The New ABCs:
and Compassion May the world be happy May the world be clean May the world never end May the world be this way May everything come true Friendly wishes poem by Inner Kids elementary school student
After my son’s sixth birthday party, I watched from the kitchen window as the few remaining children played in the backyard. The girl from next door was doing cartwheels across our lawn, which was littered with deflated balloons. My son and his friend sat on the steps and paged through a book of cartoons he had received as a present. It was a wonderful, peaceful afternoon.
Suddenly, the calm broke: the kitchen door flew open, and my son and his friend ran in, both boys near tears. I asked them what was wrong, but they were overexcited and couldn’t get the words out. No one was in danger, but the boys had worked themselves into such a state that they couldn’t calm down. So I took a snow globe from the bookshelf and wound up the music box at its base. I shook the snow globe, put it down on a table, put my hand on my abdomen, and asked the boys to put their hands on their tummies. Together we felt our breaths move up and down as we watched the snow fall and settle in the globe. My son’s friend was almost gasping as he tried to hold back his tears. When the snow had settled to the bottom of the snow globe, I shook it again. As we watched the water in the globe gradually clear, we felt ourselves breathing. Soon, we could see the figures inside the snow globe and the boys’ breathing had slowed; their bodies had relaxed and calmed. Now we could talk about what had scared them.
I use this breathing technique and ones like it to help children calm themselves when they feel overwhelmed, and the transformative power of breathing never ceases to amaze me. Breathing is the most natural thing in the world, the foundation of our lives. We do it without thinking about it, but by tapping into the power of this simple act, we can better manage stress and live happier lives. The aim of this book is to help you help your children do just that: to tap into their awareness of breathing, the physical world, and their inner lives, and to develop their attention skills—tools that they will carry with them through their entire lives.
You can learn a lot by paying attention to your children’s breathing. When my first child, Allegra, was born, I became more attuned to the breathing of those around me. The first time I held her, I watched her breathe for a while, and each breath reassured me that she would be all right. My son, Gabe, was born two and a half years later, and hearing the steady in and out of his breathing was as reassuring to me as the sound of his sister’s breathing. Allegra and Gabe’s breathing would always be their companions, and they would become mine. I took what I had learned from my children into other relationships, too. I began to sit with family members who seemed helpless due to youth, old age, or illness, and I listened for the sound of their breathing, hearing in each breath a promise that we would spend another day together. Years later I would look back and recognize these moments as ones of mindful awareness, a powerful practice that I later studied formally.
Your children’s breathing is the swinging door between their inner and outer worlds. Most of us know intuitively that tuning into our own breath is useful, but we can forget that paying attention to other people’s breathing can let us know how they are reacting to life experience. If you take the time to be observant, the speed, depth, pace, and intensity of your children’s breathing will convey how they feel and even signal possible health issues. Your children’s breathing can give you a glimpse of their lives from the inside out. You can become more mindful through simple acts, such as taking a moment in your children’s bedroom to watch them peacefully and breathe with them before you wake them for school. You can observe your spouse’s or partner’s breathing to get a sense of what he or she is experiencing and better synchronize your pace with his or hers. You can connect deeply with an aging or ill parent by putting aside any thoughts or emotions that might be on your mind for just a moment to tune in to his or her breathing. By slowing down simply to notice other people’s breathing, you can gain insights into their worlds that you might otherwise miss. And you may also gain insights into your own.
Your children’s breathing is not only a message from their inner worlds. It tells you about their outer world as well—for example, their relationship with you, with siblings, with authority figures, with peers, and with the social world in general. You can especially see this in action when they interact with friends. I learned a lot about my daughter by observing her as she rows with her crew team. Each spring, her team competes in regattas throughout California. The intense physicality and concentration of the athletes as they synchronize their strokes is stunning. Their breath powers the boat. One breath, one stroke, with a laserlike focus that is fueled by years of training and the sweat of many, many races. Each stroke calls for focus on the present moment (what’s happening right now), wisdom gleaned from other races (past experience), and determination to put every bit of their effort toward a common goal (the drive to win the race). When racing well, the rowers are completely attuned to one another, and the alert, visceral, and interconnected way they work together is an example of relational mindful awareness.
