From inner-city classrooms to wealthy boarding schools the mindfulness juggernaut has hit education. A recent Atlantic article shows that despite its “inherent nebulousness” as a concept and little evidence that mindfulness impacts academic success, educators and researchers are doubling down selling it to schools, students and teachers. Proponents want to show that mindfulness is real, practical, and can benefit everyone. They want students and teachers to de-stress, be compassionate, and better regulate their own thoughts, feelings and actions.
But it’s time to confront this movement with its own mindlessness. Socially engaged mindful practitioners have forged a backlash to mindfulness in the corporate sector. In education as well we need to ask why this is happening now on such a large scale and who stands to gain. The bottom line answer is the same: neoliberal education policymakers want to play up corporatized culture and market values at the expense of democratic ideals in order to further advance the privileged few.
They see mindfulness as a way to amp up an education system that will create compliant students who can manage their own behavior, focus on their assignments, and calm themselves when angry or frustrated with school. Such students can then turn into passive, unquestioning consumers and cooperative workers who will help their corporate employers better compete in the global economy.
A desirable feature of a corporatized society is the neoliberal self. Neoliberal ideology demands that each private person be entirely responsible for their lives and free of any dependency on public institutions, which are to be phased out. Each of us should meet all our needs for well-being and health through self-help products and marketing strategies for success such as discipline and competitiveness. Neoliberal ways of governing employ technologies of the self—self-help practices that yield new subjects who see themselves as responsible for their own social welfare and well-being. In short, mindfulness is a technology of the self.
What becomes of the goal of stress reduction when neoliberal culture sees stress as a personal failure of the individual to successfully adapt to the demands of productivity or of being a team player? Mindfulness proponents train individual students and teachers to be present-focused, self-regulate difficult emotions such as anger, improve concentration, get along with others, and decrease stress. This masks the actual conditions of schooling, including adverse ones that give rise to stress, and any critical analysis of the cultural, social, and moral factors that contribute to one’s well-being or lack of it.
Children learn to see stressful experiences and how they respond to them as their responsibility—there is something inside of me I alone must change instead of looking at how my problems arise within unjust societal relationships and systems. Benign on the surface, mindfulness becomes a disguised pedagogy of social control. It plays into the hidden neoliberal agenda: internal regulation, compliance, individualist responsibility to adjust to high stakes tests and the overall degradation of public education.
Mindfulness is a neoliberal disciplinary fist in a cashmere-lined leather glove. Education policy zealots are eager to employ mindfulness with anxious and disaffected public school students and teachers so they can get along to go along and accept the neoliberal agenda. Breathe! Notice where the tension is in your body! Focus on the now! Students then can calmly take high-stakes tests and raise their (and their schools’) scores.
Alienated inner city children learn to accept their lousy learning conditions and not act out their anger. Demoralized, burnt-out teachers can adjust to and comply with being audited and micro-managed, follow scripted Common Core classroom lessons, and teach to the test to raise test scores on which their jobs now depend. These are the kind of outcome metrics borrowed from the corporate sector and imported into education as part of the aim to privatize and gain profit from public education.
If all of this can be propped up with some general data from neuroscience research (calm your amygdala!), much of which is not clearly conclusive in the first place and induces a brainless “cultural effect” of adulation and uncritical acceptance, even better.
Well-intentioned mindfulness proponents in education are not mere hacks for the corporate elite. They feel they provide students skills to gain academic and personal success. Some even believe they are infusing Buddhist values like compassion and self-awareness into secular settings. While some students benefit from mindfulness, however, they are just as likely to benefit from any good education or counseling program—still sorely lacking in many schools—that provides them respectful, caring attention, social support, critical analysis, and useful skills for self-awareness and self-understanding.
