What magic “moment”?

569px-in_disgrace_at_school2

This article on “mindfulness meditation” from the The Sacramento Bee is a “therapy in the schools” story. It’s an important one to follow in an era in which, often, public schools either apppropriate for themselves or are forced into the role of “in loco parentis.”

Additionally, it’s about what happens when religious symbols and traditions get thrown into the great common denominator of American public education.

Is this potential trend being reported “mindfully,” as it were? Is there any religious significance to these practices?

What do the mindfulness practices represent in a culture bombarded with therapeutic solutions –and one which suffers, as I read recently in a book I was reviewing, from a globally staggering rate of Attention Deficit Disorder?

I was looking for answers in this article-and didn’t find as many as I would have liked.

The lede takes readers to Bridges Academy, a school in east Oakland. Actually, from what I can tell, the school has a host of innovative programs targeting disadvantaged children, of which the mindfulness meditation is only one.

The writer focuses on one of the classrooms in which instructor Oren Sofer has been hired to help kids practice meditation.

Hi, Mr. Ooooooo,” the third-graders chimed, then began chanting, “mind-ful-ness, mind-ful-ness.”

Sofer asked the students to show him their mindful bodies. As the students quieted down, he held up a Tibetan singing bowl.

“Let’s begin by just listening to the sound of the bell,” he said gently. “Let your eyes close.”

He tapped the side of the bowl. “Raise your hand after you hear the whole bell.” He waited. “Now, take that hand down to your belly, and let’s take a few breaths together.” Sofer visits this class, and eight others, 15 minutes a day, three times a week for five weeks to teach mindfulness – the ability to be aware of what is happening in the present moment without judgment.

Possibly readers would like to know the religious significance (or lack of religious significance) of a Tibetan singing bowl.

There’s definitely a therapeutic component here, as the write notes a few paragraphs further into the story.

Numerous studies have tracked a rise in diagnoses of mental health problems and mood disorders among children over the past 10 years. Educators in Oakland report seeing the consequences of an increasingly digitalized, increasingly anxious society in their classrooms. Mandatory No Child Left Behind testing especially has spiked the stress level in classrooms among students and teachers, they said.

Studies from UCLA and Arizona State University have shown that mindfulness programs help elementary-school students regulate their behavior, control impulses, focus and plan ahead.

By now my mind is racing with questions. Is meditation part of a multidisciplinary approach to dealing with the problems these kids must face, which seem to include violence, poverty, and family addictions and incarceration? Do local faith groups play any role in helping these kids deal with stress? When the classroom become a stand-in for the therapist’s office?

Meditation has deep roots in many religious traditions, but we hear nothing about that in this article. Instead, readers get tantalizing anecdotes, which seem to suggest that mindfulness (which actually has been the object of evidence-based studies) seems to alleviate stress–but gives us little idea of its principles or background.

What may be happening in Oakland and other places is that ancient practices are being shorn of their religious roots, and used in that great American game of “let’s fix the problem.” But I’d sure like to know more.

Full disclosure–If you hear a slightly exasperated edge in this post, its because I have personal experience of the therapeutic school. This past fall I had to intervene when my son was put into social skills group, because all children in his particular category were put into one-without consulting the parents. It may be a national trend-begging for a story.

Picture of old-fashioned classroom is from Wikimedia Commons

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  • will harrington

    interesting. I’ve just got into a graduate level teaching program and twe nights ago we were discussing the effects of generational poverty on children. One of my fellow students who has been teaching for a while noticed something. All the effects that generational poverty can have on a kid are symptom for symptom the same as attention deficit disorder. The next quistion was do schools take this into account when referring students for ADD or do they just want to get them on medicine?
    I’m not sure that meditation can be shorn of its religious connections to make it suitable for public schools. I am sure that, in many cases, its necessary for teachers to teach things that they usually just assume are known, like basic planning and organizational skills in time. Awareness and the ability to deal with the future will be of much more value than awareness and the ability to deal with the present. Most of thesle kids are very aware of the present and can deal with it very well, they can’t stop and think about the consequences. Teachers can, and should teach these skills to kids who don’t have them, so why pay to bring in someone else who’s methods may be questionable or controversial? This is all moot if its a private school, of course.

  • Dave2

    I’m not sure that meditation can be shorn of its religious connections to make it suitable for public schools.

