Tough Lovingkindness

Meditation teacher Peter Doobinin charts the Middle Way through New York City public schools.

Peter Doobinin

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I NEVER intended to teach meditation to kids. A few years back, I received a phone call from a social studies teacher at a New York City high school who was teaching his students about Eastern cultures and religions. He wanted to know if I could visit his classes, talk to the kids about Buddhism, maybe take them through a brief guided meditation. I'm not sure to this day how he found me—perhaps he was scouring the Internet in search of a meditation teacher.

I agreed to meet with his classes and headed for the high school, School of the Future, in Manhattan, feeling a certain amount of trepidation. I'd be operating outside my comfort zone, teaching kids. To some extent, years later, I still experience this sort of trepidation when I'm setting out to teach children. And I frequently gripe, complain to myself about the strain on my time, my energy, and so on (ah, defilement). But when all is said and done, I find teaching these classes terrifically rewarding; I have great joy in working with the kids. There have been days when I've been down, when teaching the kids has quickly alleviated my darkness. My mind invariably brightens.

After that first experience at School of the Future, I got to talking with the teacher, Andy Snyder, and I put forth the idea of having a regular weekly meditation class at the school. I could come to the school along with some dedicated practitioners from our group. We would teach the kids meditation, give them an opportunity to practice, ask questions, learn about the basic teachings. It would be a chance for our group, Downtown Meditation Community (DMC), to reach out, socially engage, extend itself into the local community. It would also be a chance for some of the students in DMC to assume a leadership role, teach, offer service.

The program at School of the Future was quickly implemented, and the following year we began to bring classes to a public elementary school, the East Village Community School, where the meditation students have ranged in age from eight to eleven—third through sixth grade.

In training members of our group as "practice leaders," preparing them for their visits to these schools, it was imperative to make clear that terms like "Buddha" and "Buddhism" shouldn't be used, and that the more devotional aspects (chanting, bowing, and so forth) had to be avoided. There is, after all, a separation between church and state in America (or at least there's meant to be one). And while it is, of course, beneficial for meditation students to learn to take refuge in the historical Buddha, lineage, and certain ritual elements, it's easy enough to impart the heart of the teaching without mentioning proper names, traditions, and the like. No need to talk about Buddhism. The Buddha didn't talk about Buddhism. He was concerned, simply, with the truth—the truth of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering—and that, I'd submit, is a good thing for anybody to learn.

© Don Farber

Essentially, teaching kids isn't a lot different from teaching adults. I've been amazed by the similarity. Of course, kids need to be met, and spoken to, at their level of sophistication. You need to adjust your vocabulary, possess a certain affinity for children's concerns. Not all the practice leaders had that; they didn't continue with the program. But for the most part, what we teach the kids at the elementary school and the high school is very much along the lines of what we teach in our regular classes at Downtown Meditation. We teach what the Buddha taught: Virtue. Concentration. Discernment.

The curriculum, as I see it, has four parts:

1) Values. A portion of the class is devoted to teaching the paramis: generosity, ethical conduct, renunciation, effort, patience, truthfulness, lovingkindness. Kids are very much open to discussing these themes; they lack the guardedness and skepticism that adults display in approaching these skillful qualities. One third-grade girl, in discussing false speech, said, "If you tell a lie, then sometimes you have to tell another, and then another, and then another," and there was a genuine disenchantment in her voice, a clear understanding of the drawbacks of lying. Oftentimes, as adults, we try to rationalize lying, to downplay the corrosive results of it.

But kids clearly know. (It really is an excellent teaching for myself, as an adult, to listen to the kids.) What I try to emphasize in teaching these things is that these are qualities that you want to maintain throughout your life. I urge the kids not to relinquish their understanding of the importance of these qualities, not to forget, and to begin to see that if they act generously, virtuously, that this will have a powerful impact on the way their lives unfold. There will be good results. So think about this. Think about the results of your actions. It's kamma, although we don't use the word.

2) Sitting Meditation. We teach the basics of breath meditation (anapanasati). Be mindful of the breath. Be alert to when you're distracted. Make an effort to bring your attention back to the breath, again and again. It's something, we find, that just about all the kids are able to do, even third-graders. During the school year, we'll gradually increase the length of sittings, and by the end of the year they're sitting as long as twenty minutes.

There is restlessness, of course, but the restlessness generally dissipates during a sitting, and the kids settle in; I usually don't like to have them sit for less than ten minutes, because eventually their excess energy begins to dissolve and they calm down.

Restlessness (and its flip side, dullness) is a prominent hindrance for adults and kids. With kids it frequently manifests in behavior that you'd never see in a meditation class with adults. Sometimes the kids make faces at each other. Sometimes they poke the kid sitting next to them. Sometimes they stand up, walk across the room, look out the window. I don't know, actually, that what the kids are doing when they're acting out their restlessness is all that different from what adults are up to when they're practicing breath meditation. Adults (for the most part) stay in their spots and don't express their agitation physically, even though their minds are restless and their agitation undoubtedly significant. What the kids do, when they're twisting and whispering and laughing, is almost certainly a representation of what is transpiring in an adult's mind, the gyrations and outbursts of thought.

