Mindful education and secular dogma

Rick Cluff had a couple of guests on the Early Edition this morning who were discussing a pilot program in Coquitlam called “mindful education,” which uses mindfulness techniques, breathing exercises, visualizations and affirmations in an attempt to positively influence elementary schoolchildren’s focus, socialization and academic achievement. One of the guests was Ken Kavenagh, who pulled his son from the program and appealed to the parental advisory council on the grounds that the program violates the B.C. School Act by teaching religious practices in public schools.

While the utility of practicing mindful meditation several times a day may be debatable, criticizing this program on the grounds that it’s teaching religious dogma is unnecessarily alarmist and only belies Kavenagh’s ignorance. Kavenagh is concerned in particular with the fact that the breathing exercises used in the curriculum are derived from the Buddhist meditative practice anapanasati; he contends that since the goal of Buddhist meditative practice is to “attain enlightenment or nirvana,” children involved in this program are being indoctrinated into a particular “philosophical or religious approach to life.” Kavenagh continues by by claiming that

because Western science has never trained itself up into the contemplative path, or the buddhist- or the meditative path, they don’t know what’s going on in the person’s mind, they haven’t- they haven’t- we don’t know the science of it […] At the core, we’re taking in a very specific religious approach to meditation – the methodology of this quiet time – and we’ve just snarfed it right out of Buddhism, and now we’re putting it on our kids, and there’s no actual research understanding why this is working.

Kavenagh’s wife, Rebecca, similarly told the Tri-City News on Thursday that “mindful education is a Buddhist practice masquerading as science at the school.”

I can identify two parallel lines of argument in the Kavenaghs’s statements. First, they are concerned that the origins of this breathing technique in Buddhism are grounds for characterizing this curriculum as religious dogma; second, they are concerned because the neurophysiological or psychological etiology of mindful meditation’s benefits are not fully understood.

Mindful meditation is no more religious dogma than decorating a Christmas tree or wearing robes to a graduation ceremony. In linguistics this kind of thinking is called the “etymological fallacy” – using a word’s origins to determine its contemporary meaning. Many Eastern “religious” practices, like yoga and tai chi, have been appropriated by westerners as secular forms of mental and physical exercise in the same way that Christmas has become a secular holiday for millions of people, and graduation is marked by a secular ceremony for millions of graduates. In fact, thousand of babies are named Christopher and Mary every year without anyone blinking an eye; people christen ships and fanatics cheer for the Titans. The breathing techniques borrowed from anapanasati weren’t selected because of their origins, of course, they were selected because of their effectiveness in treating anxiety and promoting mental and physical relaxation.

One thing Kavenagh fails to mention in his second line of argument is that mindful meditation is extremely effective for all of the things that it’s being used for in the curriculum – and that is, in fact, backed up by hundreds of empirical studies. A quick search of Google Scholar for “meditation+academic,” for example, returns hundreds of articles examining the effects of meditation on academic performance and anxiety reduction in schools, and PsychINFO returns hundreds more. If Kavenagh is concerned with the use of meditation for these puposes because the causes of the outcomes are not fully understood, then he is demonstrating a serious lack of understanding about the way modern science, and especially modern medicine, works. Ignaz Semmelweis advocated that doctors wash their hands long before people knew that germs transmitted disease. Antibiotics were used successfully on animals before anyone knew anything about cell-wall synthesis. More recently, EMDR has had remarkable success treating posttraumatic stress disorder since its discovery in the late ’80s, but researchers still aren’t sure why it works. It’s only if claims of the effects have no empirical basis that we need to be concerned – think homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, ear candles, prayer, etc.

Interestingly, UBC researcher Kim Schonert-Reichl’s presentation to the parental advisory council was Kavenagh’s basis for his second concern. I had the pleasure of talking to Schonert-Reichl when she was involved in studying a program called Roots of Empathy, which brought babies into elementary school classrooms to teach children empathy and reduce aggression. (My article can be read here, more info about Roots of Empathy can be found here.) As I said at the beginning, the utility of regular meditation in the classroom may be debatable, but Schonert-Reichl and the UBC researchers who are studying mindful education are taking care of that.

Kavenagh’s concern seems to be more than anything the opposite of the concerns surrounding intelligent design being taught in US schools. If he can’t come up with a more reasonable explanation for why mindful education is a dangerous thing for children to be involved with, I can’t help but write off his concerns as secular humanist dogma. Too bad the Coquitlam school district doesn’t have that same privilege.

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6 responses to “Mindful education and secular dogma

  1. Interesting viewpoint.

    You stated:

    As I said at the beginning, the utility of regular meditation in the classroom may be debatable, but Schonert-Reichl and the UBC researchers who are studying mindful education are taking care of that.

