For those of us who have worked with children, we each have important moments that have changed our way of looking at and being with children. These moments stay with us for the rest of our lives. They make working with children meaningful and fulfilling. They teach us so much about ourselves, our perceptions, and our vulnerability.
Sometimes, we think that as staff or as an adult, we need to always be in control, calm, and seem like we know what we are doing. We think we should never let the children see that we are vulnerable or that we have lost our ‘authority’. However, sometimes miracles can happen, when we as adults reveal our truest feelings and weaknesses right in the midst of the present moment. We are true to ourselves, to what is happening and we let go of our ideas of how it should or should not be. We embrace the present moment and trust that the truth of the moment is okay as it is. When this true embrace and acceptance occurs in ones mind, something changes in the air, in the children, and in the collective.
One time, when I was giving the teachings on the pebble meditation to a room of 40 to 50 children, events did not occur as planned. The children were of mixed ages from toddlers to older teens. There was a group of 4-5 young ones who seemed disinterested in the sharing, and more interested in distracting me and dragging my attention towards them. I was close to each one of them, cared and played with them separately at other times when they would come on the weekends outside of special retreats. It was very hard for me because they as a group were interrupting me as soon as I shared. It affected the other kids and the collective energy was a little tense. Sweat formed on my forehead and everyone in the room including my monastic brothers and sisters knew we had a situation. They were waiting to see if someone or I could bring it back to calm and normalcy. Because I was close to them, I did not want my brother to remove them from the room, and there was a conflict inside of me. I felt betrayed by these young boys. They were letting me down and embarrassing me in front of everyone. I felt hurt and angry.
As I raised the pebble for the third time and said, “This first pebble represents a flower, our capacity of ‘freshness’ inside. The distraction hit is saturation point. With sweat still running down my face, I dropped my two arms, closed my eyes, and began to follow my breathing. I let go. It was beyond me. The room quieted and everyone was waiting for me to speak again. I felt the heat inside of me slowly cooling. I recognized my anger and my hurt. I said, “Breathing in, I am hurt. Breathing out, it is okay to be hurt.” My sister invited the bell. “Breathing in, I feel betrayed by the friends on my side. Breathing out, I smile to them with love and understanding.” I continued with this type of guided meditation for a while, with the point of recognizing my feelings and especially, of recognizing what was happening in the room. Everyone knew what was happening, but no one knew what to do or how to recognize it. When the situation was given respect and acknowledgement, something changed. In our teacher’s words, we called the situation by its ‘true name’. The boys were recognized. They got their attention from the group but they also got something else – the recognition that they were interrupting the group. I felt that they also recognized this, because their body movements began to change; they straightened up; they quieted down; they began to listen and pay attention to what was happening in the group.
That morning session turned out to be about dealing with our emotions and challenges, rather than about pebble meditation. We asked the children how they felt being in the room with other distracting kids and how they deal with themselves when they are annoyed or other emotions. It turned out to be an enriching experience for all of us.
Reflecting back now, I see that we should have foreseen the need to split the group into two and identify and dealt with the boys earlier. I also see that I had a notion about how that morning should have been. I was resisting what was happening in the present moment and forcefully trying to bring the situation to what I would like it to be. I also was not truthful and respectful of my feelings. Yes we could have asked the boys to leave the room and everything might have been okay as planned. We are familiar with this approach. Our parents used it all the time when we were kids. This experience was a gift for me because it revealed to me that what happens to my mind when I sincerely recognize and respect my present moment truly, as it is – whether that is sadness, anger, or other feelings – can happen to the group and to the collective mind.
The idea here is to use what children already do naturally and help them to transform it in a positive way. These moments when children are playing with each other naturally and sometimes inappropriately are actually wonderful ‘teachable moments’.
Here are some examples of how this has manifested in Plum Village and Deer Park:
One day, some children in Deer Park were playing with sticks aggressively using these against each other, when some young monks walked by. They showed them how these sticks could be used as magic wands. The children were delighted with this new game & they were never reprimanded for what they were doing on their own. Simply, they were guided in transforming it into something positive. Violent sticks became magic wands with some skillful guidance & a little imagination.
Another situation occurred in Plum Village, when a retreatant noticed some children using a lot of profanity in the meditation hall. They were trying to top each other, with one child coming up with language even more offensive than his peer before him. Rather than scolding them, she commented something like this, “Well, you all are so creative with language! It’s amazing what you can do with words. Can you think of some really kind, complementary words to use with one another? Now, can you make these words even more sweet, more beautiful? Who can come up with the kindest phrases to use with another person?”
So, the children continued playing; now topping each other to see who could come up with the most beautiful words of kindness to use with another. Amazing transformation; isn’t it?
One way to think about how to handle these spontaneous, and often inappropriate situations and turn them into teachable moments is to recognize what the kids are already doing, validate it by commenting how creative or fun it looks, then guide it by suggesting an alternative which builds on what the kids are already doing. Then, let it transform as the kids get creative with this new game.
Some guidelines to help you remember when you’re in a situation like this:
Recognize it, Validate it, Guide it, allow it to transform.
White Moth Bodhisattva
One evening, when the children formed a circle in a room and we sang songs and danced, a white moth entered the circle and danced with us. She landed on the carpet beside me and I knelt down to say hello to her. Just as I said, “How wonderful children a beautiful white moth has joined us with her song,” a young boy moved forward quickly and stomped on the moth violently many times. A few other boys joined him. One girl yelled in horror for she could not take what had happen. Other children were in shock and my brothers and sisters embraced and consoled some of them. I picked up the dead moth and took it outside to return it back to the earth. I came back and the room was silent. I sat in the middle of the circle, closed my eyes, and followed my breathing for a few minutes. My sister invited the bell.
