Since early adolescence, I have carried a deep conviction that we all have the capacity to grow in ways that far exceed our imagination. At 22, when most of my friends had accepted high paying jobs after college, I opted for a backpack and spiritual growth, traveling from my home in Sun Valley, Idaho to Dharamsala, India. The town buzzed with the energy of the Dalai Lama’s teaching on the Bodhisattva Way of Life, a classic Buddhist treatise on realizing perfect awakening for the sake of all beings. I was touched deeply by his kind and benevolent presence.
Inspired by the Dalai Lama’s life and vision, eight years ago, I co-founded the Flourish Foundation, a social-profit organization dedicated to cultivating healthy habits of mind that give rise to individual and collective well-being. We believe in invigorating change from the inside out.
My journey recently came full circle when I returned to Dharamsala for a week-long Mind & Life Dialogue between the Dalai Lama and leading scientists, scholars, and educators. The Dialogue’s focus on the role of education in human flourishing bore deep relevance to my own work.
Presenters reinforced that our potential for personal growth is heightened in early childhood and adolescence, and that positive changes conferred early in life predict favorable outcomes decades later into adulthood. These outcomes suggest an education in basic human values is indispensable for cultivating personal, societal, and planetary wellbeing.
In short, changing the world begins with educating children to be compassionate, caring citizens.
“Presenters reinforced that our potential for personal growth
is heightened in early childhood and adolescence…”
The Dialogue offered profound insights and tangible tools for doing so. I was encouraged to learn of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs that nurture inner peace and altruism within educational settings. To strengthen the efficacy of these programs and broaden their scope, the Dalai Lama encouraged us to be explicit in teaching humanity’s shared desire for wellbeing and the avoidance of suffering. By recognizing this fundamental inclination toward happiness, our students’ determination to investigate the individual and collective causes for genuine wellbeing can increase.
Over the five days, consensus emerged around best practices for invigorating ethics and balanced attention across different stages of development. In early childhood, the emphasis was on environment. Richard Davidson and Michel Boivin discussed the epigenetic changes that can occur prenatally and in early childhood. Both emphasized that these changes can have lasting consequences later into adulthood. Patricia Jennings identified the primary environment as the child’s network of care providers. With this in mind, I am invigorated to continue supporting our organization’s efforts to empower expectant couples and parents in developing and modeling ethical and attentive behavior.
Ideally, when young children are inspired by caring adults to develop self-regulation, self-awareness, and social awareness, their ability to restrain from destructive behaviors and cultivate virtues like kindness and generosity increases. To continue facilitating this level of engagement, programs that foster emotional intelligence and an embodied experience of calmness are demonstrating success. These early interventions expose children to their inner life and support them with lifelong strategies for constructively expressing themselves in relationship to others.
As I am now experiencing first hand with my oldest son in middle school, who is in the tween years (late childhood and early adolescence), children become less dependent on their earliest care providers. With this independence, tweens can become closed and indifferent to others. At this stage, the Dalai Lama suggested re-invigorating a sense of care toward family and friends and expanding this impulse impartially to more distant relationships.
Matthieu Ricard and Thupten Jinpa offered valuable insights on the importance of inviting students to critically examine how an expanded sense of caring is in their own best interest. For example, by comparing individuals who exhibit extreme self-centeredness to those who uphold the virtues of kindness and compassion, students can affirm for themselves that caring for others is a genuine cause of happiness. This affirmation helps students to persevere in developing kindness and compassion in their own lives.
When the Dalai Lama related his experience of becoming serious about personal contemplative practice at the age of 13, it reinforced my own understanding of adolescence and early adulthood is an opportune time for developing more refined states of attention and engaging in a thorough exploration of the mind. Presenters examined how such exploration can yield powerful insights into the mental factors that support wellbeing or give rise to suffering throughout one’s life. This method of applying stable and clear attention to understanding the mind can be externalized to support students in exploring the reality of interdependence, which, in turn, informs the ethics of altruism. By creating opportunities to explore the mind and interdependence, secondary education can nurture a lifelong pursuit of embodied wisdom and compassion.
Throughout the Dialogue, His Holiness spoke to the imperative of educating both heart and mind and that shifting the educational paradigm begins with each of us. What we say, think, and do impacts the world’s children—regardless of whether we are a teacher, an administrator, a parent, or a community member. Every day, we must strive to find the courage to initiate transformation within ourselves and be the change we wish to see in our children.