How to Teach Children Meditation — Francesca Hampton

francesca hampton headshot

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Francesca Hampton is a writer and lifelong Tibetan Buddhist practitioner who’s written a wonderful new children’s book on meditation for kids called Leo Learns to Meditate. As a parent myself, I’ve found it hard to find resources like these, so if you are a parent, I think you’ll get a lot out of this episode.

Even if you’re not, I think you’ll find Francesca’s advice on meditation—that comes from a lifetime of experience—useful in your own practice, as she talks about how to cultivate concentration and loving-kindness, why meditation can sometimes feel boring, and how to keep our meditation light, joyful, and fun.

francesca hampton leo learns to meditate

There’s so many things that kids are exposed to now. They’re constantly telling kids to be tough, to be intimidating, to be first, but very rarely emphasize the beauty, the power of giving. I think children take naturally to loving-kindness; they respond to it when you offer it to them. They offer it to other children sometimes and to animals very spontaneously and strongly.

[00:00:30] Scott Snibbe: So Francesca Hampton, it’s really a pleasure to have you on the podcast today. I loved your book and my daughter more importantly loved it too, Leo Learns to Meditate, so I’m excited to talk to you about it today.

[00:01:25] Francesca Hampton: I’m delighted to hear that and I’m really looking forward to chatting with you.

How Francesca encountered Buddhism and meditation

buddhist child in robes

[00:01:30] Scott Snibbe: So to start out, can you tell us a little bit about your background with Buddhism and meditation?

[00:01:36] Francesca Hampton: Yeah, I was attracted to Buddhist imagery even as a child. And when I was olderafter getting a degree in History from UCLAI took off on the first of several long trips to explore the world, to find out what it was really about.

And gradually on four long tripsthey lasted over a year, each oneI gradually began to encounter Buddhist teachers. One night I made my way to this temple outside of Bangkok and met this remarkable Englishman. His name was Phra Khantipalo and he was like a half generation ahead of the rest of us.

He had become a monk in the Thai tradition, and he gave this delightful introduction to Buddhism, talking about “sila” or morality, and it just struck my heart. I was just so moved by what he said. I went back to my hotel and started reading his book and went on to travel to Nepal where, ironically, the teachers that would be the most important in my practice were offering beautiful teachings to many other Westerners.

But I was involved reading that book, so I went all the way home to Los Angeles and there eventually in 1974, I encountered these lamas, Lama Thubten Yeshe, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche was his main disciple. And over the next few years I went to a series of courses with them and had my first really solid introduction to what’s called the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

I went home and became involved in the establishment of Vajrapani Institute in Santa Cruz and we offered many courses over many years, and I got to experience the teachings of other lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. More recently I’ve been teaching English as a second language for many years in local adult schools and the community college here.

And I study more online now; I’m getting old, it’s getting harder and with Covid and everything, it’s much easier to study at home. I’ve discovered the wonderful resources provided by a man named Alan Wallace, he’s done whole retreats and put them online. It’s called SBI Media, if anyone is intrigued.

All that said, I’m a traveler, a writer, and a teacher of English, but I have not become a meditation master or a teacher of Dharma. If people think of me in this book, it would be as a Dharma friend, someone who’s just sharing with you what has helped me most in my practice over the years, what has kept my heart happy, what has come most easily. I consider myself a kind of sign maker for the children. This way to something really good in your life. This is something worth learning.

[00:04:46] Scott Snibbe: Our paths overlap a bit because I’ve been a student in the same tradition and did most of my retreats at Vajrapani over the last 20 years. So, I really honor what you did in founding Vajrapani and helping to build it up into the incredible resource it is. Thank you.

So the real delight of your book is how much my daughter liked it, because obviously, I’ve sort of raised my daughter a Buddhist, I guess you’d say, but I’ve never sat down and give her meditation instructions. That said, she actually comes and sits with me. This morning she was with me for an hour in my room while I was meditating, she sat and did her own thing. So it was really nice showing her your book because she got to actually sit and talk explicitly about meditation and think about meditation.

