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.
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.