A ghost in the Buddhist bowl

gr1962If you were a traditional Muslim parent, how would you feel if teachers in your public school brought a “Tibetan singing bowl” into the classroom and taught your child how to “meditate,” drawing on techniques found in Buddhism?

How would you feel if you were Buddhist?

How would you feel if you were an Orthodox Jew? Would it be different if you were active in Reform Judaism?

What if you were a traditional Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian?

Would your feelings be different if you were a progressive Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist or Presbyterian? What if you were part of a conservative church in any of those traditions?

What if you were Unitarian, or simply a parent who considers herself a “spiritual” person who is not part of a specific religious tradition? Would you feel in any way threatened or concerned?

In other words, would you feel different about this classroom emphasis on “mindfulness” if the religious tradition practiced in your home was highly specific and orthodox, as opposed to open-ended, evolving and, well, universalist?

You probably would. And this is the ghost floating through a recent New York Times story focusing on efforts to promote a kind of vague form of meditation in inner-city schools in Oakland, Calif. The story is very careful never to use the word “prayer,” and that is the big problem (in my opinion, as a guy with a graduate degree in church-state studies).

It’s safe to say that reporter Patricia Leigh Brown knew about the ghost in the story. After all, the story does say:

Asked their reactions to the sounds of the singing bowl, Yvette Solito, a third grader, wrote that it made her feel “calm, like something on Oprah.” Her classmate Corey Jackson wrote that “it feels like when a bird cracks open its shell.”

Dr. Amy Saltzman, a physician in Palo Alto, Calif., who started the Association for Mindfulness in Education three years ago, thinks of mindfulness education as “talk yoga.” Practitioners tend to use sticky-mat buzzwords like “being present” and “cultivating compassion,” while avoiding anything spiritual.

Sticky-mat buzzwords? Of course, the entire story has a strong “spirituality” theme to it. I would say that the novelty of drawing on Buddhist techniques in a school classroom was the essential news “hook” in the first place.

Brown also makes it clear that this is not a tax-funded program, even if it is taking place in regular classroom time in a tax-funded school.

During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the “mindful” coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The sound of the Tibetan bowl reverberated at the start and finish of each lesson.

… The experiment at Piedmont, whose student body is roughly 65 percent black, 18 percent Latino and includes a large number of immigrants, is financed by Park Day School, a nearby private school (prompting one teacher to grumble that it was “Cloud Nine-groovy-hippie-liberals bringing ‘enlightenment’ to inner city schools”).

But Angela Haick, the principal of Piedmont Avenue, said she was inspired to try it after observing a class at a local middle school. “If we can help children slow down and think,” Dr. Haick said, “they have the answers within themselves.”

I want to stress that I think this is a very good and solid news story, whether you are interested in the church-state separation angle of it or not. I simply think it raises more questions about people thinking that “vague spirituality” is acceptable in the public square, while specific, doctrinal forms are not. This raises questions, for me, about the establishment of some forms of religion by the state over others.

Could you use classroom hours to teach Islamic prayers, complete with mind-calming prostrations? How about lessons in the rosary? A charismatic pastor teaching about “private prayer languages” and spiritual warfare?

I imagine that a story about any of those news “hooks” would be quite different.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Tom Schaefer

    You reminded me of a column I wrote years ago about prayer in public schools. It went like this:

    It’s 8 a.m. at a public school somewhere in the good ol’ U.S.A.:

