The Soup Of Well-Being
from a full interview done for The Trumpeter, Shambhala Elementary
School Newsletter, March 1995
An interview with Beth Sutton, director of Enki
Education - (revised April 7, 2005)
Trumpeter: the question "What is Shambhala
education" continues to percolate, both inside our school
and in the community at large. Some say the Enki approach, which
we use here, seems to have a lot in common with Waldorf
We describe ourselves as "arts-based." Since many of
the people involved in this particular school are Buddhist practitioners,
some people wonder if this is a Buddhist
Education. Can you say
in essence what makes this school Shambhalian?
Beth Sutton: There might be, actually there already are,
many different expressions of Shambhala education. But I think
as sort of bottom line reality for any Shambhala School, and the
same is true for any Enki school or homeschool
it is formally a Shambhala school or not, lies in the fact that
is the understanding that human wisdom is found everywhere - in
all people, in all cultures, in all times. Whether we are talking
about Buddhist Education, Christian Education, or Secular Humanist
Education, the heart is the same. Enki Education is not a recipe;
it's an outlook and it will unfold somewhat differently in different
situations but we will always be looking to honor and cultivate
that basic human wisdom and vitality, seen as the center of all
these contemplative and humanistic traditions, both religious and
Trumpeter: I've heard you describe these teachings as a mirror
which reflects a truth that is both universal and personal at the
same time. Could you say something about that?
Beth: If you remember a moment in your life that had a quality
of real seeing or understanding - the famous "Ah haa!" or "Ohhh!" experience
- I think you'll recognize what I'm talking about. Everyone has
had many experiences of this. Maybe it was triggered by a parent,
a teacher, a spiritual master, a lover, a friend, the grocer -
even an enemy. When someone shows you something which touches your
precise experience, when you feel fully seen or heard, you're touched
on a totally personal level and in that moment you are also very
connected to the pulse of being human.
Fortunately for us all, our most unique, secret, hidden place is
also shared by human kind. That is seems to be how it works - the
door to ourselves is the door to everyone else too. I know that
this is core to the Enki teachings, I believe it is core of any
spiritual or contemplative teachings, including the Shambhala teachings
and Buddhist Education. It is at the center of the Enki approach
to teaching and learning. As far as I'm concerned, this process
of mirroring is present whenever true learning takes place, in
any school, anywhere in life, regardless of philosophy or methodology
Trumpeter: What exactly you mean by "Mirroring"?
Beth: Well, you can see children trying to find this experience,
this sense of being reflected or mirrored by the world, in the
books they love. Look at the two year old begging for "Where
the Wild Things Are", again and again and again. What more
perfect example of "Wild things" could there be than
a two year old? Or look at the early adolescent girl who is held
captive by "The Diary of Anne Frank". This story is painfully
personal, and it is the story of every teen internally locked away
in her own world. This mirroring is a natural human process. The
difference here is that in this approach to education we choose
to work with it actively and consciously in every single aspect
of our curriculum and methodology.
Trumpeter: How does this work
in the classroom - say in grade 2?
Beth: If you look at second graders, in any school system,
chances are you'll see very active children. If you watch them
in the playground they cast a mischievous, sideways look at you
as they run by. Often you overhear a lot of teasing and trick playing.
Almost invariably, you see them playing partner clapping games
- "Playmate, come out and play with me" or "Miss
Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had the bell ..." . Later,
in a quiet moment, you may find them drawing pictures of the latest
super hero or of beautiful kings and queens. Our starting point
is to look at the children's play and see who they are, what they're
telling us about their inner world, their longings, their needs,
and their developmental capacities. Rudolf Steiner was particularly
gifted at making this the kind of observation and has been able
to shed a tremendous amount of light, and offer valuable guidance
to the choices we make. But no matter what we use to enrich our
observation, it is still our own observation that is our starting
point; it is our continual checking point, and the place we look
to judge our results. This is where we discover what kinds of stories
and activities, what academic challenges and what social ones,
will be most nourishing for the children at any given time.
in the second grade, whether using the classroom or homeschool
curriculum, we work with stories of tricksters, stories in which
The trickster prods and provokes everyone else until a great display
unfolds. Each character or energy is welcomed and delighted in.
Nothing is rejected or suppressed, just explored. Hearing these
stories the children have a safe way to explore their own new and
wild energy, honoring it without fear of its impact.
Just as the
children balance their play with a quiet moments of looking for
heroes, we balance the trickster stories by telling
of "wise elders" - real men and women such as Harriet
Tubman, Benjamin Franklin, Milarepa, St. Elizabeth, Black Elk,
Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, the Baal Shem Tov, and so
on. The longings that drive the super hero fads can find real nourishment
in these stories, giving the children the food they need to grow.
And, peeking into our grade two classroom, you will see that as
the children hear about Black Elk or Stalking Wolf, their clapping
games are transformed into the stone and stick games of the Plains
people, complete with songs and clapping and passing. The clapping
games are just as easily transformed into active memorization of
the multiplication tables, as well.
The central principle here
is that we can trust the children to guide their own growth. Although
their words are usually quite
misleading, if you watch them, you will see that they are asking
for exactly what they need at any age. Our job is to mirror back
to them an uplifted experience of what they have requested. In
this way, we bring them into their own wisdom and a sense of the
dignity of humanity.
