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.