Peaceful Piggies, Moody Cows and Elephants with PTSD
"Fairy tales are loved by the child...because—despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific context—these stories always result in a happy outcome." -B.Bettelheim (1976)
"Sometimes the world can be such a busy, noisy place," Peaceful Piggy Meditation, begins. I found this charming little book while co-facilitating a workshop on creativity and yoga at a local Buddhist Center. The center is actually two giant geodesic domes. In the bridge-way between the domes is a little "store" where I have purchased such magical things as my Tibetan chimes (well, my loving husband purchased these for me for my birthday) and this sweet little book that my yoga students seem to love.
Page after page, chubby, pink and, yes, Peaceful Piggies show how meditation can help kids cope. Too busy? Too tired? Feeling sad or blue? Peaceful Piggies say, "Meditate! Close your eyes, breathe in deeply and slowly... just drift away."
These are the very same words I tell myself each morning as I sit and meditate at sunrise. When I take the time to "sit" in the early morning hours of my dark and quiet living room, I am at peace (well usually!) as the crazy work-day unfolds. While the whirlpools swirl around me I am still and centered; when I don't meditate, I am the whirlpool. It is a message Peaceful Piggy illustrates in a way my little yogis can easily grasp. It's not just the yoga teacher talking and demonstrating different meditation strategies, it's pink pigs on meditation cushions, coping with their stressful lives by closing their eyes and finding peace within.
Fables, folktales, fairy tales and other similar types of stories (particularly those about animals) that carry a moral or message can have great meaning for kids. When read in a quiet and peaceful environment they can create a safe and open opportunity for kids to ponder and discuss what it means to be a person. Human virtue, love, misfortune, suffering, happiness, and anger can all be found in the story. And what child doesn't feel love, pain, happiness, and difficulty?
"Read a story about an elephant!" my student called out as I opened the Buddhist Animal Wisdom Stories book. So, flipping through the many pages of my brand new book I found the story of the fearful elephant. Generally I come to class prepared with what readings I want to share. Usually I have picked out a meditation to read that relates to the theme of the day, or the opening story, (maybe about birds) so that it relates to the art activity we do at the end of class, making paper cranes, for example. But on this day, I just didn't have time to preview the book so I walked into class with no thoughts in mind as to which story I would read. "Whatever story I read will be the right story," I thought to myself.
Sometimes I am the great planner and not so sure or comfortable about leaving things to "the moment." But, I am learning at long last, that there may be great value in just letting things happen as they will. The story of the owl and the elephant, as it turns out, may have been the perfect story for one of my young yogis to hear on that warm April afternoon.
There once was a happy elephant who was captured and held captive by the king's unkind soldiers. He broke free only to become frightened of everything and anything as he wandered around, alone in the forest. "This elephant seems to be suffering from PTSD!" I quietly chuckled to myself. As I read on, the wise old owl counsels the elephant, "Stop and think about each sound you encounter. Decide whether or not that sound is something you really need to be afraid of." With that advice and friendship, the elephant completely calmed down and lived in peace from then on with his wise owl friend.
I asked my students if they could relate to this story, "So, do you ever feel afraid?" Jason, my 6-year old yogi who has been known to roll around and up in his yoga mat while the rest of the class is quietly standing in mountain pose, immediately jabbed his hand into the air.
In class, there are two rules for Jason. Rule number 1, which is a rule for all students: Stay on your mat. Rule number 2, which is aimed at Jason: If you don't want to do what the class is doing, that's OK; just move your body quietly in whatever way works for you. Quiet is the operative and most difficult word for Jason. Having been diagnosed with ADHD, he struggles to get his body and mind to follow along with the flow of the asanas.
By the end of the day, which is when we hold yoga class, Jason's medication has worn off. He is a wild bundle of rajasic energy. He is most calm during meditation and when I read the opening story, but once we get on our feet and strike tree pose or begin a sun salutation, his body bursts with the energy of a caged bird set free. He always has a lot to say and so with big eyes, he began to tell his story, in response to my question, "When I am watching fireworks, I am always afraid. I am afraid that those sparkly lights will come down and set my clothes on fire because I don't have fire-proof clothing on!"
