The Wisdom of Ordinary Children

By Mike Bell

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I started learning to meditate in the late 1980s and went on my first retreat with Thay around 1992. I joined the Order of Interbeing in 1996. By 1999 I was looking for a new career and decided to take up teaching. I found I had less time to go to local Sangha meetings and so spent more time integrating the practice into my everyday life.

Mindfulness Trainings: Guidelines for a Better Life

I first thought about trying to use Buddhist ideas in the classroom while teaching a General Studies class of sixth formers (sixteen-year-olds). We had been talking about ethics. I remembered hearing that if you ask a group of schoolchildren about the things that upset people at school, and then ask them to come up with rules to prevent these things from happening, they will naturally generate the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided to give it a try.

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I asked the pupils to write down one or two things that had made them unhappy at school. They read their ideas out loud, and I wrote them on the board. The most common reason that people get upset in school is because of things others say, and particularly, being talked about behind their backs. I asked the pupils to group the ideas into categories and, finally, to come up with a rule that they might be prepared to follow to prevent these things from happening.

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It soon became clear that this exercise was going to work, but not quite as I had anticipated. The pupils came up with a list of what they called “Rules for a Happy Society,” which included:

  1. Consideration for others—no discrimination on the basis of age, sex, religion, or disability.
  2. No stealing
  3. No hurting, violation, or murder.
  4. Protection for religions and cultures.
    Accept a reasonable level of risk—do not look for blame.
  5. Welcome asylum-seekers, but deport illegal immigrants.
  6. Make facilities available for people of all ages.
  7. Limit the use of addictive drugs.

I noticed the importance to young people of tolerance: religions, musical tastes, fashions, and sexuality were all mentioned in our class discussion as objects of tolerance.

I have tried the same exercise with twelve-year-olds. I introduce the practice as “the science of happiness,” and tell them not to believe what I tell them, just to examine the facts. On one occasion, without any prompting, they did indeed group their concerns into the same five areas as the precepts: violence, stealing, speech, sexual misconduct, and consumption. I found from experience that I needed to include a second question, such as: “What things that you eat, buy, or consume can make you or other people unhappy?” Once prompted, they easily came up with overeating, getting drunk, and using drugs.

Mindfulness Practice: Calming Your Mind

I have several times tried to adapt our mindfulness practice to the classroom. I introduce these ideas as ways to calm your mind, to stop from worrying, to think more clearly, or to help you focus. Initially I thought I would follow Thay’s idea of the “pebble meditation”: moving five pebbles from hand to hand as you breathe in and out. I then realised that if I sent thirty pupils out of the classroom to collect five pieces of gravel from the driveway, I would really not end up with a meditation lesson! So first I tried using five pencils. Unfortunately, not every child has five pencils, and pencils come with some disadvantages—they take a lot of tidying up, they lend themselves to tapping, and they fall on the floor—so I decided to invent a simpler system. This is the five-finger meditation.

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You start with the index finger of one hand resting on the wrist of the other hand, just below the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the thumb. Breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the first finger; breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of that finger, etc. With nothing to fall on the floor, this system has worked reasonably well.

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Slow walking meditation around the outside of the classroom was less successful— too many pupils did silly things, giggled, and poked each other. However, walking meditation has really worked with children who are being bullied.

I point out that bullies are people who enjoy seeing somebody else upset, so the trick is to not give them any idea that you are upset. I have shown several pupils how to bring their attention down to the contact point between their feet and the ground and how to keep their focus there as they walk across the playground, not allowing any change in expression when somebody makes a taunting comment. I have observed a change in two or three pupils. One girl, who would stop behind to tell me how horrible people were, now stops and tells me something else!

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After I taught these exercises to one or two classes, a group of rather unruly boys asked me if I would teach them meditation. I told them that I would only do it with classes that I knew and only if everybody agreed to participate. I never expected the boys to be able to be quiet enough to do it. But each lesson they kept asking, so I decided to give it a try. To my amazement, they did quite well, with one particular boy practising extremely well. I asked him whether he did any activities that were repetitive and that required focusing his mind. He told me that he was a cross-country runner and that when he was running, he often paid attention to the feeling in his legs. He had no trouble sitting still without fidgeting, clearly focused for much longer than the other pupils.

