"Love Lessons" by Lama Surya Das
1 March 2010
“I thought finally that of all the nostalgias that haunt the human heart the greatest of them all, for me, is an everlasting longing to bring what is youngest home to what is oldest in us all.”
— Laurens Van Der Post
Once a woman asked Mahatma Gandhi to help with a problem she was having with her son. He was completely addicted to Indian milk-sweets, and could not stop eating those candy-like treats. Therefore she was importuning the great sage and leader for his blessing and help.
Gandhi looked at the distressed mother, and replied, “I can’t tell you anything this week; come back in a week.” One week late mother and son returned. Gandhi gave an impassioned little talk to the boy, which he seemed to respond to very well.
“Baba-ji, why did you make us wait one week?” the woman asked Gandhi afterwards.
“Because last week I was also still eating too many milk-sweets. Now I have given them up, and feel better.”
Isn’t this how we must teach our children—through example, not just through lectures? By walking our talk, and actually practicing what we preach. For our children are like living antennae. It is as if they have a sensitive, receptive antenna sticking out of each pore of their bodies. They get our real teaching, not just what we say to them. We are like their first gurus in this life, which is a spiritual responsibility not to be taken lightly.
That is why I think it is absolutely vitally important and necessary that we try to live up to our own principles in life, walk our talk and practice what we preach. (This is the essence of ethics and morality, regardless of our particular faith or religious beliefs.) Because otherwise we are programming our little Buddhas in ways we would never intentionally, consciously chose (If we only knew! If we were only aware enough, for awareness is curative). That is why we need to further introduce and deepen an authentic and genuine spirituality into our own personal, everyday lives; this is the one surefire, nonviolent and spiritually nourishing way to foster it in our children.
Beyond that, we ought to remember that children are naturally spiritual, are embodied spirit; they have all the divine and magical within their own soul already, just wanting to come out and flourish. Let’s do our best not to inhibit that innate little Buddha, that little god or goddess within them; but rather, let’s strive skillfully to midwife and serve it as best we possibly can. Children naturally try to understand what is happening to them, and why; thus they immediately enter into the realm of religion, morality and spirituality, from a very early age, engaging life’s deepest questions in their own small but genuine ways. Children often have spiritual experiences, I notice—experiences which, when reported, seem to take adults by surpise more than the children themselves, who just experience it as part of their life until told otherwise, which is the beginning of socializing the natural spirituality out of them—out of us.
When children are asked to draw pictures of God, they usually draw a picture of his face. It is partly up to us to help flesh out that picture with them, through whatever forms, concepts, names and languages we ourselves use and find fitting. We accomplish this, both intentionally and unintentionally, through every interaction with them during our time together in this world.
We can of course provide children with love lessons and soul food on a daily basis, lessons from the heart and full of feeling for whatever they are going through—not just imposing upon them our will, our beliefs, and the values we would wish to espouse but don’t always live up to ourselves.
Making space for a regular family meeting in spirit is one traditional means to bring children along spiritually. We can always make time for a little bit of a Sabbath, on a weekend or any day at all, and take the opportunity for going with little ones to church, temple, mosque, zoo, seaside, or to favorite sacred places in nature. (Remember, nature is like an awesome goddess, and can provide many natural spiritual experiences to young and old.) Or we can practice bringing our child to visit and connect with the sage Elders in our community; it could be gratifying for all concerned. Keep in mind the long run, the larger view and the bigger picture; don’t fasten too tightly upon short term goals and hopes for the little ones spiritual connections, but be like the patient farmer who trusts in the universal principles and the seasons of the growth year to work its ineluctable magic.
Try listening with kids to your own favorite spiritual music, or reading with them your own favorite inspirational literature, highbrow or low—from the Gospels and Aesop’s Fables to “The Little Prince” and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull". Watching entertaining and edifying videos such as Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha”, “The Ten Commandments” or “The Prince of Egypt”, or “The Greatest Story Ever Told” can provide spiritual nourishment and sustenance too. Find spiritually-oriented coloring books for the children to play with, helping them learn in a nondoctrinaire, light and lively fashion the archetypal myths and universal symbols of our world and its religious history.
