Could Meditation be the Answer?

A commentary on the use of mindfulness programs in schools.

Advertisements

If you have  been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a retired teacher who taught for 35 years. I still substitute teach from time to time, so I stay in touch with the teaching world. I’ve spent my career wondering what the best way to deal with disruptive, reluctant learners is. I often debated whether to kick a disruptive kid out of class, keep them in at breaks, send him or her to the office or just tolerate them. When I began my teaching career, the school I was at practiced corporal punishment in the form of strapping students. Physical abuse is not the answer either.  In 35 years I have never found an ideal method.

I recently came across an article on a blog called: The Way of Meditation. The article was titled: School Replaced Detention with Meditation. Now this intrigued me. I meditate regularly and it certainly has made a difference in my life. The article quotes the Dalai Lama who said, “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Wow!  That would be amazing. Just watching the news occasionally tells me there is an enormous need. Not only that, could this be the answer to a school’s discipline problems?

The article tells of Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, a city located in the state of Maryland in the United States. This school starts its day with a breathing exercise over the PA system and ends it with an after-school program of yoga and meditation in addition to the usual sports activities. The school’s staff guide students through breathing and other centering exercises in the Mindful Moment room, which is a calming space with cozy cushions and beanbags, lit by glowing pink Himalayan salt lamps. When one of the students become a discipline problem, he or she is sent to the Mindful Moment room. In the room, unruly students are guided to sit, breathe and meditate in order to calm down and re-center. They are also counselled to talk about what happened.

Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama

Now what a fantastic idea! A Mindful Moment room—meditation room—instead of a detention room. I wish I had thought of that. In another article, Meditation is Imperative: Schools Replacing Detention…, it tells of a dialogue with the Dalai Lama after the Paris Attacks in November 2015. The Tibetan spiritual leader claimed that humanity bears part of the responsibility for the emergence of global terrorism. He said praying to God for a solution and using the hashtag of the likes of #PrayforParis won’t do much to help. I agree! His most impactful statement was, “Let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.”  He’s right! Praying to God or wanting governments to fix things hasn’t worked so far. As the Buddha says, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”  

The Guardian’s article: One of San Francisco’s toughest schools transformed by the power of meditation, tells of Visitacion Valley middle school in San Francisco, California, which is a school surrounded by drugs and gang violence.  Students at this school were often stressed out and agitated as on one occasion three dead bodies were dumped in the schoolyard. In 2007, a meditation program called Quiet Time was brought in to deal with worried students. A month after the meditation program began, teachers noticed changes in behaviour. Students appeared happier, worked harder, paid more attention, were easier to teach and the number of conflicts fell dramatically.

Now, I began to wonder if there are schools in Canada that practice mindfulness. In case you are not familiar with this word, the Mindfulness Institute of Canada defines mindfulness as “a state of being fully present in the present moment, with acceptance and without judgement.”  This is really the same thing as meditation as the Free Dictionary defines meditation as “a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.” It seems there are schools in Canada that have instituted this practice.

Young girl meditating

According to Macleans.ca, in the city of Toronto, Ontario,  the District School Board introduced lessons in mindfulness to all of its 200 Grade 9 students. In six workshops over a two-month period, led by the school’s teachers, students practiced breathing, “body scans” (a meditation exercise that draws attention to different parts of the body), and learned to “surf the wave” of difficult emotions, like anger and anxiety. The article reports that the “response was overwhelmingly positive.” Another place in Canada that has adopted mindfulness is in Vancouver, British Columbia,  where Renfrew Community Elementary School is located. In this school students begin their day by heading outside to do tai chi.  The school’s assemblies always start with a mindful breathing exercise.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that mindfulness is the answer. Change.org has an online petition to remove Mindfulness Programs from Canadian Public Schools. The petition’s authors argue that legislated meditation in Canadian public classrooms is unlawful, and are alarmed that mindfulness stems from Buddhist meditation. They argue that if mindfulness meditation is permitted, then what is to stop decision makers from forcing students to engage in mandatory Transcendental Meditation? Or mandatory hypnosis? Or require all students to eat bacon three times per day, regardless of their vegetarian or vegan standing. This seems to me to be somewhat of a paranoid reaction, none-the-less, everyone is entitled to their point of view.

