According to Emily Holland’s recent Wall Street Journal article, Can ‘Mindfulness’ Help Students Do Better in School, a wave of public schools across the U.S. have added a Mindfulness program to their curriculum that teaches basic meditation practices. The movement is intended to help students “acknowledge what they are feeling and experiencing—and accept it without judgment or criticism…to quiet the mind and heighten awareness.”
While the health benefits of meditation are historically recognized and scientifically proven, many haven spoken out against the movement. Apart from educators who feel students are already busy enough, others are suspicious that the addition may be an attempt to reincorporate religion into the public school system.
What place religion has in our public schools has been the focus of strong debate in recent decades but it doesn’t really apply to this issue. Mindfulness is the practice of mentally separating our rational mind from the emotional reflex of the brain. It is quite simply an “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose.” Being mindful helps us understand what we are feeling in the present moment then process, analyze and interpret those feelings in a sensible way. More than anything, mindfulness is an intellectual discipline that requires patience, focus and dedication. It helps us understand who we are and where we stand so that we are able to make healthy choices and maintain meaningful relationships.
The misconception that mindfulness is the same as prayer is partly due to its long connection to a wide range of religious practices. However, while the meditations of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam and even Christianity are intended to achieve a state of mindfulness, their aim is to then use that quieted, self-aware state to go one step further and initiate a separate spiritual communion with God. It seems that, over time, the two mutually exclusive elements of prayer and mindfulness have been muddled into one blurry pseudo-spiritual result of meditation.
I understand that any change to our school system sets a precedent for future decisions, and in this respect our children deserve our utmost caution. But if we understand that religion isn’t an issue here, what’s the hold up? Science says meditation is mentally, emotionally and physically healthy. History says whole countries of people have made it a daily exercise for thousands of years. Even common sense says a little self-reflection would benefit children as they grow into their identity.
Studies reported in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, The Journal of Attention Disorders, and The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology all agree: Mindfulness is medicine when it comes to mental health. Will we really stand in the way of an exercise that has been proven to help prevent and treat “stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and addiction” among adolescents only because it shares a basic value with the religious community?
Ultimately, this issue raises the singularly important question that every new generation of parents must ask themselves: what do we want schools to do for our children? Personally, I don’t think a child’s growth and development comes from the things they glean from school as much as it does their ability to effectively metabolize the experience in a productive way. If we want schools to foster real, wholesome growth to a generation of confident, independent, self-aware young people, then the tools for conducting disciplined introspection should be allowed a place in their curriculum.
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