She actually helped write the questions and I had her record a few questions, so I’m gonna let her ask the first question here.

How did you come up with the idea for Leo Learns to Meditate?

Leo Learns to Meditate book by Francesca Hampton

[00:05:39] Samaya Snibbe: How did you come up with the idea for Leo Learns to Meditate?

[00:05:45] Francesca Hampton: Well, when I first started writing, I decided to try to write children’s adventure stories a few years ago—just to learn how to write a novel, how to shape a story as a writer—and I found that I really loved writing for kids. It just kind of flowed naturally, just putting myself in the place of the children and then imagining what they would do and feel as they move through the different things in the story.

More recently what I see on the news is really dismaying to me, when I see what children are faced with today. Not all children, of course, but too many children are faced directly with wars and disasters and even children who are not in places where this is happening, I can see that they have a feeling of the world as a lot less safe. It’s not as stable and safe as it was when I grew up. It felt like the world would be safe forever when I was a child.

It seemed important to share as much as I could with what has helped me most to keep my own life in a kind of balanced mental peace, even in the face of the challenges that life can throw at everyone. But it’s so much harder when you’re a child and this is just meant to give them more resources and to feel happy in yourself, even when things are challenging outside.

Meditation from a kid’s perspective

kid meditating with family

[00:07:15] Scott Snibbe: So your book starts out with Leo, who’s the main character in the book, asking, What is meditation?

So what is meditation from a kid’s perspective?

[00:07:26] Francesca Hampton: I wrote this book thinking of myself as a child; I wrote it for myself. And as a child for a long time—and even later as an adult—I was really mystified by what people were saying when they said they were meditating. When you’re a child you notice the outside of things, you notice that people are sitting still and maybe closing their eyes, and it’s all very intriguing. But it’s hard to guess what’s happening inside when you’re a child.

It’s also confusing because in the Western world, we use the term “meditate” or “enlightenment” in a much wider context than in traditional Buddhist practices; many things come under this umbrella. For example, it could mean just thinking out a problem, or it could mean an exotic mantra to help you get rich.

For me, my first glimpse of meditation, it came when I was in high school and this substitute came to my dance class, and she did the most astonishing thing for all of us. She had us lie down in the darkened room and carefully go through our body, starting with our feet, tightening things and releasing things, and feeling the quiet of the muscle after you tightened it. Gradually, she moved up the body and by the time she got to my mind, my head, I was in this wonderful state I had never experienced before and I thought, What comes next? What comes next? And it gave me a sense that there’s something to be learned by doing exercises like this.

For me, I wanted to share the full meaning of the term “meditate” as much as I can in this context, but coming from an intact Buddhist tradition, not just something that I’m making up. I’m just pointing to what is there in a fuller tradition than some of the many words we’re using as the word “meditate”.

I think these ideas are found in some form in all religions. This isn’t specifically Buddhism that we’re talking about when we talk about meditation and mindfulness and loving-kindness. Many people have personal philosophies that include these things in a really quality way. I think children take naturally to loving-kindness, they respond to it when you offer it to them. They offer it to other children sometimes and to animals very spontaneously and strongly.

I think children take naturally to loving-kindness, they respond to it when you offer it to them. They offer it to other children sometimes and to animals very spontaneously and strongly.

But having someone explicitly teach it, may or may not occur in a child’s life. Assuming the child is old enough to show interest if they’re bored, don’t talk to me, I’m watching tv, or I wanna play with my toy, that’s fine. But if they’re showing interest, I think it may have a really positive effect on their mind to have it specifically explained.

There’s so many things that we are exposed to now and especially tv is constantly telling the kids to be tough, to be intimidating to be first. They often encourage you to take and buy and have things, but very rarely emphasize the beauty, the power of giving. And in reality, if you follow the lives of people who dedicate themselves in this way it results in suffering.

They often encourage you to take and buy and have things, but very rarely emphasize the beauty, the power of giving. And in reality, if you follow the lives of people who dedicate themselves in this way it results in suffering.