My first formal experience with mindfulness meditation was in 1993, when Allegra was two years old and I was three months pregnant with Gabe. We lived in New York City, and I was an in-house lawyer for ABC Television, with a happy family life, meaningful friendships, and a progressive job-sharing arrangement that allowed me to spend time at home with my toddler. Life was good. It was mind-bogglingly good, until we got a message from the internist that my husband, Seth, had stage-four lymphoma. Our lives changed in an instant.
We needed to make sense of what had happened and manage the stress that lay ahead. We read books and spoke to friends. Ultimately, Seth brought me to the Zen Center to manage my worry through meditation (the irony is not lost on me that although he had the cancer diagnosis, he took me
to learn meditation). After an orientation meeting, we sat cross-legged on buckwheat-filled meditation cushions, faced a blank white wall, and began the process of mindfulness training. In the eerie quiet, my thoughts were deafening. I could not sit still.
Seth started chemotherapy, I quit my job, and we moved from Manhattan to a rented house in upstate New York. We hoped the slower pace of life would help Seth beat cancer, and it did. We ate organic food when we could get it. Gabe was born, Seth became involved in a radical course of alternative cancer therapy, and I tried meditation again.
Through recordings by meditation teachers Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, I learned of a Buddhist meditation practice known as mindfulness of breathing.1 The classical instruction for this type of meditation is:
… having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree or to an empty hut, [you] sit down, folding [your] legs crosswise, holding [your] body erect, setting up mindfulness in front of [you]. Ever mindful [you] breathe in, mindful [you] breathe out.2
For parents, even the first step—find a quiet place with few distractions—can be challenging. But with some ingenuity, it is possible for parents to find time to meditate, which is the foundation of mindfulness practice.
One of my favorite words from classical mindfulness teachings is householder,
which means “layperson” and is used to distinguish those who meditate but have not taken monastic vows from Buddhist monks. The word householder
aptly reflects the life of a parent who juggles myriad, often competing, responsibilities and every day proves the truth in the saying, “If you need to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.” Somehow, they manage kids, jobs, and community obligations, and they still attend parent meetings at their kids’ schools, serve hot lunches, coach sports teams, sew costumes, and drive car pools. Parents have such busy lives that it might seem impossible to find a quiet place to meditate even for a short period of time. But no matter how many children and how many responsibilities we have, there’s room in our schedules to meditate—we’ll just have to be creative about figuring out when and where. Parents meditate at strange times and in strange places: on a cushion in their bedrooms first thing in the morning, at the kitchen table while their children are napping, in the car pool lines and while walking the halls of hospitals and retirement homes. We grab whatever time is available to us, wherever and whenever we can. We meditate when we’re sitting, when we’re walking, and when we’re lying down, so that we can take the mindfulness developed during formal meditation into our daily lives. It’s tough, but we can find pockets of time.
The next step in mindful breathing is: “setting up mindfulness in front of [you] … ever mindful [you] breathe in, mindful [you] breathe out.” The phrase “ever mindful” can be confusing, especially since there are several different connotations for the word mindful
now that meditation has entered secular culture. But here’s a classical
description of mindfulness that those new to meditation often find helpful: Mindfulness is a mirror of what’s happening in the present moment.
In other words, when practicing mindfulness, you see life experience clearly, as it happens, without an emotional charge. We learn how to do this by feeling our present moment experience, as it happens, without analyzing it—at least for the time being. To notice something and not
analyze or think about what it means is a radical idea for many of us. It requires quieting your thoughts, emotions, and reactions—keeping your mind out of the way—so that you can take in information from your inner and outer worlds and see it clearly without the filter of preconceived notions. And you can achieve this seemingly impossible task simply by focusing on your breathing. Keep your mind on the feeling of your breath as it moves from the tip of your nostrils into your chest and back out again. If your mind wanders, which it usually does, that’s okay. When you see that it’s wandered, bring it back to the feeling of the movement of your breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Let everything else drop away for the length of one breath and feel what it’s like to be alive right now, in the present moment.
This and other meditation techniques like it have been practiced for thousands of years by all major religions and contemplative traditions. These practices systematically develop attention while encouraging kindness, compassion, and self-knowledge. Mindful awareness promotes physical and mental well-being as well as character and ethical development, a claim supported by growing data from major universities around the world. Many people find that it just makes them happier. Mindfulness practice helped me recognize unhealthy patterns of thinking and reacting to life experience without judging myself harshly. It also showed me the way to a joyful and transcendent state of well-being that I had previously stumbled upon but didn’t know how to access intentionally until I learned to meditate.