I asked this bright articulate 1st grader, who has so much uncontrolled energy that even while laying flat in crocodile pose in preparation for meditation, the tops of his feet beat to a rhythm only he hears, "Well, what might the wise old owl tell you when you are feeling afraid?" He quickly responded, "That I don't have to be afraid if it isn't going to hurt me. That I should think about, 'Is this really going to hurt me or not?'" As he shared with the class, his mind seemed to be working on hyper-drive as he attempted to apply the story of the elephant and the owl to his own life. "And maybe," he concluded, " I don't have to be so afraid just all the time if I look around and see that there is nothing to really be afraid of!"
"I guess this was a good story to read today," I smiled to myself.
In Jungian psychology, fairy tales are used to help clients understand their own troubled lives. With the guidance of their analyst, they interpret the actions and reactions of the characters in the tales, thereby working out their own psychological dilemmas. Jason related his fear about fireworks to the fear the elephant had while roaming the forest alone, traumatized by his prior imprisonment and fearful of everything he heard or saw.
In The Interpretation of Fairy Tales (1970, 1996), Jungian analyst Mary-Louise von Franz writes that, fairy tales and mythology provide us with the clearest understanding of our psyche. She writes that fairy tales represent the self in all aspects. For Jason, the wise old owl may represent that aspect of himself that he can access to calm himself down either through introspection, and/or meditation, or mindful asanas. Through story we come to see ourselves. Perhaps in the elephant and the owl story Jason came to view his feelings about fireworks differently, to see himself in a new light.
Bruno Bettelheim theorized in Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), that children use fairy tales and fables as they imagine and rehearse how to respond to moral dilemmas or difficult situations. While listening to, for example, the tortoise and hare compete in their infamous race, children imagine times when they too win the race by moving steadily forward instead of sprinting. Will Jason think about the elephant and the owl the next time he feels his pulse race and he imagines the worst thing that could happen to him as fear overcomes his mind and body?
Moody Cow Meditates is another of Kerry MacLean's books. It has been criticized for being too graphic in representing the angry little "Moody Cow". True, the protagonist, Peter, does throw a ball through a window and he does get a bloody nose, and the mother makes him ride his bike in the snow, but Bettelheim would argue that kids think about such things and so, it is of value to talk about them openly. And Peter does feel the consequences of his actions.
In the resolution of the book, Peter's grandfather, a big bull, helps him learn how to deal with his angry thoughts by showing him how to make the 'mind jar', a bottle with sparkles in it suspended in water like a snow globe. Grandfather advises that the next time Peter is angry he can just shake his 'mind jar' and calm down in meditation as he watches the sparkles (his angry thoughts) fall and settle.
In several of my yoga classes we made such "globes" out of used plastic water bottles, glitter, water and glycerin. One of my students, an older girl who has been in yoga class with me for some time, claimed that she was going to "put it right by my bed lamp so I can remember about how to be calm right before I go to sleep at night."
Teaching children yoga is more than just teaching them cute names for yoga poses. Having written that, there is most definitely a place for Bug Gazer (my students' name for a forward bend) and Sleeping Doll (a child-friendly version of corpse pose). However, yoga to my way of thinking is much more. It is also about teaching children how to become conscious, aware, centered, and peaceful citizens. That is what yoga has meant to me and how I teach yoga to kids.
One frame of reference for teaching citizenship, health, and happiness is the Buddhist notion of the 4 noble truths: life is suffering; the origin or suffering is attachment; the cessation of suffering is attainable; and there is a path to end the suffering (the 8-fold path of wisdom, ethical conduct and mental development).
In the yogic tradition, the Yoga Sutras form a framework as well. That is, the Sutras teach how to lead a moral life (yamas), what observances are of value, (niyamas), how to feel the power of our breath (pranayama), how to manage our senses (pratyahara), the role of concentration (dharana), how to meditate (dhyana), and how to find out who we truly and honestly are (samadhi).
How better to "teach" our young yogis than to present them with rich, lively stories that are then discussed, reinterpreted, and understood within a guiding framework. I think Jason would agree. Perhaps next Fourth of July when the sky is afire, exploding in color and light, he will remember the wise old owl and the fearful elephant and think, "Do I really need to be afraid of those sparkles in the sky? Maybe I am safe just as I am."