Self-actualization is a way of being. The primary aim of education must be to help children evolve toward this way of being rather than set its sights ONLY toward something that is measurable and quantifiable.
Self-actualization means different things to different people. In the context of education, however, I have identified at least four ways of being which the self-actualizing person embodies. They are:
1. A deepening of one’s experience of the meaning of life over time
2. Knowing, practicing, and experiencing true love
3. Having a definite purpose in life
4. Belief in, and working for, something larger than oneself
These ways of being which underlie the concept of self-actualization is not a place to get to or something to achieve once and for all. However, if we cannot get to a place where we are self-actualizing, life does indeed become perilous, meaningless, and overwhelming.
The jobs of tomorrow and the transformations the world has yet to go through are beyond prediction. What is predictable are the highest needs of our humanity, which have not changed since human existence. The fulfillment of these needs will take care of everything else, period.
How would education be different if its goal was to help a human self-actualize? In order to begin to answer this question, I looked at how I have endeavored to walk my own path of self-actualization over the past twenty years, the process of learning of which I have been privileged to be a part, and my experience of raising my children and watching them grow up over the past nine years. I also considered how other educators, psychologists, and thinkers have approached the question.
Seeing self-actualization as a way of being means that self-actualization must be taught by example. We learn by adopting the behaviors and the ways of thinking of those who are within close physical and psychological proximity to us. This means that in schools where self-actualization is the primary aim for the students, as many of the staff involved as possible should be self-actualizing people: teachers, accountants, administrators, the parents, the principal, and even the gardeners and the janitors. The teachers and the parents are obviously the most important models children can have, but I believe the idea is clear here. In an educational setting, one must be breathing the same air with the self-actualizing person as much as possible so as to put the developing child squarely on the path of self-actualization.
In addition, students should and must study examples of self-actualizing people throughout history in order for the idea to sink in in subtle ways. Some examples of the people whom I consider to be self-actualizing persons are Barrack Obama, Warren Buffet, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, The Dalai Lama, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, the Wright Brothers, and Amelia Earhart. One may be self-actualizing and not be well known. Indeed, there are countless self-actualizing persons in the world who have lived a quietly fulfilling life; and, in the process of doing so, they have given their best to their families and communities.
Through their studies, the students will read the words of these down-to-earth people who radiate with wisdom and Life beyond the boundaries of the context of their generation. Students will watch movies, documentaries, as well as read biographies of these people. Students will become intimately familiar with how these people have lived, how they looked at life, and how they have made the important decisions in their lives. It shall be like the self-actualizing person, of modern times and of the past, has become friends with the students at the practical, psychological and spiritual levels.
The Three Aims of the Pursuit of Knowledge
Beyond learning by example, self-actualization shall be taught and learned with the understanding that all knowledge serve the following three purposes.
First, the pursuit of knowledge shall help us become competent in managing our practical lives (e.g. cooking, cleaning, fixing things, money management, time management, technology management). If the knowledge we gain are to be meaningful and relevant, they must relate to real life in very direct ways. Here, we are looking to develop a sense of independence and power which would be the result of self-mastery at the practical, physical, and intellectual level.
Second, knowledge should help us become skilled at cultivating healthy and fulfilling relationships. That is, we ought to gain the necessary skills by pursuing and applying knowledge which can help us build the relationship of our dreams with ourselves, with the others, and with God. Here, we are looking to master the emotional, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of ourselves. A sense of interrelatedness, worthiness and meaningfulness will flower from perfecting the application of such knowledge.
Third, knowledge shall help us to know who we are. By who we are, I mean that children and adolescents should learn to see who we are cannot be separated from everything that is. We are part of a greater whole and the whole is us. We should subtly (and overtly) help children see that the world is in them and that they are an important part of this world. Studies of just about anything and everything will teach us about who we are; conversely, studying who we are will teach us about the world. As such, the development of self-knowledge really is an interdisciplinary endeavor: spirituality, science, art, history, psychology, philosophy, and the list goes on. A sense of humility, sacred relationship, and sacred responsibility would develop if knowledge is pursued in this manner.
By grounding the studies our children are to embrace with the three purposes of the pursuit of knowledge, we will affirm and multiply the self-actualizing tendencies that are already within.
What to Learn? What to Teach?
What we learn is as important as why or how we learn something. Without making a complete list of everything the student should study, I would simply like to provide some examples of the kinds of studies which would engage the life force within the students, as well as Life itself. After all, we are looking to fan the flame of life that is within.
First of all, I believe it is important to introduce to our children the arduous, tender, and miraculous process that a human life goes through during a mother’s pregnancy, including the details of how a life is born into this world. The children as well as the adolescents can partake in this heroic human journey by following the actual process of pregnancy. For example, the school may invite a pregnant woman to come and talk to the students every week from the early stages of her pregnancy until the baby is born. This woman would share with the class the progress of her baby, the considerations she must go through as a future mother (such as whether or not to have natural birth, use a mid-wife, what not to eat,…etc.), so the process the a life must go through to be born becomes a visceral experience for the students. Wouldn’t this elicit a sense of wonder and reverence for life?
