Sunyata as Fertile Ground for Self-Directed Education
How sunyata, the field of possibility, feels like the shared space of a self-directed learning family.

My favorite outside-of-school moments tend to happen in unexpected places – not the field trip to the aquarium or the lecture on lichen in the woods last fall, but when I haven’t engineered anything, divorced from expectation or intent. As a general disposition or pattern perhaps, our family seems to live and operate from a place of curiosity, and as my children get older, and we are in more ongoing (sometimes confronting and challenging!) conversations about life as we are living it, we often find ourselves in the land of unanswerable questions.

Unanswerable-question-land is one of my favorite places to live as a former high school English teacher and has been fertile ground for what feels like less of an educational posture or pedagogy than a way of being. It’s an undefined place that over time has felt expansive in ways I couldn’t have predicted when we first no-showed kindergarten nine years ago and now have three children on unconventional learning paths.

Like at the gas station last week: expecting little more than a full tank as I watched the gallons and cents tick upward, I started wondering aloud where was the best place to buy gas, a question that’s bothered me since we moved to a small island in the Pacific Northwest almost 10 years ago. Island gas is more expensive, but cheaper gas also means leaving the island, ferry fare, and of course the implications of spending money further from home. And what does “cheap gas” really mean, anyway? Who could I ask about that? I wanted to know what my kids thought, who so often give voice to deeper truths adults have forgotten.

Gas pumped, we talked a little bit about supporting local businesses or if the question changed if you had to be off the island anyway, for a dentist appointment or something like that.

No one seemed terrifically interested in the question, and I’ve at least learned to let go of what I think could make for a manipulative Teachable Moment. (Admittedly, it took a few years!)

As we pulled into the driveway at home, we’d reached neither consensus nor conclusion and were soon off to other things. Later in the day, we decided it was warm enough to bike to whatever the next destination was, which I now don’t remember. (And perhaps it’s too tempting not to insert that I remember how the mountains looked against the early April sky, and how tender I felt knowing it was likely my youngest’s last season on the back of my bike, with no memory of where we had been going.)

While not a direct response to the where-to-buy-gas question, later I reflected on the action of taking bikes instead of the car as a metaphor for the type of response that often feels the most clear, or even the most profound, both in terms of how we arrive at it (from a place outside logic) and how it continues to evolve through time and space.

It’s a response that feels representative of the ground in which we so often plant questions within an unconventional, self-directed learning environment. It’s ground that has felt to me like the “middle way,” somewhere outside relative rightness/righteousness.

Reading more about the middle way and transcending dualism in Tricycle Magazine recently, I revisited the teachings of Nagarjuna, his application of the middle way, and the concept of sunyata. Sunyata translates to emptiness, but is not “nothingness.” It’s a concept within Buddhist philosophy that indicates a field of “vast creative potential.”

This “vast creative potential” feels to me like the intention of the unschooled life, which includes deep dives into such topics as Buddhist philosophy, which I studied in college, and the state of being where we thrive as learners more generally. Rooted in a nothing-to-prove atmosphere, I am reminded of the field Rumi wrote about:

Quote by Rumi: Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. Where the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.

No testing, no homework, no grades, nowhere to be at a certain time, no bell going off right when the discussion is getting good. As a former teacher, simply having the time and space to be curious without the confinement of a class period, classroom or curriculum feels like a gift. Boundless circumstances (not without routine) also encapsulate the best of the unschool life: the slow and spontaneous weaving together of circumstance alongside the attempt to walk through the world with a curious and flexible mind.

And it always feels like the magic is working just offstage; instead of explicit lessons, a conversation at the hardware store can reverberate through multiple contexts. What we notice in nature becomes a new topic to explore versus learning from a prescribed set of lessons decided on by people who are likely coming from quite different places and times, too.

Ultimately, this space or experience of sunyata requires immense faith in the unseen. It is the start and the middle of the unschool journey, because we don’t know the end, and we’ve been willing to let go of outcomes and assessment along the way. And we’re also not always living in Rumi-esque fields, certainly not! The dog vomits, the car indeed needs gas, we can’t all agree on what to make for dinner, and I as the parent always have more to unpack and unlearn and repair.

I notice, though, that when I can feel myself inhabiting that magical place of possibility with my children, I so often ask questions instead of contributing any answers. Or I’m silent altogether. It is a state of being always on its way, never quite arrived. So we keep asking, trying, traveling together, our five-person-amoeba of learners cruising on our bikes headed toward the mountain, toward the water, deeper into the natural world, both toward and from a place of deep faith in the unquantifiable value of living this way. And the gas is perhaps more expensive here at home, but I think it’s worth it.

If you enjoyed this article and feel called to give back to ASDE, here are ways you can support our work:

  • Donate money
  • Share our content with others! Click one of the buttons above to easily share on Twitter, Facebook, or email.
  • Consider becoming a Contributor for Tipping Points
Asking the right questions...
What is Self-Directed Education?
Building a movement...
About the Alliance for Self-Directed Education
Sharing our stories...
Tipping Points Press