Barbara Shepard has been running a K-12 School in her home for 30 years. Her life is dedicated to freedom, and it shows. The energy and commitment with which she engages her students in all matters is infectious and thrilling. A decade ago, she began what she calls an "experiment." From a burning desire to share her own realization of silence with her students, Barbara introduced a period of silent sitting each day. This has led to much more than she could have imagined.
"What if, instead of all the usual conditioning, I invite the children to the Truth that they Are? What if, instead of the usual covering of unpleasant experiences and feelings, I invite them to actually experience them directly, without hiding or indulging? What is possible?"
It was nearly thirty years ago that Barbara began teaching a group of multi-aged children in her home near Mount Shasta. She always knew that she wanted to be a teacher and offer something different – a much needed alternative to the often brutal concrete jungle of public education. From a very young age she resolved to communicate with children in a manner that acknowledged their conscious intelligence and awareness. When she met Gangaji, and discovered profound silence at the core of her own being, she felt a burning desire to share this with her students. As an experiment, she began offering all the children a short period each day of sitting in silence.
She also started bringing a group of her kids to Ashland to attend Gangaji's meetings. In the beginning they would squirm and fidget. But over the years, especially for those who have been coming for five years now, this has had a profound effect. And a few years ago she invited Lisa Schumacher to have satsang with the children at her school. The success of a simple period of quiet and the introduction of satsang and conscious inquiry in school prompted Barbara to create the School of Living Awareness, a program dedicated to providing the huge benefits of Silence and Inquiry to young people everywhere. "I can honestly say my classroom hums with a vibrant sense of engaged and harmonious aliveness," says Barbara. That is something worth sharing with the world!
Interview with Harriet Watson, Gf Staff
HW: When the kids come to satsang with Gangaji, or when Lisa sits with them in the classroom, what would you say is the purpose? What are the effects?
Barbara: One purpose is exposure. There is a vibration, an energy, a feeling in the room that everyone experiences, and children are no exception. The challenge is not to start interpreting that for them. They are having their own experience, and their own interpretation. My job is to just stay open to whatever that is and not impose what I have experienced on them. It is always an invitation. Gangaji is so clear about that.
A few of the girls from the school have been going to Gangaji’s satsangs in Ashland for many years now, and at this point they are entering adolescence. They are still young, but they are open, and they are really beginning to benefit tremendously from the invitation to go deeper.
Experiencing Lisa with the children has been utterly magical. They naturally love it, and receive what is being offered at a deep level. The transmission is always the most important element. It can be totally conventional, “unspiritual” things that are being spoken about, but if awareness is present in the room in anyone, everyone is going to feel it. It is something that we all share.
With the littler kids, if they are healthy and balanced and you have a good rapport and good communication with them, they are open to trying anything. We have done repeating questions with them, and mirror exercises, and they get very animated and excited. Lisa will have discussions or inquiries that involve their pets, so that they relate to it. With a child it’s wise to start exactly where they are.
HW: Do you speak to the children about your own experience of awakening and living life freely?
Barbara: Mostly I have simply shown them my awakening through transmission and through my own behavior. Exposing children to opportunities to be in silence, to attend satsang, to engage in self-inquiry, allows them to have their own experience and unfolding of awareness. I have consciously chosen not to fill them with “spiritual” notions and instead invite them to be curious, to investigate their actual experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
HW: What advice would you give to parents about presenting children with an awareness of who they are, without being heavy handed or indoctrinating?
Barbara: Children naturally know who they are, and as small children they tend to be just open. So you are automatically sharing everything with them and they are eating it right up, and it’s who they become.
But it’s also their job to form an identity and become conditioned so they can function in our world. So as they get older, that sense of openness changes. Adolescents are programed to fly in the face of everything you have taught them and go their own way. Ironically it is all about discovering, “Who am I?” but it goes in an outward rather than an inward direction. As a parent it can seem as if you have no more place in their life. Communication breaks down and parents go into the same kind of tizzy as their kids. What do I do now? What happened to my baby?
The other side of it is the confidence in knowing that they actually need you far more than they ever did. As parents you may wish you had given your children some exposure to a deeper level of realization, and that now it’s too late, but the truth of the matter is, if that is how you have lived your life, then you have. Trying to impose a new doctrine at this stage is not only futile but potentially damaging.
You can’t impose on them who they are, as if it is an external thing that can be defined by you. But you can trust that you are sharing with them who you are while never really knowing the impact of that. I have been completely surprised by teenagers that I have had the worst trouble with, who come back to me years later from college and thank me profusely. It floors me.
A parent’s challenge is to be true to yourself. What are you transmitting? Even if your children seem to be opposing it directly, it penetrates them, and it will be a source of support and nourishment to them, or at least a reference point.
I think that all too often parents look at their children as reflections of themselves, rather than an actual totally different person. You will have influence, but they have their own self right from the get go. They are born unique. Who knows what their path is, who knows what their challenges are, who knows what they need?
You know who knows? They know. They already know. Just as you trust yourself, you can also trust your children. There is a part of their future you will never see. When you start coming from curiosity rather than from a predetermined agenda, everything changes. You’ve started with an open field.
So I shy away from feeding anybody at any age a lot of information. What is more important is the naturalness of your own way of being. I don’t use explicitly spiritual language in my classroom. Only now that the girls are getting older do we have actual discussions that are not related to bunny rabbits and siblings.
