Consider what thoughts sprout in your mind during a typical day. You spend some of our day thinking about what you are doing in the present moment, yet, you might be surprised how little time you actually devote to this. Some thoughts occur on purpose, using our conscious attention. For other thoughts, we do not decide to think them; they simply live in our minds. We spend endless hours on these mind-wandering thoughts.
Our stream of consciousness is simply a flowing series of thoughts running through our minds. Many people’s stream of consciousness takes the form of an internal monologue. Consider what form your stream of consciousness takes.
Do you think in pictures or words? Do you think in more than one voice? What influences your thoughts? You might find the answers to these questions intriguing. On a recent Internet forum, participants answered these same questions. Most said they think in words as opposed to images or sounds. Most notice their internal monologues take the form of a debate or discussion with another voice or person. Their audience or discussion partner changes depending on what they are “speaking” about. Some explain that the content and even the syntax of their thoughts is affected by the last book they read.
A Child’s Stream of Consciousness
Do children experience their stream of consciousness in this same way? In 1993, researchers at Stanford University brought children (one child at a time) into a room. One researcher asked an assistant to sit and wait on the other side of the room facing a blank wall. Then the researcher asked the child if the assistant in the chair “is having some thoughts and ideas or is her mind empty of thoughts and ideas?” Ninety five percent of the three-year-olds responded that the researcher’s mind was empty of thoughts and ideas. Eighty percent of four-year-olds responded in this same way and forty-five percent of six- and seven-year-olds answered that the researcher’s mind was empty of thoughts and ideas. Five-year-olds did not happen to be part of their research pool. In comparison five percent of adults answered as these children did when they were brought through the same process.
The researchers conducting this study concluded that the children who said the researcher was empty of thoughts were simply not aware of their own stream of consciousness. Consequently they were not aware of the existence of the researcher’s stream of thoughts. I disagree with this conclusion. I think it is possible thier mind is clear.
If children already have naturally quiet minds should we teach them how to clear their minds? Based on my experience with children and the research available, I don’t believe children, especially young children, need to spend a lot of time learning highly disciplined focused meditation. However, many other types of meditation are fun for children and offer many benefits. (Sensational Meditation for Children provides 8 non-mind clearning meditations.) With that said, introducing children to meditations that involve focused attention is helpful in small doses so that when they want to clear their minds, they have the skills at their disposal.
Sensational Meditation for Children is a great book that provides four meditations that help children clear their minds. One leads children to focus on their breathing, another teaches children how to repeat a mantra, the third provides a progressive relaxation meditation to help them sleep, and the fourth guides children to let go of thoughts and emotions down a grounding cord. I consider the focused breathing and mantra meditations to be disciplined focused meditations.
What to Expect when Teaching Meditation to Children
As adults we may have difficulty accessing our inner mind to experience the images, sounds, and feelings that arise in meditation. This may be because society puts a premium on a certain kind of rational intelligence, at the cost of imagination and creativity. Children, on the other hand, are by nature imaginative, and happily use their inner and outer senses to explore their inner and outer worlds. I find in general that the children I teach are far more open to the practice than my adult students. They grasp far more easily that a feeling can have color for example.
Although a certain level of quiet is necessary for meditation, this level is different for children. In fact, strict guidelines and discipline make it hard for children to meditate. Children do not require a dark, quiet room or a place free from distractions when they meditate. Children can easily jump into and out of meditation when something interrupts them. Much of this ability is due to their brainwave state: children naturally exist in a meditative state.
If a child opens his or her eyes and looks around during meditation, this is fine and you can simply encourage the child to place their hands over their eyes. Children might also speak aloud; this usually will not interfere with the flow of their meditation if kept to a minimum, even in a group setting. If the child asks questions during the meditation, softly reply. When he or she makes simple comments or observations, let it become a part of the experience.