Read an Excerpt
Chapter 4: Meditation with Children
Most vibrant cultures that have survived from the ancient to the modern era place a strong value on their children through education, traditions, and spiritual and physical nurturing. For our children and grandchildren to strengthen, adapt and thrive well into the future we need to invest in them, nurturing in ourselves and in them what values we want passed on long into the future to sustain them. The practice of mindfulness and meditation are powerful means to help children naturally come to their own reflective and thoughtful values.
This chapter introduces various meditations and mindfulness practices for children, adolescents and even adults. Many of these are borrowed from ancient and well-established practices, others have been adapted to fit children's minds and developmental paces. Still others are less formal, or ones that I came up with or adapted myself. They were all chosen to reflect various cultural traditions and the many wisdoms that the human race has created.
There are many philosophies about where meditation should best take place. Thankfully, we can meditate or be mindful almost anywhere, though certainly it may be easier to find inner calm amidst outer calm. A space reserved for meditation, free of other distractions is often helpful for integrating meditation into daily living, be it in the home, the office or the classroom. We all need to feel both safe and comfortable, especially when making ourselves vulnerable to what arises in meditation. The space itself, a dedicated room or even corner can serve as a reminder to come back to yourself each time you walk by. This is less easy in a school than an office or home, but even classrooms can have quiet meditation corners.
If you are working with a group, mindfully creating the space can be an initial excellent group activity. You may want to make a non-denominational altar” and decorate with objects that are special to you and the children. Bring some of your own special items and encourage the children bring in objects or mementos that are special to them, and whose beauty or power they want to share. Objects can be collected on a mindful walk outside, where people can pick beautiful stones, flowers, feathers and other things. Include items in the space that represent the six senses- sight, touch, sound, taste, smell, and thinking. Bring soft fabrics or smooth stones for touch, perhaps some citrus fruits or pine needles for smell, something to represent taste, a bell or music for sound. Younger children can mindfully decorate meditation cushions with markers or paints and older children might choose to mindfully embroider. The space should be as quiet and free of distractions as possible, away from sounds like televisions or over-stimulating views- say, over the playground. A note on the door asking for quiet may also be a wise idea. And if you are in a space that is often interrupted, you might want to put a note on the door.
Cloud Concentration Meditation
Try this meditation yourself first to get a sense of the best clouds, it really only works with the puffy white cumulous ones, (unless you have the patience to sit for what could be days!) I also have a bias that it be done a perfect summer day when floating on an inflatable raft. You can even try placing your worries onto or into the cloud, and letting them fade slowly away. But once you get the hang of it, pass it on to a child as my father did to me. Of course, I now understand that clouds will form and un-form in the sky regardless of my intention and willpower. But still, at that moment, my breath and mind seemed like the most powerful force in the world. Later, that forming and un-forming, the ever-changing nature of the clouds became a lesson in the ever changing and impermanent nature of everything as I grew older.
Cloud Concentration Meditation
The first meditation I ever learned was a gift from my father, when I was probably about six years old. We were floating on a raft in a pond and gazing up at the blue summer sky. Above us we were watching giant cumulous cloud slowly morph and change shape. My dad looked over at me and said, "Hey, want to see a magic trick?" Of course I did. "I'm going to make a cloud disappear with my mind." "No way!" I responded. "Sure, I'll do it. In fact, we can do it together. Pick a cloud, let's start with a small one to practice." I picked a smallish looking puffy white cloud on the horizon. "Now, all you have to do is focus on that cloud and just breathe. With each breath, notice the cloud getting a little bit smaller." We lay there in the sun looking at the cloud, breathing together and sure enough, with each breath the cloud seemed to fade slightly. "Keep focusing on that cloud" my father instructed me. "Bring your mind back if it wanders, you have to keep your mind on it or it won't disappear." We continued breathing, focusing, and sending our will at the cloud as it faded itself away over the course of the next few minutes. It was certainly magic to me.
Know Your Orange (Inspired by story from Jack Kornfield, 1996)
This meditation hones deep awareness and observations skills and is quite absorbing. Oranges make for great eating meditation- playing on all the senses. They are so tactile with their outer peel and inner stickiness, vibrantly bright to the eye, a powerful scent when the skin is broken, even the sounds of sections being torn out is evocative, to say nothing of their bright and sweet flavor. But before delving into mindful eating of an orange, a fun exercise to do with children is to have them get to know an orange.
