Buddhism in education

Buddhist meditation is justified in schools by its practical benefits. But there’s more to it than that.

As faith schooling from various traditions continues to grab headlines, the prospect of a specifically Buddhist education hasn’t been much mooted. School-based practices inspired by Buddhism, on the other hand, are starting to gain momentum. Last weekend, Goldie Hawn was enthusing about the British launch of her meditation in schools programme, while, on a slightly lower key note, mindfulness teaching has already been introduced in several private institutions – Wellington College and Tonbridge School among them. There are also initiatives to introduce meditation in the state sector, under the guidance of psychologists such as Mark Williams in Oxford.

It’s been said that Buddhism will establish itself in the west as a psychology rather than a religion, and that seems to be the case here – many of those introducing meditation to schools wouldn’t identify as Buddhists. And the rationale has been mostly scientific – among other benefits, meditation has been shown to foster attention skills, reduce aggression, and increase pro-social behaviour and relational abilities (among children and adults), as well as protecting against anxiety and depression.

That the practices have been presented in this positivist way is skilful – the prospect of teaching kids to pay attention is far more likely to spark educators’ interest than suggesting, hippie-style, that meditation will connect them to a deeper understanding of experience. But are the two claims really that different? A deeper understanding of experience doesn’t have to mean contacting an other-worldly state that reveals the secrets of the universe – in the context of meditation, it’s more likely to involve developing a here-and-now investigation of thoughts, feelings and events, and recognising how they interconnect to create our perception of the world.

The risk of presenting meditation purely in “here’s what you get out of it” terms is that it can come to seem like a technique for self-improvement, or self-control, when actually it is about self-letting-go, a deep dissembling from which a new understanding can come. Rather than offering a promise of betterment, or a false confidence based on faith, meditation can be a way of teaching doubt – the kind of creative uncertainty that can be a useful container for learning. By taking a different perspective on experience – watching it mindfully for a while, rather than getting so caught up in it, we can become more attuned to how our attitudes colour our world, and how the way we see things aren’t the way they necessarily are.

This isn’t quite the kind of scepticism that Richard Dawkins has suggested might be the kernel of an atheist schooling – as Andrew Brown has pointed out, the unspoken premise there is that doubt is taught according to a set of given rules, with an implicit discrediting of ideas which can’t – at least for now – be demonstrated. Instead, it’s more radical – a method for becoming more alive to our ever-changing experience (intellect, emotion, body sensation, event perception), and developing an understanding that to treat one element (or one moment,) as the arbiter of truth is to fixate and judge in a way that limits our view.

It’s the kind of wisdom that Socrates spoke of when he said that while he knew nothing, he knew something from not-knowing. Similarly, by investigating in a meditative way, we might get a little closer to recognising how our preconceptions afflict us. It’s an approach that might not just mean fewer fights in the playground, but the spread of a humility that underpins our continued search for answers – we can accept that it’s a struggle even to formulate good questions.

There wouldn’t be anything explicitly or exclusively Buddhist about such an education, and nor should there be (as Ajan Amaro says: “If you think you really are a Buddhist, you are totally lost!”). But it would honour the spirit of open-minded, fully-embodied inquiry that the Buddhist tradition at its best can offer.

[Ed Halliwell, The Guardian]
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