Millennial Perspectives on Spirituality
We live in a culture that idolizes and glamorizes youth, but being young in today’s world is not always easy. Stress, self-hatred, self-consciousness and confusion in the face of the seemingly limitless possibilities new technologies have made available to us are just a few of the challenges facing the millennial generation. And our mainstream consumerist culture is, for the most part, so emphatically secular. Sadly, the transmission of wisdom and spiritual values, something that could at least provide a guiding framework to young people, is rarely viewed as a priority.
Against this backdrop, how is it for young people who do have an interest in spirituality? Do spiritually oriented young people today feel out on a limb? What first draws them to get involved in exploring the spiritual side of life, and how do they stay “plugged in” and spiritually nourished? What benefits have they felt from their efforts?
Angelica Walker (27) grew up at Vajrapani Institute, surrounded by Dharma. She first went to Vajrapani Institute’s Family Camp (now Wise Heart Family Camp) when she was five. When she was 13 she started to volunteer at the event as a Camp counsellor.
“Camp was amazing for me growing up,” she recalls, “because I didn’t usually get to share the Dharma with other kids. It was the one time in the year that it wasn’t this sub-culture thing. We all were together, all the kids there were Dharma students. We learned to meditate together and it was this fun, social thing that also created a Dharma family, my peers.”
Like a number of Family Camp participants of her generation, Angelica attended Tara Redwood School in Soquel. The founder of the school, Pam Cayton, was a student of Lama Yeshe’s and the secular Buddhist principles enshrined in the Universal Education (now Universal Wisdom Education) movement Lama Yeshe founded, were deeply embedded into the school’s activities.
In 6th Grade, however, Angelica transitioned into the public school system, where she says Dharma was completely absent. “It’s not part of our culture at all, especially in the school setting,” she says. “I think in high school in one text book, in my history class, there was one tiny, tiny paragraph that mentioned Buddhism and Tibet. That was it.
“I was embarrassed about being a Buddhist, because nobody else was, pretty much. But for me, it was a big part of my world because I grew up out here at Vajrapani.” Angelica says she remember having friends over and worrying that they might notice the Buddha pictures, the thangkas, on the wall, and that she would then have a lot of explaining to do to bridge the cultural divide.
Angelica says an integration happened for her when she was a bit older. She started to recognize the practical value of the Dharma she’d been taught: how Dharma principles could actually be applied to the challenges of being a 17-year-old high school student. “I was struggling with being at high school and all the superficial aspects of it. I felt like the Dharma gave me some connection to my truer self and helped me cope with what I was experiencing. I think I realized that it was an unusual thing to have exposure to the Dharma and that a lot of kids didn’t have anything to look to, anything to get support from. I had a method that did give me a way of feeling supported.
“So when I was 17 I started getting interested in meditation myself and going to teachings and not really wanting to be ashamed of that, because it was an important thing for me. I felt like there was a part of me that could relax. It wasn’t a weird thing to meditate and be saying mantras.”
With this new appreciation came the confidence to share the Dharma with others. Instead of being secretive about it she says she started to think, “Why not talk about it with people so they can also learn about it?”
Over the years, in addition to volunteering at Family Camp Angelica has also helped out on occasion at its offshoot for older kids, Teen Camp (now Wise Heart Teen Camp). She says that some of the activities at this event are specifically set up to help young participants directly address the challenges of teen life.
“It’s intense for them these days, I think.” She says. “Because of social networking, there’s a lot of comparing yourself to others and feeling that you should be a certain way. Because of the media there’s a lot of sex being implanted in your mind all the time, and I think the drug culture in high school, though I don’t know much about it, I think it has always been the case…”
Among many other activities, participants at Teen Camp are given opportunities during the course of the weekend to join a discussion session moderated by Camp Director, Julia Hengst, who is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist. The format deliberately protects privacy, as group members are invited to anonymously write one of their live issues on the whiteboard. “We can then look at them together and see that a lot of people are having the same struggles,” Angelica says.
One of the biggest benefits of Camp that Angelica identifies is offering kids an experience of being accepted. “They feel a sense of connection and acceptance. They want to be here. I think acceptance is a big one. Being accepted into a family and knowing that you are OK, however you are. That’s not something you find everywhere, especially in the public schools, now. Just being a teenager, it’s always judgmental. It’s just a judgmental scene. So I’ve known kids that come (to Camp) and they say, ‘I just don’t want to leave. It’s different here. I feel accepted.’ That’s really powerful to see.”
“My long-term intention is to go to grad school and do integrative psychology. So another reason I am prefacing the rest of my life with this experience is because I feel it’s going to be incredibly valuable. Buddhism is so complementary to psychology and therapy.”
Danielle Beutell (24) recently arrived at Vajrapani Institute to participate in the summer work study program. She says that although she was raised without religion her parents created an environment where open exploration was encouraged, and she remembers always being very naturally interested in social sciences, personality theory and psychology. “Even as a kid I loved taking psychology quizzes and hearing other people’s quizzes. It’s self-discovery.”
