In the olden days, meditation was very much seen as a practice of discipline for adults, involving being separate from life and other people and concentrating our minds away from our lives on earth. If our minds were to drop in naturally and lovingly toward thoughts of our children or feelings of playfulness, we were to shoo those thoughts away like irritating flies and adhere every part of our concentration to the mechanics of our breathing.
Now, hopefully, we know differently, and that we can bring the vibrancy of our children and the sense of wildness, freedom and fun they carry, directly into our practices. In this way, we can feel a “coming home” to our lives, rather than a separation from them.
Meditation with children, or with our inner child as children, can be tremendously rewarding and fun.
A lot is expected of children these days, including that they “switch on and off” according to external factors – getting ready for school, going to school, structured after-school activities and scheduled playdates, homework, meal times and getting ready for bed. Many of us who remember childhoods filled with freedom and space – climbing trees, building forts, playing with imaginary friends, wandering and wondering – feel a bit sorry for the lack of unscheduled time and free expression children experience today.
Our nervous systems do not operate well on a rhythm of “on or off”. Our nervous systems are at their healthiest when they are allowed to pulsate naturally between their sympathetic (action state) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) rhythms. Children left to their own devices are very good at modelling this rhythm.
I am often reminded of this poem, Freedom: The Children by Ruth Silcock:
We’re worried about the children,
They race around the field in the evening
As if they were wild things, crazy
Or sickening for something.
Why do they play the fool
The minute they come out of school?
How can we help the children?
Is it the food we give them?
They’re not bad children, lazy
Or glum. We forgive them,
But why do they race in the evening,
Silly and strange and leaping?
When a child is enjoying being a child and “being silly and strange and leaping”, a wonderful thing to do is keep them in awareness of this vibrant state. Sometimes it is our desire for our child to “be calm” that dictates the kind of practices to which we might introduce them. There certainly are times when our children will want to feel more peaceful and it is important to teach them that they are capable of reducing their anxious feelings using techniques, but we should be careful about – and this can happen inadvertently – regulating our children as a way of feeling better ourselves.
There are many ways of being present. Being present with feelings of vitality and joy are as appropriate for a healthy nervous system as having techniques that bring us into the presence of peace and quiet. Think about bringing range to your practices so that on different occasions, your children can choose different things to do.
We want children to enjoy meditation so that they keep doing it. Meditating as a family with a whole repertoire of meditations to choose from means that children can learn how to use meditation to meet specific needs in their lives.
Children are our teachers
In many ways, young children are great teachers of healthy meditation. They make natural meditators and don’t need to learn from a book. They are connected to their instincts, their bodies and their senses. Their curiosity is their guide. Left to their own devices and given a sense of freedom, they will pay close attention to that which naturally engages them and excites their body, mind and soul.
They will follow their hearts and that which brings them joy and pleasure. They feel greatly delighted by their achievements. They make progress with patience, dedication and determination, innately believing and expecting that eventually their goal will be achieved. They celebrate being an individual with personal preferences and particular rhythms. They enjoy daydreaming. They find natural, remedial ways to stretch and move their bodies. They are assertive in their right to reject what is not working for them: if they don’t like the taste of something, they will spit it out. They can be highly sensitive, aware and empathic. They love to receive and give love.
Children are great teachers and collaborators. It can be a real pleasure and treasure to practice meditation with our children, explore with them and learn from them.
All children are different and, sadly, do not have equal access to everything they need to keep them in that golden state I described above. Children need good supporters and allies who are invested in the things that they are invested in. Rather than thinking about “giving your child a practice to do”, like giving them homework, a coat to wear or a vitamin supplement you have heard is good for them, consider taking a child-centred approach to your meditation time together.
In a child centred approach to practice, we can allow ourselves to be led by the child, rather than imposing a model upon them in which they have had no consultation or input. Though we encourage participation, we can respect the child’s right to choose whether to participate. We can ask children to actively engage in choosing from a range of meditation according to how they are feeling. We help them discover the joy and usefulness of meditations that connect to their individuality and individual needs.
