Meditation and mindfulness in schools

I’m writing a couple of big posts which seem to be taking forever to finish (not thanks to the beautiful weather), so by way of offering up some new content, this is piece I wrote for an online meditation discussion/support group (“Mind Club” on Facebook). It’s a couple of reflections based on reading about the disruption of Google’s Wisdom 2.0 conference. Wisdom 2.0 is a conference whose aim is to facilitate links between those in the tech sphere (the founders and workers of Facebook, Twitter, Paypal et al) and yoga and mindfulness teachers, presumably with the aim of taking the lessons of mindfulness into the corporate sphere. The disruption was a protest against the hypocrisy of corporations like Google, who are  promoting mindfulness and compassion on one hand yet are huge drivers of gentrification of San Francisco, pushing up rents and changing the character of the area. Where does the buck stop? Has Google actually got the courage to challenge it’s own practices or is this simply “McMindfulness”? (More links and discussion herehere and here). It put me in mind of attempts to bring mindfulness into schools.

I met with a guy last year who was working for a company who were set up to aim to promote mindfulness in schools – they produce lesson plans around mindfulness, other resources and materials and supply training to staff. Laudable in lots of ways – I have read great accounts of the effect of mindfulness on gang violence in schools, the positive effects of meditation on stress is pretty well documented etc. I think it’s definitely a useful life skill to have, and the experience of peace and contentment it can generate is something to be cherished. This guy gave me an account of his attempts to get his classes to practice (13 year olds, if I recall correctly) and said something like “yeah, it’s a struggle, a few of ‘em get it but a lot of them muck around”. I was intrigued enough to discuss some related ideas about stress and well-being with my own tutorial group at the college I work in, as a kind of “warming up” to ideas of mindfulness and meditation practice. I met mostly with indifference. Some were a little bit interested, but for most, it seemed to be another idea flung down on them from on high. It didn’t speak to their experience. Given the choice between this and self-directing their own time, they chose the latter. I try and make my teaching responsive to students’ interests and  ideas, I went with this.

What struck me about my encounter with this guy, was what he was giving an account of was almost meditation by force – it’s not something the students have selected to do because it arises out of their natural interests. It’s an imposition, because we know it’s good for them, ultimately backed up by the coercive power of the institution.

Related to this, this lack of awareness of power dynamics is the fact that there’s no institutional critique of school in itself in the way these practices were presented (this is where I see the parallel with the articles on Google above) – meditation and mindfulness may “adjust” kids to school, but is this something they should be adjusted to? There’s nothing natural about sticking kids together in a building all day, especially if a lot of the time they are sitting still or required to be quiet. It strikes me as a disservice to growing bodies which are going to benefit from activity. This is especially true for younger children but I know from my own experience, older pupils greatly enjoy activities which give them the autonomy to move around, and learning experiences that aren’t based on pen and paper (or keyboard and screen). I can’t help but make parallels with the quiescent nature of mediation with sitting quietly in class, which is the dream of the authoritarian teacher. I have often being struck by the horrible nature of the exam room. Enforced quiet with only stress in the air, all the noise, humour and joy that can be present in education drained away. This is particularly true when basic responses like when fidgeting are being pathologised as ADHD and treated with drugs. See (The Real Reason Children Fidget). I’m much more interested in approaches to education which challenge the whole idea of school itself.

In this sense, enforced meditation then becomes part of the state’s armoury of coercive technologies. It generates a passivity that is ideal for happy consumers, and a tolerance of conditions that maybe should not be tolerated. Perhaps this is a criteria that we should apply to medtiative practices – do they challenge power? Will they make us courageous in taking a stand? Do they reinforce institutional aims? Are these aims in alignment with the needs of those being taught the techniques? Such questions are often left out of the discourse surrounding meditation.

I am perhaps being a little hyperbolic here in my condemnation. As I said, I think mindfulness is a valuable skill and one worth experiencing. However, when powerful interests begin to promote a technique, I am suspicious. I think true mindfulness lies in looking cautiously at the intentions that underlie any practice.

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4 thoughts on “Meditation and mindfulness in schools

  1. When I did a 10-day Vispassana retreat, one of the insights I had walking around the grounds between sitting sessions was the idea that all major religions are, rather than being “achievements” of civilization, compensations for civilization. Douglas Rushkoff has a similar idea (http://c-realm.com/podcasts/crealm/c-realm-special-dennis-mckenna-douglas-rushkoff/ – around 1:08:04). Judaic laws as a reaction to living in a text-based society, Enlightenment social reforms a reaction to industrial society, etc. David Graeber has a similar thing in Debt – the Christian idea of absolute selflessness making no sense unless being a reaction to the new possibility of absolute selfishness fostered by newly currency-based societies. And yeah, the kind of formalized meditation disciplines we’ve imported from the East are probably as much ways developed to cope with the rise of hectic, regimented civilizations as they are ways of simply being more enlightened. So yeah, no call for ditching all these things – they help make things livable. But you definitely need that awareness of what you’re making livable, and questioning whether it’s actually necessary in the first place. Our adaptability is definitely as much a curse as a blessing!

    • I’ve made the same point on my blog at times. It does seem to be the unnatural environment of living in cities surrounded by strangers etc makes us a bit mad, and religions are part of the coping mechanism. Although I think religion got started long before civilisation – afterlife beliefs are evident in 100,000 year old graves for example.

      However the benefits of civilisation are such that we’ll never go back except by accident. So we do need something.

      I also agree with the author that schools are a coercive environment that is mainly focussed on subduing children and making them conform. We educate them to be good consumers and not much else. Again this means they benefit from civilisation, but there are trade-offs.

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