Sunday, 5 December 2010

Stop Screaming! Start Meditating.


Kids are freakin’ nuts these days!  Forgive me for being so blunt.  I’m sure that many of you have children that you love and adore, (or at least a couple of cute little cousins or something that you buy Christmas presents for) but come on, be honest; they’re a little crazy, right? 
WHY ARE KIDS INSANE?
From the moment they’re born, we bombard them with external stimulation.  We start by blasting Mozart (or Jay-Z) into their little ears as they’re lying in their cribs.  As soon as they’ve developed enough muscle in their tiny torsos to sit up by themselves, we plop them down in front of the television and assault their brand new brains with mindless atrocities like the Teletubbies.  Not long after we get them hooked on T.V, we introduce them to their first real DRUG:  Sugar.  We fill their baby bottles up with soda and pump their little stomachs full of High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Too Much Mountain Dew
As soon as they develop enough dexterity in their cute little fingers, we hand them a video game controller to teach them how to kill zombies.  Some kids spend six hours a day using their thumbs to shoot at innocent civilians and gore their way through screen after screen of rebel, Nazi soldiers.   Before long, they’ve got their own cell phone, an iPod, a Facebook account, and they’re staying up until 2 AM to watch the latest Saw movie. 
That’s not to mention all the medication we dole out to them in the name of good science.  Kids eat more Ritalin than they do fruit. 
Sounds grim, right? 
Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit… but not by much.  Check out this recent article (one among many) in the New York Times about how electronics are literally changing the physiology our brains: 
Computer Addiction

Here’s a quote from a woman interviewed in this article talking about how her husband’s addiction to his computer has affected him:
 “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.” 
Sounds kinda like ANTI-MINDFULNESS, doesn’t it? 

EDUCATION
I spend an average of twelve-hours-a-day with kids.  I teach middle school English.  Yep, Middle School.  You remember it, right?  Think back to that time when your (supposed) best friend went behind your back and told everyone about how you got your period while you were playing volleyball in gym class and then proceeded to launch a school-wide hate campaign against you, complete with pictures of your face decorated with giant Tampons sticking out from your ears and eye sockets…
Ringing any bells? 
It’s gotten pretty bad out there.  In fact, the entire education system in our country is basically in shambles.  Teachers aren’t teaching, school boards are pissing away what little money they have on everything EXCEPT what’s best for the students and politicians are running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to figure out a way to test kids to see if they’re actually learning anything.  I’ve got news for you… most of them aren’t. 
Education Policy = Headless Chicken
For Christ’s sake, there are 12-year-olds committing suicide; hanging themselves in their closets, because they can’t handle the pressure of it all! 
Middle school is crazy.  I don’t know if it’s hormones, or if it’s because they’re just bored as hell, but middle school is kind of like a mini-mental institution.
I’ve taught school in settings ranging from conservative Catholic to urban ‘hoods in New York City.  Plus, I have a twelve year old.  (I’m 30.  Do the math.)  So, I kind-of know what I’m talking about here.  Maybe you think I sound “jaded” or “burnt out”?  Nah… I’m just realistic (and I have a morbid sense of humor). 
The really crazy thing is… I LOVE IT!  Middle school students offer the greatest challenge to teachers because of their unique position in life.  They’re “no longer children” but “not quite adult yet”.  Consequently, I believe they offer the greatest sense of fulfillment and reward to those of use willing to brave the trenches. 
KIDS NEED (BUDDHA’S?) HELP
Over on my blog, “Buddhism Sucks”, I’m doing a series of posts on meditation.  Specifically, I’m trying to deconstruct the watered down, heavily commercialized cult of “American Buddhism” in an effort to extract the legitimate, practical instructions on meditation that so many of us desperately need in our lives. 
American kids are suffering. 
She's not getting a good education.  Plus, no shirt. 
Yeah, I said it… S-U-F-F-E-R-I-N-G!  You know, DUKKHA; that overused, played out Buddhist tenet that pops up in every single time you even hear the word Buddhism.  It’s scrawled on every page in every single book and talked about by every single Buddhist “teacher” on the face of the earth.  Sometimes I think we’re so obsessed with the idea of suffering that we’re adding a whole new sadomasochistic dimension to Buddha’s teachings.  Not that suffering isn’t key; it is, but PLEASE STOP CRAMMING IT DOWN MY EVER-LOVIN’ THROAT! 
Or at least give me a chance to swallow before you offer me another bite! 
Plus if we’re so concerned with suffering, let’s open our eyes to the fact that there’s a whole world of underrepresented “sentient beings” out there who are feeling it too!  What’s worse for kids though, is that they’re totally unaware that they are suffering.  They’re too busy texting (or sexting) to notice! 
Whoever’s CEO of the corporation called American Buddhism needs to sit down with his marketing team and switch focus groups from white, upper-middle class professionals and direct some attention to the kids wallowing in our educational system.   
If there’s anyone out there who benefit from a down-to-earth approach to meditation, it’s kids.  In addition to being used as a strategy for dealing with the stresses in their lives, meditation could possibly be the key to reshaping the whole educational system in our country.  I believe that the development of a focused meditation practice within the classroom could be just the thing we need to reshape school culture and create a climate of calm where students from every background would benefit. 
My intention in writing for Progressive Buddhism is that maybe someone out there could use some of the insights I can offer into teaching/practicing meditation with kids.  In the short time I’ve been practicing, I’ve seen enormous benefits both in and out of the classroom.  Conceptually, it’s such a simple practice, but when done correctly and with regularity, I believe it to be enormously transformative. 
15 MINUTES OF MEDITATION IS WORTH 15 MILIGRAMS OF ADDERALL
Many students have such short attention spans because we’ve developed a society conditioned to INSTANT GRATIFICATION.  This is particularly true when it comes to kids.  They can’t even sit still for longer than five minutes without seeing something explode or a really nice set of tits.  Forget about sitting alone to read a book cover to cover; that’s a joke.  (Unless, of course, there’s a book out there that’s ABOUT exploding tits, that is.)
Explosions


