The Theosophical Society in America

Freeing the Mind: Krishnamurti’s Approach to Education

Printed in the Spring 2014 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: 
MoodyDavid Edmund. "Freeing the Mind: Krishnamurti's Approach to Education" Quest  102. 2 (Spring  2014): pg. 50-55

By David Edmund Moody 

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) was among the most admired spiritual teachers of the twentieth century. One central thrust of his teaching was the cultivation of a mind that is totally open and free of conditioned responses. Several schools were organized along the lines of his thought. Here David Moody writes of his experience teaching at one, the Oak Grove School in Ojai, California. —Ed.

 

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I met Krishnamurti for the first time in 1975, under the broad branches of the majestic pepper tree that stood like a sentinel before his cottage. It was late one afternoon in October, a few weeks after the inauguration of the Oak Grove School. He and his personal secretary, Mary Zimbalist, had come up to Ojai from Malibu, and he had expressed an interest in meeting the school’s main academic teacher.

 

Krishnamurti’s figure was diminutive; his dress was casual but tasteful; and he took my outstretched hand in both of his. His hands were warm and dry to the touch, but so sensitive and delicate that one did not wish to grasp them too firmly. He asked if we had met before, and I said we had not, although I had put a few questions to him from the audience at his public talks in Switzerland three years earlier.

He escorted me into the cottage, and we sat down there with the director of the school, Mark Lee, and two or three others. Krishnamurti asked if we all understood what the school was for, why it had been established, and what was our mission and function there. He touched my arm repeatedly in a gesture of reassurance. His manner was warm and friendly, and he said we would meet many times in the months ahead to discuss all the issues associated with the school.

The mission of the school was, in fact, unmistakable. It had been spelled out in black and white in a statement composed by Krishnamurti and was, in any case, apparent from the whole of his philosophy. The school’s aim was nothing less than to work a revolution in the consciousness of mankind—to bring about a way of life that was whole, sane, intelligent, and informed with a sense of the sacred. The central element in this intention was to “uncondition” the mind of the student, a process that entailed unconditioning the teacher as well. In this way, a new kind of mind would emerge, one that would affect the consciousness of the world.

The school operated under the auspices of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America, a private, charitable trust designed to facilitate Krishnamurti’s speaking schedule and to preserve a complete and authentic record of his work. In its first year, the school had only a handful of students, ranging in age from nine to twelve. Until permanent facilities could be constructed, classes were conducted on the ten-acre property at the far eastern end of the Ojai Valley. There, set amidst orange and avocado groves, were Pine Cottage, an office building, and a large, ranch-style residential structure known as Arya Vihara, Sanskrit for “noble dwelling.” By extension, the entire property was often referred to as Arya Vihara.

Mark Lee, the director of the school, had taught and served for several years as principal of the elementary section at Krishnamurti’s Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, India. Warm and congenial, with an aristocratic bearing, Mark was in his late thirties and stood well over six feet tall. He was highly presentable in manners and appearance, and thoroughly devoted to Krishnamurti and the work of the school.

The summer before the school opened, I had been hired by Mark to serve as the main academic teacher. The trajectory of my career at the age of twenty-eight had been somewhat uneven, and I had doubts about my suitability for this role. I had dropped out of a Ph.D. program in political philosophy at the University of California in Los Angeles, and my only teaching experience was as a private tutor. On the other hand, my interest in the field of psychology was deep and had been cultivated from adolescence as well as in my undergraduate years at the University of California in Berkeley. The study of investigators as diverse as Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow, and P.D. Ouspensky had perhaps prepared me to appreciate the scope and cogency of Krishnamurti’s contribution. In any case, the depth of my interest in his work was no doubt the greatest strength I brought to my employment.

Even in its embryonic stages, the school exhibited certain characteristics that were destined to endure for many years. Each morning began with an assembly attended by all the students and staff. Mark Lee or one of the members of the staff would make a short presentation of something he or she had read or realized, designed to inspire and edify young and older alike. Then there would be a moment or two of silence before classes began.

Academic subjects were taught in the morning, art and games in the afternoon. Our aim was excellence in all areas, but the students had their own agendas, which did not always coincide with ours. One young boy named Eli was bright and curious but physically was as restless as a monkey; he could not be contained in a chair or even in the classroom. Eventually he squirmed his way out of the school completely.

