Here’s one way mindful parents can light a way through the darkness
The Psychic Overload Our Children Face
On the exact same day we moved into our new home in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists marched in a hideous simulacrum of the Nazis in 1930’s Germany. In their white shirts, they chanted angrily ‘you shall not replace us!” Some carried tiki torches, others automatic weapons. as they declaimed the removal of statues commemorating Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Then one deranged driver mowed down counter-protesters with his car, killing Heather Heyer.
My wife and I hid the events from our seven-year-old, but privately, I wavered between feelings of rage, and grief for our country, and for all the groups these racists threatened. I was saddened and shocked that something so heinous could happen in this kind and progressive city. And the irony that this event happened the very day we moved in was not lost on me. . .
Though we didn’t tell our daughter what happened, the first time we went downtown, she saw the makeshift memorial of flowers and asked, “Mommy, Daddy, what’s that?” We told her someone died in a car accident, and this was a remembrance. She accepted it, and we bought some time. But sooner or later she’ll hear the story.
We wondered, ‘Will we be ready?’
She knows already our revulsion for the current administration, and is quick to make jokes about Trump. But these are more instinctive and acquired, not informed judgments. More and more she’ll learn about the economic injustices of our society, and the peril our ecosystem is under. She’ll learn of the failure by our political leaders to prevent an atmosphere of hate and bullying. Or our misguided foreign policies and military adventures. And a whole corrupted political system.
It’s mind-boggling to kids, at all levels. I saw this overwhelm, day in and day out, in my twenty-plus years as a school therapist. I worked with hundreds of students at all levels and, of course, their ability to tolerate the raging confusion in modern America depended largely on many factors, especially family. But even high performing, well-adjusted kids were often completely at sea when confronting the modern drama of American politics and the environment, how to handle media over-stimulation, or their own private inter-personal relations.
The Need for Skillful Means in Parenting. From a dharma point of view, few families have acquired the skillful means to lay out for their kids how to navigate the spiritual and moral wasteland of modern America. Through very little fault of their own.
We need to help families build a perspective that grasps all the levels of consciousness at play, sees the psychic poisons, and can analyze the festering unconscious drives and desires of a populace being manipulated by leaders. Communicating this kind of meta-view of society is not easy, and has to come in stages.
The macabre election of Donald Trump did not suddenly cause all of this anguish, of course. Considering the nation’s gross wealth, the United States was already malnourished in global indices measuring happiness and well-being. From the 2014 Gallup Positive Experience Index, to the General Social Survey, to the WHO’s World Mental Health Initiative, to the Better Life Initiative, Americans have significantly less well-being, happiness, work-life balance, and other quality-of-life metrics than most developed countries.
Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, no one is hit worse by this toxic state of affairs than young people. Study after study shows their increase in stress and anxiety. One report, by Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, shows a 500% risein the incidence of mental health symptoms in high school and college students since the 1930’s. The authors argue that, “The results best fit a model citing cultural shifts toward extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status and away from intrinsic goals, such as community, meaning in life, and affiliation.”
As Dr. Gregg Henriques says in Psychology Today:
“. . . last month a research report came out that found rates of “past year treatment” had risen from 19% in 2007 to 34% in 2017. In addition, students with lifetime diagnoses increased from 22% in 2007 to 36% in 2017. Here, then, is the nutshell summary of the crisis:
“In the 1980s, at any given point, perhaps 1 in 10 college students could be readily characterized as needing/wanting/using some form of mental health treatment. Now that number is 1 in 3, with trend lines rising.”
That the younger generation is suffering in this way is a moral outrage.
The 21stCentury Responsibility Parents Have for Their Children
If we agree that the educational philosophy driving public schools, and indeed, most private schools, is inadequate to this challenge, then it seems it is up to us as parents to step in and take action.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says,
“I am a Buddhist, and prayer is part of my daily practice. Individual prayer is relevant and useful. For society and the world, though, prayer is not meaningful. Peace comes through actions.”
Understandably, we do have to act politically — with our votes, with demonstrations, letters, money, persuasion, perhaps even with strikes. But what action can we also do, right in our own home, that contributes to the future of the earth? If our children are our greatest resource, and their leadership will be crucial when they come of age, how can we best prepare them? What will inoculate from some of the ignorance and kleshas in our society? What will catalyze them to handle this society, this world, and hopefully even become leaders of the next generation?
