Scott Maben, The Register-Guard, Oregon: Imagine a young child sitting still, quietly contemplating life and thinking peaceful thoughts. Even for just five minutes.
It’s a dream scenario for any parent overwhelmed by that eternal energy source running around the house.
But occasions of serenity are a reality for families who practice the ancient rite of solemn reflection. Many find that meditation is effective in helping children to calm down, relax, cope with sadness, anger or fear, and even fall asleep.
“It gives them a way to comfort themselves in times of grief and sorrow,” New England teacher Lisa Desmond says in her new book, “Baby Buddhas: A Guide for Teaching Meditation to Children.” For the past seven years, she has taught meditation to children ages 18 months to 3 years.
“It helps children with learning difficulties, attention deficits and chronic or life-threatening illnesses build self-esteem and confidence through acceptance and understanding,” Desmond writes.
Sharing meditation time with children also helps establish a foundation for spiritual growth and understanding later in life, said the Rev. Oswin Hollenbeck of the Eugene Buddhist Priory.
“They see what’s important to their parents, and that’s really how they develop their values,” Hollenbeck said.
Doreen Hock, a Eugene veterinarian and member of the Eugene Buddhist Priory, has meditated with her 8-year-old son, Dash, for more than two years.
“When he was really little, he would choose to do it,” Hock said. “He’d do it on his own. He said he did it once on the playground in first grade.”
Now that he’s older, Dash is more self-conscious about meditating in public, his mother said. And when he’s wound up or emotional, he tends to shy away from meditation. Still, the practice has had a favorable influence on her son, Hock said.
“There’s this change in the look on his face, where he’s so much more present,” she said. “Dash can be argumentative; he’s an 8-year-old boy. But I’ve seen all that cultural stuff melt away, and what’s left is that spacious, open presence.”
Meditation as well as chanting, which the two also do together, has helped shift the boy’s energy level and lessen his competitive edge, Hock said.
“He’s more aware of his heart and the energy there,” she said.
In some Eastern cultures, children are taught to meditate as soon as they are able to sit upright, around 1 or 2 years old. They are not schooled in doctrine at such a tender age, but they are shown the value of sitting quietly with their family.
“It’s not something you would expect a child to do on his own,” Hollenbeck said. “If the adult meditates, the child will meditate, even if it’s just for a little while. Then you’ve set up a situation where they’re not feeling forced to do it.”
Teaching a child to meditate, unrestrained, still might sound like a futile exercise. Not so, said yoga master Kun Ori, director of the Yoga Gallery in Eugene. Meditation is about learning to listen to one’s inner voice to find a peaceful, happy message, and that can be more easily accomplished as a child, Ori said.
“For adults, there is too much stress and responsibility, too much doubt and fear, which interrupt the listening to their inner voice,” she said. “In the case with children, they do not have too much preconception. They pay attention to their inner self more. They are connected so deep.”
The essence of meditation and brain development emerges even in simple interactions between parents and their babies or toddlers – hand exercises, exploring sounds and pictures – to help the child develop senses and motor skills.
“A mother who is hugging and talking more – that can open kids’ sensations more,” Ori said.
Sally Soufer of Ashland, who has attended recent workshops at the Yoga Gallery, has practiced meditation for 30 years and shared methods with her three children. Often it has involved simple things within a child’s limited attention span, such as breathing exercises or the simple use of a mantra, Soufer said.
“You can do the ‘looking meditation,’ where you just look into each other’s eyes for one to five minutes,” she said. “It’s just very centering and focusing.”
With practice, meditation can bring about dramatic and positive improvement in a child’s behavior and outlook on life, Soufer said.
“They realize in themselves a very peaceful center. They can access a place of peace and calmness within themselves, and they can go back to that place anytime they want just by breathing and relaxing.”
Her older children are in their 20s now. But her youngest, Jeffrey Star, 13, is drawn to an educational method called “brain respiration,” the use of physical and mental exercises to eliminate stress and improve brain power, developed by Korean peace activist and spiritual leader Ilchi Lee.
As a result, Soufer said, Jeffrey has gained confidence, improved in school and learned to control what used to frustrate him. “It’s very important for him to get good grades,” she said. “He could get agitated and anxious. I reminded him he could breath out what was bothering him, breath in peace, breath out tension – just releasing and relaxing using breath. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s so powerful.”
Jeffrey also was inspired to write a brief handbook on how to “save the world.” His tips include: relax, be peaceful, go organic, recycle, be unconditionally kind, play, nap and stand up for what you believe. He invites others to share their ideas and has given half a dozen public presentations on the topic.
“He has a real fiery personality, and things would really set him off,” Soufer said. “He’s either grown out of it, or he’s come to that place where things don’t bother him so intensely anymore.”
At the Eugene Buddhist Priory, a small group of children ages 3 through 8 gathers monthly for dharma school. The sessions include brief spiritual meditations as well as other activities – storytelling, crafts – that reinforce principles such as compassion and kindness.
“For us, the meditation is in order to be in touch with our true heart and nature. It’s in all beings. Children have it, animals have it, we all have it,” Hollenbeck said.
The quiet time is especially valuable in these times, when people – children included – lead increasingly busy lives and are bombarded with information, he said.
“In meditation, relaxed awareness or relaxed focus is important. It is a way of quieting the body and the mind,” he said. “And it has physical benefits, it has emotional benefits, it has psychological benefits.”
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