Each summer, Michele McDonald-Smith and her husband Steven Smith lead the “Young Adult Retreat” at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. For the past ten years, they have been helping bring the dharma to the next generation, serving as two of the many links in a chain stretching back more than 2,500 years. Co-founders of Vipassana Hawaii, they have each practiced vipassana for over twenty years and now teach worldwide. Wes Nisker and Kathy Grayson interviewed Michele McDonald-Smith at Spirit Rock Center in the summer of 1998.
Inquiring Mind: When you teach dharma to young adults, do you approach them with a different attitude or technique than when you teach adults?
Michele McDonald-Smith: We have discovered an incredible interest and potential for dharma practice among young adults. For instance, during the most recent retreat, I decided to teach the lovingkindness (metta) chant in Pali to begin the late night meditation period. I had some trepidation that it might feel too traditional or foreign to the teens and that they wouldn’t like it. Well, they loved it! I’ve received letters from teens saying, “I’m teaching this chant to my younger siblings or cousins that I baby sit for, and they want to do it every night before they go to sleep.”
In the beginning, Steve and I did feel that this population was somehow different than adults, but because of things like this, our attitude has gradually changed. Each year we have added more classical, no-nonsense dharma to the young adults’ retreat. We have found that teens are thirsty for truth and deeper meaning in their lives. Many are in a place of turmoil, or at least change, and they can really hear the message of the dharma. We both remember our own wish to have heard this truth in our teens, in our own culture, which is one reason we teach this retreat.
IM: What kind of experiences do young adults have on retreat that might be somewhat different from those of adults?
MM: What seems most different is that the teens bond very closely with each other. They report that they get closer to the people at the retreat than they do with peers they’ve known all throughout elementary and high school. A combination of formal mindfulness practice and discussion groups allows them to explore each other’s lives without judgment. After sitting and walking together in silence, the discussion groups become very powerful. This is where some of their most profound insights unfold. The teens recognize very quickly the relationship between the nonjudgmental attention they practice in silence and the ability to connect with each other in a deep way. They gain the ability to pause in communication and watch their reactions.
The young adults really come to appreciate the dharma through the third of the Triple Gems, sangha. Through the safe community they develop on the retreat, they gain clarity on their life’s problems. They learn how to support each other on issues such as divorce, dealing with parents, attractions, sex, or alcohol and drugs. One of the young adults who came from an inner city said at the end of the retreat, “No one would believe me if I told them a place like this exists, where everybody loves you and you won’t get shot if you look at somebody wrong.”
Many teens also tell us that this retreat is the only place where they have felt free of labels and competition with each other, and how that is such a great relief. I think we all remember how hard it was in junior high and high school when we felt labeled as a “jock” or “cheerleader-type” or “nerd.” Another of the young adults told me that what affected him most was how “liberating” it felt to be “free of labels.”
IM: How do you choose the topics for these discussion groups?
MM: We might suggest a topic for discussion, or a theme may emerge from the dharma talk, but the teens usually come up with their own. We have resolved not to lay any trip on them about what spirituality is all about. So, the discussion groups are really about them finding and exploring their own truth. The range of subjects is extraordinary—death, engaged Buddhism, sexuality, drugs, emptiness, compassion. For example, we often have provocative discussions on exactly what is considered “lying.” Is it a lie to tell someone we like their new haircut, even if we don’t?
We once had a discussion about older siblings leaving home and not staying in touch. They expressed how difficult and painful this was for them. Several of the adults leading the discussion group realized that they had neglected to stay connected with their younger siblings when they left home. It was quite an eye-opening topic! A rich and healing conversation for everyone came out of this initial sharing by the teens. In fact, unresolved issues from adolescence often surface for the adults helping with this retreat—about authority, rebellion, sexuality, leaving home. Anyone who has the privilege of leading a discussion group at the young adults retreat is very moved by the openness, honesty and depth that these teens possess.
IM: How do you talk about suffering, about dukkha, with the young adults?
MM: It is shocking how much dukkha a lot of teens have encountered by the time they are fourteen. Many have seen their friends become addicted to drugs or die from accidents or being shot. At least half of them have seen their parents divorce. These teens are very sophisticated about the ways of the world, and one of the reasons they come on retreat is because they are interested in their own suffering, their own minds.
We try to explore dukkha in the context of their actual lives. For instance, the ethical choices they face every day can be explored as suffering in terms of the reactive mind. We might talk about playing a team sport, and what you might do if someone hits you harder than is appropriate. Would you react with anger and hit that person back just as hard, or even harder? Do we act from the reactive mind and a place of suffering, or can we discover a deeper motivation?
IM: What about the idea of selflessness, or anatta?
