Teens Dive Deep Into Mindfulness

Radically defying the stereotype that they’re incapable of sitting still, teens come year after year to rest in silent retreat with Inward Bound Mindfulness Education.

It is time to say goodbye. Soon, planes and cars and vans and trains will usher them along interstates and railway tracks back to their adolescent lives—to the so-called real world of noise and notifications, social stress and parental pressure. Now, a final hour remains for farewells. The 40 teenagers and a dozen adults, ensconced in a retreat center in the rural hush of upstate New York, are arrayed on chairs, mats, and cushions in a ceremonial circle. A girl rises from the floor, leaving a small hollow between the new friends who flank her. She approaches the center of the room and bends toward the rug to claim a mallet. The collective gaze of the circle embraces the young woman.

“I feel this community will always exist,” she says quickly, her shy glance cast down- ward. With a small mallet, she taps the rim of a gong—a gong that has marked the many meditative beginnings and endings of the last five days. A vibrant tone mingles with sporadic sniffles and the snaps of her friends’ fingers.

The community she refers to is a mere five days old, the powerful creation of a teen mind- fulness retreat. Held during the summer months and throughout the country in Virginia, Colorado, California, and elsewhere, these residential retreats are the work of Inward Bound Mindful- ness Education (iBme). Adolescents aged 14 to 19, some nudged by parents, some acting on their own initiative, seek the silence and structure in which to develop or to deepen their practice of mindfulness. While the program is not therapy, it often is deeply therapeutic. The hidden struggles that afflict teens—depression and self-loathing, anxiety and abuse, racial violence and doubts about gender and sexual identity—find a kind of hospitality that is the mark of mindfulness.

The teens awaken each morning at 7, in silence, and move—some reluctantly, some grog- gily—toward the meditation hall for a 30-minute silent sit. From there the day unfolds: breakfast in silence, community chores, free time, sitting meditation, walking meditation, small group meetings, lunch, more free time, workshops, yoga, dinner, kindness meditation, wisdom talks, more small group meetings, meditation, and lights out at 11. On the first night, the teens com- mit to holding to five precepts during the retreat: to protect life, to speak truthfully and kindly, to take only what is freely offered, to abstain from drugs and alcohol, and to remain celibate

For the novice, the adjustment can be wrenching. The buoyant reunions of returning retreat- ants set off anxieties in newcomers about cliques and exclusion. Homesickness sneaks up on the uninitiated. In the span of three days, one teen, Ciara, has overcome an acute case of homesick- ness and found, instead, a keen appreciation for silence: “I come from a loud place. I never learned to discover the quiet side of me. I need this time.” Another teen, Richardson, recalls the shock of his first retreat: “Everything felt strange. There were a lot of white people, and just a few people of color. ‘Whoa, where am I? What’s going to happen to me?’ I thought, ‘I’ve got my phone. I’ll be all right.’ Then, whoa, I had to give them my phone? Oh, my god. ‘I’ve just got to get through this.’” But in that first iBme retreat and two subsequent ones, Richardson recognized a space where, he says, he could “face the feelings, emotions, and questions that were all bundled up inside.”

The demanding schedule, the mindfulness practices and precepts, and the extended peri- ods of silence create a container that encourages reflection, curiosity, attention to the present moment, and above all an ethos of kindness:

“Everyone feels loved and comfortable,” says Torii, a veteran of the iBme retreats. “That’s not how things work in the real world. There, people will talk about you for something as simple as your hair color or because you are wearing a shirt they don’t like. You have to be put together all the time or people will give you that crazy look: ‘What’s wrong with her?’ Here, you can burst into tears at any moment and people are fine. ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ I can totally be myself without having fronts.”

Time and time again, the teens talk about the iBme retreat as a place—the only place—where they can stop worrying about being “on top” or “cool,” where they can remove their masks and begin to figure out who they are. “The beauti- ful thing is that there is no room for lies,” says Keanan. “If you’re trying to lie and pass yourself as someone you’re not, we’ll figure it out quickly and you’ll stop, because it’s not helping you. Because of self-confidence issues, I’ve strug- gled with lying and trying to build myself up in people’s eyes. But baring your soul and having people completely accept you and applaud you for it feels good.”

For many teens, a week of mindfulness- infused attention, curiosity, acceptance, and support from their retreat peers is life changing. It is this loving gift of space, perhaps more than the habits of formal practice, that endures. The success of the program is not measured by hours at home on a cushion, but by a transformed sense of self. “For teens, establishing that daily practice is difficult,” says Jessica Morey, iBme’s executive director. “They need ongoing support. As they get older and develop the lifestyle and discipline to practice on a regular basis, some will come back to it.” What teens carry with them, then, are the experiences of unconditional positive regard from their peers and adults, the insights about their inherent lovability, and a belief that they can work with their hearts and minds to feel more peaceful. They learn to not believe every thought that forms in their minds. “It’s like planting seeds,” Morey says. “They are in there. Even if dormant, they will bear fruit.”

One of the staff volunteers, Gabriel Baldwin, 29, attended his first retreat when he was 15 years old, returned each summer thereafter until he turned 19, and then moved into a lead- ership role. As a teen, he had suffered through an extended and excruciating period of bullying. Depressed, he lingered in a place that was “neu- tral and lonely,” eating lunch each school day in the safe company of a teacher. At his first mind- fulness retreat, he was shocked: “Being cared for and listened to—receiving kindness from my peers—in many ways, it was the first time I felt included, seen, and appreciated by people my own age.” In the past decade, Baldwin has returned almost annually as a staff volunteer. He has also abandoned a career as an energy-efficiency consultant to teach mindfulness in the Boston area. “The first teen retreat was filled with the most joy I had experienced up to that point. In some ways, I’m still chasing after that.”

