What is the right age to start meditating?
It’s a question that Goenkaji has often been asked, and his answer is usually the same: “Before birth! Then when the child is born, it comes out a Dhamma baby.”
Not all of us have been fortunate enough to have such an early exposure to the Dhamma, or to give our children such an early start. But more than ever, there are opportunities for children to learn the basics of meditation. And the results are often startling.
A challenge from a disciple of Gandhi
As long ago as the early 1970s, Goenkaji experimented with teaching meditation to children. Shortly after he left Myanmar, he met with Vinoba Bhave, a leading disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, who was revered throughout India. Goenkaji explained what he was doing. Vinoba Bhave was impressed but he said, “I will believe that this is worthwhile only if you can show that it works with hardened criminals and undisciplined schoolchildren.”
Goenkaji gladly accepted the challenge. He soon had the opportunity to show that Vipassana works. The first prison courses were organized in Rajasthan and were very successful. Equally positive were the results of Goenkaji’s efforts to teach groups of children.
Despite that, more than a decade passed until the launch of a formal meditation program for children. The first course took place in 1986 in a school located in the Mumbai suburb of Juhu. It was within walking distance of the Goenka family home, and several of Goenkaji’s grandchildren participated. Every day Goenkaji would go over to the school to sit with the children, tell stories and explain about the practice of Anapana.
That first course was followed by many more, in India and around the world. Meditators enthusiastically stepped forward to serve. The format kept evolving, as it continues to do; but the response from participants, parents and teachers has consistently been positive.
How a course works
Today separate courses welcome children aged 8 to 12 and teens aged 13 to 18. Often the program starts in the morning and ends in the evening, but there are also two- and three-day courses.
Conducting the course is a children’s course teacher, who has undergone special training at a workshop. Along with the teacher are group leaders, each working closely with a small number of children.
Short meditation periods alternate with supervised play and activities, such as drawing and discussion. The objective is to give the participants an enjoyable experience, help them feel comfortable in a meditation environment and introduce them to the basics of Anapana.
Often the course site is a Vipassana meditation center but sometimes it is a rented facility. And sometimes courses are held in schools as a recognized part of the curriculum.
How the experience affects participants
Parents report that after learning Anapana, their children cope better with problems, behave better, act less aggressive and watch less television. Children say that they use Anapana before school exams and in stressful situations. One boy had resented the time spent by his mother at meditation courses; after he learned Anapana, the resentment gave way to respect and closeness.
One schoolteacher received a surprise when she told a rambunctious 6-year-old in her class to sit in the corner and “meditate.” She was using the term loosely to mean calm down. But in fact the boy went and sat cross-legged on the floor, with eyes closed. The baffled teacher asked what he was doing. He replied, “I’m observing my respiration.” After school she checked with the boy’s parents, who told her about Anapanacourses.
Fifteen years ago, a 13-year-old boy from France attended a number of children’s courses. After one course he wrote, “Meditation is a special moment that a person spends in quietness far away from noise, far from everything! Particularly this tranquility, which we find so rarely in life. Life is a river that we purify so little except during meditation. It is sometimes peaceful, sometimes agitated, sometimes clouded, sometimes dark. The mind is always overloaded with all sorts of thoughts. Meditation is an excellent way of taming the wandering mind. It is also a remedy for anger and melancholy.”
That boy is now an adult, and he and his wife are both serious Vipassana meditators. He hopes that his two children will attend courses when they are a little older, as first steps along the path that he has chosen for himself.
What’s happening around the World?
In the last two decades, there have been courses for children on six continents. Every year some 60,000 children participate.
In North America there were 30 children’s or teens’ courses held in 2009, more than half of them in non-center locations. There are also frequent courses in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia.
But India is where the most courses are held, and where the number of participants is largest. Particularly notable are the courses held in schools or with their involvement.
Anapana in a school setting
During a six-month period in 2007, more than 120 courses were held in 48 Mumbai schools with six different languages of instruction (English, Marathi, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Urdu). Of the 9,000 participants, over 8,000 children were 15-year-olds scheduled to write board exams in April 2008. One aim of the program was to see the impact of Anapana practice on the students’ exam results. It turned out that the percentage of students who passed the board exams was higher than it had been in many years.
The meditation program was suspended in 2008 and 2009, but it resumed on a smaller scale in 2010. This time the courses were centralized in a few larger schools, to which the students were bused. Over a three-month period, approximately 2,900 children attended a total of 33 courses.
The experiment taught several important lessons: First, administrators and schoolteachers need to be committed to supporting an Anapanaprogram in schools. Detailed planning is important to cover all aspects of a course. The schools must give their students time to continue practicing daily after an Anapana course. And on an ongoing basis, it is vital to develop Dhamma workers to serve on such courses.
Other countries that have held courses involving schools include Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Australia, Germany and Britain.
