Spirituality and Children

I read a book to my kids tonight that caused me to think about the innate spirituality of children.

zen shorts

John Muth’s “Zen Shorts” was the story of the evening this time around. On the surface, the author introduces three contemporary Western children to a decidedly-Buddhist giant panda, Stillwater, but along the way, he gracefully weaves in three Zen philosophy tales. My personal favorite (though not my kids, of course!) is about letting go. Karl, the youngest child, goes to visit Stillwater, but he’s quite mad at his older brother, Michael. Karl spends the day being mad at Michael, as Stillwater tries to educate him about enjoying the moment and releasing his anger. The parable Stillwater shares with Karl to illustrate the point goes something like this:

Two monks are walking along a country path. They soon are met by a caravan, a group of attendants carrying their wealthy and not-so-kindly mistress and her possessions. They come to a muddy river, and cannot cross with both mistress and packages – they must put one down and cannot figure out how to do so. So the elder monk volunteers to carry the woman across the river, on his back, allowing the attendants to carry her things, and then all can go on their way. The woman does not thank him, and rudely pushes him aside to get back to her caravan.

After traveling some way on their own, the younger monk turns to his master, and says, “I cannot believe that old woman! You kindly carried her across the muddy river, on your very own back, and not only did she not offer thanks, but she actually was quite rude to you!” The master calmly and quietly turned to his student, and offered this observation: “I put the women down some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

The story resonated with me as I read it, and both kids (ages 6 and 8) asked many questions about the literal events and about their meaning. We spoke about different religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. They understood at a basic level the similarities and differences – though they interestingly both focused on the similarities. But it was the very nature of questioning that struck me as so apropos. I am reminded of a verse (15) from the Tao Te Ching:

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

This concept of mindfulness, of being in the present, is so important to both children and adults. I think children mainly do live in the moment. Both the past and future are strange concepts until they age a bit. Perhaps we should learn to keep more of this “now” with us as we age. It would serve us all well.


P.S. This is an article sent to me two years ago; I’ve been meaning to share it for some time. No time like the present.

Nurturing the innate spirituality of preschoolers

Thursday, March 10, 2005

By len vaughn-lahman/san jose mercury news

The young daughters of Jessie and Andrew Hsu are hard-pressed to explain the meaning

of the Tibetan Buddhist chants the family recites on Friday nights. But it’s obvious they like


Omar Omeira, 2, can’t yet ask why his parents, Helal and Abbake, bow to the floor five

times a day in their Santa Clara, Calif., home, but he, too, raises his hands in supplication

to Allah.

Children need not understand such rituals to benefit from them: There is growing

evidence they are naturally attuned to the spiritual and that early experiences can provide

the foundation for a lifelong sense of identity and purpose.

Nearly all children experience ways of knowing and being outside of any training or

rituals, according to a new study by psychologist Tobin Hart, author of “The Secret

Spiritual World of Children.” They include awe and wonder, intense feelings of love and

compassion, startling moments of wisdom and a deep curiosity about the profound nature

of life.

It took only a few days of reciting the sutras along with their mother before Hsu’s girls,

ages 5 and 8, began asking “why?” said Jessie Hsu. “I tell them it’s wisdom from the


Adults can help their children develop spiritually by acknowledging their questions, tender

feelings and experiences of a spiritual nature. That instantly establishes a mutual respect

that reinforces the child’s identity and self-esteem, Hart said.

“We often think of kids as amoral or not having an ethical foundation, so we have to teach

them,” he said. “But as soon as we begin to understand children as spiritual beings with

spiritual lives, we have to treat young people with respect.

“One of the things we’ve heard from parents is how much their children are spiritual

teachers for them. It’s not hard to find a parent who says ‘I teach my kids how to brush

their teeth, but from them I’m learning patience and unimaginable love.’Ÿ”

Hart is co-founder of the ChildSpirit Institute, a Georgia-based non-profit agency leading

a movement of academics and parents dedicated to exploring and nurturing the spiritual

life of children. It hosted the second annual U.S. conference on the topic last fall in Pacific

Grove, Calif.

What people are learning, he said, is that “if we’re going to nourish spirituality as parents,

in religion or the classroom, as much as we want to show them the good life from outside

in, we need to draw equally from the inside out.”

One way to do that is through stories that resonate with a child’s inherent sense of

fairness and compassion, such as those of saints and prophets or the good deeds of

everyday people past and present. Prayers, chants or spiritually grounded behavior are

other ways.

Whether grounded in a particular religion or not, spiritual practices are being increasingly

recognized for their positive effects on children.

Jodi Beth Komitor, founder of Next Generation Yoga and author of “The Complete Idiot’s

Guide to Yoga with Kids,” recommends yoga instead of Ritalin to calm anxious children.

“Parenting with Spirit” by Jane Bartlett is one of several new books that lay out ways to

nurture a side of children too little recognized.

In the new book “Baby Buddhas,” Lisa Desmond, a New England woman who develops

meditation programs for elementary school children, says meditation can become a

lifelong tool for finding “balance, harmony and knowingness within.” Her “Cleansing Breath

Meditation,” for example, gives children a method for letting go of thoughts and feelings

that make them feel sad, mad or bad.

San Jose psychologist Michael Jones says there are benefits in any routine, whether going

to church or some sort of meditative practice that supports a healthy home environment

or helps children calm themselves.

Jones says it’s largely the parents’ warm and accepting attitude toward ritual practices that

nourishes and calms children. But Hart thinks the routines do much more even for

toddlers too young to understand them.

“Sometimes the real job of it is to shift consciousness,” he said. “A child might not have

any idea of the words of a chant, but the rhythm, ritual and energy of the community lets

him shift states, slow down the mind and open up to this wellspring of wisdom and


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