Integral education: An application of Indian psychology
At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny; for a stage has been reached in which the human mind has achieved in certain directions an enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find its way …. Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding ….
—Sri Aurobindo, The life divine, p. 1053
Sri Aurobindo wrote this more than 60 years ago, but how true it still is. We see humanity struggling with the issues of individual and collective use (and abuse) of power and their concomitant responsibilities. We are experimenting with values and redefining our belief systems. There is a massive upsurge of both progressive and conservative forces. Each of these movements seems to be seeking to reshape and redefine itself, to search for a new identity, to find and express a new aim in life. They often clash, each proclaiming that its truth is higher or greater than that of the other.
Could it be that all these endeavours and upheavals are pointing to the need for a decisive change? For thousands of years humankind has focused on sharpening, increasing and refining our human capacities. There has been a manifold development of our physical and mental abilities, resulting in great achievements in many spheres of life. The most obvious effect of this mass development has been a remarkable technological progress that, while allowing many comforts, has also brought a tremendous over-stimulation to our lives. With the click of a mouse we can access almost any information we need, or communicate with people anywhere on the globe. Yet, when we read or watch the news, we get the impression that collectively we lack the right approach to handle wisely the enormous powers we have unleashed with our mind. Each of us is challenged. Do we really have the knowledge and wisdom to resolve the myriad conflicts we have created for ourselves? How can we help restore the balance, and create a more fulfilling life and a more harmonious world for all of us?
The truths that have guided us so far are apparently not enough to handle the tremendous powers technology has set in motion. Technology forces us to live globally, and so we must recast our identity in a world in which our self is no longer embedded within the limited context of traditional family values. Education plays an important role in both individual and national development, and so one wonders why education has been unable to guide humanity towards greater harmony, providing fulfilment to all. What is this wisdom needed to bring about that decisive change? We are confronted with the ills of continuing imperialism and rampant commercialism, destroying not only human life but threatening the very life of the planet. Our most urgent need is to replace imperialism with more beneficent forms of globalization, and to realize a deeper understanding of personal freedom—a freedom not gained at the expense of others, but based on unity with others and harmony with Nature.
We can look at our world from many perspectives—economic, ecological, cultural, personal, and so on. Seeing the limited successes we have achieved so far in creating that harmonious world that we long for, we find that none of these perspectives goes deep enough. All are part of the larger whole, but even together they are incomplete; they are not integral enough.
During the last couple of centuries Western civilization has dominated the way our world has been shaped. Its influence remains dominant, and today’s problems originate to a large extent from the fact that Western cosmology lost integrality hundreds of years ago. Simplifying history, one could say that it began when science parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo. When science parted from religion, it also tossed out spirituality, and since science has been so successful, the dominant world-view is now based on a physicalist, scientific paradigm. India did not escape this development, and even now Western psychology dominates the study of psychology at Indian universities. Is it not time to research what the more integral Indian psychology has to offer?
Part I — Integrality in the indian context
What is integrality?
Each of us is endowed with various levels and forms of consciousness. We know that we have thoughts and feelings, and are able to take action through the use of our body. At any given moment we can shift our centre of identification between these mental, affective, volitional and physical domains. What is more, each of these domains has not only a surface layer, but also deeper, inner layers. This means that during a day we shift many times, not only from domain to domain but also between our surface nature and the various inner parts of our being. Over the millennia humans have developed an incredible complexity of which most of us are hardly aware. As a result we do not live up to our true potential. Our present fact-based and marks-oriented education makes it worse, as it is very limited and taps only a narrow part of our potential. Integral education strives for a much wider and deeper development. But let us first take a closer look at the philosophical context of integrality.
Integrality in the context of Indian education
Indian civilization has its foundation in a deep understanding of integrality. It sees the universe not as a purely material fact, but knows that a Supreme, although often concealed, consciousness pervades each and everything. In our daily consciousness this Supreme consciousness is mostly covered up, yet each of us carries a spark of the Supreme deep within, called the caitya puruṣa or soul. If the soul is allowed to come to the foreground, it can influence the mental, affective, volitional and physical surface consciousness to act more in harmony with this universal consciousness. Our surface then becomes an instrument for the soul to act in this world. All this is part of a life-affirming spirituality which reaches beyond the divisions of religion. In the perennial cosmology of India, the psychological process of human development is seen as a progressive development; a development that is balanced between the innermost part of the being—the soul—and the outer life.
