Keep It Secular (Please!)

As someone who really enjoys having the opportunity teaching mindfulness in public schools, I have to admit I find it a little disconcerting when I read about school districts banning mindfulness and/or yoga classes. But maybe not for the reason you’d think.

For very good reasons, the teaching of religion is prohibited in public schools. Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of this culture, and one of the many things people from around the world look to us for in admiration and hope. So many millions of people are forced to follow a particular doctrine or religion for fear of persecution or death, and here we are saying, essentially, Believe what you want, it’s a free country.

When we tell students to use words like Namaste or dharma or even talk about the Buddha or Krishna, we are, effectively, teaching religion. It may only be small, seemingly insignificant, elements of religion, but it is still religion. If you okay using this sort of terminology, ask yourself how you would feel about the teachers in the school telling the students that Jesus died for their sins, or that God is judging them.

Certainly, this happens, a lot. But are you okay with it?

What we need to remember is that this remains (and will for many years to come) a predominately Christian nation. Whenever there is a dominant paradigm, many people will (unconsciously or not) condone and propagate it. That’s both how it remains dominant, and why it is dominant. So we must expect to hear Christians breaking the line between church and state in schools every now and then. It comes with the territory of being in the USA at this moment in time.

We must also be very mindful of not making the same mistake.

Here’s the thing: if you notice Christians doing it, they’re going to notice you doing it. The only difference here is that they have the dominant paradigm—and all the righteousness that comes with it—on their side. They can take it to a court—where most people swear on the Bible—and there is every chance that the judge that hears the case (unconsciously or not) will see their perspective. They could take it to the airwaves—maybe a TV station that has religious programming (but only for one religion)—and the majority of viewers are going to take their side of the argument. Whichever route they take, they will have the dominant paradigm’s God on their side.

And it is worth considering this, too: for better or worse, there are many people who are not happy about keeping religion out of schools. These people are predominately Christian, and if they feel that way, would justifiably feel threatened if anything like another religion was being taught in their kids’ schools. Making people feel threatened is not the mindful way; it is a form of attack. Why would we invite that kind of reaction when there are perfectly reasonable alternatives for avoiding it?

In short, by incorporating any religious undertones (or overtones) into your mindfulness teaching, you are setting yourself up to be a scapegoat. And if you do become a scapegoat, you are helping set a precedent that can only make doing this a little tougher for the rest of us.

There are plenty of ways around this that still get the message across. For instance, in one of my more powerful classes, the students create their own—what many would call—mantras. But instead of calling them mantras, I call them mind tools; which is both what they actually are, and what mantra roughly translates into. So instead of saying Namaste, say, I bow to the divine in you. Instead of saying dharma, say something like, the way of things. In many ways, utilizing English terminology could be considered a more mindful, culturally appropriate practice, anyway. Would you, for instance, expect Christians in India to use the word, pray, or would you expect them to use terminology from their own language?

Mindfulness is not a religious practice. Religion requires blind faith. While blind faith may well have its place, mindfulness is dependent only on awareness. Certainly, the Buddha was a master teacher of mindfulness, but that doesn’t make it exclusively ‘Buddhist’. Please don’t give anyone a reason to think that it is.

Mindfulness is simply a way of being, one that we can all benefit from. Please help ensure that as many people as possible can continue to do so.

Please keep it secular (in the public school system, anyway).

haiku moment



words are wanted
the page an open space
who needs words?

frightening politicians
peace inside

chaos reigns
abounding thoughts resound
stillness speaks

I am right, you are wrong
who really knows?

so much stress
anger and frustration
more breaths appear

Mercury in retrograde
time for tea!

Three Choices

Image by LaurMG

One exercise we do in our classes is to compare what is important to us with where we place our focus. For example, my family is important to me, but if any of them try to interrupt me while I’m in the middle of writing this, I’ll probably brush them off and get a little annoyed—even though I would consider them to be more important than anything I write. In short, we don’t always prioritize our lives in accordance with what we believe our actual priorities are.

Nothing new here, I know.

