~ The following was published in The Floyd Press, July 31, 2008
Summer camp is an all-American tradition for many teens. But what kind of camp teaches kindness as part of its curriculum, or instructs campers to disconnect from their high-tech, high paced lives in order to sit still and listen?
At the second annual Earthsong Teen Meditation Retreat teenagers from Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, Maine, and all over Virginia agreed to undertake five prerequisite commitments, one of which was to speak truthfully and kindly. They learned sitting and walking meditation skills and were given the opportunity to explore yoga, martial arts, visual and performance arts, primitive life skills, and to participate in a traditional Native American sweat lodge ceremony.
Hosted by Earthsong Farm and Retreat in Patrick County, Virginia, the week long event was held July 6 - 12 at a camp adjacent to Earthsong, thirty minutes from downtown Floyd. Rolling green meadows dotted with cabins, a pavilion, a large room for gathering, wooded pathways, and a nearby creek set the stage for a teen camp experience with retreat as its focus.
The founder of Earthsong, Maury Cooke, is an entrepreneur from Portsmouth, Virginia, who heads up The Center for Community Development, a non-profit organization that promotes affordable housing, arts and culture, and microenterprise. After the death of his son in a car accident, Cooke, a longtime meditater, vowed to find a way to mentor youth. When he met Erin Hill, a teen meditation teacher from California, and was inspired by her to attend a meditation retreat, he knew he had found the way.
For the Virginia retreat, teachers skilled at working with teens were flown in from California and Ohio. They included Hill, Tempel Smith, Marvin Beltzer, and Jason Murphy (CSAC). Smith has lived as a monk in Burma. Belzer, a Professor of Philosophy, helped develop youth retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. Other teachers included twenty-nine year old Jessica Morey, who began practicing meditation at the age of fourteen at the Insight Meditation Society, and Joe Klein, LPC, who also helped to organize and managed the retreat. Assistant teachers were drawn from Floyd and surrounding areas and included Alan Forrest, head of Counselor Education at Radford University. Commenting on the retreat Forrest said, "What was amazing is that it was a transformative experience not just for the teens but also for the staff."
In some ways the retreat resembled any other summer camp experience. Friendships were formed. Guitars were played around an open fire. But rather than the traditional marshmallows being roasted, teens munched on wild berry cobbler and other locally grown food. Teachers gave nightly talks. Teens were encouraged to use "wise speech," and periods of silence were observed at designated times throughout the day.
The meditation techniques introduced to the teens were drawn from the Vipassana tradition, an ancient practice of self observation where attention to the breath is used to anchor the mind in the present. Vipassana, a Sanskrit word for "insight," is sometimes referred to as "mindfulness." The Teen Meditation Retreat brochure reads: "Meditation clears the mind, allows a sense of calm, and supports more appreciation and happiness. It is an avenue that empowers by allowing more control of our states of mind and emotions."
"We're giving kids skills to maintain their own mental, physical, and spiritual health," said Klein. "They're learning to practice loving kindness towards themselves as well as towards others," he added.
Even mealtimes at the retreat provided opportunities to practice mindfulness, as teens were encouraged to slow down while eating and guess the ingredients of the chef's savory nightly soups. Clean-up was also encouraged to be done with mindful concentration.
Although developing meditation skills was the primary focus of the retreat, several of the sixteen teens who participated expressed their appreciation for the daily inclusion of small discussion groups, where feelings were expressed, barriers broke down, and the challenges of group dynamics were explored.
"At first I was sort of shy and then I started to warm up," said Devin Deerheat Gamache. Gamache, who grew up in Floyd but now lives in Arkansas, attended last year's retreat and returned this year. He credited a small group game called "If you really knew me, you'd know that ..." for helping him quickly forge friendships. Liota Weinbaum, another retreater, said the small groups were "a unique social situation where relationships got more real and meaningful."
The retreat culminated in a spirited Community Sharing the night before the end of the retreat. After dinner teens and teachers shared poetry, songs, drumming, and dancing in an open mic atmosphere. They also presented theatrical performances, learned in workshops throughout the week.
At an Appreciation Circle the next morning, feelings of gratitude were verbalized. One teen described the retreat as "the single best week of my life." Another remarked that he enjoyed learning drumming and how to use poi lights (a string of LED glow lights that change colors and make a light show when swung at night). Others used the forum to voice gratitude for what they had learned and to thank the adults for making the retreat happen.
As the week wound to a close, goodbyes were exchanged with humor, hugs, and emotion. Many of the teens expressed enthusiasm for coming back to next retreat. "Everyone here was so loving. I just felt loved," said fifteen year old Maya Matlack before heading back to her home in Pennsylvania. ~ Colleen Redman
Post Notes: Read an article on the retreat that appeared in the Roanoke Times HERE and one from The Virginian Pilot, written by a recent high school graduate who participated in the retreat HERE. The Virginian Pilot also did a July 12th feature on Maury Cooke, which appears as an excerpt HERE. More information on teen retreats is HERE. The above was originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on August 25, 2008.