In harmony with this, the ideal of integral education combines two lines of development: the revealing and unfolding of the soul, and the development of the mental, affective and physical domains as instruments for expressing that soul in daily life. It calls for an individualized process of education. Of course, we want universal education for all the children of India, but for universal education to work, it must respect individual differences and provide an education that is relevant for every child. Consider the differences in daily inputs and the experiences of children growing up in one of the metros and children in interior rural areas—how can prescribing the same textbook be meaningful for both categories? If ‘universal education’ could have come about through a standard textbook, it would have been achieved long ago. Consider the large variety in intelligence, capacities and qualities of children. Only an education based on genuine respect for individual differences can provide a meaningful development for each student.
Some theoretical and practical aspects of integral education
Based on his deep understanding of the Indian psyche and his emphasis on integrality, Sri Aurobindo wrote a series of short introductory essays on the general principles of education between 1910 and 1920. He says (1990, pp. 13-14):
…true and living education … helps to bring out to full advantage, makes ready for the full purpose and scope of human life all that is in the individual man, and … at the same time helps him to enter into his right relation with the life, mind and soul of the people to which he belongs and with that great total life, mind and soul of humanity of which he himself is a unit.
Sri Aurobindo understood that education is a magnificent tool for building up a nation. He and his spiritual associate, The Mother, called their model of education integral education. First, it is centred around the innermost consciousness, the soul. Second, it emphasizes optimum development of the mental, affective and physical domains, not as an aim in itself, but as instruments through which the soul can express itself in the world. The principles of integral education do not impose a belief system or a set of rules to adhere to. They respect the vast individual differences of the students and can be applied anywhere in the world.
Two basic assumptions
The impulse towards self-exceeding is an innate part of being human.
Education needs to implement more methods that facilitate the action of this innate tendency to excel. In sports, the principle of self-exceeding has become so commonplace that records which seemed impossible to be surpassed the year before are being regularly broken. I have experienced similar feats in mental development in a Free Progress school, and saw students excel in solving math problems far beyond the levels of their age group.1
Self-exceeding also has a spiritual component, which brings us to the concepts of svadharma and svabhāva. Here, dharma is not used in the sense of morality or ethics. Svadharma is action governed by the svabhāva, the essential law of one’s nature. When we act here on earth according to our highest or inmost svadharma, our action emerges from and is an expression of our essential Self, our soul. Integral education trusts that each one of us is able to find his or her own balance between developing, training and refining one’s mind, heart and body, and discovering how to live from one’s soul.
We perceive the nature of reality according to our state of being. Consequently, everything depends on where we place our consciousness.
From the experiences of daily life, we can easily learn that each mental, affective and volitional domain has its own ‘laws’. The ‘laws’ pertaining to the physical domain are different from the laws that provide structure to the affective domain, and these in their turn are different from those of the mind. During the day, without realizing it, we often shift our consciousness between the various domains. As we observe ourselves, we become aware that our perceptions change according to the domain we identify with. For instance, most of us have experienced the difference it makes when we react to a situation with our reasoning mind, and when we react with our emotional heart. Our soul brings in other qualities yet; qualities that illumine and harmonize whatever we do. Once we realize this, we can begin to live consciously and choose the domain from which we interact, thereby changing what we allow to influence our life. Integrality starts with becoming conscious of all the parts and layers of our being. Integral education aims to help children become conscious of these inner and outer processes without forcing students into a fixed mode. Spirituality is not a subject to be taught. Neither can ‘being spiritual’ be imposed.
All integral education can do is provide an environment in which students are free to make choices, while encouraging them to do so as consciously as they can. It trusts that self-observation will naturally lead to self-awareness. This can help the student to feel responsible for self-made choices, which in turn can lead to an accelerated self-development, leading to becoming a truly responsible citizen.
