Friday, December 4, 2020

Q&A with Susan B. Katz


Susan B. Katz is the author of the new children's picture book Meditation Station. Her many other books include The Story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Meditation Station?


A: For about 20 years, I’ve been attending meditation retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center with teachers like Sylvia Boorstein. A few years ago, during a dharma talk, Sylvia was talking about letting thoughts pass like clouds.


As a children’s book author, I decided to drive that concept home for kids. The idea of a train station, and play on words with how to calm our racing “train of thoughts” came to me. Then, the title Meditation Station (which I love because it rhymes) came to me.


I’d worked with Thich Nhat Hanh’s senior monks while I was a Strategic Partner Manager at Facebook and knew one of the women on his team who later joined Shambhala as an editor. I pitched the manuscript to her and she loved it.


Q: What are some of the best methods to teach kids mindfulness?


A: Mindfulness means being present in the current moment, whether that is washing dishes, eating, walking, or talking to someone.


Some of the simplest strategies to share with children are:


1) Belly Breathing—put your hand on your belly and breathing in for 3 counts, filling your belly with air like a balloon. Pause for one second before exhaling, then exhale for five seconds. It is important that the exhale be longer than the inhale because research shows that calms the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and lowers our heart rate. In short, it helps decrease stress levels;

2) Say it to the Ceiling: Naming our feelings and becoming friends with them can lower what we, as educators, call “the affective filter.” That is, when we befriend our emotions, our ability to overcome anxiety, and willingness to take risks, increases. I tell children to say to the ceiling (or, with shy kids–whisper it to their elbow) “Hello, Fear, my friend!” Or “Good morning, Sir Sadness.”  Boredom is a big one. “Oh you’re here again, Boredom Buddy, welcome back!” It may sound silly but, half the battle is teaching children to name and acknowledge their feelings. No judgment or resistance. The more children become aware of what they’re feeling, the better their life skills will be in facing that emotion head on and shifting their experience. Befriend your feelings and they will have less power over you;


3) “Stay in the Station” This one is directly from my book, Meditation Station. Tell your child to imagine that they’re in a train station. When a thought comes into their mind and tries to pull them down the track, just watch it pass. Wave to the train/thought. Feel the floor beneath them to ground themselves. Breathe deeply in and out. Touch their fingers to each other. Wiggle their toes. Anchoring yourself in your body and breath allows you to simply witness your train of thoughts racing down the track without going with them. Again, saying hello (and goodbye) to a thought is helpful. For example: “Hi daydream about playing at the park later.” (Or, let’s be real: “Hey, Fortnite”–insert whatever video game your kid plays);


4) Strike a Pose - Children naturally need movement. One advantage to being home during this time is that they have more opportunities to get up, move around and play. But, when they are expected to sit, staring at a device, for extended periods of time, it’s crucial to get them up and moving. Children may be familiar with basic yoga poses and you can show them some balance or stretching exercises to add to their repertoire. Many of these movements are named after animals, which makes them even more engaging. Can they balance like a tree and make branches with their arms? How about wrapping their arms for eagle pose? There’s cat/cow, dolphin, and cobra. The list goes on. A quick yoga/stretching “brain break” can help kids refocus.


5) Can you feel me? Encouraging kids to tune into their five senses brings them back to the present moment. No need to worry about that quiz tomorrow (I mean, do study, but don’t fret) or think about the embarrassing Zoom moment from yesterday. Right outside, in your own backyard or a local park, do a scavenger hunt of nature sounds. Play “I Spy” around the room to get their eyes off the screen and interact with the family. Can they close their eyes and guess what familiar smell is in a jar (or on a cotton ball?) Easy ones are: cinnamon, pine, chocolate or popcorn. For taste, place an M&M or raisin in their hand. Have them smell it, but wait to taste it. Then, ask them to place it in their mouth and just let the flavors be absorbed by their taste buds. Chew slowly, savoring the taste. Mindfulness demands that we pause, and be with each part of the experience. When I was a child, one of my friend’s mom’s used to make sensory bags when we watched The Wizard of Oz. She’d place cold, wet spaghetti in a bag and say it was the witch’s hair. You can cover containers with tinfoil and fill them with sand, beads, or Play-doh. Kids can reach in and guess what they’re feeling. If that is too creepy for your child, putting shaving cream or Slime directly on a garbage bag, on the floor or table, and allowing them to draw or write helps improve their small-motor skills.


Q: Especially in these difficult times, what do you hope people take away from the book?


A: Two things:


1) The old adage “this too shall pass” is hard to remember these days when Covid-19 isn’t passing, distance learning has been in place for almost a year, etc. I want people to think about the concept of impermanence. Passing trains are like thoughts or emotions; they only last so long. The only constant is change.


2) My meditation teacher often says: “the cause of suffering is wanting things to be other than they are.” There’s an element of acceptance in that. We can get so distracted with worry, anxiety, or sadness and anger. Those emotions are usually associated with past or future. We want to “stay in the station” or remain in the present moment, with our breath and in our body. Our breath is always with us and, wherever we go, we can return to our breath. Meditation has helped me in trying times and I want kids (and adults) to find a way to let meditation—paying attention to the current moment and staying with the breath—help them cope with the current chaos.


Q: What do you think Anait Semirdzhyan's illustrations add to the book?


A: So much! The bear, elephant, fox, and other animals are warm, cuddly, and kid-friendly. She did such an exquisite job bringing my words to life. Her palette and calming watercolor illustrations bring visceral, visual soothing tones to the book. I am thrilled that we were paired on Meditation Station!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: This year alone, I have eight books coming out. Seven of those are biographies in The Story of series: RBG, Frida, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Fred Rogers, and Gandhi. I just started writing another book in the “sister series.”


Next year, I have 15—yes, 15 books coming out. Many of those are for the education market but a few are trade books like a book I have with Simon & Schuster coming out about the ocean. I’m super excited about that one!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Aside from my experience with meditation, I was a bilingual, National Board Certified Teacher for over 25 years. So I bring that element of expertise as an educator to my writing. When I write, I think about my hundreds of former students, my twin nephews and two nieces, and how the book will reach and resonate with them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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