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The Heart of Mindfulness: A Response to the New York Times

Mindfulness is attracting a large U.S. following. A recent New York Times article, “Mindfulness: Getting its Share of Attention,” details how techies, business owners, educators, and even the U.S. Marine Corps. have turned to mindfulness as a way to quiet the mind. However, the particular brand of mindfulness that is gaining widespread acceptance serves to bolster long-standing systems of power: making them more efficient, potent, and acceptable under the pretext of inner peace. Ron Purser and David Loy have examined the pitfalls of “McMindfulness” — a practice that falls under what the Buddhist Pali texts identify as “wrong mindfulness,” or micca sati. This approach, while superficially appealing, negates the heart of mindfulness: the call to social engagement.

The Times article credits Thich Nhat Hanh as “the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to Westerners.” Yet, the article leaves out how the Zen teacher has been pivotal in the Engaged (more recently, “Applied”) Buddhism movement. In fact, mindfulness, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, is engagement with the world:

When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time… You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. [1]

In 1965, while exiled for speaking out against the ravages of the Vietnam War, he wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraging him to publicly denounce the war. “You yourself can not remain silent,” he said. [2]

Mindfulness, then, is an instruction for action.

TEACHING AWARENESS: IS MINDFULNESS IN EDUCATION INCOMPLETE?

As a former public school teacher and beneficiary of dharma practice, one might expect that I’d be excited to see these mindfulness trends take off in the education world. Mindfulness as a practice of inward instruction lends itself easily to the classroom. The Times reported a lineup of speakers for the 2012 Wisdom 2.0 conference (on technology and mindfulness) that included Congressman Tim Ryan and his discussion of “using mindfulness to transform education.” Indeed, an increasing number of organizations have been established to promote the use of mindfulness in education, touting its positive effects on developing “attention and concentration,” “body awareness and coordination,” and “calming and self-control,” amongst many other skills.

Mindful awareness is winning attention and praise for its social benefits, too. A recent study found that when implementing their mindfulness curriculum for six weeks in schools in Oakland, CA, students in the treatment group demonstrated improvements in the four measured areas: Paying attention, Calming/self-control, Self-care/Participation, and Showing care for others. The schools participating in the program were noted for being located in high crime, low-income neighborhoods of Oakland, adding to the merits of the results of the mindfulness curriculum.

While enabling students to develop these individual skills is an important element of both mindfulness and schooling, we must ask with pressing compassion, “What of the central tenet of mindfulness—social justice—in this curriculum?”

How does this form of mindfulness in schools address the historical reality of segregation and recent, related trends of gentrification in Oakland?

How does it speak to the daily, lived sufferings of low-income South East Asian refugee families living in these neighborhoods, as a direct result of the displacement of war?

How does it heighten awareness of the racist War on Drugs, and other systemic practices that funnel black male youth from schools into prisons?

Such questions, such modes of awareness, do not seem to make it into the majority of “mindfulness in education” programs.

Mindfulness does not need to be taught in its religious context to be “right mindfulness,” or samma sati, but it must retain its essential heart: the teaching of non-dualistic interbeing and social action. As educators seeking to incorporate mindfulness into formal education, we must be acutely aware of how we apply our mindfulness so that it does not serve to delude us from the persistence of suffering around us. Integrating mindfulness in schools is a commitment to engaging with the systems of power and domination that contribute to suffering in our communities. Let’s think about how we can do this in schools, not just to make calm test takers, but to enliven our students’ hearts so that they are stirred to creating the world that they deserve.

What might a right mindfulness pedagogy look like in the classroom?

Mindfulness comes ripe with the opportunity to deeply investigate cause and effect. One lesson we might offer our students, for example, could be to encourage them to think and feel critically, with awakened hearts, about what it means that the U.S. Marine Corps. is using “mindfulness” techniques to optimize Marines’ performance under high stress situations. If part of the duty of a Marine includes killing, what effect will this cause? How might this affect the lives of others? And finally, What actions can we take in our daily lives to promote a just society? Then, we can plan with our students to take our list of ideas and do them. We engage with the world to relieve suffering.

As educators, we hold a unique potential for challenging the efficiency trend of McMindfulness. We can work with students to develop a critical, right mindfulness so that they are prepared to identify and respond to the pressing needs of their communities. In doing so, they might see for themselves how mindfulness has the potential to change many lives, instead of just individual lives. As educators and students living amidst the fad to quiet our minds so that we can function better under the present structures of suffering, we can insist on right mindfulness—not as a process of shaming our participation in systems of oppression, but as an awakening to the realities of our actions and the resultant global/local suffering. Because you, practitioner of mindfulness, “You yourself can not remain silent.”

A quiet mind is not a silent mind.

 

[1] Malkin, John. In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You. Shambhala Sun.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh to Martin Luther King, Jr. June 1, 1965.

Funie Hsu is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Davis in the School of Education. She was a former public school teacher in Los Angeles.

 

Comments (23)

  • Dzung Vo

    Thank you for sharing and asking us all to look deeper.

    For me, individual mindfulness is not mutually exclusive with “applied mindfulness” or social change – in fact, the two practices inter-are, and are deeply related to each other.

    When working with youth who have been marginalized and oppressed – I ask, 1. “What can be done to improve the situation in which they are growing up?”, and 2. “Since I don’t want to only wait for the situation and environment to change, what can I also do to promote resilience and help them learn coping skills to survive and thrive in a challenging environment?” For me, mindfulness has a role in both of those questions.