Children are as interested in life as they are in death. So, how about we have our students know that death is a part of life? In fact, children already know this and are often much more at ease with death than adults are. Frequently, it is the adults who teach an attitude of excessive fear and loss to children about death. The neuroticism around death is a learned mentality; it is not natural. In the study of death, I believe it would be valuable for us to teach children and adolescents that death can happen to people at anytime, even when it is not supposed to happen. We never know when the end may come, but it will come. We can help the students maintain a sober and humble attitude toward life by learning about death. Possible ways to come into know death as a part of life may be to work as humanitarian volunteers in disaster zones and attending funerals.
Inevitably, questions on spirituality arise as we learn about life and death. It is only natural for children to learn about spirituality. What parent has not been asked by their child if God exists, or “where do we go after death?” To do this, we can simply acknowledge to our children that we are not just physical beings, but we are also spiritual beings. They already know this intuitively, but what gets acknowledged grows stronger. Children can learn that spirituality is simply the part of us that connects us to a greater reality where we are whole, inseparable, and eternal. They will know eventually that by tapping into this part of ourselves, it becomes possible to explore the meaning of life and love.
Spirituality can be learned a few different ways. The major world religions through which Spirit has expressed itself will certainly be able to offer a view on what spirituality is. Students may explore these various points of views and decide what feels true for them through direct experience. Spirituality can also be learned through simple spiritual practices, such as meditation, prayers, and gratitude. Spirituality may also certainly be learned indirectly through just about any subject matter. The limits of how spirituality may be taught is only limited to one’s ability to view the world from the spiritual part of oneself.
Ego & the True Self
How many of us have said to ourselves: “only if I could have known the difference between my ego and my true self earlier on?” Children and adolescents must learn that they have an ego, and how the ego relates to the true self. One shall learn the various forms one’s ego can take; the ego is quite clever, isn’t it? What better way is there to bring the ego home than by being aligned with one’s true self? How do we align with our true selves? Just imagine the benefits of learning about all of this BEFORE our children leave their nests and walk into the “real” world.
Then, there is true love. This is probably the most important thing to learn in life. No doubt, it is a lifetime’s worth of work. However, why don’t we start learning about it in schools? It can be learned.
Again, different world religions will have something valuable to offer on the meaning of true love. So will artists, poets, writers, psychologists, and many others. True love is so different from the romantic love that we are taught unconsciously to be the stand-in for true love.
True love is so subtle and yet ubiquitous at the same time. We can help our children recognize it, experience it, and become actively aware of the essence of true love from early on.
On the the taboo subject of sexuality. What is it? How does sexuality relate to sex? How does it relate to love? Why shouldn’t our children learn about it? Should we not teach them that sexuality it is a normal part of us? Don’t we already know its denial or indulgence poses the greatest risk for us? We can and should proactively shape a healthy as well as holistic view of our sexuality from early on. Studies and practices of how to manage our masculine, feminine, and sexual (“creative”) energies would be invaluable for adolescents who is receiving misguided information from society about sex and sexuality.
Fulfilling & Thriving Relationships
Our children must come to know what fulfilling and thriving relationships look and feel like. We have too many dysfunctional relationships, notably marriages or domestic partnerships, in society. Too many of us have grown up in households where we witness toxic interaction between our parents for years on end.
Schools can help children learn about such types of relationships by inviting couples of all ethnic backgrounds, age groups, sexual orientations, religious affiliations, and levels of economic prosperity to come into the classroom and show our students what interaction looks like in a healthy and thriving relationship. Students may listen to these couples and learn from the them the inviolable principles they have in order to maintain such a thriving relationship. Children and adolescents should and must learn about the rules that fulfilling relationships obey. Great minds have dedicated their lives to the studies of relationships in order to understand its inner workings; there is no reason for our children not to benefit from them.
Life has predictable phases that take place for everyone regardless of who you are and where you are from. Birth, the coming of age, union with another, and finally death. One can name the various phases differently or potentially add one or two more phases. The point is, it would be highly beneficial for our children to participate in, as well as learn that there exists a diverse number of ways to approach and sanctify the major milestones of one’s life.
Seeing how different cultures support the process of a boy becoming a man, a girl becoming a woman, the celebration of marriages, and the honoring of the dead not only helps our children experience the richness of the human world, it also gives them options. It will be plain for all to see that our way is but one way. We can prepare our children for, and even facilitate, a conscious collaboration with the psychological dynamics that are bound to take place during these all important events in life for which many of us have received but little preparation.
More and more is being written about intuition from the modern day scientific point of view. However, history is replete with stories of how one’s intuition has led to brilliant actions and great discoveries.
It would certainly be crucial for our children to learn to recognize their own intuitions, first and foremost. Then and equally important, the competent use of it; that it, differentiating the voice of one’s intuition from one’s ego, but not to forego one’s rationality completely either. Our intuition is at least as powerful as one’s rational mind. Not using it would be leaving out an important tool we have at our disposal.
