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Helping Teens Through Mindfulness

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Just over a year ago, a friend in Washington, D.C. was diagnosed with rare heart disease that put him on the verge of death. It took me by surprise -- he was 30 years old, and otherwise in great physical shape.

My friend had recently quit his job at the World Bank to take over as the director of an organization called Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, which is devoted to teaching mindfulness meditation to teenagers. Inward Bound's core program is hosting weekend and weeklong mindfulness retreats for teenagers.

One night during his sickness, a number of his friends gathered to offer support at a local gathering. As I sat down to offer thoughts and prayers for his health, one of our mutual friends got a phone call. It was from a woman associated with Inward Bound.

Inward Bound was slated to host a teen mindfulness retreat in southwest Virginia the next day. The woman on the phone was anxious to find a ride for her daughters to the retreat. My friend turned to me, and asked if I would be willing to drive them down to Virginia. I agreed -- I felt that the least that I could do for my friend was to help support him and his organization at this time.

The next day, the three girls and I made our way on a five-hour drive to southwest Virginia. It was the first "teen retreat" for each of us. At Inward Bound retreats, teenagers are introduced to secular mindfulness meditation -- the process of moment to moment present awareness. Teens also participate in a host of other activities including yoga, small group discussions, and walks in surrounding forests. All the activities are geared to connect teens to themselves, others, and the natural world.

I was there primarily to watch how the retreats work and get a sense of what this organization was all about. Starting from the beginning of the retreat, the staff works to create a safe "container" -- a judgment-free setting where teens can express themselves, a stark departure from how teenagers typically spend so much of their time closed off emotionally, protecting themselves from the judgment of their peers.

But I learned once normal social barriers are lifted, many teenagers are incredibly brave and willing to talk about who they really are. In fact, teens are craving to talk about who they really are -- and given a safe place to be vulnerable, teenagers step up to the task.

There was one young man in particular who inspired me. He was a tall, lanky 17-year old. He had come over from Mali alone as a young boy and was living with a foster family in Maryland. He attended a big public high school and told me that he was always scared to tell kids at his school about his background, and he had trouble fitting in.

But on the retreat, he was immediately accepted. Over the course of the weekend, he opened up, smiled often, and bonded with the other teens. It was clear that his shield was coming down. At the closing circle, he got up to say a few words. He was pretty emotional -- we were all pretty emotional wrapping up a powerful weekend. He told the group of about 15 teens and six staff members that he had made better connections with us in a weekend than he had made during his entire time in the United States. He saw us as friends, the other kids felt the same way, and he said that he would be back on retreat.

I was overcome with emotion. It was amazing to think that this young man had made better bonds in 36 hours than in nearly a decade living in this country. I knew that this organization was doing something unique and special -- allowing teenagers to learn who they really are.

Coming back from the retreat, I began to read more about the mental health of teenagers in America. I had gone to big public high school and was aware of the bullying and constant judgment, but I had no idea the extent of the problem.

I learned that 10-15 percent of teenagers have symptoms of depression; 1 in 5 will know depression before adulthood. Sixty percent of high school students have contemplated suicide; 17 percent have seriously considered it; 8.4 percent have attempted in the past 12 months. One out of four teens are bullied. Nine out of 10 LGBT teens are bullied. 282,000 students are physically attacked in high schools every month.

I also began to learn about the potential power of mindfulness meditation to alleviate some of these problems for teenagers. Initial studies on Inward Bound retreats demonstrated a significant improvement over time for our teen alumni in life satisfaction, self-esteem, mindfulness, and acceptance of others. In one study, 90 percent of our retreat participants called the retreat "life-changing."

It certainly was life-changing for me -- I quit my job and started to work for Inward Bound full time. We are now in the process of expanding our retreats to the West Coast: this summer we will have weeklong retreats in Virginia, California, Washington State, and Hawaii. We are also expanding to teach mindfulness to high schools in New England, the Bay Area, and Washington DC.

Inward Bound's vision is to create a generation of leaders that are in touch with their own feelings, thoughts, and emotions. We are entering an era that desperately needs leaders who are ready to tackle the challenges of the 21st century in collaboration with their peers and respect for the natural world. The coming generation of teenagers has this capacity -- we just need to give them the space to discover it within themselves.

Patrick Cook-Deegan is the West Coast Director of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education.