Know Your Orange
Start with a basket of oranges, and ask the group if they can tell them apart from where they are. Probably not. Then have every member of the group come and select an orange and return to their seats. Now you can get to know your orange... Looking at its vibrant bright color... is it entirely orange, or are there different colors or different shades of orange?... Is your orange perfectly round, or does it have a different shape...? What else is on the orange? Close your eyes and notice what it feels like. What does your orange feel like when you squeeze it in different places, how does the peel feel against your skin, your hand, your face? Bringing the orange to your nose, can you smell anything special, how far from your nose can you smell the orange? What is special and unique about your orange? Learn about it, truly come to know and recognize it. Collect the oranges from the group and return them to the table. At this point, you can invite the children up one at a time to find their oranges (you might want to start with children who will have difficulty first). You could also have the children find their oranges together in a cooperative exercise, maybe for an added challenge even having them do it without talking. Once everyone has found their oranges, discuss the process and enjoy mindfully eating the fruits of your labor. This time, remember to keep your nose open as you peel, listen carefully to the sounds and enjoy fully tasting each sticky sweet segment.
Other objects can also be used in this exercise. Younger children may need easier objects to distinguish like a box full of pennies or pebbles.
Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is said to have invented this meditation; he certainly popularized it. Because this meditation involves close touching, check with the comfort level of children and their parents before beginning. This can help children who struggle with social cues or intimacy, increasing awareness on many levels. This practice really builds emotional intelligence and social-relational awareness. It also teaches one awareness of one's own level of interpersonal comfort, and helps children become comfortable with physical and emotional closeness.
Split the children into pairs, standing and facing each other, hands at their sides, feet about hip's width apart about six feet apart.
Start by looking into each other's eyes. Try to look directly and deeply, truly seeing the person. What do you see in their eyes, what emotions... what thoughts. (this may get some giggles of discomfort). What reaction do you have when you look at your partner? What thoughts come to mind? Do you notice the urge to giggle or to look away? Where does that come from? What do you feel in your body? (You can take as much or as little time with this eye contact part, an exercise in its own right.) Now bring you attention to your partner's belly... watch and listen to their breath as well as your own... slowly try to match your breathing to each other... (allow a few moments for this) Smiling, slowly approach each other, taking one mindful step at a time together. Feel the earth below you with each step. Notice any feelings in your body as you get closer to the other person. What does your body or mind want to do? Now just a half a foot apart looking at each other, try to ask permission and give permission with your eyes to hug the other person... Leaning in, wrap your arms around the other person. Keeping your breath together, just for a moment noticing the other person. Perhaps you can feel their heartbeat, their warmth, their breath and belly, or their other reactions. (Allow a moment or longer for the hug) Now, slowly unclasping and resuming eye contact, smiling in thanks with your eyes. Take one step back, then another. Keeping your breath together, think of a wish for your partner, a wish for something good for them. Thinking for a moment, then look into their eyes and send them that wish. Notice any thoughts or sensations, and take another step back... then another. Breaking eye contact, looking back down and just focusing on your own breath, slowly letting your breaths return to their own rhythms.
This exercise can lead to rich discussions about intimacy, about the body and mind's automatic reactions to people in their space, and to a host of other interesting topics.
What the Nose Knows: A Mindfulness Exercise
Lorin Roche, in his practical introductory book Meditation Made Easy, (1998) recommends this mindfulness of smell exercise, which works well with children who enjoy sensory focus exercises. Find a few objects that have powerful and evocative odors. Some ideas include spices, an orange peel, a cinnamon stick, fresh ginger, chocolate, herbs, tea leaves, or even non-food like flowers, pine needles, even grass or dirt can bring up powerful memories and associations.
What the Nose Knows: A Mindfulness Exercise
Have the children sit mindfully breathing in a circle with eyes closed, and hand them the object.
Now, breathing out, letting your mind still itself, raise your object to your nose, and breathe deeply of its essences. What happens? What thoughts begin? Does the mind try to make sense what it is? Does it want to smell the sweet smell again? Breathe deeply again... Do any memories arise? Thoughts? Emotions? Perhaps a story or an image? Breathe deeply again... Where exactly in your nose or mouth do you notice the smell or taste? Does it remind you of any particular people, places or times? How did your mind start moving so fast as soon as you smelled your object? Breath in again... Where in your body do you feel change, does your stomach growl, your mouth water, your nose wrinkle?