Above all, we do not want children to find meditation restrictive, difficult or dull, or something that is being imposed on them from the outside. Allowing them to understand, from the start, that there is no “one size fits all”, in meditation will be a gift to them, enabling them to develop a love of meditation which will serve them throughout their lives and to avoid wasting time trying to make techniques work that are just not suited to their particular body and individuality.
Children can learn from our approach to practicing with them that meditation comes from inside us, is often surprising and surprisingly fun and our that what might become our favourite practices are just waiting to be discovered. A child-centred approach gives agency to the child and helps develop in them a sense of self and a strong sense of being. It also helps us, as parents, forge deeper bonds with our children and establish strong lines of communication.
Some practices to try
The following is a selection of practices to try. Once you have got into the habit of exploring meditation together, you may well find yourself inventing your own. Go forth and create!
- Magic Treehouse Meditation
Have a chat with your child about all the things you have noticed they have inside them – maybe using the above questions as a guide. You might say to them, “It is as if you have a whole world inside you, a magic treehouse that keeps on filling with more and more special things. I’d love to hang out in your treehouse for a while, can I climb up? Would that be okay?”
The first part of this practice is very grounding as it involves connecting with your physical body and the earth. Imagine you are standing on the ground, waiting to climb up to your magic treehouse.
For a few breaths, feel the earth under your feet. “Let’s get our feet ready for climbing” is a good cue. “Let’s begin by feeling our feet”. Breathe down into your feet and tread the ground for a few moments. Try some different movement to feel the connection between your feet and the ground, perhaps balancing on one leg and then the other and feeling the activation in your standing leg.
Next, lengthen your torso and stretch your arms to get them ready for climbing.
Then, suggest you look around you and then up towards the treehouse, high above. Have a moment where you look at the treehouse, and maybe ask your child to describe it, especially if you know your child has a visual imagination. (You can skip this part, if not.) Then it’s time to climb. Once you are “up” and through the door, take a moment to turn and look out at everything – the beautiful natural world. This treehouse has windows, and maybe you will leave the door open, to feel a part of nature. Perhaps though, it will feel more snug and cosy to have the door closed. Ask your child what they would like, on this particular occasion. To feel safe and at home in their treehouse, surrounded by beautiful nature.
Once inside, ask the child to name all the “special things” in their treehouse. These can include imaginary awards or certificates documenting and celebrating times of triumph, things they have built and created, TV shows they love, their favourite foods etc.
Once the treehouse feels full and alive with all the colours and flavours of what fills your child with a sense of home, wonder and meaning, you might feel and say how special it is to be here and among these things. Name some of them again.
Take some breaths together, inviting your senses in – as well as your sense of vision, what does the treehouse smell like, how is your body resting, what are you touching? “Let’s breathe in this atmosphere for a while” is your cue to rest in sensations of fullness, each in your own body, but invited in by this magical space.
- Saying Hello and Thank You to my Body
This is a fun version of a traditional body-scan. Body scans are excellent for grounding and de-stressing. Every time we are fully inside our bodies, we are more present and more available to listening to the messages our bodies are giving us. From a young age, we are bombarded with messages that can make us feel our bodies aren’t good enough, pretty enough, strong enough or well enough. We are taught our body has to be managed, improved upon or whipped into shape. It is important to keep up a healthy and honoring connection with our body.
If you are someone who has felt let down by your body because of MS, this practice also help you find home again in your body.
Lie down next to each other and take a body tour, starting at your toes, where you say hello to that body part and thank it for something it has done for you. Let each family member take a turn.
With each part, introduce some micro movement or touch that part with a little massage, so you really make contact with it. If movement is not possible, bringing your awareness and breath there is very powerful.
This practice can go something like this
Everyone: Hello my precious feet.
Everyone wriggles toes, rotates ankles, flexes feet
Child One: Thank you for kicking the ball at soccer
Child Two: Thank you for walking me round to my friend’s house
Parent” Thank you for all the places you have taken me that I have enjoyed visiting”
From feet, move to legs, hips, tummy, chest (heart), throat, shoulders, head, arms , hands and spine.