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Above image by John Hain from Pixabay

I was asked recently to look into this practice which is being used in schools all over the United States. According to mindfulness.org, they have over 10,000 graduates and this practice is being used in all fifty states. Below you can view a map that represents the location of schools who embrace this teaching and use it.

USMindfulschools

According to Margie Bulkin, the Tuolumne County Schools Superintendent, Mindfulness is being taught to students at Jamestown, Curtis Creek and began in Summerville Elementary school in January of this year.1

So what is mindfulness? Let’s look at some definitions. According to psychologytoday, “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”2

The Berkeley Greater Good Science Center defines Mindfulness as “…acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”3

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) says, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally…” “It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”4

Kabat-Zinn is in large part responsible for mindfulness being implemented into public education. It started in 1979 when Kabat-Zinn worked with chronically ill patients by placing them in an 8 week course based on his stress reduction program MSBR. Over the years, many studies have supported the conclusion that his course, and others like it, improve physical and mental health.

Mindfulschools.org state that they have taught over 300,000 elementary school children, (grades K-5), this program. I did not see a precise definition of mindfulness on their site, but they claim the following benefits for teachers and students. “When teachers learn mindfulness, they not only reap personal benefits such as reduced stress and burnout, but their schools do as well. In randomized controlled trials, teachers who learned mindfulness reported greater efficacy in doing their jobs and had more emotionally supportive classrooms and better classroom organization based on independent observations.”5

For students, “Studies find that youth benefit from learning mindfulness in terms of improved cognitive outcomes, social-emotional skills, and well being. In turn, such benefits may lead to long-term improvements in life. For example, social skills in kindergarten predict improved education, employment, crime, substance abuse and mental health outcomes in adulthood.”6

Mindfulschools.org offer a list of over 100 certified instructors, and each has over 300 hours in a year long certification program. They have multiple videos, books, and other resources for those interested in the practice of mindfulness. They even have a free starter lesson (PDF) you can download and explore. It is rather innocuous, but can give you an idea of what some beginning lessons would look like.

Mindfulschools.org also offer a disclaimer, “We do not conduct criminal or personal background checks on our instructors. This is the responsibility of the schools or agencies hiring them for services. (The vast majority of schools and youth service agencies are already mandated to do background checks on all employees and contractors by law). Mindful Schools is not liable or responsible for any actions of the Certified Instructors listed here. This directory is meant to be a resource for those seeking mindfulness services for youth populations. If you choose to use the directory, you do so at your own risk.”7

In the past 30 years, Mindfulness has moved from an obscure practice in the western world to a practice commonly integrated into American culture. Jeff Wilson, author of Mindful America, thoroughly researched this phenomena which is taking American by storm. He reports, “A government survey in 2007 found that more than 20 million Americans used meditation for health reasons; and Americans spent $4.2 billion on Mindfulness-health related practices in 2009…and in 2012 the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society listed 820 mindfulness-based health practioners in its data base.”8 He also reported in 2012 an average of 550,000 Google searches on Mindfulness each month. It has been featured on every major news reporting agency and numerous magazines, (Good Housekeeping, Home Journal, Readers Digest, Time, and the Wall Street Journal to name a few). Mindfulness training can be found in billion dollar business’ in the U.S. including, but not limited to, Target, Aetna, eBay, General Mills, Ford, Facebook, and Kaiser Permanente.

What is not usually mentioned concerning Mindfulness is that it has its roots in Buddhism, no denying that fact. Most involved in mindfulness readily admit this, but emphasize that it is a secular program, (based on science), that is heavily documented with hundreds of studies that prove the mental and physical benefits. Mindfulness is not only taught in public school systems, but in prisons, hospitals, and veterans centers. In 2014, CBS 60 Minutes did a segment on Mindfulness.

For part of his investigation on Mindfulness, Anderson Cooper visited Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts. Brewer hooked Anderson Cooper up to 128 electrodes to measure brain activity which was displayed on a computer screen.