Invite the children to share what objects they received and discuss the experience of what came up for them, based just on a simple odor. You may want to reflect on how powerful the odor of such small thing can be to change our entire state of mind, whisking us away. The children can also draw a picture or write a story or poem based on the experience.
Interconnection and Interbeing: The Universe in a Raisin
This exercise creates awareness of our human interconnection with each other and with all things. It is an excellent introduction to an eating meditation. For that reason, I will use an example of raisins, though of course anything can be used. The Dalai Lama has written a book about the intersection of science and Buddhism, which he entitled: The Universe in a Single Atom. I have taken liberties with his title slightly for this exercise.
The Universe in a Raisin
Taking a raisin from its container, ask the children where it comes from. Continue taking answers and following the raisin back in a backwards story. Tracing all the human elements that have interacted with the raisin, perhaps diagramming them on the board. From you to the checkout person, the stockboy, the truck driver, the truck loader, the packager, the factory worker, the driver from the farm to the factory, the gas station attendant, the farmer who picked the grape, the farmer who planted the seed, the farmer who picked the seed from the old grape. Consider too the families and friends of those people, the people who built the truck, who designed the box. Try to have enough people that everyone in the class can say a few words about each person and contribute to the story. Assign each student a person and assemble a written story or pictorial mural about all the people who contributed to making the raisin. Read the story before doing the mindful eating activity.
A similar exercise is to trace all the ingredients of the raisin and where they came from. Begin by explaining that the raisin is a cloud or a star, and trace this back. The grape on the vine, back to the dirt in the ground that came from other composted plants, the water that came from the hose, that came from the reservoir, that came from the clouds above, that could have come from an ocean thousands of miles away. Remember the sunshine that gave the grapes the energy to grow. These elements represent another story about our connection with the natural world.
Each of these exercises makes for an entirely different type of story of interbeing and interconnectedness that is a valuable reminder in our increasingly isolated society. When you eat your raisin, you eat the entire universe. This can be a thought provoking and perspective-changing exercise. For homework, encourage children to tell themselves the story of some other object on their walk home or at some other point in the day. This exercise can be a way to introduce a larger project like composting for a garden, planting vegetables, cooking them and then composting the leftovers again, all elements of which can be done in mindfulness.
Mindfulness of Touch: (adapted from Kimberly Rowe, A Settled Mind, 2007)
One fun children's game is a simple exercise that you may have encountered elsewhere, but is really a lesson in mindfulness of touch. Children with sensory difficulties may find this exercise challenging, but helpful nonetheless in overcoming this difficulty. It also teaches challenging communication skills of turning feelings into words and then objects. Like any of the exercises, it also teaches patience and frustration tolerance.
Mindfulness of Touch
Have the children sit mindfully in a circle with hands behind their back. Place an object in the children's hands without showing the others. Now that they have the object, they have to try to figure out what it is. Children take turns explain to the group what they think they are holding. They can only describe what it feels like, maybe talking about shape, texture, size and other qualities. Fun objects can include dice, game pieces, coins, marbles, shells, pine cones, toys, a marker or crayon (see if they can guess the color!), small statues or other souvenirs. Go around the circle until each child has had a turn. Discuss the limits of only using the sense of touch, and the limits and frustrations of only being able to describe what one thinks the object is.
New Toy Meditation
Buddhist monks in many traditions are required to sit and meditate in the charnal grounds, watching and meditating on the decomposing corpses to reflect on the impermanent nature of the body and self, overcoming their fear and attachment. This exercise is hardly appropriate for children, but in thinking about our consumer culture, I was driven to think of an exercise that teaches the impermanence of things, and the way that they while they may bring pleasure, they do not bring lasting happiness. We adults too are hardly immune to the fleeting enchantment of new toys- just think back to how a the excitement of a brand new car gradually becomes an old clunker, or the perfect piece of clothing gradually comes to seem like a crazy fashion faux pas as time passes.
