Sumi Loundon Kim is a pioneer in the field of teaching mindfulness to kids. Originally brought up in a Zen community in the 70s, Sumi has been a lifelong student of meditation. She is the author a series of books for about teaching mindfulness to children called Sitting Together, as well as Blue Jean Buddha and The Buddha’s Apprentices. The Buddhist chaplain at Yale University and founder of the Mindful Families of Durham, Sumi now lives with her husband and two children in southern Connecticut. Sumi kindly agreed to do this interview with Yoga Buggy, much to our delight!
Yoga Buggy (YB): You have written about how as a child you were exposed to Soto Zen practices. What were some of elements of spiritual practice that were helpful for you as a child? Did any stay with you into adulthood?
Sumi Loundon Kim (SLK): My parents lived in a Zen community in the 70s in rural New Hampshire. I was born into and raised there until I was almost 9 years old (I’m 43 now). The whole community, including the children, followed a nearly-monastic lifestyle that began with morning meditation at 5 AM (5:30 for younger children), followed by walking meditation and a service of chanting and bowing. I learned walking meditation, sitting meditation, tai chi, hatha yoga, work as practice, as well as how to pay attention to each thing we do at every moment. Today we call this mindfulness, but back then, we called it paying attention. My parents left when they divorced, and I spent my teens with my father. He connected with the vipassana meditation lineage, which focuses on mindfulness and lovingkindness, and introduced that to me. I loved it and I’ve remained in this lineage since then.
What I remember vividly from childhood are two things I’ve carried forward into how I work with my own children and teach today. First, as a child I remember the smell of incense, the warm glow of the altar candles, the composure and peace of my body as I practiced bowing, the resonance and beauty of chanting together, the stories and art of the Buddhist tradition. In other words, I experienced spirituality through my senses. Based on this, and on observing my own children, I believe that children’s programming should be grounded in connecting with all of their senses. Music, stories, movement, art, food, incense, nature – these are magical and powerful for children and it’s how we can teach mindfulness.
The second thing is the power of community, of friendships. Community was (and is) the fertile ground in which the seed of a child’s spiritual development grows. In community, we feel safe, we learn better, we are soothed, and we have the opportunity to care for others.
YB: How did you yourself become interested in teaching mindfulness to children?
SLK: Once my two children moved into their toddler and preschooler years, I wanted to give them the gifts of spiritual fluency, mindfulness, and community that I had been given when I was a child. I had in mind that it would be more powerful for my children to learn these things in a group from other adults than from me, and that they needed friends to do it with them in order for it to be enjoyable.
It turned out to be the right idea at the right time and place. Word spread quickly and within a few months we had about 12 families coming together on Sunday mornings. I also discovered that no one had a clue about how to do it, and, even though I felt unqualified to create such a program, I was the least uninformed. So, I took up the challenge. Thus began 8 years of teaching and developing a family-based mindfulness program. My kids learned oodles of mindfulness, lovingkindness, ethics, character, and service/engagement in our Sati School classes. When my daughter turned 11, we gave her the choice as to whether to continue. Fortunately, a cute boy joined the community around then, so she kept coming with us on Sunday mornings.
YB: In the introduction of Sitting Together you quote Lisa Miller who says, “A positive, active relationship to spirituality in childhood significantly reduces depression, substance abuse, and risky behavior in the teen years.” Can you say a little bit about some of the positive results you’ve seen in the lives of children and young adults who practice mindfulness and meditation?
SLK: I’d start with my own experience. When I got to college, my family fell apart from untreated mental illness. It was a time of great suffering. Typically, someone from my background (abuse, mental illness in the family, low-income) would find themselves self-medicating in some form in order to cope with the intensity. I certainly was tempted. But, by age 19, I had the practice and I knew how to sit with strong emotions and my mind. I was able to self-regulate and maintain balance. I also had a fabulous community of spiritual friends and I had a natural instinct for creating networks of friends and elders at college. I was able to draw on these relationships for support, care, and guidance. Surviving and even growing in my young adult years is directly attributable to the training I received as a child.
In the family community I taught, I heard dozens of anecdotes from parents about transformative shifts in their family life as both the parents and the children learned mindfulness and lovingkindness. If angry outbursts had been common before, suddenly now people were pressing pause, sitting with their breath for a moment, and then coming back to resolve conflict more calmly. Parents were putting away their devices and giving their children their full, loving attention. People starting sleeping better, caring for each other better, and appreciating the goodness in their lives without needing so much more. I would say that we saw a reduction in neurosis and an increase in sanity in the lives of each family.