In the long term, you won’t see very many happy celebrities living that lifestyle; follow them into their forties and fifties and see how happy they are. You can observe it happening. Loving-kindness just works so much better for both a meditator and for the people in his or her life that are receiving it. It just creates joy in a life, and I wanted to let children know specifically to think that way. It would’ve helped me.

[00:11:31] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I’ve often thought that myself, because I grew up down in Monterey and Lama Yeshe was teaching at the time, in the early eighties. I sometimes think, as a teenager, if only I had known and been able to go up to teachings there I would’ve had a much more peaceful and stable childhood in adolescence.

Our next question is from Samaya, she had another question for you.

How do you make meditation fun?

[00:11:57] Samaya Snibbe: Leo’s mom warned him that meditation can be boring. How do you make meditation not boring?

[00:12:04] Francesca Hampton: So I think at first let me say that meditation is sometimes boring and it’s okay for it to be boring. And if you feel too bored, you can always stop for that session.

Meditation is sometimes boring and it’s okay for it to be boring.

The boring comes because our mind is having a hard time entering the space of meditation. It’s always being pulled away. I’ve got a deadline, I’ve got this important thing I need to think of. And when you’re halfway it is distressing to be pulled into this space of not thinking. When you’re doing it right, it just offers a space to step back from whatever your mind is doing.

Often your mind is thinking about painful things and just quietly set that aside and be present in the moment with your mind and your body, and have a bit of peace. The more you develop shamatha, the practice of shamatha, finding the balance of focused attention on one thing and not focusing too tightly or too loosely, you find that perfect, clear focus.

The more you practice balanced, focused attention—not too tightly or too loosely—you find that perfect, clear focus.

You may find that you have moments of sudden, really profound joy. When you’re actually able to enter that quiet and focused mind, you are glimpsing the entrance to a path that really does lead to seeing the naturally joyful nature of your own mind. And most of us do just get little glimpses for a long, long time. It’s okay, that’s natural. It’s hard to meditate well.

But the interesting thing is that most warnings by the Tibetan lamas are not to get attached to the joy of meditation. So you can see that this is a natural result for so many people. The purpose of meditation is eventually to use your new ability to stay perfectly focused in order to develop real wisdom about how suffering and joy arise in the mind and someday to go all the way to waking up. They call it Bodhi, waking up, to find the state of mind that permanently lies beyond all suffering, and then to help others to do so. But it is very important to go slowly and with guidance.

Meditation techniques for kids: mindfulness of the body and breath

Leo Learns to Meditate
Leo Learns to Meditate

[00:14:30] Scott Snibbe: That definitely inspires you that meditation’s not boring. That’s certainly my own experience, that meditation’s not boring. But I think it’s a really good question for beginners. The first meditation technique Leo’s mom teaches him in the book is mindfulness of the body and breath.

Can you talk about how you adapt that practice for kids and what’s the benefit? You mentioned a little bit about that in the beginning.

[00:14:54] Francesca Hampton: Well, one thing that Alan Wallace mentioned that was startling to me—and I think that it’s a funny metaphor—he said, You want to stop the mind of rumination. I don’t know if you’ve studied how cows digest their food but cows have four stomachs and the things in their stomachs keep coming back up and they chew on them and that’s called rumination. And we also use the word about our minds, our busy minds, that go on and on and on in the background.

You want to stop the mind of rumination.

When you meditate, you begin to notice that your mind never stops, it is moving in every direction all the time. It’s looking into the future, looking ahead, practicing scenarios of what you’re gonna do if this happens or that happens, it’s running to the past to think, Oh, why didn’t I answer better to this situation? Why didn’t I tell someone this other thing? And you’re just practicing life all the time in your mind.

Many of these things in this uncontrolled mind often lead us into very negative emotions of sadness or distress or worry when your mind is not focused, not self-aware. Learning to stand gently apart from this busy mind, to focus on your own body and your own breath, to become aware of your own feelings, standing a little bit outside of them, these things can give us some spaciousness, some calm, even for children.

