- by Shanti Shah and Sabrina Katakam
Ideally, the education of a child should aim at his or her total growth on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels. However, present day education is focused almost exclusively on academics with an additional minor emphasis on sports. The emotional and spiritual aspects of education are almost completely ignored.
The educational system puts undue strain on the children and their parents, who in turn put further pressure on their children. It is not uncommon these days to hear of 10th or 12th class students trying to commit suicide because of their fear of either the exams or the examination results.
What modern educationists seem to have overlooked is that education has two aspects: learning about the world outside, and learning about the world within. Education about the outer world helps the child to acquire various skills which eventually help him to earn a living. Education about the world within helps children to learn an art of living whereby they generate happiness for themselves and others.
A child can be well trained in the acquisition of various skills so that he or she may become a successful professional, but when the learning about the world within is neglected, we get a society which is haunted by fear, insecurity, violence, nervousness and depression.
Parents and schools these days do realize that something is lacking in education, but most of them do not know what to do about it. Because India is a secular state, schools are not allowed to teach any particular religion, so they do not know how to help the child to grow at the inner level. There are hardly any schools anywhere in the world which have successfully implemented an integrated approach and produced tangible, lasting results.
Inner Education through Anapana Meditation
As individuals, there is little we can do to change the current educational system. But we can certainly enhance the education of the child by introducing a learning method which will encourage his growth at the inner level and help him develop into a mature and balanced individual. Such a method would assist in creating an intelligence which is born of self-awareness and self-knowing. Bookish knowledge is irrelevant here. This type of learning has to be at the experiential level.
Ideally this learning would be imbibed with a scientific attitude and a religious spirit. By "religious" what is meant here is the true religious mind which does not belong to any cult, group, religion or organized belief.
While organizing children's courses, we observe that children experience tangible growth at an inner level when they are taught in a specialized environment, which helps them to take their first steps into the world within.
The focus of these courses is Anapana meditation. In a nutshell, this technique develops the ability to live in the present moment, and gradually removes complexes and negativities latent in the children's minds.
Anapana meditation is a simple technique. Since it consists simply of awareness of respiration, children from any part of the world, from any background, can successfully learn it, without any fear of conversion or controversy. The children learn to watch the incoming breath and outgoing breath by focussing their attention at the entrance of their nostrils. They simply observe their natural breath without trying to change or correct the flow of the breath. In this way, they experience the beginning steps of self-awareness.
As they observe, they learn to be in the present. Once they begin this learning, it does not end. The capacity to live in the present in a balanced manner makes every moment of life a moment of growth.
Organization of Children's Courses
Children who come to one-day, two-day or three-day Anapana courses follow a schedule of meditation interspersed with other activities. It is neither expected nor recommended that they follow the same demanding schedule as adults, nor observe silence for the duration of the course. The aim is to make the meditation an appealing activity, which will predispose the children to "graduate" to Vipassana when they are older.
Communication is a means to satisfy their natural inquisitiveness. Small groups of ten to twelve children are guided by a counsellor who is a Vipassana meditator. Constant interaction with the children ensures that they grasp the essence of the technique. The entire timetable is organized to supplement the meditation.
Meditation periods last for a half hour. They are punctuated by group discussions, games and creative activities, all of which aim at encouraging the expression of originality in each child. Hence along with the actual practice of the meditation, the children experience its practical value while participating in various activities.
By developing direct experience, a secular spirit and a scientific attitude, the child learns an art of developing mastery over his or her mind. He or she learns that the breath is a bridge between the body and mind, and that the rhythm of the breath is closely related to the state of mind. Over time, the awareness of natural, normal, breath helps the child to come out of such unbalanced mental states as nervousness, fear, anger, etc.
Anapana, like any other technique, slowly becomes a part of life with daily practice. The mind becomes positive and alert, making the child ready to face the challenges he or she has to encounter in day-to-day life.
The children's courses as taught today have evolved from seven to eight years of practical experience. Ideally three-day courses are held at the meditation centres for different age groups. Experience has shown that it is difficult to handle children below the age of eight in a residential camp. So the following age groups have been devised:
Younger group: 8 to 11 years
Older group: 12 to 15 years.
After 15 years, young people are considered ready to undertake a full ten-day Vipassana course.
Children from all backgrounds are welcome to attend Anapana courses. Preference is given to those who have a Vipassana meditator in the family, or for whom Anapana meditation is part of the school curriculum. This is because the benefits of meditation are greatly enhanced when the practice becomes a part of the child's daily life.
While three-day Anapana course for children are organized at Vipassana centres, one or two-day residential course are organized in schools. An important prerequisite for a course to be offered in a given school is that the school have at least one teacher who has done a ten-day Vipassana course; in addition, the school authorities should be willing to set aside 10-15 minutes a day for meditation practice. To avoid inconvenience, these courses are conducted during school hours, with children bringing their own meal.
In a day school in Hyderabad, Anapana courses have been conducted regularly since February 1991. Each year the children of class III (8 years old) are introduced to meditation, and now classes III, IV, and V are meditating regularly. They meditate for five minutes after morning assembly and for five minutes before they go home in the evening. At first the principal and some of the teachers were skeptical about how beneficial only five minutes of meditation could be. However they were surprised to discover how much better behaved the children became.
Questionnaires have been sent to the parents and class teachers to evaluate the changes in the children's behaviour and academic achievement. From the replies to the questionnaires, it can be concluded that children first improve in their social behaviour. Negative qualities like quarrelsomeness, use of harsh words, being disruptive in class and various complexes decrease. Simultaneously, positive qualities such as helpfulness, cleanliness and self-confidence increase. Memory, concentration and grades also improve.
Dhamma is the treasure we can offer to the children of the world. It is the wish of our Teacher, Goenkaji, to organize more and more such camps so that this beneficial technique spreads throughout the world to the younger generation, assisting in bringing about a healthy and harmonious future.