Once I saw its benefits in my own life, I wondered if mindfulness would help my children. How much richer might their childhoods be if they could use age-appropriate mindful awareness techniques? I soon discovered, however, that while there were hundreds of places where adults could receive secular training, as well as many good books they could read, there were no secular programs or books about teaching mindfulness to children at the time.3 It occurred to me that perhaps I could adapt the mindfulness techniques I practiced to make them appropriate for my family.
I began developing simple practices and teaching them to Gabe and Allegra. There was absolutely nothing scientific about what I was doing, but the kids were interested, and I soon sensed a change in them. Had you asked them if they were practicing mindfulness, they would have denied it, but they nonetheless used breath awareness to help them slow down when they were overexcited and become calmer when they were upset. Both children were less reactive to big and small irritants than they had been before. Something was working, so I became a bit more daring. I met with the director of the Boys and Girls Club in Santa Monica, California, in the fall of 2000 and offered to volunteer two hours a week to teach in their after-school day-care program. While the director was initially reluctant (and no wonder, given that I had no scientific credentials at the time), he agreed, and I began improvising classes in the art room. My friend, Dr. Suzi Tortora, a dance therapist who teaches children breath awareness and movement, visited from New York and helped me incorporate mindful movement into the classes. During that period, I developed many of the core practices I teach today.
In 2001, another friend, Steve Reidman, a public school teacher in Los Angeles, heard what I was doing and asked me to work with his students. He had a particularly rambunctious class and was looking for any outside help to manage it. Reidman’s students embraced the program, and to everyone’s surprise, some of the kids even began taking the practices home and teaching them to their parents. My favorite story from that year, one that has since been repeated many times by parents of children from different cities, was shared by the mother of a ten-year-old girl. She described driving her children to school during morning rush hour when traffic had come to a standstill. The mom became understandably frustrated, honking at other cars and frenetically trying to find a traffic report on the radio when, out of the backseat, a little voice said, “Mom, just take three deep breaths; it will calm you down.” The woman took her daughter’s advice, and the tension eased. It didn’t stop them from being late, but they arrived at their destination considerably less frazzled than usual. That day, mindful awareness had a new convert in the parent body of the school.
Support for the program continued to build, and by the end of the first year, students, teachers, parents, and administrators all considered the project a success. Significantly, the general atmosphere in the classroom had improved, and Reidman attributed that improvement, at least in part, to mindfulness. I returned to Reidman’s class the following year, and slowly, through word of mouth, teachers and administrators at other schools asked me to teach.
Teaching mindful awareness in schools is deeply gratifying and has the potential to make a large-scale, positive impact on our society. This benefit, however, while great, is different from the benefit that accrues to kids when their entire family system practices mindful awareness. The more I worked with schools, the more I recognized the inherent limitations in working with children outside of the family system. Psychotherapist and meditation teacher Trudy Goodman and I started a small family program in my backyard in order to work directly with parents and their children.
Most parents who come to me hope that their children grow up to be people who, even during the most stressful or provocative situations, choose to give themselves enough time to develop a perspective that will help them make sound, productive decisions. They want their children to live happier lives. Some of these parents are looking to mindfulness as a spiritual practice, but most of them are not. They want to help their children develop life skills, like how to:
Approach experience with curiosity and an open mind
Calm down when they’re angry or upset
Concentrate and ignore distractions
See what’s happening in, to, and around them, other people, and the environment clearly and objectively
Develop prosocial qualities like patience, humility, happiness for the good fortune of others, generosity, diligence, and equanimity
Live gently and in balance with other people and their environment.
Some young people have a hard time learning and applying these life skills, but most are well able to practice mindful awareness when they receive clear and concrete instruction and live in an environment supportive of the process. This is especially true when the practices are fun, and kids begin to see for themselves how mindfulness can help them navigate even the most challenging real-life situations. This book will show how you and your children can develop these hugely beneficial skills in your own home.
