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Mindfulness Meditation: Perspectives from a Young Adult Practitioner January 25, 2013

Posted by Living Abundance in Uncategorized.
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As a young adult who practices meditation, I think I might possess a unique perspective compared to my many less young dharma sisters and brothers. I often find myself being the odd woman out due to my age while attending various sanghas and retreats. Nevertheless, I think I might be in an advantageous situation by being treated favorably as a relatively young practitioner in an ageist society. I have also heard some thought-provoking comments from other people who can project a younger version of themselves onto their perception of me.

Let’s face facts: meditation is not something my age-mates are lining up in droves to try. Meditation seems to be part of the life stage of middle age or retirement, or “the kids have moved out and all of a sudden I have some ‘spare time’ on my hands.” As a young adult, I can often feel out of place taking part in sanghas and retreats when I can look around me and sometimes see only people twice my age or more.

I will admit I can become self-conscious of not fitting in with the rest of the crowd, but perhaps more so when I was starting out in my practice. Feeling out of place due to my age alone used to raise a fair amount of doubt in me, leaving me to wonder whether meditation really was the right path for me, or if I should throw in the towel, give in to (self-perceived) peer pressure, and spend my evenings watching TV or drinking at the local pub. Now I have just accepted meditation as what works for me as a person, regardless of how young I am.

I have sometimes found it difficult when the times for socializing with my dharma friends leave me with little opportunity to contribute, when conversations topics can center on living with spouses, in-laws, or children, dealing with coworkers or bosses, caring for aging parents, or managing a home. I’m sorry, but I can’t offer my perspective here! I am grateful, however, to listen in on these conversations when I am better able to understand my parents’ perspective of having a relationship with adult children.

On the other hand, one nice aspect of being a relatively young practitioner is that I think I am treated favourably or more “special” in sanghas because of my young age. In a youth-centered society, younger is better, because youthfulness and its abundant energy offers more possibility for doing and achieving, as well as more potential for acquiring skills and knowledge. The wisdom and accumulated life experience of our elders is discounted in a society that is rapidly changing and evolving. I can’t quite describe exactly how I might be treated differently, but I have a few examples.

People have told me more than once after asking me why I came to the practice that I have a “head start” on them for being so young. An unspoken assumption here, I think, is that starting to practice “sooner” at a younger age would be better. Could this be identification with “doing mind,” where more experience with a skill is inherently better because it leads to more expertise?

Another phenomena I have noticed while meeting so many fellow practitioners less younger than me is that people seem to have a tendency to project their younger self onto their perception of me. I have heard numerous comments similar to, “Oh, I wish I had been practicing when I was your age!” The funniest comment I will always remember was from someone who applauded my ability to practice despite my young age: “I’m just amazed that you are able to practice meditation. When I was your age, I wouldn’t have been able to sit still for two minutes!”

One problem I have with the projection of a younger self onto meditation is that it ignores all of the causes and conditions that bring us to the practice. Perhaps the subtext here is, “If I had been practicing sooner, I could have avoided experiencing a great deal of suffering.” But isn’t suffering what brings us to the practice in the first place? I will speak for myself by saying that if I hadn’t undergone the difficulties at the age I did, I wouldn’t have discovered the practice, nor would I have stayed with it with such determination. It is like Thay says, “No mud, no lotus.”

Another problem I have with people projecting themselves onto their perception of me is that it ignores impermanence. Yes, I will certainly admit that as a younger person I have the potential to enjoy more years than my less young friends, all things considered. Nevertheless, potential is far from reality. As someone very close to me has often liked to remind me very matter-of-factly, “We might all be dead tomorrow.” I may have no more of a chance to practice in the future than people two or three times my age. All we ever have is the present moment.

Finally, I want to end with a mention of higher education as a doorway to the dharma. I think many people, myself included, come to the practice as a form of stress relief, and university and college education brings a great deal of stress. Therefore, I think mindfulness can be a powerful and welcome practice for many university students struggling to complete their programs.

One reason university was particularly stressful for me was that I felt I had so much on the line. One low mark on one assignment wasn’t just one assignment, it was my entire future: a low mark on an assignment meant a low mark in the class, and a low mark in the class meant not getting a job or scholarship or not getting into a graduate program, and not getting a job meant not having a career, and not having a career meant that “my life would be over,” or so I used to tell myself at the time.

Clearly this type of thinking creates much more stress and suffering than it needs to. But I will add that although mindfulness might be used as a stress-relief tool initially, to receive the full benefits of the practice one has to cut to the very root of the disease instead of just using coping strategies to simply cover up the symptoms.