I began to pray for the moth and to express our regret for our unskillfulness. “Dear white moth, please forgive us for not recognizing your beauty, your gift to us, your sacrifice to our ignorance, our violence, and our unskillfulness. We pray that you are now in a peaceful place that your pain in leaving us was not too great. We are in pain now for what had occurred. You came to us to share your wonder, your dance, and your love for the children. Yet we could not see. We were blind by our excitement, our habit of killing small living beings, and our inability to care all beings. No one person is to blame for this act, for it is all our act. We promise to do better next time. We promise to respect life in all its form – plants and animals, even small bugs and insects. We promise not to kill and let our violent energy take over us and destroy what is beautiful and good in this world.”
What touched me the most in my experience of the Children’s Program was something very simple. It was friendship. I am 20 years old and I know I am quite different from the children. But when we can connect at the same level I find it most beautiful. Usually they are very shy or indifferent to me at the beginning, but after a while, they speak to me like a friend, they have trust in me. Every time this happens I become very moved to have trust from this very pure source. I cherish it a lot. I don’t want to have expectations of the children. I love their spontaneity. Just to create friendship with them is enough for me. In this way they can remember and have warm feelings of Plum Village, of the monastics here.
I remember a specific moment with a young boy who was very closed towards the other children. He thought he was too good for the others, like he was too mature. By the end of that day we became very close and he played as a child with the other children. He shared with me from his heart. For me, I feel that children are very sensitive, they can easily feel when we are trying to teach them something. It works better for me to help them by speaking to them as a friend and sharing from my experience.
James was a young boy of seven. He had two close friends called Paul and Eve, seven and eight, and the three of them were close knitted. It was the first week of the summer retreat in Maple Forest and altogether there were seven children between the ages of 6 to 12. They were the youngest members, the other four were girls, and there was a clear distinction between their characters. Whatever activity the children were meant to have, the girls listened to me and the communication between us was clear. Perhaps it was partly because they were girls and the connection between us was natural. But James, Eve, and Paul were harder to get through to. They rebelled, not so loudly because they didn’t scream and shout, but there was silent rebellion, unresponsive to my ideas and suggestions. They kept themselves closed to us and opened only to each other. It was my first time working alone with children so I felt at a loss. In the past I had always been with at least one other, whether a brother or a sister, and so the children had complementary staff taking care of them. But those times we were offering just a half day of activities, a once a month Children’s Day at Green Mountain Dharma Center. For the first time I was by myself working with children for a week long. Whatever I asked the children to do James and the other two didn’t want to do. If the children and I went for a walk, James and his friends ran from us, playing their own games. If we were inside the Children’s room doing some art and craft the three of them would be outside running round and round the building. If we were skit-playing, they were playing something else. And so the days of that week passed like this.
I wasn’t quite sure what was best to do at that time, though one thing I felt certain of and that was I wasn’t going to force them to do anything. If at times I felt a little frustrated I wouldn’t shout or be bad tempered towards them. I would leave space open for them so that they would know that whenever they wanted they could join in with the group.
On the last evening of that week we had a Rose for Your Pocket ceremony. At the end of the ceremony James mother, with James a little behind her, came up and asked me if James could give me a hug. I was more than surprised. Could it be the same James who hardly appeared to be listening to me throughout the entire week? He looked shy as he approached me and so vulnerable, not like the leader-of-the-pack James that he had been. I felt a deep warm happiness as I embraced him, though conscious not to embrace him too close or too tight. After three breaths James continued to hold onto me. His hug became tighter, he wouldn’t let go. I felt so moved. That was when I realised that James had taken in everything that had happened in the past week. He had sensed everything and received everything. It wasn’t the activities we did, nor any practices taught; what James received was acceptance in our attitude towards him and his friends. It is how we are and the way we are with the children that is imprinted into their hearts.
There are no rules, no method except perhaps a sense of awe, of intense curiosity to be with life in the moment with the child. As if you were about to go on a journey to a place you have never been before with all your attention, all your energy in a state of alertness ever ready to explore. This naturally will require a great deal of energy and to meet it, it is advisable that you get plenty of rest the day before. As with any travel, perhaps you will find yourself seeking what you have known before – something familiar. Perhaps you said to yourself that you need a package tour of the city; acknowledge that thought and let it be a ‘no agenda’ day to visit the city. Let the city show itself to you!
Is this what it means to ‘hang out’ with someone, to be with that child? Is it not to let that child reveal to you who they are, the way they dream, how they talk, their voice, how they move about, what they want to play, their smile, their face with all its expressions, just their total being? Is it not to be open to accept what is being offered and improvise along with it, so as to be playful, yet caring so that no harm is done to anyone?
Let it be a moveable meditation, while staying with all the life that comes up within yourself and especially around you, with the children receiving all your focus and attention.
Another Story-telling Incident
With a group of 6 year olds, I begin a story. One child sort of makes singing noises…this goes on a while. I stop speaking…he “sings” on a little – I ask him gently “Is it okay if I continue with the story?” He has a rather strange non-reply, I continue the story and he continues this “songlike” speaking. Suddenly I find myself adapting to his voice and letting his voice guide mine. The story takes on colours and emotion I had never felt before. We are all entranced. The young boy continues like this for over one hour of stories. The teachers are fascinated. I later learned that this boy is autistic and has never listened to any performance for more than 10 minutes. I still thank him silently for the lesson he taught me that day.
At Plum Village – learning from children
One summer evening, the parents and adults had gone off to some activity or another, but it wasn’t clear at all which children were with us. I began to panic thinking “we are responsible for these children!” They were running off in all directions and I panicked even more – the young Sisters present looked at me helplessly. I decided to only return to my mindful breathing and within five minutes the children all clustered around and we were together again!
Filed under: Personal Stories