In the high-pressure world of Hong Kong, 22 students have committed suicide since the start of this academic year in September 2015, leading to increasingly desperate debate at all levels of society over whether the pressure felt by students is becoming too much for many young people to bear. Of the 22 young people who took their lives, 12 were in high school and 10 were university students. While Hong Kong may be an extreme example, academic pressure is a common theme across the world, although its causes are diverse and can be difficult to identify, let alone effectively resolve. In the example of Hong Kong, two of the possible reasons cited by policymakers and social commentators are a) parents spending insufficient quality time with their children, thereby not providing an essential stress buffer, and b) students spending excessive time online (which offers a more consequence-free version of social interaction), leading to weaker resilience in dealing with real-life problems.
Common experiences of student stress generally appear to fall into three broad categories: peer-related (including loneliness and underexposure to peers), parent-related, and academic—the latter existing across the educational spectrum, from elite schools to underperforming public schools striving to improve. Take Stuyvesant High School, one of nine specialized schools in New York City and what can be considered an academically elite school. As one of the school’s alumni told Buddhistdoor: “I often felt stressed in high school due to the frequency of tests. Test scores usually counted for a very large portion of my grade, and were administered every couple of weeks. Often, I would have tests for multiple classes in the same week. I would have felt less stressed if tests were more spread out and counted less for my grades.”
This complaint will no doubt resonate with students in Hong Kong, who struggle to learn in an education system that over-emphasizes rote learning, with limited exposure to the humanities (which train critical thinking) and a general feeling that they are putting in a high level of effort for a very limited return: despite a heavy emphasis on tests and exams, for example, the English proficiency of young people in Hong Kong is declining and being rapidly surpassed by cities in mainland China and other parts of East Asia.
Clearly the situation in Hong Kong has reached a crisis point, and urgently needs to be addressed. Firstly, policymakers and educators should revisit the rationale behind the level of academic stress that has become the norm. Why are young people under this kind of pressure in the first place? Surely society is in trouble if the answer is merely so that schools can turn out cookie-cutter citizens that can be boxed into whatever profession or career that is perceived as offering the greatest financial stability—medicine, accountancy, law, and the like. In addition, the prevalence of a competitive mentality that compels students to outperform their peers for its own sake or to “beat” their future competitors or co-workers at “being someone” or “doing something” can only lead to profound disillusionment later on.
A better approach to ensuring that young people can become beneficial, critical-thinking members of society should be founded on providing vastly more imaginative and creative curricula. Key here is the notion of providing young people more mental space, such as allowing more time outdoors during school breaks. Time spent in relaxing environments, not endless hours of rote learning and exams, help feed the imagination and stimulate creativity and thinking out of the box.
While the example of Hong Kong is an extreme one, many of the pressures and burdens of being a young person are unavoidable and part of growing up. However, the pressures, demands, and other terms that imply stress should be recognized as distinct from stress itself. Stress is a form of discomfort or suffering, which Buddhism sees as an unskillful response to perceived difficulties such as “busyness.” Every school should offer classes in stress management—and by this we mean stress management that empowers students to work with their mind, not the usual academic knowledge.
Most people, young and old, live largely unaware of their mind, with little familiarity with or awareness of its workings and reactions. In a 2015 interview with Buddhistdoor, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche emphasized the importance of developing this awareness in children by teaching them: “‘Hey, look, there’s something called ‘mind’—we are not like a machine. What you think, others don’t think; what you think, others can’t control; what others think, you can’t control. In fact, what you think, you can’t control most of the time. Mind gets jealous, mind gets angry, others also get jealous, others also get angry.’ I think this is very important for kids to know.”
Obligations and burdens do not have to lead to stress. The latter is at least partly caused by our minds making things “solid” rather than “going with the flow.” It is our thoughts that make us stressed rather than the activities we must perform. Rather than thinking about all the things we need to do, we can learn to see our thoughts and concepts as temporary phenomena that pass through the mind—as clouds, butterflies, or even fireworks!— and let them go. We will then have much greater focus on the task at hand.
This skill can be developed through various meditation techniques, like mindfulness practice or one-pointed concentration, such as on the breath. As reported by Time magazine in 2010, this type of practice encourages focus and disentangles one’s mind from stressful projections, while a paper published by the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology showed subjects that underwent three months of vipassana (or insight) meditation had a firmer control over the distribution of mental resources given to attention and perception, allowing them to reduce “ongoing mental noise in the brain, enabling the practitioner to remain in the present moment. . . . through mental training, increased control over the allocation of limited processing resources may be possible.”
The benefits of mindfulness training are being recognized around the world, and it is already being introduced in some schools or in research programs at universities. For example, the Dharma Primary School in Brighton in the UK offers a vision based on cultivating “stillness,” using regular meditation practice to help students develop a deeper understanding of themselves and the world. In July 2015, we reported that the University of Oxford and University College London were collaborating on a seven-year study to assess the effects of mindfulness meditation on children from more than 76 secondary schools. And in October 2014, we published a report that more than 25 million primary and secondary schoolchildren would be undergoing compulsory Anapana meditation classes in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Happily, this global trend shows no indication of slowing, and is hopefully indicative of a steady shift in a more constructive direction.
Society can therefore approach stress faced by students in two ways: firstly, by reforming the education system itself, and secondly, by providing proven, proactive means for young people to manage stress; from the outset, counselors and teachers must challenge the idea that stress is inevitable. While the introduction of meditative techniques in schools will not “alleviate” stress so much as transform students’ outlook, it can help young people learn to identify stress as a form of suffering that they can work with and resolve.
Modern Education and the Future of Buddhism: An Interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (Buddhistdoor Global)
Losing Focus? Studies Say Meditation May Help (Time)
Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources (PLOS Biology)
British Study to Track Effects of Meditation on 7,000 Teenagers (Buddhistdoor Global)
Anapana Meditation Initiative for Schoolchildren in Maharashtra (Buddhistdoor Global)
The Dharma Primary School: Promoting Meditation and Mindfulness for Children in Britain (Buddhistdoor Global)