At the urging of Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita, Steven Smith and Michele McDonald-Smith started the Young Adults Retreat at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in 1987 with ten young people, all of whom were children of meditators. Over the years this retreat for teens has increased to include sixty yogis. For many young people, it is an annual event, an introduction to dharma, and an opportunity for practice to deepen. I have assisted on the retreat for several years, and led a roundtable discussion this June with a group of yogis, all of whom have participated on at least three of the retreats.
Michael Brooks (age 16): When I think about how dharma has aﬀected me over time, I sometimes think, if I didn’t meditate, I would be unbearable! Doing metta meditation this week I really felt a great sense of camaraderie with all of you, man; everybody has the same motivations, we’re all screwing ourselves up! I’m seeing I’m even similar to all the corporate heads, whom I think are disgusting, plundering the environment. I have the same motivations as them. But I see changes in myself because of the practice. In the meditation hall when some yogis come in late and creak a ﬂoorboard, the immediate experience will be like, oh well, I don’t have to be selﬁsh or angry because ultimately their being noisy doesn’t really matter as much as I think it matters. That’s very beautiful, very graceful when it happens.
Jessica Morey (age 21): For me dharma’s gotten so integrated into the way that I relate to the world and to people that I don’t even realize it. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally killed a mosquito since I was fourteen when I went on my ﬁrst young adults retreat. It’s so integrated that I’m not even noticing the change in myself.
Sarah Johnston-Gardner (age 18): Buddhism and the teachings and the way we interact with the precepts have taught me that there’s a lot more to relationships and life than the Western world and the media have to oﬀer. That’s huge. It’s opened this whole door on how to interact with people and respect people, especially in sexual relationships. I’m much more truthful to people. Like when I feel like I’m getting too harsh with people or dipping into drugs or dipping into abusive behavior, you know, inﬂicting harm, something catches me. I don’t know if that would have happened if I hadn’t been sitting, you know. It feels very powerful. I can look in the mirror and actually like what I see. It wasn’t always that way.
Colin Campbell (age 19): I think, for me, the practice aﬀects my life very subtly. I don’t have a daily or weekly sitting practice, I have a yearly sitting practice. I’ve been coming here since I was thirteen, and it’s always felt really natural to me. My parents used to joke that I was a monk in my last life.
Mark Ledoux (age 17): Mine, too.
Michael: My parents called me a South American dictator. [Laughter]
Colin: I’ve always sat back from crowds and watched. I’ve always detached myself and looked at things rather than participating. So in some ways, I feel like what I’ve learned at IMS is a tool that I keep in my toolbox and bring it out when I need to. But at other times, I wonder how I ever got along without it, and especially when I come to these retreats and I think, Why would I ever leave this place? But in my day-to-day life, which is somewhat more Western and goal-oriented and go, go, go, dharma is a very strong guide. I feel like it’s very close to who I am. But that’s not to say that there’s no room for improvement.
Mark: Recently I’ve been learning to respect my own wish to be happy. That’s really having an eﬀect. I guess when I was younger, I had a really big issue with pleasing the people around me, pleasing my parents, proving my worth a lot. And there are a lot of things that I did and still some things that I do now that I’m not doing out of any inner need. Now I’m realizing that I want to learn to live more out of my own needs, following my own bliss.
Caitlin Sullivan (age 19): Me, too. My whole life I’ve conditioned myself to love to follow protocol. I judged my worth by whether I can fulﬁll the standard way of doing something, except I have to do it better than everyone else. It wasn’t until I began meditating and thinking about the dharma that I realized there was no reason I had to do anything at all, ever. You know, I didn’t have to live my life a certain way just because someone bigger, older or more informed than me thought that was a good thing to do. That thought had never occurred to me before. I know I probably won’t ever break away from that mindset around protocol because it’s so deep within me; I mean, I’ve pretty much set myself on a track that will send me straight down the line. But I know, along the way, if I kick myself in the ass enough, I won’t miss out on life. I can still, every now and then, step back and be like, Do I have to do it this way? Can I do it a diﬀerent way if I want to? That’s a huge thing for me.
Mark: It’s funny, I’ve had similar experiences to that, and I’ve noticed sometimes I’ll even bring that to the cushion. I’ll have these ridiculous fantasies about giving oﬀ this image of being a really devoted practitioner. I have to do walking meditation with my eyes closed because otherwise I get really paranoid that I’m not walking the slowest out of everyone in the room. It is so funny to see. I still do it, but when I catch myself, I just have to laugh. And that’s something I’m really grateful for. It’s liberating not to have to believe the thought, Oh no, I’m still such a dysfunctional person.