New Toy Meditation
Gently close your eyes, and think back to a time that you were younger, by at least a few years. Think of a birthday or a holiday when you were waiting with excitement for a certain present that you got. Perhaps it was a toy or a game, and you wanted it so badly you could feel it in your chest and body. Perhaps you lay awake the night before wondering whether it would be there. You wondered and wondered whether you would receive that present, begging your parents and then finally the day came that you could unwrap your presents. You woke up that day, and now remembering the happy atmosphere of the holiday, everyone together and celebrating. Thinking about where you were, the sights and sounds and smells as you finally got to unwrap the present. Remember how feelings of wonder and excitement washed over you like a wave when you tore off the paper and there it was. Perhaps you played with it for hours, savoring the newness and excitement of when you first opened it. Over time, in the days following it continued to bring excitement when you thought about it and had a chance to play. As the weeks went by, perhaps some of the initial excitement faded. Where did it go? More time passed, and those feelings weren't as strong as they were. Why? Perhaps you outgrew it... perhaps it was a game that you finished... perhaps it just got boring...The holiday or birthday approached again, and now there was a new present that was the only thing you wanted. You begged and begged? What happened to the old present? Do you still have it? Why do we do this? What things in your life have you had for a long time that you don't get tired of? What do you still enjoy? What kinds of things in life do you not get sick of or outgrow or want to replace as quickly?
Discuss the exercise with the children, and wonder about what in life has lasting value and what has more fleeting value. Discuss the nature of pleasure compared to happiness, and what kinds of activities or things lead to each.
Guided Visualization Meditations: (Adapted from Murdock, 1987)
Guided visualizations are a different form of meditation way to empower children, often while helping them with a particular skill. It would make sense that visualizations would assist with planning, practice, and even with performance on certain activities that may be difficult. I have had great luck with athletic visualizations and children, particularly boys, as an introduction to other meditative practices.
First, help the child relax and feel comfortable, either sitting or laying down, perhaps with some other relaxation techniques or focusing on the breath. Once they are relaxed, begin guiding them through the exercise called the master, maestro or dream coach.
Imagine now that you are alone, and preparing to practice your favorite (sport, instrument, etc). You are the only person in the concert hall or stadium, and you are just there to practice and perfect your art. You can feel your hands on the surface of the ball, racket, or instrument, and even smell the odors that you associate with it. Just let yourself practice for a moment. As you are feeling increasingly confident and ready, you can hear footsteps echoing in the distance. You hold that feeling of confidence, and looking into the distance in the hall or arena, you can make out your hero, the role model in your endeavor who you aspire to play like. He or she approaches, and smiles at you. You smile back, perhaps surprised at how friendly this person is, this master of the art. The master teacher approaches you, and offers to help you with whatever aspects of your art you want the most help with. Just take a few minutes now to listen to the master artist, hear advice and learn to move as the master does. (Take a few minutes to let the child work with the "master") Now, keeping in mind the master's lessons, try to visualize your own body moving with the skills that you just learned. Your abilities are just that much better than before, just that much closer to perfect, and the master complements you on your hard work. It is time to leave now, but he or she reminds you that they are always there to talk to you and help you when you are practicing what you do best. You can always hear their voice by listening deeply within your body. Perhaps you want to thank the master, and watch him or her depart, the voice still ringing in your mind, the new skills still vibrating in your muscles. Let your mind and body just remember your lesson for a while. And now, keeping the feeling with you, just wiggle your toes a little bit, and fingertips, feeling your eyes flutter open. Now take just a moment to practice your skills with your physical body. Allow about a minute, then suggest they mentally rehearse for another minute, then with their body once more. Discuss the exercise and what the children learned.
The Big Om...
Rhythmic chanting and music are another vehicle for learning for many children who may not respond as well to verbal or physical activities. This meditation simply repeats the word "Om," the original sound of the universe in Hindu beliefs. The exercise is best done sitting in a circle on the ground, but anywhere will do.
The Big Ommm...