+ tits = Fun!











Kids begin their day in America’s classrooms carrying more baggage than ever before:
·       Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)
·       Absent father figure/positive male role model
·       Poverty (Especially in light of the current economic situation)
·       Emotional Disturbance (ED)
·       Physical abuse
·       English as a second language (ESL + ELL)
·       The Achievement Gap
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a taste of the obstacles that many children need to overcome just to receive a decent education in one of our schools.  I didn’t even bother to mention the special needs that many students require in terms of additional educational services (SPED). 
In addition, many of my students don’t eat healthy meals, they don’t have a clean place to do their homework, and they are exposed to sexuality WAY before they’re ready.  What’s worse is that even if they WERE able to transcend these setbacks, many of them aren’t even able to receive a good education because the school they’re attending DOESN’T OFFER ONE! 
What about the kids that do “well” in school?  Those are the ones who are so stressed out and anxious about getting good grades that they’re crippled by the pressure.  Ever heard of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan?
Read It’s a Funny Kind of Story by Ned Vizzini
Ok, so we can’t really shove Buddhism down their throats.  That would violate their Constitutional right to an education free from religion.  (Not that I’m even advocating that…)
BUT WE CAN TEACH THEM HOW TO MEDITATE!
I started teaching meditation a few years ago to a group of 8th grade students at a private, Catholic school in Brooklyn in response to what I saw as a detrimental attitude from other the other teachers I was working with.  I was relatively new to the profession and had never worked in an urban environment before.  The shock of seeing grown men and women treat their students with callous disrespect sickened me.  As a direct result from this treatment, the students reacted with extreme recklessness and a total disregard for their education. 
The "Penguin" can't teach you how to meditate!

