By Michael Durante Jr.
Photos: Maharishi University of Management®; (Girl) © The David Lynch Foundation
In a 2005 commencement speech, author David Foster Wallace shares a parable of two fish.
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Wallace’s subsequent speech digs at the purpose of education: it is the process by which we uncover and adjust to realities within and around us. The two young fish are, and remain, clueless to what a more aware audience knows is their most important reality: water, around and within them, giving life. Only by searching within for a consciousness that is naturally intelligent and aware of its environment can the fish begin applying this consciousness usefully to find new knowledge. Wallace insists that finding your consciousness is not automatic; indeed our “default setting” is to ignore our intelligent inner consciousness and operate selfishly within the world.
The 21st century has only enlarged Wallace’s lesson. We are adjusting to an era abundant in data, facts and technical knowledge, so much so that often they are offered for free with an Internet connection. It seems easy nowadays to confuse education with knowledge, to diminish the importance of higher education when so much can be learned for free online. It also seems easy to dismiss higher education as simply a step stone to a job, turning college into an expensive prerequisite resulting in debt-laden graduates not much better prepared for a career than they were four years prior.
True, there is technical knowledge inherent in every learning achievement. Ditto that the cost-benefit analysis of America’s higher education system feels increasingly negative. But that does not write off the importance of education. Instead, schools for all learners should transition toward teaching students how, as well as what, to learn.
Teaching How to Learn
The Iowa-based Maharishi University of Management (MUM), has put consciousness at its core since 1974. A fully accredited nonprofit university, MUM offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in familiar subjects: art, business, computer science and communications, to name several. Yet the school’s approach to learning would seem unfamiliar to most. What MUM calls “Consciousness-Based education” allows students to “discover the field of pure consciousness within themselves as the source of all knowledge.” The learning and continual practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) encourages MUM students to better connect the knowledge from their studies back to their own lives and to find the connections between academic disciplines, at once making them more competent and whole learners.
What MUM calls consciousness-based education allows students to discover the field of pure consciousness within themselves as the source of all knowledge.
Upon the foundation of TM and Consciousness-Based education, MUM has built a unique university experience. Their food program—an often overlooked but significant daily aspect of campus life—offers organic and locally grown food to nourish the body as well as the mind. Student health programs, including yoga, pranayama, standard sports and a tobacco- and alcohol-free campus, are designed to maintain balanced health. Single rooms, allowing for personal private time, are standard in residence halls. Instead of the usual university schedule, in which students enroll in four or five courses each semester with a madness-inducing finals week at the end, MUM students engage with one subject each month. This lifestyle approach to self-directed, balanced education of the whole person distinguishes MUM from any other American college experience.
MUM was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a custodian of the ancient Vedic tradition of knowledge. Maharishi expressed seven goals for the University:
To develop the full potential of the individual
To realize the highest ideal of education
To improve governmental achievements
To solve the age-old problem of crime and all behavior that brings unhappiness to our world family
To bring fulfillment to the economic aspirations of individuals and society
To maximize the intelligent use of the environment
To achieve the spiritual goals of humanity in this generation
Perhaps most popularly known as the spiritual advisor to the Beatles, Maharishi’s teachings have introduced Transcendental Meditation to millions in the West. Yet the Western roots of consciousness in education date farther back than Maharishi’s late-20th-century popularity. The Transcendentalist Movement of the early 19th century in America borrowed directly from Indian religions, in effect drinking from the same fount of Vedic knowledge and practice. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau compares the Bhagavad Gita to contemporary Western knowledge and finds that “in comparison…our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Several direct lines can be drawn from the Transcendentalists’ criticisms of 19th-century education systems to the best practices of educators today: from the full inclusion of women in universities, to the relatability of knowledge across diverse subject areas, to the importance of introspection to learning. Within this context, the Maharishi expanded upon the works of the Transcendentalists a century and a half later, placing the essential Vedic practice of meditation at the center of the conscious educational experience.