    I’m not so sure of your last statement. I was at the PAC meeting where Kim Schonert-Reichl presented on Social and Emotional Learning, including Roots of Empathy and Mindfulness Education. Her material on Social and Emotional Learning was good. However, I found it interesting that her research on Mindfulness Education was simply to compare to a control group that did not use any Social and Emotional Learning program. Thus, her research thus far has only proven that there are things in the Mindfulness Education program that are beneficial compared to doing very little or no training. The research did not investigate the effectiveness of the Mindful Breathing component by itself as compared to other stress reduction methods, like simply taking a deep breath or two to re-oxygenate and relax, then refocus. When pressed further about the Mindful Breathing component, she was unable to comment saying that it was beyond her expertise and deferred to the Hawn Foundation.

    You wrote:

    Mindful meditation is no more religious dogma than decorating a Christmas tree or wearing robes to a graduation ceremony. In linguistics this kind of thinking is called the “etymological fallacy” – using a word’s origins to determine its contemporary meaning. Many Eastern “religious” practices, like yoga and tai chi, have been appropriated by westerners as secular forms of mental and physical exercise in the same way that Christmas has become a secular holiday for millions of people, and graduation is marked by a secular ceremony for millions of graduates.

    I’m not sure if Kavenagh is committing an etymological fallacy here. Perhaps it would help if we ask the person who is largely responsible for helping to make Mindful Meditation popular in North America today and also for advocating for the science behind it:

    When asked whether the foundations of the program are Buddhist principles, Jon Kabat-Zinn responded “Without question. Mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation. It was one of the major teachings of the Buddha, ramified through all of the different traditions of Asia. We try to teach in a way that combines intuitively the best of the Vipassana orientation with the most accessible and least cryptic of the Zen energy. The combination is quite wonderful.” (http://www.kwanumzen.com/primarypoint/v08n2-1991-summer-jonkabatzinn-mindfulmedicine.html)

    This sounds to me like a clear statement that the modern form of this meditation is still quite near to its Buddhist origins. Further, those who practice it may not be looking precisely for Nirvana, but are looking for peacefulness of mind, and so the motivation of the people practicing it is for all intents and purposes the same.

    This leads to the following comment you made:

    The breathing techniques borrowed from anapanasati weren’t selected because of their origins, of course, they were selected because of their effectiveness in treating anxiety and promoting mental and physical relaxation.

    I fail to understand what difference the reason for the selection really makes in the end. Further, the reasons are not mutually exclusive. Both Goldie Hawn (founder of the Hawn Foundation promoting Mindful Breathing being used in said Coquitlam schools) and Jon Kabat-Zinn are Buddhists. Oddly enough, when questioned about this in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Kabat-Zinn said he wasn’t a Buddhist… and then went on to say that neither was Buddha a Buddhist nor Jesus a Christian! Now that’s helpful. However, whether they are introducing the method simply because it works, or because it is the first step in introducing students to Buddhist philosophy, we may not know unless they tell us. What we do know, however, is that it is founded in Buddhist philosophy and practice, and so we can look to the Buddhist literature to find out that it is not only effective to relax, it is the first 4 of 12 steps to achieving Nirvana, and also that it has the possibility of negative side effects.

    Quoting from an article published by the Buddhist Publication Society on “Buddhist Mediation” by Francis Story, we read the following:

    “… As the state of mental quiescence (samatha) is approached, the breath appears to become fainter and fainter, until it is hardly discernible. It is at this stage that certain psychic phenomena appear, which may at first be disconcerting… For the more advanced exercises, however, the strictest observance of sila, the basic moral rules, becomes necessary. These techniques are best followed in seclusion, away from the impurities of worldly life and under the guidance of an accomplished master. Many people have done themselves psychic harm by embarking on them without due care in this respect. It is not advisable for anyone to experiment on his own; those who are unable to place themselves under a trustworthy teacher will do best to confine themselves to discursive meditation.” (http://www.dharmaweb.org/index.php/Buddhist_Meditation)

    Of course, simply taking a few deep breaths wouldn’t cause psychic phenomena. This is because the mental state is not quiesced, but one is simply giving their brain a chance to re-oxygenate, pausing to remind onesself not to think about all the issues that are causing the stress, and then refocusing on just re prioritizing and taking it one step at a time.

    However, Mindful Breathing goes further than simply teaching our children to relax. Though it may focus the mind, it seems to me that it relaxes by inducing into a trance-like state using the repetitive nature of the breath to induce it. Personally, I would be concerned if our children experienced disconcerting psychic phenomenon at school or, heaven forbid, at home by themselves. At any rate, all this information doesn’t seem to have been presented to the parents.

    I think the Kavenagh’s have good reason for concern.

  2. mackereleconomics

    Thanks for your extensive comment, Ryan. Hopefully I can do it some justice here even though I don’t have a great deal of time.

