Meditation in education: an ancient remedy for dealing with modern stress and anxiety

First published by the HuffPost on 15 August 2013.

It’s not easy being young. According to a recent study a third of Swedish teenagers are suffering from chronic stress. In the US an estimated 10% of students suffer from a serious anxiety disorder and in the UK 10% of childrensuffer from some form of mental disorder, which include anxiety and depression. To make this more worrisome, Canadian academics have suggested that teenage stress doubles the risk of depression in adulthood.

Of course, this is not to mention the day-to-day stress and anxiety that all children face; from exam pressure to friendship issues, it is self-evident that many young people spend a lot of time worrying. This can, for some, be emotionally draining and time consuming; leaving less time for productive thoughts and activities.

However, acknowledging the problems associated with stress and anxiety is nothing new. Over 2,500 years ago an Indian mendicant dedicated to meditating founded a spiritual movement based on the idea of overcoming the stressful suffering caused by our desires, anxieties and dissatisfaction with life. In fact, the first teaching given by this ‘awakened one’, or Buddha, was that all off us suffer due to the pressures of life and, as seen above, this ancient teaching is also very modern.

One of the practices Buddhists use to counter suffering is a form of meditation referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation allows us to be aware of our moment-to-moment experiences; noticing and accepting our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Although spiritual in origin, German scientists have found that non-religious and non-esoteric ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ (MBSR) increases awareness of our emotions and mental processes. In turn, this can improve coping strategies in stressful situations, reduce anxiety and improve our general well-being. Furthermore, other scientists have found that mindfulness can reduce anxiety by almost 40% per cent as well as improving brain functions.

It would be a no-brainer, then, to bypass the usefulness of mindfulness meditation in an educational setting. Whether higher education, high school or elementary school, mindfulness can benefit stressed out kids prepping for exams, falling out with each other or dealing with difficult home lives. For instance, research published in the journal Paediatrics into the use of mindfulness meditation to treat physiologic, psychosocial and behavioural conditions among young people was positive and researchers in Californiafound that mindfulness produced statistically significant improvements in students’ behaviour. Importantly, a whole host of other studies have shown similar results.

In the UK some teachers, including myself, have used mindfulness meditation in Religious Education (RE), which is a subject that is technically compulsory in England. The two state schools I have worked in have both been mixed comprehensives and, importantly, neither are faith schools. Buddhist meditation is taught at both as part of a course on Buddhism for 11 and 12 year olds (they learn about all the major world religions). In one of the schools meditation is also taught to 17 and 18 year olds who have chosen to study RE (focused on Buddhism) in greater depth. The students are not, of course, Buddhist, but they do practice various forms of meditation; including practising mindfulness with actual monks. The overwhelming attitude to participating in guided meditation with both age groups is positive and, despite giggles, most try to take it seriously.

However, this brief use of meditation is limited to schools with creative RE departments and does not offer a long term solution to stress and anxiety among students.

Introducing mindfulness meditation as a serious tool of stress relief and using it in an extra-curricular capacity does happen in the UK, but it is largely a personal initiative; it is certainly not government policy in the way that ‘broadly Christian’ collective worship is. I had seen meditation used effectively in Thai state schools and felt it could adapted as a secular form of ‘quiet time‘ to calm students down in the UK, especially those feeling the pressure of expectations. To that effect, a colleague of mine set up a Zen Club at lunchtime that offered any interested student the opportunity to meditate, sit in reflection or simply escape the commotion of the school day.

Despite the name, Zen Club is secular in its raison d’être and students of all backgrounds attend. Mindfulness is developed through attention to the breath, which has a tranquilising quality; hence the phrase – ‘take a deep breath’. By focusing on the breath the mind has something it can return to if it starts to wonder, to worry or get anxious. The idea is that the mind is aware of these thoughts, worries and anxieties and can better deal with them when they arise. Essentially, mindfulness meditation offers a coping mechanism for dealing with everyday stress and anxiety. Of course, this does not work for everyone and many students decide it’s not for them.

Although the meditation outlined above will be met with pessimism by many and is not necessarily the solution to the most serious cases of stress and anxiety among teenagers, it still offers a way of coping with those issues. Subsequently, more and more organisations are promoting secular mindfulness meditation in schools. For example, Mind Space in the UK offers practical help to teachers, develops resources and conducts research into school based mindfulness meditation. Mental health charities, such as the Mental Health Foundation, are also championing its wider use. Likewise, EdutopiaThe Hawn Foundation and Mindful Schools advocate the use of secular meditation in US schools.

It would seem, therefore, that a mendicant in India thousands of years ago taught a form of stress and anxiety relief that can be justifiably used in modern secular settings, especially considering the mounting scientific evidence of its benefits. One cynic once described mindfulness meditation in schools as a ‘fad’, but if it is, it’s a pretty ancient one.

Photo credit: Kochphon Onshawee via Pixabay (Creative Common CC0)

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