Sadhana: Reflections from the 26th International Montessori Congress
A reflection by Kristin McAlister Young on the word "Sadhana", the topic for the 26th International Montessori Conference in Chennai, India.
"The mind and body coming together to perform complex multi-level tasks, initially with awareness but eventually lived and carried out without effort. Mindful action. Good work done well with inner guidance. Being in the moment, touching the human spirit, a disciplined state of inner harmony."
Reflective practice, spontaneous living, what a beautiful description of the Montessori way, and sadhana, what a powerful topic for the 26th International Montessori Congress. I had not intended to write a reflection, but after attending the Congress in Chennai, I felt that not writing would perhaps be a missed opportunity to capture an important moment - a moment brought about by the choice of sadhana as a topic during a time in our global society when so many are talking of a new way of living life in connection with others and in contact with the deeper self that sadhana refers to. I offer this reflection in recognition of the foundational nature of sadhana in our work and as a celebration of our role in support of life and the slow evolution of a new man born from the normalised children we support. However, I also take this opportunity to issue a call to action to go beyond our work with the child to fully follow Dr. Montessori’s directive to the adult. This point was specifically mentioned by the congress organisers:
"As the child develops, the actions of the body and mind are knitted together in creating the fabric of the self. Practitioners, young and old, must engage in the thoughtful practice of central Montessori principles in everyday life. Through our every conscious action we must seek to live our theory."
Whether as a Montessori parent, administrator, teacher or trainer, we must literally ‘follow the child’ on his journey to the new consciousness of connection that human evolution is heading towards.
Sadhana’s place at the heart of the Montessori work
I am so grateful to have attended the Congress for it provided a centring point: a chance to reflect on and to evaluate what we are really doing and to understand that the common foundation of our practice is sadhana. It is the very act of repeatedly making a connection between the body, mind and a deeper universal presence that is the true power of education. Further, it is in supporting and developing that connection that the individual moves beyond action for his own benefit to action for the benefit of all, thereby truly becoming a new man.
The fundamental nature of this connection is seen in many aspects of the child’s life under six. It is felt in the rapt attention of the newborn held inches from a lovingly present parent. It is almost palpable when the toddler loses all sense of time as he works peacefully to scrub a table. It is seen in the rapture with which a child watches a first presentation and the concentration with which he repeats. Once the child experiences sadhana, it will call to him to repeat. At this point he falls in love with awareness, presence, and concentration. He has achieved a flow experience where the ‘talking mind’, the intellect, ego, and external whims, deviations, and obstacles are silent. The child experiences unity with that deep guide that leads him towards development and towards life.
However, the child under six is in constant conflict between this repeated sensorial impression of unity through moments of sadhana and the tendency towards separation inspired by the crucial development of the will and intellect. This tension between connection and opposition is a necessary process, because it is only in identifying as separate that the will takes form and it is only through individual work that the intellect grows. If this growth is balanced by repeated experiences of sadhana, the sensory impression of unity and the peace it inspires in the child takes precedence so that the will and intellect are relegated to their appropriate importance. They become tools for the child who lives in connection, rather than guiding principles leading the child to life in opposition. The end result is, in fact, the arrival of the truly normalised child- a child that lives in connection to the universal… a child who lives sadhana… with all those beautiful qualities that emerge from a life led in connection.
Connected deeply with his centre, the child then moves into the elementary plane and encounters Cosmic Education. He learns that every particle of his body was once born from a star, that the blood that runs through his body was once water in the primordial ocean and that he is in effect over 4 billion years old! In keeping with the Montessori philosophy, the Children’s House child first has the repeated sensorial experience of the deep and vital centring of self and connection to the universal through the process of normalisation. Once this connection is no longer an effort, but is lived, we give him language to name that abstract concept - a concept that would have been impossible to understand without the sensorial base. We give him the Great Lessons of Cosmic Education.
As Dr. Montessori said:
"Let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality, and an answer to all questions.... All things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity. The idea helps the mind of the child to become focused, to stop wandering in an aimless quest for knowledge. He is satisfied having found the universal centre of himself with all things."
Though it is in the period under six that normalisation occurs, the power of sadhana is only partially developed if the child is abandoned at this stage. It is as if we have let him experience sounds, quantities of numbers, notes of music, shapes of leaves, and the feel of countries on a map, but have not then given him the language to extend this concept outside of himself. He is left with a deep and lasting connection, but the full power of his conscious mind has not been brought to bear on this organising principle of the universe or his connection with it.
