The current craze for meditation is accompanied by more and more initiatives to teach this discipline at school. These teachings are now available through a wide variety of courses inspired by most mindfulness programs for stress management. (mindfulness-based stress reduction programs), that is to say through a main anchoring of attention towards the bodily dimension of mental experiences and a curious but neutral observation of these. The principle is therefore to learn to study one’s own mental life to better understand its spontaneous dynamics and gradually have the levers to stop unsuitable automatisms.
Very reliable studies
What are the benefits for students and teachers? Faced with an increasingly abundant literature, Katrin Weare, Emeritus Professor at the University of Southampton, England, has made it her mission to jointly analyze all the studies published on this topic in order to extract well-validated general messages. scientifically. And his first observation is that the level of rigor with which these interventions based on meditation at school (IBM, or MBI in English) are evaluated is similar to that of the clinical studies that we have come to know well with the crisis of the Covid. This is good news, because the effects of teaching meditation are now almost systematically compared to those of “placebo” interventions with participants randomly assigned to groups (according to the principle of randomized-control trialsveritable justices of the peace of biomedical research).
An initiation, more than a real practice
From around forty studies published before 2018, Katrin Weare first concluded that, on the whole, students and teachers appreciate these meditation programs, which is obviously an essential prerequisite. On average, the interventions screened offered about ten hours of meditation at school, spread over several weeks. Let’s keep these figures in mind, considering what these doses of practice could bring to a young person who would like to become a footballer or a pianist – obviously, nothing compares to a real preparation program! This is clearly a discovery of meditation and not a real training. Despite everything, the evaluations carried out before and after these programs – often in the form of questionnaires – reveal a positive influence (“small” to “moderate”) on the psychoaffective sphere, with in particular an impact on stress and depression, and more. generally on social relations within the class. Weare does not hesitate to speak of a “total consensus” regarding the beneficial effects on the social and psychological level, with better sociability and a greater ability to regulate one’s emotions.
The effects on the cognitive level are less obvious and mainly concern the ability to concentrate (for which there is detectable progress) and the students’ awareness of their own mental and cognitive functioning. The first result – concentration – was quite predictable, for anyone who understood that all forms of meditation involve some discipline of attention, to bring it back again and again to a predefined object, physical or mental, be it the breath. , the flame of a candle or the mental image of an object. It is rather the relative weakness of the reported effects that then raises questions. But how can you seriously imagine that ten hours devoted to mastering and controlling the excesses of your attention can lead to major progress? What might be enough to learn to juggle with three balls or solve the Rubik’s cube is probably not enough for the vast construction site of controlling one’s mental life.
But it must also be understood that the practice of meditation ultimately only deals with one aspect of the education of attention – its stabilization on a target, which can be narrow or wide, but which is always well identified at the start. In ‘real life’, students are faced with complex, often intellectual tasks, where attention can be lost on a thousand objects, all of which may seem important. A good concentration is then only possible after a work of clarification of its immediate objective and definition of its object of attention (what is the instruction of the statement that I must keep in mind? How will I I keep it active while carrying out intermediate stages of the work?), a capacity that must be acquired elsewhere.
One of the particularly promising elements of meditation at school is the discovery by the child of his own mental life and its dynamics: the various natures of the thoughts that one can have, how they are linked, etc. . Meditation indeed proposes to put one’s attention on a precise target – typically, the sensation of one’s own breathing – and then to observe how the attention is regularly led to drift towards all sorts of other concerns, such as thoughts, memories , emotions, to relentlessly bring attention back to the breath. It is, therefore, a good way to become aware of the uninterrupted flow of our thoughts and concerns.
Identifying attention lapses
As a result, meditation represents a royal gateway to what is called “metacognition” (the knowledge that one can have of one’s own thought mechanisms) and the understanding of the mental procedures that we use to solve problems. We can therefore imagine that meditation helps the student to observe and understand how his mental engine works, and what goes wrong when he makes mistakes, for example. So we know that mind wandering – dropping out of class to get lost in thought – is one of the main obstacles to learning. But these moments of escape always seem to start with an initial phase where a first thought arises (“Hey, tonight I’m going to be able to buy some new shoes”), before leading to another, then another, etc. . This is the ignition phenomenon (ignitionin English) described by the two leading experts in this field, Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood: based on the experience of experienced meditators, it is possible that meditation develops the ability to notice this ignition point to deviate the movement of attention aspiration through distracting thoughts, and redirect it towards external perceptions (specifically, the teacher’s presentation), thanks to the development of a capacity for metacognitive observation of one’s mental life .
Towards a certificate of meditating educator?
One of the findings that Katrin Weare emphasizes the most is that no adverse effects have been observed: “The scientific literature on this point continues to report virtually no adverse effects of mindfulness-based interventions, whether on the side of students or educators. This is obviously a very important point because the manipulation of one’s own attention is a powerful means of action on one’s brain activity, which could lead to unwanted mental states. We must, for example, question ourselves about “advanced” meditations oriented towards constituent aspects of the self (who am I really? What is at the origin of my actions? emotions?…), but these objects of attention are totally outside the scope of the practices taught at school. Let’s keep a certain vigilance all the same as to the evolution of the types of meditation that teenagers could engage in solo in search of answers to existential questions or simply in search of sensations. Let us not forget that, historically, meditation has always been taught within the framework of close relations between very experienced masters and their disciples, with close monitoring of the mental states of the student. It is not said that the western mode of distribution which is advocated at the moment – rapid distribution to the greatest number by teachers who often have only a few years of practice themselves – allows such close monitoring. of the inner journey in which more and more young and enthusiastic followers are engaging. Moreover, Weare insists on the need for the teachers who introduce meditation in their class to be themselves very experienced in terms of this practice, and this is probably where the shoe pinches, because there is no level of requirement comparable to that required of music teachers at the conservatory, for example, where one can only claim to teach after years of rigorous practice regularly evaluated by one’s peers. The establishment of objective and strict criteria would also make it possible to avoid drifts which are always possible in the theoretical explanations given to the pupils (rebalancing of the cerebral hemispheres and other neuromyths).
This is undoubtedly what we must pay attention to with the entry of meditation into school. As for the allegations, recently brandished by the League for the Rights of Man, according to which the introduction of meditation in school would threaten the separation of Church and State, they unfortunately reflect a dismaying incomprehension what the teaching of meditation and religion in general are now.
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Meditation helps students
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