  • Tom Schaefer

    Let me try that again…

    It’s 8 a.m. at a public school somewhere in the good ol’ U.S.A.:
    TEACHER: Good morning, students. Your parents should have received a letter explaining our new policy on prayer. I trust that they explained it to you. Each of you will have an opportunity to lead a prayer before class begins. In this way, you’ll have a chance to strengthen your spiritual roots and at the same time learn something about other religions.
    So, to start, I’d like Ahmed to lead us in an Islamic prayer. Everyone should have brought a small rug with them. Please put it on the floor in front of you and . . .
    JEREMY: Ms. Jones, I forgot mine.
    MELINDA: Ms. Jones, I scraped both knees when I fell off my bike, and I can’t kneel.
    MIKE: I don’t have to do no praying. My dad said.
    TEACHER: OK. Settle down. Ahmed, let’s wait a few days for your prayer till everyone’s prepared. Jill, let’s start with you. Would you lead us in a prayer?
    JILL: Yes, Ms. Jones. Everybody get your rosary beads out and I’ll start: “Hail, Mary, full of grace . . .”
    QUANG: Wait, wait. I can’t find my beads!
    SUSAN: Ms. Jones? Ms. Jones? My pastor said I’m not supposed to pray to Mary. May I stay seated?
    TEACHER: Yes, Susan.
    JILL: ” . . . blessed are you among women . . .”
    SAM: Hey, slow down. I can’t remember the words.
    JOSHUA: Yeah, she’s going too fast, Ms. Jones.
    MIKE: I don’t have to do no praying. My dad said.
    TEACHER: Hold it, Jill. Everyone be quiet. We’re supposed to have a few minutes of prayer to start our day. This will put us in the proper frame of mind and help all of us to be better people. As I already said, everyone will have a chance to say a prayer on a different day . . .
    MIKE: Not me! My dad . . .
    TEACHER: Yes, Mike. Not you. Still, it’s important that you learn to appreciate the beliefs of others. Jill, I think we’ll hold off on your prayer till Thursday. Jose, would you lead us in prayer?
    JOSE: Sure. I’ll just need to run home and get a chicken from my mother.
    TEACHER: A chicken?
    JOSE: And I’ll have to borrow a sharp knife from the cafeteria so I can cut off the chicken’s head.
    TEACHER: And (gulp) what is your religious belief?
    JOSE: Santeria. We believe . . .
    TEACHER: Thank you, Jose. We really don’t have time for you to, uh, fetch a chicken. And I’ll have to ask the principal about school policy on having a knife in the classroom. But I will get back to you. Let’s call on Sarah. Go ahead, Sarah.
    SARAH: (Silence)
    TEACHER: Sarah?
    SARAH: (Silence)
    TEACHER: Sarah, you can begin your prayer.
    SARAH: I have! I’m waiting for the Spirit to move someone.
    TEACHER: Let me guess. You’re Quaker . . . OK. That was fine. Now let’s have someone pray out loud. Any volunteers?
    MIGUEL: I will. “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”
    HUSSAN: I don’t know that one, Ms. Jones.
    RHONDA: I prefer to say “Our Mother, who is present in us and in all creation.” May I, Ms. Jones?
    MIKE: I don’t have to do no praying. My dad said.
    TEACHER: (Sighing) I’ll try one more time. Is there anyone else who thinks he or she can lead a prayer that everyone knows?
    RAYMOND: I can, Ms. Jones.
    TEACHER: Please. Be my guest.
    RAYMOND: “May the force be with you.”
    CLASS (in unison): “And also with you.”
    RAYMOND AND CLASS: “Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re our only hope.”
    TEACHER: Uh, amen. Let’s turn to page 23 in our history books . . .

  • http://www.stpaulsdurant.org The Rev’d Darin R Lovelace

    New York Times story aside, our convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa in November 2006 featured a singing bowl used in a “liturgy” celebrating the 30th anniversary of women in the priesthood. There was no effort to explain how this remotely connected to our work to spread the Gospel. But it is typical and symptomatic of the rampant syncretism in the Episcopal Church these days. Reference the Muslim priest in Washington state.

    Pax et bonum
    Darin+

  • Brian

    Hmm… it sounds like the school is walking a tightrope.

    I think the question isn’t so much over the act of meditation, but what it is the students are taught to meditate on after they’ve quieted their bodies and minds. Isn’t the focus of Buddhist/new age mediation usually inward toward oneself, while monotheistic meditation is usually outward toward God (someone correct me if my generalization is too, well, general – or just plain wrong).

    If the school could somehow find a way to get kids to meditate on the proper subject depending on their religious background without promoting one over the other, this might be an ideal exercise of freedom of religion within public school prayer. But I don’t know how it would be possible to do that. If it somehow comes close to goal I could support it, or at least not protest it.

    If the school is avoiding the whole issue all together and just filling the kids’ heads with fluff and “yoga talk,” what good does that do?

    I guess the question I’d like to see answered is how do the people who normally complain at the slightest hint of the mention of God in school feel about this program?

  • Martha

    Hmm – I’m torn here, because I loooove Tibetan singing bowls and if they had anything like this when I was at school (Our Lady’s Secondary School, run by the Sisters of Mercy, if that’s relevant), I’d have jumped at the chance for this.