The key charge is that mindfulness educators are oblivious to the surrounding cultural, social and moral battle over neoliberal educational reform that corporate zealots are waging and winning. And they are oblivious to how they are being used as part of the fight. This blind spot may be built into the way many mindfulness educators see mindfulness in the first place. A leading mindfulness educator says, “This is a revolution, a transformation from the inside out.” This widespread myth that social and institutional change occurs just by each individual paying more attention to one’s experience in the moment, devoid of social context, underlies much of school-based mindfulness. It makes it a perfect fit for individualistic neoliberal market values and goals: each person is responsible for their success or failure to succeed in a competitive, market-based society.
Mindfulness arose out of a Buddhist moral and wisdom tradition that invites one to investigate the nature of the self and to explore how the mind is conditioned. Yet mindfulness as taught in schools does not encourage students and teachers to cultivate the inner life, or critically examine and develop personal and moral agency. Instead of linking inner awareness to ethical relationships and the social world, mindfulness becomes a technology for furthering or adjusting students and teachers to the dominant social order. Mindfulness proponents become accomplices to an ideological war taken up by neoliberal policies—the demise of a critical mode of subjectivity.
Neoliberal education today is nothing about exploration, reflection, creativity and personal development and everything about personal success as measured in narrow outcomes that do not and cannot address education’s full meaning. Mindfulness in public schools accommodates the neoliberal agenda. It does not even bother to employ contemplative education in its time-honored practice of engaging students in deep, reflective inquiry into the nature of subjects and of themselves. Instead of operating as a critical and liberating pedagogy mindfulness serves the status quo and is complicit in a pedagogy of compliance and control.
Another mindful pedagogy strategy that bolsters the neoliberal agenda is to have students and teachers attend to the “here and now,” or present-focused awareness. By trying to capture an abstract, elusive moment of time that is always socially constructed and interpreted mindfulness ignores critical thought, moral evaluation, historical analysis, and critique of broader socio-economic relations. In the absence of linking one’s experience with social conditions anxiety, anger, frustration, and despair become personal failures. Such troublesome emotional states are now isolated and severed from their actual everyday relations.
Focusing on the so-called here and now hides how our emotional states are related to living in a morally bankrupt post-industrial society. The society we live in is marked by, among other things, racism, sexism and homophobia, competition for housing, healthcare, education and income, a lack of safety nets for children and the aging, and an imposed austerity that benefits the wealthy few. Educational zealots want to adjust people to an inequitable system through self-technologies such as mindfulness—through self-regulation people do the work for them.
The constant pressure in schools on children to achieve, compete and produce—and at a younger age—leads to stressful feelings and negative consequences for children and teachers. Educators serve up mindfulness as the lubricant that make the gears run more smoothly. In the video “Healthy Habits of Mind,” by Mindful Schools in Oakland, California, a teacher says she accepts that reading and writing are now taught in kindergarten; “the reality is, that’s what’s expected right now.” The teacher sees that her children cannot do the tasks because they “cannot focus long enough”; that is, the tasks are beyond their level of development.
Nevertheless she says that since we are going to ask them to do these things we need to give them the tools to do it. She offers them mindfulness to help them focus and de-stress in order to adapt to the academic pressure. The teacher does not question the premise promoted by neoliberal zealots that young children must forgo play and other life-enhancing activities in order to read—and achieve—at an earlier age.
Nor do most mindfulness educators challenge other injustices and pressures that also start early, such as the higher rate of suspension of African-American students that begins in pre-school and kindergarten and that leads many down the school-to-prison pipeline. Few mindfulness educators bring awareness of this systemic pattern of social injustice into their work. Even with some more benign alternative restorative justice programs that use mindfulness, the aim is to promote a more orderly school environment by having students regulate themselves through self-discipline and accountability. Mindful restorative justice programs still favor orderly school environments and self-discipline, leaving things as they are, rather than call out and challenge the structural and institutional inequities that lead to certain students being offenders more than others.
It is not accidental that mindfulness is employed in impoverished inner-city schools that hold numbers of disaffected, indignant, and at times disruptive students of color. Mindfulness programs such as those offered by Mindful Schools in Oakland, the Mindful Life Project in Richmond, California, and the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore say they want to support these youths’ social and emotional well-being and improve their academic success.
