BARRE, Mass., July 17--Silence is a little bit frightening to Tatyana Tenenbaum, not yet 16. Free time is something she usually avoids. Tenenbaum, from Amherst, uses extracurriculars like dance, music and theater to camouflage a host of teenage woes. Her parents recently divorced. Then there is stress at school and conflict among friends, says the soft-spoken young woman. When she does slow down at the end of a hectic day, Tenenbaum senses that the noisy din of daily life that fills her life, and her friends' lives, provides a distraction, but no ultimate answers. "It's so easy for me to hide behind all this," said Tenenbaum. "Even though I do a lot, I still feel empty in a way." With the summer season in full swing, most teens are looking for ways to keep busy. Horseback riding camp, SAT prep, sailing lessons, scooping ice cream: all, at least in part, are about chasing boredom, staying occupied. But here, at Insight Meditation Society, one of the only places in the country to offer a meditation training program especially for teens, the idea is that young people can benefit from doing virtually nothing. During the five-day program, they spend hours sitting cross-legged on cushions in a long meditation hall, eyes closed, following the rise and fall of each breath. "Here you can't lie anymore and tell yourself everything's OK," said Caitlin Sullivan, 19, of Weymouth. "You face how you really feel, even if only briefly." Teacher Michele McDonald-Smith said that the course, attended this year by 58 young people between the ages of 14 and 19, is a sorely needed opportunity for those at a critical time of life--a chance to slow down and explore their inner selves. Adolescence "is a spiritual crisis, and our culture doesn't really deal with that," said the Hawaii-based teacher.
As they fret about whom to sit with at lunch, or how to dress, teenagers also confront existential questions - and suffer real anguish, said McDonald-Smith. What does life add up to? What good is their presence in the world? Many people - young or old - have never stopped to notice what happens when the television is off, no one is talking, and the chatter in their own heads dies down, said New York meditation teacher Soren Gordhamer. When they do, they often find that ``doing nothing,'' can be transformative. "There's something about the silence that enriches us," said Gordhamer. "People can hear their heart beating. It's a really powerful experience of being alive." Insight meditation is a discipline that emphasizes moment-to-moment awareness. Large chunks of the day--including some meals--are conducted in silence. Hours are devoted to meditation, usually in half-hour blocks of sitting or walking. In walking meditation, they do snails-paced laps in empty rooms, focusing on the soles of their feet meeting the floor. Participants also attend discussion groups, workshops, and some camp-like bonding activities, such as a bonfire on the final night. Most of the young people attending the course are from privileged backgrounds, but advocates say meditation has much wider application. Through a nonprofit called the Lineage Project, Gordhamer teaches meditation to offenders incarcerated in the New York juvenile justice system. Most of his students are affiliated with gangs; some have committed murder.
They tell him that their only experiences with peace or relaxation have been drug-induced, that in detention, their environment is never quiet. Although these troubled teens are a tough audience, Gordhamer said, some have sent him letters of appreciation. "For these kids, the world is very confusing. To be able to find something simple like a breath, a place of stillness, it is useful," said Gordhamer. "It's radical, in a way." Meditation has the power, advocates say, of connecting people with feelings often covered up in the clamor and tumult of daily life. Western education "is deficient in helping people become self-reflective about their emotions, and control them," said Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University and a prominent spokesman for Buddhism in America. Such inward-focused discipline is a normal part of upbringing in some Asian countries, said meditation teachers. In Burma, for example, McDonald-Smith has met 9-year-olds who have already completed monthlong meditation retreats. It was in fact a Burmese monk who suggested the teen retreat at IMS 11 years ago. American teenagers may not have much in common with their Burmese counterparts, but at least some of them fall in love with the simple and slow life during the course. Insight Meditation Society, founded in 1975, is housed in a former Christian monastery set on 80 wooded acres. The teenagers live in tiny, bare rooms with little more than a mattress and sink. They pledge to follow the Buddhist "Five Precepts," which means absolutely no alcohol or drugs, and no sexual activity.
There is little or no indoctrination into Buddhism as a religion. The focus, rather, is on meditation's applications to modern life. Many of the teen participants have returned for several years in a row. They say over and over that concentrating during meditation is extremely difficult - that their minds wander, their bodies hurt and their emotions rage. But each seeks, in the silence, his or her own refuge. For Sullivan, who just finished her freshman year at Boston College, meditation provides a way to approach the panic disorder she suffers from, and it is preferable to the tactics employed by mainstream medicine. "They say, `The girl can't eat, the girl can't sleep. Give her a pill. You won't feel like yourself but you'll be able to breathe,'" said Sullivan, who added that when she meditates she can separate herself from her anxiety. For Elisabeth Donnelly, 18, the retreat is a relief from the pressure of her first year at Boston University, where she struggled to maintain grades high enough to keep her scholarship. ``Here, I don't have to be perfect,'' said Donnelly. ``I don't have to be a superwoman.'' Underneath all these teenagers' pursuits is a yearning for something that can seem maddeningly elusive in their lives: happiness. Jessica Morey, 21, of Nashua, N.H., a volunteer at this year's retreat, has taken spiritual exploration further than most--meditating in Burma and India, and even briefly taking vows as a Buddhist nun. Morey, who attends Dartmouth College, turns to meditation to help her grapple with life. "When I'm at school I'm like, `What's the point of this?'" Morey said. "I don't want to just get an engineering degree, get a job, have kids and die, and I feel like a lot of people are living on that level."
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