Judson Brewer: We’re going to have you start with thinking of something that was very anxiety provoking for you.
Anderson Cooper: OK.

When I thought about something stressful, the cells in my brain’s posterior cingulate immediately started firing — shown by the red lines that went off the chart on the computer screen.

Judson Brewer: Just drop into meditation.
Anderson Cooper: OK.

When I let go of those stressful thoughts, and re-focused on my breath…within seconds the brain cells that had been firing quieted down — shown by the blue lines on the computer.

Anderson Cooper: That’s really fascinating to see it like that.

Dr. Brewer believes everyone can train their brains to reach that blue, mindfulness zone, but he says all the technology we’re surrounded by makes it difficult.”9

I am not sure why this was such an impressive activity, but since we were young children, the house with the most elaborate Christmas lights always produced the most oohs and aahs. The fact that our brain uses different areas depending on our emotions, or lack thereof, is taught in 7th grade science.

In his book, Coming To Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “Thirty years ago it was virtually inconceivable that meditation and yoga would find any legitimate role, no less widespread acceptance, in academic medical centers and hospitals. Now it is considered normal.” Kabat-Zinn continued, “Mindfulness meditation has come to be taught in law firms and is currently offered to law students at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Missouri, and elsewhere.”10

Kabat-Zinn also explained that Buddhist teachers encourage more wholesome, less clouded mind and body states. “Generosity, trustworthiness, kindness, empathy, compassion, gratitude, joy in the good fortune of others, inclusiveness, acceptance and equanimity and qualities of mind and heart that further the possibilities of well-being and clarity within oneself, to say nothing of the beneficial effects they have on the world. They form the foundation for an ethical and moral life.”11

What Kabat-Zinn has done here is slip in an ‘objective’ moral good to a practice that admittedly suggests we should be non-judgemental, dismissing behaviors that some would deem good or bad. How is it possible to claim an ethical or moral foundation when you can’t make judgements on what is good or bad? This observation may be missed by many because the buzz words of generosity, trustworthiness, kindness, compassion, and acceptance, are commonly accepted by those who make an effort to lead loving productive lives. Yet, if you shouldn’t make judgements, how can you claim that kindness and compassion are good for the foundation of a moral life? Beyond that, one might ask if there is a good or bad way to practice mindfulness.

In Buddhist teachings, Mindfulness is the 7th step in the eightfold path, a process, but not necessarily sequential. The paths are meant to be guidelines for everyday life. Starting with right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration, these steps are to be studied, contemplated, considered, and meditated on. Unlike The Ten Commandments, (laws to be strictly followed), the eightfold path is to be adopted by the individual as desired. One site describing the word ‘right’ implied the word used in the eightfold path really means more of an ethical and balanced way to life your life, not necessarily correct. Of course, we see some ambiguity here again in the language. If the word ‘right’ does not necessarily mean correct, how can we use the word ethical? Can there be unethical practices in the eightfold path?

So we have looked at definitions of what mindfulness is. We have seen how it is being used and have heard of the benefits it offers to the practitioners, (school children for example). I have little or no reason to doubt many of the claims by mindfulness practitioners. Some of the studies I have looked at have a subjective element that raises some questions, but by-in-large, I don’t doubt many of the claims research seems to support.

One of the reasons I don’t doubt it is because organized religion can also make those claims. Those who pray, or are prayed for, are generally happier and healthier.

In a 1988 study, Randolph Byrd used 393 patients at the San Francisco General Hospital coronary care unit to see if ‘prayer’ was beneficial. He divided the patients into two groups, one group which received prayer to the Judeo Christian God, and the other did not. The prayer group left the hospital earlier and only needed 1/5 of the antibiotics.