    I don’t see how having kids take a period of time to deliberately attend to their own experience (by means of e.g. focusing on their breathing) in order to promote psychological health is any more objectionably religious than having kids take a period of time to do push-ups and jumping jacks to promote physical health. And this is coming from someone who is pretty hostile to religion. It’s not like meditation is intrinsically connected with religious beliefs or even religious attitudes, and it’s not like the health benefits of meditation are only backed up by pseudo-studies done by crank scientists working for religious cults (cf. the way Scientology promotes its anti-drug program Narconon).

    Don’t get me wrong, if someone’s pushing meditation as a way of warming kids up to their favorite religious tradition, then that’s pretty objectionable on establishment clause grounds. But as a purely therapeutic measure for kids with tendencies to psychological disorders, it would serve a pretty safe secular purpose, I would think.

    Awareness and the ability to deal with the future will be of much more value than awareness and the ability to deal with the present. Most of thesle kids are very aware of the present and can deal with it very well, they can’t stop and think about the consequences.

    First, this rests on a pretty serious misunderstanding of “awareness of the present”. Second, as the article pointed out, “[s]tudies from UCLA and Arizona State University have shown that mindfulness programs help elementary-school students regulate their behavior, control impulses, focus and plan ahead.”

  • Jerry

    Sofer asked the students to show him their mindful bodies. As the students quieted down, he held up a Tibetan singing bowl.

    “Let’s begin by just listening to the sound of the bell,” he said gently. “Let your eyes close.”

    Possibly readers would like to know the religious significance (or lack of religious significance) of a Tibetan singing bowl.

    IF he had said Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl or Hindu bell or Christian chime, then it would be relevant and a problem. Absent any indication about the country/religion of origin of the bowl, I don’t see any issue.

    Is this potential trend being reported “mindfully,” as it were? Is there any religious significance to these practices?

    The word meditation also has different definitions. Sometimes contemplation and concentration are applied to certain methods. There is a set of meditation techniques which could easily be described as “applied subjective biofeedback designed to calm the mind and body by focusing the attention on an object or sound”. Some people quite naturally do this when they, for example, sit in the woods with their eyes closed listening to birds sing.

    A quite different form of meditation has a religious purpose whether praying the Rosary, saying a mantra, chanting God’s name or contemplating an image of Jesus on the Cross.

    So rather than explicate the religious roots of some forms of meditation, I would want articles such as this to draw the distinction between “applied subjective biofeedback” and religious meditation forms.

  • Jay

    I assume the title is an inside Baby Boomer joke referring to the 1969 top 10 hit by Jay and the Americans

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpePWo56zm4

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Yes, it was a joke, and yes, I am, like our current President, a baby boomer. I forgot who wrote the song, however–so I’m already losing my memory.

    I tend to agree that mindfulness can be unyoked (mostly) from faith traditions, but I also think it has religious roots that should be openly acknowledged by reporters.

    I’ve talked to a mindfulness teacher (is that oxymoronic?) who told me there’s a debate among teachers as to whether it’s evolved out of Buddhism or Christian meditative traditions.

  • Margaret

    I hope you do look into this further. As a baby boomer fairly recent graduate with masters in Special Education, I was alerted to these (mindfulness, as well as social skills) methods during my coursework. And then there’s overseeing my own offsprings’ public (so far) education. Good for you to stay involved with your child’s education!

  • Ira Rifkin

    Of course mindfulness has religious roots, specifically in the Buddhist Vipassana/Theravadan school. Mindfulness is a recent term coined largely by American practitioners who have, to varying degrees, stripped it of its Buddhist religious/cultural traits to make it accessible and acceptable to Westerners. Its been employed successfully for years in hospitals for pain control, in hospices to reduce fear, in prisons and elsewhere.

    As a practitioner myself, I know it can be very emotionally and (if one is so inclined) spiritually beneficial. It can be totally divorced from Buddhism to work, just as prayer can be totally divorced from a specific faith and remain beneficial to individuals in times of stress, pain, fear, depression. I’m leaving theology out of this assessment purposely, just as many mindfulness practitioners do, knowing full well that some of you will say theology trumps psychology/stress control etc. and that I’m missing the central point.

    Frankly, any practice that helps the individual deal with what Buddhists call “monkey-mind” – that is the incessant internal chatter that often leaves us confused and overwhelmed – I see as having merit (as long as its not destructive to others. There are such paths, but I won’t go there now; mindfullness is not one of them).

    That said, the reporter (not to mention the editors who are equally responsible for every story) should have referenced this background, if only briefly. Yes, this is new ground for many, even in California.

    And of course this makes it controversial for some parents on several levels, religion being just one. Parents should have the right to commenty in its application in public schools, as with any aspect of curicula.