In India and many other places, people believe that when the universe was created, it let out a great vibration that you can still hear today if you listen carefully, connecting you to the origin of the universe. Perhaps we can think of it as the reverberations of the big bang, or just the hum of the earth when we are absolutely quiet. It sounds like this: Ommmmmmm.... (Let out a big one). Now you try it. Let the children make their Om. Okay, now we will see how long we can all hold the Om together... Ommmmmmmm... (Wait until all the children have finished and are catching their breath) Could you feel that? Could you feel the power? This time, we will say the Om and just keep going with it... When you run out of air, just breathe and start again, so that the sound is continuous. While the children are omming, bring in some words of encouragement... Feel the omm coming from deep in your belly... feel the vibration up and down your body... feel the vibration going downward into the earth... and the om of the earth moving into you... feel your own body and power, the vibration in your chest and throat... feel the vibration in your mind.... send the om outwards to your friends in the circle... hearing and feeling their oms coming back to you... supporting the continuous sound when you take a breath...listening to the ups and downs... hearing every voice, a little bit different bit vibrating together to make a larger om that could just go on forever... and now letting this be your last breath... aware of the vibration inside and outside... omming.. and now letting it go when you run out of breath... (wait until quiet) and now taking the power of that omm with you for the rest of the day, able to notice it anytime, any place.
Discuss how the om could have gone on longer, how it was more powerful as a group than as individuals. Did people notice the sounds changing over time? Where in their bodies could people feel the sound and vibration? Can anyone still hear it in their mind or feel its vibrating in their body?
Snow Globes: A Mindful Activity And Concentration Meditation
Snow globes are a great visual demonstration and metaphor for settling the mind through concentration meditation. Many craft stores sell snow globes that one can put a picture of something or someone special into. Even if you cannot find them, a few empty jars and some different colored glitter to represent thoughts, feelings and sensations floating about in our consciousness make a perfectly good substitute. Children can mindfully choose to decorate and fill their snow globes with special items, and then use them to help soothe themselves. A similar exercise can be done with those plastic "magic wands" that are filled with glitter.
Our minds are a lot like what happens in these snow globes. As soon as we pick them up to examine them, they stir up and we start noticing all these different things going on. Thoughts are swirling around, like the white snow, feelings are swirling around like the silver snow, and they all look jumbled up and we don't know which is which or what they all mean. So like our minds we have to let them settle. The first thing to do is still the body, so we can still our mind. Set the snow globes down. Now, we can watch things settle. Just watch for a moment as things settle down. It may not take long in the snow globe the way it does in your mind. But just take time to let your mind settle. Now, shaking your snow globe, following just one of the pieces of glitter or snow as it travels. Aware of your breath as you watch the storm in the globe simply calming itself. If you lose track of it, simply finding another to watch swirl until it settles. As you watch, letting your mind settle itself. When your snow globe settles, check in with your mind. Is it more settled than before? Try lifting and swirling the globe again...
Okay, there is really nothing Zen about this, but its an old and fun summer camp kind of activity, and really does require concentration and awareness, as well as reading nonverbal social cues and handling frustration. It also builds a sense of connectedness, since everyone "loses" or "wins" together.
A group of people stand in a circle, usually with eyes closed, and begin counting. Anyone can start, saying the number "one" but the same person can't then say "two." Someone else has to say another number, and if two people say it at the same time, start the count over. Try to get to twenty, or even ten, and discuss the frustrations and possible strategies that people could use.
The Magic Pendulum
This absorbing concentration meditation is very soothing and relaxing, and can feel like a powerful magic trick to children. It is a good way to calm down a child or a group and prepare them to focus, perhaps after a transition or before a test. The concept is quite simple.
The Magic Pendulum
Make a small pendulum, perhaps out of a necklace, or a thin piece of string or fishing line with a crystal, rock, or even a washer tied to one end. Have the child hold the end of the string in one hand, between the thumb and forefinger. With the elbow on a table at about forty-five degrees, hold the pendulum just over a dot on a piece of paper, or better yet a compass. Have them breathe gently as they watch the compass still itself. Now holding your hand and body perfectly still, using only your mind, imagine the pendulum is beginning to swing gently from left to right. You don't need to move your hands at all, just using your mind watch as it slowly starts to move... a little bit at first, then the motion becomes larger and larger. Once your mind has gotten your pendulum swinging left to right, see if your mind can move it so it is swinging up and down over the table. Notice the pendulum starting to change, slowly at first, then moving toward an up and down motion... pushing with your mind as your fingers and arm remain perfectly still... Now watching the pendulum move up and down... Can you make it move in circles using only your mind? Try it... Focusing your mental energy on the pendulum once more, the up and down motion becomes an oval... widening outward... gradually, with your mind it begins to move in a circle... swinging now in a circle... Now see if your can make the circles smaller... Smaller again.... now just making tiny circles... And now just stop the pendulum from moving with just your mind... Set your arm down and relax... As you come back, taking with you the incredible power of your own mind... taking with you too this feeling of relaxation and strength with you for the rest of the day that you can always return to... Now gradually stretching your arms, opening your eyes and coming back to room...
