The X Box, Vampire Slayers and Stillness
by Kim Ivy
“I’m bored!” “I’m tired!” Jeremy, six years old, repeats over and over from the moment he walks in the door to class. Sam, Jeremy’s 9 years old brother, flies in past him and looks around eagerly. “Can we blow things up today?” His mother Sarah sees my dismay. “Don’t worry, its not you, it’s the ‘X Box’.” “Bill and I finally succumbed, all his friends have one, and since yesterday when he and his brother bought it with their own money, it’s all they want to do.” Eddie, a 5 ½ year old with big brown eyes pushes through the door. “Eddie has something he wants to ask you,” his grandfather says to me. Eddie looks up at me earnestly. “Can you teach me how to be a Vampire Killer?” I look over at his grandfather. “He just saw ‘Van Helsing,” he says.
The X Box, movies about Vampire Killers, I wonder, how can I compete with this? This is exactly why in 17 years of teaching Tai Chi, I have resisted opening a children’s class. Adults are easy. I just have to soothe the effects of Seattle traffic jams and working over time. Breathing, slow movement and bamboo flute music works pretty well for the over 20 crowd. Yet at this moment, there is no exercise I can think of that is quick enough to overtake the whole host of neural pathways zooming like a NASCAR race around these young developing brains, their bodies craving to move in tandem with the flashing lights and blasting audio tracks imprinting moment by moment onto the absorbent canvas of their brain.
Karen, 6 and Isabel 8, enter. Isabel’s mother looks at me with large expectant eyes and I remember the many parents’ plea to me: “my child really needs to slow down! Isn’t there something that you can do?” The girls take one look at the boys and tear off for the storage closet. Isabel grabs a large ball. She stands atop, confidently shifting her balance like an expert surfer. Karen cartwheels across the room and into the ball. They both topple over, “OUCH!!!” My illusion that even one of the girls might become my ally is shattered. “OK! Let’s Go!” I clap my hands twice. I know the crack of my palms is as much to muster up my own courage as it is to gain the attention of my class. I look at my watch. I have one hour to make my case. The odds are not in my favor. “We’ll see you soon!” The parents say as they walk out the door.
The enormity of the task at hand is clear: find a way to train these young people in the art of stillness. And, unfortunately, I understand first hand the improbability of success. For me, being still has always been a bitter pill. It has taken me years to meditate for longer than a few minutes. My own restlessness, borne of my generation’s craving for growth and advancement, made all the hungrier by rapid fire technology feeds my own neurological chaos. I sit transfixed at my wireless laptop zipping through cyberspace, gorging on images and information, yearning for more - is this so different than falling into the sharp toothed mouth of an X box? I look around at the white walls of the studio. There is nothing to blow up here, I realize with some disappointment. Maybe they’re right, who needs Zen when you have the X? I remember to breathe. I catch an echo of flute music in the background. I think, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
GO! I take off and begin to run laps around the studio. I feel the muscles in my legs burning. The young group hesitates for a moment. I wonder what they are thinking and then hear myself say “LETS GO!” The large rectangular hardwood floor, designed for adult practices of stillness and meditation, now receives a staccato of pre-pubescent feet. “GO. GO! GO!!” “FASTER!” I say, as much to myself as to my audience. I hide my own panting. Sam passes the shoji screen, “can I blow this up?” he shouts. Karen does a cartwheel. Jeremy breaks formation. “I’m bored!” He sits down. “CHANGE DIRECTIONS!” Eddie and Isabel turn and run into each other. We run three more laps and add jumping jacks. “SNAKES!” I say, hoping to exhaust them. They drop to the floor and wiggle on their tummies, hips swaying left and right, and slither across the floor. “CRABS!” They flip to their backs, lift their hips and heads off the floor and push themselves backwards like sand crabs scurrying across the beach.
We run, we jump, we roll. We pounce like tigers, with our hands like claws, strongly reaching and stretching our limbs. We fly like cranes, stretching up on our toes, winged arms lifting us across the cloudless sky. I step out of the group to look at my watch. Forty minutes have passed. The children are still moving, now without any encouragement from me. They have formed their own teams, cheering each other on. The rhythm they have created sustains them through new patterns of movement that spontaneously emerge. I see them moving in cadence, blood pumping through their heart and into their muscle and tissue. I hear the oxygen rushing into their lungs. I know they have left the outside world with its honeyed temptations of light and sound and found their bodies.
And I know this is the moment. I clap my hands twice. “STANDING MEDITATION.” Sam is the first to stop and look at me. I am still, I bend my knees slightly, and raise my arms up just below my shoulders. I round them as though holding a ball, lower my eyelids and breathe. Through the slits in my eyes I can see Eddie’ thick black hair glistening with sweat. I hear some shuffling. I want to move, to guide them, but I remain quiet. I feel the children coming closer to me. There is more shuffling. And then, stillness washes over the studio. I open my eyes a bit and see each of the children imitating my posture, bent knees, round arms. Their eyes are closed they appear to be breathing.
Several minutes pass. I break my own concentration because I cannot believe that they are still meditating. Surely they have snuck into the back room for snacks. But as I open my eyes I see them still in their postures. They are fidgeting at little, scratching, rubbing their legs at times, but they are, in essence, still meditating. After 5 minutes I myself can’t bear the silence any more. “Ok! Very good! Let’s do some energy sensing.” “COOL!” They say in unison. We finish the class by playing some of their favorite partner games. They are quiet, focused and attentive.
When the parents walk back into the studio the see their children lined up straight, knees bent underneath them, sitting on their heels. Their eyes are closed and they each have a book on their head to keep their spine straight. The echo of the bell is vibrating across the wood floor. “Follow the sound of the bell,” I offer them. We sit for a few more breathes. The stillness that washed through the room earlier deepens. There is a sense of presence with our young tribe that rivals anything in our adult classes. As we close I tell them they meditated for a total of 10 minutes today and I ask them what they learned. “I learned how noisy I am!” Sam says.
Several months have passed since this day and meditation is now a standard part of each children’s class. I remain surprised that children can both stay still for any length of time and actually enjoy it. “I’m going to meditate for 30 minutes someday.” They say, or “I’m going to practice everyday during recess.” As they become more skilled in the art of stillness, the classes are evolving to include more complex activities and games. Their skill level even rivals the adults. “Why, the children can be still longer than you!” I tease. Yet perhaps most rewarding for me is when I hear their parents tell me that the classes are impacting their lives in a positive way. The children are developing a tool that helps them to feel better about themselves, have more enthusiasm for their daily activities and develop more presence and sensitivity with others.
The kids still get frustrated sometimes: “I can’t do it, I’m bored.” I remind them that it will always be like this. They remind me that no matter our age, we all live in the same world and must navigate through the same terrain. In working with these delightful young people I am encouraged to take more stillness recess breaks during my day. Perhaps I have been seeking refuge away from the neurological influences of rapid fire visual and audio stimulation since I was their age. Sam and Jeremy invited me to take my own chance with the X Box and soon I may be ready to do that. Eddie still has a ways to go before I will consider him as a Vampire Slayer’s apprentice, but I make sure I keep up on the movies so I’m ready for him in a few years. Karen still topples Isabel with yet ever more skill at her cartwheels. And through it all, we enjoy our one hour a week together building a still place for ourselves.