Discovering Your Inner Strength

Is Mindfulness Religious?



There has been a lot of discussion lately in mindfulness in education circles (for example, here, here, and here) about the need for mindfulness programs in educational contexts to be completely secular. This is in the face of recent legal challenges to some mindfulness programs in schools, on the grounds that these programs are a type of covert religious indoctrination to Buddhism. One consideration, especially in the US public schools context, is the need for separation of church and state.

Here are some of my brief reflections on this very complex question, from my experience as a mindfulness practitioner in a Buddhist tradition, and as a pediatrician who teaches secular mindfulness in health care settings.


You absolutely do not need to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is fond of saying, “Even the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist.” My own mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has encouraged the development of skillful and culturally appropriate ways to offer mindfulness in non-religious ways. Although Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk, his Buddhism is inclusive and non-evangelical. At his practice centers, I have met people of all religious backgrounds, including catholic priests and nuns. Thich Nhat Hanh never tries to convert people to Buddhism, and in fact, encourages people to (re-)connect deeply with their own spiritual and religious traditions, and renew them. He once said, “If I had to choose between Buddhism and peace, I would choose peace.”

In my medical practice, I strive to offer mindfulness in a secular way that is accessible to people of any religion, because I hope that the practice may benefit anybody, and I don’t want religion to be barrier.


At the same time, mindfulness comes from somewhere, it’s not new, it has a history. How can we offer mindfulness in secular ways, while at the same time acknowledging and respecting the roots?

Ignoring the peoples, histories, and cultures that have contributed to mindfulness as we know it today, risks cultural appropriation. In striving to present mindfulness in a purely secular way that, there is the risk of (further) marginalizing the peoples and cultures that have contributed so much to this gift to humanity through many generations. By erasing that history, it can leave the impression (even if only by omission) that mindfulness is somehow a “new” invention, or a Western creation. For me, this risks a type of cultural colonization – taking something beautiful without giving credit. This needs to be considered in a larger, complex context of historical colonial legacies, imbalances of power, and privilege. My friend Susanna Barkataki has explored this issue much more eloquently than I can.


For me personally, I feel the need to respect my teacher and my lineage.


Me with my father and Thich Nhat Hanh, 1999

As a second-generation Vietnamese American, I was introduced to mindfulness and meditation through my Buddhist family. Later, as a young adult, I studied mindfulness with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. My first mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh (in 1999) was a life-changing and heart-opening experience for me. It allowed me to experience how mindfulness could more than an idea or philosophy, but a way of life and a concrete practice. That experience has formed the foundation for my life and work ever since.

In addition, as an immigrant adolescent and person of color growing up in the United States, I experienced a lot of suffering from internalized racism and identity confusion. Re-connecting with my cultural roots through mindfulness has been an important part of my healing journey.

When I wrote The Mindful Teen, I explicitly offered acknowledgement and gratitude to my family and my teachers for helping me on my own path of mindfulness practice. To not mention them would have felt disrespectful, as if I had “invented” mindfulness somehow — when in reality all I’ve done is adapt and offer the practices that I’ve learned from others, within a specific context of adolescent health.



Just because something has religious influences, doesn’t mean that we can’t all learn from it in a secular context.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh, 1966

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh, 1966

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most revered leaders for social justice in the US and worldwide. His work was deeply influenced and rooted in his Christian theology. I myself am not a Christian and I have no interest in converting to Christianity. Does this mean that I should not admire and be inspired by Dr. King’s work? Similarly, does this mean that Dr. King’s teachings should not be taught, celebrated, and practiced in secular settings such as US public schools? If so, then would that also imply that the Dr. King US federal holiday is unconstitutional?

For me, the question of whether any particular mindfulness teaching or practice is “religious” or “secular” has less to do with the historical influences that inform that particular practice (e.g. Buddhism, yoga etc), and more to do with the specific language, content, and context in which it is presented. Religious and wisdom traditions throughout the world have much beauty and wisdom to offer us. If we cannot find skillful, culturally appropriate, and inclusive ways to learn from them without threatening the church/state separation, then we will all be poorer for it in my opinion.



There’s no ignoring the “Elephant in the room.”

A thirty-second Google search of “mindfulness” will  reveal many links with Buddhism. To not mention it is to ignore the elephant in the room, and risks inadvertently furthering the impression that mindfulness programs have “something to hide.” In my experience, it’s more useful to address the question head on, in an inclusive and respectful way.


We can practice mindful communication with critics of mindfulness.

