When Michelle and I went into retreat in 2007 as part of The Shamatha Project, most people reacted as if we'd decided to grow antennae on our heads. We were surprised, coming out of retreat in 2009, at how attitudes had started to shift. Case in point: last summer, I went to the Mindfulness in Education conference at the Omega Institute - and was happy to see 300 people from around the country, all
enthused by the vision of bringing contemplative training to the school system. I just learned from the organizer that a celebrity had tried to organize the same conference, at the same place, in 2006 -- and no one signed up.
Then, I went to the Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century conference in D.C., in October of this year -- and there were 2500 people. Five of the country's top Graduate Schools of Education sponsored the conference. On stage, next to the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard, were leading lights in mainstream education, including the Dean of the Harvard Education School, Linda Hammond out of Stanford. Arne Duncan, Obama's Secretary of Education was supposed to be there, but had to run off (sadly, and ironically enough -- to Chicago because of a school shooting). So there was real feeling of a coming out party for Social and Emotional Learning generally, and mindfulness in education specifically (even though the Dalai Lama never advocated contemplative training in schools. He kept insisting that the U.S. -- like every society -- has to find what works best for them; he wasn't in the business of recommending programs). With world-class scientists and leading thinkers in education getting behind this movement, it's hard to imagine that it won't go mainstream, soon.
On the flipside, the conference was disappointing, for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of people complained -- and I concur -- that it felt like the stage was filled with prominent figures, but the people really on the front lines of this movement were sitting in the audience. There were grand, abstract speeches -- but there wasn't a ton of substance (particularly if you compare this conference with, say, the richly informative 2000 Destructive Emotions conference, also organized by Mind and LIfe, and so beautifully written up by Daniel Goleman). Second, there was little to no forum for mingling with other attendees. Twenty-five hundred people from around the world with a shared vision -- there should have been forums for workshops, casual mingling, etc. A real missed opportunity for sharing ideas, collaborating, developing partnerships, etc. These complaints aside, it was an inspiring event.
A basic theme of the event: U.S. education currently exists as a handmaiden to productivity and status improvement. If we are going to thrive, 21st century education has to incorporate secular, spiritual training. Which is to say, training in kindness and compassion, wisdom, patience, and so forth.
Some choice factoids from the event:
- In developed countries, puberty is arriving 6 years earlier than it did 100 years ago. But brain areas associated with sound judgement still don't mature until the mid-20's. Which means a much longer danger period. The ten years starting with adolescence show a 300% increase in mortality compared to the ten years prior -- thanks to violence, drug abuse, drunk driving, etc.
- In a meta study on hundreds of Social and Emotional Learning programs, thirty studies also looked at academics. Every one of them showed significant academic improvement. Training in how to handle emotions, interpersonal relations, etc. doesn't just make people happier, kinder and wiser -- it also makes them better performers.
- There was strong emphasis on the idea that Social and Emotional Learning has to begin with teachers (and staff and administrators) -- which I agree with. Before a school tries to teach SEL to kids, it's grown-ups really have to embody the practices.
- Matthieu Ricard was notable throughout for his crisp, inspiring insights. We now know that compassion, emotional balance, attention, and emotional intelligence are trainable skills. The brain is a muscle - if we exercise the parts of the brain associated with these qualities (e.g. by contemplative training), we can strengthen them in our lives, in powerful, and measurable way. Why not train in these skills. We have gym class -- why not a "Compassion Gymnasium"? As Alan Wallace has noted: "We've developed as a species in two ways, and two ways alone: knowledge and power. Where are the commensurate developments in wisdom and compassion?" Ricard noted, poignantly, that the five member nations of the U.N. security council produce and sell 95% of the world's weapons.
A couple of write-ups on the conference are available on the web. There's one here. The second one is referred to in this newsletter message below -- another example of how mindfulness in schools appears to be making its way into the mainstream (from Richard Brady, a pioneer in the movement):
Dear MiEN Friends,
With a circulation of 170,000, *Educational Leadership*, published by the
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, is one of the most
important educational periodicals in the US. In October, Marge Scherer, *EL
*’s Editor-in-Chief, and Amy Azzam, *EL*’s Senior Associate Editor, attended
Mind and Life XIX on Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century,
conversations between the Dalai Lama and leading educators, in Washington,
DC. After the first day of the conference, Marge and Amy accompanied me to
a reception hosted by a group formed at the Center for Mindfulness
Conference last spring that’s been working on a white paper which makes a
case for including mindfulness in the K-12 curriculum. This was Marge and
Amy’s introduction to mindfulness.
In the current issue (December/January) of *Educational Leadership*, which
has “Health & Learning” as its theme, Marge’s lead article, “Vital
Connections,” contains her reflections on the Mind and Life meetings. None
of the subsequent articles connect with mindfulness, but it’s a start. I
wrote Marge to suggest a future *EL *issue with “Mindfulness” as its theme.