“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).”
– James Baraz
Over the Easter holidays, I found myself sitting in the car with my two nieces, aged 4 and 10. We were driving down the country roads, windows open, sitting quietly – which was fairly incredible in itself as they’re noisy little munchkins and normally chatter for England.
The little one is a bright button of a thing – completely open and readable like a book, full of energy and a brilliant sense of the ridiculous. She’ll probably rule the world one day and then you’ll all be wearing tutus for breakfast, just wait and see.
The older one is not quite so simple. I think of her as a searcher. She’s always reading people, reading situations, gauging her response. The world is already a confusing place for her, and it can be heart-wrenching to watch her trying to navigate through it.
In the past she’s asked to join in when I practice yoga and I’ve encouraged her – she loves gymnastics so the physical side of it is well within her comfort zone. But recently it’s been playing on my mind more and more that mindfulness and meditation could be really good tools for her. With a semi-estranged biological father and a fraught relationship with her step father, she struggles with her place in the family, and her behaviour – although much better than it has been in recent years – still sometimes leans towards anger and hysteria.
More than anything in the world, I want to her to be at peace with herself; to know she is worthy of love. And it seems to me that practicing mindfulness and meditation can be a good way of doing this.
The benefits of mindfulness and meditation for children are increasingly being talked about; particularly in terms of emotional regulation and cognitive focus. Simply put, mindfulness can help children be better able to:
Calm down when they’re upset
Mindfulness encourages children to be aware of their thoughts and emotions as they’re experiencing them. It also encourages them to see these emotions as temporary and separate from their core sense of self – this disconnect in itself can bring a sense of calm. Because they’re not invested in or defined by their hurt and anger they can choose to let it go.
It sounds like a big concept, and it is, but it’s surprising how quickly children can pick this up. In fact, research has shown that practicing mindfulness actually changes the shape of the part of your brain that’s for worrying – it gets smaller!
The starting point for any mindfulness practice is to focus on the present moment, to be aware of distracting thoughts as they arise – and here’s the crucial bit – to ignore them and return to the task at hand. Wouldn’t it be lovely not to be on constant crowd control for your child’s scatterbrain mind?!
Make good decisions
By being aware of thoughts and emotions as they arise, children are less overpowered by them and can make better decisions about how to respond. Decisions based on calm focus, not emotional turbulence? Now there’s an idea!
So the consensus has been reached – mindfulness really can help children’s stability, behaviour and mental health. But where to begin?
And so, as we were driving along I found myself wondering (as I so often do), how I could introduce some of the ideas behind mindfulness to my nieces in a fun and not too intense “yikes this getting spiritual” kind of way. As their slightly batty aunt I have the privilege of being unreservedly adored by them (ah just wait till they grow up and realise I’m human like the rest of them!), but even so, there are probably limits on how far I can encourage them outside of their comfort zone.
And then it came to me. Perhaps it was because I’d been going over my old creative writing workbooks and the exercises I used to do (insert flash of guilt at the past tense – bad, undisciplined writer!), or perhaps it was the memory of something my older sister once said about a meditative walk she’d been recommended I try…
‘Let’s play the senses game.’ I said.
Poor little darlings, their eyes positively lit up at the word ‘game’.
‘It’s where you focus on just one sense, like what you can hear, or what you can smell, and say everything that you notice. Let’s start with what you can hear.’
Well that was it. They were off, listing the whoosh of the cars and the engine of our car and the birds singing and by the time we got home we’d been through all of the senses. The little one was asking to play a ‘normal game’ like I Spy and please can we have some biscuits and which sort and how many could we have? But the older one had stuck with it.
‘Some of the monks in Tibet play that game,’ I said to her, shamelessly falling into a cliche in the hope of catching her interest, ‘and people who practice yoga, because by focusing on just one sense at a time and trying to block everything else out you’re giving your mind a bit of a break. You’re not focusing on what’s happened in the past or what might happen in the future, you’re just here in the present. It can be good if you’re feeling worried about something.’
I’m not sure, but I think I saw a small nod out of the corner of my eye.
So perhaps next time she’s over I’ll see if she wants to have a go at a meditation. If I think about it rationally, there’s nothing to lose – she already thinks I’m slightly odd, and if this might help her then it’s surely got to be worth a try?
As a more gentle introduction, there are a few ‘games’ like the senses one that I’m keen to see if I can persuade her into:
- A senses walk (especially if the final destination is her favourite corner shop).
But perhaps with a minute or two of silent awareness of each of the senses rather than naming each experience as it appears.
- Focused eating (especially if it’s something delicious).
With the challenge to focus only on the experience of eating that one delicious thing for as long as it lasts. Here’s a chocolate meditation I found recently.
- A grateful moment
Perhaps before dinner, where each of us can say something we’re grateful for from the day that’s passed.
- Mysterious objects
Asking her to close her eyes as I place different objects into her hands. She then describes and names each one using only touch.
I guess it’s like so many things – the issue of trying to help children navigate their way through life seems insurmountably huge and daunting, especially if the child is going through a difficult time. And if we looked for a way of fixing everything we’d probably never end up doing anything. But maybe over time, small steps like the senses game – little introductions to some rather big ideas – maybe they’ll take root somewhere in the back of that beautiful young mind and be there for her to draw on as she gets older.
And of course the best way to lead is by example. I’m reminded of a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh who says:
“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”
I think I’ll try to hold on to this, in the midst of my no doubt haphazard but well-intentioned efforts, drawing on outside sources left right and centre. A reminder to look inwards and have the courage just to be with my precious little niece, moment by moment.
Author: Samantha Short
Samantha is a writer and charity worker who has spent the last 11 years overseas with organisations like the Red Cross and Azafady. Now settled in the UK, she teaches creative writing courses at her local art studio and runs a business supporting charities to be more stable through funding, promotion and staff and volunteer skills. Read her blog on charity work and personal development.