A ghost in the Buddhist bowl

gr1962If you were a traditional Muslim parent, how would you feel if teachers in your public school brought a "Tibetan singing bowl" into the classroom and taught your child how to "meditate," drawing on techniques found in Buddhism? How would you feel if you were Buddhist?

How would you feel if you were an Orthodox Jew? Would it be different if you were active in Reform Judaism?

What if you were a traditional Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian?

Would your feelings be different if you were a progressive Episcopalian, Lutheran, United Methodist or Presbyterian? What if you were part of a conservative church in any of those traditions?

What if you were Unitarian, or simply a parent who considers herself a "spiritual" person who is not part of a specific religious tradition? Would you feel in any way threatened or concerned?

In other words, would you feel different about this classroom emphasis on "mindfulness" if the religious tradition practiced in your home was highly specific and orthodox, as opposed to open-ended, evolving and, well, universalist?

You probably would. And this is the ghost floating through a recent New York Times story focusing on efforts to promote a kind of vague form of meditation in inner-city schools in Oakland, Calif. The story is very careful never to use the word "prayer," and that is the big problem (in my opinion, as a guy with a graduate degree in church-state studies).

It's safe to say that reporter Patricia Leigh Brown knew about the ghost in the story. After all, the story does say:

Asked their reactions to the sounds of the singing bowl, Yvette Solito, a third grader, wrote that it made her feel "calm, like something on Oprah." Her classmate Corey Jackson wrote that "it feels like when a bird cracks open its shell."

Dr. Amy Saltzman, a physician in Palo Alto, Calif., who started the Association for Mindfulness in Education three years ago, thinks of mindfulness education as "talk yoga." Practitioners tend to use sticky-mat buzzwords like "being present" and "cultivating compassion," while avoiding anything spiritual.

Sticky-mat buzzwords? Of course, the entire story has a strong "spirituality" theme to it. I would say that the novelty of drawing on Buddhist techniques in a school classroom was the essential news "hook" in the first place.

Brown also makes it clear that this is not a tax-funded program, even if it is taking place in regular classroom time in a tax-funded school.

During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the "mindful" coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have "gentle breaths and still bodies." The sound of the Tibetan bowl reverberated at the start and finish of each lesson.

... The experiment at Piedmont, whose student body is roughly 65 percent black, 18 percent Latino and includes a large number of immigrants, is financed by Park Day School, a nearby private school (prompting one teacher to grumble that it was "Cloud Nine-groovy-hippie-liberals bringing 'enlightenment' to inner city schools").

But Angela Haick, the principal of Piedmont Avenue, said she was inspired to try it after observing a class at a local middle school. "If we can help children slow down and think," Dr. Haick said, "they have the answers within themselves."

I want to stress that I think this is a very good and solid news story, whether you are interested in the church-state separation angle of it or not. I simply think it raises more questions about people thinking that "vague spirituality" is acceptable in the public square, while specific, doctrinal forms are not. This raises questions, for me, about the establishment of some forms of religion by the state over others.

Could you use classroom hours to teach Islamic prayers, complete with mind-calming prostrations? How about lessons in the rosary? A charismatic pastor teaching about "private prayer languages" and spiritual warfare?

I imagine that a story about any of those news "hooks" would be quite different.

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