Key concepts of integral education
There are four key concepts of integral education:
- Acknowledgement of the fact that the whole spectrum, from unconsciousness to divine consciousness, from the surface layer to the greater depths and heights, is present in everyone. It is also present everywhere around us in people and nature, and thus in the classroom we should not narrow it down to the layer of the mind only, but provide scope for developing the other layers as well. The aim is to give students the opportunity to extend their own range of consciousness by heightening, widening and deepening their instrumental domains.
- Respect for the relationship between being (to live in the presence of the highest consciousness an individual can perceive) and becoming (the outward, surface consciousness in which we usually live).
- The view that each student is a unique being who is developing the inner nature and the innermost qualities of the soul as well as the outer capacities in the surface domains—mental, affective, volitional and physical. The progressive manifestation of the soul in the surface nature has to take place in and through daily life. Each student has to be able to find his/her individual level of integration.
- The acknowledgement of the concepts of svabhāva and svadharma as the essential principles through which a human being can express him/herself in this world.
Living according to one’s svadharma generates true and perfect action in the world. It is the best that an individual can give to society. By neglecting the search for one’s svabhāva one loses one’s true authenticity; neglecting the ideal of svadharma leads to both the nation and the individual losing out. The modern consumer society encourages us to live completely in the surface consciousness and wants us to believe that we are happiest when spending money on all kinds of goods. By now, we all know that this attitude has ruined our earth, bringing it almost to a point of no return. It is the task of education to offer students the broadest range of world-views with as little bias as possible, so that they can reflect on the choices they want to make. It is for the students to decide consciously how much importance they give to the soul and to the surface nature, and to work out a personal balance between these in their daily lives (Mirambika, 2013).
A broad-based integral education asks for a shift in educational methodology. Teachers often complain about the lack of motivation in students. But is it really the fault of the students? In our present educational system, students can construct or create a positive self-image only with reference to their success in the material and external world. Education has largely turned into a race for the highest marks, which, it is wrongly believed, will enable children later to make the most money and so be happy. Unfortunately, this system inherently gives importance and provides satisfaction to the natural inclinations of only a few students; it hardly allows other precious aspects of the human nature to be developed in the classroom. Yet, many children know from within that they have other important qualities, and that the value of their life is reduced by not cultivating these. My experience is that students deeply appreciate it when they are getting time to reflect without compulsion. Learning primarily for outer gains, like the highest marks, has reduced students to the level of input-output devices. Not being part of the highest 20 per cent leaves a feeling of being-not-capable-enough in 80 per cent of young adolescents. As long as the educational model complies with this single-track race, the nation loses the great potential and precious qualities of millions of young people.
A clear sign pointing to the need for a shift in methodology is the complaint of employers that young recruits are not creative, and that they lack initiative and responsibility when they enter the job market. The responsibility rests squarely with schools, where rote-learning is still the accepted mode of knowledge transfer, destroying enthusiasm, creative potential and an inquiring attitude. Allotting plenty of time for self-directed learning, as in the project-mode, is an alternative that seems to work well.
For a long time, educationists have been talking about child-centred education. But even now, in practice, instead of appreciating the faculties and qualities of the child in its entirety, it is the mark sheet of the child that stands at the centre! There can be no doubt that the Western model of education has allowed humankind to make enormous technological progress, but it has by and large ignored the spiritual aspects of life. This one-sided progress has led us close to the destruction of the ecological balance of the earth. The craving for power and wealth is so strong that even now, calls for constraint by eminent scientists are hardly heeded. Can the balance be restored so as to prevent the world-wide disasters set off by indiscriminate human craving? Paying greater attention in education to the qualities of our innermost essence will help us to utilize our scientific discoveries in a more ethical manner. At the beginning of this century a light on the educational horizon has been the fact that the UNESCO has realized this need and appointed a commission to bring out a report on the educational model of the twenty-first century. Significantly, this report is titled Learning: The Treasure Within. Basically, Indian education was founded on this concept, even though it was lost during colonial times, the echo can still be heard. India, located as it is at the beginning of a significant economic development, can still avoid making the same mistakes as the West. The inherent strength of the integral world-view that she nurtured throughout the ages needs now to be translated into a new model of education.
