Tuesday, March 20, 2012

teaching meditation to children.

My friend Miri asked me to write a little more about meditating with the children and how I go about that, how I get them to sit still, what I think about meditation, wisdom I can share, how Thor does in meditation, and other ideas for meditation. Beezus is two weeks away from five and Thor is two weeks away from two, so meditating with him seems a little um, ambitious. And it is.

I have written about meditating with the kids a few times.

talking stick.
enso meditation with children.

I am certainly not an expert at meditating with children. I just happen to do it most days. I meditate alone and I meditate with the children. So, I am just a mama. Know that before I start this conversation. I wanted to give a few pointers for parents who think meditation is some far-out amazing thing I have accomplished with my children. It isn't and I haven't. The book Baby Buddhas has ten meditations to do with children and a few for parents learning meditation. And all of them are described in a simple, clear manner, and really work amazingly well for children. I have adapted some, while using others straight from the book.

*Not a real meditation.
I asked her to show me how she meditates, then snapped a pic.
I would suggest as a journal exercise (parents need homework too!) to write about what you want your children to learn and gain from meditation. It will help you clarify your intention in meditation with your children and your intention as a parent. And it helps you see how you are meeting that goal, even when everyone is crawling on you like you are a meditating jungle gym. The goal is long term. You are trying to give your child a sense of themselves and a sense of peace and compassion, joy and love.

You are also teaching your children that perfection is not the goal. There is no perfect meditation and yet, in that way, every meditation is perfect. Meditation is not measured in those terms, even though so many of us want to take a yardstick to our practice. Did I sit long enough? Did I think too much? Do I feel calmer? So, when you give your children the gift of meditation, you give them the gift of acceptance too. You give them the gift of space in their mind. Give them the gift of being right just as they are. And maybe that is a gift for yourself too.

The single best piece of advice I can give parents for meditating with children is lower your expectations.

Know that your children are going to stand up from meditation from time to time (my daughter never stands, my 23 month old stands after a minute.) Your two year old may even bonk his older sister on the head despite the serenity you are trying to cultivate. Or he may repeatedly drive a Hot Wheels car up your leg while you are chanting Oooommmmm. Know that some days your baby will sit for thirty seconds. Know that other days she may ask you ten thousand questions while you are guiding her through a meditation story. Know that a meditation technique you use one day will be ineffective the next day.

BUT that will not be the experience every minute of your meditation. And in the moments between, you are teaching your child something incredibly valuable. All I can say is allow your children to be children during meditation. Yes, you will try to refocus their attention on meditation. Yes, you should take the meditation seriously. Think joy and seriousness together. Strong but loving. But sometimes that won't work. Meditation is not the time or place where anyone should get punished, or reprimanded, or voices should be raised in any way, because the meditation isn't done "correctly". The last thing I want to create is an obligation, or sense of torture about meditation. Sitting is supposed to be a safe haven, a welcome ritual of our day, not that thing they have to do that they dread.I often say things like, "It looks like you are done with meditation, so why don't you sit back down and we will stop together by ringing the gong."

Asking little ones to ring the gong is a good way
to get them to associate meditation with fun.
Pema Chodron says, "Meditation isn't really about getting rid of thoughts, it's about changing the pattern of grasping on to things, which in our everyday experience is our thoughts." When you are teaching mindfulness, you are just readjusting your mind to be aware of your thoughts and attention when they drift from being open and empty. You are teaching your child to be present, or right in the moment. That is mindfulness. To have your mind exactly where your body is. Recently, I heard someone say when you are dwelling in the past, you are living in regret and guilt and when you are dwelling in the future, you are living in anxiety. Our goal then is to live in the present, and teach our children to do that too.

When you teach your children meditation, you are giving them a coping mechanism that isn't overeating, yelling, hitting, zoning out in front of the television, drinking, suppressing their feelings or running their head into a wall.  You are teaching them to sit in silence, to find a calm moment when their head is noisy. With meditation, you are teaching your children how YOU deal with stress and how to live life on life's terms. My daughter sometimes asks to meditate when she is hurt or upset, because she sees me meditate when I am hurt or upset.

So here is the second best piece of advice I can give parents for meditating with children--start meditating by yourself for yourself.

Cultivating a meditation practice will help you deal with your kids when they are crazy. Meditation will help you deal with yourself when you are feeling crazy. I would start simply by sitting every morning and every evening for ten minutes. I find I sit more easily before coffee in the morning, when my monkey mind hasn't quite kicked in yet. And you sit, trying not to make grocery lists in your head. Try to label that, "THINKING" and refocus your mind on your breath. One minute of true clear minded meditation will help, I promise you, in feeling serenity. And then after the kids have done to sleep in the evening, because there is obviously a lack of interest in what I am doing and I can meditate without interruption.  I precede meditation in the morning with a prayer, and follow it in the evening with a prayer. It is my time to sit alone and quiet my mind. Develop a conscious contact with God, or nature, or whatever it is that helps me feel protected.