While practicing meditation as a young adult has brought some unique and often challenging experiences, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to gain perspective on applying the practice to this stage of my life. I am inviting some of my fellow dharma buddies to add any comments to this post. I am curious for some other voices to let me know if I hit the mark and spoke to their experience, or if there was anything I missed that would better describe practicing meditation as a young sangha member. Thanks in advance for your input!

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Comments»

1. neil Patel - January 25, 2013

Andrea. I know how you feel. I too have had the self-inflicted peer pressure and self doubt that you describe. However, I have never had someone come up to me and say “I wish I practiced when I was younger” or “when I was your age…”. All of my teachers have encouraged my youth. I once was told “I have a mind of a 40 year old…”. I still am not sure how to interpret that, but I think it was a complement. I have not had real issues being the youngest one among the youngest. My first retreat in India I was the youngest (20) of 83 people. However there were at least ten of us 27 and under. I agree, being young, sometime I cannot give input to how it feels to be widowed or have kids etc. However, i have found a positive in being young because i bring a different perspective. Often they say “with age comes wisdom”. I do not deny this, but sometimes, youth is needed to kick start the engines that have been running for a while :). My point here is not to poke fun, but rather to show that life is about perspective. We “young folk” are at a different stage then many of the others, and that’s alright. The problem I have is being on campus and not feeling comfortable. I have learned to just let go of expectations. Do what brings me joy, and bare the fruit of my actions. It is tough, being young and perhaps not supported by colleagues to the same degree my elders are supported, but what do you expect. Look at the world around us! Young people all around are being corrupted and have lost focus on the internal battle, focusing and defining success on their externals mostly. I have been called GHANDI, and I take that as a compliment, several times because I meditate. What had helped me is understand the causes an conditions that lead people to view things the way they view it. Appreciating how experience shapes and forms us, and more importantly, how attachment to those experiences fosters ones understandings and perceptions. Most students are not mindful of their experiences, but rather live out an egotistical lifestyle, and I DO NOT BLAME THEM. We are conditioned to act in such a way. Anyways, to end, I think it is a benefit to start younger. I have found patience to be something to ground myself in. Waiting to see what happens, taking a zen approach, but also being mindful of where I am at and my surroundings, has allowed me to get over many of my troubles.

Cheers

Neil Patel

Living Abundance - January 25, 2013

Hi Neil, Thanks for your comment, I’m glad that you had lots to say in response. I completely agree that young people can offer a positive contribution of a different perspective, because we are less tied in conventional ways of solving problems or taking action. I’m curious what you mean by not feeling comfortable on campus, is there something specific to the university setting? And it sounds like you have really gained a different perspective from meditation that is really helpful for yourself!

2. Candace - January 25, 2013

Hello Andrea,

Thank you for sharing your experience as a young practitioner. Being under 30, I too consider myself a young adult. I started meditating by myself at ~ 20 and years later joined a sangha.

I have experienced similar situations. After asking where all the youth was, I was told that meditation or Buddhism was a path that most approach mid-life. I often feel excluded from conversations because I don’t have children, a partner, or a home (all by choice I might add). I’ve had a career for 5 years but found that something was missing.

I left my job and recently visited an ashram in Kootenay Bay, BC called Yasodhara. I wanted to be in an isolated environment where I could have time to reflect. It was different because there were so many youth there, I think the majority were youth under 30. I stayed a year living a mindful lifestyle. It was like being on retreat 24/7. I didn’t realize how different it was from the city life until I returned to Saskatoon.

I’ve only been back 3 months and it’s been a tough transition. I’ve found it hard to relate to anyone, even youth. Still, going to meditation after being away 1 1/2 years I’ve noticed some changes. There are more youth attending. How to keep them engaged and coming back is the challenge. There isn’t a lot of time to talk before and after meditation. I’ve noticed some people come regularly, but others won’t come back. I’ll admit that when I started I was sporadic.

It was awkward when I first attended and I didn’t know if I fit in. I debated going back to meditating alone but felt a strength in the sangha (I deeply missed this even while away at the ashram). Still, I notice a difference in how people speak to me if there’s a difference in age. The conversation will often feel light and as though I’m speaking to a parent who feels they need to comfort or provide advice. It’s odd that I still encounter this as I approach my 30th birthday. Whatever comes up, I try to reflect on the lesson that can be learned. Nothing is coincidence, life is practice.