India plays an important role in the information society. To remain not only a successful but also a responsible player in this field, both the content and method of schooling have to change. The fact that the changes needed in schools and colleges are so much in harmony with a more integral, more Indian approach to life seems to provide a wonderful opportunity. My experience in working with young adults in colleges showed that they want a curriculum that incorporates time for self-enquiry and self-development, with open-ended discussions that help them to reflect on their role in society. In short, they want a study environment that encourages them to discover for themselves who they are and how they want to shape their lives and become responsible citizens.
Part II — Suggestions for implementation
Shifts in the content of education
To bring about this integration, two major shifts related to educational content are needed.
The first concerns the way we look at the content of the syllabus. The course content must not be seen as mere information that has to be transferred to the students. Instead, the content must serve as a means to evoke in the students thought processes and personal experiences. In this way, learning can become truly experiential. It is only when a teacher shifts focus and starts concentrating on the self-development of the student instead of on the effective transfer of content that learning becomes integral.
The second shift is related to learning levels and modalities. Students are naturally at different levels of both inner and outer development. Moreover, they come from a variety of backgrounds and have various talents. The use of a single textbook approach will not provide opportunities for optimum learning. Most teachers will agree that in the present system, both the intelligent and the weaker students suffer. Moreover, students with some special gift are not given the opportunity to practise and develop it other than in a few periods of so-called co-curricular activities. There is thus a need for an entirely new approach related to learning material.
A practical solution allowing for the required diversity in learning levels and learning content is a combination of a relatively small compulsory Minimum Common Syllabus for all students, combined with extensive periods of self-directed learning in which the student chooses what and how s/he wants to learn. It could be acquiring a skill, working on a quality, speeding ahead in a certain subject, mastering a certain content in depth, using time for self-reflection, etc.
In practice, this can be worked out by daily setting apart certain common self-directed learning periods for all students at a certain level (let’s say class 9 and 10) in the school. This makes most of the teachers (including arts and crafts teachers) who teach at that level available to the students during these periods. This also offers students a wide variety of choices and teachers. Students sign up in advance for a certain project, either offered by a teacher or requested by one or more students. One of the requirements for a positive outcome of project work is the availability of a rich diversity of learning materials on various learning levels. This provides individual students with a good choice and allows for a wide range in learning opportunities and optimum development. The project approach has been successfully implemented in several integral schools.2
The details of the other half of this method, the Minimum Common Syllabus, has to be worked out with great care, but the total quantity of learning material in the MCS need not be more than what an average student can complete in half the time of the regular syllabus.
Shifts in methodology linked to present day technology
It has been explained that our present situation calls for major shifts in our teaching-learning practices. The major shift here is to acknowledge that learning is a process. Several facts point in the same direction. First is the revolution in educational technology, with data readily available on CDs, DVDs, and on the Internet. This calls for an important change in our attitude towards information transfer: it has become more necessary for students to learn how to process information than to collect a vast stock of facts learned by rote. Two other important trends need to be considered here. Due to the fast progress of science, data become rapidly outdated and have to be readjusted continuously. Also, knowledge has become so specialized that it is impossible for any educational system to offer inputs that are complete enough. So we find that when a graduate begins a new job, most companies first provide him or her with a specialized training period of several weeks. Thus, the current reality is that any effective system of education must equip students with the skills needed for the fast pace and complexity of the information age, in which memorizing one fixed set of facts useful for all has become less relevant than it used to be.
Shifts in the process of education related to values
When the aim of the educational process is the development of the student, the subject matter is meant to help a student widen and deepen his world, and gain insight into his own qualities, capacities and skills. Applied in this way, it will lead the student to ask questions such as—Who am I? What do I want to do, to become? What is the required factual knowledge? What type of inner knowledge do I need to reach my goals? The aim here is not to tell the students the ‘right’ answer, like in moral education classes, but to be a good facilitator and create an environment in which the student feels safe to truly grapple with these questions, and come personally to the most authentic answers. Only when self-knowledge is thus gained and integrated can we utilize it effectively in our daily actions, and only then do we become self-reliant citizens.