Criticisms and attacks on mindfulness in schools usually comes from a place of love for children, a desire to protect them from perceived harm, as well as possibly, a deeper suffering, anxiety, or fear. There may also be valid criticisms and cautions which we in the mindfulness community can learn from. Can we listen with an open heart, without getting defensive? Can we embody humility and unconditional love in the way that we respond? Ultimately, our own mindful and compassionate presence (including, and perhaps especially, with critics of mindfulness) is the best ambassador for bringing mindfulness into society, more so than anything we can say, or any arguments that we can make.


Putting it all together

I work with a very diverse, multicultural population, including Canadian Indigenous peoples, devout Christians, Muslims, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more. When I am inviting a youth to join our mindfulness programs, I say something like this:


“Mindfulness isn’t new, and I didn’t invent it. It is thousands of years old, and has roots in traditions from Asia, like Buddhism and yoga. That said, you definitely don’t need to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is about cultivating a present-moment, open-hearted awareness and compassion. That kind of awareness is found in wisdom traditions throughout the world, whether or not they call it ‘mindfulness.’ The mindfulness that we teach here is for anyone of any religion, or no religion at all. That’s because we’re not going to ask you to believe anything, or to not believe anything. Instead, we’re just going to invite you to pay attention, and learn from your own experience.”


To this day, to my knowledge, I have not had any youth or family decline or object to mindfulness on religious grounds.

Teenward Bound! Mindfulness Retreat on the Sunshine Coast


At the end-of-retreat celebration BBQ on the beach


My partner, Ly Hoang, and I have just returned to Vancouver from the beautiful Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, a place where the Pacific Ocean meets the land in a rugged display of cliffs and rainforests, and where orcas and humpback whales dance offshore. Right away, we fell in love with the Sunshine Coast communities of Gibsons, Roberts Creek, and Sechelt. These small coastal towns are made up of tight-knit communities that really take care of each other. I was astonished when our hosts checked us in to where we were staying, and told us “No need to lock your door, no one does that around here!” (We couldn’t imagine doing that in Vancouver!)

We were invited to the community as guest facilitators for Teenward Bound, a mindfulness retreat for teens, organized by the Roberts Creek Community School Society. (Ly is a high school counsellor in Vancouver and teaches mindfulness to her students, and we sometimes team up together on mindfulness projects for youth.) To the best of our knowledge, this was the first-ever teen mindfulness retreat in British Columbia and in Western Canada, so we felt that this small and humble gathering was creating a small piece of history together!

We spent two mornings with about fifteen young teens at a house on the beach, exploring and practicing mindfulness together. Many of them had already been introduced to mindfulness through the MindUP program at their school; a few of them were pretty new to mindfulness. We practiced mindful walking on the beach, a long and relaxing body scan, and tea meditation (drinking tea slowly and mindfully.) We were amazed by the open-heartedness, keen observations, and depth of wisdom, that the teens shared with us over the two days:

  • “Sometimes my eyes clench up when I’m stressed and I don’t even know it. Mindfulness can help me to recognize that.”
  • “Drinking tea more mindfully, I could really notice the smells and the tastes of it, it was a lot better than I thought it would be.”
  • “Being mindful can help me to recognize when I have stress and problems that I would otherwise want to deny or to push away.”

At the end-of-retreat celebration BBQ, I gave a talk on The Mindful Teen to the parents of the teens. Afterwards, a mother of one of the teens told me, “My daughter hadn’t done mindfulness before, she wasn’t in one of the schools that taught it. Last night she told me, ‘Mom, maybe the body scan could help me with my chest pain.’ The mother explained to me that her daughter had had a medical condition when she was younger, and continued to have chest pain now. But, her current chest pain wasn’t related to her previous medical condition, and was likely more related to stress and anxiety. I told the mother, ‘That’s amazing that your daughter had that insight into mindfulness after just one day of practice!'”

We also appreciated the honesty and courage that we saw during a question-and-answer period on the second day. One teen asked, “What if I do mindful breathing and body scan, and I still feel upset and overwhelmed all the time?” (Our answer: Mindfulness is a powerful tool to handle stress and strong emotions, but sometimes you also need other tools and support. Please find an adult you trust to talk to, like a parent, teacher, school counsellor, or doctor. You can get more help, and mindfulness can be a part of that. Asking for help when you need it is is an act of courage.)

We left the coast and returned to Vancouver this morning, feeling inspired by the mindful young people, and very hopeful for the future of our society.

Special thanks to Stacia Leech and Ron Skene for hosting and organizing this visit, and to Ted, Frances, and Tonya, the retreat co-facilitators. We hope to come back in the future!


Rainbow at Roberts Creek Beach

Rainbow at Roberts Creek Beach


Help! I’m Stressed About Going Back to School!



I hope you’ve enjoyed your summer, spent lots of time outdoors, with family and friends who you feel connected to, and also had plenty of time to relax! If you’re like many teens, you’re realizing that your summer vacation is about to be over, and school is about to start.