Learning to stand gently apart from this busy mind, to focus on your own body and your own breath, to become aware of your own feelings, standing a little bit outside of them, these things can give us some spaciousness, some calm, even for children.

I remember Lama Yeshe, he said, Sometimes it feels like the earth is here, and he put his hand under his chin, and the sky is here, and he put his hand above his eyebrow. The world is just too tiny and tight and stressful.

But these things can really help, even for children. They may help us feel better for the day. They may help lead to better decisions in our relations with others when we have that more spacious mind.

I want to say that I added an emphasis for children as they’re beginning a meditation of tightening the body and releasing it. This is something that adults probably wouldn’t bother with but the idea is to gently relax your body before you begin a meditation. It focuses you away from your ruminating mind and helps you start because this is all new for children and this physical aspect is something that I emphasize that a lama probably wouldn’t for most adults.

[00:17:43] Scott Snibbe: You know, I lead meditations also and that’s usually something I do in the beginning too. Mostly with the shoulders because that’s where adults have so much tension. So to tighten them very much and then let go.

We have another question from Samaya here, let’s listen to it.

Can kids meditate on their own?

kid meditating alone

[00:18:04] Samaya Snibbe: Can kids meditate on their own or do they need someone to guide them?

[00:18:10] Francesca Hampton: This is a very good question, and I think most lamas would say it’s best to have a guide. But I think for short periods, for the topics that I gave in the book, it’s a good way to just taste this for yourself.

I think meditation is beneficial for everyone. And if a child shows interest in learning and wants to meditate past 20 minutes, it would be good to have someone they can check in with, someone who knows meditation well. It doesn’t have to be a lama, just someone to check in with and make sure that they’re not doing it wrong. For example, sometimes if you meditate too intensely, you can get a headache.

It’s important to stay in what the Buddhist call the middle path, not too much, not too little. Tibetan Milarepa, a great sage, said, Hasten slowly, just go slowly, step by step. Go continuously in your practice and develop the ability to meditate and discuss what you’re doing with a guide or dharma friend from time to time.

It’s important to stay in what the Buddhist call the middle path, not too much, not too little.

It’s not good in Buddhism, or in anything in life, to go to extremes; it really is not. So that’s why I would recommend that children have someone to check in with on meditation.

The Middle Path

[00:19:33] Scott Snibbe: And any other advice for kids, or adults, on how to stay in that middle zone of not being too loose, where you’re not even meditating anymore, and not being too tight?

[00:19:47] Francesca Hampton: Yeah, it’s a neat trick, it’s very hard, I shouldn’t imply that you can acquire this skill of doing this in a very short time. I did mention in the book that Leo was very proud of himself for meditating even for a minute, not too loose or too tight. And that was probably an exaggeration of what you can do in a few weeks.

It is a delicate skill and most of us get there only for very short periods after a long time. The lamas will say that meditation for everyone is the process of gaining familiarity with something by doing it again and again. And this is true for anything in our life. Our mind is very much like flowing water. When water flows in a new place, it gradually makes that place deeper and deeper, and the flow of water becomes stronger and stronger.

Our mind is very much like flowing water. When water flows in a new place, it gradually makes that place deeper and deeper, and the flow of water becomes stronger and stronger.

Some days our meditation will feel hopeless so just relax, take a nap, watch TV, or take a walk. On other days it may be very pleasing and satisfying, but gradually the familiarity of what that good balance feels like and your ability to stay within it will grow stronger, if you do it on a regular basis.

One nun, Patricia Zen—she’s a wonderful woman—said, Doing meditation regularly is the key to growing your mind in this direction. Just an occasional retreat doesn’t have nearly the effect of meditating every day.

And one thing Alan Wallace said that really helped me, and has helped some friends of mine, he said, Remember, as you’re doing your meditation, on your out breath remember to relax and on your in breath remember to return to the gentle, clear focus. And when your mind is already in that slowed time space of meditating, breathing out relaxed and breathing in to gain focus is a very good way to do it.

On your out breath remember to relax and on your in breath remember to return to the gentle, clear focus.

