The Dharma Primary School in Britain teaches mindfulness as part of its Buddhist ethos.

Last September Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng did not mince words at Salon Magazine: “Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less,” arguing that the trend to corporate mindfulness encourages the employee to adapt to stressful conditions instead of changing them.

Underlying the accusation is a problem implicit in the concept of mindfulness in pursuit of corporate goals: The traditional meditator might gladly forego income to find inner peace, but not to improve the corporate bottom line. Mixing the two goals certainly creates the potential for exploitation of workers. Traditional mindfulness coaches are speaking out about such abuses:

One executive leads a mandatory guided imagery session (to the dread of his staffers); another leader fails to confront underperforming workers for fear that it would conflict with their newly minted mindful disposition.

Guided imagery is not even generally considered a mindfulness practice. Just as Zabat-Zinn has tried to dissociate himself from the McMindfulness fad he unintentionally started, James Brown, founder of the American Yoga School (which trains yoga teachers) has largely left the field. He terms the fad a “colossal failure”:

It’s been less than 50 years since the first group yoga class happened but in that short time, the content of those classes has veered so far off course that it falls well outside of even the most open and generous definitions of yoga practice.

Classes with yoga in the name are a free-for-all now. Most of them are led by people who have practiced for a short time, then took a short training with an inexperienced teacher. Instructions about how to practice yoga have become practically extinct, replaced by music, smiles, and well-intentioned but misguided falsehoods.

At Tricycle, a western Buddhist blog, Richard K. Payne, Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley (and Shingon priest) addresses “the misguided debate about mindfulness and morality”. He notes, “Mindfulness researchers and proponents alike have become entrenched in well-defined and increasingly institutionalized positions regarding ethics,”and blames Western vs. Eastern religious orientations.

He goes on to admit that his own approach “does not resolve any questions about whether mindfulness training programs should teach morality or what kind of morality they should teach, or even the relation of morality to mindfulness training.” That news would make many parents uncomfortable with mindfulness programs in schools.

But it makes sense: Traditional Buddhist mindfulness is often geared to lifetime adherents, stable and mature older persons—not to children in compulsory Western school systems. The master does not expect to spend much time explaining to the student why bullying or substance abuse are bad things.

There have been some reports of a positive impact in schools, for example from a program in British Columbia (Canada) funded by Goldie Hawn’s foundation: “Our findings suggest that children who are taught mindfulness — to pay attention to the present intentionally and without judgment — are better positioned to succeed both in school and in life.” Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids and Teens (2015) is one of many recent books targeting that demographic with “pearls of wisdom and practical advice.” However, mindfulness teaching in schools can raise legal issues.

A recent controversy in Cape Cod focused on allegations that the Calmer Choice program could violate separation of church and state by teaching Buddhist principles. But what if it doesn’t teach any principles? Prominent British headmaster David Lambon points out that, absent ethical teachings, mindfulness training does not prepare children for the real world:

“It doesn’t really ask them to find their true personality or to have core values that will guide them through all the problems they will face in their lifetime. They might face a separation, disappointment in their working lives and they need something that they can go back to.

“We need to give children not just coping strategies but values that they can rely on no matter what life throws at them. We need to give them something that forms their character as opposed to how they cope with the situation.

He has put his finger on a critical issue: The strength of current mindfulness training in schools is also its weakness. It dodges current church-state issues by not being about any belief system. But mindfulness apart from agreed standards of ethics or character isn’t even clearly a benefit. He argues,

… taking children to see more disadvantaged areas of their community or doing volunteer is a more effective way to teach them to cope with stress because it helps them change perspective rather than being caught up in their anxiety.

In any event, for some people, the anxiety can stem from the mindfulness practices themselves.  

Next: Part 4: When is mindfulness a help? When can it be a risk?

See also: Part 1: Responding thoughtfully to the mindfulness fad, Part 2: Mindfulness is not a product or service

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...