  • Amira Valle

    Very insightful article, congratulations! I completely agree with you. It is very important to incorporate the element of engaged altruism and compassion. It is essential to make a real impact in the way the new generations will give shape to the new millennium.

  • Funky 2001

    McMindfulness..yesFast food analogies are apt, and mindfulness practice is ‘superficial’ as described here. Still I think mainstream mindfulness is better than the alternative. My hope is that mindfulness would open doors for people to delve more deeply into an ethical practice that includes regard for all beings, not just self-help, and to recognize structural injustices. You have to start somewhere, and if the initial goal is just to improve attention spans and self-awareness in a toxic culture/environment, so be it. It’s hard to pay attention to others’ suffering if we’re clueless in how to attend to our own. One of the main problems with schools, therapy, etc. is they have turned away from the “inside out” understandings of behavior. Mindfulness is one way to restore that. Corporations suck if they think that it’s all about productivity, but they’re spreading the dharma whether they know it or not. Ultimately, they’ll lose! It’s that old saying that Michael Moore quotes in the film “The Corporation”: “The capitalist will sell you the rope to hang himself with if he thinks he can make a buck off it.”

  • Chris McKenna

    Hey Funie…..

    Thanks for your piece and for your efforts to balance the myopic way mindfulness is being covered in Big Media. Like you, I feel convinced that social, racial, gender and environmental justice practices and perspectives integrate deeply both with Buddhist practice and “modern secular mindfulness.” The last 15 years of my life have in some sense been attempt to combine the two personally and professionally.

    However, I think there are some very important clarifications and nuances that need to be considered as part of your critique. I’ll divide my response into two areas (the first is about education and curriculum development, the second is about the ways in which we refer to “tradition” to tell us “what mindfulness is.”)

    The first level I want to address is what “goes in” to various school-based curricula.

    As you know, this is a huge and complicated subject. In the school-based mindfulness world, there are a variety of curriculum approaches which reflect different priorities. To take Mindful Schools (whose logo you have on the piece, and who I currently work for) as an example, the development of the curriculum was driven primarily by the needs of educators in under-resourced and structurally-oppressed environments. In our work with educators in over 30 schools in Oakland Unified School District, there emerged one principle that classroom teachers and school social workers felt was critical to getting this stuff working in the environments they actually worked in (vs. some fantasy boarding school with an hour every morning for SEL, yoga and council): “short, focused and simple.” This became the guiding philosophy of subsequent curriculum development projects and of training efforts.

    The strengths of this approach are that it fits into the realities of under-resourced, urban public education in the post “no child left behind” era. It takes as a given that classroom teachers have too much mandated content to deliver and too little support doing it, and asks what can actually be done anyway. The curriculum emphasizes mindfulness, somatics and nervous system regulation within an ethical and relational framework (I’ll get to that later). The theory is that “a little goes a long way” – short moments of mindfulness done frequently as a “collective student/teacher family” do in my experience have the power to effect school culture.

    So that’s the short version of “the good.” There are also significant limitations and weaknesses to this approach, which include a partial or incomplete treatment of any number of crucial issues in the lives of youth and communities. When I look at the Mindful Schools and other mindfulness-focused youth curricula, I see many of these issues addressed but not elaborated on. Here are a few that I can think of:

    • Education around social, environmental, economic, racial and/or gender justice (the focus of your critique above)
    • Social & relational skills (the focus of the social and emotional learning critique of “pure” mindfulness programs)
    • Trauma resolution and the development of “inner resilience” (the focus of this critique is that short programs are incomplete and can’t offer “therapy-grade” results. I agree with this).

    So, the situation is that there are A LOT of things we wish youth were learning that they are not. How do we proceed?

    One thing we could do is put all of the above into a single curriculum. Social justice, inter-generational trauma, compassionate communication, anti-racism & anti-oppression material, etc. And obviously a lot of people ARE doing this (http://movementbuilding.movementstrategy.org/media/docs/6450_Out-of-the-Spiritual-Closet.pdf) – particularly people who are working with youth in non-school environments (see http://www.mbaproject.org/, http://www.rootedincommunity.org/).

    If we are interested in working directly with under-resourced public schools during the actual school day (and we are not a large and powerful advocacy organization), this approach feels unsatisfactory to me personally (maybe because I’m not always a “lumper” when it comes to curriculum development).

    I think compassion, generosity, and non-harming are critical concepts to any youth mindfulness program (I can’t think of a curriculum off the top of my head that doesn’t include strong ethical ingredients). However, if I have a 8 week, twice per week, 15-minutes-a-session curriculum because that’s all the school day can spare, I don’t think its reasonable to suggest that a fair introduction to the details of climate change or the history of racial justice or human rights can be made. I basically stand by not prioritizing those issues in that context.

    I would instead propose another model (one that I currently work on a lot in the training context). This model asks the opposite question: “how can a small, subject-limited curriculum integrate with other key programs, curricula and concepts?”

    The advantage of this approach is that it encourages collaboration and empowers educators and youth workers with different life experiences and expertise to “take the material and run with it.” There are many good curricula out their on structural oppression, the school-to-prison pipeline (I worked on the first Books Not Bars film and accompanying high school curriculum) and other key issues. The brevity and simplicity of the Mindful Schools curriculum allows for a huge variety of uses alongside and within these other programs (one of the most promising developments in this regard may be the use of mindfulness practice in tandem with restorative justice and circle keeping).

