08/02/2007 10:11 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Re-inventing Privacy in the Age of Always-Available

I've been teaching stress reduction and relaxation classes in a variety of local high schools, and other organizations, private and public, for over 20 years. I used to fancy that there would never be a generation gap between me and my young students because I'm such a cool, open and hip person, growing up in the sixties and all, that I would just get what they were about and connect and be able to elder them effectively. To a certain extent that somewhat silly assumption has been true. But at a much more important level, I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the minds of teenagers who have been weaned on instant messaging, television, myspace, cell phones, e-mail, and laptops. One thing I know, is that they have absolutely no sense of privacy as I have always understood it, and that that fact alone is a stress on their nervous systems.

They are always "on" and available, and what is most interesting is that they want to be... They value that, and many actually experience anxiety if they are cut off from electronic connection.... And find themselves, heaven forbid, in silence. My students, however, agree with me that everyone is distracted. I always ask them, "How many of you have been talking to somebody this week about something that was really important to you, and you suddenly realized that they were not there, not listening... Not present?" Everyone raises their hand. One the other hand, I say, "How many of you have been talking to someone this week and you suddenly realize that you have absolutely no idea what they just said to you and you're supposed to make an appropriate response?" Everyone raises their hand. So, we're all plugged in, tuned in, IM'ing and e-mailing but when it comes down to being present with the person next to us with full awareness, attention and presence, we're often terrible at it.

We are not "here now".

The phrase "be here now" was a wake up call back in the 60's, a cultural revelation as important as any cultural revolution. Where is our attention and our energy? Is it always in the past or future, or can we fully experience, without mediation of thought, reaction or judgment, exactly what is going on in the present moment? I teach the importance of quiet and even silence. I gently ease my students into being able to hang out in the present moment without getting antsy and restless. Over the past few years I have emphasized meditation equally or more than the guided relaxation in my teen classes, though I do a lot of both. Meditation, as hard as it is for them, turns out, for many of them, to be highly effective and their "favorite thing". To my surprise they love it, even when struggling to do it, and I believe this is a testament to how much they need it. Another thing many of them like best is taking silent walks in the woods around the school. When they get back I always ask them: "What did you notice that you've never noticed before?"

In a very real way, practicing meditation is practicing privacy. It is saying: "I'm practicing disciplining my mind so that I can be more fully present in every situation, but in this moment I am unavailable because it takes all my energy, awareness and quietness to discipline my mind in that way. When I see you later, I'll be more available, present, kind and compassionate. Sorry, but right now 'Do not Disturb'!"

I teach kids to be able to hang out a "Do not disturb" sign on a regular basis so that they can experience privacy. I also teach them to hang out a "do not be disturbed" sign inwardly, to themselves. "Stress reduction" is the a name for the skills they are learning for coping, so that adverse events don't upset and overwhelm them. I say to them: "Say 'do not disturb' to the outside world on a regular basis, and say 'do not be disturbed' to yourself, as you learn to cope better with life's inevitable challenges. At the same time, I say to everybody." Stop trying to do too much all the time."

Privacy is vital to personal renewal and re-generation. Privacy is vital to creativity and inspiration.

Privacy is vital to healing. Privacy is vital for self-reflection and self-discovery, a welcome relief from bouncing off everyone else's reality and opinions all the time, an opportunity to find one's own stance for taking on life,. Privacy is not loneliness, and unless we stop creating so many lonely people in the midst of rampant "tele-COMMUNICATION", we will find a lot of people missing the richness of life that can develop in private solitude and quiet. Walden is required reading for a good reason.