YB: I love how you are not too rigid about kids having a formal meditation practice-as an educator it makes sense to me to follow children’s natural inclinations to be mindful. Can you share with us a couple of simple practices for encouraging mindfulness outside of a formal sitting meditation practice?
SLK: Sure. Mealtime: Many families incorporate a minute or few of quiet, mindful eating.
Storytime: Reading storybooks with good storylines that convey mindful practices teaches both the parent and the child how to do these things. Cuddle up and read “No Ordinary Apple,” about a boy who learns how to eat an apple mindfully from his babysitter. Stories offer a third voice so that it isn’t the parent teaching but the book. Recommended titles here.
Cartime: Create a playlist of mindfulness-related songs and play it on car rides with the kids. Decent songs can be found here. Car rides are also a good time to be together in silence, letting the kids experience quiet and be with their inner experience with less distraction.
Bedtime: A perfect time to do lovingkindness practice together, and a nice transition to sleep. Here are the instructions from my book:
[This is how I did it with my children.] After settling into the beds, we began with a deep in-breath and long exhalation. Then I said, “Letting our bodies settle into our beds, feeling the support of the mattress, feeling warm and cozy, letting go of the day and any worries, just relax and soften. And then bringing our awareness into our heart space, picture a warm glowing light, like sunlight, that radiates from our heart throughout our body from head to toe and beyond. And in this warm light are our good intentions, our friendly wishes.” We use the following phrases:
May ___ be healthy.
May___ be safe and protected.
May___ be happy and peaceful.
Additional phrases or elaborations are absolutely appropriate.
We use four categories, with the children choosing a different person or thing for the second and third categories each evening:
1. Our own self.
2. Someone we know, such as relatives, friends, teachers. If a particular person was having a hard time, then we add some wishes for them.
3. Something from nature, either an animal, plant species, or landform. For example, “May kangaroos have good homes and enough to eat.” Or, “May the rain forests be protected from deforestation and logging.”
4. All beings.
YB: As children’s yoga teachers we sometimes struggle to create a balance between stillness (which sometimes becomes, “I’m bored!” and engagement (fun, but sometimes defeating the purpose of ‘moving into stillness’.) Can you speak to how you have dealt with this challenge in teaching mindfulness?
SLK: Great point! Yes, all the meditation and mindfulness practices should be done as activities that are connected to the senses. This keeps the children engaged while teaching them essential skills in attention, mindfulness, and insight. For example, the Calm Down Jar craft and meditation gives the kids something to create, a visual way of calming their breath as the glitter settles, and an insight into how the mind works (via the analogy of the jar). There are dozens and dozens of these both in my curriculum, in other books, and online. Pebble Meditation, Pinwheel Breaths, Blowing Bubbles Breaths, and Teddy Bear Meditation are all brilliant ways of teaching meditation to children in this way.
YB: What advice can you give to parents and educators who understand the benefits of mindfulness and meditation but feel too busy and overstretched to implement it into their lives?
1. When you’re with your children, turn off and put away your devices/screens entirely. Doing so automatically increases how present you are with your children by about 200%. Likewise, you’re modelling for those children how to be with others fully, thereby teaching them how to embody aware presence.
2. Use story time as a way to learn about mindful practices together through new and beautifully published storybooks (as above). Children’s books aren’t just for children.
3. Meditate 5 minutes a day. Did you have time to post some stuff on Insta/Facebook and watch clips from late night shows? You did? Then, you had 5 minutes to meditate. Is that too sassy?
4. Choose several routine activities – dish cleanup, folding laundry, showering, walking down the hallway – and make that a mindfulness meditation in action.
5. What free or low-cost resources or advice can you share for kids to benefit from mindfulness/meditation practices?
Many of the storybooks listed in the bibliography can be found at your local public library or reserved through inter-library loan. Several meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm have short meditations for children (lots for teens) will have meditations offered freely, too.
But the lowest cost/greatest benefit thing to do is for you, as a parent or teacher, to meditate for 10 to 20 minutes, 3-5 times a week. Not only will you be calmer and more aware, but you’ll be embodying this for your children, providing them with the powerful transmission of modeling it for them. Thankfully for our wallet, the breath is free so that we can be free.
1. Kim, Sumi Loundon. Sitting Together, Wisdom Publications, 2017.