Reflections on spirituality

Ramgopal Konneripalli

Every year, usually around January, a small group of individuals across a few states in India have been meeting unfailingly for 23 years. They spend 2-3 days together, usually in some small school building, sharing from their journeys, talking, singing, taking walks and just being together. After that they all go their ways, on their journeys like travellers in a desert recharged after a stop at an oasis. The people in this gathering or ‘the Education Network’ as it has come to be called, are all individuals working in the area of education from different parts of India, mostly the southern states of India and Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. One of the annual reports of the network meetings describes the network in the following words:

“The network is an informal group of individuals from the southern states of India (Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Goa, and Kerala) who are active in the field of education with an ‘alternative’ view point. The group numbers around 35-40. Individual members of the network belong to institutions, but do not ‘represent’ them. Most of us are involved in schools or similar educational programmes which are small in size and do not receive government funding. Over the last six years, the network has grown to be a biradri, a community of fellowship of like minded persons. We differ amongst ourselves over many matters but are most happy to meet and share our experiences thoughts and joys and sorrows.” (Network Meeting Report 4, 1996)

Almost twenty years have passed since this note on the network was written, yet it continues to meet every year and the spirit remains the same. This meeting is hosted by one of the individual members, usually in a school that she/he runs/works. This way the meeting venue rotates among the different places from where the members come, giving the other members an opportunity to be there, get a sense of that place, the work there and the context of the work that is happening there too. This year, Centre for Learning, based in Hyderabad, along with help from Anandabharathi, hosted the meeting. Since the gathering this time was larger than the usual 20-25 (this time over 40 members came), they hosted the meeting in Naimisam, a KFI retreat about 35 kms East of Hyderabad. The members first got together at the Centre for Learning facility in Secunderabad on 24th January for a session of singing by the children there and breakfast (Dhaneesh, teacher and baker at CFL, served some memorable bakes!)

The meeting started with a round of introductions by the members. This time, particularly there were many more newcomers than usual in the meeting and it was very heartening to see a lot more young people choosing to engage with children and education not merely as an employment but as critically engaging work.

The introductions were followed by a two minute silence in the memory of Shanta Rameshwar Rao who passed away a couple of days earlier – and whom some of the Network members were planning to meet. Shanta Rameshwar Rao was remembered for being a pioneer of alternative education in Hyderabad. She was remembered for being a dedicated educator, a very lively person with a sense of fun. She set an example of how a life of privilege can be well spent.

cfl-meeting

This time the theme for the meeting, was ‘Education and Spirituality’. The session began with the group silently reading and reflecting on a few articles:

  1. What Does Spirituality in Education Mean? Stumbling Toward Wholeness by Laura Jones, Southern Oregon University, Journal of College & Character, VOLUME VI, NO. 7, October 2005.
  2. Science and Spirituality: Two Aspects of a Single Reality, Prof. P Krishna. http://www.pkrishna.org/.
  3. Education in Religion and Spirituality by Hanan Alexander and Terence H McLaughlin.
  4. Changing Notions of Moral and Moral Education by Nel Noddings and Michael Slote (3 and 4 both from the Sage Philosophy of Education reader).
  5. The Basis of Indigenous Spirituality, Yangkahao Vashum, Meeting Rivers Series – 48.

The hosts had also brought out an issue of Edu-Care on the theme of Spirituality and Education.

People then shared their questions around the theme and in the context of their work and lives – Are spirituality and religion the same?; How can indigenous peoples’ notion of spirituality be known, understood and experienced by children?; What is the relationship between spirituality and ethics?; Can conflict resolution be taught without touching on spirituality; Can we introduce spiritual practices of a particular institution in a school; What are the markers of spirituality? Can spirituality be taught in schools when, as I understand it, spirituality is an inward process? How is spirituality different from true education?; and so on.

These questions were left out there for people to consider and reflect upon.

Jane Sahi, from Sita School near Bangalore spoke about a small initiative in England where an individual placed a newspaper advertisement asking people to share a childhood experience that they thought was spiritual in nature. The advertisement received scores of enthusiastic responses. What was interesting about the responses, according to Jane, was that none was on any expected lines, none related to experiences in religious establishments, and most of the recollected memories were of experiences amidst nature.

People also shared their own experiences of spirituality as practiced in their schools. One of the practices that came up for discussion was that of the ‘silence time’ that a few schools practiced. Some people felt that although a few minutes of silence was planned as a part of the day, mostly the children needed a lot of supervision for them to really remain silent, and it seemed so imposed that one wondered if it had any real benefit. Yasmin from Centre for Learning, Bangalore, talking of their practice of silent time when the whole school spends a few minutes in silence, ,said that alumni who came back to the school after many years always appreciated and valued, in retrospect the ‘Silent’ time. So one is left to wonder about whether some experiences, even if they don’t make sense or are personally meaningful in the present, are still worthwhile, if they have the potential to take on meaning later in life. She also said that the issue was perhaps it was not about teaching spirituality but “about keeping the question alive” for the children.

The sessions most looked forward to are the ‘Sharing’ sessions, usually done late in the evenings. These sessions are for anybody to share their own personal experiences with the group. Over the years these sessions have been a forum for members to share their deepest experiences with people who will listen with care and sensitivity, without judgment. For many treading difficult paths, many times alone, these sessions have been a great source of strength and solidarity. The moral support that one draws in sharing in such a group is what has strengthened the bonds and this brings back members, year after year to the network meeting, despite their busy lives.

There was grimness to the mood in the final session with Nyla from Belgaum and Arun from Marudham farm school sharing their fear and despair over the ecological crisis that looms over us, which brought to the fore a question that Jane Sahi had earlier raised during the discussion around the theme, which is, how do we find the inner space, to respond to the violence around us?

Just as the English experiment on understanding people’s spiritual experiences, often the most memorable or valuable experiences are in unexpected spaces, or in spaces which are not designed specifically for the purpose. Even in this annual meet , the magic lies in the one to one conversations that happen outside over coffee, the walks, the time spent together cutting vegetables in the kitchen or serving food, climbing trees and of course spooky ghost stories and peals of laughter late in the night, in defiance of the ‘lights off’ rules ! They are what make these yearly meetings fun, lively and enriching, making us look forward to the next one. This time the group decided the next meet will happen in Belgaum where we will meet to explore ‘Hope beneath our feet’, which is the theme that came out from the group.

The reviewer is a teacher with Centre for Learning, Secunderabad. He can be reached at knramgopal@yahoo.com.