Mindfulness meditation and laïcité in France
This new school year in France, some pupils will learn mindfulness meditation. Will this jeopardise their freedom of conscience?
This weekly comment was written by Clémence Sauty and reflects her personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.
Is mindfulness meditation deceptive?
As a new school year is starting in France, 650 schools will teach mindfulness meditation through short exercises after playtime. This experiment will show if practices such as breathing mindfully and observing one’s thoughts can lessen anxiety and promote prosocial behaviour in students. Arguing this would reduce children’s alertness, the vigilant association Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (League of Human Rights) released a warning statement in July.
Since it is serious and prominent, the association caught a lot of attention in the mainstream media. As a result, French public authorities remain hesitant, while other European countries have welcomed meditation in schools and publicly spoken about their various advantages. To illustrate, the Ministry of Interior received 4 times more complaints about meditation and yoga in 2020 than in 2017. This shows a perceived increase in sectarian risk associated with these practices.
The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme states that introducing mindfulness in schools is dangerous. One of the reasons for this is that it would make children vulnerable to psychological, spiritual, and religious manipulation. “Focusing the thought on vacuity, this meditation rapidly leads to a conditioning and a loss of critical thinking,” making way for religious indoctrination, it says. The association appeals to the principle of laïcité, which affirms that the State is impartial to the citizen’s faith and neither funds nor promotes religious practices.
Both religious and non-religious French citizens have expressed similar fears. I speculate that they are not as afraid of mindfulness meditation as they are afraid of the possibility of becoming indoctrinated. I further suggest that this fear is grounded in the belief that spirituality is necessarily religious.
Generally helpful, sometimes harmful
In France, mindfulness was largely adapted from Buddhism and Catholicism by therapist Christophe André. He himself experienced the benefits of meditation during his stays in monasteries, and decided to create a secular version to help his patients cope with phobias, depression and anxiety.
The medical benefits are indeed numerous, from preventing depressive relapses to improving sleep. Some therapists therefore use mindfulness meditations in public hospitals in order to emphasise the positive effects of treatments. Coaches also use guided meditation as a tool for improving the performances of their athletes. This technique enables athletes to take a step back, and think clearly even when their bodies are struggling.
However, some medical conditions have recently proven to be worsened by mindfulness meditation. People with personality disorders, panic attacks, and long lasting depression have reported suicidal thoughts and anxiety peaks during meditation. Over 55 scientific studies, an average of 8% people felt adverse effects while meditating. This does not question the benefits of this practice, but it goes to show that supervision is necessary and not everyone can meditate.
But the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme asks if anyone should practice mindfulness meditation.
Letting go of stress, not freedom of conscience
The overall usefulness of mindfulness meditation is scientifically proven. Opponents argue that in a Western context that dissociates ‘science’ and ‘religion’, equating mindfulness with science serves to hide its religious influences.
Both believers and non-believers have expressed concerns about the power of persuasion of this specific meditation. Non-believers who claim they favour laïcité over any benefit mindfulness meditation could have, find that it is a threat to their freedom of conscience. Many believers of all religions are unsettled, as by other imported spiritual practices that were detached from their religious context of origin. In the US, the practice of yoga as an innocent sport raised a great debate among Christians.
In France, the debate over mindfulness is questioning the thoroughness of secularisation. Can one be completely sure that any practice initially created by religious people can be emptied of religious meaning and power? It seems to me that this fear reveals a greater fear of religious indoctrination. Opponents do not want to ‘let go’ of their wariness towards foreign religions.
It is not only mindfulness meditation that is queried, but also secularisation itself.
Spiritual, not religious
For the time being, many adults do not trust secularised meditation to be secular enough. This, I suggest, is because it is only recently that spirituality and religion have become separate. It is true that mindfulness can have a spiritual component to it, as it aims at getting in touch with one’s interior life. However, it rarely has religious – or institutional – dimensions. The commodified version of this meditation is a-religious. Rather, it is adapted to contemporary searches for well-being and productivity.
Mindfulness meditation has become socially accepted amongst young French people, who are less and less embarrassed to declare that they meditate. School-aged children, however, depend on adults to offer them effective ways to get acquainted with their mind and regulate their emotions and feelings.
I believe mindfulness meditation could be an educational means to this end, as long as it is practiced with caution in a self-reflective way. That this appears to be currently difficult tells a lot about how precarious the principle of laïcité feels in France.
This weekly coment was written by Clémence Sauty and reflects her personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.
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 Père Jean-Christophe Thibaud, Un regard chrétien sur… la sophrologie, Artège, 2021