Presenting mindfulness in a secular society

Recently, on the online forum MIEN (Mindfulness in Education), there was a very interesting discussion about how to present mindfulness in an appropriate manner in secular classrooms. One of the suggestions was to simply offer it as attention training, and leave aside the frequent references to “compassion” and “loving-kindness meditation,” and ultimately to leave aside anything that incorporates “social-emotional learning.”

It struck me first that, this attempt to separate cognition and affect conflicts with the almost unanimous view in contemporary neuroscience that thought is always accompanied by emotion and vice versa. Second, it led me to think that substituting contemporary terms for various psychological/brain functions might resolve the issue.

To that end, I put together this brief overview:


We can take this question about mindfulness and compassion entirely out of the sphere of religion, without using the words “mindfulness” and

Over the past 25 years, cognitive, affective and volitional neuroscience, in harmony with findings in integrative clinical practice, have found that the development of the prefrontal cortex is the single most important foundation for the unfolding of the cognitive, affective and volitional
abilities required for good education and good mental health.

To use a simplified version of Dr. Daniel Siegel’s description of these abilities, the prefrontal cortex (or “PFC” for short) has 4 main functions;

*1. Self awareness*

*2. Self regulation*

*3. Response flexibility (including cognitive, affective and behavioral flexibility) *

*4. Empathy and compassion*

To elaborate briefly:


This includes awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and the ways in which they cohere as one’s personality, and the way in which they function in interpersonal relationships and acting in the world in general. Attention is perhaps the single most important way to develop
self-awareness, and in fact, the development of stable focused attention along with open peripheral awareness (functions respectively of the left
and right hemisphere) has been shown in the course of more than four decades of research to have profound positive effects in all areas of
education as well as all areas of mental and physical health.


At a certain point of development, trained attention spontaneously leads to greater regulation of behavior – both “internal” behavior such as thoughts, feelings, moods, etc and “external” behavior – in terms of positive, caring relationships. This in turn leads to improvements throughout all areas of education and mental health.


This function is articular gift of the right hemisphere (as elaborated by Iain McGilchrist in “The Master and His Emissary” and John Yates in his
book “The Mind Illuminated) . Deepening of self-awareness and improvement in self regulation naturally results in a much greater capacity to spontaneously respond appropriately to the needs to any situation. It leads to creativity and insight in science and the arts, in sports, in social interaction, and ultimately, in all fields of human endeavor.


With greater (cognitive, affective, motivational, behavioral and interpersonal) development of these prior three functions of the PFC,
empathy and compassion naturally and spontaneously develop.


So given that this is how the brain works, what should we actually do – in both the world of secular education and secular mental health – to develop the PFC?

The development of the PFC (which fosters greater attention, self awareness, self regulation, response flexibility, empathy and compassion)
can be done in literally infinite ways (and it is perfectly possible to teach people how to develop the PFC *and* develop the skills associated
with “mindfulness” without ever using the word “mindfulness” or even using *any* “technique&quo t; associated with the mindfulness tradition).

You can use methods designed to foster greater attention, you can use methods to improve self-awareness, or improve response flexibility, or self
regulation or improve empathy and compassion.

Because the brain – and body – are so exquisitely interconnected, anything you do to develop one function AUTOMATICALLY develops the other: promote response flexibility, you will increase self-awareness. Promote self-regulation, you will increase empathy and compassion; promote empathy, and you improve self-awareness.

And, more to the point you raise, anything that limits one function, inhibits the development of the other. Without self-self-regulatio n
(traditionally known as ethics – at least, the external aspect of ethics) it is almost impossible to develop self-awareness, and empathy and compassion will be severely compromised. With limited capacities for empathy and compassion, behavior is likely to become very rigid and
inflexible, self-awareness will decrease (and will likely be highly distorted), and self-regulation will deteriorate.

So, if it is correct to say that this is an accurate description of how the brain works, then it is virtually impossible to provide (successful)
attention training without spontaneously improving self awareness, self regulation, response flexibility, empathy and compassion.

If you develop educational and therapeutic methods – in addition to attention training of some kind – for the *explicit *development of these four functions of the PFC, then clearly, the result will lead to further all-around improvement in the PFC, and just as clearly, will not be in
conflict with anybody’s values, since you are just developing the brain as it functions most efficiently and effectively (at least, functions most effectively according to the latest neuroscientific understandings)

2 thoughts on “Presenting mindfulness in a secular society

  1. Great comment, Sandeep. I think it’s a problem around the world, as MIEN members attest from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

    Sri Aurobindo’s brilliant insights as to how to move beyond secularism (particularly in his description of a spiritual religion of humanity at the end of “The Ideal of Human Unity”) are unfortunately, overlooked.

    Something is brewing though – there is already a movement in the US to go “beyond” secular mindfulness” by means of a return to a truly integral spirituality.

    Stay tuned:>))

  2. Interesting… first, Buddhism dissociates from God; then Mindfulness disassociates from Buddhism; now PFC disassociates from Mindfulness !

    In the quest for secular education in the USA, even compassion has to be erased from the classroom, and ethics has to be replaced by self-regulation !

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