I wondered recently, while sitting and drinking a coffee in the relative silence of a mid-morning kitchen, if my boys would ever be still. Not immobile. Not complacent. Not asleep. Still. As in calm. I tried to imagine it and failed. At six and four, my boys burn brightly. They chase each other around and make as much noise as possible. Even when their motion is arrested by something fascinating on a screen, they practically vibrate with potential energy.
I understand that this isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it’s a difficult thing for me and I think it’s a difficult thing for the boys as well. It’s hard for them to focus. It’s hard for them to be alone with themselves. And that’s a big part of life — not a bad part, but an inevitable part. I want them to be prepared for it, but there’s nothing being done at their school or extracurricularly to help them develop the skill set required to do nothing much at all.
Well, there wasn’t.
I insisted that we start meditating after reading a recent study about a Baltimore school district that had started a meditation that produced really impressive results. Faculty from the Robert W. Coleman Elementary have been sending unruly children to a “Mindful Moment Room” and leading the entire school in 15-minute meditations. The result? Zero suspensions. Now part of that is just restraint, but another part of that is an understanding that children are more often motivated (if that’s the right word) by input than by malicious intent.
Naturally, the problem at the outset was that I had no experience with meditation. I decided technology could lead the way. I scrolled through the App store and downloaded the Breethe app from a crowded field. Among dozens of other mindfulness apps it claimed it could teach meditation to beginners and had an age rating of 4+. This would be my way in.
Let me coin a koan: “You can lead a child to the meditation app, but you can’t make them ohm.”
My four year old flatly refused to participate. Because meditation-by-force wasn’t going to work, I excused him. His older brother and I sat down together. Immediately, I had a hard time concentrating because I was too busy being flabbergasted by how much my six-year-old was concentrating. He sat across from me, his eyes closed, listening closely to the squeaky-voiced lady taking us to meditation land. When she told us to breathe deeply, he breathed deeply. When she told us to think about our bodies I could see him tilt his head as if doing just that.
He didn’t make a peep. He didn’t fidget or shift. Once the chimes rang to signal the end of the mediation, his eyes fluttered open and he smiled.
“What did you think of that?” I asked.
“Good,” he said. “It relaxes me so I feel like I can go to sleep.”
Then he went to sleep.
I spent much of the night wondering what the hell had just happened. Was this the secret to some magical doorway into my first-graders inner peace? Sure, but in a sample size of one kind of way. The next day he was just as frenetic as his brother, who’d become an unwitting control group of one. Still, there was a week of meditation sessions to go. I had hope.
The next session, the 4-year-old did agree to join us. Just like his brother, he sat, folded his hands in his lap, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He was over it in about two minutes, after which he whined, poked at the phone, sat on my lap and made himself a general nuisance.
Meanwhile, the 6-year-old sat, quiet and still, completing the meditation until the chime. “It helps me be calm,” he said when I asked how he felt. Then he bounded up the stairs and tackled his brother, just for fun.
Our next session was at his request. As were those that followed. Each one was as astounding as the last: My still, silent boy, sitting with a straight back and placid expression. A vision of zen in 10-minute intervals.
But nothing really changed. Not really. He did not appear more calm or resilient. His focus did not improve. His energy remained as frenetic as ever. The whooshing sounds were just as loud. He fell asleep a little faster, which was something, but not what I was really looking for. So I took a step back and tried to reconsider the situation. Rather than thinking about meditation as the process, I tried to start thinking about meditation as the reward. Peaceful stillness was, after all, the goal.
Since my boy grew out of his babyhood, we’d never just enjoyed each others stillness. We’d never been able to sit with one another, quiet in one another’s world. But that’s what the meditation gave us. For ten minutes we did not need anything from each other. I was not a grumpy dad telling him to pick up his toys and he wasn’t a whiny kid who wanted another glass of juice. We were just a couple of human bodies at wildly different ages, occupying the same space, observing our own minds.
Maybe there is value in just being human with your kid, without any ulterior motives. Maybe there’s a very specific and wonderful beauty in that act. Will it do anything for either of us in the long run? I can feel, perhaps, a bit more empathy for him. But quite frankly, I’m not convinced the stillness has to be anything but stillness.