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 that 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 their experience.
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.