Meditation in Schools?

Monday August 6, 2007


It probably won’t come as a great surprise that I’m not really a regular reader of the California Catholic Daily but the following article recently caught my eye. The article concerns the teaching of meditation and mindfulness techniques in schools, and asks whether meditation should be taught in publicly funded schools in the US. No doubt many committed Buddhists might all agree that, yes, meditation should be taught in schools – and everywhere else – because it is a Very Good Thing. I, however, am not so sure, but probably for different reasons than the California Catholic Herald.

I do not in principle think that teaching meditation in schools is a bad thing, it is just that there would need to be a great deal of thought, and a great number of changes, before anything like this was introduced. The problem is, that often proponents of meditation in schools – or proponents of meditation in general – are playing two hands at once. On the one hand, they are saying, “Look, this is a secular practice. We’re just watching our breath. It takes no special beliefs of any kind.” Yet on the other hand, they are often committed to a whole raft of obscure articles of faith that, although they are not formally taught as a part of such secular meditation practices, nevertheless inform them. This double-handed game is a precarious business, and is no doubt partly what makes the California Catholic Herald jittery. It is understandable that this should be so: they fear that meditation may act as a trojan horse for all kinds of crazy ideas, but – as good Catholics – they are inevitably attached to their own sets of equally crazy, but sadly incompatible, ideas.

In the UK, this is complicated by the fact that education is not secular in the first place (nothing is, in fact, for in the UK the church and state are still hitched together). The British government have an incomprehensible fondness for religious schools, or – because it sounds more cuddly – “faith schools”, believing them to be essential to the development of a just and ethical society, and I believe – although I haven’t checked this – that a communal act of worship is still mandatory in UK schools, however loosely this is interpreted. Such an environment is already one in which are played precisely these same double-handed games as are played by at least some of the advocates of apparently secular meditation: on the one hand the assertion of broadly human values; and on the other the commitment to bafflingly strange and partisan claims about the world.

Such two-handed games are unsatisfactory. Even if we had a non-religious education system (which would be good, I think), we would still need more research before introducing meditation. And it is no good claiming that there has been plenty of research into meditation within the Buddhist traditions. Yes, there has been plenty of practice of meditation, but what is needed is evidence-based scientific research. It may be the case that Dorje Logjam, for example, has been meditating in a Himalayan cave for fifteen or fifty years. He may have many virtues. He may have a radiant smile. He may know an awful lot about meditation. His brain might do clever things when we put him in the lab. But if he then starts talking about rainbow bodies1 and suchlike, then we may think that he has a less firm grasp upon other realities than would be ideal.

Of course, some may say that in the end the kind of context in which Dorje Logjam is working is essential. Science will in the end give way to a new Buddhist understanding of the world. Quantum physics is often invoked here, because it has the virtue – like the talk of rainbow bodies – of sounding impressive and being largely incomprehensible to most of us. But if we don’t hanker after such a Buddhist theocracy (and I really don’t), and if we want to teach meditation as a secular practice, then it is necessary to leave this context to one side and to ask afresh whether meditation is something that we might want to introduce into our education system. And this requires a lot of hard, empirical research, a thorough investigation of what meditation actually does – not anecdotally, but systematically, and not on Dorje Logjam’s own terms, but on terms that make sense within the society in which it is proposed that this meditation is taught.

As it is, we simply don’t know enough. Does meditation work for everyone? If so, what kind of meditation? Does it have dangers? What training is necessary for somebody who is to teach it? What is the purpose of meditation? Does it have undesirable side-effects? Once again, committed Buddhists may dismiss these questions. But they are worth asking. It is not good enough to say “It works for me”, because we are not all alike. It is not good enough to say “Dorje Logjam says…” because relying upon this kind of authority is not really a substitute for empirical work. What we need before introducing such things into our education system is a systematic and non-partisan study. But first, I think, we need an education system that is truly secular.


1 Wikipedia has the following on the topic. “The rainbow body or Jalü or Jalus (Wylie ‘ja’ lus) in the Tibetan language, is the physical mastery state of Dzogchen of the Nyingmapa Mantrayana and the Bönpo where the trikaya is in accord and the nirmanakaya is congruent with bodymind and the integrity of the mindstream (the heartmind) is realised as Dharmakaya. The corporeal body of the realised Dzogchenpa which is now hallowed, returns to the pure primordial energetic essence-quality of the Five Pure Lights of the five elemental processes of which it is constituted through the Bardo of Mahasamadhi. This is then projected as the mindstream through the process of phowa…” So, now you know. If, however, you remain puzzled, Dorje Logjam will be pleased to answer your queries.

