In 1937, spurred by the ideas outlined in American economist Henry George's treatise Progress and Poverty, a young, inquisitive Leon MacLaren founded the School of Economic Science in London. While the original scope of the institution was focused on finding solutions to economic inequity, over time it became evident to MacLaren and his students that their approach to economics was missing something fundamental.
"They were looking for something that would shed light on the human condition and could address the deepest questions that people had, in hopes that it would help with economics as well," says Donald Wiegmann, a longtime student and teacher at the School of Practical Philosophy, which grew out of MacLaren's original institution. In 1963, McLaren met Shri Shantananda Saraswati, a highly respected Indian philosopher. This began the introduction of philosophy and meditation into the curriculum, and they gradually became the primary focus of study.
- The School of Practical Philosophy’s upstate location at the historic Borden Dairy Home Farm in Wallkill.
The secular origins of the School of Practical Philosophy underlie its broad, nonsectarian approach to spirituality and self-development. The school, which has locations in Manhattan and Wallkill as well as around the globe, takes as its tagline, "Wonder with us"—an open-ended sentiment that encapsulates the attitude of awe and ceaseless exploration cultivated by the school. "Really the question is 'Who am I?'" Wiegmann says. "One of the things that makes the school distinct is the inquiry into that question through Western traditions as well as Eastern. It could be through Epictetus (a Stoic philosopher), Emerson, or the Upanishads. People find a passion in one of these areas and explore it, but at the core is self-discovery."
One of the core tenets of the school is the underlying unity of all things. "At our deepest level, we are one," Wiegmann says. "The classic analogy is that there is one ocean and many waves." New students begin with a 10-week introductory class called Philosophy Works led by a tutor—a more seasoned student of the school. One of the first things taught is an awareness exercise. "It's really not meditation," Wiegmann clarifies. "It's quieting your mental activity and letting your attention connect with the senses, allowing yourself to rest in what Socrates would call 'pure being,' as a way to find a simple, content, calm platform you can then work from."
From this open place, students are introduced to a concept or principle of study each week. "It could be a quote from Einstein, the Bhagavad Gita, Emerson, Plato, or Rumi," Wiegmann says. The school emphasizes Socratic communication over rhetoric, seeking to explore and discover through dialogue rather than to convince. "We are really careful to remind people: don't accept or reject anything, do put it into practice." Students are asked to try a principle for a week, then report back about their experience. "Sometimes it's transformational, sometimes it's not. Sometimes they forget all together, but now have their own experience to go off of. If it's effective for them, they can continue to build on that as subsequent practices are given."
Study continues with Foundation Courses, such as the upcoming Philosophy and Presence of Mind class, which will be offered at the Wallkill location every Tuesday for 10 weeks beginning September 10. After about two years of continued study, students are introduced to mantra-based meditation, which is the anchor of practice going forward.
"Our students are anybody and everybody," Wiegmann says. "They are young professionals, they are grandmothers, they are subway conductors, they are school teachers, they are attorneys. That reflects something that is very important to me: this is everyone's subject."
The introductory class will run Wednesdays at the Wallkill location from 7-9pm starting September 11 and at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon Saturdays from 10am-12pm starting September 14.
To learn more about the School of Practical Philosophy, visit Philosophyworks.org.