Their poor behavior was impacting their education in a negative way and I was uneasy about sending them off to high school without a method for taking responsibility for themselves and coping with life’s stresses.  I felt it was my duty as their teacher to prepare them to be independent, confident young men and women that could interact with their environment in a positive way. 
Although I’d had several years of personal experience with meditation, I’d never worked with kids in this capacity.  Trust me, managing a room full of 32-hormone-filled-teenagers is quite a challenge and doesn’t come without a headache.  But being a person who hated school himself (left high school at 16), I was appalled by the way in which these “experienced” teachers related to their students.  Yelling is not an effective way to deal with teenagers.  I thought meditation would be better. 
I began a program of non-religious, guided meditation, based on what I learned from my Tibetan teachers and practiced myself.  The results were almost immediate.  Behavior improved overnight and the classroom climate became calm and peaceful for the most part.  Not only did I train my students to use meditation as a coping method, but I believe that many of them began to see their practice as an efficient way to deepen their understanding of themselves and escape the drudgery of an overbearing school environment. 
Since then, I’ve gone on to use similar techniques with success in other classrooms.  Below you will find a general presentation of the methods I’ve used.  I hope you find them useful and encouraging.   
MEDITATION DOESN’T HAVE TO BE CONFUSING
Part of the problem with Buddhism in America is that there are so many different traditions, subject to unlimited interpretation.  This diversity can be confusing to navigate and frustrating to a newcomer.  What’s more is that there are so many people out there “teaching” meditation or writing books on the subject who are just relaying traditional Asian instructions that they don’t fully understand themselves.  The result much of the time is that many explanations of how to DO meditation are either very dull and dry, or they are so vague and mystical that they are impossible to practice.  
Watch out for this guy!
Meditation is VERY simple to understand conceptually.  Although it can be a difficult thing to integrate as a concrete practice into every day life, there is no need to surround it with a mystical, other-worldly hype that removes the practicality from it’s instruction. 
These methods are very simple, practical, and down to earth.  Anyone can do it.  You don’t need to be Buddhist or even particularly spiritual.  After all, meditation is foremost a method for self-examination and metaphysical analysis. 
First, a couple of rules:
1.     There is no STEADFAST method for practicing meditation.  There are many ways, as are there many kinds of people.
2.     Meditation is an individual activity.  Just like painting or learning to play an instrument, you can take a class or read about it, but you have to do some work and experimentation on your own to find your own way. 
3.     You have to practice it regularly to see any results.  It’s like working out. 