A reference to Jainism in a High School history was Danielle’s first encounter with what she describes as more of an Eastern spirituality perspective. She recalls this as providing a fleeting but significant spark of interest for her. “Something about Jainism really resonated with me,” she says. “There’s non-violence and I like how it reflects having symbiotic energy in your life and in your community.”
A few years later, at 18, Danielle started delving a little deeper into Eastern spirituality. “I had been really sick for a year. Because of that my social life was not as active, so I was reading a ton and I was coming back to things I wanted to. That’s when I started studying Chakra Psychology … Anodea Judith’s book, Eastern Body, Western Mind blew my world open. I loved it. I still love it!”
As Danielle’s adventure of self-discovery started to gather momentum she found herself experiencing a growing frustration with the limiting attitudes held by those around her. Eventually in the summer of 2014 she decided to make a fresh start somewhere more conducive. “The biggest reason I left Chicago is no one was talking about this, nobody was reading about it. I was getting stereotyped as a witch, which is ridiculous! I was like, ‘I need to be somewhere more progressive!’ So I moved to Los Angeles.”
The move to Los Angeles afforded Danielle a wealth of opportunities to learn about spirituality, and she entered into the adventure with relish, even moving her career focus away from the fashion writing she had trained in. “I started doing spirituality writing, because I wanted to get paid to learn about meditation and other forms of spirituality. I even got into writing for some mystics and psychics. I wanted to learn about anything.”
Something Danielle found herself writing about a lot while in Los Angeles was meditation. “Meditation is super-trendy right now,” she explains. “It’s the new wellness trend. People were hiring me to work for their meditation brands.” Part of the reason Danielle started learning to meditate was so she could write about it better, and one of several places where she learned was UCLA’s Mindfulness Program. She found that she really enjoyed meditating and started to feel a lot better. However after a while, she says, she felt like she reached a point where she plateaued. She started to feel that the ‘non-religious’ variety of meditation was somehow incomplete. “I felt like the philosophy of Buddhism is necessary to expand on the value that meditation offers. And that’s the drawback of it becoming so mainstream and trendy outside of the practice of Dharma… While at the time I didn’t feel called to be a Buddhist, I knew that Buddhism was the history and foundation of meditation and I felt like I should go to the source.”
Going to the source, for Danielle, took the form of coming to Vajrapani Institute. It was a place where she felt she could find some of the missing answers. “I didn’t feel like I had a good foundation for the ‘why?’” she says. “Why are we doing the practice this way? I’m so intellectual. I have both sides, I have the open intuitive side too. But that’s why I like Buddhism so much, because it makes sense. There’s a lot of logic. If you have those questions about why you are doing things there is so much history of research and insight into why the practices are taught the way they are, and how to overcome the obstacles.”
Overcoming obstacles was a topic that Danielle felt particular relief in learning about when she started taking formal Buddhist teachings. This was one of the vital ingredients missing from her previous exposure to meditation training. “I learned that I am able to overcome things that I thought were ‘my faults’. I thought there was something wrong with me, but it’s like, ‘Oh yes, that’s just you being human!’”
As well as providing Danielle with plenty of opportunities to receive Buddhist teachings, she is also finding the community setting and the healing energy at Vajrapani Institute very restorative. “I have healing to do. I’m not solid in my practices and beliefs yet and that’s a very vulnerable place to be when you’re in a chaotic city environment where you’re constantly in competition. I love city culture but I wanted to be in a safer, more ‘held’ place so I could build up my strength, have some solid sense of what practices work for me and what mindsets help me. So when I go live in the city, which I know I want to do …I’ll have a stronger idea, I won’t waver as much.
RJ Smith (23) has been living and working at Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) Dharma Centers for the past four years. After a stint at Milarepa Center in Vermont he moved to Vajrapani Institute in 2014.
RJ’s wide-ranging journey of spiritual exploration has been fueled by a deeply inquisitive mind. At 13, he says, his spiritual position was “staunchly humanist atheist.” He read philosophy books avidly and cites Descartes and Nietzsche as prominent influences. “I became interested in examining the way things are. I was very anti-social as a teenager, for various reasons, so hardcore stoicism also really resonated. Like, ‘People are really hard to be around because they have emotions.’ Of course now I see that that’s not the best way to go about things, and it was all intellectual, but it was helpful at the time.
“Then I discovered that there was a whole series of Eastern religions. This was shocking to me and Eastern philosophy was very interesting to my teenage mind. I explored Taoism. Then I realized Buddhism was in line with a lot of beliefs I already had and that I could cultivate even more understanding through Buddhist philosophy.”
The first Buddhist book RJ remembers reading was How to Practice, The Way to a Meaningful Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was about 16 at the time and His Holiness’ message made a huge impression on him. In particular it helped him start to really value the concept of compassion. “Through Buddhism I learned that the best way to live is not necessarily an exclusively intellectual journey, but an experiential journey as well. Buddhism, unlike the other philosophies I was exploring at the time, emphasized compassion. Reading How to Practice made me realize that just because things don’t appear as they are, it doesn’t mean that things don’t matter to people, or that we shouldn’t cultivate compassion towards others.”