    You bring up two main points: you suggest that the UBC research may be inadequate because it fails to compare Mindfulness Education to other forms of stress reduction, then you reiterate Kavenagh’s claim that Mindfulness Education is (or may be) religious indoctrination on the grounds that it is clearly derived from the Buddhist practice anapanasati and is championed by two outspoken Buddhists.

    With regard to your first point, my question is “So what?” Comparing the results of the Mindfulness Education program to a control group is a reliable, empirical method for determining whether or not the program has verifiable positive benefits. The focus of the study is to characterize the benefits of the program, not to rate its efficacy relative to other programs. If someone at some point in the future suggests a program that may be more effective or may have a wider variety of positive outcomes, I’m sure the UBC team or another group of researchers would be more than happy to design a comparative study. Granted, I was not at the meeting, but I think it’s safe to say that Schonert-Reichl’s inability to make this comparison on the spot has less to do with some ideological or coercive aspect to the selection of this type of breathing over others than it does with what she said it had to do with, namely her area of expertise. Like I said in my post, a great deal of empirical research has been undertaken that compares different methods of anxiety reduction; I would implore you to refer to those if you would like more information.

    With regard to your second point, you have still failed, like Kavenagh did, to provide any reason to believe that mindful meditation was selected for doctrinaire reasons other than its conceptual proximity to Buddhism. And like I said in my post, conceptual proximity does not equal conceptual equality! I have no qualms with the assertion that Mindful Education borrowed its breathing techniques from anapanasati. I recognize that these techniques are used by Buddhists as part of a program with the ultimate goal of reaching “nirvana.” Similarly, Christmas has a very clear origin in Christianity; in fact, it is practiced every year by millions of people as a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. That does not mean that Christmas, as practiced as a secular holiday by secular people, is a celebration of the birth of Christ, or that is has any relationship to Christian dogma, or that it is involved in any kind of indoctrination of Christianity in its practitioners. In fact, I would suggest that among secular practitioners, the religious origins of Christmas are becoming increasingly diluted in the same way that the origins of yoga and tai chi are. In case you are the type of person to consider Christmas religious indoctrination by virtue of its origins in Christianity, in which case I would call you paranoid, please consider the rest of my response.

    There is very little reason to assume, based on my previous paragraph, that mindful meditation was selected based on its association with Buddhism. Your and Kavenagh’s arguments are tenuous at best. There is a great deal of reason, on the other hand, to believe that mindful meditation was selected on the basis of its decades-long history of empirically verified efficacy in dealing with stress. I agree with your suggestion that the reason for the technique’s selection doesn’t make much difference in the end, even though that doesn’t exactly jive with your implication that mindful meditation was selected coercively by the UBC researchers because of Kabat-Zinn’ and Hawn’s involvement. However, your quoting Buddhist literature in order to prove your point that mindful meditation has harmful side-effects only reinforces my conception of your position as being more dogmatic than Goldie Hawn’s. At least Hawn refers to the scientific literature to argue her point! If you really think that mindful meditation causes “psychic phenomena,” then you are clearly ignorant of the decades long association between mindful meditation and western science, and you definitely haven’t tried it. Again, until you and Kavenagh can give me a convincing reason why mindful meditation is harmful, in light of the hundreds and hundreds of research papers that say otherwise, I am going make the simple and logical assumption that Mindful Education is based on secular iterations of mindful meditation, and that you and Kavenagh are dogmatic.

  3. Hi there,
    I’m really enjoying this discussion as I am interested in this debate at this time. As a classroom teacher of 13 years- who is pretty much forced to teach and celebrate the holiday of Christmas every year in K-5 public schools, I really appreciated Mackerel’s comment about other traditions in education with obvious religious connections/orgins:

    “Similarly, Christmas has a very clear origin in Christianity; in fact, it is practiced every year by millions of people as a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ. That does not mean that Christmas, as practiced as a secular holiday by secular people, is a celebration of the birth of Christ, or that is has any relationship to Christian dogma, or that it is involved in any kind of indoctrination of Christianity in its practitioners.”

    Obviously, teachers don’t teach the Christmas theme every year because we feel its ties to Christianity are important to sustain and support. We do it because it’s part of Canadian culture and custom. We certainly attempt to steer clear of any overt religious connections while celebrating the holiday for at least 3 weeks every year. Similarly, we ask the children to learn and sing the Canadian national anthem at least once a month from the first day they enter the school system- despite it’s clear religious content. Interesting that I have never heard one single Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu parent every attempt to propose that our annual Christmas (or Easter) celebrations are “dangerous” for the children or complain about our national anthem.

