Finding Relationship as a Base for Neohumanist Classroom Practice

By Dr. Marcus Bussey

“Science is the search for the external order in our world and spirituality is the search for the inner order within consciousness. They share the objective of searching for truth” i


Neohumanism is about our relationship with the world; or, to be more specific, about developing our relationship with the world. It provides a spiritual basis for thinking about life and its priorities. It is pragmatic in nature because it looks at the relationship between spirituality and science as beautifully articulated by Gallegos Nava above and explores the ground between science and spirit; matter and soul. Modern life tends to diminish our relationship with the world; to make it functional and rule based. Meaningful relationships take us beyond transactional and functional interactions. Neohumanism has a powerful educational agenda and offers us rich futures because learning happens as a result of relationship.


Education is a structured expression of relationship. If our relational awareness is shallow, if our experience of life is shallow, then our learning will also be shallow. To educate for relationship requires us as teachers to explore relational depth. There is no way around this. As we explore relationship we discover respect and dialogue in which the encounter with an ‘other’ expands us. All such encounters with another – be it a rock, tree, human being – imply risk because dialogue and expansion bring change to our core self. This change can threaten our fragile modern identity. Neohumanism helps us overcome this fear of relationship by developing a sense of love for all. The mantra baba nam kevalam (love is all there is) is the basis for all Neohumanist educational work. It is amazing to think that an entire curriculum can be captured in such a simple formula!


Because modern education is implicitly about control of the world around each isolated ego it is based on fear. To have no control is a terrifying thing for a modern mind. So, many lessons we as teachers have learned in our education need to be unlearned. First of all we need to rethink what it means to be in a classroom with others. Are we to be dominators or co-creators? Are we a general or a partner? Neohumanism, as a relational approach to learning, requires we think about authority and how to express this in a way that truly empowers others. Secondly, we need to explore pathways to authority that grows from within – from relationship – rather than from without through the imposition of one will over another. Relational authority is based on love. Love is based on trust and this grows out of respect. To respect a co-learner, to see them as whole and as the best they are, is the first gift of a Neohumanist to another being.


Neohumanism is the philosophy of Ananda Marga but its expression is common to all deep spiritual movements because the spirit does not recognise any ‘ism’. It leaps above dogma and blind ‘faith for faith’s sake’. Spirituality is in fact a form of inquiry. It is the most fundamental form of inquiry as it starts at relationship and seeks to understand how we are all connected. This seeking is based on the yearning of the human spirit to know. We seek to know how we are related and to understand why we keep coming back to relating. Without relationship there is no us; no me; no you – there is in fact nothing outside of relationship. This is a deep spiritual law that is largely ignored by modern education. Many deep thinkers recognise this omission and we, as teachers committed to relationship, are all involved in a major experiment to bring relationship back into education. Neohumanist schools are part of this experiment – we have our own set of tools and practices that help us begin to understand relationship.


It helps however to start thinking about what it means to be a Neohumanist teacher by exploring the work of deep souls who are sharing this journey but have not heard of Neohumanism. It helps because these souls have identified profound truths about relationship and learning and they began from where we stand today. There are many who we can turn to but the first is the wonderful educator/guide/soul Parker Palmer.


In a beautiful article he wrote entitled “The Grace of Great Things”ii he talks about the sacred in education. Can you imagine that – the audacity to think about the sacred in education! He is quite candid and states that his coming to the sacred grew out of years of painful depression. The world for him was grey, flat uninspired – in short, it was de-sacralised! A world without spirit is a terrible place to find oneself in, for Parker it nearly broke his mind and heart. Yet he woke up when he experienced the sacred first hand – a voice said to him in the midst of his despair and pain “I love you, Parker”.


He writes:

“That experience opened me to the definition of sacred that I want to explore. It is a very simple definition” The sacred is that which is worthy of respect. As soon as we understand this, then we see that the sacred is everywhere. There is nothing – in its undistorted form, rightly conceived and understood – that is not worthy of respect.”


“So the first thing that a people who know the sacred would know in education is the precious otherness of things of the world…The second thing that such a people would know is the precious inwardness of the things of the world.”

“Third, by recovering the sacred, we might recover our sense of community with each other and with all creation…”

“Fourth, if we recover a sense of the sacred, we will recover the humility that makes teaching and learning possible.”

“Finally, if we recover our sense of the sacred, we could recover our capacity for wonder and surprise, essential qualities in education.”


Now ‘voices’ come in many forms. Children often speak as a vehicle for our greater understanding. The thing is to understand that you do not have to be ‘special’ to hear voices or to experience the sacred. It is everyone’s birth right. We have unlearned how to hear and see the sacred. We are born embedded in a great field of relationship and we are taught to disassociate from the field in order to become whole individuals. Yet by striving for this wholeness in splendid isolation we lose it!


