Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1992

Learning and Spirituality; Ajahn Sucitto
Complementary Education; Medhina Fright
Meditating with Children; Sister Abhassara
Life of a Forest Monk (Pt V); Luang Por Jun
Alone on a Mountain; Venerable Chandako
In the Deathless Land; Sister Rosemary
Questions and Answers; Luang Por Chah

Signs of Change:


Meditating with Children

Sister Abhassara describes some of the methods she has used to teach children, how to turn the mind within and appreciate their inner world.

We are all children that have 'grown up'. We came into this world as children and when we enter old-age, we become again as children - dependent and weak, reliant upon the care and support of others. As parents or teachers, we can rediscover the child within us by staying in touch with that innate spirit of innocence and spontaneity. This can improve our ability to communicate effectively with children and to instil in them the values we cherish. At the same time, teaching children can be a great source of joy.

During the early years at Amaravati, when we held Family Days, at first the question seemed to be, 'Do we really want to have children around in the monastery?' and 'Won't they be noisy?' and so on. My curiosity was keen to see if the children could cope with meditation.

I started to teach children years before I was allowed into the adults' arena and I always felt that the adults seemed much more complex, cerebral and somehow 'stuck' in comparison to the children.

I had a hunch, which proved to be correct, that a child's mind is naturally imaginative; children learn to assimilate pictorial images in the mind before they can understand linear concepts. So I found it best to begin with simple breathing and visualisation exercises.

Children seem to respond very well to guided meditations. There was a lot of enthusiasm one year when we all went up in a space-rocket to the stars. You may well ask, 'What's the point of going up in a space-rocket?' The value of such meditation is that the children experience their inner world in a safe way and begin to see how they can actually guide their minds creatively. At the same time, they are able to develop and sustain attention and concentration. Since so many of the modern games, television and other popular stimuli make a child's energy very restless and agitated, merely getting children to sit for five minutes is a major achievement; so a quiet return to the inner world and its wonders is a very welcome change.

Children always know if you're putting on a show or trying to be something you're not.

Children are especially receptive to visualisation and loving-kindness or metta practices. They can easily visualise the sun at the heart and imagine the waves in the sea coming up and down the beach. They can breathe in and out with the waves' movement and also float on the sea or dive deep into the blue depths and stay there for a while. Sending metta to Mum and Dad, and family and friends is another favourite.

On the whole, I tend to dream up most of the images that we use in these meditations quite spontaneously. Occasionally, there may be problems with very young children crying and being restless, but their mothers are usually sensitive enough to carry them out so as not to disturb the others. There is nothing quite like the absorbed silence of 20-30 meditating children - it has to be seen to be believed.

Most children put up very little resistance to being guided - once they know that you are 'on their side' and they feel kindness and respect is being shown to them. And they always know if you're putting on a show or trying to be something you're not. Children can be amazingly blunt and direct at times, so my motto has always been to 'be prepared for anything'.

If there are too few children to split into several separate age groups, those between 4 and 12 years of age can meditate together. They are able to sit on a cushion with great ease, their supple limbs not yet feeling the wear of age. Many can actually get into full-lotus at the drop of a hat, although this is not mandatory! I remember once seeing a row of slumped backs and asking the children to grow towards the ceiling like plants - up they came with wonderfully erect postures.

Sessions should usually last between 5-10 minutes for the younger age groups and gradually increase, even to 30 minutes for the older children. Usually one can sense the group getting towards its threshold by the increase in shuffling and restlessness. After a meditation, it's always good to hear from the children themselves about their experiences.

When parents and children meditate together, it is also a very special event. It's a rare chance for that love and closeness to be experienced through the silence of the practice.

Teaching meditation to children is not always easy. Sometimes, with older boys, a ripple of explosive giggling will appear that is impossible to smother. The others in the group may try to continue regardless, but it usually means that the session has been well and truly sabotaged. Not to worry. We need only remember that it's all still an experiment, and we can't expect success every time. I suspect that if the over-energised children were to exercise vigorously until exhausted, then some deeper meditation might follow.

When children misbehave, it can be very difficult to judge if they need to be restrained or reprimanded in some way; I don't like to turn them off completely. But I learned that giving children boundaries helps them to feel secure in the group and that a gentle 'ticking off' need not be done through anger or aversion. It can sometimes prevent the whole class from degenerating into chaos.

Much of the time, teaching children is a matter of channelling their energy - most children being naturally quite exuberant - especially away from Mum and Dad. This energy can be channelled into non-competitive games and nature walks in the surrounding countryside. Leaves, stones and flowers that are picked up can be offered to the shrine when arriving back.

A Mother's Poem

Venerable Manito's parents found it difficult to accept his choice to become an anagarika two years ago. But after several visits together, reading some books about Buddhism, and reflecting on why he chose this life, their attitude has slowly changed. These lines were written shortly after he received the Upasampada as a Buddhist monk.

o o ~O~ o o

What strangeness is this that I am looking at.
What non understanding is this that I am hearing now.
What is this, who are they, with robes of differing shades of brown?

A chink of light as I read on
The books, the talking, can it be so,
That I understood all along?

And two years on a peaceful recognition
That all around are bound as one,
Could it be my heart is full of fun?

Unnecessary as it may be
To write these words of what I see.
The proud and loving feelings shared of one so dear, to hold that light
Ever present, but now glowing bright.

Yet such a gift has helped me know
That loving-kindness will grow and grow.
And when things are not quite right,
I can look up at a tree or star
And accept that this is the way things are.

Children appreciate these simple acts of devotion. They enjoy the puja and chanting that we do at the start of our Family Days and Summer Camps. We usually introduce the children to the shrine, light the candles and incense, and practise putting our hands together in anjali and bowing. I composed a short Puja for children in the Family Camp based on 5 different notes. Their response to the chanting and the level of participation has been very good.

In the early years, the songs which I wrote for the children with titles like 'I am a child of light' and 'We are all one family' brought much joy. Singing is a very effective medium for conveying messages and feelings to children and they would be singing these songs over and over together by the camp-fire before bed-time.

Basic Buddhist principles such as generosity, renunciation and loving-kindness can be conveyed through reading stories from the Jataka Tales and the life of the Buddha. The children like to illustrate these stories with coloured crayons and paints. When reading these stories, it's good to make the space to ask the children questions in order to draw in their interest.

Discussions in general are very useful. For instance, when I teach the chant on the four Brahma-Viharas, I describe each quality in turn and ask the children to give examples from their own school and family life of times when loving-kindness or compassion came in useful. Children have an innate sense of the good and this needs to be brought out and encouraged.

I use a simplified form of chant to teach children about the 3 refuges and the 5 precepts. I often find that I have to be as willing to receive and learn from the children as they are from me. If I ask a question with a fixed reply in my mind, and a child replies in a completely different and quite baffling way, does this mean that the child is wrong? It is a great challenge to come into a teaching situation with the children in as open a mind space as possible; to be receptive to them and to pick up which way the lesson should flow. Plans and routines are just basic sketches to be changed according to the moment's needs.

Each child is a person in their own right with their own unique potential and difficulties. Under the right conditions, each can blossom. Meditation and chanting can nourish that process. May our efforts in teaching children enable them to discover their own inner wisdom, to live in the light of a greater spiritual awareness that lies beyond this world and yet shines upon it.