    As Mackerel suggests, educators keen on social emotional learning programs such as Mindful Education are inspired and interested due to the massive empirical evidence that shows us, as Kim Schonert-Reichl suggested, that it’s a “difference that could make a difference”. None of us is choosing to get involved with the program and support it because we want to teach kids to become Buddhists. All of us will steer clear of any of the connections between mindfulness and Buddhist religious practices. Learning to breathe and calm down is a far cry from learning to meditate, I am told. (We don’t celebrate Christmas every year to teach kids to become Christians or even to open children to the possibility of becoming Christians.) Thank goodness our Muslim and Hindu families are willing to cut us the slack to observe such an important Canadian custom every year. Of course, when they request that their children be exempt from Christmas activities, we always honor their requests. And yet, I’ve never heard of a Muslim or Buddhist or Jewish family going to the press or school board because they think Christmas is a dangerous practice in their neighborhood public school. (Although, I would wager they would have a strong case given the blind obsession with consumption and gluttony often associated with the holiday as seen in North America).

    At least our initiative to use programs like Roots of Empathy and Mindful Education are based on hundreds of studies and research initiatives suggesting these programs will help children build the life skills necessary to become healthy and productive grown ups.

    Thank you Mackerel for your thoughts on the subject — you have helped me to better identify my “gut” feelings and intellectual hunches regarding this debate. Much appreciated.

    LR

  4. Great discussion, all! I appreciate the intelligent and respectful dialogue on an obviously hot topic.

    I’m certainly no expert in mindful education, meditation or Buddhism (or any other religion), but I am very interested in how early childhood education and school curriculums are changing to reflect pressing issues relating to stress management & self-awareness. It is obvious that we need to start looking at effective, evidence-based ways to teach kids how to get a handle on these things at an early age. While the historical roots of mindful education may be seen by some as religiously biased, the practice itself seems to be working.

    The concept and practice of gratitude, awareness of others and awareness of community are inextricably linked to awareness of self, or mindfulness. I’m not sure if / how kids can be taught these things if they aren’t first shown how to be mindful of themselves. It’s unfortunate that these concepts – gratitude, awareness of others and awareness of community (empathy) – seem to be lost in the discourse, and are being sidelined by ‘religious’ issue (real or perceived).

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. mackereleconomics

    @Linerider “I have never heard one single Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu parent every attempt to propose that our annual Christmas (or Easter) celebrations are ‘dangerous’ for the children”

    I’m glad to hear that, but there is an annual PC campaign against “Merry Christmas” and the like because of its religious connotations (I think that’s why we say “Happy Holidays” now). Whether that’s a response to religion-based complaints or simply initiated by extra PC leftists (rightists?) is the subject for another post, but I have a feeling it has less to do with fears of indoctrination and more to do with fears of marginalizing minority religions, which is at least a defensible position.

  6. This writer is confused science with Vipassana meditation comes from Theravada Buddhism which is early Buddha teaching. Science is all about abstractive thinking to explain natural phenomena. In fact science makes big fat lies as story to understand concepts beyond human senses and concrete thinking can grasps. It moved humanity beyond theological religious dogmas and over-developed the material world followed by our greedy minds and individualism this new world promotes. We called this secular yet humanity still faced with lack of critical thinking beyond paradigm changes that happened throughout science story creating. Humanity faced with finite resources and unsustainable societies polluted with greedy minds who don’t realize they are faced with extinction.
    Vipassana is an openly invited experiment that focus on person internal reaction to environment stimuli. It allows meditator to eliminate distractions come of the world relative to his perceive mind and develop a view goes beyond abstractive thinking. This is a growth techniques that cannot be understand by normal thinking but practicing observe the observer. It brings benefits of harmonious tranquility step by step towards higher sublimes. Those levels of higher states do not need to depend on material needs and have no desires to cling in to impermanent, unsatisfactory, non-self-matters. They still live on earth as highest human beings with compassion, equanimity and loving-kindness. For every moment to moment they are clever enough to avoid greed, hate and delusion. By beings these states they archived through practicing Vipassana growth techniques, they are able to look toward cosmos beyond normal human being five senses and human constructed concept based on concrete and abstract thinking.

    Kids learn science through kindergarten to college and until and beyond Phds. We call this is training. We trained their minds to tell so called scientific big fat lies and explain things abstractive way. But no end of problems people face personally and as a society. Because we are full of delusions.
    Why not teach kids Vipassana then? By the time they go through post-secondary, they will archive Vipassana minds instead of inferior ‘scientific minds’.
    In the west Vipassana popularized as ‘mindfulness’ meditation by westerners. It is wrong thinking but those are all labels.
    Science was the new religion we created in the west last 500 years to dominate their supremacy and eliminate other cultures, and other cultures’ world view. This is a complete narrow and grid locked thinking that dominated today world. We need brand new critical thinkers. They only come from new generation if we allow them to enjoy the world free of western supremacy and other dogmas.
    Vipassana is not a dogma.

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