Alan Wallace

Using compassion and loving-kindness to handle bullying

[00:22:00] Scott Snibbe: I was struck very much by your book because it takes a powerful turn beyond mindfulness, beyond these techniques that are the main ones taught today—and are getting quite popular—because Leo gets bullied by a boy at school, and I was very struck by this, and so was my daughter.

Can you talk a little bit about how Leo’s mom helps him have compassion for the boy that bullies him? And also how can parents listening help their kids who face the same problems?

[00:22:32] Francesca Hampton: That came from my dad, I had a really wonderful relationship with him. He actively listened to me all my life. All through my early teens, when most teenagers were kind of pulling away and getting very moody, he would take me for a drive and say, What’s going on with you now and how’s it going? And he’d really wanna know how I was.

I just benefited so much from those conversations that we had. And I worry that in this age of constantly staring at our phones that this is going to be much rarer. But what parents discuss with a child is what comes to seem most important to that child over time.

But what parents discuss with a child is what comes to seem most important to that child over time.

Regarding bullying, I think it’s very possible that I made it a little too easy to overcome that bully. In real life, it could be quite a bit harder. However, if you meditate on loving-kindness it will protect you as you’re projecting the loving-kindness. Whether it reaches the bully, whether they’re ready to hear it or not, it will help the child who’s being bullied. There’s a wonderful quotation in Buddhism. It says, “The sun sees no shadows.”

“The sun sees no shadows.”

girl in sunshine with shadows

When you are truly filling yourself with a base, a foundation of kindness to others, it’s very hard for that negative vibration to get into your own heart. You don’t feel the shadow nearly as much. If you can remember loving-kindness in the face of being bullied or in the face of seeing other people taking refuge in things that are harmful to themselves or others, it has this powerful strengthening effect inside. It gives you a kind of dignity. Even if you are temporarily defeated by a stronger enemy, it can bring healing to your mind afterwards.

I have definitely experienced this in my own life. Your example may also slowly affect others over time and bring you friends who start to see your good qualities, including that bully. Gandhi talked about this very much, when you react very differently than the bully expects you to react, when you react with inner integrity, gentleness, and strength, it gets through to them. It stops them in their tracks. And it keeps the balance of natural harmony within yourself, it gives it more ability to stay intact.

When you react very differently than the bully expects you to react, when you react with inner integrity, gentleness, and strength, it gets through to them. It stops them in their tracks.

Why do you dedicate in meditation and how does this work?

[00:25:24] Scott Snibbe: I asked my daughter what was surprising about the book and what she got out of it. She immediately said, The dedication at the end of your book, Leo’s mom tells him to dedicate his meditation so that he can become a better person, so he’ll make other people happy.

Can you talk a little bit about why you dedicate in meditation and how it works?

[00:25:43] Francesca Hampton: Yeah, this was something I did learn in Buddhism, and I don’t know if it’s it’s found in other traditions or not because it involves the idea of karma and karma is still a mystery to me. I’m trying to correlate it with all the other teachings I’ve had. In Buddhism, there is the assumption that one is going to be born again and again.

But even without that assumption, one is moving through time and progressing and changing; and you can think of it in either terms. Lama Yeshe once gave us a wonderful metaphor to try to explain how dedication works. He said it’s like an alarm clock. You’re in a situation where you have to wake up early in the morning for an appointment and you don’t have an alarm clock available. So you just tell yourself, I must wake up at seven o’clock. I must do this after a long period of unconsciousness. You will, you very often will wake up to the minute, I don’t know how this happens, but you set the mind in a certain direction. And even after a period of complete unconsciousness, it continues in that direction.

This is something like the dedication but even if you don’t follow the idea that we are going to be reborn, you can see the ripple of effects of our actions on others, on ourselves. If you set the intention for those effects to move in a certain direction, that again becomes the power of familiarity. You will begin to move in that direction yourself. And you can set the direction to move ever closer to your very best self that you can be in your life.

