When we think of expansion as the key to spiritual growth, we can see how important it is to encourage children to reach out beyond the whirlpool of their own little needs and desires. I have found that serving others, exploring nature, improving relationships, and imagining other life forms are all excellent ways of promoting this type of growth.
Service to Others
All of us have heard the saying, “It is better to give than to receive.” The chances are that if we first heard this as a child, we wondered how in the world such a thing could be true. As we grew and had more opportunities to give and to feel the joy that comes with giving, we began to realize that we actually did gain happiness from such selflessness. Living in harmony does bring joy. Living at the cost of others’ happiness brings discontentment, even if there is some passing pleasure from getting one’s own way. Giving children opportunities to serve others, and helping them become consciously aware of the benefits and joy of such actions, guides them towards that realization. For many children, compassion for others, especially those in need, is a natural and easy avenue to their higher selves.
One year my class became aware of a way we could help a large group of refugee children who were in dire need of all of the essentials for living. I asked the class to think of a particular type of child, such as an eight to ten-year-old girl or a five to six-year old boy. For that child they were to gather clothes, food, toys, and other useful items, put them in a box along with their own picture and a little note, label the type of child it was for, and send it off. The joy and sense of purpose that the children received from that act of giving was tremendous! Some even sought out little jobs in which they could earn money to buy items for their refugee child.
If consciously serving others is new or difficult for a child, it is often easiest to start by helping him serve those that they already love. Serving with the child allows you to set the example and magnetize the activity so that the child will be drawn into it more easily. For example, a father might say to his son, “Look how tired Mommy seems. Let’s see if we can get the dishes done while she’s in the shower.” Obviously, it is helpful at this beginning stage for the child to receive positive feedback from the one being served. For many children the outward appreciation of those they love helps to open the door to serving others.
Other ways to serve might be to visit a nursing home on a regular basis, to work to fill a particular area of need in your community, to cook a meal for a friend who is ill, and to regularly help charitable causes both monetarily and with direct physical involvement.
Caring for animals, especially baby animals, opens the heart to the joys of service for almost all children, especially in the feeling years. If you have ever seen a child in the presence of a baby animal, you will know what I mean. They want to do everything for it: feed it, carry it, comfort it, and protect it. You can almost see the child’s heart expanding.
So often children have come to me just beaming with joy and excitement over some act of kindness. In these situations I try to help them see how their actions have produced these wonderful feelings. In this way, from their own experience, the children begin to appreciate that there really is an inner joy that is activated by outward acts of kindness. Their serviceful acts can then become freed from the need for outward recognition since their inner feelings are a sufficient motivation. From here it is only a short step to begin to feel happiness in the joy of others, a point where we start to tap into the one spirit that we all share.
Adventures in Nature
The grandeur, beauty, and power of nature touch and inspire some children in a way that little else can. A friend who is an avid spelunker (cave explorer) offered to take my fourth and fifth grade students on a caving expedition. We began by making our way through a 40-foot crawl space that could only be traversed by slithering along flat on our stomachs, surrounded by immense granite walls. After viewing ancient stalactites and stalagmites and going through rooms of many sizes, we entered a large, open cavern, deep underground. My friend directed us to sit down, still our voices, and turn off our flashlights. The experience that followed filled us with an incredible sense of awe. The total silence, without the slightest hint of sound, was something we had never known before. The darkness was equally new; no shadow or merest speck of light could be seen anywhere. When we were told we could turn our flashlights back on, we felt a sense of loss as the varied sights and sounds returned. Many of the children remained still and quiet until we were told to move on. One child exclaimed to me, “That made me want to meditate.”
The natural world instills in children a sense of awe and security at the same time. It is so vast, and yet intricately small. It is filled with liveliness, but also deep calm. It has natural rhythms of constant change-day and night, the cycle of the seasons, birth, life, and death — and still there is such steadfastness to the patterns that those changes follow. All of these qualities are a part of the magnetic power of nature to draw children into a greater awareness. Time and time again I have seen quite restless children become completely transformed simply by sitting silently, gazing out across a mountain vista. One child told me recently that he feels the closest to God when he sits out on the boulders by his house and watches the hawks soar in the sky.
Activities that help children tune into and value the life that flows through all of nature can produce striking results. I have seen children go from saying, “Oooh, there’s an ant!” and proceeding to stomp on it with a sense of gleeful triumph, to saying, “Oh, look at those ants, I wonder what they’re doing?” and quietly watching them, being careful not to disturb them.
Once I taught some boys who loved to talk tough about hunting and killing creatures. Together we studied the Native Americans’ reverence for life and learned the art of stalking. Never did I hear them talk about killing those animals that they took the time to stalk. Getting close to the animals seemed to awaken a sense of respect. I didn’t have those boys long enough to see those seeds of care and reverence take root and spread to other animals and parts of nature, but I’m certain that sooner or later the experiences will have an effect.
There are many activities that give children the opportunity to draw close to nature. Silent walks alone in natural settings, going out at dusk to watch the stars as they appear in the darkening sky, and silently stalking an animal and closely observing how it lives, are just a few examples. A favorite of many of the children I have worked with is to climb to the top of the highest tree that they can find and then to sit absolutely still, nestled in the branches, trying to imagine and feel what it must be like to be a tree or a bird who lives there. This is especially fun on a mildly windy day.