I was inspired to write this book by the parents who reached out because their children had problems that they hoped mindfulness training could help. One child was friendless, for example, and the parents could not understand why. Another was starting fights in school, and his parents were afraid that the school would expel him or, worse, that he would seriously hurt another child or himself. A third child had trouble sleeping and often awoke in the middle of the night and began to cry, not knowing why or how to stop. A fourth child was in frequent pain due to illness, made worse by tension in her mind and body. Another seemed to be a model child, except that she put so much pressure on herself she collapsed whenever she experienced anything less than perfection. The parents of these children felt desperate and were willing to give anything a try if there was a remote possibility it could help.
The children whose stories are told throughout the book are composites of children with whom I’ve worked. No real names or identifying details are used. Let’s start with Nick, Melody, and Charlotte.
Nick, a sixth grader referred to me by his physician, complained of being unhappy, truly unhappy, and over time he had developed sleep and digestive problems. His doctor was quite sure that no underlying medical disorder could account for Nick’s sadness, although both his physician and parents accepted that his problems were serious and he needed help. By the time I met Nick, his schoolwork was suffering, as was his social life. When his mom picked him up from school, Nick often burst into tears, saying that he hated his life, his friends, everything and everyone but his family.
I spoke with Nick about why he was unhappy. He told me he couldn’t put his finger on anything in particular that was wrong, but he couldn’t put his negative thoughts aside. Like many adults, he had never considered the possibility that a person could influence how he reacted to his thoughts and emotions. Nick believed that thoughts, positive as well as negative, just came into your head uninvited and that there was little if anything you could do about it.
Melody had been diagnosed with ADHD. When I first met her, she had difficulty looking at me, and she blurted out immediate, and mostly unconsidered, responses to everything I said, regardless of whether my statement called for a response. I guessed that this was the same way she interacted with her teachers and friends. Teachers are trained to understand this behavior, but other children greeted her impulsivity with rolling eyes and sniggers. It wasn’t that her remarks were stupid. They were often insightful and clever. But she tended to offer them with much more enthusiasm than the situation called for, and with no sense of the pace or intensity of the conversation. Melody had few friends and was not invited to play dates, the movies, or classmates’ birthday parties.
Charlotte, a high school junior, was referred to me for chronic, debilitating headaches. Charlotte was in the middle of an intense headache when she first came to see me. As her mom and I spoke, Charlotte moved to a corner of the room, listening to her iPod and drawing on a dry-erase board. Charlotte’s mom noticed what she was doing, and called out, “Charlotte, don’t push yourself right now; it will just make your headache worse.” I was dumbstruck when I realized that Charlotte was powering through her headache, listening to Mandarin Chinese language tapes on her iPod and writing sentences on the board in Mandarin.
Neither Charlotte nor anyone in her family was Chinese. Charlotte was learning Mandarin because she hoped that foreign language fluency would look good on her college application. Her mother had done everything she could to convince her daughter to give herself a break, but nothing had worked. Charlotte persisted in believing that in everything she attempted, there were only two options: absolute perfection and abject failure.
These children were smart people who had somehow locked themselves into an exhausting, downbeat way of seeing the world and relating to life experience. Mindful awareness can help children like Nick, Melody, and Charlotte shift their negative conceptual framework to a more positive one. Changing the way you think about things and react to life events takes hard work, practice, strong modeling, and guidance. But with appropriate effort, a supportive environment, and a bit of luck, the process will take hold and then change will happen naturally. The first step in this process is learning to recognize what your conceptual framework is then, if necessary, working toward dismantling it in order to get a more accurate read on what’s happening in, to, and around you. That’s where mindful awareness practice can be quite helpful to those who are developmentally ready.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle observed that “we are what we repeatedly do,” and the same holds true now. What we think, say, and do today will influence what we think, say, and do tomorrow. It’s easy to develop habitual patterns of speech, behavior, and thought without realizing it. Mindfulness of breathing, when practiced properly, helps develop a stable and strong faculty of attention capable of recognizing these patterns. You must see whether or not you have biases or patterns of behavior that you’d like to shift before you can change them.
