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Mysticism for kids

Religion is making its way into the public schools-in the form of Transcendental Meditation and Kabbalah

Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall

Mysticism for kids
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A George Washington University study released in late 2008 showed that Transcendental Meditation (TM) may be a safe and effective drug-free way to treat attention deficit disorder. That's one reason the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District adopted a Transcendental Meditation program last year.

The Tucson program is one of at least three developed in public schools in the last 12 months that have their roots in sectarian religion. U.S. courts have consistently held that religious instruction, if conducted during school hours, must take place off school grounds. But while decades of jurisprudence have virtually stamped out school-based religious instruction in three major world religions-Christianity, Islam, and mainstream Judaism-some schools have allowed the introduction of auxiliary programs rooted in less familiar sectarian faiths, which the faith groups themselves say are rinsed free of religion.

Tucson's program started in the district's "alternative" schools, campuses serving at-risk students such as teen parents and those with behavioral challenges. This year, TM will expand into a mainstream high school and middle school in the district, said Tucson alternative schools principal Robert Mackay. The program is funded by a $150,000 grant from the David Lynch Foundation (headed by the quirky Hollywood creator of Twin Peaks), which promotes "consciousness-based" education, a system that stresses, along with the accumulation of knowledge itself, developing the inner self of the "knower."

For 10 to 20 minutes twice a day, students practice TM, sometimes repeating a mantra. Three students at çold the Arizona Daily Star last October of the various positive effects they had experienced from meditation. One girl who had been on the verge of dropping out credited TM with her ability to carry 10 classes and make A's and B's now. A male student reported an improved ability to control his temper and stay out of fights. A third said he was much calmer and that even his mother had noticed he was sleeping better.

"We want to see the TM program continue and grow and we want to see more kids involved," Mackay said. "The benefits are significant for kids at risk, particularly students classified ADD and ADHD, and those with anger issues."

Some parents have questioned the program, Mackay said, but "almost all" consented to let their kids participate once school officials explained "that there's no religious connotation to the program at all, that it's a mental exercise, sort of yoga for the mind, and doesn't affect any other belief systems."

The children of parents who don't consent engage in silent prayer or reading, Mackay said.

A Tucson district employee referred WORLD to the trainers for the district's program, "Joseph or Denise," and provided a phone number.

"Hello!" begins the recorded message by a man identifying himself as Joseph Gerace. "Thank you for calling the Maharishi Invincibility Center of Tucson, teaching the Transcendental Meditation program." The center is part of the Maharishi University of Management (MUM), founded by the Hindu guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose Transcendental Meditation in the late 1960s and early 1970s swept the world, popularized by celebrity adherents like The Beatles.

Denise Denniston Gerace, the other half of Tucson Unified's TM instructor team, is an MUM professor of Vedic science, a series of academic disciplines based on the Vedas, or the most ancient and sacred Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, or "Song of God." Is it a reach for critics to suggest a link between the teaching of public-school kids to control their thoughts and the Bhagavad Gita?

No, said Vishal Mangalwadi, an author and lecturer who met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Switzerland in 1973 and joined his Transcendental Meditation movement. TM "is a religious quest of transcending all thoughts and words to connect with what the Mahareshi called 'creative intelligence,'" Mangalwadi said. "That was his term for God."

In order to sever TM from its religious roots, instructors and practitioners must adopt "their own peculiar definition of religion," Mangalwadi added. For many years, TM adherents have described it as a "science" in order to promote it as a nonsectarian practice. Indeed, in an August interview with the San Diego Examiner, Denise Gerace said, "TM is not from the Hindu religion, but from the Vedic tradition of knowledge, similar to the West's scientific tradition."

There has long been a debate about whether yoga can be taught and practiced separately from Hinduism. In Massena, N.Y., last year a pair of public-school teachers ran into trouble when they attempted to introduce yoga instruction into classrooms as one alternative for meeting state physical fitness curriculum requirements. A group of parents objected, pointing out that the instructors, Kerry Perretta and Martha Duchscherer, were in the process of being certified by the Temple of Kriya Yoga in Chicago. The temple, led by "Guru and Spiritual Preceptor" Sri Goswami Kriyananda, promotes itself as a "center for spiritual study for people of any religion."

In October 2008, the objecting parents accepted a compromise: Students could practice yoga movements during class, but it would be called "Raider Relaxation" (named for the school mascot), while those interested in delving further into the underlying philosophies of yoga could attend an after-school club.

The battle over yoga in public schools is an old one. In 2002, some Aspen, Colo., parents argued successfully for the removal of yoga from the local curriculum. In 1999, a group of Bedford, N.Y., parents filed a federal lawsuit over certain instructional activities, including yoga.

The Aspen controversy prompted former Brooklyn teacher Tara Guber to create Yoga Ed, a system of yoga instruction that would pass muster in public schools. Yoga Ed presents yoga as "an ideal discipline for mind/body fitness" and the development of "self-awareness." At least 150 schools in 27 states have adopted the program, while some public-school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, also offer training for Yoga Ed trainers.

Los Angeles schools were in the news last April for another program that has its roots in sectarian faith. Some parents and constitutional scholars raised questions about Spirituality for Kids, an ethics program sponsored by the Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles and taught on campus during school hours. Popularized in recent years by celebrity adherents such as Madonna, Kabbalah is a mystical form of Judaism that concerns itself with ontological questions such as the nature of the universe and the nature of existence, and attempts to explain the relationship between an infinite Creator and His finite and mortal creation.

Spirituality for Kids (SFK) began when Karen Berg, co-founder of the Kabbalah Center, "after working with adults for many years . . . realized that to create global change we must empower our children with the universal truth that all possibilities lay within us, and through our choices we can influence the world around us," the SFK website explains. "This is a truth that breaks the boundaries of religion, culture, economic background, race, and gender."

SFK spokeswoman Jane Gideon said the program boils down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. "That's a universal concept," Gideon said. "No matter what religion-Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism-that precept runs across everything. To love your neighbor as yourself."

Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., said SFK blurs the boundary between spirituality and religion. "There is no bright line separating the two, and some people simply don't believe that a program that's 'spiritual' raises the same constitutional concerns as a program that's specifically 'religious.' Some programs try to look nonsectarian by packaging themselves as 'spiritual,' but when they're rooted in a religious tradition, that's constitutionally problematic."

SFK teaches kids that an "inner light" will guide them into right choices. While "inner light" could be interpreted as an engaging, child-friendly term for "conscience," it is actually the English translation of pnimi, a Kabbalah term for one of two divine forces at work in humans and in the spiritual world. Meanwhile, the philosophy that "all possibilities lay within us" is not a universal truth. On the contrary, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam teach precisely the opposite: That all possibilities lie outside humanity, in the palm of God.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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