There is a new section I’ve noticed in bookstores these days: the “teen section.” It’s stocked with great-to-formulaic fiction for young adults and an array of self-help books dealing with issues from breakups to eating disorders, but spirituality books seem strangely absent. What else is there besides Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul?
Luckily, Soren Gordhamer has provided the answer with his new book, Just Say Om! Your Life’s Journey, a guide to the spiritual path for teenagers. Gordhamer is an activist and writer who cofounded The Lineage Project to teach meditation and yoga to at-risk teens in juvenile halls and youth prisons. In his first book, Meetings with Mentors, he interviews elders about life questions that young people face.
Drawing on the wealth of spiritual teachings that have influenced him since his own journey began as a teen, Gordhamer tackles in his new book a variety of topics. In short chapters, he weaves together spiritual stories from different traditions, stories from his own life, and his own hard-earned wisdom. The book touches on a range of subjects from kindness, courage, finding true friends, and taking things lightly, to nonviolence and discovering a way to serve. In truth, this is a book about universal qualities of the heart that we can all develop—presented here as a spiritual map for the confusing teenage years.
The book is not necessarily strictly Buddhist, although clearly this is Gordhamer’s root tradition. Instead, he presents teachings on what is important in life. Each chapter is written in down-to-earth language, often detailing his own bumps along the path. He lets us see that he arrived at a faith in spiritual wisdom in the very best way—simply because it made sense. Following these teachings led him to less suffering, more clarity and peace.
There’s something straightforward, inarguable, gentle and pleasing about this book. Nothing is hidden—not “Truth,” not Gordhamer’s own story, and certainly not the process of how he learned to incorporate the perennial wisdom into his life. This makes for an important book for teens who are generally wary of anything that smacks of dishonesty or being talked down to. He deftly handles difficult subjects such as drugs not by telling teens what to do but by exploring the confusing issues and by recommending open, clear discussion. Younger teens may find the most resonance with the writing, but it is suitable for teens of all ages.
Gordhamer frequently mentions his own confusion and mistakes on the path and his own struggles, which gives Just Say Om! a legitimacy and authenticity. “When I first started practicing meditation, I wanted to be the one who ‘knew.’ I would spurt out wise phrases to my friends hoping they would come to me for advice. . . . However, I noticed that the more I tried to be wise, the less I could access wisdom.”
One of the strengths is the excellent middle section on meditation. He offers (primarily) vipassana instructions with explanations on working with some of the difficulties that arise. This section feels complete and has significant depth. His chapter on the body is particularly helpful.
I like that he not only touches on traditional spiritual topics but critiques social issues in a way that is designed to make teens think. He explores “Images of Beauty,” consumerism and simplicity, for example. The chapter on nonviolence is great. His use of teaching stories is also extremely effective. He described one experience he had in Calcutta where a poor beggar child shared a donated banana with other kids while he, a rich Westerner, gobbled his own alone. Such stories haunted me for days. “What a committed life!” I thought. At times, though, I wished for more depth than breadth of topics and a clearer logic or coherency to their ordering.
In the end, the clearest way to describe this book may be in Gordhamer’s own words:
A practice to me is simply activities that help us follow the calling for self-knowledge and greater understanding. On one level, all life is a practice. In this sense to practice or not to practice, this is not the question. The question is: How can we live fully, how can we live and be the deep, caring person that we are?
Just Say Om! is able to teach us this and more. It’s a kind of compass in the vastly confusing world of being a teen—or being an adult, for that matter.