Process the exercise with the children, how it felt and what might have surprised them. Can they use the power of their mind to do other things? This exercise is a great way to settle the mind to begin a new exercise that requires concentration or a still and settled mind.
Ajaahn Chah, a Thai monk in the forest tradition recommends an exercise he calls "The Visitors." I have added some elements from other traditions and guided meditations, like "The Ally" and "The Ancestor" by Maureen Murdock, (1987), which empowers children to get in touch with their roots. I am reminded of the African proverb "if the branch is to flower, it must be aware of its roots." Have the children assume the sitting meditation posture that is comfortable for them.
For now, just focusing on the breath... letting your belly go up and down, as the air flows in and out... And now, imagining yourself in your ancestral homeland... (you should go over this with the children before the exercise, perhaps finding some pictures and cultural information) perhaps a desert, a forest, a grassy plane, perhaps in the mountains, perhaps by the ocean.... Imagine yourself walking, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of place... you approach a river or stream and gently sit yourself down. Now sitting comfortably, you can feel the fresh air on your cheek, breathing in the air that your ancestors breathed. On your next breath, breathing in through all your senses, breathe out and everything becomes twice as colorful, the sounds twice as sharp... As you sit and breathe in your ancestral home, you notice in the distance a figure walking toward you. It is the spirit of your ancestors, here in human form, dressed in the traditional clothing of your ancestral people. This person looks a lot like you, but is grown and powerful, confident and strong. He or she smiles, and you smile back with your mouth, your eyes, your whole body as the ancestor takes a seat beside you, and you two simply wait for more visitors. While you wait, the visitor might tell you about his or her life and people, and even tell you about your own life as well. As you wait for the visitors, you realize that they are your own thoughts. Watch these thoughts approaching, perhaps floating on the stream, perhaps coming by land. Greet each thought with the same openness and smile that you greeted your ancestor. Perhaps these thoughts are scary or unpleasant, notice that, but remember that your ancestors can and will protect you. A frightening thought might approach, but you know that the ancestor can defend you if you need help. Together you can smile and greet the thought, perhaps the thought sits and stays with you a while, caught in the river or sitting on the opposite bank for a while, but the thought always then moves on. Or perhaps happy thoughts come by for a visit, you may want to invite them to stay, but they too cannot stay forever, eventually they walk or drift away, maybe to return, maybe not. You can simply greet each though and then say farewell... after a few minutes of greeting your thoughts, your ancestor tells you its time to return to the room where you are. The person reminds you that they are always with you, always here inside to answer your questions, to say hello and goodbye to anything that comes up. You can safely see bullies or friends, inside and outside, with your ancestor there to protect you... And now wiggling your toes, and fingers, begin to stretch your arms out and return to the room... letting your eyes open themselves.
This exercise is empowering for children of all backgrounds, but particularly those who may feel out of place or oppressed by their cultural or ethnic background. All children can feel empowered, less afraid and more confident. Following the exercise, you may want to ask the children to draw or write about their ancestor, perhaps they want to share with the group, or they might prefer to keep it to themselves
Everyday Mindfulness, Everyday Meditation
One of my favorite ways to incorporate mindfulness into daily life is into existing games. I see a ten-year-old child named Jeffrey each week in my office. He is autistic and has an IQ so low that it cannot even be reliably measured. He struggles enormously with language and learning, as well as simply controlling his behaviors and impulses. Typically, we do some talking and then I usually let him pick out a game. Before each roll of the dice however, we take two mindful breaths, and then release the dice on the exhale. I'm convinced it leads to better rolls, and so is Jeffrey. We try to take a breath before speaking, and breathe as we listen to each other. With other children, in more strategic games (backgammon, checkers, chess, cards), we breathe fully and then try to see all of the options on the board before making a move. I know my backgammon skills have been improving, and I have seen impulsive moves with short-term gain decline in the children I work with.
