Originally published in Hebrew in “Education – Essence and Spirit”, co-edited by Prof. Yeshayahu Tadmor and Amir Freimann, MOFET Publishing, Israel, 2012
My initial response to the question “what is the essence and purpose of education?” is that I don’t know.” This reflects neither a desire to sound smart, nor a philosophical position, nor a state of consciousness, rather simply the place in which I now find myself, faced with this question. It’s a familiar position yet never comfortable. I’ll start off here and explore whether there’s something new for me to discover.
I’m not an educator in the formal sense and if I have anything of my own to contribute to this exploration, it is only from my personal experience and observation. The question regarding the essence and purpose of education points me, therefore, to the course and direction of my life. This course has been formed by my most significant choices and decisions and is revealed as I move along it, guided by some sense of directionality, significance and purpose, led by it while simultaneously creating it. What is that directionality? To where does it lead me? Where am I going?
I start my day with a spiritual practice. I call it “practice” because I do it regularly, with the purpose of creating a certain inclination and tendency in myself, and in using the term “spiritual” I am referring to my deepest and highest intention or longing, the essence of my being and the purpose of my existence. It is this inclination and tendency, toward an ungraspable essence and purpose that I seek to strengthen within myself.
The content and form of my daily practice have changed many times since I started practicing, about three decades ago. In the last few years I start it, every morning, with the following verses, which I formulated myself, for myself:
Toward Oneness, Freedom and Beauty
I shall direct my heart, mind and soul.
May this intention guide my steps and inform my actions.
May I follow it with my eyes open, my heart awake and my spirit strong.
This intention, expressed in these words, began to awake within me during the last couple of years of high school. There were certain factors that I am aware of that facilitated this awakening. One factor was my biology teacher, Jacob Jacobson, a religious man and a man of science, who believed in the biblical creation story and was fascinated by Darwinian evolution theory. He shared with us, his students, his struggle with questions about absolute and relative truth, the human ability to know reality and the distinctions between religious and scientific beliefs. As far as I can remember, he was the first adult whom I heard admit to the existence of such philosophical-existential conflicts.
With encouragement from the biology teacher I read, slowly, with considerable effort but also great interest, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The book triggered an internal revolution in me: reading it I realize that my entire way of thinking, my very consciousness, was locked in a "paradigm" – a fundamental belief that I assumed to be true. And so it happened that at the age of 17 I determined my main goal in life – to liberate my consciousness from any paradigm, and if that would not be possible – to at least allow it to freely move between various paradigms.
Another catalyst of my spiritual awakening was a "Gesher" seminar [Gesher seminars bring together secular and religious Jewish youth], which I attended with my high school class. Over that weekend in Zefat, for the first time in my life I saw people praying with passion and devotion to something unknown, ungraspable, sacred – to that very deity that my grandfather had assured me, when I was a small child, did not exist. I don't remember much more from that weekend, but I do clearly recall walking from the bus stop to my home after the seminar – floating by the long avenue of Cyprus trees, singing hymns, my feet several inches above the ground. I was in bliss and I didn't know why.
Being drafted to the army somewhat delayed the continuation of my spiritual journey, but once I had completed my service and started studying medicine in Jerusalem I enthusiastically resumed it, with a new definition of my life purpose: to know reality directly, free of the distorting effect of any conditioning or concept. This new definition was related to the interest that had developed in me at that time in Zen practice and its promise of "enlightenment", a term that seemed to indicate direct and clear knowing of reality.
This interest led me, in the middle of my first year in university, to spend three days in an "Enlightenment Intensive", looking again and again, with great intensity, at the question "who am I?" and at the various answers that arose within me in response to that question. On the last day of the workshop, as I was standing on the top of a hill, gazing at the valley below, I realized: I really don't know who I am, and therefore I also don't know what I'm here for and how I should live my life; and until I know that, I'll be wasting my time. At that moment, a powerful and even desperate resolve crystallized within me – to find the answer to those questions.
After the workshop, when I returned to my student apartment and my roommate, who was also my best friend, saw me, he got scared: “What happened to you?” – he asked “Something in your eyes has changed… they look deep and empty, as if you are looking inward…” I didn't know how to explain what had occurred.
At the end of the third year of my medical studies I took a break from university and travelled to Japan, in order to practice meditation and reach enlightenment. I lived for two years in a wooden hut next to a small village temple, a few miles from Mt. Fuji, and spent hours each day in the company of the Zen teacher who lived in the temple – a wonderful man by the name of Hogen Yamahata – a man as light and free as a bird, with whom I loved meditating, running in the mountains, growing vegetables and chanting Buddhist prayers in a deep voice. Several times a year I attended a "sesshin" in his teacher's temple – a week of concentrated meditation practice for many hours each day.
