I’ve slowly come to see that we’re all brainwashed, even us unschoolers. We all fail by living in our heads, living in a conceptual framework we build to explain our experience.
We fail because instead of eating an orange and enjoying its juice, we compare it with an abstract ideal orange and focus on how close the real orange stacks up with the ideal orange. We even possibly eat the orange without observing the real experience at all. We don’t live, we think about living and make things up that don’t conform to our ideal.
As an unschooling teen, I noticed this failure because I still remembered some of the authentic experiences I had as a kid before the conceptual fantasy took over. These experiences weren’t beaten out of me since nobody told me directly what I should do or think. But slowly I began losing them regardless.
In my teen years I seriously began giving up what I knew was true for what others told me was true. This was largely because I was scared and humble. Almost everyone around me, my parents included, told me I needed college. But for college I needed a laundry list of other activities, behaviors and mindsets.
Thus began a deep dive into conceptual fantasy and wasted life. That’s because after college there’s the plan for a good life, and this good life requires a certain kind of job with its own conceptual fantasies. From the good job then flows career advancement, a wife and two kids, home ownership, vacation, an appropriate safety net, retirement and other aspects of our more or less accepted collective fantasy framework.
I got on this treadmill when I started preparing for college, but I never fully bought into it. As an unschooler, I knew the world did not work only as advertised. Growing up, I would watch recorded cartoons on a Tuesday morning and see the public service announcements. These PSAs told me not to be a fool, to stay in school. But I was not in school, I was home watching television between GI Joe battles and art projects. Yet I felt fine, and my mother said I was fine.
The greatest gift unschooling gave me was the willingness to question the world around me, the knowledge that even the best practices and experts could be wrong. If they were wrong about school, what else could they be wrong about?
Coupled with that, I learned the value of experimentation because there were not that many people besides myself who were unschooling in the 1980s. Unschooling taught me to question and think for myself, and to experiment with life.
All through college I struggled with what I knew was wrong. I had tasted real life, and I knew college was not real life. So first I chose an alternative school with no grades or tests or majors, Hampshire College. When that wasn’t enough, I left Hampshire and unschooled my way through college until I was pressured to finish school. School clearly was a dumbing down, but I finished anyway.
Outfitted with a standard college degree, I then proceeded to burn my degree and work in the unschooling community for several years. I could not reach my life goals, however, so I went a little more mainstream and became the magazine editor I had trained for in college. This turned out to be clearly a dead end, even if some of the work was good and I could balance the professional expectations with my uncommon understanding of the world.
Coworkers said I was capable and smart, but I didn’t fit somehow. They were right. My understanding of the world, and therefore my motivations, were different from theirs.
What followed were several more false starts, several more life experiments, several more attempts at finding my path. My life has seesawed back and forth between following the worldview I developed during my unschooling years and following the worldview put forth by the world around me.
Notice I never really escaped conceptual fantasy, however. Whether my unschooling worldview or the generally accepted worldview, I was still living in conceptual fantasy.
We are all conditioned by the world around us. It is human nature that we take our experiences and build conceptual frameworks around them, false and limiting as they may be. We see the world and we make sense of it so the fire on the stove only burns our fingers once. But then we get trapped in these conceptual frameworks. We stop seeing the things themselves and only see the frameworks.
I have spent most of my life trying to get back to the real life I tasted when I was young. The joyous, authentic, simple, life-affirming experiences I sometimes lived in my youth are mostly gone now. In its place are the stressful, hollow, complex and deadening experiences of adulthood.
In my search for a life that maintains and expands upon the goodness found in my youth, I have come across the possibility that unschooling only helped me substitute one form of indoctrination for another.
Unschooling has helped me think for myself and construct a more meaningful life than I probably would have had if I had gone to school. But really I just substituted the conceptual fantasy put forth by the school for the conceptual fantasy put forth by my own didactic experience.
This has the advantage of escaping the weight of the common conceptual fantasy that deadens and confuses many of the people who attend school. I have retained most of my childlike qualities, and I know there is another way. The cost is living in a conceptual fantasy of my own making with all its extra stupid ideas and ill-considered generalizations.
Many people think I’m really awesome, and many others think I’m really stupid. They are both right. This is the cost of building my own conceptual fantasy instead of taking a tried and true conceptual fantasy off the shelf.
A Life of Love
Real life is a heady experience.
The reflected glory of any child tells the tale. Within the child there is an endless spring of joy, love, wonder, creativity, wholeness and all the other emotions we fundamentally seek when the child’s basic needs are met. These emotions exist in the child until they are sufficiently burdened with a conceptual framework and lose their real self. This process begins right away, but it picks up steam as they get older and “learn” things. Then it gets really fast when we teach them things.
A conceptual framework introduces suffering.
Real life is heady and free from suffering because it is real. Instead of frustration when the orange is less than perfectly ripe, I enjoy the taste that does exist. Instead of the stress when I don’t yet have a job that brings me name and fame—or the unschooler expectation of a fully enjoyable, self-actualized life—I take the job I have today and both enjoy the good moments and don’t stress the rest. There may be action, but there’s no striving. There may be planning, but there’s no suffering when the plans change.
Living in the actual world and not a conceptual fantasy is the greatest act of unlearning I’ve ever attempted, however.