OK KIDS, LET’S MEDITATE!
When I first introduce the subject of meditation to my students, I like to start by initiating a short, simple discussion.  We talk about our pre-conceived notions about meditation and I try to lead them away from thinking about it as a “cool”, “trendy” thing and to understand it as a method for increasing concentration and relaxation within themselves.  We discuss how meditation is a method for spending time alone with your mind in order to understand it better and use it to its fullest potential.  I tell them that one of the coolest side-effects from practicing meditation is a feeling of ease or calm that would help them get through their day at school. 
Since I’m teaching in a non-religious environment, I don’t inject discussion of any traditional “Buddhist” topics such as karma or reincarnation, though if they come up on their own, I try to demystify them and shelve them as topics for a later discussion. 
Also, being that meditation is a very new experience for them, I limit the majority of my instruction to samantha techniques rather than vipassana.  For a discussion of the difference between these two “forms” of meditation, please read my blog (http://buddhismsucks.blogspot.com) as there is an ongoing discussion happening over there.  (Shameless self-promotion, I know.)  Plus, since my students primarily need a way to harness their energy and develop their concentration skills to perform well in school, I believe that samantha is particularly applicable. 
POSTURE
I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion about what’s the “best” posture to use when meditating.  Some people are so addicted to the Asian method of sitting on the floor, propped up on an expensive PILLOW that the posture actually becomes an obstacle rather than an aid to meditation.  
This is WAAAY too expensive!
The whole point is that you want to “sit” in a position where the body doesn’t distract you from the work you’re doing with your mind.  If it means that you’re standing on your head with your legs twisted behind your neck, fine - whatever floats your boat.  It really doesn’t matter if you look all cool and Buddha-like or not. 
For my students, since I’m usually working with 25-30 kids at once, I just instruct them as they’re sitting in their desks.  The basic principles are the same:  back straight, hands folded, and feet flat.  Relaxed, yet alert.  If you’re at all familiar with Buddhist meditation, you know the drill. 
SETTING THE TONE
I’ve trained my class using a bell technique.  Rather than have a set time to meditate, I just choose a point in our busy schedule when I feel they “need” meditation time and I ring the bell once and they know to immediately get into position.  It took a few weeks to train them to get to this point.  Have patience!
Once they’re all sitting properly, I ring the bell again to signal the start of a simple deep breathing exercise to set the tone.  Together, we all take five deep breaths in unison.  It’s very simple, but highly effective in getting a room full of middle-schoolers to feel centered and calm.  Long, slow breaths – in through the nose and out through the mouth – taking in as much air as possible and then expelling it.  In this controlled exercise, it makes the students feel as if they’re starting a serious endeavor. 
There are many different ways to do this.  Just do what feels natural. 
Once this deep breathing exercise is complete and everyone appears focused, we move on to samantha.
WATCHING THE BREATH
At this stage in the process, my students return their breathing to normal.  In earlier classes at the beginning of the year, I’ve trained them to watch their breath by focusing their attention on the small area near the nostrils where they can feel the movement of air into and out of their bodies.  Although there are many variations on samantha breathing meditation, I find it helpful to choose an object that is simple, but very specific.  The subtle sensation of the movement of air felt on the tip of the nose is the perfect object for my students.  They’re clear about what they should be doing and they can wrap their minds around the concept.  Easy. 
Usually, I allow them to watch the breath in this way for about 3-5 minutes.  Sometimes, I provide gentle guidance to them if I feel that they are having trouble staying focused.  I say things like: 
·       Stay focused on your breathing
·       Feel the air coming into your body and keeping you alive
·       If you feel yourself getting distracted by your thoughts, gently remind yourself that you’re breathing right now
Again – just say what feels natural.  The point is to remind them of what they’re doing.  I can usually tell if they’re having trouble staying focused by watching their posture.  If some students start fidgeting of shifting around in their seats, I know that their attention is wavering.  I try to use a gentle, yet authoritarian tone to guide their focus.  On average, I’d say that 90-95% of the students are able to watch their breathing for the entire time period. 
The whole process is very simple and usually takes no longer than 8-10 minutes.  Although it seems like a short amount of time, I find that when introduced into the daily schedule, it gives my students a much-appreciated break and a chance to connect with themselves in a way that they don’t normally get. 
From time to time, I increase the amount of time we spend in samantha, depending on the climate of the room.  If they appear to be focused and we have the time, I let them go longer. 
I ring the bell a third time to indicate that the meditation period is over and we go immediately back to work.  Sometimes, I’ll allow students to contribute comments on their experience.  It all depends on what feels natural in the moment. 
See - very simple and VERY effective.  Nothing weird, mystical, or even particularly “Buddhist” here.  Just a straightforward method for increasing concentration and awareness that consequently can impact student performance. 
VARIATIONS
From time to time, I like to vary our meditation time with some guided practices.  For instance, when I feel like the students are having a bad day or that the energy in the room is kind of negative, I try a purification visualization with them.  If there have been some conflicts among the students, I’ll have them do a modified tonglen meditation, focusing on developing feelings of compassion within themselves.
If there is any interest in instructions for these practices, please let me know and I’d be happy to do another post. 
No matter what flavor of meditation they are practicing, I find that my students are wholly more focused, calm, and attentive throughout the school day and it gives me a good feeling when I’m standing in the front of the classroom teaching them.  The climate of the environment in my classroom is calm and ordered and I find that communication between myself and my students is greatly enhanced. 
DON’T GET BOGGED DOWN IN THE BUDDHISM
Meditation isn’t an exotic practice.  It’s supposed to be practical and simple.  Don’t worry if you’re not being Buddhist enough!

9 comments:

  1. Wow, for once in my life, I believe I am speechless. Yes, speechless....BRAVO!!!

    And you are soooo not Buddhist enough! LOL

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  2. Reminded me of this... http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/165712/how-do-i-reach-these-kids

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  3. Great post John. A bit like being held down and slapped repeatedly in the face.

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  4. i love the fact that you are teaching these kids how to channel themselves. so often, we don't give kids the credit they deserve and we give up and are frustrated by the fact that they are "crazy." But we all know that they are constantly thirsting for structure and the moment we give it to them, they are like a baby with a bottle. We assume that something like meditation is the worst thing for them because we view kids as out of control with ADD, but they can calm down just like we do... they just need to be taught. Like dogs, they are easily trained... only if we start doing it when they are young. It's very difficult to train an older dog, because they are already wired to be who they are. This applies to children as well.
    I think it's amazing that you are introducing meditation to them at such an early age. Like playing a musical instrument, meditation will allow them to develop their brain in ways that video games and chaos simply do not.
    Keep it up, John. You are onto something HUGE here!!

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  5. As a 17 year old student, I have to say I totally agree with everything you have said in this post, especially about the flawed education system. I have only one year left of college, and am studying Fitness Instructing and Personal Training. I'm hoping to teach group exercise classes such as BodyBalance, etc, and regular meditation has been a part of my routine for about three years now.

    Honestly, without it as a coping mechanism, I'm not sure I would have coped so well with school.