But no gathering of mindful teenagers—or adults, for that matter—is without its moments of resistance. One afternoon, four teens go for a long walk; two return, but an amorous pair lingers behind. Another teen excuses himself from a small group session, taking refuge in a nearby gazebo. Another chatters with a neighbor during sitting meditation. On one walking meditation, the teens leave the retreat house, single file, gingerly carrying saucers of water. It is an exercise in slowing down and being present in the moment. As they process into a nearby meadow, water sloshes onto the grass. Eventually, to the amusement of his peers, one boy perches an empty saucer atop his head. A girl giggles.

Another boy stacks two saucers on his head. “It doesn’t feel as if the teens are testing the boundaries or trying to determine how much they can get away with,” says Khalila Archer, the program director. “It’s more like ‘Are you there? Are you paying attention?’ The answer, which reverberates, is ‘Yes, we are, and we will hold this.’” The staff of four teachers and eight volunteers maintains and models a constant level of attention and curiosity, drawing from their own retreat experience and their deep practices of mindfulness to remain present—able to redirect rather than react. The usual adult exhortations of “no!” or “knock it off!” never arise.

“Our discipline is not about ‘don’t do this,’” says Rod Owens, one of the four senior teachers. “It’s about reminding young people of the example they’re setting and asking them if they are OK with that. Are you OK with disturbing people in the hall or talking when you shouldn’t? Is that OK with you? It’s a way we trust young people to make their own decisions.”

And the teens respond to that trust. The more experienced retreatants understand that any lapse from the five precepts is felt by all. “We come together and build a community. We are all invested in it,” Richardson says. “We think about each other; we care about every single person we see. A sexual or romantic relation- ship with someone? You’re putting energy into
a specific person, instead of into the group. That energy pushes away everyone else. We build this space for each other; we make this space safe for each other; to bring that kind of energy into it— to make it about two people—is a risk.”

“The arc of the retreat is downward,” Morey says. The first day or two can be bumpy, with signs of tightness and guardedness. But by mid-retreat, the emotional tenor is deep and raw: The teens are learning to be present with difficult feelings or mind states. And there is nowhere to go. “We bring them to a certain space of openness,” says Morey, “which often means we are touching on things that we live our lives trying not to feel: sadness, anger, shame. There can be tears and deep sharing. They start to reveal what’s going on.”

Indeed, tears flow. In the evening, as the closing meditation ends, a teen begins to sob.
His friends embrace him and quietly escort him from the hall. Later, on a couch in the rec room, another group of teens gathers to help a friend in crisis. An adult approaches, asking for permis- sion to sit with them. He finds himself observ- ing “a beautiful intervention” for a teen who urgently wants to self-harm. He hears the teens remind their friend of a loving-kindness medi- tation focused on benefactors—sources of love and wisdom in our lives. He listens as one teen suggests, “Maybe you can’t resist for yourself, but you can resist for the benefactor you were thinking of? And if you can’t think of a benefac- tor, then think of me.” Eventually, the struggling teen asks the adult to hold the sharp objects.

“If this were a typical camp situation,” the staff member says, “You would tell the teens, ‘You,
go talk to the guidance counselor, and you, go to sleep. That would be the supportive model. But sometimes supporting the youth in their practice means letting them support each other.”

At the heart of the retreat is the small group, in which six or seven teens meet twice daily
for 75 minutes. Each group is facilitated by two adults, who check in with the teens about their practice: How is it going? What are you using as your anchor? What’s happening with your mind? The small groups can be playful or they can be raw, full of giggles and games or full of intensity and self-revelation. But the vital function is to connect: “With adolescents what is so helpful is seeing that they are not alone and having this authentic intimacy with their peers,” Morey says.

A popular small group activity is the “hot seat” exercise, during which one teen fields questions from his or her peers. “We’ve been cultivating our attention—with breath, body, and sound. Now, we’re placing that attention onto another person, with kindness and curiosity,” Archer says. The volunteer begins by offering three “if you really knew me statements.” The teens then give full rein to their some- times-blunt questions, nudging the volunteer to a degree of openness that can be stunning and cathartic. The exercise concludes with each teen offering appreciation for their friend on the “hot seat.” “It’s nice for people to have a curiosity about who you are,” says Torii. “It makes you feel special when people are listening attentively and kindly: They look at you as if they love you.”

But openness and vulnerability are not the culture of the world to which the teens must return, the so-called “real world.” So, as the arc of the retreat begins its descent, the formal structure loosens, a deliberate effort to ease re-entry. “When they go back into the world, it’s going to feel speedy, intense, less sensitive, and less kind: It can be jarring and difficult,” says Chris Crotty, one of the retreat teachers.

So, on the last night, the schedule opens up, meditation and wisdom talks giving way to a celebration that includes a community share— songs, skits, and poetry—and a dance. When the dance ends, the teens stretch themselves out on the floor, cushioned on yoga mats and covered with blankets. With the lights dimmed, the staff serenades the youth with a lullaby of sorts and sends them back to the dorms. When the teens gather in the hall next morning, the silence and meditation have almost fully receded, like the deep exhalation of breath.

It is, truly, time to say goodbye.

A boy hoists himself up to a standing position. He moves toward the gong in the center of the circle. He takes the mallet in his hand, and says, “A year ago, I stood here and talked about how

I wanted to work on finding out who I was. I talked about how I wasn’t quite there yet, but that the week had started me on that journey. I’ve spent only a few weeks with some of you guys, but I feel closer to you than I do to anyone in my life. These weeks have done more to help me figure out who I am as a person than the other sixteen years have.”


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About the author

Victoria Dawson

Victoria Dawson is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She regularly contributes to Mindful.