Perhaps you’re having thoughts like:

  • “I wish summer wasn’t about to be over, that really sucks!”
  • “Who am I going to hang out with this year?”
  • “What if my teachers are mean?”
  • “What if my physics class is too hard?”
  • “What if I don’t make onto the basketball team?”
  • “This is the year I have to apply for college, how the heck am I supposed to do that on top of everything else???”

These are some stressful thoughts! If you pay close attention, you might even notice that when you have these thoughts, your body starts to feel stressed and tense. Everyone feels stress differently. Maybe it feels like a tightness of fullness in the pit of your stomach. Maybe it feels like a headache. Maybe you’re having trouble getting to sleep right now.

If you are experiencing any of these things, there’s no need to feel bad about that. All of those things are totally normal, and you’re not alone! The good news is, mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment, with compassion towards yourself and others. When you’re fully mindful, you won’t get as carried away by your stress and worries about going back to school.

Here’s how it works:

Be in the now. As best you can, enjoy the last few days of summer, but without trying to “hold on” to it. Savor each day, each moment, each breath of summer – and also let it go without regret.

Be in the now. You might wish to try an informal mindfulness practice, a mindful walk outside – in your local park, through the woods, along the beach, or just in your neighborhood. As best you can, notice what is interesting and enjoyable about the walk. Maybe it’s a patch of flowers sprouting in the sidewalk, or perhaps the sight of birds flying overhead, or a ray of warm summer sunshine on your cheeks.

Be in the now. As best you can, notice when your mind wanders off towards those stressful thoughts about school, all of those “What if…?” kind of thoughts. Say to yourself, “Hello mind, I know that you are being pulled off into the future, but the present moment is right now. Come on back!” Try saying this without any judgment, perhaps even with a gentle smile. Then, bring your awareness to your next breath, to this very moment. Do this over and over, as many times as you need to.

Be in the now. Once school starts, you can continue to stay present and mindful at school. You can walk mindfully to the bus stop, the same way as when you’re enjoying a walk in the park. When you go to your first new class, you can take a few mindful breaths before stepping in the door. Then, as best you can, keep your mind in the here-and-now during class, with curiosity and an open heart. If your mind gets pulled away into thoughts or fears about what might (or might not) happen in the future, remember you can just come back to your breath, with a smile. You can do the same thing when you meet someone new at school, or before your first sports tryout.

Be in the now. Try practicing a formal meditation. I call it “formal” because it means you take some time just to be mindful. But, formal doesn’t mean it has to be serious or “stiff.” In fact, I encourage you to practice it with a lightheartedness, inviting a sense of ease. You can start by listening and breathing along with my five-minute guided meditation, “Mindful Breathing,” which you can download onto your phone. Experiment with practicing this meditation every day for the next week, either before you go to school, or in the afternoon after school, and also anytime you feel stressed out and want to take five minutes to “just breathe.”

There are endless ways to practice mindfulness, to help you to handle stress one moment at a time. As an adolescent medicine pediatrician, I’ve worked with lots of teens who have found creative and powerful ways to bring mindfulness into their lives, and handle stress in a healthier way. To learn more, check out my book – written just for teens! – called The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time.


(Note: This blog post has also been cross-posted on

“I See It As A Life Saver” – Note from a Mindful Teen

I am feeling very moved by a note that I received from a mindful teen recently. Her note is from the heart. Hearing messages like this is why I wrote The Mindful Teen, and I hope others might feel inspired as I do.

Here is a part of her letter, quoted with her permission:

“Dr. Dzung X. Vo, I have read your amazing book, The Mindful Teen, that I just have to say has helped me a lot. Other people at my school look at it as dumb exercises, but I see it as a life saver. My high school is really stressful because all they are doing is preparing us for college, which means a lot of work in one sitting. Also, I play an instrument in a Youth Performing Arts Magnet of my high school, who, as well, push me to exotic levels.
This was just an assigned summer reading book for me this year, but it really helped me a lot. It helped me stop crying about the past and it making afraid it would happen again in the future. Heck, I woke up one morning and realized school was starting that day!…

I want to thank you for all the hard work you do for us raging teenagers. Many adults just think of it as drama, but you see the truth behind it all, and I want to thank you for that too.”

“Stillness: An Attainable Ideal?” Guest Blog by Manpreet Deol (Grade 12 Student, York House School)

Guest Blog Photo 1

As part of an English 12 Independent Project I explored the concept of Mindfulness and the ability for adolescents to be “present in the moment.” I was drawn to these 2 concepts firstly due to my brother. My brother’s high-functioning disability ironically enables him to live day by day, not influenced by his past or future life. He has a relatively carefree lifestyle – something that I personally want to adopt. A summer trip to India and a kayaking trip with the Advanced Outdoor Education Club at my school also illustrated to me the value of both being “still” in the present moment and reflecting internally. Experiencing the benefits of tranquility during these trips, my goal for Grade 12 was to be more “present in the moment.” I started the year on this note and subsequently finished the year examining this very same topic!


