Bringing Mindfulness for Teens Into the Wilderness

I had spent many weeks in the backcountry before, but never right after a meditation retreat. Never with a mind quiet enough to take in all the natural world had to offer.
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This summer the organization I work with, Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, will take teens into the wilderness for a mindfulness-based backpacking trip. We will take teens deep into Emigrant Wilderness, Calif. (just north of Yosemite). We will practice mediation during the morning and in the afternoon turn our awareness towards the natural world. This is a culmination of a dream I had five years ago after graduating from college and wondering what I was going to be doing with my life.

The summer after I graduated from college, I headed out west. I was 22 years old, without a job, and like most recently graduated college students, trying to figure out what to do with my life.

My first stop was California for an adventure with my 16-year-old sister. After climbing on the California coast we headed inland toward North Fork, Calif., just south of Yosemite National Park, for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. My sister was always up for anything I could throw at her and she was up for trying the retreat.

The retreats are silent, there is no dinner, and there are more than 10 hours of seated meditation a day. These Goenka style retreat centers are known by some to be the "boot camp" of meditation retreats.

I had started doing meditation retreats three years earlier in Thailand, but this was going to be a first for my sister. Technically, you are supposed to be 18 years old to register for the retreat, but there was no system for checking age, so my sister was allowed in. My sister trusted me and I had always treated her as a peer. I always wanted to share important things with her and my first meditation retreat had changed my life more than anything. I wanted us to share this experience.

So we plunged into the silent retreat. The sexes are separated and the retreat is silent, so I did not talk to my sister for 10 days. The only time that I saw her was stealing a quick glance across the large mediation hall with about 80 people in it.

The retreat was hard -- thousands of things were racing through my mind. But most of them were constant questions about the future: What should I do with my life? What do I feel called to do? They are questions that many people ask themselves but were particularly heightened in the post-graduation months in an uncertain economy. I experienced a lot of angst, worry and, at times, excitement about the future possibilities.

On the other side of the room, I had no idea what my sister was thinking about. In fact, part of the mystery of these retreats is that you have 80 people in a room all attempting to focus on their breath -- but everyone's mind is slipping off into their own fantasies, fears, and boredom. I wondered at times where my sister's mind was going, but mostly I was enwrapped in my own thoughts and fears.

Ten days later, the retreat ended and I walked across the retreat grounds to the women's section looking for my sister. She was chatting with some older women. She stopped, looked at me, finished her conversation, and came over to give me a big hug. She said that the women she was just talking to cannot believe that she is only 16. They are amazed that she made it through the retreat. I was not surprised.

"How was it?" I asked. It is one of those questions that does not really make sense. How can you unpack everything that went through your mind for 10 days into a simple answer? It was something that you unpack over days or years.

There is nothing like the post-retreat high. As we left the retreat center, we started blasting music and singing at the top of our lungs. Both of us felt so free -- filled with a feeling of lightness, emptiness, and a renewed appreciation and joy for being in the world.

Our next stop was Yosemite National Park for a weeklong backpacking trip in the Sierra high country. My sister and I picked up some food along the way and arrived at Yosemite before sundown. We headed up to Tuolumne Meadows -- my favorite part of Yosemite. After my prior meditation retreats, I always craved time in the wilderness but had never had the opportunity. I felt a deep desire to be rooted in a quiet still place away from everything to unpack what had happened.

After leaving a retreat, your mind is much more attuned to what's around you. Your senses are heightened. With a quiet mind, you can notice so many of the small beauties of the natural world: the color of leaves, the dripping of fresh sap, and the patterns of water flowing down streams. As we hiked up through huge meadows, I noticed everything with so much more acuity. Often when I was in the woods, I would be stuck in my own mind. But now, I was in a state where I could appreciate all the details of the mountains and streams in fresh way.

We spent nearly a week camping in a huge meadow overlooking some of the finest peaks in the Sierras. During the days, we sledded down the snow on our rainjackets, battled mosquitoes, and watched epic sunsets over the Cathedral range. We were not in a rush -- we were just being with a heightened awareness of the world around us.

It was one of the most vivid and important weeks of my life. I had never felt so much inner and outer stillness. I understood viscerally that this is what the human experience was like in many ways for thousands of years. No cellphones, no busyness, no distractions. There was so much simplicity, honesty, and steadiness in this way of relating to the world around me. It was a way of relating that I had been seeking my whole life. Since I was a child, I knew there was a way of life that was lost in our frantic, modern world. But I had never experienced it. This week was a chance to experience the possibility of another way of being in our relationship to myself, my community (in this case my sister), and the natural world around me.

I had spent many weeks in the backcountry before, but never right after a meditation retreat. Never with a mind quiet enough to take in all the natural world had to offer. The combination of being in a beautiful backcountry setting with a quiet post-retreat mind offered me the ability to take in much more of what was around me. I have one friend who went on a backcountry trip for a month in Wyoming who said he spent the whole trip thinking about his girlfriend. He was physically in the Wind River Range, but his mind was stuck back in Berkeley, and hence he missed much of the beauty around him. With a mind stuck on something else, it is hard for us to take in all that the natural world has to teach us.

After a week in the backcountry, my sister and I headed back to San Francisco. I dropped her off to fly to Hawaii. I continued on and spent the rest of the summer alone, mostly in the woods trying to grapple with the question: What if all young people had the chance to have that same experience I just did? What if it was a global coming-of-age ritual to spend a week with ourselves and peers deep in the natural world trying to quiet our minds and open our awareness. What kind of world would we have? How different would we treat the earth and each other?

This summer, I will have the chance to get a taste of this when my organization, Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, takes teenagers on our first ever mindfulness-based wilderness trip. For a week we will take teens (age 15-19) to Emigrant Wilderness (just north of Yosemite).

Fortunately, our model is much less austere than the model that my sister and I attended. It does include formal sitting and walking meditation and silence, but also twice-daily discussion groups for teens to share their experience and get to know one another. We also allow time for workshops and a chance for teens to connect deeply to the natural world through the practice of mindfulness. If I had known about this model five years ago, I would have definitely sent my sister on this retreat.

It feels like a journey coming full circle -- to have the chance to launch our first mindfulness-based wilderness retreat for teens just north of where my sister and I spent our week in 2008. I am curious and excited to see how it turns out and what kind of transformation can happen when young people have a chance to quiet their minds and form a deep connection with the natural world. My hope is that our participants come out with the newfound respect and deep relationship with themselves, their peers, and the beautiful world around us.

For more by Patrick Cook-Deegan, click here.

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