In an integral learning environment, self-reflection can become a natural part of the daily routine. Quiet time can be set aside on a regular basis to create the habit of self-observation. On an individual level, it centres on the question ‘Who Am I?’ and includes reflection on personal problems and achievements, positive as well as negative incidents. Reflection in a group is beneficial when it relates to a specific event, positive or negative, that occurred in the classroom during the day. This will foster in the students a high level of self-awareness and encourage sensitivity to group dynamics. In this way, students become aware that they are endowed with different capacities and qualities and start utilizing them to enhance the social fabric. Many students start realizing their natural weaknesses and natural strengths. Consequently, they make an effort to overcome their weaknesses and perfect their strengths all the more.
Each one of us is like a doorkeeper (dvārapāla). Self-perfection is closely related to self-control. It gives enormous strength when one has learnt, through self-awareness and feedback (not moral judgement), to view the effect of one’s actions and one’s decisions. The point here is to help a student grow into a conscious young adult, who can make conscious choices about his/her aim in life and live from that strength.
Another important shift that needs to be made is in the attitude towards mistakes. When we stop chiding students for their mistakes and allow them space to see that mistakes do actually facilitate learning and are pointers towards greater perfection, fear and stress will fall away. If we look at ourselves, we have to admit that we never learned anything without making mistakes. So mistakes are a natural part of any learning process. We must end practices that make students feel ashamed or shrink from their mistakes. Instead, we must help students realize that each mistake is an opportunity for further development, a pointer or a road sign to greater accomplishment.
In general, to gain self-control from within, the attitude towards the teaching of values has to undergo a drastic change. Control through punishment and moralizing takes away trust and responsibility from the learner, and deadens motivation. A caring teacher allows students the space to take responsibility for good as well as bad behaviour. S/he allows self-exploration, so that the values can arise from within.
To illustrate these points, I quote here part of an article written in 2006 by a young woman who was for 10 years a student of an integral school.3
Once Damini (a friend) and I did a project on [our school]—we made a whole booklet out of it, with a lot of metaphorical drawings, interviews of students, teachers and the principal. All this was compiled together with our own, very coherent opinions. So, each project included many different facets—a wide variety of ways to learn, apart from just the academic bit. There was a lot of art, fieldwork (like a trip to a marble factory, collecting heavy rocks, etc.)
… the system [of education] lays a lot of emphasis on freedom; freedom from structures, from prescribed modes of thought, from inhibitions, from fear. But this freedom never came without responsibility. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand, and together culminate into self-discipline. Self-discipline is to me true discipline, which comes from within a human being and is not imposed or forced on her/him. This constitutes an individual in the true sense of the word—someone who does not do things by being compelled to by others, but simply because her/his convictions urge her/him to do it. Motivation and freedom that are self-realized see much better results than those that are obligatory (Saranda, 2006).
Shifts in procedures of evaluation
Assessment of the students’ work has to be in harmony with the process of awakening, and in harmony with the focus on the development of qualities and capacities of the students. Therefore, a major shift to be introduced in assessment procedures of students is that assessment has to be focused on development and not on ranking. The main role of the teacher should not be that of a taskmaster and judge, but that of a guide and facilitator. The new attitude is to help a student make progress, not for the sake of high marks, but for individual growth. In this context, it is important that teachers observe the students with empathy.
The assessment required should be diagnostic and not judgemental. This is an assessment in which the student participates and gains insight into his own learning process. The teacher/facilitator provides positive feedback and helps the student to understand for her/himself if something needs more attention, or if s/he can directly proceed to the next stage, etc. Self-evaluation by the student is an important component of this process (see also Huppes, 2001, pp. 252, 226, 176).