    Also, if they’re not teaching specific Buddhist doctrines or trying to proselytise or criticise the faith of the school (or no-faith, depending), then were I a parent I’d probably do a little gentle eye-rolling but shrug and say sure, I don’t mind little Johnny or Mary doing this stuff.

    Plus, being peripherally involved in education, I can see instances where these kinds of exercises would be very beneficial to the young adults we deal with in our schools/education centres (approximately aged 12-18; many with mild degrees of learning difficulties; some early school leavers who have to be coaxed along to be retained in the educational system; a lot from backgrounds where there’s family breakdown, lack of support, etc.).

    So if a nice lady brought her bowl into the classroom, I’d just tell her to be sure to keep her eye on it in case some of our little darlings tried to nick it, but I wouldn’t necessarily be “No! Separation of church and state!”

    Then again, I’m talking about Ireland Iwhere the educational system was for all intents and purposes put together by teaching orders of monks, nuns, and brothers) not America (very big on keeping the public schools public, by what I gather from stories like these), so it is very obviously a different kettle of fish for you folks.

    What fascinates me is the practice of the Pledge of Allegiance – and I’m not talking about the odd case now and again by atheist/agnostic/freethinking parents saying “I don’t want my kid saying the God word! I’m going to court!” – I mean the notion in itself of every morning the whole class stands up, salutes the flag, and recites the pledge. That’s a quasi-religious ceremony in itself right there, people – has no-one ever made that connection before? The State as Object of Veneration? Kind of reminiscent of the Roman cult of the Emperor as the public religion and understood to be political glue binding the various constituent parts together and so when Christians refused to pay divine honours to divus Augustus, it was treason as much as heresy?

  • Stephen A.

    The quote the reporter elicited, “Cloud Nine-groovy-hippie-liberals bringing ‘enlightenment’ to inner city schools,” is precious! What a gem! The sign of a good reporter is that he/she keeps his/her ears open for things like this that can really bring into focus what the subjects are REALLY thinking.

    The story seems to *hint* more at the controversy than take it head on, which is good since I fear how the opponents’ side would have fared anyway.

    As for the topic itself, you’ve got it just right, Terry. I also wonder how those “I’m spiritual” people would react to a course with symbols and rituals from a Christian or some other overtly Monotheistic “judgemental” religion. Apparently, since Buddhism tends to be syncretistic (or at least the WESTERN version is) it seems okay for use in class.

    I want to see the “second day” story on this to learn if anyone’s hackles were raised by this, and how the school reacted.

  • Jerry

    It’s funny but your comments don’t match the story I read. Specifically, where is the mention of this KEY section of the story:

    The techniques, among them focused breathing and concentrating on a single object, are loosely adapted from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the molecular biologist who pioneered the secular use of mindfulness…

    It strikes me as you were so grabbed the the origin of the bowl that you missed the essential secular nature of the meditation. Or maybe something else was going on, but the story was reported as being derived from a SECULAR form of meditation.

    Would you have been happier if a cow bell had been used instead of the Tibetan bowl?

  • Brian

    Jerry,

    But what are they meditating on? Even if they mask it with secular language, the students are meditating on something…

    For example take this quote from the article: “If we can help children slow down and think,” Dr. Haick said, “they have the answers within themselves.”

    Dr. Haick may just be saying that kids can do their school work better because the exercises help them concentrate. Or he may be saying that during these exercises they find truths hidden within themselves. If the latter is the case, they’re starting to cross over into religion and I think Christians would have a big problem with the idea that truth lies within you. I think the closest Christian concept is that God has written his word on all of our consciences.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Dear Tom,

    Thank you for a big belly-laugh, and also for the best possible illustration of why religion does not belong in a public school classroom in a pluralistic society!

  • Jerry

    But what are they meditating on?

    Mindfulness meditation in the original context is given here: http://www.meditationcenter.com/connect/mind.html I know some think of Yoga as being necessarily tied to Hinduism and similarly this form of meditation as classically Buddhist, but this strikes me as a classic example of how we in the US can turn a practice that originated in a particular tradition and reinvent it as a secular practice:

    1. Sit comfortably, with your eyes closed and your spine reasonably straight.
    2. Direct your attention to your breathing.
    3. When thoughts, emotions, physical feelings or external sounds occur, simply accept them, giving them the space to come and go without judging or getting involved with them.
    4. When you notice that your attention has drifted off and become engaged in thoughts or feelings, simply bring it back to your breathing and continue.