Caitlin: I love to sit late at night after everyone else leaves the meditation hall, but if I’m not the last person in the room, I haven’t done a good enough job. I’ll ﬁnd myself sneaking an eye open and checking who’s still there. But when I realize I’m doing this, I think, You have to get up and experience how humiliating it is for you to feel that way. It is so humbling for me to realize I’m competing with people I consider my friends to see who can sit the longest. I have to let myself experience how awful it feels to not win. It’s horrible. Last night I went back to my room and I cried a little, I was so angry. I never thought of myself as being a competitive person. It’s only in situations where it really means something to me that competitiveness hits me, because usually I’m not doing anything I really care about. But I care about meditation. It hits me how much I want to do well and want others to recognize I’m doing it well.
Sarah: It is nice to be the last person in the room, somehow. It’s really nice.
Jessica: Another yogi and I had rooms in the walking room near each other during the Three-Month Retreat. I’d come down at midnight, and he’d be doing walking meditation. So I’d feel competitive and think I have to walk later than him. He’d go to 1:00 or 1:30 in the morning sometimes. So I would keep walking longer, trying to outwalk him. It was so funny because I mentioned it to him just now about our competition and how aversive it made me feel. He said, “Oh, I thought we were supporting each other.”
Michael: I can be really judgmental of myself because I notice a very big split between what I think, what I practice, and what I do. That’s really what I’d like to work on, like that Gandhi quote: “Embody the change you seek in the world.” I have all these ideas and thoughts and they sound nice, but it doesn’t matter if I can’t even go to school without getting completely irritated by half of the student body! That’s where I’m ﬁnding it very challenging.
But sometimes I do notice when I am totally lost in something. I retract and say, Do I really need to be doing this? You know, of course I don’t need to be doing this! [Laughter] But at least I have that retraction point.
Jessica: Yeah. Sometimes when I’m totally angry or whatever, I’ll —ahhh—just let it go, and then I’ll feel so good. Or I know I could be in peace, but I’m not now. When I see where I’m stuck, it doesn’t mean I do let go, but I know at least that it’s a possibility.
Mark: Doing this practice and bringing awareness into my life has helped me to let go of a lot of things that were kind of plaguing my life. I’m letting go of a lot of my anger and a lot of really very high expectations for myself. A lot of the pain and suﬀering that I was inﬂicting on myself were walls I was boxing myself up in that I didn’t even realize were there. It wasn’t like I had an epiphany. I didn’t just wake up one morning and it’s all washed away. But actually, this retreat is a good check-in point for me; I can look back on the year and see how I’ve progressed.
Michael: I think that before I came to meditation, I had a lot of ideas about freedom, like political freedom or whatever. But I think that dharma has changed my way of relating to freedom. You usually think of freedom as “I can do whatever I want to do.” Then you meditate and you realize, well, whatever I want to do is kind of blocking me from having a real sense of freedom.
Mark: Yeah, that freedom comes through discipline. We were talking in our discussion group about diﬀerent ways that we could reorganize this retreat, and someone was talking about choosing your meditation period—like being able to come and go, basically, whenever we wanted to. I was saying, you know, as much as I’m a person who does not respect structure, it’s a really important part of meditation to have to sit with stuﬀ that you don’t want to sit through. Didn’t someone say: If you only sit when you want to, you only get to know the mind that wants to sit? I think that’s an example of ﬁnding freedom within the things you can’t control instead of going nuts with the things you can control.
Sarah: On one young adults retreat I yelled at a really sweet helper woman who was trying to make me go to a sitting. I said, “No, I really don’t want to do this, and I’m really angry that you’re telling me how to do this. I won’t go!” So she’s like, “Be with your experience.” I totally went oﬀ on her. I was gritting my teeth during walking meditation. It didn’t occur to me until later in the year that she had a really good point. Of course I should do walking meditation, be with my anger and see what anger really is.
Mark: That’s funny. My parents used to say stuﬀ like that to me. Drove me insane!
Sarah: [mimics] Are you doing the dishes mindfully?
Jessica: Your parents say that, too??!
Sarah: You know what’s cool about this retreat? It’s that you don’t have to be perfect, and it’s better that you’re not. It’s better to show your irritation and your imperfection here because you have the space and the community to support you.
Jessica: Something that I bring away from retreat is this core feeling that it’s all okay, that somewhere at some time, lots of people loved and totally accepted me. On the Three-Month Retreat I had a really deep sense that everything is okay. Like no matter what, there really isn’t a problem. It’s really okay, 100 percent. I may not always remember how I get to that realization, but it’s somewhere inside of me.
Michael: What is so marvelous is that what you’re doing now is right now, and it’s very incredible. I think I take things for granted, like my family. But when I’m sick, my relationship to them completely changes because I become this little helpless thing again. I’m not always trying to push them away and have my issues and my arguments and everything. I’m sick, and I just want some of my mom’s miso soup. I’m appreciating what I have and where I have it. I think it’s very important. Like bringing it really back down to earth and reality and grounding it. Yeah, my mom’s miso soup.
