By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2005.
The early 1990s was a difficult time to be living in Washington, D.C.
Drive-by shootings, overwhelmingly high crime rates, and ruthless gang activity ruled the streets in this political town.
It was 1994, and as principal of the Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center, George Rutherford was searching for ways to keep his students safe.
“We were in competition with the drug dealers,” says Rutherford, who continues today as principal of D.C.’s Ideal Academy Public Charter School. “We were fighting for the kids. They wanted them and I wanted them.”
Keeping the Fletcher-Johnson doors open until midnight, being available six days a week, and working late into the evening providing extracurricular activities for the students were just some of the ways faculty tried to make school a truly safe alternative to what was happening in the outside world. And even in an age of tight budgets, parent apathy, and teacher limitations, Rutherford says the extra effort was worth it.
“I didn’t want my kids in the street,” he says. Having attended the funerals of too many former students already, Rutherford refused to let the streets swallow up these children, too. That’s when he decided to empower his students with yet another resource they could use to fight back.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is what Rutherford brought to his students and faculty at Fletcher-Johnson as a tool for strengthening self-esteem and enabling a path toward greater thought, creativity, confidence, expression, and strength.
Differing from other forms of meditation because of the number and scope of positive physiological effects it has, TM, which typically takes 20 minutes, twice a day, is a mental exercise to calm the mind. The practice involves sitting comfortably, with eyes closed, while repeating a mantra — a sound with no meaning. It is considered a simple, natural process that gives the meditator an ability to let his mind experience the full degree of its potential, while obtaining levels of relaxation that are deeper than sleep.1
Having had an opportunity to learn TM himself a few years earlier and eager to try anything that could give his kids greater resources to fight the outside temptations, Rutherford enlisted the help of parents, educators, and students to bring this meditative regimen into the school.
“I was looking for something to bring a little calmness to my children, and I felt TM was something that would help.”
He didn’t have opposition to face — parents were just as eager to help their children and Rutherford had been their trusted principal for 20 years. So why not give it a try?
Where some might question or ridicule the use of meditation in schools, the Fletcher-Johnson parents partnered with Rutherford in search of an answer. “The community trusted me and knew I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt their kids.”
They also saw the results meditation was creating at home. When parents witnessed their children’s new behavior, they sought out TM training for themselves.
Rutherford began by bringing in a TM trainer to work with the fifth- and sixth-grade students in the pre-K-9 school. Students at this age level would carry the training with them as they progressed to the next grade. Rutherford says the children took to the meditation quite easily. Nervous giggles were quickly forgotten in favor of a serious approach to the TM exercise. Twice a day, the students meditated and those who didn’t meditate had to create their own quiet time (i.e., reading a book).
“It was something to walk in the building in the morning, at 10 to nine, and everything was quiet,” Rutherford says. “They were able to release the stress they came to school with. Then at 3:10, they did it again. It was so powerful.”
When the students and staff would sit down to meditate, Rutherford says there was a palpable change. “The effectiveness of those meditating flowed over to the rest of them. It was beautiful.”
And what was the scholastic payoff? “We found a significant difference in behavior, attendance, and academic achievement,” Rutherford says.
Through Grief to Growth
Rutherford’s “experiment” is one of several being played out across the country and abroad. One of the more publicized venues for practicing TM in an academic setting is at the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, a Michigan charter school founded nearly 26 years ago by Carmen N’Namdi and her husband George.
Their story is both a poignant and vivid example of the power of meditation.
The N’Namdis started their school as a way to celebrate the life of their daughter Nataki who died tragically three decades ago. The toddler was just 14 months old when a string attached to her pacifier caught on the playpen, choking her to death. Expecting another child at the time, and with a 21⁄2- year-old at home, the couple knew they couldn’t give in to the overwhelming power of grief without some sort of anchor. It was their experience with TM that gave them balance in this darkest hour.