    Calmness and focus is very often simply demanded and expected by teachers, rather than taught and explained. It's nice to see something changing.

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  6. You say "If there is any interest in instructions for these practices..." -- are you kidding?! Please!
    I took on the task of finding some unmedicated way of helping my 11-year-old calm himself, without talk therapy, and what you're writing is per.fect.
    Please. Thank you.
    And in payment, I'm spreading the word about your blog/s to my similarly perplexed friends.

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  7. Thankyou. The children are suffering.

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  8. 敬爱的佛教信土:
    我是甲洞三宝寺 (暹廟) SAMNAK SAMBODHI BUDDHIST ASSOCIATION NO: 19-21 JALAN 38 TAMAN DESA JAYA KEPONG 52100 KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA. 的理事, 当任此职多年, 对内的事務也一清二楚。

    最近, 在网络上看了PHRA PIYATHAMMO和尚和马华公会鸱唛区主席叶金福(Yip Kum Fook, MCA Gombak)律师的双方信件, 使我的内心久久不能平伏, 良心受到很大的譴責, 不吐訢不痛快, 所以我要誠恳的説:他叶金福(Yip Kum Fook, MCA Gombak)侓师叫外来的流流氓到三宝寺(暹廟)挑衅和尚打架及电招警方人员扣捕沙彌, 其嘲笑手法, 不外是要显示其权力, 而鞏固其职位, 以达到权力就是一切, 好让住持难堪, 自动離开, 方便行事……这种举动, 已间接的表逹其含意, 住持和尚兼顾问, 都无能为力,你们这些信徒能做什么?即使告马耒西亜佛教总会又能为难什么?这种心态, 的硧令人反感, 不是一个正信佛教者应有的行为。

    至今, 三宝寺的理事成员多数是其親戚, 这是实事, 加入会员需交RM100元费用,同时,必须经过叶金福(Yip Kum Fook)律师的同意,否则免談, 所以会员也不多。

    马华公会鹅唛区主席叶金福(Yip Kum Fook, MCA Gombak)律师,自控制三宝寺之後,把三宝寺(暹廟)当着私人產業,聘用和尚賺钱,利用佛教的道地为政治活动埸所,而处理三宝寺的钱财也不透明?这点,值得信众追问。马来西亚地擴人多,和尚也不缺乏,为什么不用本地和尚当任住持化缘,却偏偏劳心劳神,浪费签证费,交通费? 还要烦劳梹城佛总的推荐信, 向文化不同, 而語言又不通之千哩外囯缅旬和尚求助? 为什么….为什么? 只要我们用头脑想一想,便一日了然, 不必晝虎添足。

    叶金福(Yip Kum Fook, MCA Gombak )律师说:欢迎任何人如有意见,可以电话03:62762369/0122039700 Email: YIPKUMFOOK@HOTMAIL.COM 戓到其马华公会鹅唛区会甲洞三宝寺及以下地圵:NO.2,B JALAN 53 TAMAN DESA JAYA KEPONG 52100 SELANGOR, MALAYSIA.討論, 我要老实的提醒大家, 最好不要一个去見他, 因为这个人狡滑, 笑裡藏刀, 很阴险, 出家人都不放在眼裡, 連TAMAN DAYA 52100 KEPONG, KUALA LUMPUR. 众人的印度廟也敢放火燒, 利用权势把场地佔为己有, 由此可见, 他是何等的心毒? 还有现在三宝寺内, 各处都按裝计孔监视来人一举一动。

    目前, 三宝寺很多信徒及当地居民, 已经对叶金福(Yip Kum Fook, MCA Gombak )律师不满, 但也不能做什么。他计划把三宝寺主席的职位轉给其子YIP JIUN HANN律师, 续承皇朝. 想近一部了觧詳情, 可上网得知。

    再说, 根据前理事在网络上给叶金福(Yip Kum Fook, MCA Gombak)律师的批評, 説他懂得包裝自己的道德守则, 以宗教为幌子手, 到处募款, 啇業经营, 政治活动为重, 并没依循佛教守則行事, 也没对人道作出貢献, 只不过借三宝寺宗教之名捞取权和私利而己, 其言也不为过, 是实事。

    在此, 我恳切希望, 廣大的佛教信仰者, 给予关注, 并共創義举, 弘扬佛教. 谢谢。

    Mr Lim Sok Chia敬啟
    Ms Yap

    ReplyDelete

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