Trumpeter: Some of what you're describing sounds like Waldorf
education. Is this approach different in any basic ways?
Beth: You originally asked if we were a Waldorf or a Buddhist
Education, Arts-based or something else. The answer is yes, we're
all of those. But that list could be longer too. It could include
other cultural and educational traditions. We focus on seeing human
wisdom and vitality wherever they arise, so we look into all available
corners for that wisdom. That foundation is quite different from
the Waldorf foundation, and while we are grateful for all we have
gained from Rudolf Steiner’s amazing work, Enki grows from
a very different core philosophy and thus us a very different education.
As this school grows and more stories, songs, and
rituals unfold, this will all be more evident. There will just
as easily be questions
about whether we are a Christian, Islamic, scientific, Native American,
African, Montessori, or Buddhist Education, and so on. People will
also recognize the skill mastery techniques of traditional education
and the integrated project learning of theme-based education, along
with many aspects of the Waldorf
Inspired Programs. But for us
the answer to what we are will continue to be the same: we're focused
wisdom and vitality wherever they arise. We want the child to experience
himself - his struggles, his successes, his dreams - in every man.
That's what makes this a spiritual, yet not sectarian approach.
Trumpeter: That sounds like it could be a very rich curriculum,
but how do you prevent it from becoming an eclectic hodgepodge.
Beth: If we just looked at the world around us and took
whatever we like and mixed it altogether, I think we would wind
up with what my sons used to call "Pirate knock-out" -
many children call it everything putting, add a little vinegar
and it explodes! If you look around you can see that this is what
happens in many of today's "eclectic" schools. We're
more interested in creating a nourishing and elegant soup. Basically,
all the ingredients have always been here, that's the nature of
being human, of being in the world. We're not inventing something;
we're working with the same ingredients available to everyone.
It's just a particular mix, making this particular soup.
Trumpeter: How do you decide
what to include in the mix at any given time?
Beth: Well, to continue with the soup analogy, you need
to know if you are making minestrone, carrot, or French onion.
That knowledge is what will guide you in your choices. We need
to know what kind of soup we're making. The answer for us is quite
simple. We're after a soup that will nourish the children's sense
of well-being, their sense of confidence and interest in the world.
All the academic, artistic, and social skills are ingredients in
that soup, but they're not the soup. We define well being as a
harmony, or integration of body, heart and mind.
This sense of
integration is our center pole, our guideline. If an "ingredient" - whatever classroom
activity it maybe - contributes to the children's well-being
in any particular moment,
it is appropriate; if it doesn't contribute is not appropriate,
no matter how happy it makes the children are how clever or glamorous
it may be.
Trumpeter: It seems like the approach you're describing
would demand a lot of the classroom teacher. He or she would have
very sensitive to the children's underlying state of being, moment
Beth: Yes. The teacher must always be ready to meet the
moment. You have to have a clean palette because we're going to
flavor soup by tasting it. That's really all we can do - all the
recipes in the world won't replace the experience of tasting of
the soup. However, if we just ate chocolate or hot sauce will have
a warped sense of what we're tasting. So we begin with the basic
clear water rinse. Even the fancy sorbet is too much. Just clear
water. In this approach, that is the teachers' meditation practice.
For the teacher, we believe that the most important
aspect she can cultivate is her own state of being, her intuition,
connectedness. All the great materials and clever schemes in the
world can never replace this. Central to this cultivation is the
disciplining of her mind and integrating her own body, heart and
mind. To this end we work with a nonsectarian, mindfulness meditation
practice as an ongoing part of our work as teachers.
practice has been used in many traditions throughout the world;
it is used in Buddhist education, Christian, Jewish,
Islamic and many others, and is currently being used in stress-management
programs at high pressure businesses and in hospital programs for
those suffering from stress disorders. In this meditation, we simply
sit down and bring our attention to our breath, gently noticing
its path as it flows out. As we discipline our attention in this
way we quickly notice how tremendously unruly our thoughts are.
This noticing and returning to a focused attention is the mindfulness.
Over time we naturally become more and more settled. Our thoughts
and feelings do not carry us away with such force. The simple act
of sitting still and noticing what arises, rather than acting on
or reacting to it, brings a kind of fearless openness.
knowledge gained from her training and the openness gained from
her meditation practice, the teacher has the tools she needs.
Now it is up to her to approach the classroom door thoroughly prepared,
but on turning the knob she has to drop everything and enter the
room with a real openness and trust in her knowledge, experience,
creativity, and compassion. I once heard a very experienced teacher
describe this as "entering the room simple, naive, and awake.” Each
teacher has to have to freedom to follow her lesson plan exactly,
modify it a bit, or throw the whole thing out - depending on how
she reads the needs of the class. Whatever she chooses it must
come from the place Suzuki Roshi calls "Beginner's Mind".
One could say that beginner's mind is the clean palate; mediation
is a way to cultivate it. That is what allows us to discriminate
what needs to be added to the soup, and it is what allows us to "taste" when
the mixture is really harmonious and nutritious. And that is what
we are after.