Are Mindfulness Practices Religious and do they Belong in Public Institutions? 

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By the Mindful Leader Team

At the 2019 Mindful Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, two critics and two pioneers of mindfulness met and debated. What happened during it was a fascinating look into different sides of the same issue with well-considered points and a wealth of detail. This was enough to make this one of the top-rated sessions of the weekend, with reactions that ranged from, "The debate was amazing!" to long, thought out opinions on the format and arguments, but one thing was clear: nobody who saw it could stop talking about it. 

Candy Gunther Brown, Ph.D., expert witness in four legal disputes against mindfulness in public-schools, was in discussion with Barnaby Spring, who is leading one of the largest Mindfulness in Education programs in the world (serving one million students) for the NYC Department of Education. They discussed the question: Are mindfulness practices religious and do they belong in public institutions?

Here is the transcript of this short version of the debate:

Mo Edjlali: Incredibly excited about our next session here. We are trying something a little new. We've never done this before, and we've set up a conversation with critics and pioneers. For Barnaby and Candy, are mindfulness practices religious and do they belong in public institutions?

Barnaby Spring: Mindfulness should and must be and is being taught in public education and is continuing to be embraced in public education as it continues to be researched, critiqued, debated, and modified to ensure the highest quality of public service in delivering this right to students to develop awareness, acceptance, and action as lifelong learners in the 21st century and as members of a democratic and just society. That's it.

Candy Brown: Efforts to secularize mindfulness by subtracting words and symbols that appear religious and adding scientific justifications do not remove foundational assumptions and values. Even if many people experience benefits from mindfulness and can cite scientific evidence of benefits, there are legal and ethical reasons for transparency and voluntarism. Mindfulness can have a place in public institutions, if offered using a voluntary opt-in model of informed consent.

Mindfulness practices teach ethical ideals of how one should pay attention non-judgmentally, free of grasping, aversion or delusion with loving, kindness, and compassion. These ideals are inspired by the Buddhist The Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Three Marks of Existence, Three Poisons, Three Jewels and Four Virtues. Simply subtracting religious words and symbols and adding scientific justifications do not undercut this foundation.

It's good if teachers can choose, but students deserve the same right of choice. Insisting that mindfulness is universal overlooks its culturally specific history and contested meanings. 

Barnaby Spring: Mindfulness is not dogma, and debate is not about winning, it's about learning. 

Being on the spot means that you can respond to anything in a moment. That's about mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about becoming part of a religion. Mindfulness is about staying mindful in the moment and continuing to be in the moment and functioning in ways that make it possible for us to continue to deal with the increasingly complex and ever-changing challenges of our lives. 

Candy Brown: There can be periods when ideas are rejected, and contested and then accepted, but that, again, doesn't get at the question of are these religious ideals, and what is it that changes when you're taking ideas from a religious tradition or a set of religious traditions? Because if it's Catholic, that's still not secular, but what has changed to actually make it secular? That's really the question, and is adding and subtracting enough?

I am not saying that there's no place for mindfulness in public institutions. What I am advocating for is transparency about these religious connections and for voluntarism in terms of participation. 

It is good when teachers or employers can decide whether to have mindfulness practices, but it's also important for students and employees to have a real choice in participation without it being shade by authority and power differentials in terms of position, and an opt-out model is not sufficient to ensure that kind of freedom because of those differentials.

Barnaby Spring: Candy described basically the approach that we're taking in the New York City Department of Education to introducing mindfulness and yoga in ways that are not about coercing, or making it mandatory, or making it a roll-out or making it an initiative. In fact, we've been very mindful of introducing it first to public educators who are citizens in this country and licensed to teach to investigate for themselves and to decide. 

Mindfulness supports development of critical thinking, sustained resilience, accessible communication, and the effective collaboration to ensure the articulation and the understanding of public issues emerging from this collective awareness like in this room right now that simultaneously cultivates civil agency to take public and transformative action in healthy and deviant ways for the common good for a whole and healed society. This is the fact and the sign of a healthy democracy in this country. Every child in public education has a birthright to this social mindfulness.

Here are some other attendees' thoughts about the debate. 

"The debate was fascinating and really challenged some of my thinking around offering mindfulness in a way that is legally and ethically appropriate for all. It was one of the greatest presentations of the conference, as we need to hear out all sides to ensure appropriate execution. I would love to see a debate like this again in the future."

"The debate was an important step to encouraging conversations with people who have alternative viewpoints. I am extremely interested in the intersection of mindfulness and conscious capitalism. Bravo!"

"The debate was... wow. I don't think I have words. I have never seen anything like it. I learned so much. I couldn't keep up with my note-taking. It's such an important discussion and it was inspiring to hear from such bright minds."

Click here to watch the full debate for more of their well-reasoned and thoughtful discussion, and to see the topic of mindfulness and capitalism discussed. Click here for recommendations on how to have mindfulness programs in schools without religious issues.

Are mindfulness practices religious and do they belong in public institutions? Do you agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.



The debate was an important step to encouraging conversations with people who have alternative viewpoints. I am extremely interested in the intersection of mindfulness and conscious capitalism. Bravo!"

As I am convinced there is an intersection of mindfulness and conscious capitalism, would you have any contact or documents to share on this issue ?

thank you so much


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Mindful Leader

Hi Nathalie,  thanks for your comment.  You can watch the full debate video which includes an exploration of capitalism here and we are planning to share and explore more around this very timely topic.

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