The priority skill our kids need to learn: Meditation

MARCH 4 — During the Tham Luang cave rescue last year, the 12 kids and their coach were trapped for more than a week before they were found by British divers. 

The very thought gives one the shivers: Trapped in near absolute darkness more than two miles inside an underground labyrinth which floods. 

Their eventual rescue was a miracle of human achievement worth celebrating; the quieter miracle, however, was how they were able to maintain their sanity at all.

Because the average teenager or young adult gets upset over the smallest things; when “triggered” by a Facebook post, or when hungry, or if insulted, or if the wifi is down. How did those 12 boys make it? 

Later it was revealed that the 12 were taught something crucial by their coach during the crisis. What was that skill which helped them cope in a hopeless situation for a week? Meditation.

A quiet source of power

Nowadays, kids are being taught all sorts of things from an early age: Sports, drama, “life-skills”, leadership, coding, tech, dance and just about whatever it takes to get 10 As in PT3, SPM and beyond.

But what about meditation?

Yes, I know, at first blush it sounds weird. Even I can’t imagine dozens of kids or teenagers in a school hall sitting in lotus position, all with eyes closed, repeating a mantra over and over again. 

Then again, this may simply reflect how “alien” and non-institutionalised the practice of meditation is.

Which is, frankly, surprising given the benefits of meditation.

Meditation ─ a category which loosely includes mindfulness, or mental “priming”, or visualisation ─ can bring about better focus, clearer thinking, less impulsiveness in decision-making, less reactive-ness, being more “awake.” 

Folks who meditate develop a greater sense of awareness (of self and one’s surroundings), facilitating stronger prioritisation, or that appreciation of the truly important things in life.

Put another way, to meditate is to fill our minds with the positive, the wise, the beautiful, the pure, the right, the admirable. 

To think about these qualities and to immerse our hearts with the good ─ and to do so at regular intervals throughout the day, not least the first thing in the morning! ─ is to cultivate a mental frame vastly different to what most people do in their lives.

Meditation, therefore, is really about training our minds to have better control over our (often volatile) emotions, and even transforming our emotions such that the positive and more inspiring ones remain at the fore most of the time. 

As author Tim Ferriss puts it, meditation can make the difference between standing outside in the storm and being blasted by rain, hail and wind and standing inside your house and looking at the storm.

Taking out the mental trash

The average student or employee takes very bad care of his or her mind. 

From the moment we awake, we fill ourselves with non-stop social media messages, photos and links, all of which are blasting into our heads from the time we get dressed to the time we leave the house, during the commute, before during and after classes and work, during meal-times, when we get home, then all throughout the evening and finally before we sleep (and for some the phone is a substitute for shut-eye). 

Add to this all the pressure and judgment from the people we interact with, and is it any wonder the average Malaysian is barely three steps from a nervous breakdown?

With platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we sometimes witness mob attacks in which hordes of would-be “social justice warriors” heap vile and vicious attacks on writers or personalities they object to. 

What many don’t realise is that this entire process, whilst seemingly damaging the target of our hatred alone, does not leave us unharmed; when we pour hate and disgust on others, our psyches suffer too. 

You simply can’t be cursing another person in a Facebook group and not have that condemnation rub off on you somehow.

Apart from social media, in our everyday lives our brains have a tendency to re-play very bad movies in our minds i.e. mental films which make us envious, jealous, greedy or just feeling wronged. 

Our psyche resembles a canoe going upstream in which “doing nothing” brings us down. 

Now just consider the average student facing sibling rivalry, homework they can’t handle, exams they’d rather not take, sexuality and identity issues, peer pressure, etc. 

All of these concerns processed and played out at home, in the school and on social media 24/7 and ─ voilà ─ you have a recipe for psychological catastrophe.

The practice of meditation, at the very least, acts as a cerebral substitute. Instead of populating our minds with despair, rejection and lethargy, we throw in hope, cheer and determination. 

It’s about regularly taking out the trash in our heads and cleaning things up a bit.

If we teach our students to meditate and “perform” mindfulness on a regular basis, we would be strengthening their minds and equipping them with mental tools to ward off dejection and despondency. 

Recalling the Tham Luang cave ordeal again, one of the key reasons why the trapped kids managed to keep sane and calm for so many days (in the darkness) was because their coach taught them how to meditate throughout the crisis.

Despite being in such a hopeless situation, those 12 boys not only managed to “hold on” psychologically, but also maintain a measure of cheerfulness. 

Now, imagine our boys and girls in school being taught how to uphold a sense of courage, gratitude and fearlessness come what may.

Imagine that, no matter how difficult Maths is, Ahmad ─ via daily sessions of mindfulness ─ keeps it together, manages to push away all talk of failure as premature, focuses on the formulae and tasks at hand, and manages to progress if not excel. 

Imagine that, no matter how cruel the comments regarding her body are, Melanie ─ through the regular practice of deep breathing and self-awareness ─ is able to sustain a sense of gratitude that all her limbs and organs are functioning perfectly, realise “super-model” figures are an unrealistic achievement, that her source of pride lies with her ability to serve people and enjoy the world in all its beauty. 

Imagine that, no matter how bad the troubles are in the family, Rani ─ by nurturing creative imagination ─ is able to envision better times and more loving conversations, and is thus able to act as a beacon of cheer and joy in the middle of her parents’ constant arguing and her siblings’ never-ending contests.

Start now

Via Google, you can easily find many articles about how to get started, advanced meditation techniques, “the first thing successful people do in the morning to prepare for their day” lists and so on.

But off the top of my head, there are a few easy practices a beginner can try. 

To prepare to meditate, maybe the very first thing to do would be to turn off your phone or put it into airplane mode (and try not to look at your phone the first thing in the morning). 

Secondly, find a place where you can sit comfortably and close your eyes for at least 10 minutes without any awkwardness. Put on some soft music if it helps.

Next ─ and these are some “concrete” action-steps involved in many meditative practices (again, more are available in Google) ─ learn to focus on your breathing. 

Simply attend to your moment-by-moment act of breath-taking, listen, be calm and be present. 

Be “here” in the moment, drop anchor into the Now and drift away into the (usually anxious) future or (usually painful) past; and let your heart and the movement of your chest (as it takes in and releases air) be all that you’re observing in your mind.

The above acts of mindfulness are necessary to calm us down and keep our emotions, our impulsiveness and our knee-jerk reactions in check.

After a few minutes you may begin to bring to mind your family, the people you love, your friends. And, one by one, begin to say a soft Thank You to them and for them, for just being part of your life. 

The point here is to hold in mind the most precious people in your life, for they are the reasons your day is beginning; they are why you work, why you study, etc.

The above constitutes disciplines of gratitude and prioritisation; nothing better than love and joy to keep fear and anger at bay.

Finally, another step some people take is to visualise what you want to achieve in the next hour, this day, the coming week or the next few months. In your mind, see these goals as accomplished, feel them as done, experience yourself as having achieved them. 

When coupled with the people for whom you are having these outcomes, such visualisation practices help you maintain a strong sense of desire and motivation.

The steps listed here are concise to a fault. But I think if you (or your children) try even a few of them, the benefits can be reaped almost immediately. 

Try them, or research and try something. A few minutes a day or more; it could make a world of difference.

* Email me at [email protected] if you have questions about meditation. I am not an expert but will be happy to share resources and ideas.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles