Emily is a ratbag of a kid who is not at all averse to bullying. In my weekly Saturday drama class designed for those aged between eight and ten, she rips about the church hall like a rocket-fueled court jester, letting her voice bounce around the chamber as she loudly declares: ‘My name is Plant!’ or some other nonsense. So I am a little surprised when Emily leads the class in Buddhist meditation.
We begin by sitting in a circle. Emily has taken her usual place beside me. I am waiting for the conversational dust to settle when she pipes up. ‘Look!’ she says, ‘This is how Buddhist’s sit!’
Emily is cross legged with her palms turned outwards in her lap. She is scant on details, but she assures us she has met Buddhist monks, who have taught her an important game. The goal of the game is to breathe ten breaths without thinking about anything else but the breath. To do this, you inwardly chant to yourself: ‘One breath in, one breath out, two breaths in, two breaths out.’
‘I’ve gotten to three!’ she proudly boasts, ‘but only the bestest Buddhists get to ten. It’s really hard.’ I suggest we all take part in the game. The others are more than eager. What follows is four minutes of the most intense but peaceful meditation I have ever been a part of. Silence stretches through the circle, precious and present as a breeze.
I open my eyes and peak at the group of still bodies before me. It’s remarkable. Many of these students take this class because their behavior is difficult at school. I spy Bradley, a boy who finds it difficult to go about his life without shaking his right hand vigorously, sitting in perfect stillness along with every other one of his peers.
Once complete, the kids are eager to play it again. So we do. Most claim they are able to get to four or five. We all laugh at the obscure things our minds interrupt us with: food, television shows, school work or family. Bradley quietly remarks: ‘I find it easy to stop word thoughts, but pictures are much harder.’ The class nod in agreement.
I feel tremendously ill-equipped. I am sitting amongst wise and peaceful minds. I found it difficult to get to two. I dream of the lofty Nirvana-esque heights of four and five.
The class then proceeds as usual, although Bradley is a bit more open to working with girls this week, and Emily is now more calm than usual. A few times she becomes too excitable and interrupts my instructions to the class. ‘Emily,’ I say, ‘Go Buddhist.’ And she smiles happily and collapses in a straight meditational posture, measuring her breath until I ask her to stand up.
Excited by the story of the morning, I call my father later that afternoon. Dad used to be an eccentric primary school teacher for many years. Now he’s just eccentric. This kind of story isn’t new to him. When he discovered how much his year seven class enjoyed meditating one day, it became part of every morning routine for years after. The kids would regularly give him feedback on how much they enjoyed the practice.
He also tells of an activity where he would hand a single Smartie to every student, get them to close their eyes and put it in their mouth. The winner was the student who could make the Smartie last the longest. What ensued was a marathon lolly-savoring event.
Kids would emerge from this excited about the levels of taste and imagery they encountered. The cynic would perhaps say it was because of the free sugar-coated chocolate treat, but I’m sure this is only partly true.
I approach my Wednesday classes hoping to replicate Saturday’s successful session. I had considerably lower expectations. My Wednesday classes are high school age.
The first class is made up of early adolescents, and are not enthusiastic when I propose the exercise. They have difficulty sitting still and drawing their attention inward. When I ask them to focus on their breath, I am met with the sound of a dragon-like breathing beside me, which then receives many giggles from the class. I abandon the exercise, promising to return to it next week. The students groan.
The second class, made up of senior students, are more receptive to the idea, but find it difficult. Like me, they can only scratch the surface of one or two breaths before their mind interrupts. Many report that they simply want to fall asleep, too exhausted from final exams and university application forms to be able to contemplate anything but slumber once their eyes are closed.
Was I closest to spiritual enlightenment before I was twelve? This idea certainly isn’t new. In fact, much of Buddhist practice points towards a ‘child-like’ understanding of the world. I feel slightly cheated, to be honest. I was told that this whole ‘grown up’ thing was a brilliant idea. If I had refused this, would I now be a blissful guru?
It seems we lose more than our innocence, warmth, decency and (quite often) virginity in the harshest of our teenage years. We lose the ability to escape. Forget Nirvana or Eastern enlightenment, but simply the power to turn off is lost. We’re driven to perform, to crack a joke that makes our classmates giggle, intrinsically earning us acceptance and social power.
We emerge from these years, if my class is an indication, exhausted and robbed of a stillness that we mistook in our more innocent youth to be innate. It would seem that nothing seems more natural to a ten year old than sitting still and examining the mind. My younger class were absolute masters at it.
At best, we can hope to learn from the young and their earnest approach to life. At worst, we can dismiss it as a useless skill with no practical aptitude. I plan to ask Emily to lead us in meditational practice again. Her guaranteed calmness for the next hour is worth the five minute sacrifice alone.
Until then, if anybody needs me, I’ll be perched on the nearest hill, sucking a Smartie.