Lunch was a vegetarian affair, prepared on the premises for the staff. Meat was excluded from the menu as a matter of ethical principle, although students’ families were not required to do likewise at home.                                                                                                                                      

At the end of the day, the teachers and students gathered together for a short meeting that Mark called “wrap-up.” Any unresolved issues that had arisen during the day were supposed to be addressed and settled before the students went home. But wrap-up rarely had the intended effect. The students were tired and restless and in no mood for civilized discussion. Eventually the practice was discontinued.

The spacious lawns at Arya Vihara, the orange groves, and the family atmosphere gave the school a sense of charm and even, at times, an enchanted spirit. But I had high expectations for myself, the students, and the school, and was not easily satisfied. The management of classroom behavior is an art that every first-year teacher must master, and some never do. The challenge was exacerbated at Oak Grove by Krishnamurti’s philosophy of education: he insisted that the student should feel no sense of compulsion but nevertheless should behave with awareness and consideration for others.

A few weeks after our introduction, my first private meeting with Krishnamurti occurred, this time at my initiative. I wasn’t sure how to approach him and asked Mark Lee for guidance. I was told to just knock on the back door of his cottage and see if he was available. I did so late one afternoon and was greeted sweetly by Mary Zimbalist. Mary was a slender woman, middle-aged, with exquisite taste, porcelain beauty, and an acute intelligence. In response to my request, she said she would see if Krishnamurti was available. A moment later, he appeared and motioned for me to come in.

The back door of the cottage opened into the kitchen, where a small table and two chairs were situated under a window. We sat down there, and Krishnamurti waited for me to collect myself and state my business. I was too much in awe of the man and aware of my proximity to him to speak freely, but I managed to articulate the essence of the issue that had driven me to seek him out. “What is the law in the classroom?” I inquired.

Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy entailed the radical principle that reward and punishment were equally pernicious as a basis for shaping behavior or cultivating learning. Progressive schools such as Summerhill might forgo punishment as an operating procedure, but simultaneously to renounce “positive” incentives was symptomatic of the uniqueness of Krishnamurti’s approach. What remained unclear to a first-year teacher was what procedures remained, after reward and punishment were abandoned, in the event that misbehavior occurred.

Krishnamurti grasped the meaning and import of my question without any further elaboration. He held his head in his hands for a moment and then began to speak. In paraphrase, he answered along these lines:

The actual misbehaviors the students may exhibit, and my particular responses to them, must not be my primary concern. By the time those behaviors take place, the battle has already been lost. What is needed is to prevent the very possibility of misbehavior before it ever occurs. This requires creating an environment, an atmosphere, that is so special, so orderly, so clearly designed to take care of the student in every way, that he or she will immediately recognize it and respond by behaving accordingly. The student’s attitude will be, as the British say, that some things simply “aren’t done.”

To clarify the point, Krishnamurti employed the analogy of smoking cigarettes in a church. There one often feels the presence of some sacred quality. To smoke cigarettes in that presence would be simply unthinkable. He asked if I could cultivate a similar atmosphere in the classroom.

It was certainly not clear to me that I could cultivate such an atmosphere. I redirected the conversation back to the terms that made sense to me.

“So, there is no law in the classroom?” I asked. He seemed to shake his head to indicate, “No, there is not,” although I gathered that was not really the lesson he wanted me to take away from our conversation.

In late December, Krishnamurti embarked on a series of meetings with teachers and parents designed to articulate in detail the basic principles of the school. Why had it been established? What was the basic nature of the student and of society? What principles should guide educational processes and practices? These meetings occurred on a weekly basis for three months and left an indelible record of Krishnamurti’s philosophy and intentions. The meetings were recorded and meticulously transcribed and represent an enduring testament to his vision for the school.

The quality of Krishnamurti’s persona was somewhat different on these occasions than it had been in my previous encounters with him. These events were more public and more formal, and his attitude and manner were adjusted accordingly. The audience consisted of some thirty or forty parents, teachers, and other members of the school community. They were invited not only to listen but also to participate in a dialogue about the purposes of the school. Krishnamurti took his responsibility most seriously, and that attitude was reflected in the quality of his interaction.