It is encouraging that many of our brightest and most altruistic young people are responding to the spiritual and moral emptiness of society by taking environmental action — studying environmental science and ecology, or public policy, or becoming social and political activists. Many are inspired by the example of the young Europeans like Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old environmental activist from Sweden, who recently spoke at the World Economic Forum:
“Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”
And yet, as inspiring and courageous as these young environmentalists are, it still leaves us with the larger questions of how do we raise and educate children to be not only aware of the world, but also to have the wisdom to understand the world philosophically, and then be able to develop the moral, intellectual and spiritual fiber to become change agents. We need to help them identify, treat, and cure the root causes of society’s ills, as well as their own. It is perhaps the dharma of our times that these needs happen to coincide.
Finding a Moral and Spiritual Compass. In other words, how do we raise a child to both grow spiritually from within, and at the same time become a more enlightened and engaged citizen? For us as mindful and conscious parents, we have a unique responsibility to give them the benefit of all that we have acquired, so that they do not have to journey quite so far and wide to find their spiritual and moral compass.
At the micro level, we as parents must shape and scaffold the education of our young, not waiting for the Byzantine educational bureaucracy to muddle through changes to its curriculum goals. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What do we need to introduce to our kids, that is real, meaningful, and will integrate their psyches — and how?’
That kids are hungry for real knowledge about life is beyond any question. For a couple of years in my work at a middle school, the school nurse and I taught a life skills class to 7th and 8th graders. We introduced concepts like emotional intelligence, pro-social training, self-awareness and self-regulation techniques, exercises to foster more authentic relations with others, and how to create a safe atmosphere to process feelings. And much more. But the most telling observation I took away from that experience was just how willing middle schoolers were to drop their social exclusion games, their self-consciousness and obsessions about how they look, their status, and the gossip, and just simply absorb information about real life. And then how to put it into practice.
Kids really, really want to know about how to relate to others, how to defend themselves against aggression, how to find their calling, their métier. They want to understand why adults can be so blind, and what makes people change, and what is the psychology of happiness. It is no accident that some of the most popular courses at Ivy League colleges are about the psychology of happiness.
When Laura, the school nurse, and I first started our Tuesday Talks, we expected that a big percentage of kids would simply opt out of meeting with us, that it wouldn’t be cool, or that they might reveal something about themselves that they’d be teased about. But in those two years, working with over a hundred kids, we never had a drop-out.
Sumi Loundon Kim, the Buddhist chaplain at Yale University, and author of a seminal curriculum for family mindfulness, had had this concern for her own children. This prompted her to ask a university psychologist. She began to wonder which college undergraduates would survive a crisis better, “… be it the onset of debilitating depression, addiction, a car accident, or death in the family: those who’d grown up with a spiritual path, or those who didn’t?”
“Without hesitation he said that students with a spiritually grounded childhood… not only got through their crisis, but also personally grew from it. He said that these students had a language to articulate what they were facing — a framework to create meaning from their experience.”
The Cultural Model of the Sunday School — the Potential and Promise of the Sangha
I believe one answer lies in creating learning environments where families can interact and learn about a new way of raising children, with a new model of human development.
A tall order, granted. But the alternatives are bleak.
We need to teach a real living philosophy. We need to mentor, demonstrate ethics, and lead by example, all easier said than done. And because nobody taught us how to do this, we are in foreign territory. We didn’t grow up this way. We didn’t have models, and our current time is different, more critical and dangerous.
In short, we are compelled to ask, ‘Besides showering our children with love and affection, co-parenting with our partner, and asking for help from our extended families, how do we teach our kids lasting values, ethical and moral reasoning, and share with them the beauty of the Buddhist tradition — all while living as a householder?
I contend that we can spiritually, psychologically, and morally inoculate our children through the cultural models of Sunday Schools, and then later for adolescents, Youth Groups. Imagine a dharma-based Sunday School, or Youth Group, as an vaccination process against the kleshas endemic to our society. We can prevent exposure to the toxic elements of our modern world only so long. Kids need the internal antibodies like connection to their higher nature, refusal skills, discernment, pro-social intelligence, education of the heart, the ability to find a natural high, and so much more.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama believes so strongly in the proper education of children that he helps to sponsor programs cultivating emotional intelligence and compassion building. His website, The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education says, ‘the significance of heart-mind well-being lies in its ability to produce real effects — better social interactions, less aggression, lower levels of emotional distress, improvement in cognitive skills, constructive choice-making, and a way to manage difficult emotions.’