    But why be fearful of a potentially beneficial practice simply because its a recent import? All religions borrow practices and concepts, as do all cultures. Must we strip the public square from all vestiges of religion? – an impossible task anyway given the depth to which culture and religion are entwined.

    Change is inevitable yet seems always resisted. Must a thousand years pass before the exotic becomes tradition for the majority? Given the state of our national culture, I’m not sure we have a thousand years left as a specie.

    Let’s be open to helping our kids gain insight into how their minds work (by the way, insight meditation is another term for mindfulness).

    Self-awareness is the name of the game if we are to grow, not to mention survive.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Ira, you make some really excellent points. I’m not one to say that because a practice has religious roots, that it can’t be used in a way that is appropriate for all. I guess what concerns me more is that these methodologies perhaps are being applied, in some cases, without parental input. Even more to the point, when did our schools turn into doctor’s offices? Again, I’m not sure I object-but I want to be aware.

  • Ira Rifkin

    EE:

    As I noted, parents should be made aware of what’s happening their kids’ school. Part of the problem is most parents do not pay attention to their kids’ school or just figure, I survived school and so will little Johnny or Joany.

    Perhaps mindfulness should be offered for the parents?

  • Jerry

    The religious connection is interesting, but I don’t think it needs to be mentioned. I think that for the same reason as I think that we don’t necessarily need to have a section in a story that says a medicine was originally part of an Indian ayurvedic or Chinese herbal treatment. The medicine and the meditation technique is derived from a tradition, to be sure, but that is not necessarily germane to the story. On the other hand, I would not object to a clause that said that the technique/medicine was originally derived from …

  • SouthCoast

    “Teachers can, and should teach these skills to kids who don’t have them,…”

    Would that be before or after they’ve raised their awareness of gender/racial/sexual biases, ensured their cultural sensitivity, had them save the planet, made sure that not a one is left behind, enriched their self-esteeem, taught them how to properly ensheathe a cucumber (or banana), and maybe, just maybe, actually introduced them to at least one of the three R’s?

    No wonder two members of my family have left the teaching profession.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    The practice produces deep concentration, is actually a form of hypnosis.

    Now, one can argue that deep concentration can allow you to pray, or that those who pray end up in this state while praying (as can artists or actors or musicians or those watching a movie or an Obama speech).

    Depending on the depth of the hypnotic state, one can be influenced while in it….or one can get in touch with one’s inner self (eg creativity.)..but beware the “monsters of the id”…some people have hidden psychological problems that their superego defense hides from those around them. Releasing the problem can result in acute anxiety attacks or even psychotic breaks…

    But psychologically it is hypnosis, and about ten percent of the population can fall into a deep trace state that makes them vulnerable to suggestion. And those who practice such states find it easier to slip into them with practice, although the depth of the state is probably physiologically ingrained into the nervous system.

    Teaching kids to calm down is probably okay, but I’m leery about all semi trained teachers (including nuns teaching the “centering prayer) who lack the wisdom to realize what they are actually doing.

  • Ira Rifkin

    tioedong:

    Please cite a source for your “ten percent of the population can fall into a deep trace (trance?) state that makes them vulnerable to suggestion” comment.

    Also, I wonder if you’re confusing mindfulness meditation with other forms of meditation, such as mantra meditation or Sufi dancing, that are more likely to put someone into an altered state – which is actually the desired effect but takes years of practice to truly achieve. But hey, isn’t that the intent of the bells and whistles common to high church services as well?

    Mindfulness when done right is more akin to a state of heightened alertness/awareness than trance/hypnosis. When done improperly one just falls asleep, which may be what you are referring to.

    I also think you’re defining hypnosis too broadly.

    Lastly, what’s with the Obama speech reference?

  • FW Ken

    #12 references Centering Prayer, which was popularized by Fr. Basil Pennington and his spiritual father, Dom Thomas Keating, Trappist monks who reached back into Christian sources for meditative practice, even as the eastern meditations became popular in the 60s and 70s. They distilled their own experience into a method easily taught and used by lay people. The problems come along, as noted in #12, when the meditative practice produces a state of psychological openness and taps into psychological quirks; long-term meditation calls for a competent spiritual friend, experienced in prayer.

  • Brian L

    We’ve seen an iteration of this story before: http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2496

    I agree with tmatt back then – this is a church/state issue and is not value-neutral. The paper missed the religion angle (and, to my mind, promoted indoctrination).

  • SouthCoast

    Rats! Forgot something:

    FNORD!!!!!


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