But here’s the thing: sometimes there doesn’t appear to be a choice in how we prioritize things. For instance, most of us have to earn an income, and not nearly as many of us would place our jobs as high among our priorities as, say, our families, our friends, or maybe our religion (a lot of my students place religion above everything else).

So the question is, how do we mindfully reconcile having to earn an income when we’d rather be out camping with our family or dining with friends? Well, as far as I can tell, we only ever have three choices—and sometimes even less:

  1. We can change our situation. Sometimes. In this economy and culture, it often seems imperative to have and hold onto our jobs. Most of us fear not being able to support our families financially, or being homeless, or not knowing where the next meal is coming from, so often we don’t feel empowered enough to change our situation. And here we’re only talking about work; there are plenty of other situations people find themselves in—from domestic violence to unhealthy friendships to living in dangerous neighborhoods—where there really doesn’t appear to be any other realistic alternative. And then there are situations like imprisonment, in which you have an inescapable situation imposed upon you.

    However, many of these situations only appear to be unalterable. When we get really still—which is very hard to do in difficult situations—our internal guide holds our hand and leads us through whatever appears before us. Sometimes this will involve a leap of faith from uncomfortable familiarity to the great unknown. Leap and the net will appear, as John Burroughs once said.

    Finding the faith to take that leap is often the hardest part of the process. Sometimes you just have to wait until things get so desperate, there simply isn’t any other choice. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing left to lose, as Bob Dylan once said.

  2. We can just suck it up. As unattractive as this may sound, it is almost certainly the most common choice we make. We’ve all seen that bumper sticker that says, I owe, I owe, so off to work I go. Whether we do it with grace or with resentment, it doesn’t really matter: if we’re doing something we don’t want to do because we feel we have to do it, we’re sucking it up.

    This is not the mindful way. It may appear that there is no other choice in the matter, but there is still nothing mindful about not wanting to be where you are.

    And as it turns out, there is always another choice.

  3. We can change our thinking about our situation. I get how callous this may sound. How can you change your thinking about a life-threatening situation, for example? And why should you? Well, your mind is a very powerful tool: you can change your thinking about anything, but you may not want to. And the only reason you should change your thinking (if you choose to do so) is because the first two options above haven’t worked for you. If you can’t find a way to change your situation, then you only have two choices: suck it up or change your thinking. That’s it. If you find another one, let me know.

    Let’s look at an example. You’re the person with the bumper sticker I mentioned earlier. Each day you drag yourself out of bed for another stretch of drudgery in an office you hate with colleagues you hate even more. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way.

    Firstly, your job gives you an opportunity to experience and express gratitude each and every day; I am so thankful I have a place to live and a bed to wake up in—thank you, work, for making it possible. The simple act of gratitude has been shown to increase happiness over time. You’re already winning this apparently uphill battle, even before you get out of that bed!

    Then there’s that office you hate. How can you change your mind about that? Have you ever been in there when the weather outside is extreme? You do know there’s people working outside in every sort of weather, don’t you? And there you are, sheltered from snow and rain and thunderstorms and oppressive humidity. What else is there to like? Make a list. Go on, I dare you.

    And what about your coworkers? Are they really that bad? How well do you know them, honestly? It could be they’re not showing you their whole selves. Who would want to when you keep coming in to work with that big old chip on your shoulder? One mindful option would be to make a conscious effort to get to know each and every one of them better. What’s important to them? Who are they outside of work? What are they passionate about? Why? Leave your judgments at the door, and it may not be just you who transforms.

    And then there’s the drudgery. Have you ever meditated for a long period of time? Maybe done a silent retreat? If you have, you’ve probably encountered drudgery on an entirely different scale. If you haven’t, trust me, sitting on your butt hour after hour, day after day: that’s drudgery. And guess what? If you do that long enough, you come out the other side and see there are a lot of things to notice, even in the most mundane of circumstances. Next time you’re in the office, pay attention: look around, slowly; use all your senses to observe, to notice everything you possibly can. Even in that monotonous task your boss gave you, can you find the space to notice your hands moving; to notice what your breath does; to feel the sensations of your body against your chair, your feet upon the floor? You could make each day your own personal retreat, and nobody would be any the wiser.

So these are your options. Which one are you choosing?

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