  • Jeff

    Jerry,

    This form of meditation would be seen by some as inherently dangerous on a spiritual level. So, just because it is supposedly secular (when you get into Buddhism, in particular, where there is no God or Allah, its hard for me to separate it from secular), doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have religious overtones or significance. I would not want this form of meditation taught to my children as I am one of those who would consider it dangerous, and I suspect it would conflict with what my children’s spiritual father would want them to do.

    So, I think TMatt is right on for seeing the ghost in this one.

  • Brian

    Martha:

    I think your observation on the flag-worship ritual in American schoolrooms is spot-on. One relevant book on the subject is Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle.

    I recall standing outside the Junior High School in Tuba City, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation one cloudless morning listening to the outdoor public address system broadcasting the pledge of allegiance that all pupils, Navajo, Hopi or Anglo, were expected to participate in. That many of these children were descendants of Navajo gunned down or driven from their land by Kit Carson and US troops operating under the very flag they were venerating was an irony apparent, it seemed, only to me.

    I also recall that, prior to WWII, it was common for American schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (sans the “under God” clause) with their right arms extended, resembling nothing so much as a fascist salute. While the gesture was soon replaced with a hand over the heart, the pledge was kept.

    My oldest son attended a Waldorf school from Kindergarten through third grade, until the combination of anthroposophical and pseudo-educational nonsense became far too much to take. In his first day in Catholic School for fourth grade, though, he was embarassed that all the other kids knew the pledge by heart, while he had never recited it in his life. Another irony perhaps noted only by me was that the Catholic school toed the flag worship line while the transcendentally alternative new age school ignored it.

    I no longer sing the national anthem at baseball games or other public events. Instead, I silently repeat in Hebrew the Sh’ma Yisroel. It’s a small practice to help me, as

  • Brian

    Sorry about that…

    It’s a small practice to help me, as a Christian, keep the order of my loves and allegiances straight.

  • http://20gramsoul.com Richard Rosalion

    Personally, I’d feel much happier with a school which promoted (well, maybe not promoted, as such – but… “explored”) a whole range of different world-views. I always felt quite annoyed with my high school (and primary school, to a lesser degree) for the massive bias they had towards Christianity (keep in mind that I’m from Australia, not the US).

    Even in my primary school, which taught “religious” education (as opposed to “Christian” education), there was very little if any focus on religious other than Christianity. I would have been quite happy with (and probably would have turned up more) my school teaching equal amounts of all major religions and beliefs such as Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, along site atheistic views and even lesser known, or more controversial religions such as Scientology.

  • Bill Logan

    Is there a prayer ghost in the story or is it just an issue of vocabulary? Because Christianity has a form of prayer called “meditation,” must we associate all uses of the word “meditation” with prayer? Would you say that there was a prayer ghost if the story consistently used the phrase “mental concentration and relaxation techniques” instead of “meditation”?

  • som

    Thank you,Tom, for the evening smile :-) I do like your writing not because it could give laughing, but i like it because i can not imagine this kind of responsive words from children in my country.

    I also agree with Bill that perhaps teacher could find other neutral words instead, for reaching the main goal of the mindfulness activity by no need to leap into a vortex of various believes.

  • L

    I no longer sing the national anthem at baseball games or other public events. Instead, I silently repeat in Hebrew the Sh’ma Yisroel. It’s a small practice to help me, as a Christian, keep the order of my loves and allegiances straight.

    On a tangentially-related note, have you ever been to a sporting event between a U.S. and Canadian team? I’ve noticed that when the U.S. national anthem is played, the Americans kinda-sorta sing along half-heartedly. When the Canadian anthem is played, on the other hand, every single Canadian in the stadium/arena is belting “O Canada!” absolutely as loud as they can. I have seen this at games both in the U.S. and in Canada. I find the different levels of enthusiasm for the national anthems fascinating.

  • Maureen

    Americans love “The Star-Spangled Banner”. They love to stand at attention; they love to hear it sung. What they do not love is the key in which it is usually played. Playing it in a range which allows the tenor or soprano to sound really high at the end does not encourage singing.