By practicing mindfulness kids learn life skills that help them soothe and calm themselves, bring awareness to their inner and outer experience, and bring a reflective quality to their actions and relationships. Living in this way helps children connect to themselves (what do I feel? think? see?), to others (what do they feel? think? see?), and maybe to something greater than themselves. This is a worldview in which everything is seen as interconnected. When children understand that they and those they love are somehow connected to everybody and everything else, ethical and socially productive behavior comes naturally, and they also feel less isolated—a common problem for kids and teens. In a world where the most popular reality television shows involve harsh criticism and ridicule of the contestants, it is no wonder that children often make light of old-fashioned values like kindness, compassion, and gratitude. But in mindfulness practice, these qualities are prized above all. And because children learn to be aware of the impact of their actions and words on others, they consider other people when setting goals and planning, and they are more likely to be kind to themselves, too, during moments of real or perceived failure.
A common misconception about mindfulness is that it is exclusively about sitting quietly and meditating. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Introspection is a critical element in understanding life experience in a clear and unbiased way, but what good is that skill if children can’t use it in real-life situations? The skills of mindfulness find their highest value as children navigate the world every day, during which they give children and teens a road map to plan, organize, and think through complex problems. It helps them define what they want (or need) to do and set forth making a plan to accomplish it.
Chapters 1 Through 4: The Building Blocks of Mindfulness
Mindfulness practice is serious work with important, long-term implications for overall health and well-being, but above all, it is a pleasure and can be presented playfully and effectively. In Chapters 1 through 4, I will share activities and exercises through which parents and children can learn mindfulness-based calming techniques and develop strong and stable attention skills—the building blocks of mindfulness. Chapter 1 will focus on the science and theory behind mindfulness, including ways to explain mindfulness to children. Since it’s easy to take mindfulness, especially attention training, a little too seriously and forget that fun, in and of itself, is healing, useful, and productive, Chapters 2 through 4 are full of games, songs, pictures, and poems that I’ve found to be effective in developing the mindfulness skills. For example, when a young child is upset or there is family conflict, you can sing a song about breathing together, or she can calm herself by putting a stuffed animal on her stomach and pretending to rock it to sleep. Playing mindfulness-related games and singing mindfulness-related songs are fun ways to help children develop attention skills and understand how breath awareness can help them self-regulate. It’s also a great way to jump-start a period of introspection.
One of the biggest challenges for those who meditate is to put thoughts aside and rest in their present-moment experience. We think most of the time, and putting it aside can be difficult. But when we’re having fun, we tend to put thinking aside automatically. Playing games and singing helps kids (and adults) break free of their conceptual framework, and these activities are a fantastic prelude to practicing meditation. As a practical matter, it tends to be easier for newcomers to stop thinking naturally, through play, before they meditate than to stop thinking deliberately after they sit down on a cushion.
If you are wondering, But how do I get my son or daughter to do this? Here’s what I suggest to beginners: Concentrate on the
feeling of your breath as it moves through your body. If your mind wanders, that’s perfectly natural; just bring it back to the physical sensation of your inhalation, your exhalation, and the pause between the two. Remember, don’t think about your breathing or change it in any way, just feel your breath as it is right now and rest.
Chapters 5 and 6: Clearly Seeing and Understanding Life Experience
In Chapters 5 and 6, I encourage children and teens to use their attention skills and breath awareness to help them better understand what’s happening in, to, and around them. When they notice mental and physical discomfort, I invite children to pretend they are scientists studying a rare species (themselves!) by feeling what happens to their minds and bodies in response. They use their innate curiosity to understand better the discomfort, and at first, all they do is feel it. Does it change or stay the same? Does it move or stay in one place? Is there a connection between things they do or say and how they feel? Is there a connection between how they feel and the things they do or say? Often physical and mental discomfort will ease simply because part of them is experiencing it with the eye of a curious but dispassionate scientist. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, from the University of California, Los Angeles, describes this nonreactive, scientific perspective as that of an impartial spectator. When working with children, I emphasize that this perspective is also clearheaded and compassionate. I don’t ask kids to ignore unpleasant realities, but to recognize that there may be a lot they don’t know about people and situations that seem difficult or unfair.
The story Beauty and the Beast
helps kids understand that things are not always what they appear to be. Beast is horrible at the beginning of the story, but over time Beauty sees a kinder Beast underneath his frightening exterior. The ultimate revelation comes when Beauty learns that a cruel spell has locked a prince in Beast’s body all this time, and only her choice to marry him could unlock the prince. Beauty realizes that she cannot judge a person on appearances alone—in other words, no wonder Beast was so cranky before! Mindfulness practice helps kids see beyond the surface of the beasts in their own lives by learning to approach them with an open mind, curiosity, and compassion.
