“Socrates’ method of teaching was (generally) to teach not by transmitting information, but by eliciting from the student what they already know by means of focused questioning.”

(Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy)

I’m incredibly fortunate to earn my living by teaching 17-19 year olds at a college in Montreal. Over the years, I have honed and refined my courses, whittling them down to what I feel is most important and essential. The result of this is a course called “Consciousness”, in which we discuss Enlightened consciousness by examining the Perennial Philosophy. We get into all sorts of discussions about the nature of identity, love, compassion, and ego.

For several years now, I have invited the students to participate in their final evaluation by crafting the questions of the exam themselves. I pool together everyone’s suggestions and select the top 10, which results in a far more interesting exam than I could have created myself. This year, we had questions like “ Is organized religion necessary to reach enlightenment (heaven, paradise, etc)? In which ways might religion actually be an obstacle?” and “Out of all the values that are universal in all religions and beliefs, why is love the most important? (or is it?).”

While reading over my students’ answers, I kept a file going of their most perceptive insights. At the end, I looked over these five pages and was amazed. I simply could not believe that such a deep level of wisdom emanated from students of this age. Many of them reached insights that took me years of struggle to reach on my own.

I took a moment and thought of all the metaphors that could be used to describe this process. One illuminated candle can light many others. A farmer plant seeds and with the right conditions, they sprout.

The metaphor I resonated with most, however, was in thinking about the sun. Perhaps because the solstice just passed, I’ve been meditating a lot on this theme. Its application to teaching is one that Plato wrote extensively about in his theory of knowledge.

For Plato, all learning is a process of recollection or remembering. The Greek word for Truth is alethia, which literally means un-forgetting. This is an insight that is corroborated in many different traditions, which I discuss in my TED talk.

In this perspective, the teacher cannot actually cause his students to learn anything. Rather, he can only set the conditions for the students to discover their own innate wisdom.

This is what I feel like I did in my semester. By posing questions in the right way (and by encouraging students to formulate their own), the clouds of ignorance part and the sun shines through.

What do I mean by this? Take a look at this reflection on love:

“A square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square. Love is like a square; if you have love, you have many universal values, but if you have many universal values, you don’t necessarily have love. In other words, you can be honest, forgiving, faithful, reliable and respectful but not loving and just acting this way for your greater good. On the other hand, if you love, you most likely have all of the aforementioned qualities as well. This is because when you have love, you put others before yourself and your actions revolve around that.”

Quite an insight! (especially coming from an 18-year-old!). We can all recognize the truth in this statement.

This student reflected on the role that religion plays in guiding us toward enlightenment:

“We need to cross the river of ignorance in order to get on the shore of enlightenment no matter what our ship is made of. We can understand from this metaphor that there is many different ships that can take you from point A to point B, and the most important is not to have the same ship but to reach the destination. There is not a religion or a belief that is better than the other if every one of them help us reach a certain level of consciousness and enlightenment.”

Where this answer really gets interesting is when the student touches on non-duality:

“Moreover, once we actually try to cross that river, we realize that there is no river to begin with and enlightenment is in fact in every one of us from the beginning….we perceive enlightenment as something really difficult to achieve when it is in fact really simple and only comes when we stop looking for it.”

This is the essential teaching of the Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, and countless other enlightened masters. And here it was coming from a college student.

Imagine that all the people you walk by on the street every day have this knowledge within them.

I had a very perceptive student who came from a Christian background who managed to express that same insight in theistic terms, using a wonderful Bible verse to bolster her point:

Although I am a religious person, I am aware that not all people who go to church will be in heaven. Jesus said that  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The will of the Father requires a certain knowledge. The set of rules is only there to guide us to our Lord, but once we get in that deep relationship with Him, we no longer have to associate with a certain group because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. God is the only religion that brings us to heaven.

This reminded me of Deepak Chopra’s point that we are all God speaking to God about God.

Some students even took their awareness to comment on the true purpose of education:

Grades don’t give purpose in life but awareness does. Observing and examining our behaviors gives us insight into our intentions and motivations. In the end, it’s not about society or the school system or pressure from your parents but about you, and understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing. This makes it easier to stop wrong or negative attitudes and understandings. Just as the man takes out his umbrella to protect him from the sun, so we should change our views by becoming more aware rather than trying to change everything about the external environment and circumstances.”

Wow, I wish this student would speak to the ministry of education!

I also wish I would have known this much earlier in life. Had I cultivated that insight in high school, it probably would have prevented a lot of suffering.

The thing is, I already know all this stuff. We all already know this stuff. But we forget and are in constant need of reminders.

It’s often said that “you teach what you need to learn,” and that’s exactly why I teach what I teach. As Plato and many others have taught, to contemplate the source of all things- the Good, the Tao, God-  is the highest human activity.

In the end, one student beautifully summed up what she learned from the course:

“Be grateful for everyday and for what you have, because what you have many don’t have. You do not need to go see if the grass is greener on the other side, because what you are looking for, you already have.

Advice that any one of us could use!

(next week I will go more philosophical reflections about the nature of the sun).