Education: a Sufi perspective on the soul
Article originally conceived as an invited paper for the Seminar on ‘Indian Perspectives of Education’, Panchgani, Maharahstra, September 2012. Edited March 2017.
In the present cultural crisis where the soul is forgotten and ideals are mocked at and misused, this article will offer some ideas for educating the child — as well as oneself. The perspective will be to view the soul as one’s very being and see its implications for education. In fact it reflects another paradigm for addressing the cultural crisis of today. It will touch various aspects, like school involvement, competition, the ideal, disciplining body and mind in relation to one’s soul. Rhythm, balance, ideals, respect, thoughtfulness, enthusiasm, beauty and harmony, the ideal of the unseen, the unknown; God. And love as the essence. The content reflects the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan on education (The Sufi Message, vol. III, Education, 9-113).
Intro: the soul
What is the soul? The soul is one’s real identity, in the sense of atman, ruach/ruh, pneuma /spiritus, ‘spirit’, and therefore is ‘divine’. It is light, it radiates, it is active. Can one see it, hear, smell, taste, touch it? No, the soul is not physical. Yet it is active and works behind and through the body. Likewise it is neither mental nor emotional. Yet it is active and works in and through mind and heart. Two metaphors are helpful to get an idea of its activity on each plane. One is in terms of light and its manifestation is radiance. It illumines life’s path. The soul, in our earthly eyes, may be sensed as a reflection of the spheres beyond. The other metaphor interprets the soul as energy, as one’s life force. This energy is the activity of the soul. It is one’s very being in its action. It is behind every human activity as it is rooted in the soul. Light and energy merge and manifest as radiance.
The soul, therefore, lives in the body and as well as in mind and heart. One could say that body, mind and heart function as its vehicles. The soul uses them as instruments for expanding consciousness. For living a full life proper functioning and purifying is necessary, besides tuning, balancing, silencing.
Therefore, the central Sufi idea in education is to seek, to discover, to protect, and to facilitate the radiance of the soul of the child as a function of its energy. How is it visible? The energy manifests in the child as ardor, as vitality, as enthusiasm, as a driving motivation. And the radiance becomes visible in its expression, in its movements, in its concentration, in its focus. Look and see and listen how the soul expresses itself in the child’s body, mind and heart –its instruments. Essentially this radiance is the energy of the soul, whose dynamics is effective on all these three fields of human nature.
Education implies recognizing, protecting and balancing this quality, and guiding this energy.
“Education is not necessarily a qualification for making one’s life successful, not for safeguarding one’s own interests; – I am quoting Hazrat Inayat Khan from his book on Education — it is really a qualification for a fuller life.”
What then about how the soul expresses itself in two overall stages in the growth of he child to adulthood.
In the beginning consciousness still reflects its origin, what we traditionally call the heavenly spheres. Look into the eyes of the young child, and feel its atmosphere. It seems a light from beyond, it spreads joy to those present. The innocence and radiance tend to remain over the next few years. Yet gradually these qualities get veiled.
It is essential for the child’s development that this radiance is recognized and understood and facilitated. Moreover, stimulate it rather than let it be mocked away as if not practical, not of this world. Remember that it is pure energy for its life force and directing its vitality. Can one discern such a reflection of light: in upliftment, joy, feeling united — being part of one consciousness? Being born in the world of the senses it does not manifest as soul, as divine. But it may be discerned behind the veils of body and mind, and shining through. That’s what we need to discover for education. Here a few tentative ideas.
Handling the child
Young children are difficult to handle. How to control anger, to break obstinacy, and how to discipline? It is essential not to use force, neither physical nor mental. It is the power of the heart that wins. What is required is to be as the friend: sincere, severe, and above all loving (!). Winning its confidence and trust, acting as an example. Do not be surprised to find temper, obstinacy and selfishness in the child. Recognize it as the life energy of the child, do not react, do not add fire. Redirection of the energy is necessary turning it to the benefit of the child. Anger is a cover over the natural ardor. How to remove the cove? It is by providing ‘light’ (see above). Because anger with light added turns into a positive energy. How inspiring is the idea offering diverse uses under various interpretations, depending on the individual case.