    As for “flag worship”, I think it is sad for any Christian not to understand the difference between ordinary homage to things of this world, and dulia, hyperdulia, and latria. The word is “allegiance”, not “faith and hope in salvation” or “adoring worship”. And if any news article reported on “flag worship”, my eyes would roll so hard they’d end up rattling around inside my head. Sheesh!

  • norman ravitch

    As a nontheistic religion Buddhist meditation could offend no one.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Except, of course, theists.

    State-funded non theistic meditation. That’s the church-state ticket.

  • Martha

    You see, the reason why I’m pretty sure the schools in question are hoping with all their might that this is not taken as a ‘religion creeping into the public domain’ story, with all the attendant uproar that would cause, is that anything that would keep a class of thirty kids quietly sitting in their seats, concentrating, for forty-five minutes without outbreaks of Iexamples from my own experience) mobile phones ringing in class, texting on those phones, pen-throwing, verbal abuse, swearing, throwing chairs at the teacher, trying to stab another pupil with a chisel, stalking out of the school and irate phonecalls afterwards from parents threatening to sue the school and get the principal fired because a teacher assaulted their little Johnny (the ‘assault’ being that the teacher told little Johnny to stop hanging around the lockers and go back to class) and so on – if it works, if it helps, they wouldn’t care if it was the blinkin’ Raelians who promoted it.

    I do see where the religion ghost appears, and I agree that if someone offered to teach a workshop based on say Benedictine monastic techniques of meditation they’d be run out of it, but also I can see why the school would go for it.

  • Stephen A.

    Martha, what if the school had brought another, this time CHRISTIAN, technique of meditation into the classroom? If it “worked,” after all, your criteria is met. The obvious answer is that it would be seen by New Age secularists as “indoctrination” (and probably would be, if “disguised” as this bowl was, as “secular”) whereas the Buddhist version certainly is seen the same way by some Christians. It’s not hard to wrap one’s mind around this as an issue that needs further reporting. But for some reporters, it’s “obvious” that this Eastern mystical practice wasn’t religious, even though it’s clearly a Buddhist-derived practice.

    In the point Jerry makes above (#10) about the Meditation being easy to “secularize,” he copies this from a Website:

    3. When thoughts, emotions, physical feelings or external sounds occur, simply accept them, giving them the space to come and go without judging or getting involved with them.

    The point is that in Western, Christian tradition, giving “thoughts, feelings, physical feelings,” etc. the “space” to come and go without “judging” them, is simply not, well, traditional. Teaching children to not examine and judge their behaviors, or to ignore feelings and impulses as if they are simply *natural* is out of line with societal Traditions — though, granted, ignoring one’s judgement – and ignoring the need for children to become skilled in their judgement skills – is pure secularism and is well adapted to the judgement-free zone schools have become.

    I guess that’s why I’m sure there are huge reprecussions for this story, and others like it, that aren’t being reported, and probably won’t be.

    He also neglects to post the rest, in which the “benefits” of the exercise are listed as “A gradual shift to a higher level of consciousness… centered in the peace, joy & freedom of your Spirit.” This is not only NOT a Western practice, it’s indoctrination into Eastern mysticism, and would clearly be seen as such were it not for the obfuscatory, secularized clothing it was presented in.

    Having said all this, had this bowl been presented in a class as exposure to a religious cultural tradition, and even demonstrated, I bet most would have little problem with it, nor would many Eastern tradition followers (tough syntax there) object to exposure to Western religions, so long as it’s part of a broad religion curriculum. Most agree such a thing is necessary in such a pluralistic society.

    But why sneak it in, pretending it’s a “secular” ritual? I bet a gagillion dollars that the school has strict rules about Christian rituals in the classroom, even if they disguised it as “secular.”

  • Stephen A.

    I also have to note that while I’m not a Fundamentalist, and don’t believe this, some in that group teach that demonic spirits can be let into a soul when a person’s guard is let down. The time when one let down one’s guard and let thoughts in, “simply accept(ing) them,” would be the best time for that to happen, they would teach.

    A skilled religion reporter would know to hone in on those theological objections, and others, and bring them into the discussion.