    Part of my responsibility as a trainer is to suggest what these uses might be, and I try my best to do that. Moreover, having worked (probably for too long) in the nonprofit industrial complex, I’m highly skeptical of organizations that try to be experts in too many different program areas. While I have personal experience designing social justice curriculum modules for high school students, this does not (by design) lay within the core competencies of Mindful Schools. From the point of sound movement-building, the best strategy in my mind is to create material that can be integrated with other forms of expertise. This is precisely we have endeavored to do.

    Enough with the curriculum theory… onto the second level – how we talk about/ represent “what mindfulness is” in these discussions. Here I think my main point is just that we all need to be cautious. In the article, you say:

    “This approach, while superficially appealing, negates the heart of mindfulness: the call to social engagement.”

    and

    “What of the central tenet of mindfulness—social justice—in this curriculum?”

    You also invoke the framework of the Pali Cannon when you introduce the distinction between “right” and “wrong” mindfulness.

    I found this approach confusing for a few reasons.

    First, it felt to me like you were referencing tradition to say that secular approaches were incomplete while at the same time inaccurately representing what classical Buddhist lineages say about right mindfulness.

    To put it plainly, if we are talking about any classical Buddhist lineage, I don’t think the statement that social justice is a central tenet of mindfulness is a fair reading of the history. To quote Bhikkhu Bodhi (a relatively traditional Pali scholar and a champion of modern engaged Buddhism):

    “Classical Buddhism confers an essentially instrumentalist value on socially beneficent activity. Such activity can be a contributing cause for a happy rebirth, the attainment of nibbana, or the realization of Buddhahood. It can be valued because it helps create better conditions for the moral and meditative life, or because it helps to lead others to the dharma; but ultimate value, the overriding goal, is located in the sphere of transcendent realization. Since socially engaged action pertains to a relatively elementary stage of the path, to the practice of giving or the accumulation of merits, in Classical Buddhism it tends to play a secondary role in the spiritual life. The primary place belongs to the inner discipline of meditation through which the ultimate goal is achieved. And this discipline, to be effective, normally requires a high degree of social disengagement.” (http://www.drbu.org/iwr/rew/2009/rew-article-0 – pages 18-19)

    The point here is not to “agree” with classical or textual Buddhism (Bhikkhu Bodhi himself is openly calling for new priorities and perspectives in practice and I love him for that). The point is that many people are innovating (socially engaged Buddhism and MBSR both fall squarely within this camp despite their differences). Some people think this is great; some people don’t like it.

    To put it another way, there are a number of crucial ways that modern social justice frameworks and traditional/classical Buddhist lineages disagree intensely (views on gender, sexuality and the body, the role of renunciation, the role of women, the list is endless). As people and communities co-creating new modern Buddhism(s) and new forms of contemplative practice, we need to be careful about (as Ajahn Sucitto recently put it) “referencing tradition when it is convenient for us.”

    Your question about what the merger of mindfulness and/or Buddhism and modern social justice frameworks might look like is to me a key question of the day. If we are going to represent “right mindfulness” or other traditional constructs in this discussion, we need to do so carefully. Otherwise (and I want to admit guilt in this area!), we are just cherry-picking to win arguments.

    Again, thanks for putting it all out there. It’s important to talk about this stuff….

    Hit me up if you’re ever in Oakland,

    Chris
    (chris@mindfulschools.org)

  • nathan

    “I think compassion, generosity, and non-harming are critical concepts to any youth mindfulness program (I can’t think of a curriculum off the top of my head that doesn’t include strong ethical ingredients). However, if I have a 8 week, twice per week, 15-minutes-a-session curriculum because that’s all the school day can spare, I don’t think its reasonable to suggest that a fair introduction to the details of climate change or the history of racial justice or human rights can be made. I basically stand by not prioritizing those issues in that context.”

    In my view, as someone who taught in an elementary school briefly (a single school year) at the beginning of No Child Left Behind, is that the entire design of schools works against developing any sort of strong program or focus on mindfulness or anything similar to it. The fact that your program has been given so little time speaks volumes. Twice a week for 15 minutes … that’s barely enough to normalize an experiential environment. Especially if you’re in an over crowded classroom filled with children who haven’t been given the time/space for significant exercise/physical activity.

    I have no doubt there are still positive results. To me, though, it always comes back to is work like this just propping up an unjust, oppressive, corrupt system, or is it a piece of breaking through that system and creating something much better? The thing is, nonprofits getting money from school districts aren’t going to directly challenge the status quo. Or, if they do, they’ll be loosing their funding post haste. The same goes for corporate mindfulness organizations, and those working with military personnel. So, either they attempt to do so indirectly or covertly, or they simply pass the buck. In my experience working with (and helping to lead) multiple non-profit orgs connected to education is that it’s mostly the latter. And it basically boils down to the money involved. There’s often even a reluctance to partner or build coalitions with more radical, activist oriented groups that could “do the heavy lifting” on justice issues. Again, because of managing public perceptions in order to keep funding coming along. That’s one major aspect of the non-profit industrial complex in gross form, but I think it’s pivotal when considering all of this.

