As the insight meditation communities increasingly grow older, the question arises whether the Dharma will flourish for today’s youth. I am happy to report that through different programs and agencies, mindfulness has already sparked a tremendous change for many children and young adults across the United States.
One such program, MAYA (Mindful Awareness for Young Adults), arose from twenty years of development at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in California. MAYA organizes retreats specifically designed for teenagers and young adults, combining many hours of silent meditation each day with instruction, workshops and discussion groups for conscious interactions. These retreats offer younger people a chance to practice among peers who respect, understand and challenge each other to be awake.
The staff at MAYA are often asked by older adults how we “get young people to meditate.” Actually, teens and young adults yearn for the same core experiences as adults: the safety and harmony offered by the precepts and the tools to calm their turbulent hearts and minds. Younger people ache to understand love, wrestle for greater wisdom, and hunger for a path beyond the shallow life of consumerism. The biggest challenge to youth in accessing the Dharma is their low- or non-income status, being burdened by debt from higher education, or their newness to the work force. Aside from this, many are deeply willing to dive head long into their study and practice of the Dharma and would sacrifice much for a greater liberation from suffering.
From our experience younger people are more willing to be challenged and more willing to making radical changes in their lives than their older counterparts. The habits of their minds and the construction of identities are not yet solidified, making every meaningful event potentially life changing. One retreat can spark an intuitive revolution, new life directions and a passionate community of friends to share the journey.
In the two* pieces that follow, we offer you a window into the experiences of MAYA’s teens and young adults. Each was written by a young practitioner whose life has been enriched by the courage to go inside, to pay attention, and to apply the wisdom of this path to daily life.
The first time I attempted to meditate was nearly my last. On a whim, I’d elected to participate in a course aiming to teach mindfulness meditation, and a portion of our grade consisted of an hour of guided sittings each week. I’d never meditated before, and while I felt that I had an intellectual grasp of the fact that meditation is meant to lend a greater awareness of both one’s interior life and the external world, I had little idea of how one ought to achieve this sort of awareness (whatever that was supposed to mean). So the first evening our class congregated in the designated location for our weekly meditation, I watched others with the hope that their actions might offer clues as to what exactly I should be doing. After all, I mused, how hard can this be? I picked up a rectangular cushion from where they were heaped in a pile at the back of the room. I placed it on the floor and I plopped down upon it cross-legged. My peers sat in upright positions; some hands were folded, while others rested limply on thighs. I too closed my eyes; I too rested my hands. Silence. So now what?
Peeking through one eye, I surveyed my surroundings. All eyes remained closed, all hands still rested. But wait—why was I able to see everyone’s position? And why on earth were they not wearing shoes? Mortified, I realized everyone was facing toward the front of the room, while I was faced sideways, the heels of my motorcycle boots digging painfully into the backs of my thighs. Hoping my feet didn’t smell repugnant, I quietly removed the boots, hid them beneath a nearby discarded jacket, and shifted my cushion so that I was facing the front of the room like everyone else—and again closed my eyes. More silence. This is boring, I thought, squirming around a bit to rescue my tingling feet from complete numbness. Occasionally, I’d steal a glance at the other students, wondering what it was exactly that they were experiencing—the mysterious, intangible and seemingly elusive quality they seemed to hold within their bodies and radiate while all I was able to exude was confusion and frustration from my fidgeting body.
The professor of the course finally spoke in a low, silvery voice. He welcomed us and asked us to focus on our breathing, to count each breath: one . . . received, two . . . released. While I tried to concentrate on my breathing, my mind continued to wander so wildly that my attempts to focus on each single breath proved futile and collapsed into the quickened breaths of panic—I had a paper to write and bills I couldn’t pay and a dying father and a crushing sadness so profound I was amazed I could even steal any breath at all from beneath its weight, let alone count it. Why the hell was I just sitting here, doing nothing?
Yet now, five months later, for at least thirty minutes each day I find myself drawn to sit, either alone or with others, cross-legged and barefoot, in order to calm my wild mind. Sometimes birdsong drifts through, or the din of traffic, or distant laughter; sometimes my back hurts, and often my feet grow numb. Now it is far from boring, nor do I consider these occurrences distracting; conversely, it’s often the most alive I feel throughout the day. Were you to ask me to pinpoint the moment when the fright and confusion morphed into startling clarity, I could not tell you; I only know that I was driven to continue practice by an intense curiosity to deeply yet unflinchingly feel psychic pain—to be aware of its presence but not try to flee. I used to think that mindfulness meditation consisted of clearing the mind of thoughts and ignoring distraction, but through my practice I’ve learned that to clear the mind is to close the mind and thus to inhibit radical awareness.
While an open mind needn’t dwell on the “why” of anything, it may allow itself to feel scorching pain without considering the content. Having sat with an open mind, my sleep as of late has been undisturbed by sad dreams.