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FEATURE - May 2015 - Kansas City

Meditation Instead of Medication

Using Tibetan Thanatology and Empathy to Work with Children who have ADHD

By Daniela Muggia


Based on 800 years of observations, Tibetan thanatology (the science of death and dying) offers the most accurate analysis of what happens when death approaches, and how the mind and perceptions begin to change. The Tibetans saw how empathy increases in those who near death, as the senses, which process information, gradually “turn themselves off.” This process of “moving-on” makes the dying more permeable and more susceptible to outside influence. These observations gave rise to a number of insights on how to deal with the dying; giving caregivers specific instructions that have been maintained over the centuries. 


Caregivers — who occupy a very important position — can support the transition by attaining and deliberately maintaining, through meditative techniques, an empathic state of great strength and peace. 


This has a great influence on the dying because of their highly permeable state. If the caregivers are very serene, the dying will also become serene, just as they can become tense or anxious when the caregivers are so.


Now you might wonder what Tibetan thanatology has to do with children that suffer from ADHD, and why a thanatologist, who is more familiar with the other end of life, would write about children in severe emotional distress. It is because children are very empathic, just like those who are close to death. 


Children with ADHD lack the capacity for focused attention.  This prevents them from receiving much of the instruction sent their way. But since they are children, they are highly empathic, and this makes them open, just like a person at the end of life, to receive or directly absorb what is around them, including the state of their parents, teachers, and caregivers. A well trained adult, capable of acting from a state of peace that has been cultivated appropriately through meditation, will enable the child to feel their peace, and to experience it in a direct, non-mediated way. 


How does this happen? 


Even if it is more noticeable at the beginning and end of life, empathy is strongly and naturally present in each and everyone of us: it is a characteristic of human nature and also of other species that rely on the empathic cohesion of the group for survival. As humans, we have the capacity to learn how to cultivate empathic communication, and use it at will to support and advance our relationships. 


Tibetan thanatology guides caregivers to develop — through several meditation techniques — a special quality and way of listening to the dying that emanates from a deep state of peace.  Traditionally, the way the caregivers are — their capacity for active listening and presence — is considered even more important than what they do and say. 


Cultivating this capacity of deep listening replaces the ordinary dualistic, judging pattern of the human mind, based on the separation between subject and object: in a sense, the caregiver becomes better at “connecting with” either the dying or the children with ADHD, by sharing their preferred communication style. 


Meditation and the Brain


Neuroscience studies on trained practitioners have shown that meditation enhances empathic skills and allows a deep state of peace to appear, not only during the meditation sessions but also post-meditation. 


This is due to the effect of meditation training on the capacity of our brain to change. We aim to enhance empathic skills in adults, as well as to allow them to keep a deep state of peace in the presence of ADHD children, no matter how these children behave.


Personal Experience


My contact with ADHD children comes from having been asked, as a thanatologist, to support bereavement in a class where a teacher or a child had passed away. I usually bring with me a team of carers1, well trained in meditation, who have a strong and quiet presence, as well as a highly cultivated capacity of listening. The intention is to create the right environment so that bereavement can be addressed in an empathic way. 


In many classrooms these days, there are children who suffer from ADHD. I began to observe the impact this state especially had on them and realized that this was probably the first time some ADHD children had truly experienced peace. It was from this insight and experience that I began to develop a very light, but continuous training for the teachers and children, that in some circumstances became part of the daily class program.


Once these children had a direct experience of deep peace and compassion they were motivated to receive further guidance. More specialized meditations gave them a chance to develop peace, compassion and loving-kindness themselves, which slowly transformed their brain and their relational life into a fuller, calmer and happier one.

Daniela Muggia is a thanatologist, co-author of The Impact of Empathy — A New Approach to Working with ADHD Children and the winner of the prestigious Terzani Award for the Medical Humanities. For almost 30 years she studied the Tibetan tradition of death and dying with Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the ground-breaking Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She also trained with Cesare Boni at Naples University, Italy. After more than 20 years of working with the terminally ill, she has developed the ECEL method, Empathic Care at the End of Life: one of the most popular courses taught in hospitals, hospices and for Masters degree programs at universities in Italy and other countries. Impact of Empathy 1 We use the term carer to designate a volunteer, as opposed to caregiver, which would be a paid 

health care worker, such as a physician.


was published in October of 2014.


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