Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Meditation Isn’t Just About Self-Help. Here’s What Educators Need to Know

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are getting an unfair rep
By Raquel Rios — August 13, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Mindfulness, yoga, and meditation have gotten popular in K-12 schools across the country. However, not enough attention has been paid to how these practices can prepare students to critique and challenge inequities in our country. To many social-justice-minded advocates, mindfulness seems like nothing more than a distraction to get people to adjust to oppressive conditions.

Do we really have time to sit around in contemplation when there’s so much going wrong in education and society more broadly? Isn’t it a waste of time to sit in meditation, search for inner peace, and relinquish nonjudgment if we are supposed to be change agents for social justice and equality? Those questions get at the heart of the growing rift between mindfulness aficionados and social-justice proponents.

BRIC ARCHIVE

For teachers and school leaders who work in school systems with enormous gaps between rich and poor and widespread underfunding, mindfulness and meditation programs may appear self-serving, rather than a pathway toward equity. Some educators concerned with systemic inequalities feel uncomfortable with how these traditions are often practiced in high-poverty, majority-minority schools: predominantly white, female teachers leading students in meditation or yoga as a way to self-regulate their emotions. Many poor and working-class people are more preoccupied with securing their basic needs than learning about mindfulness, yoga, or meditation.

If we are to build a multicultural, cross-generational coalition around a common vision of well-rounded, holistic education experiences for all, we need to address this skepticism. At a time when we need activism, reform, and social justice, does investing in mindfulness and meditation programs just encourage passivity and compliance?

In his 2007 book The Mindful Brain, psychiatrist Daniel Siegel points out that when we put the automatic process of the brain on hold through mindfulness, we free up an abundance of energy that can be used to discover different perspectives, enhance creativity, and encourage novel thinking. This practice, he writes, can help us cultivate patience, generosity, and love.

Educators can engage in mindfulness meditation as a way to increase their sense of agency in the world, not submit. Paulo Freire, the father of social-justice pedagogy, cautioned against any action that “is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection.” He understood how contemplation can lead to the type of critical consciousness needed for responsible social action.

Educators can engage in mindfulness meditation as a way to increase their sense of agency in the world, not submit."

Communities that are dealing with chronic stress and adversity may not see the connection between contemplative practices and social activism. As contemplative practices gain momentum in the field of education, they often become commercialized and packaged as an individualistic, therapeutic pursuit, rather than a pathway for critical consciousness. The language and lifestyle of mindfulness and meditation have taken on a reputation for elitism. Yoga, for instance, is predominately marketed to the white and privileged.

As an education consultant, I work with educators to develop an understanding of spirituality and consciousness that is inclusive and representative of all cultures. I believe we need to teach mindfulness and meditation as a pathway to reduce suffering, for both ourselves and for others, to understand that our own well-being depends on the well-being of others.

When I meditate, I feel a release from disquieting thoughts and impulses that interfere with my sense of purpose. In my work with fellow educators, I have found we are often trapped by our own automatic behaviors, believing if we scour data and check all the right boxes, we can solve the knotty problems. We are often left drained, disappointed, and feeling helpless to make any real, long-lasting change for students and families.

In his book Good Citizens, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that engaged and applied Buddhism must seek action beyond mere awareness to relieve the suffering within us and around us. Practices rooted in this tradition can move us away from automatic reactions to help us recognize all experience is part of humanity. This awareness of being “a part of” humanity is the fundamental basis for empathy, compassion, and social responsibility.

The professors Elisa Facio and Irene Lara have studied the spirituality and activism in Chicana, Latina, and indigenous women’s lives. In their book, Fleshing the Spirit, they share examples of how many of these women have always relied on the mind-body-spirit relationship to decolonize their minds, find liberation, and engage in sacred activism. By drawing on these perspectives from historically marginalized groups, teachers and school leaders from all backgrounds can collaborate on inclusive contemplative practices that lead to a deeper commitment to social justice.

Mindfulness and meditation programs in schools that don’t explicitly lead to social awareness and transformation can be frustrating, especially for equity-minded teachers and school leaders who have a deep sense of urgency. Similarly, social activists need to realize that action for action’s sake can be misguided and unsustainable. We need mindfulness meditation and critical consciousness. We also need the knowledge and skill to challenge norms and structures perpetuating inequities. Integrating both mindful reflection with social-justice action has the greatest potential to shape coalitions, build collective empowerment, and mediate a new standard for education.

Related Tags:

Events

Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
STEM Fusion: Empowering K-12 Education through Interdisciplinary Integration
Join our webinar to learn how integrating STEM with other subjects can revolutionize K-12 education & prepare students for the future.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
School & District Management Webinar How Pensions Work: Why It Matters for K-12 Education
Panelists explain the fundamentals of teacher pension finances — how they are paid for, what drives their costs, and their impact on K-12 education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Gaming Is Part of Teen Life. These Districts Use It for Better Student Outcomes
Scholastic esports is attracting students who would otherwise not participate in extracurricular activities.
4 min read
Connor Allen, of Cranberry, Pa. picks his character before a round of "Super Smash Bros. Ultimate" during the Steel City Showdown esports tournament at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, on May 11, 2019 in Pittsburgh.
Students get ready before an esports tournament at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, on May 11, 2019 in Pittsburgh.
Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
School Climate & Safety Explainer Restorative Justice in Schools, Explained
What is restorative justice, and how can it be implemented in schools?
1 min read
Generic school hallway with lockers
Some districts have integrated more restorative justice practices into their disciplinary structure. Experts describe what restorative justice looks like and how it can be implemented in schools.
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety Video 3 Steps for Schools to Use Relationships as a 'Prevention Strategy'
Research has shown that strong school relationships can be a prevention strategy for chronic absenteeism, misbehavior, and other challenges.
7 min read
Four high school students work together on an experiment in an AP chemistry class at a high school in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.
Four high school students work together on an experiment in an AP chemistry class at a high school in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.
Allison Shelley/EDUimages
School Climate & Safety Uvalde Shooting Victims' Families Sue State Police, Settle With City for $2M
The families say they also agreed a $2 million settlement with the city, which will be used on better training for local police.
3 min read
Crosses are surrounded by flowers and other items at a memorial on June 9, 2022, for the victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The families of 19 people who were killed or injured in the shooting and their attorneys are set to make an announcement, Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Crosses are surrounded by flowers and other items at a memorial on June 9, 2022, for the victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The families of 19 people who were killed or injured in the shooting and their attorneys are set to make an announcement, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Friday will mark the two-year anniversary of the shooting where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.
Eric Gay/AP