My teenage years weren't the easiest. I struggled with popularity (or lack thereof), bad skin and what I was convinced was irreparable heartbreak. No one understood me, especially not my parents. I was 15 when Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the radio, and while I didn't exactly understand the lyrics, I was convinced Kurt Cobain had stumbled across my own indefinable, adolescent malaise.
In many ways, however, I was lucky. I had a few close friends and together we were a teenage army, protecting each other against rivals, rebuilding each other after battles at home. When alone, I had other coping mechanisms: I wrote maudlin poetry, read constantly and mass-generated mixtapes to match my moods. Perhaps more important were the things I didn't have: namely, social media and the Internet. Public humiliation had its limits. Personal failures had a shelf life.
Today, things are more complicated. Recently a 16-year-old from my neighborhood committed suicide by jumping on the train tracks across from my apartment. A week or so later, his schoolmate followed suit at another station. I hear various reasons for kids' struggles, from cyberbullying to helicopter parenting to the stress of college applications.
I don't know if things are harder now than in the past, but today's problems certainly seem more elusive, occurring in a technological bubble that isolates kids from their parents — removing fundamental support when children need it most.
I look at my own kids and feel helpless about their future. How will my sensitive daughter handle bullying that doesn't end when she gets off the school bus, but follows her from screen to screen? What if we've sheltered her too much, and she's unable to cope with a bad grade, or a rejected college application? How can I protect my kids from a world that seems to grow darker and more indifferent with each technological innovation?
Maybe the answer is simple. Maybe it's been around for thousands of years.
I was a college freshman when I attended my first group meditation. I sat in the lotus position for an hour and attempted to focus on my breathing. My mind swarmed with thoughts, as I pushed away pangs of frustration, convinced I was doing it all wrong. Yet somehow, after that hour, I felt a clarity I'd never felt before. My insecurities, my social anxieties, even my grades all suddenly seemed smaller and less important. In the silence, with only my breath to guide me, I had found a semblance of peace.
I can't protect my daughter from the outside world. I can't make kids nicer, or darken every screen or new technology that comes her way. But I can give her this one tool, this millenniums-old coping mechanism, that can be her rock in the storm.
And so I sit with my 6-year-old daughter, side by side in the lotus position, her small palms face up on her knees. Together we breathe in and out in the silence. Granted, we only do it for a few minutes, but I see her growing more patient, more in tune with her breathing, each time we try.
Sometimes when she has a big task ahead of her, she sits on her own — without any prompting — and meditates until she's calm. Maybe the unprecedented rigors of first grade have already infused her previously trouble-free life with a sense of anxiety. Maybe she's more worried than she lets on about nascent cliques and bus-stop drama. Or maybe she just likes imitating Mommy. But she seems to enjoy those quiet moments in the lotus position. She seems to appreciate the break from the chaos, the temporary escape from life's constant noise.
It's my hope that my daughter will experience all of meditation's benefits. Studies have linked meditation to reduced stress, anxiety and depression. Meditation also shows promise in treating various health issues, from pain to psoriasis, and can improve concentration and attention. In one study, subjects improved their GRE scores after just two weeks of mindfulness training; in another, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found students performed better on tests of cognitive skill after just four days of meditation training for only 20 minutes per day.
But most importantly, it's my hope that meditation will be a home my daughter can return to whenever her journey is painful or she loses her way — a reminder that the fears and hopelessness she faces are fleeting, and not a permanent part of who she is. That gossips and bullies are noise that can be turned down. That negative thoughts and self-doubt can be overcome. That peace and tranquility are possible, even in a world that thrives on judgment and collision.
Most of all, I hope to empower her in her weakest moments — when she faces the world alone, because she can't or won't let us stand by her side. I want her to know there is strength in stillness. Power in breath. Comfort in turning down the noise.
And so, as I sneak peeks at my daughter sitting beside me, breathing in and out, I'm relieved at the serene look on her face. One day, when she needs it most, this silence may bring solace. One day, this stillness may bring peace.
One day, these simple breaths may save her life.