  • Jerry

    I think many of the people here who object that that meditation technique might not be aware that very similar meditations are part of the Christian tradition. The stillness of that meditation reminds me of Psalm 46:10 “Be still … and know that I am God”. In addition, looking around I found these. Taken together, they read very similar to my mind as the meditation we’ve been speaking of:

    http://www.frimmin.com/faith/meditation.html

    Meditation is always about Presence, and we have acquired many ways to not be present. As soon as you begin, trying to simply be present to God and yourself, you will find yourself thinking about when you need to do the laundry, feed the cat, or any one of a thousand other thoughts which take you from Presence into future. The key is to come back gently. Do not in any way chastise yourself. Simply shrug off the distraction with an inner smile and return. You may have to do this a hundred times in a single sitting; no matter.

    (and one technique that sounds much the same as the one indicated way above and is called ‘recollection’ or ‘centering’ in the web page I cited)

    Focus on the breath Feel the breath going in and coming out of out the nostrils. Or on the rise and fall of the abdomen or chest in conjunction with your breathing. (If it’s xtremely quiet, you may be able to focus on your pulse.)

    So, even more so now, combining the breath technique and the advice to ‘shrug off distractions’, I don’t consider this an eastern meditation technique, but one which is also part of Christian meditation.

  • Stephen A.

    The problem is that, apparently, this wasn’t presented as something shared by many Religious Traditions, it was overtly a Tibetan Buddhist bowl that was used. I didn’t read in the story about a Catholic prayerbook or Rosary in the room as well, nor the works of Christian mystics being used.

    Big difference. To be blunt, this classrom event seems like it was Eastern religious indocrination, presented as if it was simply a secular, New Age, feel-good relaxation technique.

    Without any other context, which Jerry has helpfully added HERE, it was just that.

  • Brian

    Maureen:

    I thought twice about responding to your post, since I may have sent things careening off topic, but I think, perhaps, there’s a way to circle back to the article. I believe I do know the linguistic and theological differences between homage and worship. Indeed, the New Testament language of the powers is very much in mind when I address not only matters of patriotism, but also of economics, so-called professionalism, and even certain ecclesial matters.

    Consider, however, the context of the Pledge for the typical US public school student. For most students, it will be the only public act of reverence performed that day — for some it will be the only such act that week, or ever. Schools form children. The Catholic parochial school system developed in part so that Catholic children could attend a school which did not form them in the ways of the dominant North American Prostetantism. Dewey notably wanted schools to form children into pragmatic Americans and away from the religious beliefs of their parents. The Pledge is one way of focusing what little practice of reverence remains in the United States toward a symbol of the nation state. My son’s Catholic school could — but I’m not sure did — make clear the Pledge involved an inferior loyalty than that practiced in prayer and at church, but public schools cannot. This leads to statements like “Whatever religion we may be, at least we’re all Americans,” suggesting that American-ness — or Canadian-ness or Australian-ness — somehow ranks above a religious community’s ultimate concern. Likewise, a mother recently complained that when her child attended an event at the local Catholic school, he was embarassed because he didn’t know the words of the Our Father. “Why couldn’t they have picked something more inclusive and welcoming,” she said, “like the Pledge of Allegiance?” (I find it an irony among ironies that a campaign of Christian public school students, aware that public expression of their ultimate allegiance is censored while at school, encourages such students to meet at the flagpole to pray.)

    I have similar concerns about the twice-attenuated Buddhist meditation referred to in the article (Twice attenuated first because explicit verbal references to Buddhism are avoided, secondly because the practice of Buddhism witnessed and embraced by the privileged in the developed North resembles Buddhism as practiced in most of South and East Asia as the movie “Into Great Silence” resembles the Catholcism practiced at the average North American suburban Catholic Church.) This practice, by virtue of its being sanctioned in a public venue of the nation-state, forms children. It is, therefore, a matter of public interest and debate. I’m not suggesting that meditation should be banned from schools. I’m simply concurring with Terry that there’s an unexamined ghost in this new story. I might add that the formational power of the news and entertainment industries now dwarfs that of most schools, but that’s another power or principality altogether.

  • Brian

    Upon proofreading — too late, it seems — my post above, I noted I misspelled “Protestantism.” I feared giving offense until I saw I also misspelled “Catholicism.” In accordance with the US Supreme Court’s Lemon test, I have been religiously neutral in my typos.

