Third and fourth graders meditate at NYC's East Village Community School © Elaine Chu
Third and fourth graders meditate at NYC’s East Village Community School © Elaine Chu

I NEVER intended to teach meditation to kids. A few years back, I received a phone call from a social studies teacher at a New York City high school who was teaching his students about Eastern cultures and religions. He wanted to know if I could visit his classes, talk to the kids about Buddhism, maybe take them through a brief guided meditation. I’m not sure to this day how he found me—perhaps he was scouring the Internet in search of a meditation teacher.

I agreed to meet with his classes and headed for the high school, School of the Future, in Manhattan, feeling a certain amount of trepidation. I’d be operating outside my comfort zone, teaching kids. To some extent, years later, I still experience this sort of trepidation when I’m setting out to teach children. And I frequently gripe, complain to myself about the strain on my time, my energy, and so on (ah, defilement). But when all is said and done, I find teaching these classes terrifically rewarding; I have great joy in working with the kids. There have been days when I’ve been down, when teaching the kids has quickly alleviated my darkness. My mind invariably brightens.

After that first experience at School of the Future, I got to talking with the teacher, Andy Snyder, and I put forth the idea of having a regular weekly meditation class at the school. I could come to the school along with some dedicated practitioners from our group. We would teach the kids meditation, give them an opportunity to practice, ask questions, learn about the basic teachings. It would be a chance for our group, Downtown Meditation Community (DMC), to reach out, socially engage, extend itself into the local community. It would also be a chance for some of the students in DMC to assume a leadership role, teach, offer service.

The program at School of the Future was quickly implemented, and the following year we began to bring classes to a public elementary school, the East Village Community School, where the meditation students have ranged in age from eight to eleven—third through sixth grade.

In training members of our group as “practice leaders,” preparing them for their visits to these schools, it was imperative to make clear that terms like “Buddha” and “Buddhism” shouldn’t be used, and that the more devotional aspects (chanting, bowing, and so forth) had to be avoided. There is, after all, a separation between church and state in America (or at least there’s meant to be one). And while it is, of course, beneficial for meditation students to learn to take refuge in the historical Buddha, lineage, and certain ritual elements, it’s easy enough to impart the heart of the teaching without mentioning proper names, traditions, and the like. No need to talk about Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t talk about Buddhism. He was concerned, simply, with the truth—the truth of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering—and that, I’d submit, is a good thing for anybody to learn.

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