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YES—mindfulness is a secular practice that benefits students.
Concerns about teaching mindfulness in public schools and the potential violation of the separation of church and state it may imply are responsible and justified. It seems to me, however, that the practice of mindfulness is not itself the problem. Rather, the problem is the conflation of mindfulness and religion. Yet while mindfulness is an ethos—the core being “Do no harm”—mindfulness is not a religion. And while my colleagues and I openly acknowledge the centrality of mindfulness in classical Buddhist meditation practice, Buddhism holds no exclusive claim to it. Likewise, religious institutions hold no special dispensation regarding morals, ethics, and values. While religious institutions may encourage and reinforce virtuous behavior within a society, values like clarity, kindness, and compassion are without ownership. The capacity for human beings to embody these virtues must, by logical extension, be innate, consonant with the principles governing the natural world and therefore not reliant on any religious institution.
By example, the capacity to be sensitive to the experience, needs, and perspectives of the “other” embodied in the Golden Rule are not solely Christian. “Do unto others” affects us deeply because it is expressly human. Human because each of us knows what it is like to be treated badly; what it is like to be treated with dignity and respect; and what it is like to treat another with the same dignity and respect we would wish for ourselves.
So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is awareness itself—the knowing capacity that we consider the central feature of our humanness. Nonreligious, mindfulness does not ask someone to adopt a predetermined belief system or dogma. In practice, mindfulness offers us a method for investigating the nature of sentience and sanity. It mirrors the principles of scientific investigation by providing people with a method for learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in their lives. It is impartial. It does not grasp, reject, or prefer; it affords people the opportunity to see things just as they are, unclouded by the usual filters of conditioning and culture. Highly relational, mindfulness is a way of attending to the ever-changing nature of life. It offers us the possibility of recognizing our deeply conditioned tendencies, less in the thrall of habit and so more capable of making wise and appropriate choices. At the same time we learn to take things less personally. For most human beings, the exercise of these capabilities is both compelling and emancipating.
Our children need to learn about these capabilities early in their lives. By all accounts, childhood stress is on the rise in the United States. According to the 2014 Children’s Defense Fund report entitled The State of America’s Children, the United States ranked first among industrialized countries in gross domestic product, health expenditures, and number of billionaires. Yet the U.S. ranked second-to-worst in childhood poverty—1.2 million public school children are homeless. Every 2 seconds, a child is suspended; every 9 seconds, a high school student drops out; every 30 seconds, a student is corporally punished; every 3 hours, a child or teen is killed by a firearm; every 4.5 hours, a child or teen commits suicide; and every 5.5 hours, a child or teen dies of abuse or neglect.
Research suggests that impulse control and the ability to manage emotions have a powerful impact on our children’s ability to choose their behaviors. Self-regulation appears to have a stronger association with academic achievement than IQ or entry-level reading or math scores. Mindfulness seems to improve executive function (focus and self-regulation) and enhance emotional acumen and so may be an effective means for reducing poor performance or failure in school. It likewise encourages perspective taking and prosocial behavior. While far more scientific investigation is required to help us understand the potential role of mindfulness in the lives of our children, preliminary evidence is encouraging.
Mindfulness training fits into our educational tradition. The great American educator John Dewey said, “An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory.” Children experiencing firsthand the feeling of calmness, psychological stability, and emotional intelligence are reasserting their inherent capacity for self-regulation, discernment, and confidence. Simply put, mindfulness is a technology—an elegant means of investigating what it means to be alive, and to meet the stresses and challenges of life across one’s lifespan.
Our National Institutes of Health (NIH) are interested in mindfulness too. They are confident that mindfulness training is not promulgating a religion or a religious practice. Multiple institutes are funding mindfulness studies to investigate and understand the underlying biological, psychological, and neural mechanisms of mindfulness. In the past five years, more than 2,000 papers investigating mindfulness in the basic and clinical sciences have appeared in scientific literature. In January 2014, researchers from Johns Hopkins University published a large meta-analysis of meditation studies. Their conclusion: mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. In October 2015, American Psychologist published a special issue on the basic and clinical science of mindfulness.
My home institution, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is a public institution and the birthplace of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). We have a Therapeutic Neuroscience Lab. We study mindfulness; we publish the results, allowing for a free exchange of ideas critical to the scientific enterprise. While mindfulness is not a panacea, it may be a critically important aspect of our national public health strategy. More than 22,000 patients have completed our MBSR program. More than 6,000 physicians and hundreds of other health-care professionals have referred people to our MBSR Clinic. Christian ministers, rabbis, Catholic priests, and Hindu pandits have participated in MBSR, and so have their parishioners and congregants. As far as I know, none of them has reported that mindfulness disrupted their faith tradition. Quite the opposite: many report that mindfulness has deepened their faith, prayer life, and sense of connectedness.
For seven years we embedded an MBSR Clinic into a large community health center caring for underserved, underrepresented populations in Worcester, Massachusetts, providing access via free childcare and transportation. Participants included African Americans; Latinos from central, south, and Caribbean-rim countries; and native and immigrant Caucasians, all with income levels below the national poverty line. We have taught mindfulness to prison inmates and correctional staff in prisons across Massachusetts. Mindfulness is being taught to diverse populations of school-age children in the cities of Oakland, Baltimore, New York, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles—to name a few. Our Center is actively engaged in diversity and inclusion initiatives aimed at recruiting and developing a diverse MBSR teacher corps.
When I ask myself the question, “Should mindfulness be taught in public schools?,” my first response is, “It depends.” First, mindfulness in schools needs to be studied scientifically. All results, positive and negative, need to be published. Second, if the people teaching mindfulness in schools push Buddhism or any other faith-based worldview, my answer is an emphatic no. Third, mindfulness educators teaching in schools ought to be assessed regularly for both competence and continuing education in their field. If these educators are intent on reducing suffering and increasing well-being in our nation’s children, and because of this commitment engage in rigorous, mindfulness-based professional education and training programs focused on teaching mindfulness in nonsectarian settings, I vote yes and applaud their efforts. Let’s face it: the future of our children is our national responsibility.
Saki Santorelli, Ed.D., MA, is Professor of Medicine, Director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, and Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the author of Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness.
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