Meditation with Children : Description and Challenges
This post may appear to deviate quite an bit from my typical topic content areas. However, since, as a father of four, I believe it is critical to begin exposure to mindfulness, meditation and so on, when the grounds are fertile and seeds can be sprouted. What better hope for the future than for our children to acquire the knowledge that those of my generation were originally denied?
And so every night, I invite my children to meditate. They range in age from 9 to 6. I never make it mandatory though on occasion I offer some incentive if I feel their motivation or consistency of practice is waning. We have now been consistently meditating since April of 2012. It all started when, on Hanukkah of that year, I purchased a book entitled “Peaceful Piggies Meditation”, a wonderful little illustrated children’s book which describes the benefits and practical instruction in meditation.. However, it wasn’t until almost Easter of that year that the kids remembered the book and asked to read it. So, that night, after reading it to them, they asked to meditate. While previously, they had often seen me meditate, other than a passing curiosity, they never seemed very interested. And so that night, we meditated. Following the recommendations of the book, they were instructed how to sit in an erect, cross-legged position on pillows on the floor. They were taught how to follow their breath by concentrating on the air coming in and out of their nose. I also gave them the option of counting the exhalation of each breath, from one to ten, (one count per breath), an introductory Zen method. They generally seem to prefer this method as it appears to give them something more concrete upon which to anchor their attention.
I found some “props” to be helpful in forging and maintaining their interest in meditation. I set up a home “alter” which includes a statue of the Buddha in meditation. They enjoy adorning the statue with beads or depositing near it various items which they collect on our nature walks. We also light incense, and to them, it is even a big deal to see who gets to blow out the flame of the newly lit incense stick. We also start each meditation with the striking of a Tibetan singing bowl gong. Each night, one of the kids receives the “honor” of being anointed the “gong-master” and gets the opportunity to strike the gong. The gong-master also has the distinction of sitting on a special large flat floor pillow which is placed under their meditation pillow. To the kids, this is a very big deal and appears to have gone a long way to help maintain their interest.
The first few nights of meditation were not actually a scene which one would see in a solemn Zen Monastery. The first sitting was punctuated by fits of laughter. The more they tried to fight it, the more they laughed. I didn’t try to admonish them or discourage it, but rather figured it would just run its course, once they acclimated to the apparent absurdity of sitting quietly on floor pillows, which eventually it did. So even on that first night, I was somewhat shocked that after about 5 minutes they fell into a deep silence and stillness and remained that way for about 10 more minutes.
Subsequent sittings went in a similar manner and the rounds of laughter, giggles, farting, scratching appeared to diminish a bit quicker depending on their mood, levels of fatigue (since we usually meditate just before bedtime since it appears to help them settle down for bed).
Generally, they seem to enjoy meditation and often ask to meditate. They also seem to know when they particularly need to, or stand to benefit from meditation. So for example, just last night my 8 year old daughter said, tomorrow, “I will really need to meditate since we will be swimming at Nana’s pool, and that always makes me hyper”.
When we first commenced meditation practice, I assumed that their interest would be short lived and that the novelty would soon wear. I enticed them to continue by offering to purchase them each their own colored zafu (meditation pillows). They continued to practice and the zafus were purchased. I still assumed that the novelty of the zafus would wear thin and their practice would wane. It has now been a year and a half and we are going strong. Not only that, but they are memorizing the Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra which we chant each night before meditation. We have now memorized more than half of the sutra. So imagine if you can three little American kids cheerfully chanting the Heart Sutra or as the call it “the Ma Ka Han Ya” (the first phrase of the sutra).
Now, I do have to issue a word of caution. Meditating with kids is not easy. Somebody is usually moving, sniffing, scratching, or just generally making some kind of God awful sound. For an adult, this can deepen one’s practice if you employ some patience and mindfully view whatever sense of irritation , annoyance, or frustration this is likely to arouse. It would be unwise to expect the kids to sit quietly (though sometimes they do) for long periods. It is important to keep it fun.
One other word of advise is to start them young. I wish I had done this with my 15 year old daughter. By the time I introduced her siblings to it, she showed no interest.
My hope and prayer is that they continue their practice for years to come.