Waylon and I went to school together in the early 80’s at Vidya Elementary, a Shambhala Buddhist school that used to exist in Boulder.
The school was in a couple of houses in what in those days was the far north end. There was a lot of land around the school, and a creek behind it. I remember catching water skippers in the creek and observing the exploits of red ants in their anthills. We put on Shakespeare plays in grades five and six. Each morning we did a few minutes of silent meditation. Those were the days.
I had my struggles back then. For example: I lost my English book one term and was too embarrassed to tell anyone, so I failed English. But there was something in the experience of going to Vidya that affected me deeply. The school seemed to be speaking to something in me that I was not aware of. It was calling to my noble qualities, latent as they were from my point of view, and training me to be my most noble self, my bright self—to trust myself.
Today I teach English and History to Jr. High and High School students at the Shambhala School in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After Vidya I trained extensively in the Shambhala meditation tradition. As a teacher my main practice is being present with each student, not being distracted from looking at and listening to her noble qualities. Our interactions are generally about academic content, and I do my best to help the students learn, but passing on the transmission of trust is the real point.
The Shambhala School is much bigger than Vidya was, and it’s more open to students from a range of cultures and faiths. But, like Vidya, the day is framed with 10 minutes of meditation practice in the morning and afternoon, and the environment is informed by mindfulness. Each morning also begins with about 15 minutes of yoga. Each class begins and ends with a simple bow. Bowing creates a moment of space, invokes dignity by getting teenagers to uplift their head and shoulders for a moment, and communicates a sense that “it’s worth being here together.”
We also have weekly talking circles, a communication form borrowed from native traditions that emphasizes mindful listening. The curriculum is centered around leadership, sustainability, and the arts. Each year I direct the middle school Shakespeare play. For all these reasons I’m inspired to go to work.
Still, something I’ve noticed since I started teaching eight years ago is that people are feeling less optimistic in general about the world. A sense of defeatism about humanity is becoming the norm for youth at younger ages, and they are responding to it by tuning out. I think of this as the “new apathy.”
Teachers have always come up against the challenge of getting students to care. When I started teaching I felt like the best approach was to communicate urgency, to show that things are not just what they seem—there are real problems that need to be related to. It’s not all “get a house, a mate, a job and a dog.” There are layers of inequity to balance, corruption to overcome, sufferings to ease. Not to mention the environment. From that point of view, apathy was caused by the ignorant assumption that the world was doing pretty well overall. The cure was to wake up and smell the shit.
Today, people don’t seem to be harboring that assumption so much. As one of my students said once in the midst of a unit on the climate crisis, “How many times do we need to hear that we’re doomed? We get the effing point!” (Yes, he actually said “effing.”)
While we can’t ignore the complexities and challenges of the world today, the Shambhala approach emphasizes appreciation for the world and humanity as an antidote to the “new apathy.” I would have to sink deeper into contemplating this vision of appreciation in order to connect it with the practicalities of teaching. How does one construct an education that promotes a worldview that is both optimistic and resilient? How do we make this genuine and experiential, not just gloss?
Being in nature has emerged as a core element of our approach to these questions. We don’t have a creek behind the school, but camping and rural farm retreats are an integral part of our curriculum. Students spend time contemplating ancient forests, doing night walks, learning about sustainability by seeing it in practice, tasting local food while learning about the political principles it represents.
It’s actually hard to keep up your apathy while waking up to crisp morning light shimmering on the water after canoeing to an island and sleeping there. In a time when society is speedy and materialistic, being in contact with the natural world is immensely healing.
Not every student loves nature. “Sorry, I already touched dirt today,” was one 9th grade girl’s comment when I encouraged her to help plant a tree on Earth Day. Still, almost everyone would agree in theory that the natural world is good and harmonious. But when it comes to human society there is, justifiably, more cynicism. On the one hand that cynicism can be useful for learning if it’s channeled into critical thought, but much of the time it just manifests as depression.
Studying human integrity is a meaningful approach to counteracting this. Howard Zinn wrote:
“Human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”
From Ashoka to Solomon to Mandela, history is rich with examples of people who made powerful decisions in the spirit of humanity’s most noble qualities. And from Homer to Shakespeare to Sun Tzu, the texts and mythology of the world’s wisdom traditions offer the possibility, not just of touring the exotic oddities of the past, but of actually shifting one’s paradigm.
The world clearly needs a major paradigm shift. As Einstein said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Can we educate the leaders of tomorrow to operate at a different level of awareness, one that is capable of solving the problems they will face?
If so, that education needs to be built on the foundation of knowing it is a worthwhile endeavor. We need to trust that the students are noble at heart, that human society can be in harmony with the natural world, and that it can express itself with beauty, wisdom and compassion.
We need to make this paradigm shift ourselves.
Noel McLellan is an acharya in the Shambhala meditation tradition. He grew up in Boulder, CO and now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He teaches English and History at the Shambhala School, and lives with his wife Marguerite Drescher, and their two young children, Gabriel and Esmé.