Find the positive element in obstinacy as a potential for strength and power in later life. Mold the mind of the child for the obstinacy to become fruitful. It is the ‘obstinate’ child in this sense who will sit and finish a task given to it. It may feed the spirit of honest rivalry leading to success.
The child needs silence to be taught. Let it sit down, put aside all that it was doing, let its mind be quiet. Hazrat Inayat Khan tells (Sufi Message III, 36):
“I was very much interested in what Madame Montessori told me when I was in Italy, that besides all the activities that she gives to the children, she makes them keep a silence; and after a little time they like it so much that they prefer silence to their activity. And it interested me still more to see a little girl of about six years of age who, when the time of silence came, went and closed the windows and closed the door, and put away all the things that she was playing with; and then she came and sat in her little chair and closed her eyes, and she did not open them for about three or four minutes. You could see on her innocent face an angelic expression. It seemed she preferred those live minutes silence to all the playing of the whole day. Children enjoy silence when they have become accustomed to it. Silence is not a strain on a child. Only in the beginning it might appear to be disagreeable to a child, who is eager to play and run about, to be sitting and closing its eyes. For children to sit and close their eyes seems hard in the beginning. But when they have had some silence every day for a week, they begin to enjoy the happiness of silence.”
It is favourable when an accommodation can be created for finding and maintaining rhythm, for the faculty of balance. Mood control is difficult for a child as its life energy wants an outlet. Concentration and silence belonging to its nature are natural control mechanisms. They need to be nurtured.
Hazrat Inayat Khan discusses school enrollment before the age of 9 and feels it to be menacing to the development of the child in this time of pressure on teaching, training, rivalry, and the top-level urge syndrome. This is an interesting viewpoint. Its radicalness is indicative of his concern, already in the ‘twenties of last century, about the ‘culture’ of materialism and commercialism and its focus on competition, its drive for excellency at the cost of other qualities, for freedom of mind, rest, comfort, freedom from anxiety, and the warmth of home. The mind needs to mature before school discipline starts. The child needs an even rhythm. Home is the basis. This is a great challenge for parents to harmonize the two opposites within the rulings of law.
What is missing today in society is the ideal. Give it to the child as soon as it is ready to conceive an ideal, Think of ideas like respect and regard, thoughtfulness in speaking and doing. The child should know its place. It is allowing the child to build a culture of its own, appropriate to its age.
Another point is to imbue the child with the idea of the unknown, the unseen. It is in childhood that the spirit is responsive, and if the God-ideal is inspired at that time then one has done what is said, ‘seek the Kingdom of God and all things will be added unto you’. That is a start on the path of God. Often it comes naturally from the child itself provided one has offered a place for it in the mind. I remember how I happened to stand at the seashore viewing the grandness of the view, the unlimited space of the ocean, the waves reaching one’s feet. My mother much later told me that I came to her, saying ‘now I know God’. — If the child asks about his origin, the answer one must give is God, the only being, you are part of it. A young fish asked his mother ‘they talk about water, what is it?’ And she answers: ‘water is where you live and have your being.’ It offers an opening to sow the seed of the God-ideal in the heart of the child.
Further perspectives toward adult life
A new period starts. The consciousness shifts more and more to the world. The soil now is ready for sowing the seed. Hazrat Inayat Khan indicates three subjects of interest: drawing, music and dancing. And three fields of teaching, typical for his psycho-spiritual mysticism: spirituality in every-day life He suggests perseverance, patience and endurance. Perseverance in accomplishing a task once started. Patience by developing the skill of waiting. Endurance by giving the child courage and strength, encouragement and advice whenever it has to pass a test, or to swallow a bitter pill, appreciating its endurance.
Early exposure to competitive life can harm this process. Yet modern society requires a competitive attitude. If not guided it may affect the heart qualities. Can we learn to be competitive in humaneness? Moral qualifications like good and bad apart, when a child learns to appreciate sincerity as a quality of its self, it builds its personality with self-respect, a sense of contentment, in a non-selfish pride and feeling of honour. The child should be educated in an atmosphere of sincerity. Another quality is beauty, beauty to appreciate, beauty to feel uplifted: it is the inborn quality of the heart.
