Would the Bhudda Differentiate?

The roshi (Zen master) who is taking us through our day-long Zen workshop today is warm, smart, sharp, has no problem using some choice profanity, trained in pyschology, and incredibly kind. And then he says this, with the unequivocal conviction of someone with over 35 years’ practice under his belt:

“When you sit in meditation, you still the body, which in turn stills the mind, because the mind and the body are really indivisible. You learn how to really concentrate. Which means, of course, that you then learn how to concentrate in your daily living. You become better at anything you do.”

Put this up against a very different workshop I attended not too long ago, the title of which might have been “101 Ways to Help Students Fart Around While Still Being Productive.”

We talked about using pipe cleaners as “fiddle sticks” for our tactile kids, allowing our kinesthetic kids to pace, teaching our musical kids to tap the pad of cartilage in front of their ear canal to make a soundless drum for themselves. I bought in. I still do.

And now I’m stuck.

You could argue with me about the suggestion that we should teach kids to meditate (although people have, with success). But no one’s going to argue that kids in school need to concentrate. So if, as Roshi suggests, the best means to concentration–  true, genuine, concentration, with the focus of a lazer– is to focus and quiet the body, then are we doing these kids any favors by teaching them what may amount to a bucketful of ways to better suck their thumbs?

Thoughts, anyone?

12 thoughts on “Would the Bhudda Differentiate?

  1. I see two issues, one psychological and one spiritual.

    No one would suggest meditation for a newborn, but some middle schoolers have that level of maturity. The ones who can meditate are the ones who already can concentrate. Meditation is a technique for improving concentration, not creating it.

    How you meditate is a direct result of your spiritual perspective. A person who believes people are basically good will meditate differently than another who believes that people are basically evil.

    Dina, do you believe that your students are basically good or basically evil? Answer this question and you’ll have the key to unlocking this paradox.

  2. I go to a Unitarian Universalist congregation that includes a lot of Buddhist practices from Thailand and India. The minister has picked up on a routine where you clear your mind, but as stray thoughts enter, which they always seem to, you don’t try to squash, or ignore them, but instead look acknowledge, and become aware of them, and allow them to fade away of their own accord. I find this easier as someone who is attention-challenged to use this method, but would this work with kids, no idea.

  3. Ya know, I’m thinking, maybe fiddlesticks are like meditation that involves movement or chant, and in those, the movement actually helps focus concentration?

  4. Excellent post. Great question.

    As someone with a “monkey mind” of his own, one thing that I am acutely aware of is that when I am engaged and interested in something in my environment, my concentration is laser sharp. If I’m not engaged, on the other hand, I have the same attention span as my two-year old son. Meditation training has helped me to disguise my short attention span somewhat, but it is still a reality.

    I notice with some of the boys I teach that simply allowing them to stand instead of sit while they work has dramatically increased their ability to maintain their attention to a task. So, too, for some students, allocating longer blocks of time to a task so that once they get in the zone, they can stay there has helped.

    I wonder a few things in all of this: what do different kinds of concentration look like (surely there must be more ways to display attention and concentration than what is explored in sitting meditation)? I know that I use a very different sort of concentration when I am playing sports than when I am reading, and a whole different type still when I’m watching birds in the forest.

    What we can do to help students get there—into the zone?

    What can we do to keep them there once we’ve got them?

  5. Good timing on the post, I asked my minister about it today after the service. He’s done a lot of study, and spent time in monasteries in the U.S., Thailand, and India.

    First, there is no one way to practice. The Bhudda has a number of meditation practices, but he was working through the process himself, and seeking what worked best. My minister comes from what you might think of as the “Howard Gardner” school of Buddhism, that different practices work for different people. You’ll know if the fidgets are helpful for your students meditate and for their classwork, if they actually help lower their agitation/nervousness, so have them use them, and ask them, “Do you feel less agitated?” and if they answer “yes” or something similar, then that will be helpful for concentration, whether in meditation or classwork. This is a great way for getting them to self-analyze, btw. There are lots of meditation practices that have some kinesthetics involved (think prayer beads), so it obviously works for some.

  6. I would think that concentration ability varies on 1. task- are you intrinsically interested in the task or not?
    2. setting- is the setting filled with distractions or not?
    3. emotional state- how are you feeling at the time of the task?
    Well, you get the picture- so perhaps different techniques apply to different combinations of variables.

    What did you expect or want to learn from your workshop?

  7. how about asking a kid to concentrate, really focused and all, on pipe cleaners?

    you could, proverbially speaking, but probably much to the chagrin of any Zen master, kill two birds with one tactile, often still stone.

  8. @ken: Alfie Kohn suggests “feed two birds from the same feeder” for a semantically equivalent but, well, nicer metaphor.

    @Dina: Your impossible question is appreciated, as always, and I have no idea how to answer it. At the risk of taking too simple a way out, I’m inclined to like this question just for its apparent defiance of a correct answer and to leave it at that.

  9. Hey Pal,

    First—hope you’re well. Been slammed around here lately—-have your email in my inbox, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet!

    Second, the only question that I’d have for your Maharishi is whether or not he can remember the developmental stages of middle schoolers!

    The fidgeting that I see in my classroom can often be explained by growing bodies that can be just plain painful. I let kids walk and pace and drum and fiddle not because they need it from a mental standpoint, but because they need it from a physical standpoint.

    From what I’ve read, the “growing pains” that many kids go through can be very real—and movement can help to lesson that pain.

    Now, the only hitch in my thinking is that I know kids can sit still and concentrate for hours and hours and hours on end. Otherwise, Nintendo would have gone out of business years ago!

    Maybe we can encourage the kind of deep concentration that you describe……


  10. I really don’t like doctrinaire approaches to a lot of things. I don’t like folks who say there’s one way to teach, or there is one way to meditate. There are roshiis and teachers who say this, and they either have run into a “black swan” to disprove their theory, or they’ve ignored it in all it’s dark and awesome beauty.

  11. Great comments, thanks. My thinking is really benefiting.

    Emerging themes:

    a) that students may not be developmentally ready for Japanese Zen meditation of the style I am beginning to learn. I can see the wisdom of this up to a point, except when I picture all those four and five year olds in mountain monasteries doing just fine. 😉
    Certainly it makes sense to modify meditation for the diverse needs of young people (as it might for adults– read alice’s comments on beads), but exactly how, I wouldn’t know. A question to ask the roshi, if I see him again. Nothing doctrinaire about him, I should say, thank goodness.

    b)It makes sense to me that “concentration is not concentration is not concentration.” (Now there’s a neuroscience class I would have loved to have taken in my preservice training.) What states of concentration are we asking for in class? For what activities? What actions facilitate which levels of concentration, and which suits learning best? I find I have no idea– well, some. Nancie Atwell describes being “in the reading zone”. Ed Deci talks about moments when we are at our most authentic, when the clock stops, when we are completely absorbed in what we are doing. So did Roshi. Is it reasonable to ask for that from bell to bell, or not? Hm.

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