Yet without a critical understanding of the neoliberal education agenda, mindfulness practices geared toward stress reduction, conflict resolution, emotion regulation, anger management, and focus and concentration slip into functions of social control and reinforce individualistic responsibility. In one participating high school teachers can send distressed or disruptive students—ones in the halls or those getting into physical or even just verbal altercations—to the Mindful Moment Room for individual assistance with “emotional self-regulation.” Suspensions went down and attendance and promotions went up.
Yet the issue of why there is so much stress, suspensions and angry behavior in the first place, and what needs to better occur in the school and community, are not addressed, only the emphasis on conforming to school expectations. There is legitimate anger and frustration over many social injustices that many students of color experience, as evidenced in the movement Black Lives Matter. Students who witness or who are prey to violence, among others, also suffer from trauma. Mindfulness educators aside, one wonders if and how counselors, teachers and administrators challenge the sources of pain and trauma and support students who question the purpose of school in the first place. Neoliberal education policymakers are happy when they don’t.
The policy zealots, many of whom are well-off, mandate that public school students take high-stakes tests; their own children, however, many of whom are sent to private schools, need not. The irony is that privileged students feel intense pressure to succeed and compete to get into prestigious colleges; they accept the myth that they alone are responsible for their success. Some find that mindfulness meditation relieves some of the performance pressures and helps them sleep better, diminish stress, and re-focus on schoolwork so they can stay competitive within a pressurized system.
To help teachers who are stressed out by their jobs an accomplished mindfulness educator and researcher provides mindfulness training. The subtitle of her book, "Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom," could serve as a neoliberal classroom mantra. Teachers learn how to calm themselves, pay better attention to their own thoughts and feelings and to their students, and create a better managed (peaceful) classroom. This approach is typical in that it omits taking on the external stressors endemic to current education that contribute to teacher stress, demoralization and attrition. These include the blame on public sector teachers and the attacks on their unions, the defunding and closing of public schools in favor of funding charter schools and publishing corporations, and the deprofessionalization and micromanagement of teaching. Yet through mindfulness training teachers are told they should take it upon themselves to be present and adjust to demands for “productivity” and outcomes rather than practice mindfulness as part of a critical pedagogy that questions and challenges the policies and conditions that create their stress and unhappiness.
Public education needs a progressive, integral mindfulness that is also mindful, or critically conscious, of its own position within education and society. This approach to mindfulness connects unreflective personal experience with an informed awareness of one’s actual social relations; it connects private troubles with public issues. It interrogates and challenges individualism, the myth of an unchanging, separate self, and points up the evidence for our interdependence with all beings and with the earth itself. Instead of a market individualism that fosters self-promotion and self-blame a progressive integral mindfulness furthers conscious agency in which people develop themselves as social beings and global citizens, part of a democratic, civic mindfulness that creates a shared sense of common good. It aligns with the movement to create more equitable schools and end poverty, wealth and income inequity, racism, white privilege, homophobia, and anti-immigration.
A progressive integral mindfulness endorses the principles of the Manifesto for a Revolution in Public Education written by community activists and educators that offers a clear critique of neoliberal education and a vision of equality of opportunity. It is informed by a mindful anti-oppressive pedagogy within a broad agenda for a contemplative-based social justice in education. It welcomes, includes, and employs the cultural capital of all school community members and seeks to form mindful, inclusive “we-spaces.”
The goal of a progressive, integral mindfulness should be to enable all students and educators to develop our respective, unique intellectual, personal, social, and moral capacities to the fullest extent. For all of us mindfulness should be a fiercely compassionate practice in which we uncover, challenge, and transcend how our thoughts, feelings, and actions are conditioned and colonized by unhealthy cultural practices and social institutions that (re)produce greed, meanness, and delusion.
Beyond the morally empty dictate of secular mindfulness, defined as ”paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment,“ mindfulness should involve our working together to acknowledge and let go of unwholesome thoughts and behaviors, and help us create conscious, democratic, socially just and loving lives far richer than anything neoliberalism and its unwitting allies have to offer.