May all practitioners find what they are looking for,

-Candace-

Living Abundance - January 25, 2013

Hi Candace, You’re very welcome, its my pleasure! Thanks for sharing your experience (you have told me personally but its great to let others know what’s out there). I’m happy to hear about your observation that more youth are attending sangha, perhaps they will feel more sense of belonging with other people closer their age. I agree, there can be quite a few people who are “irregularly regular” attenders, ha ha! But I think if there is something that is valuable for them to gain from the experience, they will come back, otherwise meditation is just not the best choice for them at that time.

3. Brian - January 31, 2013

Hi Andrea,
I’m happy to hear from you and see your continued blog postings! In so far as my thoughts on practicing Buddhist meditation as a younger person, I can relate to feeling out of place. However, I’m also happy to report that I have met a great many people my own age and even younger who are interested in Buddhist practices.
First of all, my most recent experience of being the youngest person in a dharma talk or Buddhist service was last week. I had the good fortune of meeting with Lama Glen Mullin who originally hails from Quebec, not so far from my hometown! At any rate, I sat in on one of his lectures and I was certainly the youngest person there. Although I didn’t feel out of place I do sometimes feel the desire to connect with meditators my own age. It is likely that practitioners of the same age will hold a few more things in common than those who have 20, 30, maybe 40 or 50 years difference in their age. For example, there may be more opportunity to relate about such things as dating or school work, for younger people, and child rearing or retirement for older people. Of course, the older individuals in the dharma group have likely experienced what the younger are experiencing but it is not likely in the forefront of their thoughts as it may be with a younger individual. I guess what I’m saying is that we all have issues, which bring us to the cushion, but sometimes there is a desire to be with people who have a more closely related angst. Perhaps even more importantly there is the desire to connect with people who hold similar belief systems outside of the temple or zendo.
Of course that is not to take away from what can be learned when people of different ages get together. A young person can certainly learn from their elders and even vice versa. However, there is still, and understandably so, a need to be with people in our own age group, particularly those who hold similar interests and beliefs.
However, having said that I should also vouch for all of the people my own age that I have met in the temple, as well as outside, who I see as very similar to myself, some more than others, despite their method of practice. Some meditate, while others bake, sing, pray, volunteer, etc… I have even found instances where I have had much more in common with a devote Christian or Athiest than with a Buddhist or Daoist. It seems clear to me that because you meet someone your own age in the meditation hall doesn’t not necessairly mean they will be a well matched dharma friend.
After having practiced meditation in halls across Canada and now in Asia with both natives and other foreigners, I feel a hint of insincerety with Buddhists in Asia as I did with Christians in the west. Perhaps Buddhism in the west, being a fresh and new idea, attracts a certain type of person. A person who seeks change and resists the run of the mill. The people who seek out Buddhist practice in Canada might be very good matches with people who seek out Christianity in Korea.
But I’m getting off topic. What I think I’m trying to say in this ramble is that age and religion really aren’t that important when trying to make an intimate relationship with another (Perhaps I presume too much to say that the basis of this inquiry is the need to feel a deeper connection with people). And yet sometimes its not enough to share a believe system with someone in their 50’s or to spend time with someone your own age who holds a different belief system. There is still that desire to meet people our own age who hold the same kind of outlook on life, regardless of how important or unimportant age and religion are to the connection people have with one another. I just don’t think that we ought to limit ourselves to the zendo in order to find people who have similar outlooks on life. I think it comes down to a person’s motivation to adventure. The type of adventure may be via Buddhism or it may be through painting or exercise. When we find people (of a similar age) with a similar drive to go beyond what is common, then we can develop a deeper than most relaitonship, romantic or otherwise.

Living Abundance - January 31, 2013

Hi Brian, Thank you very much for your detailed thoughts on my post, I really appreciate your perspectives, and I’m fascinated to hear about your reflections on Buddhists in Asia.
I’m sensing a common thread here among the comments that the youth can gain wisdom from their elders, and the elders can gain from the freshness and vitality of the youth! It is a give and take relationship.
And of course it is natural to want to connect with others who have similar situations as us at the forefront of their minds.
I completely agree that similarities don’t necessarily come from being the same age or having the same religion, and that we all share a basic humanness that we can relate to. We are all trying to climb the same mountain from different sides, so to speak.
Its a good reminder to me because I confess that I have a tendency at times to find and fixate on the characteristics that are different between me and another person or group of people, instead of what we hold in common, which can lead to feelings of distance and alienation.

4. Rik - February 14, 2013

hi Andrea! 🙂

Rik

Living Abundance - February 14, 2013

Hi Rik. Ha ha, you make me laugh!


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