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Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is director of clinical psychology and founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University, Teachers College. The author of "The Spiritual Child," she has spent over a decade researching the impact of religion and spirituality.
Every child is born a spiritual child. We all are “hardwired” with a natural spirituality. But this inborn capacity can be strengthened into the greatest of all our human resources through parenting.
The most important thing we can do for our children is to support their natural spirituality. Adolescents with a strong spirituality are protected against depression, substance abuse and risk-taking, and are far more likely to have meaning, purpose and thrive. Parenting for strong spirituality can start with early childhood, but we can "jump in" at any point.
To help you as a parent start to explore spirituality in your own family, here are a few exercises that I do with children, adolescents and adults. You may find that your entire family becomes quite at home with these exercises, and comes to count on them for anchoring and guidance.
EXERCISE ONE: HOSTING COUNCIL
The most important exercise I have discovered is “Hosting Council” in your own inner life. This is a practice that is done by all members of a family — parents or grandparents, children and teens. The practice is a reflection, a meditation or visualization. I honor its original developer, Dr. Gary Weaver, who “called council” with thousands of teens in pain, who were separated from their personal spirituality. It is the most effective practice I have seen at welcoming teens into a personal spirituality.
Breathe in and clear a space in your inner being.
I invite you to sit at a table. Before you is your table.
Now invite to the table everyone who truly has your best interest in mind. This may include people living or deceased, anyone who you feel truly has or had your best interest in mind.
Ask them if they love you.
Now invite your eternal self, your higher self, your best self — the part of you that is eternal beyond anything at the moment, your higher self.
Ask your eternal self, if you love you.
Now invite to the table your higher power. Whatever word you use for your higher power, invite them.
Ask your higher power if they love you.
Now with everyone right there, assembled all together, ask them what right now is important for you to know. What do they need to tell you right now — about you and your path. What do you need to know?
[Provide a long silence for the message to unfold.]
You might ask your child with warm curiosity, "who showed up at your table?" People of all ages often are surprised and encouraged by who appears at the table; and who shows up can change based on the passages in our lives.
This exercise can be done nearly anywhere by anyone, by closing your eyes for less then five minutes. I have done this exercise in workshops and sessions, as well as in classrooms, commuter trains, and over the telephone. I have always seen a connection formed, a relationship to spirit.
EXERCISE TWO: FIELD OF LOVE
Our spiritual family can be formed in many different ways — through adoption, childbirth, marriage, remarriage, etc. Ultimately all family bonds are a choice to love and commit. In "The Spiritual Child," I emphasize the importance of having many loving people in a child's life. Parents are crucial, but a grandparent, uncle, beloved babysitter or teacher can also play a life-changing role. Nobody is second-best.
The Field of Love = Family + Spiritual Love
Ask your child to draw her or his own "Field of Love." Who is in it? You may be surprised! Wow, I see you have included my sister, Aunt Lauren, how wonderful! There is our dear Katrina, the babysitter. All of these people are in the Field of Love and carry spiritual love.
If you get your child thinking of the spiritual presence in the Field of Love, it is there for you in tough times and can help with healing. When a family is severed or ruptured, it must be deliberately repaired. You can draw the mending of the field, and as a family, say the words that do the mending. You also can draw in a new baby sibling or family member, adding to the field. With a Field of Love, love begets love.
Keep a drawing on your fridge of the Field of Love.
EXERCISE THREE: TRAIL ANGELS
When hikers on the long Appalachian Trail grow tired or hungry, often no motel or restaurant is readily available! Instead, the hikers open their eyes and look for “trail angels.” A trail angel offers water, home-cooked dinner and a bed for the night in the rain. Hikers know that a trail angel often shows up right when you need the shelter or sustenance.
This is true in life, too. Our daily world is full of trail angels who show up and bring just what we may need. Often this is guidance or information, or an emotional compassion or companionship — sometimes the road to a new job or new perspective on our lives.
As a parent, joyfully share the trail angels that appear in your daily circuit with your child. This says to your child that we live in a spiritual world. If you run into a woman at the grocery store who told you “just what you were wondering about the new school” or “who originally shared the recipe that I am trying to piece together,” celebrate with your child this glorious help from your trail angels.
At school pick-up or during dinner, ask your child if they can reflect on trail angels they met today. This shows your child that we live in a world where we are guided and helped, a world that is alive, generous and sacred. Then ask your child if she or he might have noticed that she or he served as a trail angel for someone else today. This shows the value of our lives: Your child is a crucial thread in the web of life.
It is a terrible loss if these events pass right under our nose and go unnoticed by parents. Awareness of trail angels shows the child that we are part of a loving universe.
Note to fellow parents: Nearly every child I have ever met spots trail angels in their lives, given the opportunity to reflect. Nearly every child feels certain that "trail angels are sent.” This awareness is part of the natural spirituality in your child.
Contact Dr. Miller and find more about her research here.