Friday, February 11, 2011

Elementary thoughts on love and kindness

A beautiful mind: Even among children, the practice of thinking kindly about others may help bring about more positive emotions and interactions.

By Paige Parvin, Emory Magazine

When Emory graduate student Brendan Ozawa-de Silva first walked into the classroom of five- to eight-year-olds at Atlanta’s Paideia School, he quickly despaired of ever achieving his goal: Getting the children to meditate.

Noisy and excitable, the kids could barely sit still, much less approach the state of utter calm and concentration that is central to the Buddhist tradition of compassion meditation. But Ozawa-de Silva captured their attention using an ancient technique: Telling them a story.

He told them about the sweater he was wearing, describing how his father gave it to him and explaining that it makes him happy because it is warm and makes him think of his father. Then he asked the children to consider the other reasons why he is able to enjoy the sweater—where it came from, who made it, and how it traveled to him. The kids rattled off answers: Wool, sheep, trucks, roads, stores, people.

“Finally, they shouted out, ‘It never ends. You need the whole world!’” recalls Ozawa-de Silva.

And just like that, the children understood, at least for a moment, the Buddhist concept of universal interconnectedness that undergirds compassion meditation.

The pilot program at Paideia, which Ozawa-de Silva codirected with graduate student Brooke Dodson-Lavelle, is part of a series of Emory initiatives studying the effects of meditation on physical and mental health. The protocol for the program was developed by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership, using Cognitively Based Compassion Training, a technique drawn from Buddhism, but without the spiritual elements. Secular compassion meditation is based on a 1,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist practice called lojong, which uses a cognitive, analytic approach to challenge a person’s unexamined thoughts and emotions toward other people.

The practice is designed to help participants recognize the interdependence of all creatures and cultivate compassion towards others, whether family, friends, or far-flung strangers. The comprehension of shared suffering is thought to reduce negative emotions, like anger and resentment, and help nurture positive ones, like kindness and gratitude.

“I really think it helps the kids to center,” says Jonathan Petrash, who teaches a class of five- to seven-year-olds at Paideia. “We have tried to make it part of our daily routine. There is a real calm, settled feeling in our classroom, with deeper and richer conversations. The kids are better able to show empathy, better able to show compassion.”

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