He typically entered the room at the moment the meeting was scheduled to begin. He did not wear a tie, but his clothing was selected with care and good taste. He sat in a folding wooden chair with a cardigan sweater draped over his arm or arranged neatly on his lap. As he sat down, he might glance around the room and smile shyly at a few of those whom he recognized. Whoever was managing the tape recorder that day would approach him and attach a small microphone to his shirt. He would continue to sit for a minute or two, collecting himself and allowing a few latecomers to get settled before beginning to speak.

Most of the twelve conversations that year began with Krishnamurti articulating an overview of the purpose of the school and the reason for the meeting. But soon the monologue would evolve into an active exchange with members of the audience. These exchanges were often somewhat charged and animated, as Krishnamurti sought with all his energy to convey the meaning and import of the challenge we were facing together.

During the course of these meetings, Krishnamurti presented a set of observations that represent a précis of his entire educational philosophy. Perhaps his foremost principle was that conventional education is far too narrow in its exclusive concern with the accumulation of knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect. Such a focus, he insisted, cannot possibly prepare a student to meet the whole of life. Education should address not only the intellect but all the dimensions of the child, including the physical, emotional, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual. Attention to right relationship, manners, and behavior is also essential. 

School itself, he maintained, is fundamentally a place of leisure—not in the casual, conventional sense of a time of relaxation and entertainment, but rather as freedom from occupation and pressure. Only in a state of leisure is it possible to learn—to observe, to inquire, to discover something new. 

Right education will cultivate in the student a global outlook, a realization that all of humanity is linked and shares a common, basic psychological condition. The individual is not, in any deep respect, different from mankind everywhere. The school’s work is not to reproduce an American mind, or a European mind, or an Indian mind, but rather a mind unconditioned by identification with any national, ethnic, or cultural group.

The role of the teacher entails unconditioning himself as well as the student. There is no blueprint or method for this process because any prescribed method can only produce a mechanical result. What can be done is to explore the meaning of conditioning and the actual, living reality of one’s own state of mind. 

Conditioning is essentially the weight of tradition, the burden of past generations, the accumulated patterns of thought and judgment imposed on the individual by society. Education in the traditional sense is an agent and facilitator of the conditioning process. In a profound reversal of convention, Krishnamurti proposed instead that education become the process of unconditioning the human mind. 

In one of the early meetings, I asked Krishnamurti to clarify the essential nature of conditioning. I had my question prepared in advance and waited for the appropriate moment to present it.

Krishnamurti: You understand: the whole [of] Western civilization, from Freud, Jung, and all the others—and also in India, which is an old tradition—has established this tradition that introspective analysis, professional analysis, is the only way. That is, examine the origin of the mischief—whether you are put on the pot rightly or wrongly as a baby—and work from there. We are asking quite a different thing: whether it is at all possible, without this self-critical or professional analysis—can the mind be unconditioned? 

David Moody: One of my difficulties in inquiring into this is a lack of real clarity regarding, simply, what is conditioning?

Krishnamurti: What is conditioning? Your mind, sir, one’s mind, the human mind is the result of centuries of experience —

Moody: Even that I don’t follow. As I see it, my mind is the result only of my own experience, since I’ve been born. I don’t understand what you mean by “centuries of experience.”

Krishnamurti: Your brain, one’s brain, is the result of time, isn’t it?

Moody: Only the time since it’s been born.

Krishnamurti: Time in the sense of growth, accumulation, experience, knowledge, hmm? And the brain cells containing this knowledge and functioning through the response of thought in daily life.

Moody: Yes. 

Krishnamurti: These many, many years, or centuries of accumulation—passed on, generation to generation—both heredity and social changes, economic pressures, religious beliefs, or scientific beliefs—all that is the conditioning of the brain, of a mind. 

I had anticipated a response along these lines and was prepared with a follow-up question, one with a sharper focus.

Moody: Is the conditioning, then, essentially belief? A set of beliefs?

Krishnamurti: Belief; ideal; accepting conflict as necessary—

Moody: All of these being forms of belief, are they not?

Krishnamurti: Not only belief, but an actuality.