“We had practiced TM consistently the whole year before her death,” Carmen N’Namdi recalls. The skills they learned allowed them to deal with the tragedy on a much different level, without numbing out. “It allowed us to get to the real experience of it,” N’Namdi explains. “Most of the time we’re dealing with the stress of an experience,” she says, without ever really getting to the heart of the wound, let alone finding a way to mend it.
As they moved through their pain, they vowed their daughter’s death would not be in vane. “It has to stand for something,” N’Namdi recalls telling herself about losing Nataki. “That’s when we decided we would open the school and name it for her.”
Today, the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit serves 450 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, and TM has been a part of their curriculum for the past seven years. “What I like about TM is that it does not impose on your beliefs or your lifestyle,” N’Namdi says. “It allows you to relate to you; to be as much of your real self as you can.” She says TM helps you look within for the answers and resources you will need. In an age of outcome-based education, N’Namdi says it is these types of skills students are searching for most.
One of the biggest motivating factors for bringing meditation into schools is the thing that’s endangering so many of us — stress. Physical manifestations of stress are just as damaging as emotional and cognitive ones. An insidious threat, stress manifests itself in so many ways, and it’s no different for children.
The life a child leads today is much different than it was 20 years ago. Expectations from schools, families, and communities have increased tenfold; college plans have started affecting the curriculum of kindergartners; the world is darkened by terrorism and war; we are both cause and witness to the diminishing health of an ailing environment; and doomsday predictions paint horrible pictures of the future.
But we’ve all lived with stress in our lives. Doesn’t it just make our kids stronger? The truth is, prolonged stress can create harmful physiological changes, including hypertension, high cholesterol, and a compromised immune system. And negating a child’s stress isn’t healthy either.
Maggie Reigh, author of Turning on DeLight, reminds us it’s critical to “respect” a child’s stress. “Recognize that not being able to find her favorite blanket is just as stressful to a child as her parent not being able to find the car keys.”2
To address the various levels of stress a child experiences, the Committee for Stress-Free Schools in Maryland agrees that TM is an effective solution. “...(It) strengthens the cognitive, physiological, and affective foundations of learning, while promoting more healthy lifestyle choices and positive behavior.”3
William Weir, M.D., a consultant on infectious diseases, concurs. “Psychological stress has many adverse physical effects on the human body, including a direct and damaging influence on the immune system. The practice of Transcen-dental Meditation relieves stress and is therefore highly recommended for its life-enhancing value.”4
As a result, TM is one of the more widely studied complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. Several studies have shown a decreased need for medical care by those who practice TM both here and abroad.5 Preliminary studies are showing a possible effect on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,6 while the Medical College of Georgia has found reduced blood pressure among students practicing TM.7 Other benefits of TM include increased brain functioning, increased cerebral blood flow, increased creativity and intelligence, improved mind-body coordination and concentration, restful sleep, and a greater sense of positive thinking.
The National Institutes of Health has even provided $20 million to support further research into the preventative health benefits of TM.8
Derek Cassells, headmaster at the Maharishi School in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, England, says ultimately, meditation has brought balance into his students’ lives. Started by a group of dissatisfied parents who practiced TM themselves, the Maharishi School has been free from drugs, truancy, and other school-age problems for the past 18 years. It’s also grown tremendously over that time and is considered both a creative and academic powerhouse. Cassells thinks it’s due to the meditation. “We have a very traditional curriculum, but because we also have TM ... they experience a level of rest that is at least twice as deep as sleep, twice every day,” Cassells told The Times of London.9
Believing that stress is the underlying cause of all behavior and learning problems, Cassells told the Times that when stress is released, the nervous system is brought into balance. “From that balance come all the benefits, such as a greater ability to focus, and this produces academic results. These aren’t our goal, they’re just a side-effect. What’s important is that the children are so at ease, they automatically enjoy learning and they can utilize more of their potential. We just bring out what’s already there.”10