    Having felt the insider pressure to conform and “keep quiet” after 9/11, when my school suddenly became filled with flags and all sorts of patriotic nonsense the teachers were expected to uphold, I know how challenging it is for the average teacher to try and raise up and examine in depth with their classes systemic issues like racism, classism, etc. Even if you manage to find the time (and good luck with that), you can do so only in a limited manner. Going beyond certain lines brings all sorts of fury from administrators, conservative activist parents, and sometimes even fellow teachers. I think that even folks who regularly work with public school teachers underestimate the pressure points in place to maintain the manufactured status quo of the day. Without significant outside support from their communities, most teachers just aren’t gonna risk going very far on these issues with their classes, no matter what desires are.

    To offer one answer to Dzung Vo’s question ” 1. “What can be done to improve the situation in which they are growing up?” When it comes to things like providing integrated mindfulness work that powerfully addresses social issues, there needs to be development of diverse, interdependent coalitions of groups that can offer all kinds of support, insights, and skills to everyone involved. Kids, parents, teachers, etc. Doing this really requires more risk taking on the part of various stakeholders, and finding creative ways to address material/financial needs in the process.

  • Jake G

    I am a regular reader of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship discussions and after thinking over Funie, Chris and Nathan’s positions I decided to add my two cents. I work in after school programs in Oakland and Berkeley and recently I saw projects on the wall at one south Berkeley elementary school that showed evidence of a program of breath awareness, calming and empathy which seems similar to the mindfulness curricula being discussed here. Upon seeing this I was excited, particularly about what I see as the socially transformative potential of this program, especially in neighborhoods which have a lot of youth violence. It seems like the short term impact on the individual kids has already been demonstrated by the study in Oakland cited by Funie. Nathan also agrees that the program has positive results. The question then becomes why not implement a program which we all agree benefits children; do the negatives really outweigh the benefits? The suggestion that a program like this must incorporate gentrification, the war on drugs and any numbers of issues is hard to swallow, maybe especially so for me as someone who works with young children where these discussions are hard enough on their own but could also really muddle curriculum that could otherwise be relatively straightforward. Also in my view when we’re talking about young kids at least, some areas in which the programs in Oakland were demonstrated effective like “showing care for others” and even “self-control” are the exact age-appropriate manifestation of social consciousness. Developing the basic empathy skills is an important precursor to caring about people you don’t know which underlies social conscience and spurns one to actions for the benefit of everyone. I think Chris offered a very reasonable analysis of why his program chose not to add a lot of social background the mindfulness curriculum (which I also appreciate acknowledged the limits of their particular approach) so I won’t belabor the point any further.

    The question Nathan posed “it always comes back to is work like this just propping up an unjust, oppressive, corrupt system, or is it a piece of breaking through that system and creating something much better?” opens up some disturbing implications for me. We could ask the same thing about free lunch programs. Are they just accommodating families to a fundamentally unjust system of distribution of food and other goods? Without the free meals kids get at school would their families organize for a more just economic system? To some extent the answers may be yes, but I would never use that as a reason to criticize someone for feeding a child. If we take the logic behind Nathan’s critique of the school mindfulness programs and apply it in a crude thoughtless way, we can end up in a very unfortunate Leninist kind of reasoning where almost anything that improves people’s lives under capitalism is bad because it delays the revolution (not that that’s what you were saying, Nathan). In my view we can’t wait until schools are willing to dedicate more classroom time to mindfulness or until they are willing to add a more radical social curriculum to give kids the benefits of these programs (and again everyone here agrees that there are benefits). You’re only a child once and if you miss this chance to develop good ways of relating to others, it can be much harder down the line. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I basically think we should celebrate the expansion of these programs (provided they continue to focus on relating to others and not just test score improvement), and add our suggestions for how they can be improved in a spirit that recognizes that our differences are sometimes small compared to our similarities.

    I would add that I think challenging the introduction of mindfulness in the military and corporate environments is appropriate, and very different from the school scenario. The Japanese Army demonstrated in WWII that Buddhist techniques of mental cultivation can be taught in support of the most heinous war crimes, and we should strenuously oppose these applications. But while the military and corporate programs (which are the focus of the McMindfulness article) by definition have to exclude full consideration for others as living beings with feelings, the school programs aren’t restrained in this way. As Chris points out (confirmed by my very limited observations at one local school) ethics in some form is generally part of the deal. That the Oakland study wanted to measure caring for others as one impact of the program shows that they consider this important. Thanks all for posting their thoughts.

  • David Forbes

    Funie, i very much appreciate your article. If you haven’t come across it you might be interested in reading mine, which shares a similar perspective:
    http://beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/982-occupy-mindfulness

  • Fran Orrok

    Funie, you clearly cite the compassion component in the mindfulness curriculum – “showing care for others”.

  • nathan

    @Jake ” I basically think we should celebrate the expansion of these programs (provided they continue to focus on relating to others and not just test score improvement), and add our suggestions for how they can be improved in a spirit that recognizes that our differences are sometimes small compared to our similarities.”

    The problem, as I see it, is that our differences are often not small, and tend to get glossed over because we have similar end points (i.e. things like the reduction or end of suffering). I understand your concern with my comment above, and I’d agree that something like free lunch programs shouldn’t be eliminated out of purist concerns such as it hinders the revolution coming. People need food to keep going. Children need food to develop into healthy adults. I’d also agree that relational skills are vital to being a thriving adult, and to the extent that mindfulness programs in schools foster this, that’s a benefit. But how much do they foster that, and how much do they foster skills that are useful in maintaining an orderly classroom?

