After a week of mindfulness training and meditation in Plum Village, a spiritual community in France, I was inspired to try practicing with children. So when my son’s teacher asked me to come in to read for his class, I brought the book Each Breath A Smile, by the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh.
As for adults, mindfulness is a powerful tool to help children develop the skills to promote peace in themselves and the world around them. Increasingly, through the experiences and circumstances that are called life, I have been interested in the question: what are my coping strategies? Talking to my students and friends, this question comes up a lot, how we deal with the challenges we meet in life. The list of destructive things we turn to is long, but increasingly, I have become aware of mindfulness and meditation as helpful, life-affirming and positive alternatives. How incredible it would be if my children, indeed, a whole generation of children, grew up knowing how to deal with stress, anxiety and hostility, and quite naturally enhance confidence, emotional stability, joy and tolerance.
At Louis’ school one afternoon, with the children, aged four and five, gathered in a group around me, we started by observing our surroundings. Mindfulness is the ability to consciously observe what is happening, without judgment. You simply sit down, switch off, tune in and observe. What can we feel, see, hear? The children commented on sounds outside on the street, and elsewhere in the school building – children laughing, running. The blue sky outside the window and the warmth of the sun through the glass. Simply being aware of our surroundings and our place within that.
Next we turned our awareness to our breath. First, I asked them questions such as what is breathing? Does everyone and everything breathe? What happens if we stop breathing? Then, we set out to explore our own breath. Sitting quietly, we held a finger horizontally under the nose. Everyone was excited when they could feel their own breath, and started quite naturally to make the breath deeper and longer to be able to feel it better. I asked them: what does your breath feel like? Is it warm/cool, moist/dry, slow/fast, quiet/noisy? What word or image comes to mind when you focus on your breath?
Then we placed our hands on our bellies, and I encouraged them to pull the breath all the way down. I explained about the big muscle at the bottom of our abdomen that looks like a mushroom, called the diaphragm, that makes the belly rise on the inhale and sink back down on the exhale. After a couple of breath cycles I asked the children: how do you feel when you only pay attention to your breathing?
I then shared some things from my own life, how paying attention to my breath has helped me through difficult situations, giving real examples from times I have felt scared, angry or insecure. One of the ways Thich Nhat Hanh teaches mindful breathing to children is through the ‘mountain breath’. Breathing in – visualize a mountain, breathing out – think strong, solid. Children intuitively grasp the idea. When asked in what kind of situation it would be good to have the mountain energy, one of them replied: when you are being bullied, because then nobody can hurt you.
Lastly, we pretended to be a horde of bees, covering our ears with the palms of our hands, humming beautifully in bhramari, the bee breath. This is a form of pranayama that is often used in treatment of people with anxiety or panic attacks, or in extreme situations, like childbirth. The internal humming sound is deeply relaxing and comforting, and it is a quick way to retreat within yourself and feel safe, enveloped in calm and protected from the outside world. The kids loved this.
Throughout my son and his classmates were interested, alert, excited and honest like only children can be, coming up with the most intriguing questions and observations. Reading the book at the end, a book about listening to the birds, breathing in and out, appreciating the qualities of the people around you, with very little action and certainly no dinosaurs, they were like spellbound, taking in my every word. Having just embarked on their journey of education, with its focus on competitive performance, I hope a seed was planted this day. I believe children can really benefit from learning to create small spaces of peacefulness and calm in their busy little lives, and develop healthy coping mechanisms at an early age.
I want to make a sign for this class room that says ‘Don’t just do something – sit there!’.