Once kids learn to stabilize their attention, the emphasis shifts to watching inner experience (thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations) without analyzing it—in other words, without labeling the experience as good or bad. For example, Melody noticed she had a habit of wanting to answer every single question regardless of what it was. She didn’t judge the habit as good or bad. She just looked at it and paid attention to how she felt when she wasn’t called on. I encouraged Melody to notice how she felt every time she wanted to answer a question, paying attention to the sensations in her body. Melody’s actions and reactions would evolve over time, but first, she had to make a connection between what was happening in her mind, in her body, and in her behavior.
Nick, Melody, and Charlotte all saw connections between their feelings and different aspects of their lives. Nick was able to see that his loneliness and boredom were connected to his feelings of sadness, and Charlotte recognized that working hard didn’t always make her feel better about herself—in fact, it sometimes made her feel worse because stress triggered her chronic headaches. Nick and Charlotte made these observations without the emotional sting of judgment. All three children opened up to their parents more and talked about their worries, fears, goals, and aspirations.
Chapters 8 and 9: Using Mindfulness in Real Life
In Chapters 8 and 9, children and teens use what they learn while practicing mindfulness to understand better the outside world and how they choose to live in it. By paying close attention to what they do throughout the day, children and teens can discover their own habits of mind (for example, procrastination, optimism, or pessimism), and of their bodies (for example, whether they are active or sedentary). Children can then better recognize how these habits affect their lives and better understand that some habits, like kindness, will more likely lead to happiness than others.
Nick realized that he tended not to choose what he wanted to do, but instead relied on his parents to choose for him. Nick recognized that he didn’t choose his friends, either, but hung out with whoever was available. He decided to focus on what he liked to do and finding friends who shared his interests. Melody realized that raising her hand every time a teacher asked a question (even when she wasn’t sure of the answer) was only a habit. Her classroom teacher and her parents encouraged Melody to raise her hand more deliberately. The teacher reinforced Melody’s self-regulatory behavior by calling on her quickly, knowing that Melody would have thought through her answer before raising her hand. Melody became more reflective as she learned to raise her hand intentionally rather than automatically. Charlotte realized that her compulsion to work was a habit. Without thinking, she worked whenever she had the chance. Once she realized that she was working automatically, rather than deliberately, she started to consider how she wanted to spend her time. She loved jazz and hoped to excel at jazz flute, so she decided to spend more time listening to jazz and practicing the flute, rather than busying herself in work that was unnecessary.
By slowing down to feel what’s happening in their inner and outer worlds objectively and with compassion, and then acting mindfully, Nick, Melody, and Charlotte recognized that they were not helpless victims of their own automatic thought processes, and that they could control how they responded to situations even if they couldn’t control the situation itself. After Nick discovered more fulfilling interests and friendships, he also became more resilient and noticed to his great relief that his parents relaxed.
Even though Melody was only in elementary school, she began to see a connection between her over-the-top enthusiasm and her classmates’ withdrawal from her. Slowly, she began to spot when she lost control of her actions and was often able to calm herself with breath awareness. Soon she found herself picking up on social cues she had missed before, and more important, she no longer had to try so hard to win acceptance. Before long, she found other friends who were similarly enthusiastic and whose approval she did not need to win.
Charlotte decided not to spread herself too thin and found that applying herself selectively made her more likely to excel in those one or two areas on which she chose to focus—the very thing she was told college counselors were looking for in a candidate. By freeing herself from the tyranny created by her need to be the best at everything she did, she became happier and more comfortable relaxing with friends and family. She started to go out with friends more often and have some fun. It was not surprising that her headaches became less frequent and debilitating.
Through the practice of mindfulness, Nick, Melody, and Charlotte began to see their lives through a different lens. They became less self-involved and more connected to others. Many mindfulness students find this to be the case. For example, a high school student wrote: “With mindfulness, I realized that not everything revolves around me. I knew that before, but now it is much easier for me to know that I can be who I am but not the center of the world.” Great thinkers, scientists, statesmen, artists, teachers, parents, and other outstanding citizens share this insight, and it is a perspective that we all need in order to think creatively in our complex and ever-changing world.