Jeremy Hayward is clear about this. In a paper he wrote called “Unlearning to See the Sacred”iii he makes the following point:


“We grow up to perceive certain things and not to perceive other things. And what we can and cannot perceive depends to a surprisingly large extent on what we believe: on our vision of our world and what it is made of.”


So the question is “What do we believe?” That is a big question and I think we are always re-negotiating the answer. What do we believe about this world? Is it more than matter? What evidence do we have? What experiences have we had that validate our answer? How do we feel when we ‘believe’ this? Etc… Now we must remember that a belief is only a thought we repeat over and over again. To move beyond belief to a deep understanding requires experience. So most days we experience the world as matter. We do so because we do not look beyond it. We have unlearnt to see the world as sacred. Hayward makes this point beautifully when he says:


“Suppose you go for a walk next week, say Monday at five o’clock, after you leave work. Go for a walk, stop in front of a rock, and ask yourself, “Is this rock sacred?” Your thinking might say, “Of course. I agreed with everything in that nice little book.” But what will your body say? What will the cells of your body say? How will your body vibrate to that rock? How will your heart feel the rock? This is the real question.”


Now this point may seem both prosaic and theoretical, but really it requires us to think and act and be in a very different way when we are in the classroom, outside the classroom, at home, in the bathroom, in the shops. It requires something more of us and this is challenging because we are, for the most part, pretty happy with ourselves. We have reached some kind of working compromise with existence and this thing we call identity. To push into the sacred threatens us because when we come to the sacred, to the relationship and respect that lies at the heart of the sacred we are exposed. There is no hiding in this place. We must rise to meet it.


Everything changes, and keeps changing, when we let the sacred in. And it all starts at home base with us: each individual has to take the same journey even though the terrain will be unique. This is a journey of consciousness. It involves us becoming aware. We start to wake up to ourselves. There is no going back when we start this journey. When we begin to recognize ourselves ‘in relationship’ everything changes. We find that respect at the heart of the sacred.


Immediately we are confronted with relationship and an extended set of ethical dilemmas. For instance, how do we negotiate our relationship with our own bodies? If our bodies are sacred, as a spiritual vision of life would assert, how do we treat our own bodies with respect? What are the implications of this for us? Similarly, if we see our minds as sacred we must ask, how do we respect our minds? What do we put in our minds? Then of course we must ask the same questions for others. The nature of teaching is not to preach this, but to enact it. To enact relationship means we must feel it in every cell of our being. This is where the curriculum starts!


Rachael Kessler sums this up as: “We teach who we are”. In a great article called Soul of Students, Soul of Teachersivshe points out:


“…beyond technique, conceptual understanding, and curriculum, the most effective teaching also includes the quality of our own presence – what is commonly known in our profession as modeling”


Kessler’s work has focused on how to ground ourselves so that we can be aware of relationship. She focuses on silence, openness, listening, joy, creativity, trust, care, presence and patience, meaning and purpose. This is a great list and is an invitation for us to explore our teaching through our connection to our inner world where purpose, strength and personal power well up as if by magic.


Hayward argues that we attract protective entities when we turn to what we truly love in life, seeing all connected, and set out on the journey to become our potential:


“Recognize that our world is imbued with living vital energy, through and through. Appreciate this, join in this, be part of this living world – and then you will begin to attract the dralas [protective spirits in Tibetan Buddhism]. Appreciate time, the sacredness of time, moments in time. Appreciate place, or space – place is the relativity of space. Appreciate passion – whatever your passion, whatever you love. First find what you love; and then do it, whatever it is. You won’t harm anyone or anything if you actually love. Find your passion, express it, and that way you will attract the muses, the gods and goddesses of creativity.”


This is a powerful message. So what holds us back? Usually it is fear of becoming vulnerable. We have invested our lifetimes in managing to appear invulnerable, secure, stable, strong. This act is a belief that we have chanted to ourselves over and over again: the mantra of identity is our greatest addiction and the drug is fear. To accept relationship via the sacred is to accept vulnerability. Ironically it is also to accept our personal power. This also means to accept responsibility for the world we live in! Maryanne Williamson gave this insight powerful expression when she noted:


“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”


Neohumanism is a call to step into this role but not in isolation but in community because when we accept relationship we accept love and understand that we are not alone. That as Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar points out: “The force that guides the stars guides you too”!


i Nava, R. G. (2001), Holistic Education: Pedagogy of Universal Love. Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal
ii Palmer, Parker (1999), “The Grace of Great Things” in The Heart of Learning – Spirituality in Education, edited by Steven Glazer
iii Hayward, Jeremy (1999),“Unlearning to See the Sacred” in The Heart of Learning – Spirituality in Education, edited by Steven Glazer
iv Kessler, Rachael, (2001) “Soul of Students, Soul of Teachers”, Schools with Spirit Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by, Linda Lantieri, Beacon Press, Boston