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).