Regular daily practice is the key to long-term benefits. Schools that have tried just five to 10 minutes of Anapana per day have had impressive results. Studies of the participants found significant increases in self-discipline, honesty, cooperation, attentiveness, cleanliness and concentration. At the same time there were decreases in irritability, quarreling, use of abusive language and feelings of inferiority.
Application to special groups
India has also experimented with courses for autistic children, homeless children, orphans, children with hearing and speech impairments, and children with physical and mental disabilities. In Pune, for example, a home for destitute children has offered Anapana courses for the last 10 years to its 400-plus residents. Some children have gone on to learn Vipassana in longer courses. Daily meditation has immensely improved their self-confidence. Again in Pune, the local Vipassana center has hosted repeated courses for children with hearing and speech impairments. (See "Anapana for children with hearing and speech disabilities" below.)
In Myanmar, there have been courses for children with visual or hearing impairments, children affected by leprosy, and juvenile offenders in various institutions. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, old students organized a visit to southern Myanmar to offer physical assistance as well as Anapana courses; about 1,500 children participated within a few weeks.
A technique for today
Children today are growing up in a fractured and rapidly changing world. They need help to meet the challenges facing them and to develop their full potential. Anapana courses can help them find a way to live peacefully and productively, and to make the society in which we live more peaceful. In the words of Goenkaji, “They should grow up to be ideal human beings. That is our only aim.”
For more information about Anapana courses for children, go to: www.children.dhamma.org
What children say about meditation
1. “It’s funny having a head that moves and not knowing where it’s going.”
2. “Most people think that meditation is really easy, as you sit on the floor doing nothing. But that’s where they’re wrong. It’s one of the hardest things to do.”
3. “I wish my older sister could have come.”
4. “I think it really benefits me. I don’t fight with my brother anymore.”
5. “In my life I feel more peaceful and my parents have commented on how my attitude has changed.”
6. “If you find it hard to sleep, this will help you.”
7. “My mind is like a video, thoughts just playing on and on. Meditating is like pressing the pause button.”
8. “I come to courses because meditation can really help you in your life and it is fun. It can help you control your temper and really help you with
mostly everything! When I get angry it helps me control what I do, and not hurt anyone or do anything rash.”
Anapana for children with hearing and speech disabilities
For 15 years, Sangeeta Shinde had taught in a school for children with hearing disabilities, in the Indian city of Pune. When she was appointed a children’s course teacher in 2005, she felt confident that she could explain Anapana to the children she worked with daily. After all, she had plenty of teaching experience and she knew sign language.
But there was a problem she hadn’t thought about: Suppose you have a roomful of children meditating with eyes closed. How do you get them to open their eyes at the end of a session if they cannot hear you?
In a flash Sangeeta saw the solution to the problem: Simply turn on the overhead fans. The children would automatically open their eyes to see what was happening, and then she could give them new instructions.
This is an example of the practical problems that arise when teaching meditation to hearing-impaired children. And it is also an example of the simple, creative solutions found by Sangeeta and others like her in India.
Some 27 participants, mostly in their upper teens, joined the first course in February 2006 at the local center, Dhamma Punna. It was a one-day session that helped the students get oriented and try out Anapana in a couple of sessions. Later courses have expanded on this format. Participants have more time to practice Anapana. They also interact in small groups and learn metta. They watch videotapes of Goenkaji. In some courses the teacher displayed poster-boards with a translation into the local language, Marathi. More recent experiments have involved the use of PowerPoint slides to note important points, while an interpreter provides a complete version in sign language. Efforts are now under way to produce a CD explaining Anapana in sign language.
From early 2005 to December 2010, Dhamma Punna offered 19 courses for students with hearing and speech impairments. The courses continue to evolve. But they have proved that the reverberations of Dhamma can reach children without the physical ability to hear. And the children have shown that they are as receptive as anyone to the Dhamma.
For a short video about the courses, go to: www.children.dhamma.org/en/teachers/courses-special-needs.shtml#Hearing
Myanmar has also experimented with courses for children who have hearing and sight disabilities. The results have been impressive. Again, see the children’s course website.
Anapana courses from a participant’s viewpoint
by Dr. Nwei Lei Ko Ko
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn Dhamma at the age of 8 directly from Goenkaji, when he gave Anapana instructions to children at Dhamma Joti in Yangon, Myanmar. He spoke with us in our language, and we were happy to learn from him.
I attended almost all the children’s Anapana courses held at Dhamma Joti to the age of 16. More recently, I have started sitting 10-day Vipassana courses.
Anapana has helped me to concentrate on my studies and my work. I am now 23 years old and have qualified as a physician. The medical profession is very hard work but I like to help sick people.
I am very thankful to Goenkaji for giving me the seed of Anapana when I was a child. Regular practice is the way to water this seed so that it will grow into a tree rich in Dhamma fruits. With this art of living, I am convinced that I will be able to lead a worthy life, walking step by step along the Noble Path to liberation from all suffering.