On the day of their exams, I was waiting with my pupils outside the examination hall when two of them asked if they could do the relaxation practice again. (I had told them it would help them with their exam.) A group of five or six started breathing meditation. One of their friends came over. “What you lot doin’?” he asked in a jeering voice. One of my pupils immediately replied, “Meditating. Sir taught us… and it’s gonna make us better in our exam, so you can shu’ up!”

Can We Live by Ourselves Alone?

This year I was planning to teach eleven-year-olds about the characteristics of living things. I asked the technician to bring me a green plant and a large stone. Showing these items to the pupils, I asked them what would happen if I put the stone in a cupboard and left it for a year and took it out again. They had no trouble telling me that the stone would be roughly as it was before—perhaps a little dusty or even mouldy, but basically the same. When I asked them what would happen to the plant if it were kept in a cupboard for a year, they readily agreed that the plant would be dead, all rotten or all brown. I then asked them what the plant needed that the stone didn’t, and they said that it needed light and water and stuff from the soil. They copied my diagram and labelled it with things the plant needed. I then asked them what the plant needed to be happy, and they were clear that it needed more sunlight, more water, and more nutrients. I asked them what the difference was between the stone and the plant, and they came up with the general idea that the plant “cannot live by itself alone.”

I then asked what would happen if the pupils were shut in a cupboard for a year (pointing out that I had no intention of doing this!). They easily agreed that they would be dead and rotten and smelly. I asked them what they needed to stay alive, and they first thought of food, water, and air; they soon added friends, family, and a house. They were ready to acknowledge that they could not live by themselves alone. I then asked them what they needed to be happy, and again they had no trouble listing the things that would help them. I asked them whether they thought the plant was separate from the water and the sunshine and the soil. This needed a little more thought, but they eventually agreed that the plant was not separate. I asked them if they were separate from their family and the air and the rain. They had no trouble with the idea that they were not separate. I asked what they needed to do to make sure that they were happy, and they decided that they needed to look after their family and the environment in order to be happy.

These experiences suggest to me that the wisdom found in Buddhism can be easily discovered by ordinary children without any reference to Buddhist terminology. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are not rules handed down by an authority but a set of guidelines for living that any group of reasonable people—even schoolchildren—can agree upon. I believe that my efforts to introduce mindfulness practice into the classroom have significantly affected and improved the lives of my pupils.

mb54-TheWisdom7Mike Bell, True Sword of Understanding, lives near Cambridge, England and teaches science in a state secondary school. He is interested in exploring ways to offer the benefits of the practice to those who would be put off by labels, rituals and complex language.

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Dharma Talk: Take Refuge in Mother Earth

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Lower Hamlet, Plum Village November 29, 2012

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Editors’ note: This is Part I of the Dharma talk from November 29, 2012.

Good morning, dear Sangha. We are in the Assembly of Stars Meditation Hall of the Dharma Nectar Temple, Lower Hamlet, in our winter retreat.

Our society is not very healthy. Therefore, many of us are sick, and we need healing and nourishment. We have intoxicated ourselves with poisons. Our mind has a lot of poisons, like craving, hate, anger, and despair. Our body also has a lot of poisons because we don’t know how to consume.

mb63-dharma2Mother Earth has the capacity to heal herself and has the capacity to help us heal if we know how to take refuge in her. When the Buddha was teaching his son, Rahula, he talked about the Earth as having the virtues of patience and equanimity. Patience and equanimity are the two great virtues of the planet Earth. If needed, Mother Earth can spend one million years or ten million years to heal herself. She is not in a hurry. She has the power to renew herself. We have to see that. If we study the history of the Earth, we know that she has had a lot of patience, and now she is a very beautiful star.

When we walk, we are aware that the Earth is holding our steps. But Mother Earth is not just below us, under our feet; Mother Earth is inside of us. To think that Mother Earth is only the environment outside of us, around us, is wrong. Mother Earth is inside of us. We don’t need to die to go back to Mother Earth. We are already in Mother Earth. That is why we have to learn how to take refuge in her. That is the best way to heal and to nourish ourselves.

Walking meditation is one of the ways to heal. Walking meditation is successful when we know how to allow the Earth to be in us and around us. Just to be aware that we are the Earth. We don’t have to do much, we don’t have to do anything at all, to get healing and nourishment. Just like when we were in our mother’s womb, we did not have to breathe, we did not have to eat, because our mother breathed for us and ate for us. We did not have to worry about anything. It is possible to behave like that now.

When you sit, allow Mother Earth to sit for you. When you breathe, allow Mother Earth to breathe for you. When you walk, allow Mother Earth to walk for you. Don’t make any effort. Allow her to do it. She knows how to do it.