Just remember, the key to effective and wise moral and spiritual guidance is your own heartfelt feeling, without which the child will learn not to feel it either. So try to cultivate an open, accepting, nondogmatic, warm and loving attitude to helping further the child spiritual growth, each in his or her own way and time , like different flowers in a divine garden—rather than just simply superimposing your own worldview, attitude and belief systems on their malleable pure selves. Remember, our children are not here just for the sole purpose of becoming a small replica version of oneself, a “little me”; the child has their own soul purpose for being here, which needs and deserves to be cherished and honored.
Patience, empathy and loving kindness is required of parents for this kind of spiritual stewardship. Sometimes we need to be reminded and to remember that there is hope. Even children with ADHD and other learning challenges can easily benefit, participate in and grow in both body and soul through traditional singing and chanting, breath and relaxation exercises, yoga and martial arts, noncompetitive sports, and especially what I call Meditation Games—action exercises that intentionally train the attention by applying the basic Buddhist principles of mindfulness and awareness-- such as slowly and carefully walking forward, and then later backwards, precisely planting each foot one at a time on a long line on a flat, safe surface such as an empty driveway, parking lot, or sports field.
Sharing prayers with children is one of my favorite ways to directly introduce spirituality into their blooming lives. The right prayer at the right time in the right spirit can provide one of life’s greatest love lessons, and keep providing blessings, comfort, solace and inspiration throughout their lives. What better spiritual gift can you bequeath to a child?
A simple, beautiful moment of grace and thanksgiving, or even just a simple moment of noble silence, breathing and mindfulness, is almost always welcome at mealtimes. Prayer can be also be regularly shared at bedtime, at a holiday, when someone human or animal is sick or dies, or just when one is feeling alone, sad, or confused. Emphasize that the child’s favorite prayer, psalm or little poem is like a jewel or a sanctuary that is always there for the child to use, whenever he or she needs someone or something to turn to. Practice it with the child, modeling how and when and where it is done, and in what spirit. You too reap bounteous rewards.
Here is A Little Child’s Prayer I wrote for my goddaughter’s use.
Thank you, Lord, for this our day,
For this our life,
For all your blessings and delights;
For this our house in your house,
For this sunshine, food and drink,
For all the simple, lovely, little things;
For all is yours, and all are your children;
All your family are like my own family,
Whom I shall never harm, but cherish, love and protect
As you cherish, love and protect us
All my life, today and forever,
By your grace and with your blessings.
Last year my partner Kathy traveled to Indiana in order to attend a memorial service for her old friend Mary. The grandson of the deceased woman stood up to give the eulogy.
Jonathan was a successful businessman. He said that, as a child, he had learning disabilities that were very frustrating and discouraging; therefore, he hated going to school, where he most often felt he could not keep up wth others or get anything right. However, he recounted, each and every morning his mom, Mary’s daughter Margi, would take his hands before he went to school, stand in front of him, look him in the eye, and have him join her in reciting by heart this prayer, which was one of the most meaningful love lessons in his life. Then he recited this prayer, his late grandmother’s legacy, all the while looking into the eyes of his own mother, who sat in the first row at her mother’s funeral.
I am the place where God shines through.
He and I are one, not two.
He needs me where and as I am;
I need not doubt, nor fear, nor plan.
If I but be relaxed and free,
He’ll work his plan of love through me.
This is where a prayer can come in handy, as one of love’s daily lessons. With this sort of legacy in hand and heart, our children can keep the best of us with them for a very long time, and forever.
Tips and Pointers for Introducing Spirituality to Children:
- Share a prayer
- Take time regularly for a sabbath, bedtime soul-talk, or nature walk together
- Bring spirituality into family meals and holidays through grace, moments of noble silence and mindfulness, etc
- Share favorite spiritual classics or inspirational readings, videos and music
- Model how to pray, meditate, practice yoga, eat more consciously etc.
- Practice what we preach, and walk the talk: be the type of person we wish the child to become. It will happen
Lama Surya Das is a Buddhist teacher and authorized Dzogchen lineage holder in the Tibetan tradition. He is the bestselling author of many books, including Awakening the Buddha Within, Buddha Is as Buddha Does, and Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be; founder of the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama; a poet and translator; and has twice completed the traditional three year meditation retreat. As Spiritual Director of the Dzogchen Center in Massachusetts and Austin, Texas, he leads retreats and seminars year round and has long been active in charitable third world causes. His websites are www.surya.org and www.dzogchen.org.