Forbes.com published an article titled, Science Shows Meditation Benefits Children’s Brains and Behavior, which lists the following benefits of meditation:

  1. Increased attention: A study in 2013 showed that in boys with ADHD, with an eight-week training in mindfulness, significantly reduced hyperactive behaviours and improved concentration.
  2. Increased attendance and grades in school: One school district in California prolonged its school day in some of its “high-risk” schools in order to add meditation into the day. These schools have reported better attendance and grades, fewer suspensions, and happier, less aggressive kids.
  3. A reprieve from outside trauma: Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to help kids who are dealing with stressors such as neglect at home.
  4. Better mental health: One study found that an afterschool program consisting of yoga and meditation helped kids feel happier and more relaxed.
  5. Self-awareness and self-regulation: A study found that a mindful yoga treatment helped kids improve their ability to self-regulate, or control themselves, over the longer-term in a one-year study.
  6. Social-emotional development: One study found that a social-emotional learning program coupled with mindfulness was more effective than a classic “social responsibility” program as kids using mindfulness in their treatment had greater empathy, perspective-taking, and emotional control, compared to the control group.

The Harvard Gazette reports an eight-week study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, a study which involved taking magnetic resonance images (MRI) from 16 study participants two weeks prior to the study, determined that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter in just eight weeks.

If you are not familiar with the nervous system’s grey and white matter, here is a quick biology lesson. Grey and white matter are found in the brain and spinal cord. Grey matter is found in brain areas that control an individual’s perception, such as how things are seen or heard, the formation of memories and the influencing speech and emotions. White matter connects one region of the brain or spinal cord to another transferring nerve impulses in and out of the grey matter.  Medical science has always told us that grey matter cannot rebuild, but Harvard’s research seems to suggest otherwise.

There is no doubt in my mind that meditation, or mindfulness, reduces stress, promotes relaxation, improves personal happiness and induces feelings of peacefulness. I have personally experienced it. As a retired teacher, I would have welcomed anything that curbed undesirable student behaviours, improved student work habits and grades, and made the classroom a better learning environment. If mediation–mindfulness programs–does that, then I say bring it on.

Did the Pope Really Refuse to Apologize?

A commentary on whether the Pope should apologize to Canada’s Indigenous people.

Back in May of 2017, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Pope Francis and asked him to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system where abuse of indigenous children occurred (see Newsweek).  When I first heard about this, I was confused as I thought the Pope had already apologized. I  wondered why the Catholic leader was being asked to apologize again.  Newsweek’s article explains that in 2009 the previous pontiff, Pope Benedict, met with survivor of the system Phil Fontaine, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The article asserts that the pope did not formally apologize. Instead, he simply shared his ‘sorrow’ and ‘sympathy.’

Pope Francis

In March, the headline, Pope’s decision to not issue apology , appeared on the CBC News website. The article says Pope Francis claimed he could not personally apologize for residential school abuses. This month, Global News reported that the Canadian Parliament held a “historic” debate on whether to ask Pope Francis to formally apologize for the substantial role the Catholic church played in the residential school system. This week The National Post reports that Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs) passed a motion to invite the Pope to Canada to apologize for residential schools. The vote was passed by a margin of 269-10 .  One of the advocates of the motion was residential school survivor and MP, Romeo Saganash. The article says that an apology is one of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; a Commission that recommended an apology be delivered in Canada by the pontiff, for the church’s role in the residential school abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children.

All this talk about another apology from a pope piqued my curiosity. If the previous pope, Pope Benedict, already issued an apology, what is this all about? I set out to find out.