Naturally, we can’t do it alone. It takes a dharma village to raise a mindful child. We need to build a community of like-minded folks. The current educational system is unable to truly educate the heart or develop faculties of enlightened wisdom. Not even the efforts to teach mindfulness, pro-social skills, or critical thinking (while laudatory) rise to the necessary level. Most dharma centers do not even have organized children’s programs. We need to do it, we need to give children the necessary tools, and a facility for compassion, to comprehend our modern world.
We can start a dharma-based Sunday School or Youth Group.
Since my wife was a teacher, and I a school therapist, both with a long history of spiritual practice, we were already thinking about these needs for a long time. My friend and colleague in California, Mark Collin, had started a social emotional program for elementary schools called The Toolbox, and we had seen it in action at our daughter’s school.
So when we moved to Charlottesville and started meeting other Buddhists with children, we naturally asked what programs, if any, there were here. One friend, Jesse Luckett, said he’d come across Sumi Loundon Kim’s family mindfulness program, Sitting Together: A Family-Centered Curriculum on Mindfulness, Meditation & Buddhist Teachings,and so we bought it and started talking about how we might set it up.
Because our schedules were so busy and demanding we realized we needed other team members. So we started pitching the idea to the various sanghas in town. We were nervous and unsure what the reception would be, but did it anyway. Sure enough we found other therapists and teachers, and their spouses, who were eager to lean in and help get it started, and we opened the program in February 2019.
Why Exactly Use the Dharma as a Ground for Your Sunday School?
Without being exclusive, and by welcoming any family interested in mindful and conscious parenting, I think an excellent case can be made for Buddhism to be an ideal ground for teaching these elements of life.
The dharma offers a number of attractive features for this goal. It has:
· Durability — Buddhism has been around for thousands of years, and has many unbroken lineages
· Adaptability — It has adapted to many cultures and societies and is so doing right now, in the Western World. We will have to nurture this process so that the best adaptation can be made for the needs of modern education
· Beauty — Buddhism, like other wisdom traditions, has a profound respect for expression of the arts and music, and for the Beautiful. This is a teachable faculty of consciousness
· Evidence of enlightened masters — We have the great benefit of many stunning examples of great teachers who have helped humanity in its long journey towards an enlightened society. Yet Buddhism also teaches that we must be careful about teachers, and ultimately must rely on our own inner wisdom and guidance
· Discourages dogmatism, hierarchy, exclusivity — In contrast to many established religions, Buddhism manifests tolerance, open-minded inquiry, egalitarianism, and inclusivity
· And by being open to modern science, it welcomes research into what works and what doesn’t — Buddhism welcomes a bridge between modern science and age-old traditions of transformational practices.
It Also Offers Skillful Means. The Buddhist tradition contains a multiplicity of skills and abilities we can hand down to our kids so that they can put their energies for change in the right direction, and in multiple dimensions. As children mature they need guidance, and exemplars in:
· Educating the heart to foster healthy social-emotional learning and skills, how to approach relationships at all levels and not lose oneself, and how to extend kindness and compassion to all beings
· Teaching critical, discriminating thinking so that young people can cut through the rhetoric and cant of political and economic theories
· Children, teens, and young adults also need a philosophy and teachings that guide them to inner happiness, not dependent on wealth or status or other extrinsic factors
· A more profound introduction to creative expression and the arts, such as how to tap into their innermost creative faculties, which lie beyond the lower ego’s ambitions and thought processes
· And later, a segue into even more advanced teaching or applications of the dharma. For example, educating the mind to understand key philosophical principles that help one decipher the grand meta-theories of our society, such as the underlying assumptions of free market capitalism, the social responsibility of corporations, the ethics of scientific research, the relevance of the laws of ecology to human endeavor, the geopolitics of America’s military doctrines, etc.
Certainly we will not accomplish all these things in Sunday School or Youth Group, but we can plant the seeds, reinforce them as they grow older. We can start building the foundation for how to apply the Buddha dharma to 21st century modern life. This is how to teach the dharma to children in a direct and social way. Sure, traditional aspects like meditation, mantra, ritual, prayer, and the deities are important, but they have to fit into the whole architecture of education in the modern world.
