The Mindful Schools Two-Step: A Dangerous Path, but for Whom?

In a blog post for the Huffington Post’s Education section Candy Gunther Brown, PhD, suggests that secular mindfulness meditation practices in the public school system should be treated similarly to theistic prayer practices in the public schools. Insofar as those theistic practices are forbidden, so should the Buddhist practices, no matter the name by which you call them. I am deeply sympathetic to her suggestion, even though I myself am both a public school teacher and an ordained lay Dharma teacher. But Dr. Brown’s rhetoric around the matter is misleading, partly because the people promoting these secularized practices are themselves confused about what they are saying and doing.

To clear some of these muddy waters, let’s start with an analogy that we are all familiar with, whether we are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Satanist, Secularist, or Nihilist: walking. Most of us walk, some of us more than others, and some of us not all that much. Some of us not at all because of disabilities or other features of our bodies that push us to move in other ways, and I do not mean to exclude you from this conversation, so please substitute your method of travel for walking in the following discussion. For those of us that walk, the following should sound familiar.

Starting at point A, you move one leg in front of the other and repeat until you reach point B.

OK – now that walking is established, let’s ask: should we ban walking from public schools? (And to be clear, I will have the Lemon Test, a supreme court established test to check whether a practice counts as overly religious, in the back of my mind while writing this.) Probably not. One can walk with any frame of mind, and so there is nothing religious or non-religious about walking. Let the walkers walk, I say.

The analogy so far is not apt because I have not discussed teaching walking in the schools. In fact, there are many reasons to teach walking at school. Sometimes, when reading a particular kind of novel where a character has a swagger, it might be useful to teach students how to walk like the character so they really get into the story’s world. In Physical Education, you could teach racewalking, which is a particular form of walking that is also an Olympic sport. In math, you could devise a way of walking that teaches binary numbers and call it ‘binary walking’ and have a blast geeking out with your students. In any of these cases, it seems like we should not prohibit walking at school. Let the Supremes have a break from dealing with these walking shenanigans.

Now suppose you are at a school and your students are just bumping into one another left and right. They walk into the halls and next thing you know books, papers, notes, and soda are all over the floor. It would be wise to start a school-wide program that teaches students how to walk and pay attention to their walking at the same time. (This is not unlike teaching a sport where you have to teach a student to both perform the action and be aware of the action at the same time. It is also similar to any meta-cognitive practice in more academic classrooms.) Should this be banned? Should the Supremes be called on the red phone and asked whether they smell a lemon? No, surely not. We are talking safety for the students and less work for the janitors. There is nothing religious here, just good old fashioned meta-cognitive walking.

But what about the fact that Christians and Buddhists alike – I don’t mean to exclude the Hindus, Satanists, and Nihilists on this one, I just don’t know how they teach walking – in some contexts teach meta-cognitive walking? They teach practices that involve walking and being aware of one’s walking at the same time. And when that awareness fades, there are practices for bringing that awareness back to one’s walking. This seems like what the school is doing. That’s lemon walking for sure, one might say. Not so fast. This is where vocabulary and concepts matter. Before you go and cry lemon, make sure you actually get that sour taste in your mouth first.

Just because two acts appear formally similar, or functionally similar, doesn’t mean they are the same act. The intentions hidden behind the act matter. And with this comes the concepts under which the act is initiated and the purposes for which the act is performed. Meta-cognitive walking – walking with awareness of one’s walking and in order to be safe in the halls – is not religious walking, whether Buddhist or Christian. There are no spiritual concepts involved here and no spiritual goals. Just personal and community well-being. And if that is religious, then all of public school is religious, but that is for another conversation.

Christian and Buddhist walking is, in some contexts, done using spiritual concepts to conceive of one’s act and for spiritual purposes. If this kind of walking is taught in the public schools, then we have a problem for both the Christian and the Buddhist (and whatever religion is trying to sneak their goods onto our feet). The key claim here is that vocabulary, concepts, and intentions matter for making this distinction. Since we can’t tell what goes on in a student’s mind when they walk (thank you, whoever or whatever brought us about, for that opacity), then it really matters what concepts and vocabulary we use when teaching our walking practices because that gives us some evidence of what the students will be thinking. As long as those concepts and vocabulary are religion free, then put away that Lemon Test for another day.

Let’s cut to the chase on my disagreement with Dr. Brown. She suggests that mindfulness practices should be prohibited because they are religion in disguise. She says that even though different words are used to describe the practice, religion is still afoot and so suggests that the practices should be banned alongside school prayer. She is wrong about this. The vocabulary does matter. When students are taught calming practices, breathing practices, or other stress reducing practices using words that are not religious (and the really sticky part here is that the term ‘mindfulness’ is both a secular term and a religious term of art, so just because it is used doesn’t mean we have religion in our midst), then the practices pass the Lemon Test and are OK for school consumption. Yes, there are those misguided celebrities and teachers out there that are trying to sneak their Buddhism into the classroom, but that is not part of the test. The test is about what actually gets taught. And as long as what gets taught is religion free, then the students are not being coerced into religion. Sorry Dr. Brown – there is a huge difference between prayer and the practices you talk about, and whereas prayer ought to be prohibited, the practices you mention, if taught in a non-religious way, should not.

Now, for our agreement and to those misguided celebrities and teachers. Remember I said I was an ordained Buddhist teacher (and high school teacher) and I take the Buddhist path seriously. One part of our path is noble speech or right speech or truthful speech. Basically, it is not to be sneaky about our speech. Not being sneaky means not being deceptive, not intentionally lying, not fooling others, and so on. There is no secret here. If it feels sneaky, then it most likely is. Furthermore, the teachings around morality and cause and effect, sometimes called the teachings of Karma, tell me (and perhaps only me) that I am responsible for my sneakiness. If I talk in a sneaky way, then that talk has downstream effects on me as well as those that I speak to. If I intentionally hide the Buddhist practice and teach it under a different set of concepts, I have to ask why am I doing this. Why am I being sneaky? Maybe the person I am teaching wouldn’t want to learn if I mentioned the path to them. Don’t I need to respect this? You bet I do!

And this is where I think I agree with Dr. Brown, although it has nothing to do with the public schools. I think we are both upset that people are taking religious practices and using them to serve their own ends. The Buddhist enthusiasts today are trying to get Buddhism into the school under different names. And as a Buddhist I can only raise an eyebrow or two at their misguidedness. This strikes me as sneaky and although the Buddha never said it directly, I am pretty sure he intended us not to be sneaky in our words, actions, and thoughts. We Buddhists (well, we human beings really) need to investigate our intentions and our actions and take a good hard look at whether we are acting in accord with the Buddha’s path (or just a path of basic goodness or fairness). Teach students to be aware of their emotions, their breathing, their walking, and so on. This is good for all of us. But do so (and intend to do so) in a non-religious way or do not do it at all. For those of us Buddhists trying to sneak the religion into the classroom without being transparent about it, well, the Buddha surely gave a Lemon test somewhere in the Sutras and I am pretty sure what is being pushed ain’t no lemonade.


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