During those two years I became acquainted with a different culture, way of thinking and way of life, I got used to sitting in meditation. I learned tai-chi, Eastern medicine and the Japanese language – but I did not reach the promised enlightenment. At the end of that period I returned to Israel and resumed my medical studies, while continuing to meditate daily, practice tai-chi and grow vegetables. The questions continued to burn within me.
To be is to hold onto nothing.
To be is to know nothing.
To be is to want nothing.
To be is to be nothing.
I continue my morning practice, chanting and contemplating these words. I do this in order to become stabilized in an existential insight, to which I attribute tremendous significance – that being itself is all and everything.
It is also the understanding that to be myself in the most authentic, free, profound and significant way, I need nothing: no “things”, no knowledge, no achievement and no identity whatsoever. Being itself is everything – this is the fundamental insight which sages throughout history and in all cultures have spoken and written about. The insight that they always strived to express in their life and in their being. It is within this insight, which is not merely intellectual but existential-essential, that I want to ground myself.
After I chant these words and contemplate them, I meditate. Meditation, as I understand it, is an expression of and the practice of this existential state but for me it’s also the source of profound happiness – the happiness of holding onto nothing, of knowing nothing, of wanting nothing and of being nothing. I just love meditating.
At the end of the fifth year of my studies I met in Jerusalem a young American spiritual teacher by the name of Andrew Cohen, who I was told had “reached enlightenment” and started teaching a few months earlier. From the moment of our meeting he impressed me as the most unpretentious and unassuming person I ever met. I felt immediate and deep trust in him, trust I had never felt toward anybody before, not even myself, and in his presence a kind of tough knot within me started to relax and dissolve.
In our first conversation I asked him why I wasn’t enlightened yet and he answered “because you’re afraid”. What am I afraid of? I wondered. He told me that I had to answer that question myself. After contemplating it for a day I got back to him, and told him that most of all I was afraid that I would waste my whole life and die without getting “what it’s all about and what I’m here for”. The man looked at me with shining eyes and said: “You have to treasure this fear. It will take you all the way there.”
We continued to meet every evening and talk, a small group of people who gathered for the meetings with him, about the spiritual search and enlightenment. Each meeting with the man increased my confidence that I was on the right path, and that the knowledge I was seeking was in some way already within me. Three weeks after our first meeting, while sitting on the grass lawn in the courtyard of the hospital in which I studied, my spiritual search ended with an experience that answered all my existential questions. This is what I wrote in my diary on that day:
inseparable consciousness and existence.
the knower is known
and the known knows itself.
not two but one
Two months later I left medical school and joined my new spiritual teacher and the community that started forming around him in Southern England. It was the realization of all my dreams – and way beyond. About twenty of us lived in a big farmhouse, meeting every evening for meditation and conversation with the man we trusted, loved and felt deep gratitude to. We talked for hours each day – sitting at the kitchen table, working, walking in the fields and sitting around the fireplace late at night, discussing the insights we were having, the changes that we perceived in ourselves and in the relationships between us, as well as the new purpose of our lives: that of making our internal experience the reality of our lives in the world. We dreamt of creating a new social order, an expression of the fact that our true nature is perfect unity.
Within a few months this apparent picture of perfection began to disintegrate when I discovered, as each of us did sooner or later, that despite the spiritual experiences, bliss and existential confidence I experienced, my egotistical tendencies remained intact. Mistrust, arrogance, competitiveness, narrow-mindedness and narrow-heartedness, lack of self-knowledge and various destructive tendencies started expressing themselves in my and in my friends’ behavior, after we “recovered” from the waves of bliss and ecstasy. The painful disillusionment led us to realize, that in order to make our shared utopian dream reality, each one of us has to very significantly mature and develop as a human being. Many left the budding community at that point. Those who stayed, myself included, began a process of intensive and challenging work of psychological, moral and spiritual development, as individuals and as a group.
It would take an entire book to describe the process that I was part of for over two decades, during which we learned from our successes and failures, from breakthroughs and painful falls, about those factors and processes that enable and those that hinder mental, emotional, philosophical, moral, spiritual and social development in individuals or groups. Here is one example from the various paths of exploration and development that were involved – that of sexuality.
