Taming the wild things…meditation for kids
The emerging youth mental health crisis makes it clear to mental health professionals, educators and researchers that for some reason our young people are having ever-greater difficulty controlling their mental and emotional content, their inner world.
The situation reminds me of the iconic book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are. This book was published in 1963 and has since sold 19 million copies, and been turned into two animations, an opera and a feature length film – such is the strength with which it has resonated in the collective psyche.
It’s a story in which a young boy called Max struggles with a bad mood after a day of unruly behaviour and, confined to his room without supper, imagines himself on a journey to an island where he encounters a menagerie of giant monsters. At first they frighten him, but then he tames them with the strength of his glare. Recognising his power over them they make him their king. In their camaraderie they wander the island behaving like self-respecting monsters should. The story climaxes when Max organises yet another session of wild behaviour – the infamous ‘wild rumpus’.
The monsters dance and cavort in a wild, escalating frenzy around a fire. There is a vague threat of violence – perhaps even cannibalism – in the air as the monsters plumb the depths of their nature in the wild dance. Max watches them keenly and then, unexpectedly, sends them off to bed. And those big, hairy, scary monsters obediently do as they are told. In the silence while the monsters sleep, Max realises that he actually yearns for a higher feeling – love – and decides to return home. The monsters try to make him stay but Max knows that, having mastered these beasts, his destiny is with his family and loved ones.
In many ways this story illustrates the journey that every young person must go through. In order to mature they must recognise, control and master their thoughts and emotions. The untamed thoughts and feelings – indeed, the untamed mind – is the wild gang of monsters in each of us that will happily consume us if allowed to go unchecked. For some reason, the ‘wild things’ in the collective minds of our young people are working themselves into an unprecedented frenzy and the ability to control them, to send them to bed, has vastly diminished.
Developing self-mastery of our mental and emotional content, our inner world, is precisely what the authentic tradition of meditation aims to do. Meditation is not about modifying, editing or slowing your thoughts; it is about stopping them altogether. It is not about mindfulness but mind-emptiness. Not quieting the mind so much as silencing it in its tracks if, and whenever, we want to. In true meditation we remain alert, in control and yet free of all thought. It is the experience of complete inner silence that enables us to master the mind and the mental content that it creates, rather than be the mind’s servant.
We can use this metaphor to understand the nature of the mind and the difference between mindfulness and the authentic meditative experience of mental silence. When Max is intimidated by the monsters and later playing among them, he is like most people in their usual, everyday awareness: immersed and, for the most part, entertaining himself with his thoughts and feelings, subject to their whim. When he sits and watches those wild things dance and play, but he is trying not to get involved himself, he is exercising mindfulness. No doubt, this is a worthwhile exercise. However when he commands the wild things to be still and sends them to bed, he has at that moment achieved the true meditative state of mental silence. In that state he and can thus create a space within his awareness for higher emotions to emerge more freely, such as love of home.
The skill of meditation gives us the ability to still the wild things, those destructive thoughts and feelings, and to send them to bed without any supper. This is the power of mind-emptiness rather than mindfulness. The alternative – to allow them to continue their wild dance, to feed the frenzy of negative thoughts and feelings – will only egg them on towards the inevitable rumpus that undermines our equilibrium and damages our3 wellbeing, making us think, do and say things that we later regret.
For most people, mental silence might seem unachievable. However, the results of more than a dozen years of scientific research tell us that this fundamental reality is not the exclusive realm of secluded monks, Zen masters or ‘gurus’. With a small amount of regular practice, using the techniques that appear in the book “Silence Your Mind”, anyone can experience it. Our research team has been systematically exploring the impacts of meditation on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. As a result we have seen how just 10 minutes of daily meditation can be useful in reducing mental health risk, improving social skills and enhancing general wellbeing. “Silence Your Mind” describes the evidence and provides easy to use, evidence based meditation strategies that have been shown to work with young people, from kindergarten to senior high school.
This article is an excerpt from Silence Your Mind, by Dr Ramesh Manocha MBBS BSc PhD, Meditation Research Programme, Senior Lecturer, Dept of Psychiatry, Sydney University