    Here’s what I find hard to swallow. That programs given 30 minutes-1 hour a week in an environment that otherwise is often pretty hostile to well rounded learning, holistic development, and creativity are somehow going to make a major dent. It reminds me of the reading initiative that they brought into the elementary school I worked in. That providing a cart of books for kids to choose from and 20 minutes twice a week was going to dramatically increase reading skills. It’s not that the program didn’t help at all; it did. However, from my observation, the level of impact was far lower than what we were told it should be by the independent consultant team that ran it (and made good $50,000 from the district in the process).

    In my view, it might be wiser to spend much more time and energy developing more comprehensive programs that could offered in after school programs, or other such settings. At least until enough pressure can be put on the school districts to adopt more rigorous programs within the school day.

    What I find frustrating about these discussions sometimes is that “insiders” – those who are currently working in mindfulness programs – are really quick to a) uphold and defend what they view as “positives” and b) rush to the notion that we all want the same or similar outcomes. The reality is that there are often radically different understandings of education folks are coming from, which intimately impact what is valued as beneficial or not. There needs to be more acknowledgement of those differences.

  • Dzung Vo

    “Here’s what I find hard to swallow. That programs given 30 minutes-1 hour a week in an environment that otherwise is often pretty hostile to well rounded learning, holistic development, and creativity are somehow going to make a major dent.”

    In my experience working with mindfulness with children and youth, a lot of the benefit is not immediate, obvious, or concrete. So much of it is about planting seeds, and I sometimes see the flowers bloom many months later, in ways that are very surprising to me. These experiences have given me a lot of humility, a lot of faith / confidence in our young people, and reminded me to keep an open mind and not be to quick to decide whether something is “working” or “not working.”

    As just one example – I often introduce mindfulness in a clinical setting (I’m a pediatrician / adolescent medicine specialist) to a youth experiencing anxiety, pain, or other distress. I have heard on more than a few occasions, “Oh, I learned that in school, my teacher had a bell like that…. Yes, it has helped me, I’d like to learn more…” The seed that was planted in a limited school-based program (MindUP in Vancouver; or sometimes just a single passionate teacher who invites a mindfulness bell at the beginning of class), helped the youth to be open and interested in exploring mindfulness more deeply to help manage some serious health issues.

    I’ve also had youth in my groups, who for weeks appear (to me) to not be paying attention, on their smartphones or teasing their friend next to them as I’m trying to teach them how to meditate. I wonder, “Is this a waste of time? Is this youth getting anything out of this??” And then, they blow my mind weeks or months later with a story about how their practice has transformed them, transformed what would have been a very difficult or even explosive situation, given them a tool and confidence that they could handle something that they didn’t know that they could.

    Another question to consider in terms of mindfulness in schools: In starting to move a school towards mindfulness, in very small steps, what is the potential change in school culture? What are the benefits to the teachers and staff who are themselves starting to experience mindfulness? What happens when a dedicated teacher or school principal develops a passion for mindfulness in their own lives and in their school? What are the ripple effects? How do we measure these effects? (Are all of the benefits measurable?) And, how long do ripples take to reach the other shore?

    Of course many of us would love comprehensive programs, in schools, after-school programs, community centers, and health centers. These visions are not mutually exclusive, and in fact it appears to me that all of these things are starting to happen. Meeting people where they are at, means meeting people in many different settings and contexts. These can all be skillful means, and ways of opening more “dharma doors.”

    I hope that we can be a bit more humble, open-minded, and not too attached to our own ideas about what “works” and what “doesn’t work.” Let’s celebrate the growing scientific research around mindfulness, while at the same time recognizing the limits of science. (“Not everything that counts, can be counted.”) Let’s continue to plant seeds of mindfulness with joy, without being too attached to a specific kind of flower blooming in a specific way and time. And, let’s also continue our work towards changing the soil itself – moving society and social conditions towards more justice, equity, and peace.

    Let’s all dream big. And, let’s not wait for the situation to be “perfect” before we begin. Let’s also all take one small step, starting from where we are at, and where society is at, right now. At my recent retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, his message to the social justice activists was: You don’t have to do everything. Do one thing, with all your heart, that is enough.

  • Jake G

    @Nathan
    I don’t want to paper over differences, but when you say “The problem, as I see it, is that our differences are often not small, and tend to get glossed over because we have similar end points (i.e. things like the reduction or end of suffering)” at the risk of the obvious irony, I agree. To me pointing out that we OFTEN have big differences is compatible with my assertion that “…our differences are SOMETIMES small compared to our similarities.” I feel like we agree that sometimes people teach mindfulness to youth in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with the kinds of ethics espoused at BPF, but since not all mindfulness programs in schools are destructive to building social consciousness, the basic question for me becomes “Should I approach new programs I hear about with a sense of openness to the possibilities, or with a prejudice that most of these programs are just efficiency tools that support the status quo?” Now I get how if someone has been in this field maybe they’re so drowning in mcmindfulness bullshit that it seems self-evident that this is the dominant trend in youth mindfulness education. But I feel like Funie’s article didn’t really share any anecdotal evidence from her experience as a teacher or a grad student or anything to give me (as someone not immersed in the youth mindfulness field) a feeling for it. In contrast, the study Funie cited on the effects of Oakland’s mindfulness program (including increased “caring for others”) is a direct piece of evidence that gives us insight into what the impact of these programs is; to me it is weighty enough that since nobody seems to dispute it, it places the burden on the critics to demonstrate that there is harm from the program that outweighs the demonstrated benefits (at least in the particular case of the Oakland program, if not on these programs in general).