Evidently Krishnamurti felt that conditioning includes beliefs but goes even deeper. Beliefs are consciously held ideas, but conditioning shapes our very perception of what is actual. 

Krishnamurti: Suppose one is brought up as a Catholic, hmm? You have all the paraphernalia of rituals; accepting authority; accepting Jesus as the only savior, son of God; and the Virgin Mary; and ascending to heaven, physically. These are all dogmas, asserted by the church and accepted through two millennia, two thousand years, as an actuality. Right?

Moody: Accepted as an actuality—which means belief.

Krishnamurti: They go beyond that, beyond belief—it is so. In India, there is the same old thing in a different form, which is not only a belief but, to the believer, it is an actuality.

As a student of Krishnamurti’s work, I found these meetings intensely interesting. Nevertheless, they did little to allay my continuing unease about the basic principles regulating student behavior in the school. In the very first meeting, Krishnamurti described the approach to discipline developed at our sister school in Bramdean, England, the residential secondary school at Brockwood Park. There, he said, there was “literally” no authority. 

At the same time, he emphasized, freedom does not entail the liberty to do whatever one likes. On the contrary, freedom is only possible if each individual behaves responsibly vis-à-vis the group. Thus, there were indeed rules at Brockwood Park—lights out at ten, for example—but these were arrived at through a process of discussion and general agreement. If a student did not abide by these rules, he or she would not be compelled to do so by a system of threats or rewards, but ultimately it might become impossible for that student to remain in the school.

To achieve a smoothly functioning school by these means required a substantial investment of time in dialogue with the students—and these were secondary students in a residential school. It was not at all clear that such an approach could be transplanted to a day school for elementary students in the United States. 

There was a small chicken coop on the property at Arya Vihara that had been built many years earlier by Krishnamurti himself. Mark Lee kept a few chickens there, not only for their eggs, but also as an educational project for the students, who participated in their care and feeding. I was concerned, however, that one of our  students sometimes harassed the chickens when no one was looking. I was told, for example, that he liked to hold the chickens upside down by their feet and swing them around. One afternoon, this student insisted on staying in the coop at a time when he belonged in the classroom. I ordered him to come with me back to class, but he refused. 

I felt caught in an impossible situation. I had to get back to the classroom to look after the other students, but I was afraid of what would happen to the chickens if I left the boy there alone. No amount of dialogue could resolve the situation in that moment. This incident epitomized for me the inadequacy of Krishnamurti’s principles regarding discipline in the school.

Had I had sufficient poise and confidence, I could have raised this issue in the weekly meetings Krishnamurti was conducting. Unfortunately, I was not able to do so in a group of that size, with many guests who were not familiar to me. In early spring, however, I succeeded in arranging a small-group discussion with Krishnamurti for the purpose of revisiting my concerns about student behavior.

Each time I encountered him, Krishnamurti revealed another facet of his personality, and on this occasion, he was at his most relaxed, engaging, and agreeable. In this meeting, he responded more sympathetically to my dilemma. Reward and punishment were still inappropriate, but he allowed a principle of “cause and effect,” in which the student’s action might have concrete consequences in terms of the options available to him or her in the future. Thus the student who refused to get out of the chicken coop might lose the freedom to enter it in the future. This restriction would not be imposed as a punishment—designed to inflict pain or discomfort—but rather as a natural effect of his or her own action.

After this principle was articulated, I often watched to see which teachers grasped its spirit and understood the distinction between it and reward and punishment. Such a teacher could adapt the principle creatively to new circumstances. 

In later years, the school had wooden walkways that caused a pounding noise when students ran on them. “No running on the decks” became one of the most basic—and often abused—rules in the school. When a student was caught running, a simple reprimand or reminder was usually not sufficient. A punishment, such as detention after school, would be counterproductive. The correct application of the principle of cause and effect was for the student to go back to the point where he or she had started running and return at a walking pace.


 

David Edmund Moody was the first teacher hired at the Oak Grove School. He later served as the school’s educational director, and was its director at the time of Krishnamurti’s death in 1986. Coauthor of Mapping Biology Knowledge, Moody is currently director of the private tutorial service Mind over Math. This article is adapted from his book The Unconditioned Mind: J. Krishnamurti and the Oak Grove School (Quest Books, 2011).