States of Consciousness
Liz Taggart, a Hudson Valley farmer and Transcendental Meditation (TM) instructor, insists that people are called “human beings, not human doings” for good reason and that schools should “wholly prepare a person for life” in addition to preparing them for a career. Teaching the practice of TM would be a good place to start. People naturally experience three states of consciousness: awake, asleep and dreaming. Taggart explains that people can also experience “a fourth state, one of deep, profound restfulness along with inner alertness: a state of restful alertness.” This state is reached through TM.
The standard process for learning TM starts with an introductory lecture by a teacher, often in a group. If the learner decides to continue, a private interview and one-on-one session with the teacher gives the learner a basis for several days of practiced meditation at home, twice daily. Then the learner and teacher reconvene to answer questions. Without proper follow-up, one might not get the full benefit, which is why all TM instructors offer their students free, lifelong support.
It should be noted that TM is a simple technique that does not require any beliefs, attitudes or intentions outside of experiencing that fourth state of being: restful alertness
TM is well researched by respected public institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association. They find that this simple technique brings numerous physiological benefits, including normalized heart rate and blood pressure. Taggart suggests that TM helps people of all ages to manage stress and expand the consciousness-capacity of their minds. She particularly warns of the stress that media and technology bring to our lives when they intrude on previously private places. The collateral damage of 21st-century technology is well recognized, yet typical solutions range from “turn it off” to “try this new app.” TM, explains Taggart, is an “inner technology with collateral benefits.” TM practice is becoming an essential method for navigating a world with ever-more-intrusive technologies. It should be noted that TM is a simple technique that does not require any beliefs, attitudes or intentions outside of experiencing that fourth state of being: restful alertness.
To learn more about TM, Taggart suggests the recently-released book Strength in Stillness, by Bob Roth, and recommends Sam Katz at the Katonah TM Center. You can also find a local instructor in your area by visiting www.TM.org.
How does the practice of TM, or the other tenets of Consciousness-Based education, improve learning outcomes? Maharishi University of Management claims that there are three elements inherent to study: “the knowledge of the field of study; the process of gaining knowledge; and you, the student gaining knowledge.” All universities, MUM says, cover the first element, and some use innovative practices to help students with the second. However, “conventional universities fail to expand the learning ability of the student,” which, the school insists, results in coursework being soon forgotten once the course is over. Sound familiar to your schooling experience?
Transcendental Meditation helps students succeed in that third element of study, their capacity to gain knowledge. Liz Taggart lays out two principles: “the universe is intelligent” and “we have the ability to know ourselves.” Pay attention to modern scientific discoveries, and you will be astonished by the extent of Taggart’s first statement. Biologists know how plant roots communicate with organisms living in soil and ally to fight common enemies. An untold number of intentional beings living within your body regulate everything from your digestion of food to the healing of cuts and illnesses. Every day we learn how things previously considered inert or automatic have intelligence and intention. By mastering the ability Taggart expresses in her second statement, you can understand the intelligence inherent to your own consciousness and how to access that intelligence when you encounter new bodies of knowledge, as usually happens at school. As MUM puts it on their website, “All knowledge emerges from consciousness—and in a sense you are consciousness.”
The David Lynch Foundation, an organization that teaches TM and Consciousness-Based education principles, advocates for a Quiet Time program in schools to reduce stress and improve academic performance. The program simply provides two 15-minute periods of TM every school day. Among other benefits, the Foundation claims the program leads to a 10 percent improvement in test scores, an 86 percent reduction in suspensions and a 65 percent reduction in violent conflict. Learn more at www.davidlynchfoundation.org/schools. Several of the organization’s staff are alumni of Maharishi University of Management, practicing what they preach.
If the world is becoming a place where information is cheap and ever present, then the role of schools is to help people navigate that widespread information beneficially—not to play their traditional function of information gatekeeper. A changing world demands a Consciousness-Based education, exemplified by Maharishi University of Management and the Transcendental Meditation practitioners who call the Hudson Valley home. As David Foster Wallace also said in his 2005 commencement speech, “Another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really is the job of a lifetime.” █