One night in April my six-year-old asked if he could work on lego robotics. I looked at the dinner table, covered in leftover Easter candy, rocks from the backyard, and last night's dishes. "When this end of the table is completely clean, you may," I said, and handed him a package of baby wipes.
"Can you help me clean?" he asked.
"No, I'm cooking dinner. You'll need to do it if you want room to work on legos."
He made quick work of the task in the typical, whistle-while-you-work manner he seemed to be born with. "Mom, it's all clean, see?"
I retrieved the lego set from a nearby top shelf, and handed it to him. He set to work.
After a few minutes of quiet, he asked, "Mom, how do you meditate?"
He'd mentioned meditation several times over the last few days, usually modeling the stereotypical lotus pose and humming with his eyes closed.
I asked him, "Well, first we need to know what meditation is. Does meditation mean sitting in a funny position with your eyes closed?"
"No," he said," it's giving yourself new thoughts."
We've all been working hard at giving ourselves new thoughts lately. My oldest child and I find ourselves gripped in the chokehold of anxiety more frequently and viciously than the rest of the family, and I've been trying to share some coping skills. The six-year-old has been listening. While he is a cheerful, carefree child by nature, he's getting older and is more aware of dangers, both real and imaginary. He has also been plagued by night terrors for the past year, that seem to come and go in waves. He spends the first few hours of sleep in his bed, but I find him nestled in our bed more mornings than not.
"That's right," I said. "Your mind is kind of like this table. It can get full and messy. Meditating is clearing off your mind, then putting a new thought you want to have on it."
"How do you do it? I have a thought I don't want. It's a scary dream." His normally turned-up mouth frowned and quivered.
"Well, it takes practice. Would you like to do some meditating lessons with me so you can learn how?"
"Yes. How about right now? Well, after I finish building."
So that night, as my oldest worked on origami and my youngest two enjoyed some bonus Pixar time, my six-year-old and I went into his bedroom.
"First, you need to find a cozy, quiet spot you can relax in. It can be a bed or a chair."
"Or a couch," he offered.
"Yes. And you can meditate anywhere, anytime. You just have to find the softest, quietest place available to you."
I asked him to close his eyes and take four breaths, filling up his lungs as full as they would go, and emptying them completely. Then I guided him through tensing and relaxing all his muscles, starting from his toes and working up to his head.
He giggled and peeked a few times, asking the occasional question. Then he said, "I still have my scary thought."
"We're not done yet. This first part was just to relax. Now we're going to learn what to do with our thoughts."
I was kind of winging it at this point, but came up with some imagery that seemed to work. With our eyes closed, I told him to imagine that his mind was a basket. He visualized it and customized it to his liking. Then I told him his basket was to hold his thoughts, that it belonged to him, and he was the only one who could decide what thoughts could stay in his basket. He is allowed to let any thought in his basket, and he can decide to take it out at any time.
He looked in his basket and saw a thought.
"What does it look like?" I asked.
"It's red and blue."
"What is it made of?"
"How does it make you feel?"
"Bad, scared, and sad."
I told him that this thought didn't live in his basket; it was just visiting. He scooped it up easily, blew on it, and watched it float away, over hills and rivers and mountains, out of sight, back to where it came from. He said goodbye to the thought, and it said goodbye to him.
I asked him to look in his basket again. He saw seven thoughts. They were good. We looked closely and saw an arcade he likes to go to with his dad and brother, playtime with his best friends, building with his Snap Circuits, and special reading time with mom. We picked them up, held them, offered to share them.
Then I said, "These thoughts can stay as long as you want. They will protect your basket. You can hold them, take care of them, help them grow bigger. Now I'm going to tell you about something else that protects your basket."
I told him to imagine a bubble around his basket. This bubble is his to control. He took a paintbrush and a bucket of strength and painted it, making sure not to miss any spots. Thoughts that approach have to get his permission to penetrate the bubble. If they don't, they simply bounce off and float up past the clouds, back to where they live, where they're not good or bad. Just thoughts made of air.
I counted backwards from five to one, when he opened his eyes and smiled. He then frowned again and said, "I want to practice it again."
"We'll practice it every day," I told him.
"Twice a day," he said.
It's been three months, but he hasn’t needed to practice it after that first week—at least not with me. Most concepts click with him immediately, and he doesn't seem to struggle to implement them. The gap between what he does and what he wants to do is virtually nonexistent. (Mine is a mile wide. He lives in the present, I in the past. I'm learning from him.)
I've been thinking a lot about what he needs from me. The low-maintenance child. He's extroverted, fueled by play and people in a way I do not understand. He's resilient, and when he finds himself in deep water, he simply bobs back up like a beachball. He doesn't have raging anxiety. He doesn't have special needs. He doesn't throw toddler tantrums. He's not a newborn who needs constant attention. He seems to grow just fine wherever he's planted. I'm unnerved by how simple it is to be his mother. I know he needs me, but not in the way or with the intensity that my other children seem to.
So I show him tools and put them in his hands. I give him time, space, ideas, and community, and let him run free. With these, he goes far and doesn't look back. And I watch, and marvel.
I miss him. But he makes sure he's where he needs to be, and that's out in the world, not clinging to my leg. He knows where I am. And he comes back at the end of the day ready for the bedtime snuggles only I can provide, and the sweet dreams he creates for himself.