Can Meditation Prevent School Violence?

Photo Credit: The David Lynch Foundation

Water doesn’t instantly boil over.

There’s a long process in which the water heats up, gets warmer and warmer, and eventually reaches the boiling point. That’s true of any transition state. Physicists call it catastrophe theory.

The same principles apply when there’s a violent outbreak in our nation, such as a school shooting. There’s a long process of stress and tension building before the violence actually occurs.

My husband and I are in Florida at the moment, so the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting hit close to home, with people still talking about what happened just down the road. I cried as I watched a CNN video of some of the brave surviving students teaching us adults how to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again.

“We sat together ready to learn and now we’re standing in front of the world ready to teach,” said Jack Haimowitz, an 18-year-old student who survived the attack. “The first step in situations like these is coming together and loving and supporting each other. The second step is finding a solution. We have to destroy all these dividing factors that are societal, racial, and physical and just come together.”

I personally agree that we should come together to solve this problem from as many different directions as possible—across philosophical chasms, religious barriers, and party lines.

And I truly hope, as these young people articulated in such a moving and eloquent way, that a new time is coming, when the American people will vote for better gun control and for better mental health services for kids. A time when young people won’t have to fear for their lives while attending public school. A time when children won’t have to stage a National School Walk-out just to get the attention of the adults to make their schools safe.

Meanwhile, I’d like to propose a method to stop school violence—not just by keeping troubled students and adults from getting their hands on automatic rifles but also by preventing violent outbursts from happening in the first place.

How Schools Can Become Safe Harbors for Students

It turns out that school shootings are only one part of the violence occurring in many American schools today.

According to CDC’s 2016 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 20.2 percent of the kids who participated in the survey said they were bullied at school and 15.5 percent said they’d been bullied online during the past year.

And here is a more shocking statistic: 6.0 percent of these kids said they’d been threatened or injured with a weapon during the past year while at school.

Yet despite these daunting statistics, it’s heartening to note that there is a way to beat school violence. In San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., in South America and India—schools are implementing a simple solution that not only helps protect kids in school, but entire neighborhoods from violence. They’ve introduced the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique as part of the school curriculum. Students spend fifteen minutes at the beginning and end of the school day practicing TM—which research funded by the NIH and published in American Medical Association and American Heart Association journals has been shown to be an effective and healthy way to reduce stress.

The idea is that if enough children in a school are feeling less stressed and anxious, it will have a calming effect on the entire school—and the tense neighborhoods surrounding the school.

James S. Dierke, a former principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, implemented TM in the curriculum in his school in 2007 after receiving a grant from the David Lynch Foundation. “The Transcendental Meditation technique is the most powerful, effective program that I have come across in my 39 years as a public school educator for addressing this problem of stress,” he said. “It is working. It is nourishing these children and providing them an immensely valuable tool for life. It is saving lives.” 

The research on the project is impressive. In the first year that the school implemented a short session of Transcendental Meditation twice a day, called Quiet Time, the number of suspensions fell by 45 percent. Within four years, the suspension rate was among the lowest in the city. Daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average. Grade point averages improved markedly. In one survey, 88 percent of the students at Visitacion Valley agreed that “since learning to meditate, I argue and fight less with others.”

Other schools in the area adopted the Quiet Time program, with dozens more on the waiting list nationwide. The school district is so enthusiastic about the results that they put together a research summary in this white paper.

According to an article by Jennie Rothenberg in the, Dierke brought the TM technique to his school precisely because he wanted to protect his students from gun violence. In 2004, a gunman burst into the main office, threatening to shoot everyone in sight. Dierke vowed to make his school “an island of safety in a sea of trouble.” As he saw it, that meant not only improving the students’ physical security, but improving their ability to cope with the violence and tensions around them. That’s when he decided his school should try TM.

Quiet Time is equally effective in Washington, D.C., where George Rutherford, principal at the Ideal Academy Public Charter School introduced it in grades five through eight more than a decade ago. “I have tried every program that has been put out by the Federal Government to improve students’ academic performance, to reduce the violence, to eradicate drugs,” he said. “None of those programs did what they thought it would do. The Transcendental Meditation program is the one program that will do all of it, and more.”

One of Rutherford’s former students, Jahise LeBouef, learned TM in seventh grade and is now attending NYU. “Whenever there was an issue we would do the collective meditation and once we left it was just a peaceful space,” said Jahise in an interview with Akoshia Yobe for the Huffington Post. “In the world and classes—with people having beefs and stuff like that—it will help a lot of people to center themselves.”

How to Calm Stress in Students

How can such a simple thing such as practicing TM twice a day create such a big effect? To answer that question, we need to look at the role stress is playing in the lives of American youth today.

Stress is now understood as the major cause of most mental health disorders, including severe teen depression, which is highly correlated with teen violence, according to research conducted by the US Department of Education. William Stixrud, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., explains, “Depression is described as a disorder of stress dysregulation, which means that the amygdala, the part of the brain that signals threat, becomes hyperactive, and the fight-or-flight response is overly responsive. So for a long time before children get depressed, they feel stressed, they feel anxious, and they feel that that world is more threatening than it really is.”

Multiple research studies report that anxiety and depression are rising precipitously in teen populations. Anxiety and depression can permanently damage the teen brain and are known contributors to the rising teen suicide rate and violent behaviors of all kinds.

What’s causing this rise in stress in our children? Experts have identified a series of risk factors facing kids today—from social media and cell phone usage to bullying, economic struggle, family stress, and exposure to violence. (That’s right—being exposed to violence creates a level of stress that leads to more violence.)

In other words, with constant exposure to stress, the stress response goes into hyperdrive, and the child experiences the fight-or-flight reaction even when there is no real threat. This chronic stress syndrome, if left untreated, can escalate to PTSD and depression—or suicide and other violent behaviors.

“This vicious cycle can be prevented by normalizing the stress response through TM,” said Stixrud, who recently co-authored The Self-Driven Child, a bestseller that recommends TM as an antidote to the stress epidemic among young people.

Health professionals such as Stixrud point to solid research on the positive effect of TM on the brain. For instance, research by Fred Travis, Ph.D., shows that during the practice of TM, the overactive amygdala calms and the prefrontal cortex becomes more engaged, leading to better decision-making and cognitive skills. A 2011 research study published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology reported a 36 percent reduction in psychological distress in 106 at-risk racial and ethnic minority students practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique compared to controls. And a recent study shows that teens reported significantly less anxiety and significantly higher resilience as a result of practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique.

Many teens are finding that they sleep better and are able to handle the daily hassles of life when they wake up the core of peacefulness and happiness inside.

Dana Farley said the TM technique helped her overcome the challenges of dyslexia as well as anxiety and depression. Aware of the high stress levels and a troubling rise in suicide rates and depression in her peers, Dana created a documentary featuring director David Lynch to help other young people deal with stress. 

TM gives you a life,” she said, “a freedom from the stress you are feeling and the sense of burden you are feeling.”

In other words, by calming the mind, mitigating stress and preventing anxiety and depression, TM can keep the pot from boiling over.

The children who participated in the March 14 national walkout are telling us “Never Again.” I hope we can take the advice of these courageous students and those who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting to stop the stress from boiling over into another school tragedy.

“We’re the survivors,” said student Ashley Palsetiner, her voice gathering strength as she delivered her message on the CNN video. “We’re lucky to be here. And we’re still here for a reason. We’re here because we need to make a change.”

Editor’s Note: A different version of this article appeared in Elephant Journal on May 10, 2018.

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

More Posts by Linda