I make it a point, in working with practice leaders from our group, to ask them to refrain from disciplining the kids when they act out restlessness (unless, of course, they've crossed into unacceptable territory). Teachers from the school always sit in on meditation classes, and, in some cases, I've had to ask the teachers to let go of the urge to admonish the kids during sitting meditation.The teacher's interference causes an added dissonance, creates another layer of agitation. And sometimes discipline is driven by aversion. It's often a form of repression. Better to just let the restlessness be. Let the kids begin to recognize restlessness, anxiety. When there's a pushing down of the restless habits, there's never a chance to begin to learn about them.

3) Inner Well-being. So we teach the kids to be mindful of their restlessness, to begin to recognize and investigate their distractions. And, importantly, we teach the kids to learn to develop inner well-being, a pleasant abiding.

This pivotal aspect of anapanasati, generally disregarded in the westernized methods of teaching meditation, is something kids can certainly grasp, practice, and gain extraordinary benefit from. We show the kids how to cultivate a "safe home for the mind," the term used by Ajahn Lee (1907-1961), a meditation master in the Thai Forest Tradition. Breath meditation is practiced in the service of establishing calmness, ease, contentedness.

Students—in this case, elementary and high school kids—begin to know a place within themselves where they can go for refuge; they learn to find happiness inside. The ability to access this refuge has profound implications. The world, as the Buddha knew, offers many temptations, most not especially wholesome. As kids move toward adult life, they'll be faced with countless opportunities to pursue sense pleasures. The culture provides an inexhaustible list of options for clinging, for getting involved in all sorts of stuff that will lead us to suffering. With the ability to access a sense of pleasure within, temptation is severely lessened, and there's less of a need to look outward for happiness.

4) Lovingkindess Practice. In addition to breath meditation, we teach metta (lovingkindness) practice. Kids have a natural affinity for this—more so, from my perspective, than adults. Even the older kids don't seem to have that jaded approach to metta that prevents many adults from opening to the practice. There isn't that same film over the heart. The kids jump in, the way they might jump into a city pool on a hot summer day.

Or they don't. When I gave the traditional instruction for saying metta phrases ("May I be happy"), one boy, obviously having personal struggles, told me, "I don't want to be happy." As a teacher, I appreciated his truthfulness. It is exactly the sort of truthfulness that is necessary in dhamma practice. If we are going to open the heart, we have to acknowledge where and when it's closed. Many adults lack a willingness to express the truth in this way—to meet their pain in such a head-on style.

The practice of meditation isn't confined, we explain, to what happens when we're practicing sitting meditation. We want to learn to be present, to use the breath as an anchor to the present moment, to cultivate ease and wellbeing, in all postures, at all times. We teach standing and walking meditation, in a formal context. But mostly, we encourage the kids to be mindful of the breath in the different activities of their day. For example, before you have to take a test, connect to the breath. During the test, particularly if you're starting to get nervous, connect to the breath. Mindfulness of just one or two breaths can have a tremendous benefit. We discuss it. The kids report about the myriad occasions during which they've practiced anapanasati. Waiting on the line in the lunchroom. Walking home from school. Playing baseball. Doing homework. Interacting with brothers and sisters. On the subway. I'm generally amazed by the extent to which they bring the practice into their lives. It's a skill, meant to be applied. They get it.

WE spend a good deal of time teaching the kids to be mindful of emotions. The basic form for this instruction has four components:

1) Naming Emotions. This entails learning to identify emotions when they arise. This is an extraordinary education—dare I say, as important as any education. I certainly wish I'd been taught it.

2) Finding Refuge in the Breath. This component is about learning to go to the breath to stabilize yourself when strong emotions arise. We tell the kids that there's nothing wrong with emotions, they're part of life. We're learning to relate to emotions skillfully rather than repress them. To do this, we need the calmness that the breath provides. In developing the capacity to go to the breath, the kids learn that the emotion—the anger, the anxiousness—isn't the whole of their experience, there's also the ease and pleasure of the breath. Instead of learning to obsess, they learn to ease fixation.

3) Investigating Emotions. From the place of calmness, they can take a deeper look at the emotion, find it in the body, begin to learn to see it for what it is: impermanent, just rising and falling experience. Just anger. Just fear. Just sadness.

4) Skillful Intention. Here we bring in the instructions that the Buddha gave to his own son, Rahula, when Rahula was seven years old.

Before you take an action—physical, verbal, or mental—check to see if your actions will lead to affliction, for yourself or others. If so, if the action is going to come from a place of anger or ill will or greediness, then let go of it. Learn to bring in a skillful intention, to allow your actions to be motivated by kindness.

