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5 Lessons From Zen Summer Camp

My family gave up beer, hamburgers and the oldest 4th of July parade in the country to go there and practice mindfulness with other families. Yes, we bribed our girls with ice cream on the drive home. And here's what we learned.
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Parents with two kids holding hands and running
Parents with two kids holding hands and running


This year I took my husband and two daughters (ages eight and five) to Zen summer camp.

No, really. With monks and nuns and meditation.

We joined about 60 other families at Blue Cliff Monastery, where they practice and hold retreats in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh (he's that wize old zen master that once interviewed with Oprah).

My family gave up beer, hamburgers and the oldest 4th of July parade in the country to go there and practice mindfulness with other families. Yes, we bribed our girls with ice cream on the drive home.

And here's what we learned:

1. Daily life is too hurried. At the family retreat, we took our time with everything. We walked slowly. We ate slowly. We didn't have tons of activities in our day. There was plenty of time to get around from place to place. They even have a song with the lyrics, "no need to hurry."

By contrast, at home, I feel like I'm always doing the countdown for getting out the door. And we don't even have tons of activities. Many children are shuttled from event to event without any down time. This pace leads to stress and attention difficulties for kids. This "non-hurrying" was definitely something I wanted to take home with me.

How to take this home:
  • Plan fewer activities. Plan down time into your days.
  • Say "No thank you" to some events. Especially if you'll feel hurried.
  • Repeat after me, "Thou shalt not squeeze." Make this your commandment for refraining from from squeezing in that one extra thing. It inevitably makes you feel stressed.

2. It's possible to enjoy more "neutral" moments. Driving, waiting in a line, walking from the car....these can all be moments we move from the "neutral" category into the "pleasant" category with mindfulness. Each day at retreat we were encouraged to breathe and smile during these neutral moments. And, I have to tell you, I felt really relaxed and content by the end of the week!

How to take this home:
  • Take a few moments to pay attention to your breathing in and out when you're driving, waiting in line, or walking from your car. Let the exhales relax your body. Notice what's around you, and smile.
  • Notice when there is nothing wrong and give yourself permission to enjoy that moment.

3. Even kids can learn mindfulness. The family retreat had a kid's program, in which they taught children how to eat and walk with their attention on what they were doing. My girls and many of the other children were able to practice this. And there was definitely an uptick in peacefulness in my normally rambunctious kids.

How to take this home:
  • Try eating mindfully. Get a few oranges. Invite your child to eat it with you "in a special way." First, sit and hold it, feeling the texture and feeling your breath come in and out. Then, smell the orange slowly, really taking in the scent. When you're ready, slowly peel it and place all the segments down. Look at their color. Eat them one by one, savouring the the flavor.

4. Slowing down brings out imagination. Without t.v., the internet, and cell phones at our Zen family retreat, life was different. We had more spaciousness and free time in the day. And the children were especially imaginative. A few groups of kids were involved in imaginary adventures that lasted over several days on the retreat. This kind of play allows children to learn social skills such as communication, problem solving, and empathy.

How to take this home:
  • Reduce screen time and give your children time for imaginary play. They will inevitably say, "I'm bored." No problem, just hold your ground, parents. I've used Simplicity Parenting author, Kim Jon Payne's suggestion to tell them, "something to do is right around the corner" successfully. Keep repeating yourself like a broken record they go!

5. Slowing down makes us more loving as a family. I'm at my worst when I'm tired, and especially when I'm rushed. On retreat, none of us rushed around. We practiced being present - fully aware of right now - rather than being distracted by thoughts of the past or future. Because we were present, we could appreciate our children more. We could see more of the beauty in everything around us, especially in these wonderful girls. They felt it, and were more loving too.

How to take this home:
  • When your child wants your attention, if possible, put what you were doing down, crouch down (if they're little), and give them 100%. That's not to say that you should never get anything else done. Instead, do one thing at a time with all of your attention - including being with your kids.
  • Make a commitment to slowing down. Our lives are fleeting. Our children's childhood even more so. Find ways to reduce your work schedule, if possible.
  • Take all the vacation days.
  • Show your love and appreciation regularly. When you do, your children will too.

What do you think? Do you want to slow down more as a family? What steps can you take in your own life? Start the conversation in the comments below!