Welcoming your child into a meditation practice

parent tries to meditate with kids

[00:27:32] Scott Snibbe: I was mentioning earlier that my daughter usually comes into my meditation room every day and sits quietly with me until I’m done. But I’ve always wanted to just leave the space for her to figure out for herself, whether she wants to meditate and how to meditate, but as an adult, do you have any thoughts on how and whether to welcome your child into your practice?

[00:27:54] Francesca Hampton: Well, again I think you probably know far more about parenting, what children can do because I am not a mom. But I was a child, I specialized in being a child for quite a number of years, and I remember how things affected me then. And for example, my father was a passionate reader of history.

I remember reading books upside down at age four, and then gradually I got at least right side up. He would tell me amazing stories, the history of the Aztecs and La Noche Triste when I was like seven years old. I still have an interest in Mexico because of those stories. Everything he told me about gave me an interest to go in that direction. Even just agreeing to sit silently with a parent and not interrupt makes meditation, I would think, feel special to the child, something important. Something to learn more about over time.

Even just agreeing to sit silently with a parent and not interrupt makes meditation, I would think, feel special to the child, something important. Something to learn more about over time.

I think it may also create a special bond between parent and child.

I remember my dad coming in at night and telling me stories of Oscar the Octopus that featured myself as always in a starring role, along with Oscar. And now when I write a story, it’s partly in his memory. It’s in honor of that bond that was created between us. It was important to him. It was joy. It was something joyful we’ve shared together, and I think that your daughter coming in to meditate with you has got to be following something of the same story.

[00:29:39] Scott Snibbe: In general, my whole life’s goal with meditation is to make it feel like something so fun you would do it on a Friday night with your friends. So, I try to do the same with my daughter. And a lot of that is through just the mystery of it, that I never push it on her. But it makes her curious.

You know, she’ll turn my pages sometimes, she sits right next to me and and she’ll ask questions. She’ll say like, Oh, what’s that? What’s that? Why do you do that practice? And that to me seems like it keeps the excitement.

[00:30:07] Francesca Hampton: Yeah, I think you have a wonderful attitude to meditation. I can see people getting so grim about their meditation practice and the Dalai Lama and Lama Yeshe both have mentioned, never make it suffering. Don’t make your meditation practice difficult and suffering, if it’s too much, leave for that time.

Don’t make your meditation practice difficult and suffering, if it’s too much, leave for that time.

Have short sessions that are joyful and then you want to come back to the cushion and want to progress and whatever is really meaningful for you at that time.

Guided meditation for kids

[00:30:41] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so you have offered to lead a guided meditation which I really appreciate. We’ll air that in the next week’s episode, but can you tell us a little bit about it right now?

[00:30:58] Francesca Hampton: We’re going to start by calming the mind, getting into that meditation space a little bit. And then the meditation on loving-kindness, which starts interestingly with oneself. Buddhism is not about just working for the sake of others and putting yourself down or leaving yourself out of the love and the kindness you’re offering to others.

It starts by loving yourself and moves out from that awareness of cherishing, self-cherishing in a good way, cherishing your own happiness and then expanding it towards others. It makes it stronger. Anyway, we’re gonna try that out.

[00:31:43] Scott Snibbe: Great, was there anything else you’d like to mention about your book or meditation for kids?

[00:31:49] Francesca Hampton: Just that I’m very happy to hear that it’s getting a good response. I’ve heard people respond that even their three-year-old really liked it. I was quite astonished by that, and other people telling me that they think it could be beneficial for even teenagers. So this startled me.

It was aimed for youngsters, you know, six to 10, somewhere in there, according to the interest of a child; a little peace of mind for children in this difficult world that they’re passing through right now.

[00:32:21] Scott Snibbe: Francesca, thank you again for joining us on A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment to talk about Leo Learns to Meditate. And next week we’ll have your meditation.

[00:32:30] Francesca Hampton: My pleasure, thank you.

Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for my conversation with Francesca Hampton on Leo Learns to Meditate. If you’d like to learn more, here is the link to Francesca’s Facebook author page.


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