As I've said, these are skills that kids can learn, and do learn. I've seen it again and again. One girl, Joy, a third grader, described her experience practicing mindfulness of emotions:

"I wanted to go out. My mother wouldn't let me. I was angry at her. Very angry. I noticed my anger, and then I began to feel my breath. I just felt the breath.Then I went into my room. I felt my breath some more, and then I paid attention to my anger. It was a feeling in my stomach. I felt it for a minute, and then I went back to feeling my breath. Later, I went and talked to my mother. I spoke very calmly. I spoke with kindness and told her how I felt. We had a really good talk, and we made a compromise."

To paraphrase the Buddha, I wouldn't continue to teach kids meditation if I weren't utterly convinced they could grasp the practice and develop virtue, concentration, and discernment. At the end of one school year, I asked a fifth-grade class to offer their insights into what they'd learned. One student said, "I learned that I can be calm if I pay attention to the breath, and I learned it's a good thing to be calm." Another said, "I learned that meditation is more than just sitting with your eyes closed, it's how you live, it's something you can do all the time." Another said, "I can handle my anger. I don't have to get out of control, the way I used to." And Maya, a tall, thin girl who sat with exquisite posture, perfectly still, her long braids dangling past her shoulders, said, "I learned that you don't have to look outside of yourself for happiness. There is other happiness. You can find happiness inside yourself."

The fact is, of course, that it isn't always like that. Not every class is an assembly of fledgling stream-enterers.

One year we were working with an extremely difficult sixth-grade class. The kids were generally uncooperative, committed to acting out as much as possible, in whatever manner they could devise. They were at that age, I guess. Meditation, they'd decided, was not cool. The weekly meditation class was simply an opportunity to cut up. As a group, they had little desire to practice, so the class was often chaotic. To put it simply, there usually wasn't a lot of meditation going on. I gave the practice leaders (and myself) a clear and emphatic injunction: I told them that their first responsibility and main objective in teaching this class was to keep their equanimity, to not let any frustration or anger they felt determine their actions. They had to relate to the kids, no matter what, with calmness, with kindness. If they couldn't, they needed to excuse themselves. Essentially, their charge was to be an example of the dhamma. The kids might not be mindful, they might not feel many breaths, or any breaths. They might be unruly, oppositional. But they'd have an up-close view of somebody who was practicing the dhamma, somebody who embodied virtue, concentration, and discernment. They might not choose to meditate, but perhaps they'd see the dhamma anyway. They'd get a taste of it.

Later I heard that the kids felt like they'd benefited from the meditation. The classroom teacher thought it was helpful, if difficult. And as I was walking along Fourteenth Street one day during the next summer, one of the kids from the class came up to me and said hello, and it seemed to me, to my astonishment, that she was glad to see me. I heard her say to her companion, as I went on my way, "He was my meditation teacher," and there was actually a certain respect in her voice.

No matter what, the important thing is that we plant seeds. We offer a chance to learn some incredibly useful life skills and get a taste of the dhamma, of a true happiness. One taste of this happiness, one very small taste, can have an real impact on somebody's life.

Better than a hundred years lived
Without seeing the ultimate Dhamma
Is one day lived
Seeing the ultimate Dhamma.
—From Dhammapada 8.115

Peter Doobinin is the guiding teacher of the Downtown Meditation Community in New York City, which follows the teachings of the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada.

Image 1: Third and fourth graders meditate at NYC's East Village Community School © Elaine Chu
Image 2: © Don Farber

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earthstarlinda's picture

Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been blessed with a position in an elementary school as that of "relaxation coach". Within this role I teach Mindfulness in the Classroom, grades K-6. There is often acting out and behaviors. I agree that this is likely what the adult mind is like when it's exihibited through the movement of the children. It is amazing that some children seem to go into their meditative spaces regardless of the noise and movement that is meant to distract them! I too have made mistakes when aversion arises... I questioned this afterwards... I am very glad to hear of the chaos other's have experienced as facilitators of Mindfulness in the classrooom! Thank you for the courage to share! And I am VERY glad for the word "equinimity" as a precious space to hold for all... Thank you!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Kids at that age pushing limits, testing waters. They want to be as "grown-up" as the grown-ups they see in society (and this includes the fake societies of movies and TV), but they are still children who need guidance to and our help to get to their 20's, 30's even. But you can't tell them that. They want to figure it out on their own, just as we grown-ups (seem to!) do all the time. So what we do is model constructive behavior, become these youths' mentors. But it's gonna take a lot more than just one or two people in an elementary school. It takes a nation to raise a child.

Dot Luce's picture

Gassho & thanks for this wonderful reminder of the "tough", in lovingkindness. I often find that skeletal support missing from my lovingkindness, and end up with feeling used.

looseyoga's picture

I sometimes get asked to teach yoga in schools. I will take up your advice on letting the kids do what they want to do, and make sure there is another teacher present. In the past, I've been left alone with some kids who were intent on acting out. Maintaining equinamity with my own kids and with kids who challenge is a huge issue for me and almost something I seem to get drawn into and while I feel aversion rising, and have made many, many mistakes and repeated patterns, your advice is spot on. Thanks!

joedizney's picture

What a beautiful program and what a lovely article and idea to start the day with. Thank you so much for both.