# · nlg108

Haven’t you read the growing body of literature concerning mindfulness based stress reduction and other such completely secular meditation techniques? There has already been plenty of scientific research about meditation, none of it regarding monks in caves. Decades of it, in fact. You make some interesting points, but WADR as I read it I had to wonder if perhaps you’ve been in a bit of a vacuum the last 15-20 years, because you don’t acknowledge any of that at all.

It has nothing to do with rainbow bodies, which I agree would be a bit preposterous in terms of advocating for introduction into a public school curriculum. But the literature has demonstrated quite strongly the immense health benefits, and indeed benefits to clarity of thought, concentration, steadiness of mind, dealing with disruptive emotions, and a whole host of things that would without question benefit kids (and people of all ages). None of this research is putting forward any sort of Buddhist agenda at all, and in fact, when I took such a MBSR course many years ago, the teacher expressly discouraged any discussion of topics that verged into Buddhism or any other spirituality or philosophy.

I would just like to know whether perhaps you were not aware of all of this when you wrote this post, or whether there are other practical reasons why you don’t mention any of it.

# · Will

Yes, there is a growing body of literature on the effects of meditation, and this can only be a good thing. But I think that the questions I have raised – does it work for everyone? are there potentially adverse side-effects? what kind of meditation, in particular, works? what is the purpose of meditation in non-religious settings? – are still open to debate, and the whole thing is far too much in its infancy for there to be any systematic public programme. After all, there is research (although, I think, rather less research) claiming that prayer has beneficial effects as well.

I should say here that I have personal experience of the benefits of meditation, and I have seen the benefits in others, and I am also aware of at least some of the research – it is a big field, and it would be hard to keep up with it all. I’ve also participated in some of it, cheerfully submitting to having electrodes glued to my head for the sake whilst I sit in meditation. Despite all of this, I don’t see that there is the kind of thoroughgoing consensus that would be needed to start rolling out meditation in schools.

The complexity of the area is demonstrated by the controversy a couple of years ago when the Society for Neuroscience invited the Dalai Lama to talk, leading to a petition of protest from a large number of scientists. I blogged on this at the time, but, briefly, it seems that for many in the scientific community, these questions about the benefits of meditation are far from resolved, and there is a legitimate concern that there may be a hijacking of science for other ends. Certainly it seems as if the Dalai Lama’s position – by necessity if not by choice – is very much the kind of two-handed position that I have referred to, and my sympathies are to some extent with those who signed the petition. After all, on the one hand the Dalai Lama speaks of the importance of scientific knowledge, and on the other hand he seeks advice from the Nechung oracle.

So it seems to me that the waters are still a bit on the murky side and we are some way from an understanding of the whys and wherefores of a secular meditation programme that might be ready for the prime-time in our educational institutions. There are two tasks that, I think, remain so far incomplete. First that of research, and second that of developing a systematic, research-based approach to practice.

Granted, the first of these is progressing, and the MBSR folks may have already done an admirable job in moving in the direction of the second – and I must say that this seems a direction well worth moving in (MBSR is something I’ve been interested in exploring further). But it seems to me premature to say that all the evidence is in or that we are there yet. And certainly in the UK, as here – with our schooling still profoundly tangled up with the idea of religion – the scope for confusion is vast.

Then again, we may both be barking up the wrong tree in looking for a secular approach to meditation in the first place. As the New Scientist reported in 2005…

Amy Wachholtz of Bowling Green State University in Ohio […] says that spiritual meditation brings more than just deeper relaxation. “It is also likely that there is something unique inherent in the practice of spiritual meditation that cannot be completely conveyed through secular meditation and relaxation,” she says, but admits that she doesn’t know what it is.

Where that leaves us, I do not know. Thanks for the comment.

Best wishes,


# · Sam

Of course research, study and planning would need to be carried out before the introduction of meditation teaching in schools. I do feel however that scientific study, research and investigation often tends to proove what we all knew anyway. It was just obvious. Sometimes there is a news item on the BBC along the lines of, “New research has found links between stuffing oneself with burgers whilst sitting on the couch all day watching TV and obesity”. Well, of course. And of course short, simple meditation taught in schools will be of benefit, if only to calm the kids down a bit!

