Cultural Learning Styles

The day before classes began, Lynn, Ras and I reviewed some of the material we learned at the Institute, just to refresh our memories. We got into a discussion of how stressful the western academic system can be, based as it is on grades and competition and finding the right answer. In fact, pressure and stress seem to be part of the design of our educational system – tests are given in order to create pressure so students will study. When this strategy works, it’s because most people raised in the U.S. are conditioned to compete, to prove their knowledge and even their value through what they accomplish.

While I have “succeeded” in that system – which is to say, I’ve always enjoyed school and done well academically – it has ingrained in me a certain way of seeing the world. It encourages the belief that there is one right way to do things, a correct and an incorrect answer or version of reality. It has also encouraged in me a habit of striving and mental effort, which follows from the belief that brain work is necessary to gain knowledge.

One of the primary reasons I wanted to be in India to deepen my experience of Ayurveda was to drink from the source; I suspected that there are certain nuances of perception and understanding that just cannot be conveyed within our western educational system. Many of us were troubled by the fact that the Institute in Albuquerque seems to be moving towards a more western academic style, implementing weekly quizzes in every subject. There is even talk of posting exam grades so the distribution will be known among the students. This feels like a step away from the spirit of Ayurveda to which Dr. Lad is so committed, and it saddens many of us.

While Dr. Ramdas is our main teacher here, he is not our only teacher. Last weekend, before classes began, we met Dr. Ramkumar, one of the other founders of Vaidyagrama. He spends more of his time off-site, fundraising and supporting some of Punarnava’s other projects, but his connection to Vaidyagrama is deep. He spoke with us at one of the Pongal ceremonies (as we were waiting for the pot to boil over), and it was evident that he is quite familiar with the western mindset and which learning challenges may lie ahead of us.

“To learn Ayurveda requires the three P’s,” he said, “patience, persistence, and perseverance. It requires patience because you have to be willing to wait for things to emerge, for things to express their true nature. If you persist in looking for it, you can learn Ayurveda from everything that is happening here, not only in the classroom. Look at the fire over there, and the rice they are cooking. What transformation is taking place? What gunas (qualities) are present? If you are willing to learn from everything here, you will learn a lot. You must persevere, because there will come a time when you will ask, ‘Am I wasting my time here? Could I be learning quicker somewhere else?’

“Ayurveda is not organized,” he went on. “This can be difficult for the western mind, where you’re used to things being presented in a logical fashion, building from one concept to the next. You won’t find that here. Look at this land,” he gestured to the untended yard by the front entrance.  “To some, it looks messy. They say, ‘You should clean this up, get rid of these dead leaves on the ground and such. It doesn’t make a good first impression.’ We don’t believe in that. Ayurveda is not about first impressions. It is about lasting impressions. Those dead leaves serve a purpose; they put nutrients and nitrogen back into the earth. They think it’s ugly because it is not manicured, but there is beauty and order at play here. If you are patient, and you look, you will come to see that.”

As I’ve walked the grounds here in the past week, I’ve been turning his words over in my mind. In the U.S., there is an emphasis on beauty and order on the surface of things. We are impressed by well-organized cities, orderly traffic, cleanliness and politeness (and unimpressed, if not offended, by their opposites). In my limited exposure thus far, it seems that in India people are less focused on a superficial expression of order and beauty (although there is certainly tremendous beauty here on that level too), and more focused on the purpose or spirit beneath. When that kind of attention has been paid to the core, to what matters, it can be felt. It’s more than a simple utilitarianism in which the dead leaves are valued for their nutrients – rather it is a recognition of meaning at the deeper layers.

In the States, there is an “on stage” and an “off stage” in most places… and “off stage” is where you put the ugly. Here, it’s all on stage – you live with it all. There is a makeshift pathway we travel many times a day between our rooms and the cluster of buildings where our classroom is located – it is not traveled by patients, just by staff and students while construction is completed. That path is littered with trash – an old sandal, pieces of electrical wire, broken tiles.  I’ve been vacillating between different reactions to this little stretch of neglected land. On the one hand, it looks dirty and forgotten, and I think, “How much effort would it take to just clean this stuff up? Why hasn’t anyone done that?” I started to clean it up myself a few days ago, and then something stopped me. I decided to just watch it a little longer. For some reason, I kind of like it.