The National Observer’s article, Bishops try to clarify Pope’s refusal to apologize for residential schools, says the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a background paper to MPs and senators. The paper says the church has “on a number of occasions expressed regret and remorse at the involvement by various Catholics” in the schools. It also reminds us that Pope Benedict met with a delegation of Indigenous leaders in 2009 “and expressed sorrow and regret for the abuses suffered” in the schools. The Bishop’s paper said Phil Fontaine declared that the meeting with Pope Benedict “closes the circle of reconciliation.” It also said

  “To suggest that the Catholic community has not accepted responsibility for its involvement in residential schools is simply inaccurate. The Catholic Church has apologized in the way it is structured.”

The New York Times article, A Pope Given to Apologies Has Nothing for Indigenous Canada, says that Phil Fontaine has since stated, “It was right for the moment,” about Pope Benedict’s expression of sorrow. “But there’s a lot we didn’t know about in 2009: We didn’t know the number of deaths, the numbers of those abused. So much has been exposed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it’s really so different now.”

 I have to agree with Mr. Fontaine. Since 2009 we’ve learned a lot more about the horrors that occurred in those schools. In fact, I was shocked to learn doing this post that CBC News reported that Ontario Provincial Police files reveal that an Ontario residential school, St. Anne’s, had built its own electric chair. In my last post, Hockey is Part of Canada, I talked about how residential school students lived in substandard conditions, endured physical, emotional and sexual abuse by brothers, priests and nuns who claimed they represented God.

This begs the question: Was the 2009 apology a true, sincere apology, and what constitutes an accurate apology anyways?  Mindtools.com in its article, How to Apologize: Asking for Forgiveness Gracefully, says to apologize correctly, an apology must:

  1. start with two magic words: “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.”
  2. admit responsibility for actions or behaviour and acknowledge what an offender did.
  3. take action to make the situation right.
  4. explain that the offender will never repeat the action or behaviour again.

Psychology Today’s article, The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology, says in order for an apology to be effective, it must have the following ingredients:

  1. A clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of the offender’s actions on the victim(s). In other words, to truly forgive, a victim needs to feel that the offender completely understands the full impact their actions had on them.
  5. A request for forgiveness.

So, do the Canadian Conference of Bishops have a valid argument? Has the Catholic Church given a proper apology? Using the above criteria, l shall analyze Pope Benedict’s 2009 apology.

CTV News in 2009 reported, that the pontiff expressed his sorrow and emphasized that “acts of abuse cannot be tolerated”.  Pope Benedict went on to say,

“Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”

Both Mindtools.com and Psychology Today say the words “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize” need to be used. They were not used by the pontiff in 2009. This is the primary argument for why it was  not a real apology. Pope Benedict’s apology definitely fails on this point.

Psychology Today says there needs to be an expression of regret for what happened. The Pontiff expressed his sorrow at the anguish. I’d say that shows regret, so it’s a pass on this one.

Mindtools.com says an apology needs to take responsibility for actions or behaviour as well as acknowledge what occurred. The Holy Father did acknowledge what happened, i.e. “the deplorable conduct of some members of the church”.  It’s debatable whether he’s taken responsibility. Another word for responsibility is accountability, which means being answerable for one’s actions.  Expressing “sorrow” and “regret” is not being accountable . I’d give a fail for this one.

Psychology Todays says an empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of an offender’s actions on the other person, needs to be given.  Benedict talked about “the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church” but that is hardly acknowledging the full impact of the actions. I would give a fail on this one.

Mindtools.com says the offender must take action to make the situation right and promise to never repeat the action or behavior. The pope’s apology fails on these points. Psychology Today says there needs to be a request for forgiveness. This did not happen, so a fail on this one as well.

Canada’s Parliament Buildings

Is our Prime Minister and Canada’s Members of Parliament justified in asking Pope Francis to apologize? After my analysis, I would say a resounding YES. Furthermore, aboard the Papal plane back in 2016, Pope Francis told reporters that gays — and all the other people the church has marginalized, such as the poor and the exploited — deserve an apology (see CBC).  It would seem to me that the indigenous people were marginalized, meaning they were seen as less important by members of the church, as late as 1996 when the last federally operated residential school closed. Actions speak louder than words. The pope needs to put his own words into action and deliver a sincere, acceptable apology to the indigenous people of Canada on behalf of the church he represents. It’s the Christian thing to do!