Mindful Education: Meditation as a Compassionate Movement

The other day I went to visit my friend Colleen's fourth grade classroom. They are working on a year-end magazine and given the fact that I write for Marie Claire and other publications, I was asked in to grill them on their angle for each article. Gradually it came out that I also write books about meditation and how it can apply to everyday life.

"I love meditation! It makes me calm," one student interjected. Gradually it came out that the entire class of ten year-olds had all experienced meditation in school or in their home lives. I spoke a bit more about the books I write on Buddhism and as soon as I said that word one student gingerly raised his hand. "What's a Buddhism?" he asked.

Last month I discussed on this site the idea that mindfulness isn't a trend, it's a movement. People are taking to meditation, without necessarily converting to a religious tradition (or in the ten year-old's case, knowing it exists). My primary argument is that mindfulness is a movement not because people love stress-reduction but because it's going to help people help other people. The simple act of becoming more familiar with your own mind and suffering will give birth to a sense of empathy when you see that everyone around you suffers, just as you do. And yes, mindfulness will sometimes be divorced from Buddhism as a religious tradition. And that's okay.

Enter Daniel Rechtschaffen's new book The Way of Mindful Education. In it Rechtschaffen speaks openly about the powerful effect meditation has on the mind and human spirit, and his own vast experience working within the educational system to dispel the myth that you have to adopt a religious framework in order to meditate. He points out, "Of course, just as drinking coffee will not make you Ethiopian, practicing mindfulness will not make you Buddhist."

In his book, Rechtschaffen explains simple ways for mindfulness to penetrate the school system and makes the concept accessible to children of all ages. The book contains dozens of easy exercises children can practice in any given moment. With his work, it's not just about sitting with the breath; it's making everything you do part of your spiritual journey. He makes meditation fun and practical for kids; it is something that can better your life and allow you to view the world as sacred.

In addition, he addresses adults that work regularly with kids, knowing that it's one thing to expect our children to become self-aware, its a whole other thing to embody that self-awareness yourself. "It's rare that schools or parents show children how to cultivate the very ethical attitudes they are espousing," he says, "and usually this is because we were never taught these priceless practices ourselves." The Way of Mindful Education is part of this movement of making meditation accessible yet not dumbing down the potent practice of meditation, and for that reason I highly recommend it.

Last year I started the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, which takes people primarily in their twenties and thirties who want to help the world and gets them focused and trained up to do just that. One of the major parts of our curriculum is the meditation practice that Rechtschaffen speaks of in his book. Through our mindfulness training, alongside our introductions to community organizing and practical leadership skills, we create new contributors to the movement of people doing good in the world. I am convinced, however, that if we just had our participants meditate for the six months they are a part of our program they would still come out more mindful, self-aware, compassionate individuals. Both for our children and our Millennials, meditation is the practice that will aide them in becoming upstanding, compassionate citizens.

Having run Buddhist centers for the last decade, I am aware that many people come to the meditation practice in their forties or later. I started the Institute for Compassionate Leadership in part to introduce meditation as a tool to help younger people on their career path. The beauty of the work that Rechtschaffen and his peers are doing in bringing meditation into the educational system is that they are introducing mindfulness at the youngest age possible.

I mentioned this book to a friend and her thirteen year-old daughter Nika the other day over lunch. "Oh yeah," Nika said, "My history teacher started a mediation group a while back." I asked if people attended. "Sure," she said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, "it's an extracurricular." Mindfulness has penetrated our workplaces, our social change movements, and now our educational system to the point that Meditation Club is just as normal as photography and theater. The work that Rechtschaffen and others are doing in this regard is important, and will bear fruit for decades to come.