by Kerry Lee Maclean
Part I. The Art of Abiding Peacefully Together
As parents we teach our children to care for their bodies by brushing their teeth, eating right and getting enough sleep, but we aren't quite as clear when it comes to teaching them how to maintain their mental health. Extensive research confirms that just a few minutes of sitting meditation each day calms the mind, body and spirit. When family members have a peaceful place inside themselves, they naturally become happier and more positive, getting along better with each other and those in their world. For both children and adults, everyday obstacles become more workable and natural harmony is easily regained. This article presents some guidelines for developing a family meditation practice.
If there's time, yoga stretches are a pleasant way to relax and energize both body and mind before meditation. It's also a great way to get riled-up kids to calm down a bit before you try sitting meditation. The ‘Eagle' posture is great for stretching between the shoulder blades where it gets tight during sitting, the ‘Triangle' is good for stretching your sides, and ‘Lord of the Dance' (shown right) opens hip joints and stretches leg muscles.
You can set the mood for family meditation sessions by getting into the habit of making a nice cup of herbal tea, coffee or hot chocolate for everyone. Bring it into your meditation area to enjoy together after the session ends when everyone's feeling peaceful, and before you all have to dash off in ten different directions! These little touches help turn your sessions into something warm and wonderful that everyone looks forward to.
THE MEDITATION SESSION
To help create a peaceful ambiance, you might want to light a candle, representing clear thinking, and incense, representing patience. (If your children are old enough you might invite them to help you.)
Everyone should sit in a semi-circle in the sacred space you've set up. Toddlers and children under age 7 should have their very own cushion and just try to sit quietly — that in itself is a huge accomplishment! A little squirming is allowed. And, being less conceptual creatures who are already very much in the present moment, they will naturally soak up the peace in the atmosphere.
Sit on a pillow like Geronimo or Buddha: cross-legged, with your back straight but not rigid, and your feet on the floor so that your hips are higher than your knees. Having good posture is important for creating an uplifted state of mind. For contrast, have everyone slouch heavily. Notice how restricted breathing and a slumped torso can actually make you feel heavy and depressed.
Now take your posture again, with good head and shoulders. Gaze softly down at the ground about six feet ahead (for adults) and two or three feet ahead (for children). Your eyes are open but relaxed, so that you can remain fully present in the here and now. Keep your gaze unfocused. Take your seat with the regal posture of a king or queen. Feel the strength of the solid earth beneath you, the vastness of the big sky above you, and your own heart, body and mind bridging them together, joining heaven and earth.
Ring the Gong to Start
Ring the gong once to begin your meditation session. Place the striker on the floor, and listen to the sound reverberate out. It's nice if your children take turns ringing the gong to start, and a parent can time the session and ring the gong to end. (We've found that when children are in charge of ending the session, they often become obsessed with watching the clock!)
These instructions are for older children, teenagers and adults.
When we first sit down, it's a good idea to just settle in for a minute, before we begin practicing the technique. It helps to take the time to feel who we are at that particular moment in time.
The natural speed with which we operate is such that when we first stop,we spin around and around in our thoughts - very much like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. He runs so fast his head goes b-o-o-i-i-ng-ng-ng,back and forth for several seconds after he stops. That's us when we first sit down. B-o-o-i-i-ng-ng-ng.
So we need to take the time to settle down and become present with ourselves and see who we are at that particular moment. Maybe we're in a rotten mood, maybe we're depressed. Maybe we're in an exceptionally good mood, or we might be scattered, running around in circles of thought. Or, we could be feeling nothing — just flat. It doesn't matter, we just need to take stock and acknowledge our state of mind as we begin. This allows us to have some idea of what to work toward in our session.
If we're tired and grumpy, we shouldn't expect to have perfect form and discipline in working with our thoughts, which may be fuzzier than usual. But if we got enough rest, had an excellent breakfast and the sun is shining that day, we might be able to go further and deeper with our meditation.
