on the children the light of total affirmation of their souls, and of all their gifts.

A false equation: money equals happiness

One typical case is a student who came to us from a very high-powered private school. The focus of that school is to get the students into a premier college, so that they can get a premier profession, make a lot of money, and be happy. But experience tells us that this equation doesn’t work. We all know too many highly educated, successful professionals who are desperately unhappy in their lives.

The only point of anybody’s life is to find true happiness. And when you’re really clear about that, you don’t impose on children this other very false equation. Instead, you see who they are at the deepest level and support them. That doesn’t mean you turn away from any areas of weakness. It simply means you don’t define the child in terms of them.

And so when this student first came he had some difficulties. But we soon realized that he was truly gifted, though not in ordinary ways. However, at the first parent conference, his parents wanted to focus on his deficiencies.

I finally interrupted and asked, “What do you see as his strengths?” And they began to delineate them. But they were all within the paradigm of what’s going to work for him when he goes to college. Yet this child’s talents lie a bit outside convention. His artistic sensibility is comic. He makes people laugh! And so, we support him and give him a stage—within reason. He is now coming into his own, even in the academic areas that have typically challenged him.

“When I help these people I’m happy”

We have one student, a girl, who went with us on a service project to a place in San Francisco that offers weekly suppers for the homeless. The idea behind this program is to remind the guests of our shared humanity. So each week the same people are honored at a sit down dinner with multiple courses, and volunteers serve them.

This girl, who tends toward the “glass-half-empty” approach to life, said to her teacher one night, “You know, my parents are trying to talk me into therapy. And I tell them that all I really need to do is to just come here. Because when I’m helping these people, I don’t even think about myself, and then I’m happy.”

I thought to myself, there’s no way in the world we could have taught her that. She had to experience it. And that’s in large part what Education for Life is—the opportunity to experience these truths for ourselves.

Teaching meditation

Because our children are in an environment where meditation is a key idea and practice, and they see the teachers modeling it, most want to experience it for themselves. We start with the breath.

When our children get too excited or upset, we teach them to breathe, and we draw the connection between controlling the breath and calming the mind and emotions. We let them practice calming the breath before a big test or baseball game and they find out for themselves that it works.

An academic track record

Inevitably there are the parents who say, “I know this is a magical school, but the magic stops at 5th grade. Then we get serious. Right? We have to prepare the children for the real world.” Sometimes they have a crisis of faith, even parents who’ve been with us for years. That’s when I am grateful that we now have a track record.

After 11 years, graduates of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School are beginning to make their way into life’s larger arenas. And the evidence shows that when a child is affirmed at the soul level, everything else follows, including academic excellence and personal development.

Our students who take the national private high school entrance exams tend to score above the 90th percentile across the board. Students who have great capabilities are testing out in the top 1 or 2 percentile nationally. Some students, who, because of learning challenges, don’t perform as well on standardized tests, leave us with their self-worth intact, affirmed as fine artists, poets, computer whizzes, athletes. Admissions officers at premier private schools in the area characterize our graduates as independent thinkers, self-possessed, friendly, and creative.

We’re academically rigorous, but it is not as obvious as it might be at other schools. One parent said, “I got upset because I thought the kids weren’t getting enough homework. Then I looked around, and I realized—gosh, my son was doing three hours of homework a night, but he was so happy about it, I didn’t realize it.”

Now that’s an extreme case. But when the priorities are right and you have the power of your conviction behind them, the revolution is possible.

A Lightbearer and long-term member of Ananda, Helen resides in the Palo Alto Ananda community. She is the principal of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School.

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