First they make you crazy. Then they sell you the cure: Be Mindful of Mindless Mindfulness

Oblong Books, Millerton, N.Y.

Book display at Oblong Books, Millerton, N.Y.

Coloring books for adults are apparently a big new craze.

Amazon’s #1 bestseller in stress management/ self-help is a coloring book. And there are many to choose from with beguiling names like Calm and Balance and Enchanted Forest and Secret Garden.

Now I have no problem with people of any age coloring inside or outside the lines, with doodling, drawing and artistic expression of all kinds, but there is something just a little off about this new trend.

As a doodler I know the necessary satisfaction of creating shapes and filling them as a means of staying cognitively alert. Perhaps coloring books for adults are akin to those mega jigsaw puzzles all in shades of the same color. Or the pleasure of the labyrinth of winding paths, infinite possibility and no dead ends. Or the relaxing and productive combination of repetition and progress of activities like knitting or whittling.

So what’s the problem? Mindfulness is my problem.

My sense of unease parallels my jaundiced view of the latest educational fad: Mindfulness.

Little Red Riding Hood – What is wrong with that girl?

The first blog post I ever wrote back in 2004 was a review of Ellen Langer’s 1997 The Power of Mindful Learning. I rewrote a version here.  The book is a wonderful encouragement for us all to pay more attention to what is right there before us.

Langer uses folk tales to identify pervasive myths, or mindsets, that undermine the process of learning. She opens with:

Once upon a time there was a mindless little girl named Little Red Riding Hood

The example is perfect. Any mindful child or child reader would think: How come she doesn’t know what her grandmother looks and sounds like? What is wrong with that girl? How come she is fooled by the wolf? Makes no sense.

Mindfulness in this sense is paying attention to what is right in front of us and not just accepting things at surface value. It is about looking at the details and discovering the infinite variety of shade, tone, color, shape, meaning of our kaleidoscopic world. We make sense of the world by creating categories. That is a tree this is an animal. That tree is an oak and this animal is a cat. That oak is a white oak that cat is Siamese. And so on. It’s about living in the present and about paying attention in new ways to see what has always been there right in front of our eyes.

Being mindful in this way can be a wonderful regulator of fear. If we develop those categories well enough we can distinguish between the family puppy and the rabid dog and all the canine variations in between. Paying attention means getting skilled at learning the difference between the stranger who means harm and the stranger who could become a best friend.

But mindfulness as increasingly promoted in our schools is something else altogether.

Mindfulness as the new Soma

So – if I’m not against art, or coloring, or relaxation or mindfulness what is my problem? Here it is: The explosion of mindfulness as the cure-all du jour. And I’m wondering why is this happening? Why now?

Brave New World  is Aldous Huxley’s ironic title for his dystopian novel. In this future the fictional drug soma has “All of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects.” Huxley takes the word soma – this “Christianity without tears” – from an unknown drug believed to have been used in ancient Indian Vedic cults as part of religious ceremonies. The soma of Brave New World is a perversion of that ancient drug. Rather than conferring insight and wisdom it clouds reality. It is not used to deliver enlightenment but rather to blunt ugly truths that arise to disturb the surface of experience. Soma is a tool of the state to keep its citizens quiet and to prevent them from the seeing the truth and demanding change.


Let’s consider education

Almost fifteen years into NCLB we have more children left behind and we are more test obsessed than ever. We seem to be accelerating an achievement oriented, stress-inducing culture of schooling and it is driving our kids and teachers crazy. It has nothing to do with learning and everything to do with creating winners and losers. First we stress the kids out and then we give the mindfulness as a means to cope. Therapy dogs for the wounded soul.

There’s nothing wrong with therapy dogs. I’m sure many people’s lives might be improved by playing with a happy puppy and certainly by spending more time in the natural world and being with nature. My difficulty is not with the proposed solutions to stress and the frantic pace of life (yoga, meditation, mindfulness) – but with the quite unnecessary creation of the problem in the first place.

Yoga and meditation used to be the province of those counter cultural wanderers who had headed for the Himalayas, discovered eastern mysticism and returned with new ways to live. Now they have gone mainstream and – rebranded as mindfulness – are prescribed for everyone as a means for coping with the stress and pace of modern life. So – buy my coloring book so you don’t have to worry so much about money.

We are driving our kids crazy and we have to stop

I have no problem with children learning anything that can help them thrive in our stress-inducing, anxiety-ridden age. My problem lies with the fact that we must first stop creating and exacerbating the problems to which all this is then the answer. As a society we are driving our kids crazy and we have to stop.

So – great to see this Salon article by David Forbes:

They want kids to be robots: Meet the new education craze designed to distract you from over-testing

“Reformers” talk about mindfulness as if it’s an answer, not just another way to sneak corporate culture in schools

From inner-city classrooms to wealthy boarding schools the mindfulness juggernaut has hit education. A recent Atlantic article shows that despite its “inherent nebulousness” as a concept and little evidence that mindfulness impacts academic success, educators and researchers are doubling down selling it to schools, students and teachers. Proponents want to show that mindfulness is real, practical, and can benefit everyone. They want students and teachers to de-stress, be compassionate, and better regulate their own thoughts, feelings and actions.