    Considering that the Mindful Schools program in Oakland schools was the only specific example of a youth mindfulness program referred to in the article and that their graphic was used, I’m not surprised that someone from the org decided to respond. I imagine if someone posted something that strongly criticized BPF’s views and strategies or those of another group whose work you are deeply committed to, then you or someone else in the org would want to write as clear and reasoned a response as you could. I know if I saw something like this with Berkeley Copwatch or some other group whose vision I believe in and have worked for, I would want to do this. And when I read Chris’ letter I don’t read knee-jerk defensiveness, I read an invitation to dialogue, an openness to the limits of the group’s programs and a frankness about the kinds of tradeoffs that were made and why. And this leads me back to my point above about how a difference in our approach is that you assume these programs will probably be bad, whereas I feel like I’m open to evidence about where a particular program is coming from: When I read Chris’ letter I note (along with the content) that Chris has worked with Books not Bars (likely prison abolitionist or at least familiar with that outlook), thinks the program goes best when coupled with restorative justice, can already direct you to people who do incorporate social justice directly into their mindfulness curriculum, uses movement buzzwords like “nonprofit industrial complex” AND is dedicated to teaching mindfulness to underprivileged youth. I don’t know where you’re getting the sense that this is someone whose views are fundamentally incompatible with those generally espoused at BPF, but that’s not what I see. Now I don’t know at all how much Chris is representative of the people staffing Mindful Schools or the values of the organization itself, but I don’t feel like we should assume the worst of this program. Again I basically feel like to you because these programs are OFTEN bad this one probably is, whereas to me they are SOMETIMES good so I should be open to the potential benefits as well as open to evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong with this program.

    “Here’s what I find hard to swallow. That programs given 30 minutes-1 hour a week in an environment that otherwise is often pretty hostile to well rounded learning, holistic development, and creativity are somehow going to make a major dent.” To me this is the perfect example of a difference of opinion that is not one about fundamental values, but a narrow pragmatic question: How much time is needed to be impact youth with a mindfulness program? Now my hunch seems to lean towards 30 minutes a week having more impact than you do, but I don’t want to dwell on this because we’re both just making guesses extrapolating from our own unrelated experience with young people (unlike Chris and Dzung Vo, maybe Funie but she didn’t share this experience). What I want to emphasize is how this is an instrumental question, not one of fundamental values and to me no matter what someone’s answer is it doesn’t in itself justify throwing around language like “McMindfulness” “wrong mindfulness” or “propping up an unjust, oppressive, corrupt system.” The question of whether it is better to offer a program that can reach as many youth as possible or to make it as complete as possible and reach fewer children, is likewise an instrumental question even if our answers reflect our priorities it doesn’t necessarily indicate a huge gap in fundamental values.

    Finally I want to put my foot in my mouth about the use of “you’re only a child once” which clearly demonstrates that I haven’t internalized the traditional Buddhist understanding of reincarnation. I’m a bit embarrassed and I hope I didn’t offend. I don’t think the general trend at BPF would be to use reincarnation as a reason to delay social action, so I hope everyone took it in the spirit intended. When it comes to Buddhism I know I have a lot to learn which is why I haven’t joined in any conversations up to now even though this site often gives me interesting things to reflect upon in my struggle for coherence between my long-held radical social outlooks and my more new-found interest in Buddhism. Thank you all for contributing to these thought-provoking conversations (which I’m sure is the least of what folks so dedicated to the well-being of the planet deserve to be thanked for but there it is).

  • nathan

    Jake, it would be more accurate to say that my general response to mindfulness programs is skeptical. I don’t automatically assume they are bad or junk. But what comes to mind are the feel good trends and commentary that tends to be associated with McMindfulness. Also, I am coming from the position of having a resume litered with teaching experience across the age spectrum in a variety of settings. I also have incorporated yoga postures, meditation and mindfulness teachings into classes with both children and adults. I have firsthand experience of students reporting benefits the way Dzung Vo speaks of above.

    One of the things that concerns me about appeals to the scientific research being done on mindfulness is that it’s not taking into account social context. Most of the reasearchers seem to folks already excited about mindfulness and predisposed to focusing on health benefits and intra-personal relationship skills. Furthermore, there’s an increasing amout of funding for these studies coming from corporations and foundations with a vested interest in getting certain outcomes. There really doesn’t seem to be a corresponding trend to examine possible shadow or negative elements in mindfulness programs. And what is being done on that front won’t be getting largescale, corporate funding.

    When I spoke of knee jerk reactions from mindfulness community folks, I was thinking of various conversations I have been in. Including a few in my home sangha. I actually think Chris’s response was pretty fair. Much more open to discussion than many others I have witnessed.

    As far as the instrumental issue (which you (and I think Dzung Vo) rightly pointed out is such) of time in the classroom, my experience with kids – especially younger kids- is that it depends upon the conditions of the class and student make up. It’s easy to eat up 15-30 min sessions dealing with discipline issues, reactions of boredom, and the like. Which obviously might diminish if some of the wisdom of the teachings is absorbed by the same kids. Even when I taught Buddhist Sunday school at my sangha, with groups of kids who generally got along well with each other and respected the classroom teachers, it was still hit or miss as to how much time we spent offering lessons, and how much was spent on basic classroom management. I see the most impact on kids who were in that program for years, where the repetition and exposure to different approaches to the same material were able to sink in. Certainly, there are always examples of kids who “get it” and start applying it after minimal exposure. But I think we overemphasize those stories because they are surprising, gratifying, and demonstrate that you never know what will come from seeds planted. But as a gardener, I also know that the seeds which are watered more regularly and in soil that has been cared for tend to do better than seeds just put into the ground without any other support.