Whatever the activity is, time is an important ingredient. Racing through a natural setting with a quick glance here and there simply will not deepen one’s awareness or sense of oneness with nature. Time must be taken to move in a rhythm that is in harmony with the natural setting. Only when one has become a part of and not a disturbance to nature, can there be a sense of communion with the wondrous world that remains hidden to those who only look with fleeting, impatient eyes.
Sharing Nature with Children and Sharing the Joy of Nature, both by Joseph Cornell, and Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children, are excellent resources for activities which produce a deeper experience of nature.
In our normal interactions with those around us, it is easy to lose sight of the deeper, soul-level connection that we share with one another. When we remember these deeper connections, our relationships are lifted up to a much higher level, and the manner in which we interact with one another is greatly enhanced as well. Visualizations can help children enter into that world of inner relationships with others. They are also a wonderful means for helping children practice such qualities as compassion and caring for others.
In one of my second grade classes a small group of girls was repeatedly experiencing a particular conflict during recess. No amount of talking the situation over and trying to help them see other points of view seemed to remedy the situation. One morning I decided to lead them in a visualization in which a group of four year olds were having difficulty seeing each other’s perspectives. The girls were then directed to help the little ones work out their differences in a way that would meet everyone’s needs. By being put in a position of leadership, in which their sense of fairness and right action was called into play, and in which their own self-interest wasn’t at stake, they were easily able to determine a wise course of action. The next time their own conflict situation arose, it only took a gentle reminder of the visualization to help them find a way to work things out.
Below is an example of a visualization focused on improving and valuing relationships. Before beginning, remember to help the child relax by using methods like the ones described in last chapter.
Imagine yourself sitting on your mother’s lap as she gently rocks you back and forth. Her body feels soft and warm as you lean against her and feel her arms wrapped around you. You can hear her heart beating and smell that special smell that is hers. Let your mind go back to when you were a tiny baby and remember how your mother took care of your every need.
Now imagine yourself before you were even born, while you were still waiting to begin this life. Try to feel how much your mother loved you even then. She spoke to you in her thoughts, dreamed about you, and eagerly waited for the time when you would come to join her on this journey together. Now feel how you felt towards her, this woman who would be caring for you while you were growing up.
You would have happy times and sad times, good times and hard times, but always you would love each other. Your love was there before you were born, it will be with you all through your life, and will even continue when you are separated. Sit for few moments now just drinking in the joy of the love you share.
Another popular visualization of this sort involves guiding children on an inner journey where they find a little baby (human or animal) out in the woods and care for it, ease its fears, and then help it return to its mother.
Exploring Other Realities
Some children are particularly inspired and helped to expand their consciousness by thoughts of realities other than their own, such as the world of animals or the realm of angels, fairies, and nature spirits. By inwardly exploring these thoughts children can go beyond some of the limitations of their physical existence, and open up to the freedom of their inner life. I had a student in one of my classes who had some physical difficulties. He often asked if we could do visualizations about birds or dolphins. The joy and freedom of movement that he experienced in such visualizations was very satisfying and pleasurable for him.
I have found that many children greatly enjoy visualizations in which they imagine themselves to be an animal of some kind. They then visualize themselves eating, playing, crawling, flying, and living, surrounded by their animal family, in an appropriate home for that animal. You can also guide them on an inner journey through a seasonal cycle of an animal: for example, a bear
from early spring through winter hibernation. If a visualization seems too subtle for your child at a particular time, you might try to find a slow-moving creature such as an ant to observe closely, and then guide your child into imagining deeply what it might be like to be an ant, or considering what the ant might be feeling.
Often children have asked me to lead them in visualizations in which they imagine themselves to be angels. They enjoy being able to help others without the restrictions that the physical world imposes. The seemingly secret aspect of angelic assistance is also fun for the children. It is easier for some children to take their first steps in expansion in this way because they don’t feel so threatened by, or in competition with, beings such as these. Here is an example of a visualization about a guardian angel.
Imagine yourself all alone in a forest at the end of an afternoon. You have been walking along, enjoying the flowers, trees, and forest creatures for a long time. As evening is quickly approaching, it is time to get back home. You turn around to leave the forest only to see that the path you have been traveling on is very twisty and splits off into other paths here and there.
Immediately you know that you are lost. You try for a while to find your way, but as darkness settles over the forest you begin to feel hopeless and scared. Just as you become truly frightened, you hear a lovely, gentle voice speak your name and see before you the most beautiful being you could imagine. She looks as if she is made of light and shimmering colors. She has a long, flowing dress on and she seems radiant with love for you. Just looking at her, you feel your fear begin to disappear.
She doesn’t say anything else to you, but you somehow know that she is your guardian angel. Something in the way she looks at you or in the love that she is showering upon you, lets you know that you are safe. You don’t know how long she stays with you, but after a while she slowly disappears, like a mist in the air. You stand up and begin traveling down the forest path again.
Now the night seems beautiful to you, twinkling with the stars and moon and filled with the little sounds of the night creatures. Confidently you make your way through the forest, sometimes turning and at other times going straight. Somehow you know exactly the correct way to go all the way home.
A short while ago I was planning on taking some children out for a three-day camping trip. I knew that one of the little girls had a tendency to be fearful at night when she was away from home, so I asked her mother what I should do to ease those fears. “Oh I don’t think it will be a problem,” she replied. “Now, any time she gets afraid, she just thinks about, or prays to, her guardian angel and she stops being afraid.”