MM: I try to inspire the young adults just to do the practice and let the wisdom emerge from their experience. Because listening to music is so important in the lives of young adults, we begin the meditations by focusing mindfully on sounds, then moving to awareness of body, breath, thoughts and emotions. We emphasize the momentariness of experience, and encourage these young “yogis” to explore the possibility of non-identification with experience. The teens come to the same realization that adults do—an intuitive understanding of anatta, and the subsequent ability to take our dramas less personally.
IM: Describe a typical day on the young adults’ retreat?
MM: We begin the day with a period of sitting meditation, and then eat breakfast in silence. After the work period, during which we break silence, it’s usually a bit of a challenge to round up the yogis for our next meditation. Remember, there are now over sixty teenagers on the retreat, and sometimes they all don’t respond to the bell we ring to call everyone together. In fact, we have some staff members whose primary responsibility is to gather up the teens!
Once together we begin sitting meditation again, this time with instructions in mindfulness practice. Then, we do walking meditation for a half-hour. We used to end the morning practice period here, but now we have another half-hour sitting and walking period. After the formal meditations, we meet for the discussion groups, divided according to ages.
After lunch there’s free time. A lot of the young adults want just to hang out then. Some play guitar and sing; others play volleyball or basketball. There is more meditation and choices of various mindful arts in the afternoon.
After dinner we practice metta meditation, followed by a dharma talk and more discussion groups. The final sitting period is from 9:30 to 10:00 p.m. This past year I stayed in the meditation hall for an entire hour, and many of the teens continued sitting with me. We offered optional, all-night meditation practice the last night of the retreat, and some sat and walked the entire night.
IM: I’m wondering about the Five Precepts we adults usually follow on retreat [refraining from harming living beings, from taking what is not freely given, from sexual activity, from false or harsh speech, and from the use of intoxicants]. This must be at least as hard for teens as it is for us!
MM: A thirteen- or fourteen-year-old may find it strange when we begin talking about renunciation, which is not a concept widely found among American teens today. But we really want the young adults to have the opportunity to discover an inner and outer spiritual home on retreat. Part of that discovery is understanding what it takes to create a sacred space. We stress the importance of the precepts in this context and of everyone committing themselves for the entire retreat, without presenting it in an authoritarian way. We encourage them to practice the precepts particularly as a commitment to themselves. They do great when our reminders come out of their own commitment.
One year, two older teens were strongly attracted to each other the night of the campfire, and the next morning they came to talk with me about it. Because of committing to the precept on refraining from sexual activity, even though they felt tempted, they had decided to talk to each other with mindfulness about what was happening in their experience of attraction, rather than to act on their sexual feelings. They were so excited to share with me what they had discovered: that they had experienced a really deep connection and intimacy without having sex. It’s always a very moving experience to be with a group of American teens trying to observe the Five Precepts. These two young adults were sixteen.
As strange as it may seem, though, the hardest thing about this retreat for many teens is not the precepts. It’s unplugging from their music. We ask yogis not to bring their tapes, CDs, or Walkmans. So, as our way of expressing respect and appreciation for their culture, this year we started the first meditation period by listening to the Beastie Boys’ song about the Bodhisattva Vow. In this way, we experienced the Buddha’s teachings in a form that young adults can most easily relate to. In the end, I think that if we are able to respect their abilities and interest, they will go as far as we can take them.
IM: Have things changed much over the years?
MM: The popularity of the retreat has grown tremendously, and we now have a long waiting list just to get in. We had sixty-one yogis this year. That is a lot! The first year there were only twelve teenagers, and most of them were the children of adult yogis, children of the original dharma bums. I could look out into the meditation hall and know all of their parents. Now, the retreat fills with referrals from the teens themselves. Because it has such a powerful effect on their lives, young adults tell other teens about the retreat. Many of the more recent students’ parents have never practiced the dharma. In fact, one teen asked his parents to learn how to meditate; his father now comes for ten-day retreats and his mother for weekend retreats. This has become such an inspiring retreat that we also have a waiting list for the adults who serve as helpers. Many of them return year after year from around the world.
IM: This retreat must also be very compelling for you.
MM: Yes it is. Steve and I feel that teaching the dharma to young adults is like planting an orchard of trees. Each year, the roots of wisdom and compassion are taking hold more firmly in North America because young adults are practicing. It’s a breathtaking process. Some young adults now attend the longer adult retreats when they are still in their teens. Four young adults we know have traveled all the way to Burma to practice, and one even ordained as a nun. In fact, it was our Burmese teacher Sayadaw U Pandita’s idea to hold a young adults retreat, and Steve and I are both grateful for his important vision. If young people aren’t learning about the dharma, then the teachings in the West could die out with our generation.