# · Elee

I have no experience of this myself, but I’m interested to know… in other people’s experience, which children tend to benefit the most from meditation? Is it children who are stressed about work? is it hyperactive children? does it have any effect on children who are already fairly calm and well balanced? what about children who have suffered bullying or been abused? does it help them, or does focusing on what’s inside their heads make things worse for them? Would it be better for some children to be taught meditation, but not others, or for some children to do more than others? At what age should they start? Also, how long do they need to do it for? what, in the school curriculum should it replace (assembly? PHSE? PE? RE? etc…)?

Has anyone taught meditation in schools, or to young people? It’s a very interesting question!

# · sally

Their should be concern for T.M. in the schools. check out whats really behind it at this web address.

there is so much more then this, on different web address. including maharishis’ saying he is the true God and calling for his followers to start training young school age children. David Lynch is one of them! As well as his military plan.

# · Sam

Hi Elee and all,

I don’t have any experience of teaching meditation to children and yes, I think it would be wise to consult such people. I also think that all the questions you raise would need to be investigated. Overall though, my feeling, my inclination, is that simple, secular meditation is beneficial and I’d go so far as to say that it’s not only something that school children would benefit from but that the whole human race would benefit from.

My own experience of meditation has taught me primarily that I do not know my own mind. By that I mean: most of the time, I am not CONCIOUS of what’s going on there. Meditation increases the awareness of one’s own thoughts (which seem to come from nowhere – I do not initiate them). We spend most of our lives operating unconsciously and thought patterns ‘run the show’. It might be possible to do experiments or research on the effects of meditation, but science can never penetrate the realm of personal experience, that is the experience of being (or seeming to be). I suppose you could say that in meditation you are experimenting on yourself? Still, one’s EXPERIENCE of being in the world is entirely personal, cannot be felt by anyone else and words can’t even do it justice. It’s MAGICAL, amazing, just being here, like Will has said! Zen practice in particular – meticulous, conscious attention – is like a kind of science in its own right. It’s not science as we normally think of it but it is a kind of investigation. And one that is impossibly complex to break up into individual bits of data. How can I put into words the wonder and breadth of even one second’s experience?

But back to the question. Will asks: “Does meditation work for everyone?” What does “work” mean in this context? In Buddhist terms it might mean the development of wisdom and compassion. How could we possibly quantify this (or even define the terms)? Likewise, if there are possible, hazardous side-effects, how could we decide what they are, and prove that they were an effect of meditation? We are talking about human beings and their lives. To me it seems very difficult to get any kind of conclusive proof.

I think that the SPIRIT of INVESTIGATION is the priority in meditation and not the potential effects. Do we want to see or do we want to remain in the fog?? Ah, but perhaps this kind of enquiry into one’s own mind isn’t appropriate for children? I suggest that we could use an alternative word to “meditation”. We could offer our students Quiet Relaxation where they pay gentle attention to the breath and the body, for example. As a very straightforward, practical exercise this surely would be helpful to the vast majority, particularly in the middle of the hectic school day? I did just this kind of exercise myself when I was at secondary school and I remember the class being quiet and peaceful.

# · Sean

I believe it to be incredibly beneficial to students, and our society, for many very scientific reasons:
1) Breath (specifically breath) Meditation has been shown to thicken the brain with an increase in the Glial Cell count in the neocortex. This scaffold-like cell in the brain is actually a 2ndary chemical computational network, and in fact, these cells are what were abnormally high in Einstein’s brain (I will post references below).

2) Also, meditation improve concentration, which is very needed in our ADD-ridden society.

3) It makes a calm rational mind ready for investigation and learning.

None of this has anything to do with religious overtones, and there is hard science to back the cognitive enhancements behind the practice.


# · Will

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Sam. I have to say that I agree with you that perhaps Quiet Relaxation rather than meditation might work well.
All best wishes,

# · Will

Oh, and thanks, Sean, as well. Sorry, your comment was swallowed by the over-zealous spam filter as you added a number of (useful!) links. I’ll try to moderate the filter’s zeal in future.
But the links are appreciated.
Best wishes,

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