  • Simon Blomfield

    It’s interesting to see the consternation the NY Times piece has caused here. I’m a mindfulness trainer myself, and I’d like to offer some background. Jon Kabat Zinn, who is mentioned in the piece, founded the Centre for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical School in 1981, (http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/index.aspx), and his work in teaching mindful awareness has been highly influential. His approach is termed Mindfulness based Stress Reduction (MBSR), but it has been used in in healthcare, pain management and business, educational and many other contexts, especially in the US.

    There is a large body of evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness in healing, and in the UK the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has approved Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy as an NHS treatment for depression. The Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Wales, Bangor http://www.bangor.ac.uk/imscar/mindfulness/ trains people in this and there are plans for a similar course in Oxford. In other words, mindfulness is being taken seriously because of its effectiveness. (See http://www.mbsr.co.uk/mindfulness.html for popular and scientific discussions of this).

    But what is it? There are misunderstandings in some of what is posted here. It is true that the roots of current explorations of mindfulness lie in the Buddhist tradition, however, Buddhism regards it as an aspect of consciousness that is present in everyone. In other words, it is a Buddhist contribution to psychology, rather than metaphysics or theology. (The existence of a traditon of Buddhist psychology perhaps says something about the difference between Buddhism and some other religions).

    Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “a particular way of paying attention in a particular way—on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” In other words it means noticing one’s experience and finding the mental space that enables choice rather than reacting through mechanisms such as ‘fight or flight’. This is particularly useful in the case of difficult experiences, such as the things that prompt stress, depression etc.

    Mindfulness is not the same as meditation. It is a faculty that may be present in the whole of one’s life, not just when one meditates. Of course you can be mindful without meditating, and many people no doubt are highly self aware, mindful individuals never having given meditation a moment’s thought, let alone Buddhism. However, meditation on the breath helps create calm, within which one naturally becomes moremindful. And learning in that way to notice one’s physical experience, thoughts and feelings is a way of learning how to be mindful, so that one can take it into the whole of one’s life.

    So this is why mindfulness can be regarded as a secular practice, in the sense of being independent of any particular religious tradition. Is it ‘spiritual’? It’s not a word used in mindfulness literature, but you could say it is—but then Wordsworth’s poetry is ‘spiritual’ in some sense as well.

    Having said all that, let me come clean. My own background is Buddhist (I also go by the Buddhist name, Vishvapani (www.vishvapani.org). I didn’t want to write this at the top of this post because I feared that may have affected your response to my account of it here. For me, the practice of mindfulness is connected to my practice of Buddhism. But I don’t see any reason that another person’s should be.

  • Brian Walden

    I’m the Brian who made posts 4 and 8, but not the others. In order to clear up any confusion on who’s posting I’ll use my full name on posts from now on.

  • Brian V

    Thanks for the helpful clarification, Brian W. I hadn’t been paying attention.

    I, Brian V., am responsible for posts 12, 13, 26 and 27. If I post in the future, I’ll make a point of including the initial of my last name.

  • Stephen A.

    Off-topic, but magic bowls have been brought up in our culure before. In 1984, the film All of Me – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086873 with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin – featured a bowl that could transfer a person’s soul into another body. Very entertaining film.

  • http://www.vishvapani.org Simon Blomfield

    While I’m at it, you may be interested in this bit of research. The accompanying article starts:
    “fascinating new study by UCLA researchers combines modern neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings.

    The scientists believe they have discovered the first neural evidence for why “mindfulness” — the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction — seems to produce a variety of health benefits.”
    http://psychcentral.com/news/2007/06/22/the-science-of-mindfulness-meditation/

  • Yu Ban

    Mindfulness teaches one to be aware of his own thoughts before even acting them out. No religion or secular philosophy can find fault with that.

  • Stephen A.

    Mindfulness teaches one to be aware of his own thoughts before even acting them out. No religion or secular philosophy can find fault with that.

    Then that simple truth can be taught in an ethics class without reference to Buddhist bowls, Crucifixes or any other religious “props,” or in a religious education class allowing for a full exploration of how ALL religions (even Western “judgemental” ones) have dealt with the issues being raised.

    To foist one religion’s take on the kiddies without the rest being aired as context is indoctrination.

  • http://juniper.typepad.com/buddhist_jihad Buddhist Jihad

    My favorite part was this: “Tyran Williams defined mindfulness as ‘not hitting someone in the mouth.’”

    Anyhow, Christians are already making a fuss about the horrors of teaching mindfulness, so no doubt this useful, effective program will die an early death.

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