We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
- Buddha -
It is no different for children. Just today, I had Erin (age 6) tell me that she was "listening to her feelings think" at school today. I found that an interesting mix of words. Erin was certain that her feelings were sending her a message. I believe that was true. Next she decided to think about the positive parts of being a line leader and ignore the school bully, Rodney. It was here she skillfully created her world when not long ago she would have been in tears.
Calming the mind
Helping children "wake up" from automatic pilot is a big step in activating mindfulness. It takes practice and truly can only be taught (or caught) from a practitioner of mindfulness. Intuitively this makes sense. I am not going to learn how to sew from banker but would go to a seamstress. Teaching mindfulness to children helps them raise their awareness, feel calmness and fosters the ability to make positive decisions amidst negative emotions (like Erin above).
Cultivating awareness in a child's mind is best started with something more concrete like taste, smell, sound or temperature. For example my friend Hillary taught a kindergarten class where she gave every child a raisin. Every child was to feel the texture of the raisin in their hands, then bring it slowly to their nose to smell it and ultimately chew it super-slow feeling the juices of the raisin with each bite. Grapes or cheese may be good substitutes as well. Hillary's students enjoyed taking their time and appreciating their food --- bite by bite.
After more experiences of mindfulness such as meditation walks, movement exercises or art projects - we can move to more abstract topics such as mindfulness with emotions.
Last week, Addie (age 7) showed me that she learned how to meditate from Space Buddies Buddha, the Walt Disney Character. It was the perfect opening to teach her about breath mediation. So we both sat quietly and comfortably with eyes closed counting our breath (1 in the nose, 1 out the mouth and so on). After a few minutes, I asked her to bring her awareness back to the room and she said, "No, I am now slow." It was the perfect bridge to begin slowing her body then mind.
Complimenting with words
As children increase their awareness they are able to "stop, look and listen" to what is occurring inside as well as outside of them selves. A child learns to make conscious choices. It is in making his or her own choices that power is created, confidence built and a path is created for a child to begin connecting thoughtful choices to results. For example, Erin made a new choice in the introductory paragraph. Previously, she would have cried after hearing hurtful remarks from her taunting peer. Today she is able to choose to let the remarks pass by like a cloud not affecting her the same way.
Learning how to listen to our bodies and be aware that in every moment we have a choice versus automatic pilot is a precursor to emotional learning. For example, Jacob can tell me at age 3 when he is "red hot" and we'll talk about him feeling mad. He is learning awareness that when his temperature rises he can "cool down" via deep breathing or singing his calm-down song. Jacob is beginning to think new thoughts and make more skillful choices.
A caveat to teaching mindfulness to children is that some children may experience heightened issues if they are already present (i.e. anxiety, sadness, loneliness). For this reason, I believe that a trained therapist or teacher of mindfulness is often the best choice in beginning such programs. Additional information is becoming available on this topic.
In Eastern monastic settings there have been teachers of mindfulness to children for thousands of years. Child monks have been common in places such as Tibet. Of course they are not without their challenges as well (i.e. falling asleep during prayers, playing silly "spitball" type games). In the West it is now our time to bring such a powerful practice to our children. Scientifically, the application of mindfulness training has proved to reduce anxiety, stress and depression in the adult population. Such effects along with increased awareness and calmness are believed to occur in children. And it is these such youngsters that will be better equipped to make more emotionally intelligent decisions for themselves, their communities and world.