Dr. Ramkumar stopped by again near the end of last week and asked how class is going. We all said how much we are enjoying it. “We are reviewing material we covered last year,” I said, “and we are already learning so much that is different.” He smiled, “Remember, there is not just one right answer. Watch out for the tendency to say, ‘That’s right,’ and, ‘That’s wrong.’ There are many perspectives, and when you add them up, you begin to get the whole picture.”

So…. Be persistent. Look everywhere for Ayurveda. Don’t reduce things to “right” and “wrong.” Keep watching. Nothing is tidy in nature. But there is beauty and order just underneath the surface. Be patient….

6 thoughts on “Cultural Learning Styles

  1. ian says:

    Trash. It’s like the hidden key to a culture that is left under the matt by the backdoor. I get a twang of guilt and wrongness every time I see Koruna say, “trash. Away. Away!” Alas, there’s no such thing. “Off stage” simply doesn’t exist. Thank you for imbibing that message, sis, we are in dire need of it over here. love

    • ivyingram says:

      So true, Bro. I’ve been thinking about trash a lot here. Seeing it is a good thing, a good reminder of it’s existence. perhaps not coincidentally, there are very few garbage cans around Vaidyagrama. We have them in our room, but not in any of the public areas… makes me think twice about throwing something away. I’ve been realizing how many things you can throw outside because they degrade, and yet we put them in the “trash” so they go to landfills and don’t degrade and just take up space. Yeah, we’ve gotta do something different on a super large scale….

  2. donca vianu says:

    Dear Ivy,

    I am reading with much interest and pleasure your notes and comments, thank you very much to share your impressions with us. It makes me feel that I participate a bit at your life in South India, which I love.

    Well, this last addition has touched me a lot. You capture essential differences between Western and Indian culture. The “on” and “off” “stages” of self representation in the West, and “everything on stage” in India – very poignant observation, with bothering aspects on both sides – sometimes I wish there was more visible in the West (like the power of destiny which over rules our human will, with misfortunes, deformities, illness and death), sometimes I wish there was more hidden away in India (like the cleaning cloths lying in temples, and the trash lying everywhere).
    But between the two approaches to knowing – the aggressive competitive Western logical – analytical versus the peaceful, receptive, holistic, intuitive of traditional India, I do not hesitate to choose the last. So much so that in the eighties when I spent one year in India I did not want to come back to Western Europe.
    It makes me very happy that you are in the process of discovering this receptive and holistic epistemology – the reservoir of tacit knowledge waiting to be tapped. The more Western people tune into it, the more hope there is for profound changes in consciousness and solutions for our planet.
    Have a wonderful continuation,


    • ivyingram says:

      Hello Donca,
      Yes, there are bothering aspects on both sides, so true. I find it hard to hide from some of the painful things that are visible here… and sometimes I wish I could. And yes, sometimes the quantity of trash is hard to fathom. At least the goats here are an eco-friendly and economical strategy for getting rid of the trash! I suppose it’s the painful stuff that I’m concerned about being hidden away in the west. It’s too easy to ignore the causes of pain in the US, I find.

      Thank you for your comment and your thoughtfulness. I am enjoying sharing these exchanges with you!
      Peace and love,

  3. gretchen ruoff says:

    Hi Ives!
    Just a note to let you know that I am thinking of you, and am so very much enjoying your thoughtful (as usual!) posts.

    In many ways, the lessons you are learning – and sharing – are just the ones I need to be learning and re-learning right now.

    This many years later, you’re still teaching me, dear friend.
    love you.

    • ivyingram says:

      Oh my dear, so sweet to see your name and comment here! Yes – I love it when the message we need finds us, wherever we are…. I love thinking of you being part of my experience here! Much love to you….

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