Meditation in Chinese Schools and Beyond

One of the best parts about teaching is learning. I've had students from a multitude of cultures, different countries, different languages, different religions, different ages, different socio-economic levels. And I try to learn as much as I can.

I have an unusually intense connection with meditation because I use it to deal with the chronic pain from my spinal deformities. I studied with an Ishaya monk for a year before my brainstem issues emerged. But still, there's nothing quite like unceasing physical pain to drive learning. I've read dozens of books on meditation, and my personal experiments have the added benefit of my physical pain as a feedback mechanism.

A few months ago I was talking with my student Carrie. She's in high school in China, and we started going through how they do meditation at the different age levels in school. It's different in different schools. I have some students in China who've never done meditation. But, in her schools they always have. In elementary they did meditation every day. In middle school they did it twice a week. And in high school they do it once a week.

In elementary and middle school it's a simple technique. They simply sit with their eyes closed and think for 15 minutes. That's it. It sounds like the writings of the legendary founder of Chan Buddhism in China, Bodhidharma. Afterward, the teacher asks what you thought about, which introduces a nice sharing experience that I like. I've been part of meditation groups where you share your experience, and others where you don't talk at all. They both have their advantages.

In high school the techniques that were taught to Carrie are quite a bit more complex. It's a huge leap in styles. They do two different meditations back to back. For two to three minutes they do a type of contemplation meditation. I'll go over that in a minute. Following the contemplation they do a mantra meditation. You have five minutes to just sit and think about a word that you want to focus on. The teacher asks which word you're going to do. Then, for ten minutes you sit and silently repeat that word in your mind. Afterward, you share what happened. This reminds me of the first major spiritual experience I had in meditation, which was why I studied with the Ishaya monk for a year afterward.

Now, to go over the contemplation technique. The teacher gives you a situation, you sit and think about it and see what happens. It's like dreaming while you're awake. Or what the psychologist Carl Jung called active imagination. I had Carrie take me through a session to make sure that I understood what she was explaining.

Carrie gave me this situation. You're in a grassland. It's sunny. There is no one else around.

We meditated for three minutes. Then, afterward, just like in school, I told her what happened in my mind and she interpreted it. It's like dream interpretation, with symbolic meanings emerging from the subconscious.

Here's what happened during the three minutes for me. I was standing in a grassland by myself with the sun above me. A ways off to the left I saw a small tree. I headed toward it. I laid in the shade of the tree and closed my eyes to relax. But, some bugs were jumping on me. So I moved into the sun and laid down. The bugs weren't jumping on me there. But the sun was too strong. So I moved back to the shade, ignored the bugs, and enjoyed laying there.

Carrie's interpretation of that was that I like freedom, that I like to live in my comfort zone, that I like to live with nature, and that I like to have time to myself. I think that's pretty good.

Then Carrie told me about her three minute session. She was laying in the sun feeling good. But, she felt weird because no one was around. She went looking for people, but she couldn't find anyone, and she couldn't find an end to the grassland.

My interpretation of that was that she had been comfortable in life. Now, she was starting to realize that maybe she wanted something different, she's started looking for it, but she hasn't found it yet, and her life hasn't changed since she started looking. She agreed that those were good insights.

I asked Carrie what her favorite technique is, and she said just sitting and thinking is what she likes best.

I've played with all of these techniques before. I did quite a lot of mantra meditation at one time. But, none of these techniques will help you deal with severe pain. They can all act as distractions, but they won't change your experience of sensation in the way that you need to be functional if your pain is consistent and is going to stick around. Learn from my experience and take my word on this.

There are also other meditation techniques used with children.

I have a student in Russia that's eight, Veronika. Sometimes they do meditation and/or yoga during their physical education class. For meditation they simply sit and think about good things for forty minutes. That seems like a long time for eight-year-olds, but she said she likes doing it sometimes.

The Vipassana Research Institute teaches kids anapana. That's a technique used to focus the mind where you focus on feeling the air move past the end of your nose as you breathe normally. They do a five to six hour course one day, and then have the schools implement it on a daily basis for five to ten minutes. They've had success with that.

When I first started studying meditation I would encounter people that were curious about it, but they didn't want to go do it because they didn't understand it. I used a warm-up technique that the Ishaya monk Atri showed me. It shows the power of controlling your awareness in just a few seconds. You could see in people's eyes that they were amazed by what they were experiencing. You simply lead someone's awareness around. For instance, "Can you be aware of your right hand? ... Now, can you be aware of your left foot? ... Can you be aware of me? ... Can you be aware of the space between us? ... Can you be aware of the space behind you? ..." People would say, "Wow, that's crazy!" Because we often don't pay attention to our own ability to direct awareness. Atri called these "awareness games," and I like that. It's a good technique to use with beginners, including kids.

New knowledge is refreshing. New experiences are transforming. You can seek both out in the world, and in the world within.


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