Mindfulness is a fad, not a revolution

18th April 2014 at 01:00
We're told it can cure the lame and heal the sick, but a remedy for stressed-out executives has no place in our classrooms

Over a few short months, mindfulness has become the latest fad to hit the world of education. And, as far as its astounding range of benefits is concerned, you simply could not make it up.

Mindfulness allegedly assists individuals to gain greater self-control and objectivity, to improve their tolerance, equanimity and emotional intelligence, and to increase their concentration and mental clarity. It also boosts their ability to relate to others with kindness, acceptance and compassion, helps them to sleep and gives them more energy.

Moreover, this veritable panacea for the existential problems of humanity can apparently reduce cancer symptoms in teens, prevent drug and alcohol relapse, aid stressed-out workers to improve their well-being, deal with chronic pain and manage depression. It can make you more charismatic. And wait - it also improves your chance of getting pregnant!

Mindfulness has come to such prominence because American business leaders, Hollywood celebrities and Silicon Valley gurus have all embraced it with relish. The usual enthusiasts for the latest therapy - Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, Paulo Coelho - have launched a crusade to promote the cause of mindfully insulating yourself from the constant distractions of our digital age. Mindfulness was the big thing at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco in February. The event - modestly subtitled "Living with wisdom, awareness and compassion in the digital era" - struck the "I believe" tone that befitted the outlook of the New Age entrepreneurs in attendance. To show that it, too, embraced the zeitgeist, Time ran a cover story headlined "The mindful revolution".

With so much emotional energy invested in this super-fad, can education be far behind? Educational entrepreneurs in the US were the first ones to hail the benefits of mindfulness for the struggling classroom. One of their leading lights, Professor Dennis Shirley, contends that "mindful teaching can help us to calm our bodies and focus our minds so that we can be more fully engaged with and responsive to our students". Apparently, it can relax children and help them cope with stress, bullying and "more". The unspecified "more" holds out the promise that mindfulness can solve problems not yet identified.

British education has always been a sucker for American fads. So it is not surprising that UK-based educational entrepreneurs have swiftly seized on mindfulness. Mindful Beginnings Ltd has sold its programme to a few schools and, as you would expect, Wellington College, the leading institutional advocate of therapeutic education, has given its seal of approval. The master of Wellington, Anthony Seldon - who has been one of the main proponents of happiness education and positive psychology - is a mindfulness evangelist.

Seldon has argued that all schools should adopt this therapy since it provides a "powerful, scientifically proven approach that can make a real difference, and which can be learned by young people while still at school". Even the government appears to be intrigued. England's schools minister David Laws has said his department is "very interested in promoting this".

Mindfulness presents itself as very deep. Its supporters regularly use words such as wisdom, reflection and awareness. Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychologist who popularised the term, defines it as "the process of actively noticing things". She claims that the advantage of this therapy is that "it puts you in the present". This emphasis on focusing the mind and calming the body suggests that what it offers is a form of meditation which, with the help of positive psychology, California self-help rhetoric and an obligatory dose of neuroscience, has been rebranded as mindfulness.

Middle-class meaning

As with most forms of therapeutic interventions in the class-room, mindfulness training is principally driven by adult anxieties about their world rather than by problems that emerge out of the experience of children. Privileged middle-class adults have a regrettable habit of confusing their issues with those of their offspring. In the first instance, a therapy such as mindfulness constitutes a response to the existential concerns of the kind of people who attended Wisdom 2.0. These high-flyers constantly complain about their busy schedules and the pressure they experience from being always connected. As Langer told Harvard Business Review, "leaders" trying "to balance hectic schedules with peak performance with enjoyment of a very full life" could really benefit from being mindful.

From this standpoint, the quest for meaning has been reframed through the narrative of stress, the metaphor of distraction and emotional turmoil. What drives the mindfulness crusade is the conviction that, if people were not so distracted, then they would be able to experience greater meaning.

Seldon's assessment of the problems facing schoolchildren and his prescription of mindfulness can be understood as the rediscovery of Wisdom 2.0's adult apprehensions in the classroom. According to Seldon, children face "unprecedented levels of stress". He claims that their concentration has been "eroded by the `incessant chatter' of modern life". Like Langer's business leaders, the children are also far too connected for their own good and therefore need a mindfulness programme that involves regular "stillness periods" in schools.

In the US, the mindfulness industry sells its product by inviting middle-class parents to allow their kids to benefit from the techniques used by the most successful grown-ups. One California-based company declares: "Mindfulness gives children access to some of the same techniques that the world's top athletes, speakers and musicians use to perform at their best under pressure-filled circumstances."

In the UK, the hype will be toned down and pupils will be offered the ritual of bite-size meditation. Faced with the bewildering variety of therapeutic rituals available to schools, I would opt for bringing dogs into the classroom. Allegedly, they help students to read. Like meditation, the dogs are not harmful and at least they provide children with a real experience.

Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent

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