Helen T. Gray, Kansas City Star: Five-year-old Marissa Roberts was the littlest one in the youth meditation class Sunday at Unity Temple on the Plaza.
Parents know 5-year-olds can be a tad active. But Marissa tried hard to follow the instructions of her teacher, Peggy Mulvihill.
The lighting was dim, with soft lamps and candles and filtered daylight through stained glass windows. The 13 young people, ages 5 to 14, were quiet, waiting for whatever was to come.
They sat on chairs in a circle, with a small table in the center of the room.
What does it mean to meditate, Mulvihill asked. Several children were first-timers to the class that started in September. Many of their parents were meeting across the hall in an adult meditation class, led by Janet Taylor, director of the Temple Buddhist Center.
Some youngsters said they weren’t sure. Two others said: “It relaxes your mind” and “It closes your outer eyes and opens your inner eyes.”
Mulvihill explained it also meant to be fully aware of the here and now with all the senses, like what you hear and sense and smell. The theme that day was “Planting Seeds of Love.”
The children were then encouraged to talk about things the Earth gives — water, air, soil, food — and what they like to do on the Earth.
“What seeds can we work on this week?” Mulvihill asked.
Love, honesty, forgiveness, caring, happiness, trust, compassion, perseverance, kindness, patience. Just about everyone had something to add.
Then it was time for meditation. Mulvihill’s assistant, Joe Mentesana, a teacher, instructed the children to let their bodies be still. Feet on the floor — although little Marissa couldn’t manage that — eyes closed, hands open resting on their knees.
“I’ll play the bell and focus on the sound of the bell,” he said. “Then it will stop for a while, and when you hear it again the meditation will be over.”
The bell sound came when he gently circled the edge of a metal bowl with a stick-like object.
What did you hear, Mentesana asked.
“I could still hear the bell after it stopped.”
“I heard the clock.”
“I kind of fell asleep.”
Several said it was hard to keep still.
Karly McNeil, 14, said she had a hard time keeping her eyes closed “because I’m used to being aware of my surroundings.”
Although she has meditated before and listens to meditation CDs when she’s stressed, this was her first time attending the class.
“I’ll definitely come back,” she said. “This gives kids a chance to relax and to think about what’s on their minds.”
Heather Hastert, 11, said she was thinking about her family and if she had been nice or disrespectful.
Next was a lesson in breathing.
“Breathe through your nose, slowly raising hands up, and then out through your mouth, slowly pushing hands down,” Mulvihill said. “We’ll do it three times, then without the hand motions.”
She asked, “When can you do this?” That got a variety of answers.
“When your parents tell you to do something you don’t want to do.”
“Before a test.”
“When it’s noisy in the cafeteria.”
“When I’m mad at my sister.”
Mulvihill told the children to practice relaxing at home by taking the three deep breaths.
The youth then did a short walking meditation — in silence — to another room where they paired up and engaged in yoga positions, again without any talking.
Later one participant said she really needed to talk, while another one said she was more focused because there was no talking.
After the one-hour class, Eryka Bash, 11, said it helped her to feel calmer.
“I’m not as hyper.”
Her mom, Krissie Bash, said, “It is a blessing that she can learn (meditation) this young because everything in the world is getting faster and faster.”
Eryka had been coming with her to the adult class, but Bash is pleased there is a class on Eryka’s own level.
Ricky Carleton, 9, said he’s often tired when he wakes up, and meditation helps release his tiredness. But he said it’s hard for him to stay still because he likes to be active. (But he had to be told only once to sit up straight.)
His dad, Bruce Carleton, said, “Ricky can be pretty unfocused. If he can find more focus, he would better realize his potential.”
The idea for the youth meditation class came from Taylor hearing from parents who wanted the freedom to participate in her adult class.
“Also, some parents wanted to get their kids started early,” she said. “They thought how valuable it would have been if they had learned earlier.
“But we couldn’t use adult techniques. They had to be adapted to children.”
She approached Mulvihill, a Montessori teacher, to see if she would lead the project.
“She has a wealth of ideas and a passion for this project,” Taylor said.
“Children need to have balance,” Mulvihill said. “Children can go into meditation so easily because they have great imaginations and are so observant.”
When they learn meditation and how to breathe, they can learn how to focus and to relax instead of being anxious, she said.
“We are planting the seeds that they can develop the rest of their lives,” she said.
Mentesana said he has read research on meditation and children and said it is worthwhile to teach children to meditate because they can become more attentive. Also learning the breathing techniques can carry into their daily lives.
Taylor said that although some immediate results are evident, she really wants to think ahead 20 years.
“I want to meet the children who started when they were 5 to find out how they utilized those meditation tools throughout their lives,” she said. “I see this as a long-term process.”