    It would be interesting to hear from Funie on all these reactions and also if she has found any critical research worth sharing. I sometimes feel like these discussions mirror the ones that have been happening with “positive psychology” where criticism is often bucking against human desires for happiness and convictions that the theories and programs in question are the answer to how to live happily. Which makes it all the harder to bring up questions and criticisms, because it feels on a visceral level for some – to be an attack on happiness itself. Or on well being, positivity, etc. I don’t see this really operating in the comments here, but when I think of other conversations I have been in, this seems to be in play.

  • Chris McKenna

    Hey gang:

    Dzung: I just noticed you on this thread. Was just hanging out with Sam the other day wondering how you were. Are you still in Vancouver?

    Jake/Nathan: Thanks for the lively discussion. I want to say at the outset that I’m not an advocate for whitewashing differences (this was brought up in one comment about how these discussions go down generally) – it is 100% okay with me if we leave this discussion with extreme differences of opinion. However, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I suspect (as Jake hinted at) that we agree on many things and disagree on a few things.

    Three topics come to mind in reading the comments:

    1. Nuances around program design and delivery.

    Re the whole “is 15 minutes really worth it?” thing, let’s first just admit that “dosage” around youth mindfulness programs is a totally unsettled issue (this is also true, in my opinion, of adult mindfulness research exempting studies of long-term meditators). However, I think we can say a few things.
    First, even if I had all the human/financial/curriculum resources needed to design “my perfect school,” I’m not sure we’d be doing more than 15 minutes of mindfulness at time in an elementary school setting.

    In the beginning, it can be useful for classroom teachers and school social workers to get a “cookie-cutter” curriculum. Ultimately though, my theory of implementation centers around supporting classroom teachers and school-based mental health professionals in having an actual practice. For those working with younger kids, the shift that is going to happen in their nervous system and their ability to attune to the youth they work with through practice is (in my view) going to have a much greater affect than the top-down implementation of some random SEL curriculum.

    From a ground of personal practice, I’ve seen many teachers very naturally and organically begin to experiment with teaching mindfulness techniques in short, simple and creative ways. This kind of implementation focuses on short moments of mindfulness, repeated in uncontrived ways frequently throughout the day. For nursery school —> tween, my experience is that this method (combined with a few longer lessons on key concepts) represents a really promising model.

    In the transition to adolescence (and as youth begin to individuate more), the spectrum of options opens up a lot more. In that case, I agree with Nathan that some of the most exciting work is not happening within the school day. Indeed, much of the curriculum development work I have done has been for the after-school or youth mental health environment. In these cases, the amount of sitting per session may not be much longer than 15-20 minutes. What changes (in say a 90 minute class) is your ability to circle up with youth and really unpack shit that is happening in their lives and communities.

    I also agree with Nathan that the long-term relationship is really what is causing change, not “time-specific interventions.” In looking at all the adolescent mental health research, this is one of the few true statements you can make. This is exactly why so much of my current focus is “practicing” with peers who have made long-term commitments to youth in different settings.

    2. Problems Around The Current Research Paradigm

    Here I think I’m solidly in the Nathan camp re the uncritical reception of studies/data. It is another extremely double-edged sword in my professional life. On the one hand, I believe deeply in collecting data on things. The problem is that I’ve worked almost exclusively in environments where getting “advanced research designs” is difficult. Nobody ever wants to discuss the cherry-picking that goes on when people seek to “validate” programs. There were a lot of “inconclusives” with the last round of Mindful Schools research. The one thing I am proud of was that it was done with almost no money in the schools where we actually work (not in some boarding school in Connecticut). In my previous work, some of the best data we (mbaproject.org) got doing mindfulness work in juvenile hall was qualitative in nature: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-3588.2011.00647.x/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

    This is the kind of data that is often mocked by university researchers but is actually most useful to me in improving how and what I’m teaching. Youth will tell you when shit sucks!

    So there is an enormous shadow to the dominance of pharmaceutical-style models of research. This is also true of the ways neuroscience is being appropriated. I find myself simultaneously excited by neuroscience and hyper-critical of the ways it is being used to justify various programs and policies. When I talk to actual neuroscientists, most of them agree that “the case is being overstated.”

    See especially Willoughby Britton’s talk “Mindful Binge Drinking and Blobology”: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2012/10/bg-266-mindful-binge-drinking-and-blobology/

    Also http://www.critical-neuroscience.org/

    3. The tension between direct service work and work for structural/systemic change

    I read Nathan’s basic challenge as “am I just managing the deck chairs on the titanic?”

    I admit uncertainty.

    Like many people I know, I have a simultaneous attraction to direct service work with under-served populations, and to activism around structural change. The last 5 years I’ve been focusing much more on the former, but that was after a period of heavy time, energy and resources going to the more structural social justice side of things. My position on how to balance these two areas is not static; I may still conclude that aspects of my direct service career were not as useful as I would have hoped.

  • nathan

    Chris, I wish there were more folks in the mindfulness field that examined and really dug into the issues here the way you are doing. It seems rare. I’d like to think that maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough, but even the folks I know who are both active Buddhist practitioners and also mindfulness program instructors aren’t really considering all these things. Especially the issues around research. It’s so tempting to just allow confirmation bias to run amok. Even I sometimes fall on emphasizing too heavily “positives” with folks who don’t know much about meditation or mindfulness practices in particular. It’s more exciting to say something will bring dramatic improvement to your life than to say it probably helps, but we don’t know how much and there are numerous variables to consider.