When you are sitting, allow the air to enter your lungs. Allow the air to go out of your lungs. We don’t need to try to breathe in. We don’t need to try to breathe out. We just allow nature, allow the Earth to breathe in and out for us. We just sit there and enjoy the breathing in and the breathing out. There is no “you” who is breathing in and breathing out. The breathing in and the breathing out happen by themselves. Try it.

We allow our body to relax totally, without striving or even making an effort. Behave like the fetus in the womb of the mother. Allow your mother to do everything for you, to breathe, to eat, to drink. This is possible if you know how to take refuge in Mother Earth. She’s a great bodhisattva; she’s the mother of all the buddhas, all bodhisattvas, all saints. Shakyamuni is her son. Jesus Christ is also her son. We are also her sons and daughters, and we have to learn how to take refuge in her and to allow her to continue to do everything for us.

Healing Is Taking Place 

We don’t need to do anything at all. Just allow yourself to be seated; let the sitting take place. If you don’t strive to sit, relaxation will come. And you know something? When there is relaxation, healing begins to take place. There is no healing without relaxation. Relaxation means doing nothing, not trying.

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So while there is breathing in, it’s not you who is breathing in. While there is breathing out, you just enjoy it. You say, “Healing is taking place; healing is taking place.” Allow your body to renew herself, to heal herself, to be nourished. This is the practice of non-practice.

If we observe, we see that Mother Earth has the power, the capacity to heal herself and to heal us. You believe in that power, which comes from your own observation, your own experience, not something people tell you and ask you to believe in. Mother Earth can renew herself, can transform herself, can heal herself, and can heal us. That is a fact. If we recognize that fact, faith is there, and we can take refuge. We allow ourselves to be healed by Mother Earth. While sitting, we get the healing. While walking, we get the healing. While breathing, we get the healing. We do not have to do anything at all. Just surrender ourselves to Mother Earth and she will do everything.

When breathing in is taking place—I don’t want to say when you are breathing in—you say, “Nourishment is taking place; nourishment; nourishment.” Allow yourself to be nourished. You are nourished by the air, you are nourished by the sunshine, because the air is breathing you, penetrating you. And the sunshine also penetrates you. Father Sun and Mother Earth are there twenty-four hours a day for us. Even during the night, the sun is present; otherwise, we would freeze. Like Mother Earth, Father Sun is also in us, not only up there, outside us. When I wrote The Sun My Heart, I had the insight, the vision, that the sun is my heart outside of me.

If we know the practice of non-practice, we don’t have to strive or fight in order to practice. You may believe that you need a lot of medicine, a lot of exercise, to heal. But the only exercise that can heal you is the exercise of non-exercise. Allow yourself to relax and release all the tension in your body, and all the worries and the fear in your mind, because these things are preventing you from healing. Let go, release, take full refuge in the Earth and in the sun, and allow yourself to be healed. Do this in the four positions: sitting, lying down, walking, standing. Allow Mother Earth and Father Sun to penetrate you, to act for you so you can heal.

It is our experience that no healing is possible without releasing, relaxing. So when you sit, sit in such a way that you don’t have to try, you just enjoy deeply your sitting. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. I just enjoy my sitting. With a half an hour of sitting like that, you have a half an hour of healing. You enjoy every in-breath. It’s not you who are making the in-breath and out-breath. You don’t have to make an in-breath and an out-breath. It will happen by itself.

The in-breath does not need a self in order to happen. I don’t have to breathe; the breathing just happens by itself. I just enjoy. If I know how to enjoy the breathing, the breathing will become more pleasant. The quality of breathing will increase, because I don’t try to interfere and to force it.

So the sitting should be natural, without effort. The breathing also, and walking also. Don’t try to walk; just allow yourself to walk. The walking will take place without you. Only be there and enjoy, because if there is letting go and relaxation, every step is healing, every step is nourishing. No healing is possible without relaxation and letting go.

We should practice this simple thing in order to get healed and to help heal our society and the world. If you do it for one hour, you have one hour of healing. If you do it for one day, there is one day of healing. This is possible. Make it pleasant; make it healing and nourishing. Everything you do, don’t try; don’t make any effort. Take refuge in Mother Earth. She knows how to do it. She continues to do it for you, just like during the time you were in the womb of your mother.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Wake Up – Bhutan and India Tour Report

By Miranda van Schadewijk 

Stop, breathe, smile. That’s what we learn in Plum Village and on retreats all over the world led by monastic students of Thich Nhat Hanh. This simple yet deep teaching has the quality of being easily transportable around the world. All we need is our in-breath and out-breath, our steps and our smile. So, in October 2012, off we went with a little group of seven monastics and four lay friends to bring the practice to the high Himalayan mountains of Bhutan and the busy chaotic city of New Delhi, India.

