"Breathing in, I am calm. Breathing out, I smile.
"Next time you are angry or jealous of your brother or sister, or when you are unhappy with a friend, stop and do this exercise."
This advice was addressed to a group of children by a student of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, internationally renowned Zen master, peace activist and Nobel Prize nominee. The children were sitting squeezed together on the floor in front of 400 people waiting to hear Thich Nhat Hanh speak.
Apparently, the art of mindfulness, which he teaches, can be applied to the problems of sibling rivalry.
Mindfulness, as described by Thich Nhat Hanh, is the act of being fully present. "Life," he says "is available only in the present moment." When we play with our children, many of us are actually thinking about those dishes or that phone call or about how our feelings got hurt by something our sister said. When we are mindful, we put our full attention on whatever is going on in front of us right now."
"We live in an age in which telecommunication is very sophisticated, but communication between parents and children is suffering. We have lost the capacity to listen to each other, to talk to each other in the language of understanding."
Using the example of drinking a cup of tea, he said, "If I am caught in my worries and anger, the tea is like a ghost; it isn't really there." The same applies to our children when we are with them but not really there.
The vehicle for staying in, or coming back to the moment, is the breath. "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out," says Thich Nhat Hanh. In his community of Plum Village in France, the intermittent ring of a bell reminds people to stop what they are doing (or thinking or saying) and return to the breath. In our lives, he says, we can use the telephone for that purpose. Every time we hear it ring, we can stop and breathe deeply three times while focussing on the breath.
The disciple taught a song which you might want to try out with your children. You can put your palms together and open them to make the flower; use a finger tip to show a drop of dew falling on your palm; bring your fingertips together to form a mountain; move your palm face down to show the earth. Just make up or adapt any calm tune:
Breathing in, breathing out,
Breathing in, breathing out,
I am blooming as the flower,
I am fresh as the dew.
I am solid as the mountain,
I am firm as the earth,
I am free.
LOOK DEEPLY TO UNDERSTAND
Thich Nhat Hanh also spoke about the hurts we unwillingly inflict on our children. Say you are tense or in a bad mood and your five-year-old comes up to you to express some bad feeling he has. But he doesn't have the right words yet and he annoys you. You get angry and say something sharp to him and this may deeply wound him, he said. He spoke of the Buddhist principle of samsara, or negativity that is passed down through the generations. To stop this process, he suggested two exercises.
"Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old. Breathing out, I smile with compassion at that boy."
He also suggested finding a picture of your mother or father at the age of five and doing the same exercise. "Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old. Breathing out, I smile with compassion at that boy."
This practice, he said, helps us look deeply in order to understand. With understanding, comes acceptance and compassion. "Acceptance and compassion can liberate you from your hate and your anger," he said.
"We live in an age in which telecommunication is very sophisticated, but communication between parents and children is suffering. We have lost the capacity to listen to each other, to talk to each other in the language of understanding.
"The practice of mindfulness can help us go back to ourselves, to calm ourselves, to look deeply in order to transform."
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000