Mindfulness is becoming very popular in K-12 settings. As rising stress levels for teachers continue and students present more and more social/emotional struggles educators are looking for solutions. Having show immense success in scientific research helping adults deal with difficulties, mindfulness is showing promise with children and young people.
As mindfulness becomes more popular some people are fearful that religion is being brought into schools. Many simply have a basic misunderstanding of what mindfulness is and its purpose. While the topic of science is often given for the explanation as to the “why” mindfulness is important, some people need to know what it is before they will even listen to what research shows. And sometimes it is even more important to state what mindfulness is not before people will listen to what it actually is.
Getting my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies was helpful in my understanding that mindfulness in schools is not religious. The characteristics of religions include a set of beliefs about the nature and cause of the universe usually including some supernatural or superhuman power, a set of devotional rituals and practices, and a moral code. By this very definition mindfulness, as presented in schools, is not religious.
Mindfulness in education does not include or need any of the following to be implemented:
- a set of beliefs about the nature or cause of the universe
- any concept of a God, supernatural or otherworldly power
- devotional rituals or practices
- moral code
What about Buddhism?
While we can determine that mindfulness in education is not religious some are still concerned about what role Buddhism plays. Look up the word “mindfulness” and undoubtedly you will get all kinds of links about Buddhism. This is enough for some people to be completely convinced that educators are trying to bring religion into schools. And to a certain degree, I understand. Even though I know that the mindfulness in schools is not Buddhist, I have never heard or read anyone explain it clearly and directly. This topic needs to be addressed.
Historical Ties vs. Association
Education itself has historical ties to religion. The earliest versions of formal education was with priests of both polytheistic (many gods) and monotheistic (one God) religions. Pretty much everything we do in education has a historical tie to people whose culture was religious. Writing, Mathematics, Science, History- all originated from cultures that held specific beliefs about the nature of the universe, a concept of supernatural powers, rituals, moral code.
For example, the earliest writings were created and used by Mesopotamians called cuneiform using a stylus. These people were polytheistic. However, most people are not concerned about students writing in school or using a pencil as being a “religious practice.” But if we are teachings things that originated with a people who were religious why should we not be concerned that students are being taught religion? Because while there is a historical tie, the practices we use in school are not associated with the religious beliefs and rituals of the people who created the activities. We have brought the methods that serve us and our students into schools while leaving the culture and religious beliefs of the people who began the practices in the past (aka, historical tie, not association). If there was an association then we would connect what we do with the people who created those practices. Do we praise the Mesopotamian god, Nabu, the patron of scribes, literacy and wisdom? Absolutely not! Writing, while having a historical tie, is not associated or connected to those early Mesopotamians nor their religion. We simply use the activity of writing to benefit us and our students.
Mindfulness- Historical Tie, Not Association
While mindfulness is practiced in different forms in almost every religious and spiritual tradition (although it may be called something else) many of the practices that we see in education today look more similar to those practiced in Buddhism. This is the area that confuses most people and they assume that Buddhism is being brought into schools. Mindfulness as practiced in public schools has a historical tie to Buddhism, but there is no association. Just like writing, Astronomy, Mathematics, Science, we have taken the essence of a practice and left the cultural and religious beliefs in the past. We have found something, like writing, that can help us and our students. Does that mean that we praise the Buddha or follow the Four Noble Truths? Absolutely not! Mindfulness, while having a historical tie, is not associated or connected to Buddhism in any way. We simply use the activity of mindfulness to benefit us and our students.
Let me clearly and succinctly state it: Mindfulness as practiced in public schools is not religious. Mindfulness as practiced in public schools is not Buddhism.
As a middle-aged straight white male with an education, relative good health, and just a little bit of money in the bank (hey, I am a teacher, so yes, it is very little) I admit that I have biases. The idea of cultural appropriation has been something I have wrestled with. My conclusion is that educators must be careful to not culturally appropriate mindfulness. The misappropriation may simply be done out of fear. Most educators who use mindfulness know they are not practicing nor teaching Buddhism but are afraid or unaware of how to convey this to people who accusing them of bringing religion into schools. I personally do not like conflict or having someone assume bad intentions about my motive for bringing something that is actually helping kids into the school. However, as educators, this is nothing new. We are often on the front lines of illogical and unreasonable attacks about what we do. Why should bringing a beneficial practice to help students learn skills they can take with them and help them the rest of their lives be any different? It is not.
Educators who are teaching mindfulness need to stand firm and decisively state that we are not teaching religion nor are we trying to bring religion into the schools. At the same time, in order to not be cultural appropriating, we must recognize and acknowledge that mindfulness does have a historical tie to Buddhism while also resolutely affirming that there is not any association to the religion. Not everyone will understand, not everyone will agree. Welcome to education! With a growing track record and adoption of mindfulness in education the results will speak for themselves. While mindfulness will not solve all of educators and students’ problems, we have found a bit of the solution with mindfulness. Have courage, speak the truth, and breathe!