HW: What tools do you give the children to cope with suffering, with unexpected changes in their lives, so that they can stay open, centered in themselves, and live naturally and easily among their peers.
Barbara: The tools of silence and inquiry are in themselves hugely valuable in handling life’s inevitable challenges. Also an atmosphere of respect and caring for others builds a sense of being able to trust others and naturally receive support in times of suffering.
Emotional honesty is another tool. I support children in communicating and investigating their actual feelings as opposed to some expected or conventionally accepted response. I give them support to be true to themselves in a safe environment, and that concretely helps them to manage the suffering in their lives.
I also encourage recognition of the multiple and often surprising solutions that exist within any problem. Often our suffering arises from an inability to see the many angles of a situation. Open mindedness opens the door to everything.
What the children have learned from silence and inquiry spontaneously shows up in the way that they reflect on a situation. There is a certain integrity of being that is unusual at that age. It’s beautiful to see, and they need even more protection because of that. It’s kind of vulnerable, and definitely not the norm.
HW: How do they respond to peer pressure and stay true?
Barbara: The collective search for self and how you see yourself fitting in to society is so important as you go into adolescence, and for many years to come. Negotiating that is very hard for the majority of children, but it is the same for us as adults. Remaining in integrity to your personal experience is a challenge for all of us. Sometimes it can seem easier to just buy in and be like everyone else, do whatever mind-dulling or surface thing is easiest, in order to shove aside one’s deepest feelings. That is exactly what the Gangaji forum is filled with: people facing regular challenges, in regular life, in the light of what they are realizing.
There is a bond that the children have that keeps them true. But that can be tricky, too, because sometimes I can see they are still listening to each other to decide how they feel. It’s an issue that is important for adolescent and pre-adolescent children. Regardless of how deep their experiences are: are they actually being self-referent or are they going with the crowd? It is not something that can be directly discussed or taught.
When they are selling out, it’s usually because they are trying to protect extremely vulnerable emotions. It is possible to nurture a natural instinct towards more openness and more vulnerability. It is possible to create a different kind of environment and raise children in a different way. It requires that the adults pay attention to themselves and keep up with their own growing pains, that they be vulnerable and tell the truth about what is hard and what they feel. It also requires that the adults do not sell out, that they are willing to present an alternative, not in defiance to what is culturally normal but just as the truth: life is short and I want to live with authenticity.
HW: By bringing children to stillness and self-inquiry, what do you think is the potential of our collective future?
Barbara: Honestly I feel the potential for the future in raising children with awareness of their own alive, intelligent hearts and minds is unlimited. At the very least there are many problems that can be avoided if someone grows up supported in their own living awareness. As adults, many of us spend a great deal of time working to undo the misguided education we received about ourselves, about life, and about what is possible to be and achieve as an individual and as a society.
Children need to learn the culture of their situation of course. They do not need to learn that they are inherently limited or lacking in any way. They can learn that they are in fact inherently free, inherently whole. They can learn that their own natural intelligence and love are unlimited and that they have the resources and support to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. That is what we all want. That is what is possible.
I feel so passionately that this invitation to children to come to silence be received in a broad way, in the general population. There is a hunger for it right within the pain. I would love to take Lisa into a regular classroom – show up and meet what is present – because everyone is hungry for this. The possibility thrills me to the core.
A report from Barbara in April 2017 on a meeting with Lisa in the classroom:
What was different, what was extraordinary, about yesterday's meeting? It was the Depth. It was the Intimacy. It was the Truth Telling. It was the breakthroughs....Yes, the breakthroughs.....
Little and big kids all "came through" naturally yesterday.....children spoke and shared real feelings, real feelings of Love, real feelings of Fear, real feelings of Pain, and what I watched that I am calling breakthrough was the Unmistakable Recognition of Choice. The choice for one to have Natural Joy or Indulgence of Drama. The choice for one to Share Truth or to Retreat into Aloneness. The choice for one to continue telling a Story of Suffering or to Open to Present Trust.
A super enthusiastic (and dramatic) little girl was able to see, to feel, to experience how she creates suffering by using her imagination and then indulging the unhappy feelings....AND was able to just stop and be her Natural Self and the radiance of her Joy in that was mind blowing.
One little boy who has always been a squirmer and disruptive in meetings shared his pain in the fighting between his mother and stepfather. So tender, so sweet.
One budding young woman discovered she could actually return to painful early childhood experiences and Give Love to her Self.....this event was truly amazing. Another little boy was able to see how "helping others," while beautiful and useful, still falls short of the Lasting Love that is the goal of this helping....
Bottom Line: what they were All directed to was the Truth that Love Resides inside themselves!!!!
You know it is one thing to tell that to children and as a concept it is indeed useful but it is another thing altogether to invite, and then watch them experience, this Love as Truly Existing and actually really easy to access!!!!
And then: to invite them right inside what they experience as "not love," as difficulties and pain, and to support them in discovering their capacity to recognize how they create that suffering and where they have choice. This is not something happening in most classrooms or homes. It is not something I have seen in my decades of work with children. But that is changing now. I am seeing it. I am feeling it. I am participating in it. I am blown away again and again by it. I bow to it. I do not have the sensation of being responsible for all this. I only have the experience of willingness to let this happen, and it is happening!