Boston: Shambhal a, 2013. 106 pages + CD, paper, $17.95.
Thousands of years ago, the Buddha taught mindfulness to his monks through such texts as the Satipatthana Sutta ("The Foundations of Mindfulness"). Now comes Eline Snel with a "sutta" for kids titled Sitting Still Like a Frog.
For more than twenty years, Snel has been developing mindfulness training programs. A founder of the Academy of Mindful Teaching in the Netherlands, she began to teach mindfulness courses for adults, parents, and children in 2004. Sitting Still Like a Frog provides basic meditation techniques for kids from ages seven through twelve. In it, the author provides exercises for kids that are simple and direct and that parents can do along with their children. The exercises in this wonderful book are suitable for kids with ADHD, dyslexia, and autism spectrum disorders. They are not a cure-all, but they do offer ways to cope and grow in the process.
Kids are curious and inquisitive. They are keen to learn and can be extremely attentive. At the same time, they can be easily distracted. There is too much going on. Practicing mindful presence and awareness, kids learn to catch their breath and be in the present moment. The way out of "automatic pilot" is through friendly attention to everything they do.
As Snell reminds us, there are things in life that we just have to deal with. The sea can be turbulent as well as peaceful. You cannot stop the waves. What you can do is to learn to surf, to ride the waves, seeing them as they are.
Snel also reminds parents about three fundamental qualities:
Presence: Presence enables you to simply be there.
Understanding: Understanding enables you to put yourself in your children's shoes.
Acceptance: Acceptance is the inner willingness to understand your children as they are.
In this book, Snel has discovered a language that is as effective today as the one Buddha used in talking with his disciples. She talks about using the "Pause" button. She tells the kids about training their "Attention Muscle." Her description of sitting still like a frog is stunning in its simplicity: "A frog is a remarkable creature. It is capable of enormous leaps, but it can also sit very, very still. Although it is aware of everything that happens in and around it, the frog tends not to react right away. The frog sits still and breathes, preserving its energy instead of getting carried away by all the ideas that keep popping into its head. The frog sits still, very still, while it breathes. Its frog tummy rises a bit and falls again." It is a wonderful way to draw kids' attention to the rising and falling of the abdomen as an object of focusing.
One key aspect of mindful awareness is how to be in touch with one's feelings moment to moment. Snel has found a lovely way to relate to kids here. She asks them, "What is the weather like inside you? Do you feel relaxed and sunny inside? Or does it feel rainy or overcast?" This creates an instant relationship to what one is feeling without judging it as good or bad. We don't resist the storm, we just acknowledge it. This allows kids to look at their emotions and say it is OK to have them. Accept the weather, and understand at the same time that it will change too.
The child in me related to Snel's description of the conveyor belt of worries as a way of watching one's thoughts. It also related to the technique of bringing worries and thoughts down from the head to the abdomen. The rising and falling of the abdomen has no place for thoughts! We need not get carried away by feelings, but is OK to have them. Also, she speaks of a "first aid box for worries" as a way of distancing oneself from one's thoughts. Why not transfer the worries to the first aid box so we can watch them from a distance?
This book is a treasury of lessons and exercises that kids can relate to. It is accompanied by a CD with the exercises read by Myla Kabat-Zinn. This is homework for parents as well as kids, but this is homework that is far from agonizing. It has a liberating quality to it.
The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular contributor to the Indian periodical Lokmat.