And the keynote is balance.
More about ideals
One of the interesting suggestions is to imbue a child with further ideals. Offer stories — rather than prescribing manners, attitudes, thoughts and actions. A child of this age is ready to be inspired as its consciousness is developing toward change, discovering, exploring, looking at its self as being involved in a process of growth, physically as well as mentally. Let us consider such qualities as respect, regard, self-respect, qualities to be nurtured rather than prescribed. Command evokes resistance and rejection. Awakening one’s tendency to explore new ways of life. An ideal is like a compass in one’s search in life’s labyrinth. It guides the urge to discover, to explore, to accomplish. Accomplishment causes contentment leading to joy and happiness. Authority imbued in sympathy, reproach in love, punishment with wisdom.
Education, therefore, not by rigorous directives. Neither by a system of punishment, nor by clear-cut boundaries between good and bad, but rather appealing to conscience.
Conscience in the light of an ideal, a set of ideals. The ideal is a most necessary element in education. Ideal is not a target to acquire, it’s like the horizon when walking toward it, enjoying one’s acquirements, and seeing how life expands, a further ideal at the new horizon. A natural teaching to the child who understands to abandon a toy that once was essential and beloved, and now has lost its magnetism. Expansion of consciousness toward a richer and better world. Create a capacity for upliftment from moods and fancies.
Guidance may be seen as an offering to the child, by the guardian, be it as parent or teacher. Guidance out of love, expressed as empathy if not as sympathy, and sometimes through one’s forgiving love. Guidance by offering perspectives, trust and confidence, security and safety, at home, but also at school. Hope as a positive energy.
The child gradually becomes aware of the body, of its power and weakness, of its impulses. It needs guidance how to deal with these impulses. Discovering that it can learn to manage and control them, even at ages 4 and beyond.
Control by one’s mind. Control over one’s mind and body, control over one’s emotions. Memorizing, creative thinking, concentration. Steering power of mind over body and over emotions.
Discovering the overriding power of love and sympathy. The art and skill of giving resulting in receiving the same. Discovering the heart quality, which is different from thinking, and different from emotions. An understanding can be taught that the heart easily gets drowned by mind and emotion.
Therefore, what in sum is the role of the soul?
Both for educating the child as for the adult life. One of the discoveries is when one may have experienced something that touches deeply, changing the momentary condition into higher attunement. This may happen physically but also on the mental level, which refines the feeling capacity. And one can learn its uplifting effect, easing joy, and happiness, a sort of peace and harmony. Beauty. Or, listening to music that exhilarates and creates an atmosphere of ease. Or when meeting an idealized personality. Think of the long term effect of silence (in the Montessori sense). An attuning nature experience. Such an attunement will remaining and its influence is enduring. It will function as an anchor in life’s sea. One feels tuned to the right pitch. Beauty, harmony. Love. A one-moment’s experience, a reality that convinces without rationalization. Transformation. Sustained enthusiasm. Experiences on various levels of one’s existence: physical, mental, emotional. And especially for the soul, tracing its light and energy, one’s basic vitality.
Therefore, educating means to help the child to discover the soul, so that it finds it to be its very being, and to explore body, mind and heart as its instruments. A development beginning in childhood and continuing into adolescence, all the way through old age. After physical growth is completed the soul invites one to continue working on its instruments. Science recently has disclosed that even the brain can repair, recreate and adapt. What an inviting perspective. Though the path remains a difficult one yet it is inspiring and rewarding. Even for an octogenarian.
Beauty is the food of the soul and a remedy in life. Harmony is to be sought and created for the soul to shine. Love to be nurtured as life’s prime condition expressed as sympathy, as compassion, in a smile. Do not nurture disharmony in yourself and in your environment. Rather creating an atmosphere of love and mutual sympathy.
This essay does offer a new perspective on education rather than offering a new system, while it is viewed from the soul as the turning point due to the view of Hazrat Inayat Khan — which is nothing less than a new paradigm.