Sally Quinn reports in the Washington Post article titled, Religion is a Sure Route to True Happiness. She explains one of the reasons religious people are happier could be the community, church, Bible study groups, etc., provide a social network and support group others don’t have. This may be true, but religious people have the afterlife to look forward to. They believe in a higher power that is looking out for them despite the struggle of life and the tragedies they may suffer. The focus is not on themselves, but often thinking about, praying for, and helping other people.12

ABC News reports on the power of prayer in one study by Dr. William Harris at the American Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missourri. Harris wanted to make his experiment waterproof to any placebo effects that might dilute his study. He studied about 1000 heart patients who were divided into two groups. Half were prayed for by the chaplain and volunteers, and half were not. The half did not know they were being prayed for. “All the patients were followed for a year, and then their health was scored according to pre-set rules by a third party who did not know which patients had been prayed for and which had not. The results: The patients who were prayed for had 11 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes and life-threatening complications.”13

U.S. News and World Report article by Philip Moeller, we find, “It’s also true, researchers say, that people who regularly attend religious services enjoy a boost in their happiness. However, research findings don’t agree on how much of the benefit is religious and how much derives from the benefits of social networking and being with other like-minded people. There is overwhelming research evidence that people can live longer if they actively engage in formal religious activities and follow their faith’s behavioral prescriptions.”14 Past studies on the Amish found their mortality rates to be as much as 25% lower then other non-religious study groups.

If Mindfulness helps with mental health, and studies suggest this is true, the same can obviously be said for religion. Whatever the active ingredient is, it is nothing new. Mindfulness can join the queue for the latest health fad, but this one involves religion, rather discreetly.

If you are a Buddhist and your children attend one of our local schools where Mindfulness is being taught, then nothing should concern you. If you are a Christian, Muslim, or one of the other monotheistic religions, you should be concerned. Not in a panicked way that would produce a knee jerk reaction, causing you to yank your children out of that school, but rather investigate what the teacher is teaching. What are his or her beliefs concerning religion?

If they are open to allowing your children to meditate on Biblical truths and not push the Buddhist ingredients into their lives, then certainly consider staying at the school. If your concerns are ignored by the teacher or school staff, then you will have to weigh the consequences of transferring to another school setting, (if that is even an option for you). If not, you need to have daily conversations with your child about what is being taught and explain why you don’t agree with all that is being taught.

If you need help with those kinds of conversations, I would recommend a book by Natasha Crain, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side. It is written for parents who may struggle with some of the counter Christian ideas your children may come home with. It was not written to address Mindfulness specifically, but rather the negative light Christianity is often placed in within a public school setting..

Jeff Wilson explains how Mindfulness integrates Buddhism into western cultures. “…this is actually how Buddhism moves into new cultures and becomes domesticated: in each case, members of the new culture take from Buddhism what they believe will relieve their culture-specific distresses and concerns, in the process spawning new Buddhisms, (sometimes called crypto-Buddhisms), that better fit their needs.”15

The Huffington Post reported a 1990 meeting Jon Kabat-Zinn had with the Dalai Lama to make the 7th step of the eightfold path more palatable to the western world. “During a 1990 meeting, the Dalai Lama himself approved Kabat-Zinn’s strategy of modifying vocabulary in order to make mindfulness acceptable to non-Buddhists.”16

Teachers have a great influence on the thinking and lives of the young school children they teach. You will have to weigh the fact that they are being taught elements of Buddhism in a very positive light and depending on how receptive your children are to the suggestions by the teacher within the instructions, and the attitude of the teacher, this potentially can have unseen ramifications years down the road.

