I promised I’d post about how the 8 and 9-year-olds responded to my mindfulness and contemplation training for a small group of girls at a local elementary school. My daughter participated, which gave me a good sense for how things were going (she can be brutally honest about her opinions!). The program was more successful than I’d imagined and motivated me to keep thinking about how to share these ideas locally and beyond.
I wanted the kids to understand the context for why this matters—and how we can influence how our brains work. We all began by thinking back to the time when the human brain first evolved. What was the world like? The students chimed in with a lot of reasons why humans would be afraid of things like lightning and wooly mammoths and running out of food. (Although one girl’s claim that people were fearful that they would be eaten by dinosaurs had to be quickly discounted!) The students grasped how hard life must have been.
I asked them to try to understand that nowadays, we view the small annoyances and setbacks of modern Western existence as if they were equally life-threatening dangers. And that we can develop bad habits of the mind as a result. I used the example of my response to someone not replying to my email – was my message stupid? Will that person tell other folks that I’m an idiot? Could I be fired from my job because I’m not smart enough? Will I then starve? This kind of thinking is sometimes called catastrophizing. It’s common in my brain and seems to happen to a lot of us.
(If you’ve seen the short film called Inner Workings that is now showing before the movie Moana, you’ll understand that it is a perfect example of what I mean. The main character, a guy whose body we can peer into like in an anatomy textbook, is pulled by the lure of fun things like eating a big delicious breakfast and going swimming or surfing in the ocean. But his brain keeps pointing out all the threatening, dangerous things that could happen to him if he chases fun. These possibilities always lead to an illustration of an early grave in his mind’s eye.)
Next, I explained to the students how to do a personal weather report about how they feel. I liked this idea because it’s such a neutral, non-judgmental way to think about our own emotions. In the same way that you can’t change or control the weather, you can’t always change your feelings—but you can notice them and be aware. I had all the students close their eyes and ask themselves quietly if they felt stormy, rainy, snowy, sunny, cloudy, tropical, etc., in their own minds. My daughter thought this was a useful exercise.
I included a few other metaphors that didn’t register as well with the third graders. For instance, the notion of “surfing your emotions” turned out to be pretty abstract to them. I got a few vacant stares and quickly moved on.
We did a five-minute guided meditation using a recording from the UCLA online center. It focuses on calming the mind and gently breathing, but not much else—just a very simple pause. Most of the girls engaged with it. A few kept giggling, and one said she thought it was creepy. I asked that girl afterwards to explain what she meant, but she wouldn't respond. Possibly it was the recorded voice—which was a sort of monotone. I found it soothing, but kids might not all agree. Next time, I would try to bring in a bell or a block to strike when the meditation time is over. The students would pay attention to an intriguing sound, I think, and I could use my own voice rather than a recording.
At the session’s end, I briefly explained that we could use meditation to develop compassion and loving-kindness towards others and ourselves. The girls closed their eyes and thought of a friend or family member, repeating to themselves, “May she/he find joy and peace.” They did the same with themselves: “May I find joy and peace.”
Feedback on this session has been positive. I’d like to pursue more testing of this teaching soon. More to do in 2017!
The presidential election is over now, and a lot of people I've encountered have been unsettled by it. They are uncertain about our country’s future, and so am I. All around me, parents are struggling to explain the election, and the words and ideas of the president-elect, to their kids.
In this stressful time, practicing mindfulness is more important than ever. That’s true for both adults and kids. After completing the exercises of Stoic Week—many focused on becoming more aware of my own emotional responses to events in my life—I decided that I needed to do more than just work on myself.
So I began to put together a session for children. I plan to lead mindfulness training at a Girl Scout meeting for third-graders in a couple weeks. From there, I will look into other ways to share both Stoic ideas and mindfulness training with grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers.
Here’s a preview of what I’d like to tell students. (The surfing metaphor is inspired by a passage in the book Sitting Still Like a Frog by Dutch mindfulness teacher and therapist Eline Snel.)
A baby cries when she is hungry or wet or tired or just feeling bad. She giggles when she’s happy or something seems funny. It’s all pretty simple. As we get older, our emotions get more complicated. But the good news is that we can become more aware of our feelings.
During each day, we have a lot of feelings, like frustration if we can’t get an answer correct in math, or anger if our friend wants to play with someone else at recess, or joy if we get a basket in basketball.
Some feelings are pretty tough to handle. We worry about people being mad at us. We are upset about having a fight with someone. We think about how we might not be good enough at something in school or in our activities. We remember seeing bullies pushing people on the playground and wonder, what if that happened to us? It’s normal to have worries and feelings that rise up inside us and make us feel bad. But what I’d like to remind you is that YOU ARE NOT your feelings – you just have them for a while. (Or put another way, one of my favorite notions in mindfulness: “Don’t believe everything you think.”)
What if we could imagine that our feelings are like a giant ocean of waves?
Then we could learn how to surf. Surfing is a hard sport because you can’t really change the waves. You can’t make them bigger or smaller. You can’t stop the waves. It’s like that with our feelings. We can’t make our emotions change, nor can we fix or stop the people around us from making us feel a certain way.
But we can practice surfing. You can start seeing your own reaction to problems and issues and you can try to stop and think. You can notice what makes you upset or frustrated. And instead of having an automatic response, take a deep breath. Take a pause, and keep breathing, as you work on building the balance of a surfer.
From there, I'd ask the students to pay attention to their breath, doing a simple meditation.
This, I think, is one way of conveying the essence of Stoicisim. We all need to become skillful surfers of life’s emotions, of its ups and downs. I can’t wait to see how the kids respond!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.