In the adolescent community, the child ventures out of his family and peer group and brings this conscious understanding of connection to and responsibility for the universe into conscious action. He has felt, understood, and now acts. During this entire time of elementary and adolescent life, the child still needs repeated practical experiences of connection to a deeper self and discussion which places him in identity with the universe. The child is still vulnerable to the power of his own developing ego and intellect; necessary tools for the conscious mind, but champions of separation and competition if allowed to run wild. In the absence of these repeated moments of sadhana and engagement of the intellect in conscious understanding of connection, the ego again takes hold, strengthening itself through the concept of separateness. Also, if abandoned at this stage, the child is left swimming up current against the majority of human beings whose actions may still be informed by good intent, but intent which stems from serving the old human brain - the intellect and the ego. The elementary and adolescent communities help to protect that connection to the universe so that in his first encounters with the world, the child hears the quiet voice of the ‘we’ through the competing din of the ‘I’.
We see the effects of repeated experiences of sadhana in the adult who emerges. Interestingly Montessori educated adults seem to find themselves searching for work they feel passionate about. Work must mean something. It can be simple - a landscaper, a carpenter, a writer, but it is something that the individual can completely lose himself in. The individual is on a quest to fulfil that need for a direct link to the universal - a search for ‘flow’, for the experience of sadhana. If that child has been able to put language to this concept, he will have undergone a fundamental shift to a cosmic identity and this shift then informs all his actions. The end result of a life supported to reach its fullest potential is nothing less than a new man - a man who naturally feels connection to the universe, who finds meaning in the deepest moments of unity and who works consciously for the benefit of all. Many lives put together - what is that if not the evolution of the human being and the resulting fundamental peace that Dr. Montessori spoke of?
This is the power at the heart of the Montessori philosophy, but it is also a trap. We as Montessori parents, teachers, trainers, and administrators, feel that we are doing our part to usher in this new world by the nature of the work that we do. At the same time, we often feel that, deprived of a Montessori education ourselves, we have missed the sensitive period of connecting to the deeper self and becoming ourselves that new man. We console ourselves that at least we are supporting life from its beginning and helping the new man to emerge in others. With the greatest respect, I would say that this is not enough.
Sadhana and the adult’s ability to evolve consciously
The spiritual element of Dr. Montessori’s work is always a factor at every Montessori gathering, but to be a part of an entire Congress dedicated to this point is a signal that there is something greater going on right now in our world. We are perhaps at a parallel point in our human evolution where humanity, like the child under six, has reached the maximum tension between disconnection and connection. We have lived under the illusion of separateness because it helped to strengthen the tools of the will and the intellect and this was perhaps a necessary evolutionary stage. However, we have also experienced moments of universal connection and we are increasingly realising,both cognitively, through the new physics, and spiritually, through sadhana, that this connection is real. We are at a point where we will either allow ourselves to be guided by that deep connection, using our will and intellect as tools, or we will continue to live in opposition, under the mistaken impression that these tools are sufficient guides in and of themselves for humanity. I believe that humanity is ready to become normalised. To make that shift, we must seize the moment and participate actively in human evolution.
Dr. Montessori pointed out that we alone among living things are not locked into behaviour by instinct, but rather are endowed with the ability to consciously bring about our own evolution. Though she spoke of the child who emerges from this education as a new man, she also told us that we should ‘follow the child’. Admittedly this phrase is commonly interpreted as a comment on observation and a point of method, but I would argue that taken in context with her other writings, it is also a call to action. Dr. Montessori’s main requirement of her teachers was to ‘learn to live better’ and to do so consciously with the child as our guide.
"Our teacher therefore must also be the ‘Spirit Child’—or rather the vital urge with the cosmic laws that lead him unconsciously. Not what we call the child’s will, but the mysterious will that directs his formation, this must be our guide. In serving the child, one serves life; in helping nature one rises up to the next stage, that of super-nature, for to go upward is a law of life. And it is the children who have made this beautiful staircase that mounts even higher. The law of nature is order, and when order comes of itself, we know that we have re-entered the order of the universe. It is clear that nature includes among the missions she has entrusted to the child, the mission of arousing us adults to reach a higher level. The children take us to a higher plane of the spirit and material problems are thereby solved."