Unhealthy Schools and Sick Kids

So what’s wrong with that? David Forbes says we have to ask why? Why now? And who gains by this?

When you read the horror stories coming out of some charter schools  – see here and here for just two examples -it’s easy to start believing that “mindfulness” is

… a way to amp up an education system that will create compliant students who can manage their own behavior, focus on their assignments, and calm themselves when angry or frustrated with school. Such students can then turn into passive, unquestioning consumers and cooperative workers who will help their corporate employers better compete in the global economy.

What bothers me is that these solutions that teach children how to calm themselves and self-regulate are all about the individual, not about “us”. It’s a quick fix to gloss over the truth and it has the feel of a corporate rebranding exercise. Instead of looking at what really ails us as a society we are induced to buy the fix for our problems. Let’s not make school more meaningful and work less stressful. Let’s not focus on actual balance in life that integrates meaningful work with the rest of our lives. Instead, let’s pile on the stress and then have people fix it in mindfulness sessions in their own time. They then can deal with even more stress. Hurray!

Instead of teaching kids how to actually become lifelong and healthy learners and supporting teachers, let’s get them used to “being treated like you’re on the trading floor at Goldman.”

We are stressing kids out and making them mentally and physically sick

There’s this from yesterday’s Poughkeepsie Journal: School Psychologists: Common Core is giving kids anxiety. It’s just one of many such alarm signals from educators and mental health experts.

First we make then sick. Then we create and sell the cure.
What are the symptoms of test anxiety?

Test anxiety symptoms fall into 3 categories: physical, emotional, and cognitive/behavioral. The physical symptoms may include: headaches, stomach aches and nausea. Emotional symptoms may include: crying and feelings of irritability. Cognitive/behavioral symptoms could include difficulties focusing and paying attention.


How about rejecting this as normal, or useful or necessary or education?

How to treat test anxiety?

Different students experience different levels of test anxiety. Some could procrastinate, for example. Self-relaxation techniques and positive self-talk can help alleviate stress. Yoga, exercise, good nutrition and good sleep habits can help. Therapy may be necessary in severe cases or help from school clinicians.

How about getting involved in making our schools places of joyful learning for all our children?

In this unchallenged scenario the responsibility is on the child and the family to fix the problem that school has created. A better solution would be to demand a school and an education that does not make children sick. And demand an education that does not reduce learning to test taking and turns children, teachers and schools into test scores.

Pushing individual success, high stakes testing and competition creates unhealthy stress.

Rather than work toward a healthier way of learning and living we are now to be given the stress antidote of mindfulness so we can go back and stress and compete even more. And when that fails there is always medication or punishment or both. Something is very wrong with this scenario. For starters, it runs counter to the truly powerful ideas of togetherness, sharing, and collective responsibility. How about children working together to ensure everyone makes progress? There’s clear evidence that such approaches are very effective. How about actually sharing the work that needs to be done and sharing the rewards rather than pushing ourselves to run faster and faster on the hamster wheel. What if we worked together to meet a goal rather than competed to be the one on the top of the heap?

When children’s distress and anxiety are caused by unhealthy schools they are urged to learn to manage themselves, self- regulate and all that other good stuff. And it is good stuff. The world is a stressful place and those tools can be useful for managing those things over which we have little or no control. But why should that be true of the school?  School should be the place where children learn about themselves and their place in the world – places of joyful learning, growth and activity. Not dead zones.

Unhealthy Schools and Sick kids:  It’s Time We Stepped Back15368050801_f14a6c001e_o

It’s time we stepped back and added our collective voices to try to end this madness. Time to look at what we doing to children and young people with our ramped up expectations. The frenzy to achieve is robbing children of their childhood. Look at what has happened to kindergarten – full of performance demands and worksheets and homework and other self-defeating, soul-destroying clutter. Being stressed in a childhood full of test frenzy is not a personal failing. It’s an artificially induced state of sickness.

Children learn to see stressful experiences and how they respond to them as their responsibility—there is something inside of me I alone must change instead of looking at how my problems arise within unjust societal relationships and systems. Benign on the surface, mindfulness becomes a disguised pedagogy of social control. 

For Forbes mindfulness is about control and getting everyone to accept the status quo – an insidious technique to keep everyone accepting the unacceptable. And working harder to raise those meaningless test scores.

And worse is that some educators are oblivious to the agenda. Teachers see their kids stressed out. They are stressed out. And rather than work to call a halt they are being sold on how to manage rather than resist this new normal. There’s money to be made selling materials to schools to help them cope with test stress.

Well-intentioned mindfulness proponents in education are not mere hacks for the corporate elite. They feel they provide students skills to gain academic and personal success. Some even believe they are infusing Buddhist values like compassion and self-awareness into secular settings. While some students benefit from mindfulness, however, they are just as likely to benefit from any good education or counseling program—still sorely lacking in many schools—that provides them respectful, caring attention, social support, critical analysis, and useful skills for self-awareness and self-understanding.