    “Ultimately though, my theory of implementation centers around supporting classroom teachers and school-based mental health professionals in having an actual practice. For those working with younger kids, the shift that is going to happen in their nervous system and their ability to attune to the youth they work with through practice is (in my view) going to have a much greater affect than the top-down implementation of some random SEL curriculum.” I wonder how common this approach is. In another discussion about mindfulness, I brought up the issue in the American yoga world of having numerous newly minted “teachers” who have only a minimal amount of personal practice experience. In addition to the questions about social justice, there’s also this quality issue which your approach – from what I see – seeks to address. And something I think is lacking elsewhere. How many of these folks, especially those going into the corporate world, are coming from a place of having done a handful of mindfulness workshops that they parlayed into a consulting gig?

    One last point is that there’s a wisdom in moving between direct service, systemic change activism, and more contemplative periods of life when possible. I
    also think that finding ways to bring all of these elements together wherever you are is also pretty key. In some ways, the back and forth with mindfulness is – to me – about calling for an integration of sorts.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi all! Just want to clarify that Ms. Hsu did not choose the Mindful Schools image as an illustration; I included it as just one example of a publicized program advertising its work on mindfulness with students of color.

    Her observations and questions were not meant to single out or target any individual programs (as she mentions none by name in the piece), but I can understand how the accompanying image implies this, and I apologize for the confusion. As many of the comments point out, this seems to be a topic that resonates across an entire field, not just one or two individual programs.

    Thank you for this very illuminating and thoughtful discussion!

  • Dzung Vo

    I just read something by Thich Nhat Hanh, that helps me to hold this entire conversation with more equanimity:

    “Q: As part of your North American tour, you’re going to meet with the CEO’s of some leading technology companies. What do you think of business leaders and employees learning meditation?

    Thich Nhat Hanh: We don’t have to worry whether meditation is being misused to make money. Meditation can only do good. It doesn’t just help you calm your own suffering. It also gives you more insight into yourself and the world. If your business is causing environmental problems and you practice meditation, you may have ideas about how to conduct your business in such a way that you will harm nature less. When you experience the wisdom brought about by meditation, then naturally you want to conduct your business in a way that will make the world suffer less.

    So don’t worry about whether meditation is serving a wrong cause. It can change a wrong cause to a good cause.”

    (Shambhala Sun, January 2014)

  • Jeff

    As much as I love and respect Thich Nhat Hanh, Doc, I hesitate to fully endorse this view. Although Buddhist meditation would seem more compatible with “good causes” than wrong ones, we have ample evidence over the last century than it can easily abide with either. Zen warriors are perfectly capable of rape in Nanking, Burmese monks of inciting genocide, and Hong Kong Buddhist billionaires of mercilessly exploiting shipyard workers.

    The paths to enlightenment in just about every spiritual tradition – meditation, prayer, devotion, faith, good works – can be passionately (if selectively) avowed by any of its adherents, whether of the right wing, militarized persuasion or the peaceful, compassionate variety. I have not been too impressed with meditation or any other spiritual practice isolated from politically conscious collective activity leading to clarity on social justice issues or to a lessening of world suffering.

    That’s not to say that CEO’s shouldn’t meditate or that protesters shouldn’t sit outside Goldman Sachs. Just don’t expect that a few corporate honchos who gain wisdom will be able change the nature of the Beast that owns them. Global capitalism has a driving imperative that is quite independent of the charity of individual capitalists – those who don’t excel at the Game will have correspondingly less influence.

    Can Thich Nhat Hanh, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and other progressive spiritual leaders succeed in persuading enough world business ballers and political shot callers to slow down their mad race for profits and power at the expense of the Earth and its people, to put a “human face” on capitalism? Can unfolding ethics trump deeply ingrained material interests? Personally, I’m not overly optimistic given the accelerating pace of impoverishment and climate destruction, but I do agree that it probably won’t hurt – as long as we don’t hope for a revolution from the top down. A lot of things will have to happen before we can build a better society, and weakening the Greed Machine from within is certainly one of them. Hopefully most of us will still be pushing hard from below.

  • Cynthia Schroeder

    Well-written and encouraging due to the reality-based approach.

  • Bobbi Allan

    This a very, very late entry into this conversation, so maybe nobody will see this. Here goes anyway….

    The previous posts are a very thorough and useful discussion of the mindfulness in schools programs. One point has been missed, I think. Where do our human systems originate? I’m referring to our many and varied human systems of social organisation, of government, of religion, of health, education, war, economics….and so on….that we want to change. They start nowhere else but in the human heart-mind.

    In the mindfulness in schools programs I teach – yes the three minutes of mindfulness, three or four times a day version – the children learn to recognise ‘kind’ mind and ‘unkind’ mind. An unkind mind is one that is critical / judgemental / harsh towards oneself or others. A kind mind is gentle to itself, empathic and caring of others, and treats differences with interest and respect. Teachers tell me they are seeing kinder interactions between their students and, interestingly, some creative ways of settling disputes that might previously have led to violence.

    With each kind mind, we grow a kinder school community, and eventually kinder societies. That is systemic change. Kindness is a strong foundation for building socially and environmentally just systems.

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