Shifts in teacher education
A shift in the content and methodology in Elementary and Secondary education necessitates a shift in the content and methodology in Teacher Education. This in turn requires a shift in the attitude of teacher-educators—from taskmaster to facilitator. The core issue is that the methodology of the teacher education colleges has to reflect the philosophy of learning for personal growth. Imposition and rote learning, which entails a closed learning process in which we create dependency, has to be replaced by an open learning process of positive suggestion in which student-teachers explore their own capacities and qualities, and simultaneously acquire the knowledge and skills related to the teaching-learning processes that facilitate self-development. It is important to realize that high marks in test papers do not provide certainty for being a good teacher. The length of this chapter prevents detailed descriptions, but some of the major shifts are listed below:
- The methodology of the teaching-learning process of teacher education institutes has to be in harmony with the aim that the student-teacher will learn to become a guide and facilitator instead of a task master and disciplinarian.
- Student-teachers must be empowered with planning skills for optimum individual learning, simultaneously handling a variety of learning materials for multiple levels of learning in the classroom.
- The focus of learning must be learning-for-development, while recognizing that the physical, affective, cognitive and spiritual domains all have a place in the teaching-learning process. The shift in methodology must help the teacher to experience the value of all these domains for her/himself, and through that develop the skills for implementing such learning in the classroom.
- Another important component to be introduced in the teaching-learning process of teacher education institutes is allotting time and structures in their syllabus for self-observation and self-reflection. Keeping a daily journal will lead to self-awareness and self-perfection. It is important to encourage student-teachers to find ways unique to their disposition and develop their style of facilitating learning so that they will continue this while working in schools.
- Implementation of these components will necessitate a change in the evaluation procedures of the teacher education institutes, and make self-evaluation by the student-teachers a component that matters.
Conclusion: Kurukṣetra in our own life
We are living in a period of great intensity. Spiritually as well as materially, it is a time of transition and change. How can a positive change come about? Till now, humanity has mainly been busy with what we could call ‘outer’ changes, in the hope that these would bring a more comfortable life. It is time to realize that happiness will be an elusive aim unless we learn first to live a nobler life. We can go on changing strategies and institutions, but this will have a lasting effect only if we first change ourselves. Sages and social scientists have told us over and over again that inner change has to precede outer change, and that the future of the world will not improve by changing only outer conditions and remodelling institutions. For as long as human beings remain the same, outer innovations will break down rapidly. It is the quality that comes from a profounder state of consciousness that has to be the guiding principle in the new initiatives that humankind is looking for. The changes that we have to bring about in our organizations and institutions have to be founded on an inner truth that is waiting to be expressed. This ‘living from within’ does not mean an impoverishment in the mental and affective domains. What it does mean is self-knowledge and mastery, which will keep us away from action at the expense of others or the earth. When we live a more integrated life, we naturally create harmony and beauty. Since our lives are still embedded in the old ways of living, it requires effort to make this inner shift. Some parts in us may resist and shy away, or return to the beaten track. Yet, if we look at the present world, it seems to cry out for a qualitative change. The appreciation and cultivation of soul qualities has from ancient times been inherently linked with the Indian civilization. It is one of the most precious gifts that India can give to this world. In the field of education, it is up to administrators, psychologists and educationists to be instruments in this process.4 The time seems to be ripe for a change in this direction; it is an ideal whose time has come!
Aurobindo, Sri (1976). Essays on the Gita. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram. (Original work published 1922).
Aurobindo, Sri (1988). The life divine. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram. (Original work published 1940).
Aurobindo, Sri & Mother, The (1990). Sri Aurobindo and The Mother on education. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust. (Original work published 1956).
Huppes, N. (2001). Psychic education, a workbook. New Delhi: SAES.
Mirambika (2013). Paths to self-discovery: Reflective practices with children. New Delhi: Mirambika, Research Centre for Integral Education and Human Values.
Sarandha (2006). A Tribute to Mirambika on its 25th anniversary. The Awakening Ray, 10(4).
Sibia, A. (2006). Life at Mirambika. A free progress school. New Delhi: NCERT.
UNESCO (1996). Learning: The treasure within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century. Paris: UNESCO.