Peak Experiences / Flow
For those of us who have experienced “flow”, is it not a thirst quenching experience? The thirst of the soul is the thing of which I speak, of course. During the flow, we enter a state where self-awareness fades away and we become all-knowing; we experience something deeply satisfying for which there are no words. This is a state of consciousness with which our children should become familiar, especially as they go through the adolescent stages. Learning to access these states in a natural way would be invaluable.
One can have these peak experiences through the practice of various modalities of art (e.g. dancing, painting, singing, acting, writing) and athletic activities (e.g. sports, martial arts). But really, the experience can be accessed via just about any activity in which we find ourselves enthralled and engaged.
Perhaps even more importantly, repeated experience of the state of flow teaches our children that the process itself is the reward rather than any end result the process is leading us toward. How important is this lesson in life?
Ancient & Foreign Languages
Ancient languages have much to offer in the way of wisdom. Children can and should learn to master one of the ancient languages, such as Chinese, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, amongst the others.
For example, in the Chinese language, we say whenever two people come together, or whenever they part, it is because of Yuan (緣). Yuan is a concept that describes a predestined connection two people share which has its origins from previous life times as well as divine will. There is deep wisdom in the concept of Yuan which may be well hidden from those who do not know Chinese; at the very least, it is cumbersome to express for those who do not have such a word. I am certain many treasures such as the one just mentioned exists in the other ancient languages.
At the same time, a modern day foreign language shall be learned, again, with a different approach. One that is based on learning to see the world through a different lens. The process of learning a new language is much more than just learning vocabulary and grammar, though either are indispensable. For example, did you know that “no” or “yes” does not exist categorically as such in the Chinese language? What does this say about the softer and more indirect ways of the Chinese mentality? Learning a foreign language is, in fact, about learning how another culture sees the world; language is merely a means to support the description of these unique points of views.
Children are also naturally attracted to specific foreign languages. Finding the innate affinity that exists between a child and a particular foreign language, and then introducing the entire culture, history, and philosophy of that language to our children along with the proper grammar and vocabulary within this context could really start our children off on the right path for the learning of a foreign language.
Twenty-four hours is used differently by the president of a country compared to how a college student uses his time. Everyone has twenty four hours a day; somehow, there are those who manage to get farther and more quickly with the same amount of time.
Our children must learn about the art of time management which is not the mechanical slotting and reshuffling of appointments in one’s agenda. Time management is not only about priority management, but it is also about momentum management, the management of long-term versus short-term goals, and the management of a balanced life.
Money Management & Financial Intelligence
Money is a powerful resource and a practical matter not to be ignored in education. The earlier our children can learn the real meaning of money and develop a healthy attitude toward it, the better. For example, children and adolescents can learn to recognize that money is neither good nor bad; one should see that money does not make one king, nor does it bring out the worst in people.
We should teach the judicious use, management, and growth of money to our children. One can use money as a way to gauge and improve one’s financial intelligence by learning to manage and grow one’s financial assets, however small it is. Children and adolescents shall learn the good and bad habits of the management of money by learning how the wealthiest and the poor manage their money.
Children and adolescents should certainly be in charge of a certain amount of money and be responsible for making it grow over a period of time. This can be done through various projects that interest them, such as the management of a toy store, or whatever other entrepreneurial activities that fascinate them. Balancing budgets, saving, as well as investing money should all be part of the program.
Implied with the above is to learn of the evolving mechanisms of the financial markets, instruments, and pitfalls. Learning math in the context of learning the meaning and use of money would make much sense. For example, learning about the power of time in multiplying money either for you (through investments) or against you (through credit card and and unnecessary personal loans) would be critical from a young age.
Technology & Information Management
As technology advance and as people try to sell to our children that technology is the way, it becomes ever more important for our children to learn to become the masters of, rather than slaves to, technology.
This goes far beyond how to use technology. One must understand how technology our built and designed at the high as well as detailed levels. How information is structured in the technological sense and the dissemination and assimilation of information is impacted by the nature of technology.
A wise Chinese man noted thousands of years ago that the more we depend on our tools, the more we become like them. This perspicacious observation still applies today. Learning about technology is not just about keeping up with the times. It is to learn about how to remain human in spite of the technologification of our civilization.
Education & Life
There are obviously much more that an education which is focused on the self-actualization of a human being can and should teach. The dozen or so examples given are only meant to illustrate some of the most important concepts which would be found in schools that are implementing the self-actualizing education.
People will tell us the solution to our problem, is technology, money or the next great invention. These can all be a part of the solution, but they are never THE solution. I believe the solution lies with us, within us, and that it is a human solution.
Life has been and always will be the best school we have. So why don’t we model our education after the best?
We must begin with the end in mind; education must be like Life and help us self-actualize. Only then will what our children learn be meaningful, enjoyable, and ever lasting. And only then, will our children be able to answer for themselves the meaning of life and the meaning of love.
The above is the transcript for a talk given at the International Transpersonal Conference in Prague, Czech Republic on October 5th 2017 by Hsuieh Dean Lee.