The Mindfulness Bell: Mapping Our Mind Trips
I describe the uses of the mindfulness bell later in the book, and its important role in bringing mindful awareness throughout the day or meeting time. The mindfulness bell helps us to return to the present moment in ourselves, the only place, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, that we are truly alive- we are not alive in the future or in the past. The mindfulness bell can be used with some children not even for the count of three breaths, but simply as a kind of wake up to where they are in their minds and bodies. Whenever the bell rings, children can simply notice where there thoughts are. Throughout the day, whenever the bell rings, they can record on paper their "mind trips" as many learning experts like to say, and start to become aware of their thought patterns. The can even be made into flow charts or free associative stories.
Just as we adults strive to bring a mindful awareness to the present in everything we do, children can also aim for the same goal with our help. They will probably need as many reminders as we do, but we can help each other to remember through gentle reminders. Assigning homework, like getting in touch with the breath, or just stopping to notice one's thoughts at certain points in the day will help children take mindfulness with them throughout the day. The breath of course, is always with us. Certain times to check in with the breath include when at the bottom of a stairwell, when tying shoes, while waiting for video games to boot up, with certain sounds, when touching doorknobs or lifting pencils. Transitions make great times for walking meditations, and mindful activities can help children settle or "shifting gears" into a new activity. Simple three-minute mindfulness activity like "The Breathing Space," (Williams et. al., 2007) can be done at points throughout the day. Mealtime is another opportunity, maybe a mindful meal once a week is possible, but even just a mindful first bite or two is a valuable lesson and reminder.
The meditations included here are only a few among dozens, if not hundreds that will work with children. Generally, guided and multisensory meditations will work best for smaller attention spans than simple sitting. Jon Kabat-Zinn's lake and mountain mindfulness meditations are fun guided meditations, and can be found in his audio programs. Activities like mindful yoga or dance classes, are other good extra-curricular activities to get children involved with. Encourage your gym teachers to incorporate yoga, health teachers to teach relaxation techniques. Children often enjoy martial arts, many studios or dojos incorporate meditation into their lessons, especially if you ask. Progressive muscle relaxation books and CD's can be found online or at many bookstores.
Many arts and crafts activities can be done in mindfulness. Asian or European calligraphy traditions, arts like sumi-e, origami, making mandalas, even less exotic crafts like clay sculpture, painting and drawing can be done mindfully. I worked briefly as a carpenter, and found the sanding I was always assigned as the new guy to be incredibly boring- until I began to mindful feel the surface beneath the paper, mindfully moving my arms and hands together until the work got a lot more enjoyable. Making prayer or wish flags is a fun activity that borrows from the Himalayan tradition, and is an excellent way to say goodbye to a class group, having each member write a wish for themselves and everyone in the group and string up the flags. I keep some photocopies of mandalas in my desk, and allow children to color these during therapy sessions. The soothing and absorbing qualities keep them busy, and soon they forget how much they are talking to me. Singing, dancing and chanting are other traditional forms of meditation that children can get involved in. Cooking is a fun opportunity to practice mindful awareness and mindful eating, especially when the vegetables come from your own garden, fertilized with your own compost. Painting can be done on homemade recycled paper.
Other ideas include asking children to wait mindful breath or two before raising their hand, taking a test, or doing a class presentation. Coaches can encourage children to check in with body and mind before a game, and do a brief grounding or breathing exercise during time outs. Impulsive children may do well to practice mindfulness during other children’s turns at school or in games, when suppressing impulses can get difficult. I also encourage people to think of something they are grateful for as they finish up their meditation, and thank each other for support rather than only acknowledging pride in their accomplishment.
Mindfulness is referred to as a practice because like anything else, it strengthens with practice. Children practice new skills all the time. With so many different ways to practice, children can choose what meditations work best for their unique learning style- play, the body, the senses, guided or self-lead. Finding a meditation that fits will lead to sticking with it, and with regular practice awareness will be cultivated over time. Gradually, as you and your children become more and more mindfully aware, it will become clear that this mindful awareness can be brought to anything. In fact, it will become a challenge to see where you cannot use it. The hardest part is remembering to get in touch with it and stay in touch with the present. After all, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, "the opposite of mindfulness is not mindlessness, but forgetfulness."