If you think Mindfulness is truly secular in nature, then consider some of the words spoken by leading Mindfulness instructors, (admittedly I was tempted to insert Mindfulness priests). Some refer to Mindfulness as stealth Buddhism. Trudy Goodman started Insight LA, and she received her training from Kabat-Zinn. In a 2014 podcast interview, she said,

Goodman: I really wanted us to be able to work in this community to go into hospitals, and universities, and schools, and places where as Buddhists we might not be so welcome, especially state places, which is appropriate since we have the separation of church and state … The really interesting question is what do they do after they take that class … And you know the reality is they aren’t that different from our Buddhist classes. They just use a different vocabulary … And the question of will people then sort of migrate into Buddhism. Some will, some won’t …. anyone who practices sincerely, whether they want it or not, they are going to discover more deeply other dimensions of their being. I think it’s inevitable if they keep practicing, don’t you?
Horn: That seems to be somewhat independent of whether one is trained in a Buddhist context, or in a new, non-Buddhist Buddhist context. [laughter]
Goodman: My former husband, George, he used to call it crypto-Buddhism, stealth Buddhism we now might say. [more laughter]
Horn: Absolutely.17

What can Christians do about this activity entering their community? I would suggest reading up on the practice and find out at what schools it is being taught. Stay informed, but don’t panic and run headlong to the local school board or the superintendent office. Educate yourself. If your children are attending a Mindfulness school, then talk to the teacher and see if you can sit in on a few lessons. Talk to the staff and express your educated concerns.

The roots in Buddhism should be a concern for non-Buddhists. I would exercise caution before delving too far into this practice, especially with young children. As Christians, we already have special revelation to meditate on, which brings much more to our plate than reduced stress, and better focus, and a non-judgmental attitude.

 

Sources:

  1. James, Tori. “More Focused, Better Behaved Kids, Through ‘Mindfulness.’” My Motherlode. Mymotherlode.com, 7 December 2015. Web. 7 July 2016.
  2. “Mindfulness Present Moment Awareness.” Psychology Today. Psychologytoday.com, N.D. Web. 8 July 2016.
  3. “What is Mindfulness.” Greater Good Science Center. Greatergood.berkeley.edu, N.D. Web. 7 July 2016.
  4. “Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness.” Mindful. Mindful.org, 11 January 2016. Web. 8 July 2016.
  5. “Evidence of the Benefits of Mindfulness in Education.” Mindfulness. Mindfulness.org, N.D. Web. 5 July 2016.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America. New York: Oxford Press, 2014. Print.
  9. Cooper, Anderson. “Mindfulness.” CBS News. cbsnews.com, 14 December 2014. Web. 11 July 2016
  10. Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Coming To Our Senses. New York: Hyperion, 2005. Print
  11. Ibid.
  12. Quinn, Sally. “Religion is a Sure Route to True Happiness.” The Washington Post. Washingtonpost.com, 24 January 2014. Web. 16 July 2016.
  13. “Can Prayer Heal?” abcnews.go.com. ABC News, 13 August 2014. Web. 16 July 2016.
  14. Moeller, Philip. “Religion Makes People Happier-But Why?” U.S. News and World Report. Money.usnews.com, 12 April 2012. Web. 16 July 2016
  15. Wilson, Jeff. Mindful America. New York: Oxford Press, 2014. Print.
  16. Brown, Gunther, Candy. “Mainstreaming Meditation.” Huffington Post. Huffingtonpost.com, 1 February 2015. Web. 12 July 2016
  17. Ibid.

 

Links and suggestions for further reading:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/candy-gunther-brown-phd/mindfulness-stealth-buddh_b_6243036.html
http://www.christianitytoday.com/amyjuliabecker/2015/april/has-mindfulness-supplanted-thoughtfulness.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eden-kozlowski/mindfulness-and-religion_b_3224505.html
http://religiondispatches.org/hide-the-religion-feature-the-science-60-minutes-drops-the-ball-on-mindfulness/
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/the-dark-knight-of-the-souls/372766/
http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/
http://www.mindfulschools.org
http://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/11/whats-wrong-with-mindfulness-more-than-you-might-think/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/natalie-flores/heres-why-you-need-to-question-mindfulness_b_8112090.html
Mindful American by Jeff Wilson
Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side by Natasha Crain

 

Creative Commons License
Mindfulness in our Local Schools by James Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.dev.christianapologetics.blog.

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