Sarah: On this retreat, I’ve really been feeling that “seize the day” thing. There’s been a lot more talk this year about everything arising and falling. In my walking meditation, I was thinking about this, like steps arising and falling, and life arising and falling. It’s a big deal to think about your life ending, but it feels pretty easy to think about it here at IMS. There’s a feeling of peace because believing in change makes it easier for me to be with life moment by moment as it is, because it feels so special. Like to be sitting here and talking or sitting on my cushion with my eyes closed, it feels like this is exactly right. This is what I want to be doing with my life, this moment, and I’m really excited. And just that thought by itself is so cool. It’s my “one wild and precious life,” you know.
Once during a meditation class in Juvenile Hall I asked the teens, “How do you feel most alive?” One teen said he felt most alive when rolling a joint. So I said, “Through practicing mindfulness, you can even be aware of your moment-to-moment experience while rolling a joint. You’re breaking up the bud, then you’re laying it out. You see the crystals and the hairs. . . .” I was using this as an example for these kids, all of whom get high all the time, many of whom are in Juvenile Hall for possession or dealing. They’re spending a lot of their time fantasizing about the next time they’re going to get high. So I explain that they can use any circumstance to practice mindfulness, whether they are getting high or doing time. Only in the present moment can they experience the mysteries that life presents, only in the present moment can freedom be found. I certainly don’t think that getting high is the best motivation for practice, but I’m willing to use what ever skillful means I can to share this simple and transformative practice.
—Noah Levine, Director, Spirit Rock Meditation Center Family and Teen Program
When I was teaching meditation to younger teens in India I’d give them a homework assignment to be mindful one time that day and report back about it. Almost half the students would say, “I was mindful when I was playing cricket.” They are fanatics about cricket in India. I’d ask them to be more specific, and they’d say, “Oh, I noticed the feeling of excitement and the coolness of the air on my skin and the hardness of the ball in my hand.” One day I said, “Okay, everybody, let’s go out to the playground. We’re going to play a game of mindful cricket.” And I had them play a slow-motion game of cricket with an imaginary ball. They just loved it. I kept stopping them by ringing the bell and saying, “Stop. What are you mindful of this second? Observe. Now keep going.”
—Diana Winston, meditation teacher to teens and young adult
As part of council with a teen group that I led, we would invite everyone to light candles. In this group people were really opening up and sharing what life was like for them, and we were getting into some pretty deep questions. One day a young woman, I’ll say Susan, who’d been pretty shy but had consistently come, didn’t show up. I knew things in her life were difficult, so I called her to find out why she hadn’t come. I spoke to her mother who said, “Oh, I’m so glad you called because Susan wanted you to know that she’s in the hospital and that she tried to kill herself. She said, ‘Mom, please tell Dana because they’ll light a candle for me.’” Susan knew that this group would be right there for her; she knew that this energy, the love that we’d developed in this circle, would be going out to her. It was so powerful to see the teens get in touch with their own power to bless other people or to offer that kindness, instead of always being in the role of receiving or being a less-empowered group in our culture. The group became the touchstone where anything is welcome, no matter what is happening.
—Dana Paxton, Spirit Rock Meditation Center teen teacher
With incarcerated youth sometimes it’s very valuable to mention impermanence, that everything changes and they will get out of there if they stay alive. For some it clicks when they hear that nothing will last. What I mention is that because of impermanence you can kind of redefine yourself. Maybe you don’t have to be stuck with your past. Once I was speaking to two gang members, and I mentioned this whole “Artist Formerly Known As . . .” phenomenon—the possibility to redefine yourself. That really made them feel good.
—Isaiah Seret, meditation teacher to incarcerated youth
I started meditating when I was a teenager, but I felt like I was living in two worlds—the world of spirit and dharma and the world of a teenager growing up on the south side of Chicago. It was very isolating and very challenging to try to bring those two realities together. It was like growing up and waking up were moving in two different directions. One of my motivations for working with teens is to see if those two things could actually become the same thing, that the capacity to wake up is not different than but is actually helpful in the process of growing up.
We practice the presence we teach. I think it’s a revolutionary act simply to sit in the classroom and welcome kids who are experiencing different states of consciousness and novel experiences that don’t fit neatly into pigeonholes. They have heard so much advice by the time they’re teenagers that it proverbially goes in one ear and out the other, or else they’re just too pissed off that people are trying to tell them what to do to listen. Instead, we can be there for them and say, “Yeah, I understand that, that’s really legitimate. This is part of your experience.” I think holding a space of presence supports an organic evolution of consciousness at any age.
—Andrew Getz, founding director of The Lineage Project, working with at-risk youth
For more information on retreats and classes for teenagers, contact: Insight Meditation Society for the yearly Young Adults Retreat, Spirit Rock Family and Teen Program, or Lineage Project (working with at-risk youth).