If children see you meditate, they will want to meditate. If you tell them you deal with anger by meditating, that is what they learn. When you are meditating with your children, they may not breathe the way you breathe. They may not sit with their back straight. They may not close their eyes, or open them. But if they are watching you meditate, they will try to sit like you, breathe like you, be like you. Of course, this applies to every part of your life.

Here is the third piece of advice (I stopped ranking them) about meditating with children--don't treat meditation as a time-out.

Meditation is not a punishment. And it should not be treated that way.

Mind jar works for settling upset minds.
When you use meditation as a punishment, sitting still, quietly, becomes equated with something unpleasant, even though I think children need quiet when they are freaking out. So, this is not to say that if you child is acting out, and hitting other kids, you don't sit him somewhere away from others to calm down. Just treat it differently. Don't use the same space as meditation. Don't use the same words. Make meditation a choice for your child, so they can learn to gain control of their own mind and recognize their own need for quiet.

When one of my children is out of control, I separate them from the situation, talk to her/him, hold and kiss the baby(when little ones are most unlovable, mama's job is to love them the most), then brainstorm ideas on how to remedy the wrongs that may have occurred. Before we can find effective solutions, we need to quiet the mind and the anger. I ask my child if they want to use the mindjar before going on, rather than force them to meditate. It sounds like a subtle difference, perhaps meaningless to some people, but it is huge for children in my experience. If the child says no to meditation, respect their decision. To be honest, most of the time they choose to use the mindjar. They shake it up, and it represents the chaos in their mind, then they sit and watch the glitter settle as their thoughts settle. We sometimes have to shake more than once, and that is okay. They are calming down.

My fourth piece of advice about meditating with children is to create a sacred space for meditation.

My children love doing this. We try to change our altar based on the season. We have a Buddha, a Virgin of Guadalupe, symbols of each element (a bowl of water for, uh, Water, a feather and incense for Air, stones for Earth, and candles for Fire), flowers/symbols of the season, and anything else that catches our fancy. We have a gong for starting and ending meditation. Children love using bells, and it helps get them actively involved in meditation. I have recently downloaded a free app for my phone that rings a gong  to start meditation and end meditation. You simply program the length of time you want to sit for. It is awesome.

The altar/meditation space we have created is in their playroom. For Christmas, I gave each member of my family their own meditation cushion, since I was the only person with one. Everyone was using a pillow. They love their own cushion with their own color. When we decide to meditate, everyone scrambles to grab their cushion and sit in a circle. We put the gong in the center of us, or if we are doing a mindfulness meditation, whatever we are focusing on.

When we used to have the altar in the front room on a table the children could reach, people often asked me how we kept that safe from little hands. And I didn't really know how to answer that. We taught them it was sacred and not to be touched. And they didn't play with the things on the altar. We now have the altar higher than reach for the children, which is nice for lighting candles and incense.

My fifth piece of advice about meditating with children is teach them that anything can be a meditation if you are practicing mindfulness.

This seems contrary to what I am saying earlier. You create a sacred space. You ask them if they want to meditate. But practicing mindfulness means to be paying attention to the present moment without judgement. It doesn't mean that you do dishes then say, "I was meditating back then." You make it a conscious choice about the activity and mindfulness. That is the point of mindfulness. It is about being conscious about where you are, how your breath moves your body, what is going on right now, right where you are.

We sometimes do mindfulness meditations about an object. We try to shed all our judgement about what it is, and just look at it. For example, we might put a picture frame in the center of our circle. We don't talk about whether it is holding a pretty picture, or what it used to hold, or what it will hold, or if it itself is pretty, but rather that it is rectangular, black, white, scratched, heavy. We talk about it objectively.

When we take mindfulness meditation walks, we stop and smell the air. We listen to the birds. We take the time to just be present right where we are. We sometimes do these as kinds of gratitude walks. We thank the trees for giving us shade. Or whatever we notice right then right where we are. We also do meditation painting sessions and paint ensos. Not worrying about whether they are perfect, for it is in their imperfection that we find some kind of sacred truth.

I hope this helped a little. I am open to taking questions. Again, I am not an expert, but I have thought about this a lot, written about it and use meditation in my daily life as a mama and a lady. I am happy to answer whatever you would like to know about meditating with children. Thank you.


HereWeGoAJen said...

I really like this.

Sara said...

Thanks, Angie. The "what it really looks like many days," head bonks and matchbook cars and all, is strangely what makes this seem workable. If you hadn't included that part, I would have pictured my kids getting up and climbing on me and the couch and bugging each other and thought I can't do that. Realistic expectations make a difference.

Renel said...

I believe in this. I try and do many of your suggestions here. One of the things yet to be done is a mind jar... Maybe this weekend. I need to do more meditating myself not just when I do it with Kai. You're a great mama. Maybe I can do less telling, more whispering and meditation. It is a process. Sigh

Renel said...

Less yelling not telling.