Dr. Montessori did not intend for us to stop and watch as the child mounts the staircase, but to follow and she told us how.
"Nature inspires both parents with love for their little ones, and this love is not something artificial…the love we find in infancy shows what kind of love should reign ideally in the grown-up world. A love able, of its own nature to inspire; to sacrifice the dedication of one ego to another ego, of one’s self to the service of others."
Dr. Montessori spoke of two instincts at work as the basis of motivation in the human being - that of self-preservation and that of care of the young. The beauty of children calls out the instinct of care of the young and inspires this deep selfless love. However, if we are to achieve the peace that Dr. Montessori envisioned, we must extend that love beyond the adult-child relationship. We must evolve from actions based primarily on the instinct of self-preservation to actions based on a wider concept of care for the young: simply care - care for the earth, for each other, for each and every particle that was born from the original supernova.  If we recognize our interconnectedness, is there really a difference between care for the child and care for an adult, the worm, the soil or water?
Stemming from our daily experience of sadhana which makes us uniquely sensitive to the interconnectedness of life, our cognitive understanding of our cosmic identity, and from our simple presence with and dedication to children, Montessori practitioners are often already drawn to acts based on the instinct of care of others rather than self-preservation. As I sat surrounded by such wonderful people at the Congress, I was keenly aware of how much simply living with children and being mindful in our practice brings out the best in humanity. This evolution happens spontaneously in the classroom - it is the staircase the children have built for us.
However, so often we allow ourselves to revert to the instinct of self-preservation as we exit our home or classroom doors and are assaulted with the world of adults and their own actions based primarily on self-preservation. So often, instead of extending the same understanding we do to the not-yet normalised child who is faced with obstacles, we shut out the adult he has grown into. As Montessori adults, we have learned to be patient, compassionate, responsive, loving, and non-judgmental. All of this comes fairly naturally to us as great gifts from the child and our work, but we have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to choose to be that person all of the time: not only with children, but also with adults and with the universe. We have the opportunity to choose to live like the normalised child each and every day.
What a new world we would have if it were populated both by children who had grown up living this way naturally as well as adults who make a conscious choice to recognise our identity with each particle of the universe and decide to treat each one with the same love and compassion we show for the child. What a world we would have if, by making that choice with intentionality each day, eventually we live it effortlessly.
I believe that we are at a tipping point. There are many signals that the consciousness of the world is ready for the shift from a culture based on disconnection and self-preservation to a culture based on care, connection, and unity. Montessori practitioners have a unique responsibility because, by the nature of our work, we are aware of this shift in consciousness and we met the new man. We know what she looks like.
We have seen the child who lives every moment with great peace and joy - whose main purpose seems to be to love. We have met the child who approaches conflict with interest and understanding, not judgment. We have seen the child who does strive to be a leader, but lives naturally with such great care for others that she inspires others to try just a bit harder to live better - until it becomes effortless for them as well. We know the child who will give a treasured possession to another in need without the slightest hesitation and we recognise that this act comes from a place of strength and great wisdom. We’ve seen the child who withholds help lovingly to allow others room for accomplishment, but stands ever ready should they falter. We know that child who makes comments that are wise beyond her years, so much so that we are struck by the simple beauty of their observation and the essential truth of their words - a truth that comes from a place that resonates deeply within us. We’ve met the child who finds beauty not only in the butterflies, but in the slugs and leaves and stumps of a forest floor - simply because it is part of the circle of life, part of what is right now. And we know that adult, perhaps few and far between, who refuses to let others tell them they are being idealistic or naïve, but live with great integrity simply because it is what feels right.
As Montessori adults, we dream of a world filled with the future man born from this child - it would truly be a new Earth, but to wait for the slow tides of evolution would be to ignore what we have seen and the experiences we have lived as adults privileged to do the work we do each day. We have a duty to this Earth to choose to live consciously now, to love unconditionally now, and to show great compassion for each particle of the universe in whichever form it takes and at whatever developmental point it finds itself. Billions of years have gotten us to the point that human beings can consciously decide to evolve and we Montessorians have seen the face of the new man in the light of the eyes of a five-year-old-child. I choose to follow her.
Kristin McAlister Young.