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In Bhutan, we spent four mindfulness days for mostly young adults on the theme of “Mindfulness Is a Source of Happiness.” These events were organized by the wonderful team of the GNH (Gross National Happiness) Centre in Bhutan. It was a powerful time of practice for every member of our team. As Brother Phap Sieu shared, “Every single time we invited the bell, it was just amazing to feel the wave of energy of peacefulness immediately wash over us.” In this beautiful country high in the mountains, Buddhism is still an intrinsic part of the culture and education. Children learn the practice of meditation at school, and this was immediately noticeable. Everyone had such strong concentration and mindful energy, right from the first day! It was wonderful walking together, eating in silence together, playing and singing together, and sharing Dharma.

mb63-WakeUp2It seemed that everyone we met in Bhutan was living through their heart, from the young adults to the high ministers. In my Dharma sharing group, after one girl shared her difficulty, a boy bowed in to share his hopes that everything would be all right for her and said he would send his best energy to her. It was a beautiful moment of sharing from him. I was very touched by the sincerity, openness, and authenticity of all the young (and old!) people I met and from whom I received beautiful smiles in Bhutan. The heart-to-heart connection that everyone seemed to share with one another is what touched me most during my short time there. The last day, we ended by singing together “The River is Flowing.” When we asked who would be interested in continuing practice in the form of a Wake Up Sangha, everyone raised their hands.

After this beautiful and nourishing week high in the mountains and clouds, it was time to go down to India! The environment in India is intense: the smells, sounds, colors, and tastes. So much to see, smell, hear, taste, discover. Here too, we were blessed with meeting many smiling and generous people who became dear friends. We spent the majority of our time in India at two high schools with teachers, students, and parents, sharing time and space with them in mindfulness days on the theme of “Happy Teachers Will Change the World.” When teachers, students, and parents learn to stop, to truly look at themselves and the person in front of them, so much love automatically arises.

Teachers, parents, and students are all stressed and dealing with pressure. Every day, we offered a total relaxation session to everyone, and it was wonderful to see how they had a chance to relax and get back in touch with the deep intentions in their hearts. We taught the teachers and students the lyrics to a classic Plum Village song: Breathing in, breathing out. I am blooming as a flower; I am fresh as the dew. I am solid as a mountain; I am firm as the Earth. I am free. At the end of a whole week at one school, we sang this song with everyone. It was truly a powerful moment.

We also had the opportunity to have Days of Mindfulness with students at universities and were able to manifest a four-day retreat. Spending four days of practice together at Lady Sri Ram College made it possible to build up a strong energy, and by the end of the days everyone was so alive, smiling, and fresh!

We all could feel strongly that we were in the country where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago, and where spiritual traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Wisdom seems not so far under the surface in India and it was amazing to see how quickly everyone connected to the practice. During a question-and-answer session at the end of the four-day retreat, the questions were very real, touching upon everyone’s real-life situations of dealing with anger, anxiety, and compassion. Each individual’s strong intention to bring the practice into daily life was very present. The question of how to bring the practice into our daily lives and explain it to friends and family was a hot topic. Since we left, there has been a Wake-Up meeting already, and I hope the energy we built together during that retreat can be continued by people practicing together in New Delhi.

Visiting these two beautiful countries, getting to know so many wonderful people, made a deep impression on me. My family has grown; I have many new brothers and sisters. Physi- cally, they are far away, but they live close in my heart. I feel how we are all connected and part of one big Wake-Up family! Young people come together all over the world, in small groups and in bigger groups, to be there for each other, spend time together, stop, breathe, and smile. This image of our Wake-Up family practicing all over the world supports me in moments when I think I am alone; I remember my big family is right here in my heart.

mb63-WakeUp3Miranda van Schadewijk, Inspiring Presence of the Heart, lives in Amsterdam, where she recently finished her master’s degree in cultural anthropology with a thesis on community life in Plum Village. She helps with Wake Up and has joined tours in the UK and Vietnam, and she assists with projects such as the Seedling Project in Vietnam.

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