Let’s return for a moment to those backpacking counter cultural wanderers and to those who have searched for inner peace and meaning and found answers that include the moral and spiritual wisdom of the Buddhist tradition. That tradition is about enlightenment and developing our intellectual capacity to the fullest. It is about waking up, compassion and kindness. Admirable goals and worthy aspirations. Nothing wrong with that. It would be good to see schools helping children know themselves better and see themselves as a part of the great universe. But the mindfulness fad is often about mindless acceptance of the unacceptable – more to do with mitigating symptoms of sickness rather than true self-awareness and personal growth.

Mindfulness often stresses the need to be present in the moment. And we do need to be aware of ourselves, but we also need to understand our social relations and external realities. This means getting a grip on how we got here and an understanding of our history, economics and social circumstance. We need to see our problems as belonging to us but also as a function of external social conditions. By these means we connect personal experience with an informed understanding of the world. It means the realization that we can go beyond passive acceptance and we can do something about the inequality and injustice we see.  If testing is making our kids sick then we need to do something about the cause and not try to fix the kids so that they can adjust. The tyranny of testing is not an enduring God-given reality but an ill conceived “mind forg’d manacles”. And it’s driving our kids crazy.

Mindfulness and Grit

Mindfulness and its attendant positive thinking and grit are the prescribed wonder drugs of our brave new world that like Huxley’s soma have “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” And of course if and when that fails there is always Big Pharma to lend a helping hand.

David Forbes has much more to say in his article and I recommend reading it in full. No enemy to mindful practice he presents an alternative – a progressive integral mindfulness that is infused with social justice and the power of community.

Maybe this coloring book anti-stress fad will go the way of pet rocks, smoking, scented candles and drinking strange colored liquids out of jam jars with handles as just another arrow in the anti-stress quiver. Meanwhile – taking action against the sea of troubles over which we have a measure of control – e.g. making kids sick in school  – is also a good stress reliever.


  1. Excellent reflection Josie.

    I have many issues with the ‘mindfulness’ fad. For someone who supports people in living life consciously, I see this as a glossing over of something truly powerful made into a western approach that is missing so much of the important info. It is an attempt to obtain the result without the practice and theory behind it.

    It is our way of life in the United States (and elsewhere – but here especially) to create the problem and then sell the cure.

    I think Tums for adults is idiotic because each of us has the capacity to change our diets and our lifestyle and pay attention to what we can and cannot eat. But when I saw Tums for kids hit the market I just shook my head. The whole notion of taking something to offset stress and/or poor eating habits or taking something that allows us to eat something that our body is clearly telling us not to eat is absurd to me. No thought to suggest changing the diet or understanding what in the world would cause indigestion in a child and no attempt to teach a child to listen to their body. Instead we teach them to ignore their own bodies.

    As you point out the introduction of Mindfulness in the way that it is being offered is equally absurd. ‘Sorry we’re stressing you out kids, how about you take a moment to check in so you can notice how stressed out you are. Now let’s get back to that stress,’ and here have a Tums while you’re at it for all that stress related stomach acid.

    From pharmaceuticals, to sleep aids, to lactose free milk, we are a culture that sees a problem and rather than fixing the problem, looks for something that will make it go away. The only problem is, those cures are surface cures, they mask the problem rather than heal it.

    That is what, in my opinion this approach to Mindfulness that is sweeping around does and why I have such a problem with it. When it first hit the papers my immediate reaction was ‘no this isn’t right, it’s consciousness-light.’ I expressed my concern to a few who were teaching it and was in cloaked ways basically told-off. In the end I settled on ‘something is better than nothing.’

    But the difference between putting a band-aid on something and actually healing it is, to me, the exact difference between practicing mindfulness and living life consciously.

    You have hit the nail on the head with your reflection. Stress in children is a sign that something is not right and needs to change rather than have a band-aid thrown at it. And still, sadly as long as this is the reality so many children are faced with, practicing mindfulness is better than the children having no support whatsoever.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful response Christine. It’s interesting that the author of the Salon article that was the starting point for my post – David Forbes – is no enemy of truly mindful practice. It’s about having that finely tuned crap detector on full alert to see the difference between what has authentic value and what has been co-opted by commercial interests. And in the case of education it’s about the righteous outrage about unnecessary and unhealthy practices that are making kids sick.

  2. I really love this post Josie. I totally agree. I also witness my friends (adults) buying into all the “Mindfulness” hype. Mindfulness has turned into a consumer pastime and the worse thing is, it makes them so pious. If I share a problem I am having, they quote Ekhart Tolle at me with a smug smile on their face or flash me their cheap pyramid shaped jewelry that cost £100, but it’s worth it because it re-balances their chakras! Meanwhile, they struggle to put food on the table for their kids. But, they/we are stressed out children, that have become stressed out adults. I just spoke with a friend, who’s son has started Secondary school. He is 11 yrs old and has 3hrs homework a night, his parent has to help him do most of it and therefore, gets stressed out herself. She is a single mum with a full time job who has now has the extra burden of doing bloody homework every night! I really don’t think colouring books are going to help her, she just needs this craziness to stop. The currently, school system is stressing EVERYONE out, it is an insane system.

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