“Breathing in, I know the anger is in me. Breathing out, I will take good care of my anger.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘Is Nothing Something’.
As a society we are becoming increasingly familiar with the agreement that meditation is as beneficial to children as it is to adults, bringing about greater degrees of relaxation and self-reflection from an early age.
But the kind of meditation we might use when teaching our children how to be peaceful warriors will effectively take quite a different shape to the ones we’re familiar with and can require time and wisdom to get the right one for your child.
Traditional Vipassana and ‘breathing’ exercises, though excellent tools to teach, (as, after all, breathing is the one thing we all have in common), can seem a little abstract or hard to grasp for kids under the age of eight.
Children, particularly between the ages of three and six, are usually bouncing off the walls and reverberating in that rare but precious energy that should not be squashed or disregarded, but celebrated and used to heighten awareness.
Much like any meditation techniques, the best thing is to find activities that bring awareness to everyday tasks, as we would in retreat setting; combining working, walking, karma yoga… anything and everything we engage in throughout the day can be used to hook the meditation.
If there are three main forms of meditation; breath, chanting and object meditation, then the same goes for the latter two – singing, humming and focusing on an object or sounds can be excellent ways to increase focus for kids, and means that you don’t always have to introduce techniques in a set ‘meditation slot’; instead introducing anchors that would nicely combine with your child’s interests.
My daughter is a great example. Being the most willful and stubborn gem of a girl, teaching meditation has had a few false starts to say the least. In other words – the moment she senses she’s being taught anything, she will resist.
Using movement and animal imitation (something she loves doing on a daily basis), has proven to be the best way to do a creative meditation, whereas colour visualization and massage lends itself better to a calming night ritual where another child might prefer listening to sounds and humming.
Whatever your child’s interests and unique personality, you can use it to your advantage and get creative devising different meditations to suit them and you. A bit like spell-making, it just needs a few ingredients and some imagination:
- Focus on what your child is interested in, just as you would when teaching them counting or reading. If they like making pictures, make it visual. If they like making a noise, make up a song or chose one that is more on the spiritual side than usual. Meditation is often connected to the five senses and can be built around one or two of them.
- Experiment with objects. Just getting a child to hold an object (chosen by them of course), describe it and feel it slows them down and makes them more aware. As Lorraine E. Murray writes about in Calm Kids, when children are fully awake they are in the Beta state, but when they’re in Alpha state, noticing their surroundings without analyzing or thinking they’re closer to a meditative state that leads on to the Theta/dream state that adults can reach through ‘no thought’, their brains being fully developed neurologically. Favorite objects can be collected on an altar or in a special area of their play tent to help them develop and take control of their own ‘spiritual time’.
- Have a lively ‘wake up’ meditation in the morning involving physical play (swinging arms like monkeys, stomping like elephants, tapping various chakra points on body etc), and a more calming ritual before bed (chanting simple chants, watching the stars on the balcony, visualizing a colour that they’re drawn to for that day and using words you link to that colour i.e orange – ‘you’re feeling warm and confident, happy and sunny’.
- Music, candles and particular cushions/areas of the house can be dedicated to meditation, but the more you get kids to look within without these external props the better. Such things can help set the scene or be nice evening ritual to prepare them for bed.
- Involve gratitude. Have a gratitude prayer that you might start off to see if they join in, or take it in turns to say three things you’re grateful for that happened that day.
- During the day build up the habit of becoming aware of emotions, for example if your child is upset, sit with them and get them to link it to one core ‘negative’ emotion (mad, sad, scared). Get them to recognize this emotion, perhaps where they feel it in their bodies, what colour it is. Once this habit has been introduced, or if they’re a little older, they can use breath to breathe into/send love to the emotion before giving themselves a cuddle. OR Do ‘volcano breath’ for angry reactions (a few sharp out takes, then an ‘explosion’ at the sky rather than another person) or ‘Buddha/cloud’ breathing (slow and deliberate) for scared or sad feelings. Clenching and unclenching fists and asking them to imagine them slowly letting sand trickle through their fingers or blowing things they can do nothing about away like feathers are other ideas.
- Generally work with obstacles rather than against them. For example if your child has difficulty keeping their eyes closed, use a visual tool like following a finger or an instruction like ‘look at the sky, look at the ground’. Like children’s yoga, it’s often best to keep things moving or involve a story element to hold their interest. Even things like walking to the bus stop can become a game and meditation in disguise. Count your steps together, march, count the birds you see along the way, walk slowly (you may need to be a bit of an exhibitionist, but lets face it, who cares what others think!)… Try collecting a certain type of object to add to the altar back home, like stones or leaves.
All these suggestions are simply jumping off points for further ideas that will evolve as your child ages and you become bolder and more experimental. The joy of any children we come into contact with and those in our care is that they often lead the way; down unknown roads we never dreamed of.
Meditation and play will ultimately connect us with our own inner child that looks at the world with wonder. One we might’ve long since left behind.