Mindfulness and Children

Maybe it's birthday-time reflecting, maybe it's that old back-to-school vibe, but I've been meditating on mindfulness lately.

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Redundant? Perhaps, but there are lots of ways to be mindful, meditation being only one of dozens featured on one of my favorite all-time graphics courtesy of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. As John Lennon famously sang, "Whatever gets you through the night." I was reminded of this recently by my colleague, Dr. Ali Carine, a gifted and spiritual integrative pediatrician in Ohio. Ali was giving me a heads-up on a rare NYC appearance this fall for Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk. FYI, he'll be at the Beacon Theater for two days in October, sponsored by the Omega Institute. If you can't make it, consider his latest book, "You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment," just out this week. No one has done more to enlighten the Western world about the concept of mindfulness than Nnat Hanh, unless you count mind-body pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn. "Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting," by Jon and his wife, Myla, is a parenting staple for me.

A new favorite resource is Dr. Amy Saltzman's CD, "Still Quiet Place." Amy does a wonderful job creating a variety of mind-body experiences for children and families, and the recording is a terrific tool to engage youngsters in the practice of mindfulness. Especially important as the exciting but stressful back-to-school time approaches. Amy has also written about her work teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to children.

Looking for other ways to bring the concept of mindfulness into your child's life? I wrote a few years back about my experience reading John Muth's "Zen Shorts" to my kids.

To finish, here's an excerpt from that post:

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 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 woman down some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

The story resonated with me as I read it, and both kids 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.

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