As for many of us, until I started deeply looking into it, the sexual arena was for me an unclear area loaded with unexamined ideas, and I experienced myself being powerfully and quite blindly driven by the sexual urge. What bothered me increasingly was the fact that in any friendship and intimacy that developed between me and a member of the opposite sex, I would inevitably encounter the arising of desire for her, which would inevitably impinge upon the nature of our relationship. Wishing to explore a possibility beyond this familiar dynamics, I committed myself to full celibacy for a period of one year. By the end of that year I felt that I was still only at the outset of this process, so I committed to an additional period of renunciation – and kept extending it. Thus it happened that through most of my years in the community (except for a few years in which I chose to be in a sexual relationship) I abstained from sex. Through this powerful practice I gained a significant degree of objectivity and freedom in relationship to the sexual urge, and developed a deep self-confidence, resulting from the recognition that I did not need to be victimized by this urge.
Several months before my fiftieth birthday, after more than twenty years in the spiritual community in the United States, I reviewed my life and came to the conclusion that although I have been given spiritual gifts beyond my dreams and been able to mature and develop, the world has hardly benefited from it – from me, at all. I realized that I have a moral duty to strive to change that balance. I left the community and returned to Israel with the decision to take up a new direction in life – to do whatever I can to participate in and contribute to the spiritual development of the society and culture in Israel.
After so many years away from Israel I wanted to meet spiritually-inclined people who were already working toward that goal. I sought out and started meeting with activists, thinkers and cultural leaders, and asked them how they thought the mental, moral and spiritual development of Israeli society could be facilitated. The answer I was given again and again, was: by bringing about change in education. Out of this understanding and the friendship that developed between me, Yeshayahu Tadmor and other leading educators, the Education Spirit Movement was born, and eventually this book – “Education – Essence and Spirit”.
To hold onto nothing is to be free of everything.
To know nothing is to be open to everything.
To want nothing is to be happy with everything.
To be nothing is to be everything.
This is how I end my morning meditation. This is how I want to live my life.
What is it that propels me along the course of my life, and where does it lead me?
I started out on my journey as an individual, motivated by the desire to liberate my consciousness of any limitations, to be free and to know directly the answer to the questions of existence; I continued as a participant in a process of group development, motivated by an idealistic-creative impulse. Nowadays I live and work for internal-spiritual development of society and culture. While my life’s journey appears to be comprised of separate stages I see it as moving along an unbroken path of growth and expansion, motivated by one urge, one longing – for the sacred, the mysterious, the limitless, the absolute.
Like musicality, which manifests differently in different cultures and at different periods in history but manifests in every culture and in every period, and exists, although sometimes hidden, in every individual, so is the spiritual longing inherent in the human soul. Some long for God, or for a concept that symbolizes the eternal, omniscient and omnipotent being, wishing to devote their lives to serving it. Others long for an abstract ideal such as consciousness, beauty, goodness, love or truth, finding the purpose of their lives in constantly moving towards it; some find their life purpose in the wonder and glory of nature and of the mechanisms of matter; some recognize a clear goal of a realizable ideal, and strive to realize it; and some feel only a gentle stirring of intention and mysterious attraction, which they cannot even name or describe, responding to it in ways they cannot even understand. This longing has a thousand and one expressions and interpretations, and in some cases may even be abused – just as music can be diverted to serve a fascistic agenda and escapism. However, in its essence, this longing directs human beings towards the deepest, the most significant and most sacred that they can sense or imagine.
Just as musical sensitivity can be awoken and cultivated in almost any person, so can spiritual longing. Such cultivation can and should be done, of course, always in the awareness of and with great sensitivity to the person’s state of maturity and readiness, as well as their mental, environmental and cultural circumstances. And just as awakening and cultivating musical sensitivity in another can be done only by a person who has such sensitivity, or – better still, by someone who has undergone or is undergoing a process of cultivating it in themselves, only one who has awoken or is awakening to the spiritual longing and responding to its call, can facilitate and encourage such awakening in another.
In the end, where is the line that separates “me” from the “other”? Where is my “interior” and where is the “exterior”? Where do “I” end and the “not-I” begin? In the context of spiritual longing, there is no difference between inside and outside, self and other, the individual and the whole. Therefore, the journey of awakening to this longing, responding to it and surrendering to it, will always be an all-inclusive journey, which does not distinguish between the educator and the learner, between “me”, “us” and “everything”, between self, other, society and world. This is our journey – the essence and purpose of life, and the essence and purpose of education.
 Thanks for this metaphor are due to my wife Ruti, who is a singing teacher.