“But I don’t feel like spaghetti”
“I can’t listen to that lady’s voice, I need concentration!”
“Can I ring the bell again?”
Above is a sampling of the responses I received from kids when I tried doing some of the “Mindfulness Exercises” recommended in the book Sitting Still Like a Frog (by Elaine Snel). A few weeks ago, I reviewed the content of the book (follow this link to read it), and then I took a few weeks to test it out. What followed was a series of events that contained hilarity, frustration, bewilderment, compassion, and love (sometimes all at the same time), and ultimately led to some important parenting (and teaching) lessons for me, as well as some implications for using the book with kids. I’ll share some of the outcomes of these trials as well as the lessons learned.
The first exercise on the CD was a breathing exercise. There was a 5 minute version and a 9 minute version. After listening to the first minute of the five minute version I chose the that one, because I was already feeling a bit bored after 15 seconds. The speaker talked in a calm and slow fashion in a way kids could understand. However, it was a bit too calm and slow for me. I did the exercise with my son. He was excited to sit on a pillow and help me light candles for the experience. I played the CD on my computer, which was a bit clunky and awkward, having a big electronic device in our way, but we eventually got used to it. As the speaker began, my son’s anticipation for the activity began to wane. Then he realized he actually needed to listen. After that fact was firmly established (cue parental frustration), he did start to follow the speakers directions. Slowly his body became more relaxed. Then more relaxed. Then even more relaxed. Wait, was he falling asleep? By minute three it was clear he was dozing. By minute five he was totally zonked. Three hours later, he was still at it, so I carried him to his bed and he slept peacefully the whole night. Lesson learned: Have some pillows and blankets handy for this one.
The Spaghetti Test
In this exercise, kids tense up parts of their body and then let it go (like loose spaghetti). On a snow day, my son and his friend had been holed up inside for many hours and had developed lots of “schpilkus” (Yiddish for pent up energy). I figured this was a good moment to try the Spaghetti Test to calm things down a bit. We set up the computer and the pillows and the candles, and even rang some bells. The voice came on the computer and told the kids to tense up their legs and then relax them. I think the kids took the speaker a little too seriously. I’ve never seen a kid tense up with such tenacity before (perhaps it was the schpilkus?), and by the time they were supposed to relax, they were more revved up than ever. After repeating a series of these exercises (I’m not going to try to explain what it looks like for two eight-year-olds to repeatedly spaz out as a voice on a computer calmly urges them on; let’s just say, this was my moment of ‘hilarity’). At the end, I asked if they felt any calmer. “Not really” they said. But they sure could go for some spaghetti right now. Lesson learned: Save Spaghetti Tests for low-energy days.
The Hard Moment
On yet another snow day, we tried again with another friend (and his parent as well). This time, we chose a meditation that focused on dealing with difficulty. Our child guest was an experienced kid-meditator (he did mindfulness mediation at his school). When I suggested we try this exercise, he immediately jumped into full lotus pose with his hands sitting Muladhara on each leg (wow). However, as I started to play the CD he cried out in frustration – “I can’t concentrate with that voice!” So he went off into another room to meditate on his own. Hmm. Well, we continued with the meditation, which helped us reflect on positive feelings and to comfort our sad feelings. My adult friend and I agreed that we walked away feeling a little lighter and more positive. I asked my son what he thought of to make him feel better. “Eating hamburgers,” was his reply. Lesson Learned: To each his own.
The Aftermath: Letting go and embracing the now
I was feeling a little frustrated with my experiments. My son was thinking of eating hamburgers and falling asleep. His friends were spazzing out or running away from the voice lady. Nothing seemed to be working the way I thought it might (yes, I did have that little picture in my head of my son in lotus position beside me as we both silently contemplated compassion and goodness side by side – I can have dreams, can’t I?). Well Buddha, in all his wisdom, says we need to let go of desires which create internal conflicts, and, sure enough, he was right. It was a few weeks after I had decidedly given up on the whole meditation-with-kids thing (or at least, meditation with my kid). I was helping my son with homework. It was a punishing ordeal. We’d been at it nearly an hour, and we still had more to go. It was 8:00 at night, and we were both exhausted. “I have a stomach-ache mom,” he said as he began the next section of his work. One part of me thought, “Alert, this is a distraction technique, proceed with caution, and push forward!!” but the other part remembered that a stomach ache can be a sign of worry or stress. I stopped what I was doing. I wrapped him in a big hug. I said “Let’s just forget about homework for a second. Take a deep breath, and follow your breathing. Feel your breath go into your belly.” Instead of the typically silly “big breaths” he normally did when I asked him to take a breath, he really focused on his breathing. Then, I said “pay attention to your feet now. Feel your breath fill up your feet and go out again.” We worked progressively, paying attention to his legs, arms, shoulders, neck and head. After a few minutes he looked up at me. “I’m okay now Mom, let’s finish this up,” he said.
We had done it. Not in the way I thought or planned, but together, through the practices, we had learned a thing or two that we were able to use when we really needed it.
Lesson learned: Let go, and let the moment come to you.
The big implications from this little experiment are this:
1. You and/or your kid(s) may not like the CD. The adult should listen to the CD and learn the exercises so they can try them with the children in a way that works for them.
2. Let go of your expectations and just practice.
3. If you do need some expectations, expect some frustration, some laughter, and some love.
4. Overall what is most important here is the relationship you build with your child or students through this practice. You are learning to listen to, care for, be patient with, and understand each other. Dedicate some time to building your relationships in this way.