The need for critical social mindfulness in schools

Mindfulness has huge potential in transforming education, but not if it’s only used as stress relief for students.

David Forbes
20 October 2019, 8.12pm
Mindfulness class at Sun Valley School, 2016
Flickr/Sun Valley Group of Schools. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“Our children need mindfulness in schools,” Brooklyn’s Borough President and mindfulness enthusiast, Eric Adams, declared on Meditation Day, September 12 2019, to a crowd of educators, students and the public in front of Borough Hall. “They need it as a wellness skill to help them cope with their stressful, often traumatic lives.”

No doubt many school children do undergo a troublesome and precarious existence, and some can and do benefit from mindfulness to get them through their days. However, adjusting students to their personal pain while leaving its social, economic and political sources untouched is unlikely to promote their long-term wellbeing, still less fulfill the potential of mindfulness in transforming education for the better.

That’s assuming that education means optimal self-development, wisdom, creativity, meaningfulness, and social connectedness for all children - as opposed to a way for individuals to get ahead of others in society, enable students to help the US economy compete in the global marketplace, or generate higher test scores, compliant and conformist behavior, and increased attendance and graduation rates.

Without a critical understanding of the inequitable and stressful social conditions and institutions which contribute to students’ difficult lives (schools included), mindfulness can become an instrument that adjusts students and teachers to those circumstances. When a student or teacher gets the message that it is up to them to deal with their stress and trauma, the danger is that these techniques replace the critical analysis of, and mindful social action to address, the causes of their pain and alienation.

Some of these causes lie outside of schools – such as systemic violence, discrimination and racism; a precarious job market; and a lack of adequate income, affordable college education, housing and healthcare. Others lie inside, for example, standardized high-stakes tests; deadening, culturally-irrelevant curricula; and inadequate resources for the arts and support services. Teachers are striking and leaving the field in droves, in part because they feel demoralized by the ways in which society disrespects their profession.

When mindfulness is taught as an individualized practice, these broader forces are ignored or diminished. Each student and teacher learns to monitor and regulate their own thoughts, feelings and actions, and to ‘pay more attention’ or ‘focus more effectively,’ but to what ends? Without a critical awareness of the wider context, self-regulating one’s emotions can become a way for people to conform to the dominant values, principles and practices of a power structure that focuses solely on personal responsibility, individualized adjustment and self-blame. This reinforces the handy myth of those in power that people are private entities who must maximize personal gain and meet their needs through market-based competition, even in education.

The alternative is what I call ‘critical social mindfulness,’ a renewed practice through which we can discover, discuss and let go of our attachment to our own person- or group-centered worldview. Instead, we come to realize that our own well-being connects with that of everyone else. This form of mindfulness encourages students and teachers to study, question, resist and transform not just themselves, but also their relationships within and outside schools and the societal and institutional causes of their pain and unhappiness. What does such a practice look like in concrete terms?

The first difference lies in the methodology of mindfulness training. Rather than simply acknowledging thoughts and feelings as they arise during meditation, students are encouraged to identify and label those thoughts, values and beliefs that are personally troubling, and then to discuss them in a group, tracing their origins back to their socially-conditioned sources. This helps people to practice critical, relational, and embodied skills with others that are not just self-promoting but are part of a healthy, just, and caring approach to relationships that benefit everyone.

As part of this process, students are supported to ‘be mindful’ of all the issues that surround them, and to investigate and challenge implicit, unhealthy, and harmful norms and values in school culture and schooling itself - for example, does the school culture silently divide and pit winners against losers? They can also explore the unjust social structures, policies, power inequities and other barriers in schools and society that are the sources of stress, anger, sadness and disaffection by asking, for example, why wealthy schools have more resources. Together, students and teachers can then develop mindful social action projects to address cultural and structural inequities at the local, national and global levels, linking personal growth with social transformation in the process.

For example, in a recent conversation with me as a guest speaker on mindfulness, students in a Women of Color club at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn shared that they were unhappily perfectionistic and hard on themselves. A conventional mindfulness practice would likely guide them to notice these thoughts and feelings as they arise, label them as such, and let them go. They might then be encouraged to counter such thoughts with positive sayings aimed at improving their self-esteem.

Instead, I suggested that they could also discuss where such value judgments come from and how the dominant messages from a hierarchical, patriarchal and racist society condition people to take in and believe harsh judgments about themselves. The discussion became a prelude for the group to explore how they could support each other and find ways to challenge these messages collectively by signaling when these thoughts arise and initiating discussions with parents, teachers and administrators to help them become aware of when and why they occur.

Second, a critical social mindfulness encourages students and teachers to take the next step in connecting individual feelings of anxiety and anger to what is actually happening around them inside and outside of school.

For example, counselors in the same Brooklyn High School are introducing mindfulness to ninth grade English classes, not just to reduce stress, manage anger and focus on their lessons but also to help students question why they feel these things or feel compelled to constantly present themselves as striving for individual success or ‘focusing their attention.’ The classes are designed to encourage children to witness and investigate the thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that lead to anger, whether they come from their family, the media, or societal power hierarchies.

Each class then discusses the social conditions under which they get angry and the societal messages that say who can express anger, and when it is unskillful and unhelpful, exploring different types of anger such as grown-up and immature, righteous and self-righteous. Students are then better-placed to engage in skillful, mindful social action with others against social injustices, fueled by a mature and reflective understanding of anger and its uses.

As part of this process the students are encouraged to study the myth of meritocracy and the corporatized origins of high-stakes testing in schools that induce so much anxiety and competitiveness, and to ask who really benefits. This enables them to evaluate the meaning of their education and to imagine and implement less anxiety-laden and more culturally-relevant learning practices with their teachers. These alternatives can include hip hop and contemplative and critical pedagogy, and the development of action plans, for example by organizing and joining with others to opt-out of high-stakes testing.

It is also important to ask why schools think students have a problem of ‘attention deficit’ and propose mindfulness as the solution. Why do they keep telling them to pay attention when they can already focus for hours on something that actually interests them? What does that say about their education, and what would school look like if there were things to learn that do absorb the attention of students?

Third, a critical social approach to mindfulness enables students, teachers and parents to develop more effective strategies for self-care that address both the personal and institutional dimensions of the problems they face, and the feelings they produce. Such strategies require that we examine the message that each person must be responsible for their own self-care in a harmful society in which there are inequitable resources for support, and that we investigate systemic social bias and inequality around care for self and others. Examining the ‘wellness industry’ that commodifies self-care in contemporary societies is one part of this process.

Students can then consider different notions of self-care (including care as resistance to and healing from oppressive conditions), and create alternative models which they can use to care for each-other as an inclusive and collaborative activity. Care becomes socially-mindful, not a private activity - you and your body matter and are linked to others that work to create a healthier, healing world - so nutrition, exercise and emotional development become inseparable from other aspects of learning.

As these examples show, rather than go along with the unreflective values and practices of schools and society, a critical social mindfulness interrogates all socially-conditioned or unmindful perspectives and actions - even mindfulness itself. It is neither religious nor secular, by which I mean a morally-neutral, value-free technology that accommodates conventional capitalist society. On the contrary, it stands for the need for all of us to develop and act on the moral awareness that the personal and social are inseparable.

David Forbes is the author of Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation

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