Even though I’m a lifelong unschooler, I’ve unlearned bad thinking before. I’ve been in college, after all. I’ve also worked normal jobs and lived a normal life for a few wayward years. But I’ve never tried unlearning thinking itself, which on some level is what must be done before I get beyond my self-designed fantasy world.
My approach to this challenge is playing off some of the gifts that unschooling has given me, namely a good childhood, a glimpse at a better life, and a skill at making things happen.
Like almost everyone, I was a loving and joyous child before I built a conceptual fantasy and started living in it. Unlike many, however, I held onto that experience long enough that I never forgot what it was like. In particular, I’ve always remembered the pure love between mother and child and the deep relationships that were developed with family members.
Further, unschooling gave me the freedom to build my own conceptual framework that baked it in. Creativity, wonder, wholeness and especially love have always been at the center of my worldview. I love like mad, and I keep it that way because I know what is truly important. If I am stuck in a framework, at least it is a halfway decent framework that hints at the world beyond.
Then of course there are my cowboy, entrepreneurial ways that definitely come from unschooling.
Having run my own education since I was a child, crafting a plan and executing it are skills that I learned before I knew how to tie a shoelace. I think in terms of projects, businesses, deliverables and self-direction. I’ve created magazines, documentaries, craft projects, communities, relationships, education plans, long trips, promotional campaigns and of course conceptual frameworks, among others.
It made sense, then, that creating the environment for moving beyond a conceptual framework would take the form of a business and—ironically—a new self-designed conceptual framework.
I’m only a few years into my grand plan for moving beyond conceptual fantasies and experiencing life as it actually exists. But so far, so good.
The plan is comprised of two major components, the first of which is monastic life.
If I have any hope of unlearning knowledge so I can again regularly see the world in its natural splendor, I need a lifestyle and a community that helps develop this way of seeing the world.
Monasticism is that lifestyle inasmuch as the project to find God is fundamentally the same project as seeing the world as it actually exists. It is the project of finding truth through direct experience instead of conceptual frameworks. If God ends up being there or not in the final equation, it does not matter. The process is largely the same. As Meister Eckhart noted, a famous 13th century Dominican priest, “truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep to the truth and let God go.”
This focus on directly finding truth, coupled with my unschooling experience, has led me in the direction of a highly self-conscious, independent monasticism that unfolds more every day and is focused through a modest web site I run, American Vedanta. I flirted strongly with joining an actual monastic order, and even trained briefly at one, but as of now my unschooling makes me a more appropriate independent monastic.
The second major component is a relationship coaching business.
The days of independent beggar-monks are gone, so if I don’t live full-time in a monastery I must have an income. Ideally this work will reinforce and leverage my growing spiritual focus, but making a living from religion is pretty sketchy business because it is easy to lose your way—assuming you can even make a living from religion.
My solution is selling love.
Love has always been my strength, and it should continue to be my strength as I discard everything else and focus increasingly on this cornerstone of spiritual life. Love has always been one of my windows into actual experience, so it should still exist even when I discard my conceptual framework.
The market for love and good relationships also happens to be a big one. So if I avoid the petty aspects of love and instead focus on helping people build extra-strong relationships, I figure I can earn an income without wrecking my ultimate goal. By my thinking, everyone wants more love and better relationships. Some might even pay.
I’m in the early stages of this work, however, and I’ve only recently begun taking on paying clients. Until the business becomes my full-time work, I balance it with freelance writing. Last year I wrote a little more than a 1,000 paid stories while building the business and my spiritual life.
Some days I look at this great unlearning project and marvel that it came from a little taste of the real as a child. But is there anything sweeter than the fruits of the real?
I guess I can’t answer that question without going back to my conceptual framework, the very thing I want to avoid. The path to enlightenment is a beast.
Top Five Things I Learned from Living in a Monastery
I have always taken my spirituality seriously and known what I am, but it wasn’t until 2010 that I found a monastic order that fit my spiritual beliefs. In 2011 I went to live in an Indian monastery and briefly trained as a monk. Here are the top five things I learned from the experience. More can be found at Vedantin.org/what-i-learned-from-the-monastery.
Inner Freedom Vs. Outer Freedom
We have a choice between freedom of thought or freedom of action—but we can’t have both. Unless we restrict our actions in the world, the world has control of our thoughts on a subtle level. For instance, who among us has not had our thoughts influenced by sex?
We Are All Just People
Monks and saints are people just like us. The only difference between a truly holy man and everybody else is that they live honestly and don’t make excuses for bad behavior. They know what is most important and go for it.
Rigor Equals Results
We can choose our faith, but we must choose something. We Americans like to pick and choose parts from many different spiritual traditions. But if we don’t choose a spiritual path as our core, we have no time-tested foundation on which to build.
The Value of Purity
We really are influenced by our surroundings, so we must choose our company and our surroundings wisely. When we set the bar high, we jump high. Any good athlete knows that only a moderate amount of junk can be let in the body before performance is affected.
Rituals Are Not Dumb Afterall
Rituals are routines that set the table for spiritual insight. Like stretching, a good spiritual ritual readies us for the hard lifting of actual spiritual growth. Many religious rituals work on levels we don’t appreciate until we have been practicing them for awhile, and even then they are subtle like a good night of rest.
Peter Kowalke is a 34-year-old lifelong unschooler and editor of Unschooler.com. His spiritual site, American Vedanta, can be found at Vedantin.org.He lives in New York City and spends a portion of every year in Asia.
This article was published in the January-February 2014 issue of HEM: