Does Mindfulness Blunt the Conscience?

Mindfulness in schools: It’s the latest buzz, prompted in part by rapidly-proliferating programs such as Goldie Hawn’s MindUP. In the wake of recent publicity, a blog by Vancouver schoolteacher Tina Oleson argues that non-judgmental awareness (a core teaching of mindfulness) risks “interfering with the child’s ability to heed his sense of right and wrong.” Yet Oleson’s critique belies a fundamental, if understandable, misconception of “non-judgment.”

Oleson’s beef is primarily with MindUP, a mindfulness-based curricula for schoolchildren marketed to teachers as self-regulation (self-control) training. MindUP incorporates neuroscience with positive psychology and mindfulness, with preliminary evidence suggesting the program may foster improved behavioral and social health for kids. But the truth, according to Oleson, “is that MindUP can interfere with a child’s innate self-regulator, the conscience, impeding his moral development and thus his ability to learn.”

At the heart of Oleson’s argument is the unfortunate conflation of non-judgment with non-discernment. Cultivation of non-judgmental awareness facilitates spacious, receptive awareness of the present, as it unfolds, without becoming lost in the habitual spinning tales of the mind and its patterns. As non-judgmental awareness of the present moment is accessed, this spaciousness facilitates deep inner listening that attunes the practitioner to the most discerning course of action. In Kripalu yoga, this deep listening accesses inner wisdom, an analog to one’s conscience.

Thus, if a child is angry and wants to hit someone, a mindful response should not be confused with a non-discerning one. For instance, focusing on the sensations of, “being with” rather than suppressing the emotions, and choosing to sustain present-moment focus rather than auto-reacting will allow the child to make a reasoned decision regarding their behavior. This will arise from discernment, which does employ judgment in the broadest sense. However, discernment refrains from deploying preconceived suppositions, judgments, and hair-trigger reactions in the moment. In sum, discernment facilitates the wisest, most aligned course of action.

As noted, Oleson’s argument assumes that judgment is necessary to discern between right and wrong. She also posits that real self-control comes exclusively from the “tried and true” moral training imbued by adults “directing, warning, correcting, and disciplining [the child to do what is right, whether or not it feels good] day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment.”

Yet this is not either-or. Children absolutely need the guidance of a firm yet loving caregiver to establish healthy boundaries. But Oleson may find it interesting to discover that secure attachment—a consequence of boundaried, loving caregiver-child relationships—is actually linked to greater levels of mindfulness in adulthood.

Mindfulness curricula in schools are part of a broader initiative to foster social and emotional skills training in school-aged children. School psychologists, educators, and children’s advocates argue such trainings foster an improved capacity for self-regulation (self-control). Research suggests that kids who have an increased capacity to regulate their emotions and behavior grow into healthier, happier, better-behaving, higher-earning, better-educated, adults with more stable relationships,

Mindfulness has also been linked to these outcomes, suggesting that mindfulness training may increase the ability to self-regulate. And perhaps, increase children’s capacity to discern between right and wrong.

What do you think about mindfulness techniques being used with school-aged children?


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