Jennie Rothenberg grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, went to Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, and attended UCBerkeley on a scholarship to study Journalism. She became a professional writer, a wife and a mother. Jennie is a former senior editor at The Atlantic, is now a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine.
The last piece Jennie wrote for The Atlantic, published November 10, 2015, was about the Quiet Time program, promoted by the David Lynch Foundation, and its success sponsoring the Transcendental Meditation technique in schools across the country.
The magazine introduces the article: After growing up with Transcendental Meditation as a spiritual practice, the author visits public schools where it’s being used as a simple tool for stress-reduction and well-being.
In 1974, the year before I was born, my parents had a small wedding in my aunt’s living room and then spent their honeymoon becoming teachers of Transcendental Meditation. Those were the days when just about everyone seemed to be doing it. “Plainly,” wrote the author Adam Smith in The Atlantic’s October 1975 cover story on meditation, “TM was the greatest thing since peach ice cream.” Meditation was enough of a cultural phenomenon that Woody Allen could use it as a punch line. The L.A. party scene in Annie Hall ends with Jeff Goldblum’s character placing a businesslike call to his instructor: “Yeah, I forgot my mantra.”
Considering how many 20-somethings learned to meditate in the 1970s, one might have predicted an explosion of meditating schools in the 1980s. Instead, Americans mostly forgot about the trend as they settled into the Reagan era. My parents were exceptions: They enrolled me in a small private school where the day began and ended with TM. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways, but my classmates and I always knew we lived in a bubble. One summer, at a resort in the Catskills, I listened as my aunt tried to explain my upbringing to a couple of her friends.
“Sure, I remember TM,” one woman replied. “I guess some people got caught up in meditation, just like some people got caught up in drugs.”
“And the rest of us,” her husband finished, “grew up and moved on with our lives.”
So I was fascinated when meditation recently started becoming mainstream again. Coworkers told me about mindfulness apps they were trying and friends mentioned yoga retreats they were planning to attend. The general idea seemed to be that meditation was not so much a technique for spiritual enlightenment as a common-sense lifestyle habit, like getting enough exercise or eating green vegetables. ….
Jennie visied several schools in poor, stressed inner-city locations where children from different ethnic backgrounds and broken homes came to school already traumatized. She wondered how administrators, teachers and students would react to such a program, and how it could be implemented.
It’s hard to change the circumstances that create this kind of stress, though plenty of people are trying. But if you teach kids to meditate in the meantime, the thinking goes, you can help them reduce the stress itself. That reasoning always made sense to me, as someone who has been practicing TM since childhood and seen the research on adults, especially for stress-related problems like heart disease. Struggling schools need lots of things: better food, stronger math programs, and higher-quality teachers, to name just a few. One of those needs seems to be a way to reduce stress so kids can absorb information and go into the world as well-balanced, successful people.
Still, I had a hard time envisioning how meditation programs actually worked when they were dropped suddenly into public schools. Who were the principals who brought them in—did they have hidden mystical streaks, or were their motivations purely practical? Were the teachers enthusiastic or did they see meditation as yet another gimmick imposed on them from the outside? And how did the students really feel about it? Did they roll their eyes when the meditation bell rang or did they actually enjoy it? What was it like to grow up with just meditation—and no spiritual trappings surrounding it?
The article continues with visits to some of the schools where the program was introduced. Jennie interviews principals, teachers, and the students to get their personal reactions to this meditation program and its effects on them.
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