Seeding the Heart Loving-kindness Practice with Children
Ever since my first child was just about old enough to understand speech, I have practiced loving-kindness meditation with him at bedtime every evening. I've done the same with my other two children. It's been about sixteen years now. I would be happy to pass along some of what I've learned.
Loving-kindness is a meditation practice taught by the Buddha to develop the mental habit of selfless or altruistic love. By arousing within ourselves feelings of good will towards ourselves, those near to us, and all beings, we make it likely that these feelings will arise rather than other, less desirable feelings. Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness; it dissipates and is not replenished if we supplant thoughts rooted in anger with thoughts rooted in love.
Loving-kindness makes the mind more pliable, counteracts the judgments that arise as we become more perceptive about ourselves and others, and brings us beyond our selfishness. This outward movement is very important to balance the inner focus of meditation practice. The benefits of loving-kindness practice extend far beyond those who meditate. It offers the opportunity to find selflessness, joy, adaptability, and expansiveness. It is a truly universal practice and need not be associated with any particular religious concept.
I've always given my three sons a choice. Most evenings they clearly want to do this. If, however, one of them is cranky or upset, I'll say, "Would you like to do loving-kindness tonight?" and if the answer is no, then I'll say, "OK, honey," give him a kiss (through the blanket if necessary), and say goodnight. So they know it is for them. If they see it is OK with me not to do it it won't hurt my feelings then it is alive and part of their lives. It prevents it from becoming a ritual with little meaning.
Feeling good about doing this meditation is what brings it into their lives. They associate their own happiness and peace with a meditation that wishes happiness and peace for themselves and others.
It also feels good that the practice has become part of our evening, just as the story and my lying down with them. It is a special time of attention, gentleness, fantasy, mind opening, and familial love.
It tells me something about how this practice feels to them when, following a tense time, such as an argument, they still want me to practice loving-kindness with them. At times like these the pleasant and wholesome associations of loving-kindness meditation are of unique value.
I long expected the day to arrive when my eldest son, who is now eighteen, would not want to practice any more. Even as I expected this, he and I benefited from the connection we felt at bedtime ( and of course through many other times.) The wedge of teenagerdom and his growing independence was a challenge at times, but this special connection was very strong. I am now finding a similar connection with our middle child as he enters his teenage years.
What finally did happen, as the eldest reached about sixteen years of age, was that I became busier at bedtime and he simply became less insistent on my presence for the practice. Every now and then I ask him if he still practices loving-kindness on his own and am pleased to find that he does.
Now I have to point out, this can all take a lot of time. The stories (usually made up rather than read), the loving-kindness meditation, and the "be with" time can add up to twenty or thirty minutes. With children in separate rooms this can add up to an hour each night. As wonderful as it can be, sometimes I can't do it. And it is good to know that even a five minute practice has great value.
Interestingly, when I'm busy the boys still request a "quick loving-kindness" even before a story or "be with" time. When I have to be away, they do just fine without me.