Adapted from Center for Adolescent Studies
The metaphor of the Lion Mind as a way to describe mindfulness comes from Larry Rosenberg’s book, Breath by Breath. The metaphor is simple and only takes a minute present. Hold up a pen or meditation bell (the stick used to strike the bell), and tell the group to imagine it’s a bone. If I’m standing in front of a dog and I wave the bone in the dog’s face side to side, and then toss the bone a few yards away, what will the dog do? “Chase the bone,” the group often yells back.
But what if I’m standing in front of a lion? And I wave the bone in the lion’s face from side to side, and toss it a few yards away. What will the lion do? “Eat you!” is often the resounding response. The fact is that the lion may eat me. The lion could eat met. But the there’s a fundamental difference between the mind of the dog and that of the lion. The dog has tunnel vision and can’t see beyond the bone. It becomes simple: If I control the bone, I control the dog’s reality.
Of course, it’s fundamentally different with the lion. The lion sits upright as I wave the bone, eyes looking beyond the bone and directly at me. The lion has poise, understands the bone is just a small piece of a larger reality, and therefore has much more autonomy. The lion can go after the bone, can sit there and stare at me, can eat me.
The “bone” is what gets related to our experience. When anger arises, what type of mind, the dog or the lion mind, do we employ? When we’re extremely anxious, are we chasing the bones of worrying thoughts, or sitting with autonomy? Sometimes we can get caught up in the bones of our own stories, thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions.
By remembering the image of the lion sitting there and being present and non-reactive, we remind ourselves of the state of mind we’re trying to cultivate with mindfulness. Not necessarily relaxed, but present, with a non-reactive and non-judging attitude. That’s what awards us with the true power of mindfulness. To face whatever “bones” get thrown our way.
You might follow up with a discussion about what particular “bones” are relevant in the students’ lives presently. What are the triggers they are dealing with most? That makes the metaphor real and applicable. It takes the focus away from meditation, which is easy to conflate with relaxing or trying to calm down, and points it toward the symbol of the dignified lion being non-reactive and poised. I then use the lion mind terminology as a language thread throughout the rest of my work with the group or individual. It can be more helpful than the word “mindfulness” for remembering the actual concept and practice of mindfulness.
When I check in with youth about situations they’ve been struggling with I can say, “What mind were you in? The dog mind or the lion mind?” and they understand exactly what I’m talking about. That is ultimately one of the goals in teaching mindfulness to teens; that they remember and understand what mindfulness is so they have more of a chance of actually employing it when most needed.
I highly recommend taking from this metaphor what you like, tweaking it if necessary, and catering as much as possible to the unique needs of the youth you work with.