My daughter goes to a Woodcraft Folk group, (think brownies + social activism). On Monday I was asked to lead the session. The theme was Peace – and it was suggested I do a meditation to help find “peace in ourselves”.
I’ve got to admit – I wasn’t too hopeful about how this would go. I broke the news to my 8 year old daughter. “Oh no, this is going to be SOOOO boring. Do you have to?” She is highly sceptical about meditation – especially if I have anything to do with it. I was concerned that the other children might be of similar mind, and I set off crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t be shouting instructions to find peace across twenty wild 6-9 year olds running amok.
So here’s what I did:
Set the scene
Directly after circle time, while the children were still sitting reasonably quietly, I set up a small shrine. I silently placed a little statue of a Buddha on a chair. I flanked this with two candles. The children (even the noisier ones) watched intently as I lit the candles and then an incense stick. It’s not that I’m trying to push Buddhism on them, but I wanted to quietly get their attention and I know that children love rituals. And fire. They really love fire. I asked if they knew who the Buddha was. Then I showed them a picture of a bee collecting nectar and pollen (one of the illustrations from colouring for contemplation) and I explained how we help others by helping ourselves, and we help ourselves by helping others. When we have peace in our own minds and bodies, we spread that peace out to the world. The Buddha taught us to find peace through meditation.
Three child-friendly meditations
1) The gong
I learnt this lovely little meditation for children from a teacher on a family retreat with Samatha. It’s so simple. I take a singing bowl and a striker (or you can use a gong or chime of some kind) and ask the children to listen as hard as they can. When they can no longer hear the chime, they must silently raise their hand. We repeat this exercise three or four times. What I love about it is that the children quickly grasp that they don’t get points for putting up their hand first. In fact they don’t get points either way. Once they have understood this, they can let go of any desire to “get the answer right” and instead simply follow the instruction – listen to the chime as hard as they can. This exercise requires them to settle the mind onto a single object of attention and to hold it there. It helps them practise calm and concentration.
2) The counting
This meditation practises similar skills to the gong listening, but it requires a little more subtlety, It’s adapted from the first stage of the Samatha meditation that I practise daily.
Ask the children these questions.
Do you know how to breathe?
Can you count up to nine?
Can you count down from nine?
Then give the following instructions.
First, take a long breath in – the longest you can without it being uncomfortable. Breathe out.
Next time you breathe in, count up to 9 in your head at the same time. Try to match the counting, so that you get to nine just as you get to the end of your breath. Breath out and count down from nine.
[breathing in] one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.
[breathing out] nine, eight seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.
Practise this for a couple of minutes. Afterwards you can ask the children questions such as: did anyone find it hard to match the numbers and your breath? did you run out of numbers? did you run out of breath? did you get distracted by anything? What happened then?
Again this exercise helps the children learn how to anchor their minds onto a chosen object of attention. Drawing their attention to how the mind likes to wander can help them become more mindful.
The third practice is a chant. Chants aren’t so popular in the West as mindfulness of breathing, but nevertheless, they are a really accessible way to practise meditation. I introduced the children to a really simple and well-known chant – Om Mani Padme Hum. It’s particularly popular in Tibetan Buddhism, and you can read more about it on wikipedia here. It was really quick and easy for the children to learn. I just did it to a really simple tune, but you can get a bit more adventurous with the children singing it at different pitches etc. Here’s a soundtrack on youtube of monks chanting it. One of the lovely things about chanting is that it encourages the children to become mindful of the others around them as they naturally try to sing together.
Om Mani Padme Hum is traditionally chanted 1000 times. It takes around half an hour. So that they can keep count, meditators may use meditation or Mala beads. These are 108 beads on a string – rather like a rosary. You can count round the string ten times. There are an extra 8 beads to allow for any mistakes you might make.
I gave the children pots of beads so that they could string together their own set of Mala beads.
The children were really engaged throughout the session – even my daughter – and the leader of the group said that this was possibly the most peaceful meeting she had ever taken part in. Result!
Have you taught meditation to children? Please tell me about what you did and how it went in the comments.