How to do it .
This practice is slightly different from the
one I do with my adult meditation students. There are nuances that I adjust with age and
mood, to make the meditation something that kids can relate to directly and emotionally.
As they mature and their world grows, the scope of the meditation can grow and still be
congruent with the world.
By beginning with some instruction
rather than the practice itself, I'm setting the stage and mood.
This creates a transition from listening to stories to focusing
on their feelings and then growing those feelings towards love.
Another adjustment is that each person, group or region towards
whom the loving-kindness is sent has slightly different words. I
do not want this practice to become rote. By avoiding repetition,
we help the meditation stay alive and relevant.
Then, we grow the feelings of love in the most
fertile soil: logically the closest and most loved people (or animals or plants). The
children themselves get the most attention, based on the simple fact that we all want to
be free from pain, discomfort, and other suffering.
We extend loving-kindness toward ourselves,
toward someone we love a great deal (Dad and Mom), toward others we love (The Brothers),
then toward those we like( Our Friends at School) or at least feel neutral toward
(Teachers, other Kids), then toward all beings. With adults, the practice goes from
oneself to a loved one, then to a neutral one, then to one towards whom we feel anger,
then out geographically. With children, we slowly grow the world; we are not "pushing
the river." When they are ready, we extend the loving-kindness toward people they
feel some agitation towards. Even with the youngest child I will occasionally add people
he may feel anger towards. With my thirteen year old we do so often, though he seems to
feel little agitation towards others.
There is an element of improvisation in the
way I conduct this practice. If I feel the kids are in a particular loving place, I may
focus more on sending love to their teachers. "May they really be free from
difficulties and suffering." This would help them to see their teachers as regular
human beings, with pain, with lives outside of the classroom, and not beyond error and
emotion. I may also focus extra loving-kindness on someone in need, such as an ill
grandmother. The child can then be helped to see that when there is need, you step outside
yourself and give extra.
In spreading the loving-kindness
geographically, I try to walk the line between it becoming a mental exercise ("Where
is that town?") and being so general as not to invoke feelings of expansiveness
("Oh, we're at that spreading thing that I don't really understand, I'll just lie
here."). This grows in sophistication with age.
But one must be careful not to turn it into a
geography lesson, although a little intrigue doesn't hurt (" I sent loving-kindness
across all of Asia, Africa, Australia; across all the oceans to all creatures in the
sea"). The feeling of expansiveness is paramount here. From me, to them, to all on
earth, to all in the universe, to all in all directions, with no exceptions. This helps
the heart grow and soften. It takes children (or us) out of themselves in a gentle way.
Questions may come up with kids that may not
come up with adults, like the time my youngest wanted to send loving-kindness to
"Yellow Blankie." First, I said to him that Yellow Blankie doesn't have a
consciousness. This did not impress him. Then I said we'd send loving-kindness to Yellow
Blankie, figuring that "all beings" could include his fabric friend if my son so
chose. However, when we began the loving-kindness practice, it went like this:
Me: "I send loving-kindness to Dad and
Mom . . ."
My son: ". . . and Yellow Blankie."
Me: OK, and Yellow Blankie."
As my eldest son matured and his emotional
understanding was expanded, I gently expanded the meditation. Compassion is an extension
of love, further along this trajectory of going beyond ourselves to embrace other. So the
eldest may, having been instructed, after sending loving-kindness to all beings, let
himself feel the suffering of others, to let his heart resonate with the pain of others.
This was done in a gentle and non-dogmatic way. There is a sense of respect and maturity
that he may have felt, albeit subtly, for being able to grow in his practice in this way.
I can't say for certain, but it is my hope
that this compassion will grow within my sons as they reach deeper into the rich and
complex world of young adulthood and thus act as counterbalance to the arrogance and
judgment the come with the territory. I particularly hope that they can develop a true
compassion for those less fortunate than themselves, people without enough to eat, without
adequate clothing or housing, people who are in war zones or are stricken by disease. In
our privileged society, where many of us don't see the outer reaches of human suffering, I
want to actively instil the capacity for compassion. The compassion itself will grow with
I will try to do this without too much
attachment to results or to the process itself. If my children decide they don't want to
do this any more, I hope I can let go of it lightly. But for now, as for the past sixteen
years, they value this practice of loving-kindness.