State Your Plan
It's important to begin with a clearly-stated plan, so that we don't end up spacing out the whole five or ten minutes, wandering in our thoughts. We can say to ourselves something like, "Just for the next few minutes I'm going to train my mind to my breath. The other 1,425 minutes in my day I can follow my thoughts on any interesting, exciting, happy, stressed out or horrifying trail they want to wander along. But for just this short time I'm going to let go of my thoughts and be fully present here in this room with my breath."
How Long Should We Meditate?
Sitting for one minute is perfect for young children and toddlers. Five, ten or fifteen minutes is good for a mature daily family practice, and if you can stick with that you'll be very happy with the results. On weekends when you have more time and if your children are older, it might be nice to sit for twenty minutes. The longer you sit, the more settled you all become.
Once you've become comfortable with sitting meditation, you can figure out what works best for you. It's a very personal thing.
Following the Breath
It's the nature of mind to flow on and on like a river, with one thought following another, just as one breath follows another. We are not out to stop that flow. We simply want to gently bring our attention away from our thoughts of the past and the future, the this and the that, directly into the fresh and spacious present moment. Therefore, the breath — which joins our spirit and body, which is alive, always fresh and happening right here, right now — is the perfect place to put our attention.
We gently bring our attention to our natural breathing rhythm. We feel the air going in and out of our nose, our chest rising and falling. We pay more attention to the out-breath than the in-breath. We just go out with the expansive quality of our out-breath and, ahhhh... let go of our thoughts. Then we rest our mind in that space for a moment before breathing back in.
"Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky."
Building the ‘Letting Go' Muscle
As Sakyong Mipham says in his book Ruling Your World, trying to let go of your thoughts over and over again, is a bit like bringing your meandering horse back to the trail every time he wanders off. You have to be gentle about it, but determined, too.
If you try too hard to pay attention to your breath, your mind will take off into a maze of intense thoughts and emotions. It may be minutes before you're consciously present on the cushion again. Yet, if you relax too much, you'll end up wandering off or even falling asleep. The best approach is ‘not too tight, not too loose.' Every time you notice you're thinking, just gently bring your attention back to the breath, again and again.
It's important not to judge your thoughts. They are not inherently good or bad — in the end, they're just thoughts. You don't necessarily act on them. They're just thoughts. Let them go. As soon as you realize, "oh, I'm thinking ..." — whether you're replaying an upsetting conversation, remembering what happened at work yesterday, planning what needs to be done tomorrow, or thinking about anything from dinner to global warming to world peace — whatever it is, you can gently acknowledge that it's just a thought, not nearly as weighty as it may seem. Just let it go, whatever it is, and bring your attention back to the present.
Ring the Gong to End
Ring the gong once to end, encouraging everyone to stay quiet and still until the sound has completely dissipated. Rest in the peaceful moment you've created.
Take a moment to enjoy your coffee, tea or hot chocolate together before everyone has to get going and the speed slowly begins to build all over again.
Looking back over the years, these post-meditation moments were some of the most intimate and sweet times my husband and I have shared with our children. Perhaps that's the best reason of all to hang in there despite all the obstacles!
The Five Main Points of Family Meditation
Everyone sits in a semi-circle. Toddlers and children under age 7 should have their own cushion and just try to sit quietly — that in itself is a huge accomplishment! A little squirming is allowed.
Parents and children ages 8 and older should sit cross-legged on a cushion with back straight but not rigid, gazing softly down at the ground about six feet ahead (for adults) and two or three feet ahead (for children). Your eyes are open and relaxed; your gaze is unfocused.
Ring a gong, a bell, or even a metal lid (struck with a wooden spoon) to start.
Breathe naturally, without strain. Feel the cool air coming in and the warmed up air going out. Feel your chest rise and fall. If it helps to concentrate on something, count your breaths — one in, two out, three in... Older children may find this helpful, too. Watch your thoughts and feelings settle down as you sit still. Every time you start thinking, thinking, thinking, remember to let go of your thoughts, no matter how important they might seem. Come back to the sensation of the air going in and out, in and out.
Ring the gong to end. Don't move yet. Wait until you can't hear the gong anymore and relax into the silence.