Sometime ago, I overheard two students using the word aryan in casual conversation about someone they had met earlier. Although it seemed to be used in jest it struck me that the first step in overcoming xenophobic prejudice is to desist from using racially charged language, even benignly. The other alternative is to neutralize incorrectly charged terminology.
As it happens, at the end of last year I decided to take time out of the real world and attend a retreat that introduced me to The Aryan Way. Although the anglicized word was never used, we often heard the Pali version (ariya) of the Sanskrit original (arya). While the term itself was actually irrelevant to the experience – indeed, there is strong emphasis that the experiential aspect of the retreat is fundamentally ineffable and thus orthogonal to any terminological descriptions – we do come away with an understanding of various things aryan, especially the four Aryan truths about the nature of intrinsic dissatisfaction with existence and how to overcome it.
One of the most salient and relevant features of this 10-day silent meditation retreat is what I call the “Metta moments”. Every sitting ends with a voluntary and silent reflection of Metta which, in Pali, means benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, goodwill, and active interest in others. Metta, as it happens, is one of the qualities expected of aryans. And yes, aryanhood is decidedly not something you’re born into, but a title you earn through righteous and noble actions.
I felt it opportune to revive this thought if only to lament how much the word has devolved over time from its original connotation. The word aryan means noble – in the sense of espousing compassion, inclusivity and loving kindness: all qualities we seek to show towards our students and engender in them. However, this powerful word has been hijacked and distorted to mean not just something slightly different, but actually the very antithesis of what its progenitors intended for it to mean. Ironically, in what might as well be the greatest tragedy of our times, the word has continued to retain its power while having lost its soul! – A true Voldemort of language, if ever there was one.
Some supporters of our present government are using the word to sow hatred and divisiveness amongst us. Rather than see unity amongst all beings and show empathy towards those in whose shoes we ourselves (or our ancestors) were at one time in this great nation, they seek to build walls (real and political) to keep passionate learners from getting what really ought to be their birthright. Rather than invite people in, they seek to push people out. I wrote elsewhere that Science and Spirituality are strong unifying forces of enlightenment, compassion and contentment based on testable claims (objective and subjective). Religiosity and non-science, on the other hand, are divisive force of discontent, contempt and ignorant violence. They are based on the bedrock of untestable (note – not untested) claims. Unfortunately, those in power appear to base all their decisions on such impulsive un-aryan sentiments.
I do what I can during class to reassure anxious students that we, as professional educators, disagree with certain governmental policies, that we feel their pain and anguish as they face uncertain futures. And that we will stand for their right to be educated in this country. The commissioning of the Dreamer’s Mural by our college president two weeks ago was a fantastically bold and forward minded step.
I remember thinking that we now need to demonstrate the same kind of compassionate reassurance towards other international students who, for no fault of theirs, have been wrongfully penalized just because they were born in a country that our unenlightened government has stereotypically designated as evil. Imagine my pleasant surprise when just at that moment I received a message from our president inviting us to come and hear impacted students tell their story at “The Banned 7” forum! And boy, what a gathering it was – standing room only!
Watching a few students wince at some of the remarks made by our president on screen, I came to believe that regardless of what subject we each teach, imparting a sense of Metta to our students is hugely important – Who knows which of them may run for office tomorrow? We need to become a nation – nay – a world of aryans. But only in the sense of the original import of the word – not in its misguided sense as understood by ignorant xenophobes.
Besides being the socially responsible and humanitarian thing to do, the metta mindset also brings practical benefits to the classroom. The empathy it cultivates amongst students is conducive to learning subject matter in ways more subtle than being willing to help each other out with difficult concepts. Students learn not only to be kind to others, but also to themselves, which is even more important when faced with challenges and insurmountable obstacles. It gives them the courage to persevere in face of failure rather than resignedly think that some particularly difficult concept is beyond their grasp and will forever be.
To this end, I’m hoping to hold Metta Moments for my class before subject lectures start. This quarter I’ve already begun a mindfulness meditation practice (10 minute sittings) for interested students prior to my 8am classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. Anyone is welcome to attend, of course. I’ll post a more detailed note about this shortly, but in the meantime, you can point your students at https://mindfulatfoothill.wordpress.com for more information. From next week on, I plan to begin a minute earlier than usual so that we spend the last minute silently contemplating and reflecting upon Metta, our heartfelt wishes for peace and happiness to all beings.