Overcoming the Obstacle of Doubts
If one is overcome by wondering how to pull it all together, that is only natural. As mentioned, we were certainly apprehensive about how it would all come together, and I remember waiting nervously before the Open House to see if people were even going to drive up the driveway and check it out.
To begin with, if you are wondering how to organize it, there is the absolutely wonderful curriculum Sitting Together, whose author, Sumi Loundon Kim, we cited above.
If one has doubts about whether children can grasp Buddhist principles, and the ethics and approach of mindfulness, there is this interesting quote from Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsun Rinpoche:
As she says in a recent talk,
“Buddhist parents can point a young child. . . towards the usage of discriminating wisdom. There’s a lot of teachings that people need to study, whether it is about karma, cause-and-effect, inter-dependent origination, whether it is about genuine basic goodness, and being able to recognize basic goodness and kindness.
Cultivating an attitude and a habit in a young person that is based upon a good foundation of discriminating wisdom is the biggest contribution a parent, or any adult, can give to young children. However, sometimes children, their mind being so very pure, are very able to get even the subtle nuances of the teachings and that’s really very beautiful.”
For me, reading and listening to the Dalai Lama talk about the merits of teaching and educating children on how to become aware, how to become kind, and how to use their minds to benefit beings, resolved many of my own doubts. As his website points out,
“The Dalai Lama says this [education] begins at home and in the schools. He believes parents and educators have a unique ability to nurture the positive human qualities children are born with — affection, sense of community, a sense of social responsibility.
He knows it can’t be done with a flip of a switch, but the Dalai Lama suggests that if even one person takes this message of “educating the heart” into his or her everyday life, then that one person can turn into 10, then into 100 and so on. He believes we all have the power to start this ripple effect.”
He believes, in fact, that, “The survival of humanity depends upon educating the hearts of children.”
But in the end I think that doubts are best resolved simply by seeing the results in the kids and in the family. We have noticed how our daughter starts to get excited the day before and wants to bake muffins or scones that she can share with everyone. We love seeing four or five kids — who were complete strangers a week before — pile into a hammock and laugh and giggle with each other as they swing. And now, at night, our daughter will sometimes ask us to help her relax if she’s feeling over-excited and can’t get to sleep. So we review the breathing exercises with her and she does them, and they work.
One of our favorite stories is from one of the boys, a very bright, high achieving kid who, when asked by his dad if he liked the exercises around breathing and meditation, enthusiastically responded, “Yeah, I love for once not having to think!”
And Not Least, Benefits also Accrue to the Family
These kinds of benefits also cascade down to the parents and the whole family system. Simply connecting with other parents about such issues proves to be a glue that binds families together. The Washington DC Insight Meditation Community Family Program, currently being led by Jen Jordan, has been running family mindfulness programs for 19 years. This summer our family will go to one of their mindfulness family camps in the Berkshires.
In the Research Triangle of North Carolina, the Durham mindfulness community, originally spearheaded by Sumi Loundon Kim, and which spawned her innovative curriculum, has had a dharma-based Sunday School the last eight years, meeting three or four times a month.
We are already noticing a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, and the fulfillment of a sacred responsibility. There is also a dawning sense of meaning, perhaps what the Japanese call ikigai, a feeling that our purpose here is to help set a higher standard for the education of children and parenting.
It seems obvious that when the parents take responsibility for the spiritual education of their child(ren), then this also reinforces the bond between them. And well, just in my limited experience, this has been true for me. . .
My wife is a full-time, credentialed teacher, who labors mightily to teach her class and stay present and available the whole school year. Considering her workload, it would be completely understandable should she not want to also teach in a Sunday School. But because she feels this part of our daughter’s education is so important, she — along with other parents — has willingly shouldered this task.
Seeing her experiment with mindful lessons on our daughter, from using an expanding, sectioned ball to mimic the lungs during breathing, to songs from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, to reading books like the No Ordinary Apple: A Story About Eating Mindfully, has opened my heart wider than I thought possible, and seems to trigger a profound parenting instinct in me.
It’s as if the primordial impulse to guard and nourish here translates into protecting our daughter’s young and vulnerable psyche, and providing her soul with spiritual sustenance and medicine. Then, when I see a whole group of kids doing these exercises together, and knowing we are laying a foundation, I feel I found exactly what I was looking for as a dad.
We are profoundly grateful to all those parents and spiritual teachers who have gone before us, and began to lay down this road. May this movement grow and expand to communities everywhere.