The New ABCs: Attention, Balance, and Compassion
Every movement has its breakthrough moment when it no longer has to defend its message. Mindful awareness training for children has arrived at that moment. By joining a more reflective and introspective way of being with the insights from modern psychology and neuroscience, we can refine how we teach our children. The traditional ABCs of reading, writing, and arithmetic that served us well for generations don’t serve us fully anymore. Helping kids build strong academic skills is fantastic, but that’s just one of many elements that make a well-rounded education. We’ve seen children do well academically but struggle socially and suffer emotionally. We’ve seen the toll stress has taken on the health and well-being of many kids. In response, the focus of education has broadened beyond academics to serve the whole child. The aim of secular mindfulness training is for children and teens to learn academic, social, and emotional skills in a balanced way. Classical mindfulness practice focuses on the cultivation of three areas: attention, wisdom, and values. Adapted for secular use with children and teens, they are the new ABCs of learning: attention, balance, and compassion. By learning both attention skills and a compassionate worldview, children are introduced to tools that could help them live a balanced life.
An international movement for mindful parenting and education is taking hold in cities as diverse as Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Wooster, Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado; Oakland, California; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Los Angeles, California, and in other countries including Singapore, Ireland, England, Germany, Mexico, and Australia. Other approaches teach productive and healthy ways of being, but lack a critical element of mindful awareness: the nonreactive, confident, and compassionate way of being alert and open to an experience as it occurs. By giving themselves enough breathing room to take in what’s happening in their inner and outer worlds, children can identify both their talents and their challenges by using mindfulness techniques. The outcome is dependent on developmental capabilities (young kids are limited in what they can do by their stage of physical and emotional maturation), but those who practice mindfulness can develop a sense of balance and a calm, concentrated mind that is capable of creativity, happiness, tolerance, and compassion. With such minds children are better able to define what they want to do and achieve the goals they set for themselves. With such minds children will be ready to change the world for the better.
America now lags behind other wealthy nations in the health, education, and overall well-being of our children. Parents and citizens are alarmed, but the public outcry has been muted. Many Americans are too busy struggling to keep their own families together and their heads above water to start or even join a reform movement. Overwhelmed by the social, economic, environmental, and geopolitical problems facing our country, many are demoralized and feel that whatever they do will hardly matter—they cannot make a difference. But they can.
Mindfulness is an offer of hope. In the last century, our greatest public figures have embodied peace, compassion, and wisdom: Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, and, more recently, Aung San Suu Kyi. Although quite different from one another, these individuals have many characteristics in common—reflection, fearlessness, compassion, morality, perseverance, vigor, critical thinking, empathy—all qualities gained from introspection.
Perhaps the most exciting recent developments have been in the science of mindfulness. Through rigorous studies at major universities, scientists have shown how systematic and deliberate meditation practice can physically change the adult brain in ways that are beneficial and objectively quantifiable. Of course, these researchers are pointing to something many parents intuitively know—that there are psychological and ethical benefits to reflection and introspection. If you don’t have a regular meditation practice yet, I encourage you to develop one. You can affect your own peace of mind.
For millennia, poets, contemplatives, musicians, artists, and novelists have, in various ways, shapes, forms, and colors, attempted to convey the essential nature of mind. My guess is there are two things upon which they would all agree: that it cannot be captured or explained with words (like the classic Taoist teaching, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao”) and that the way to understand the nature of mind is through personal, direct experience.
Understanding the nature of mind does not come from the intellect alone; it’s reached through a balance of intellectual comprehension and meditative experience. And since your meditation practice doesn’t have to be complicated, lengthy, or formal to give you a sense of its potential, I’ve included short practices for you to try that are intended to be springboards for your own introspective experience. I’ve also included simple ways to adapt them so that you and your child can practice together. By practicing the adult exercises alone first, and then together with your child, your own meditative experience will allow your mindfulness together to flourish.
So let’s get started by practicing mindful awareness and modeling it to the best of our ability, in order to pass on the incredible benefits of mindfulness to the next generation. And let’s have some fun while we’re doing it!
© 2010 Susan Kaiser Greenland