The original question that my project focused on was: What factors make living in the “present moment” an unattainable ideal for adolescents in developed countries? Firstly, I conducted research by reading articles and books such as The Mindful Teen. Asking fellow students questions such as “What thoughts occupy your brain in the short-term?” and “What conflicts are troubling you in the long-term?” I also collected my own data. Furthermore, during this part of my project I asked students to draw their Brainspace, an exercise that allowed students to translate their emotions and thoughts into images. With my research collected, I then developed 3 conclusions. These conclusions highlight a few obstacles teenagers encounter that inhibit being “present in the moment.”




  1. Mental Darting –

A concept that explains the constant motion of thoughts and the resulting lack of focus that individuals can expend on tasks that they want to pursue.


  1. The Checklist –

A concept that explains the inability to accomplish tasks in the present due to the preoccupation with tasks that need to be accomplished in the future.  Also a byproduct of society’s obsession with productivity.


  1. The Lingerings –

The indefinable, larger life goals that burden everyday living.



These 3 conclusions describe some possible scenarios teenagers might find themselves in. After constructing the conclusions, I formulated 2 guided audio recordings as partial solutions to ease the tensions caused by these situations.



  1. Meditation#1

My first audio recording which falls under the Bodyscan and Focus branch of Mindfulness provides a process to relieve the Mental Darting scenario (CTLPR method).


  1. Meditation #2

My second audio recording which includes nature themes, guided imagery, and symbolism helps put the present in perspective, hopefully relieving the effects of The Checklist and The Lingerings.


This project has been incredibly meaningful for me. Not only have I fortified my personal Mindfulness skills and practices but I have also spread Mindfulness out to my community in an appealing way. The response after presenting my project to my class was surprisingly positive; many students asked for copies of my recordings to use in university next year. I use the term “surprisingly” because when I first expressed my project idea there was some skepticism. Many students were unable to go beyond the stigma of Mindfulness being a “hokey” practice for individuals that are “soft” or “in need of help.” This was definitely a challenge I had to overcome in my project.

Needless to say, this project has been an incredible opportunity to explore human nature and adolescent behaviours. I hope some of my work is able to aid my fellow peers in living more peacefully and mindfully every day! ☺


– Manpreet Deol (York House School, Vancouver, British Columbia)

Guest Blog Photo 3


Mindfulness = Unconditional Love



There has been a lot of discussion lately about what the word “mindfulness” really means. I sometimes say trying to describe mindfulness in words without experiencing it directly, is kind of like reading the menu at a restaurant without tasting any of the food. It misses the point, and can even be misleading.

In The Mindful Teen, and in my work as a pediatrician, I quote Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” That said, I think it is useful to not get too attached to any definition. Elsewhere, Kabat-Zinn has stated that “That definition [of mindfulness] that you are asking me about is actually what I call an operational definition. It is not meant to be a final definition of mindfulness. It is more like a working definition of mindfulness.” He describes that definition not as an answer, but as a question to contemplate and look deeply into.

Here is what I find when I contemplate that definition: The idea of being “nonjudgmental,” while extremely valuable, has in my opinion also caused many people to misunderstand what mindfulness is really about. “Nonjudgmental” can be misunderstood as being distant, apathetic, selfish, or ethically neutral. Being “nonjudgmental” can sound to some people like “Whatever, I don’t care,” or “Anything goes.” But in mindfulness practice, “not judging” doesn’t mean “not caring.” Mindfulness is actually about staying present with whatever is happening in the present moment, and caring very deeply about it –– caring open-heartedly, inclusively, unconditionally.

Other translations of mindfulness are “Heartfulness,” or “Present-Heartedness.” These translations invite us to not only pay attention and concentrate and focus on the present moment, but to do so with a spirit of affection, of kindness, and of compassion. This is especially useful when dealing with pain and difficulties. In my own experience, just simply paying attention to pain, without embracing it with self-compassion or heartfulness, usually just makes me suffer more. On the other hand, when I stay present as best I can with my own pain and the pain of others, with unconditional compassion and open-heartedness — I find that I can touch the possibility of transformation and liberation.

So I invite you to hold lightly to any definitions of mindfulness. Instead, embrace your own lived experience of the practice, looking deeply and seeing clearly what is beneficial or not, for yourself and for others. With all of that said (and with apologies to Kabat-Zinn), I humbly offer a modified definition of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and with unconditional love.”

Please share your thoughts and wisdom here so that we may all benefit.