Reading His Holiness’s message of compassion towards all beings helped shift RJ’s teenage world view significantly. It opened up the possibility to him that there might be a lot more meaning in life than he had previously considered. “While it wasn’t integrated as a practice or as a thing I identified as believing, it still made me realize that there are schools that say ‘just because things don’t appear as they are doesn’t mean they don’t matter.’ This is still something I struggle with and I think most of us do.”
The next stages in RJ’s story included one or two fairly sharp twists and turns. While still a teenager, he got very involved in hospice work, motivated by a sincere interest in “death and dying” and a heartfelt wish to alleviate suffering. “It was obvious that people were suffering hardcore,” he says. The social service work got a bit too much though, eventually, and RJ tried a different tack for a while. More Dharma lessons came fast:
“After the social service I got really jaded and I partied really hard. I grew up in an area that was deep in addiction. A lot of young people were dying from overdoses in that area and still are to this day. To see this sort of thing is heavy on the mind…. Something happened that is probably the biggest thing that led me to the Dharma. (I had been examining the Dharma again, but in a half-hearted way because I was so deep into partying.) I had been partying for a long time …. I went to a rave on New Year’s Eve and after the rave was over there was more partying and a guy died. It set me into a zone. It made me realize that I too shall die and that I was basically wasting my time, my Precious Human Rebirth. That’s when I first started practicing Tibetan Buddhism heavily, and found a teacher. Then I went to Milarepa Center (an FPMT Dharma Center in Vermont). That was five years ago.”
“One of things I have realized now, suddenly, in my early twenties, is the importance of having and relying upon a spiritual teacher. It’s one of the most important aspects of the spiritual path. Having a community of like-minded practitioners is just essential because it reminds you, at those times when you get confused. Having the wisdom of those who have gone before us is important… And there’s an arrogance that comes with youth, classically, and has done throughout the history of time! The arrogance of youth, the poison of it, can find an antidote in relying upon the spiritual teacher.
RJ’s message to other young people out there who might be struggling to find their way spiritually is not to be superficial in their efforts and not to get put off if they find themselves having doubts and questions. “The thing is not to be attracted by the ‘hipness or sexiness’ of Buddhism or any tradition, but to really explore it and not just to take it at face value,” he says. “And also to remember that healthy skepticism is different than arrogance and that healthy skepticism is an essential part of growth and of true understanding. Don’t feel discouraged if you feel some skepticism. People get discouraged a lot about that and they don’t need to.”
Young Muslims from North America and Europe leaving home to join ISIS, much to their parents’ alarm. Several years ago, college students joining the Occupy movement in large numbers. Urban youth joining street gangs with strict codes of honor and loyalty.
Do these phenomena have anything in common?
Dimensions of Social Space
Recently I’ve been investigating the work of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. Haidt posits what he calls the “three dimensions of social cognition or social space”: the dimension of closeness or solidarity (how close we feel to others, and how much mutual obligation we feel), the dimension of status or hierarchy, and the dimension of divinity or elevation. This third dimension involves moving up or down a scale with behavior we find disgusting and degrading at the bottom, and behavior we find inspiring, uplifting, or elevating at the top. Haidt says that we move up on the scale of divinity by activities that invoke the self-transcendent emotions of elevation (the good feeling we get when we witness acts of virtue done by others), awe, and wonder.
People we admire as great saints or great moral examples, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be at the top of the scale, and inspire the emotion of elevation in us.
Many world religions have codified this last dimension into their ethics, rituals, and belief systems. Haidt posits that this third dimension is innate in humans; we seek elevation or self-transcendence, and avoid that which is degrading or debasing.
A Search for Secular Ethics
So what happens when you live in a world, like modern secular North America, where the social space is flattened into two, or even one, dimension? What happens to your innate wish for self-transcendence, for inspiration, elevation, and wonder?
I remember growing up as a hippie teenager, in a time when we were rejecting the materialistic world of our parents, the post-war world of consumerism and consumption. We were finding our need for self-transcendence fulfilled in social and political protest, Eastern spirituality, and mind-altering substances. During this time period, we see in retrospect that these activities were relatively benign, even virtuous.
What are young people turning to these days to fulfill this need, in the flattened, one-dimensional world that we live in? Are their choices as benign as ours were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or is there much more risk involved in their exploration and experimentation? Is there anything that we can do to provide the moral compass, fulfill the deep spiritual needs that are common to all human beings, when they are not being provided by the culture at large? Or will we continue to act as if a flattened world is normal and turn our backs on the desperation of our youth, who are seeking to fulfill these needs with whatever arises?
Youth Programs at Vajrapani Institute
For over 20 years, Vajrapani Institute has been providing programs for children, youth, and now young adults. It started with Kids Camp (later known as Family Camp) in 1994 which later generated an offshoot as the kids grew up, Teen Camp. The latest addition to the program is the Young Adult Retreat. Many of the young people involved in these programs have been coming back year after year, from the time they were small children, as they find these programs provide them with the guidance, community, experiences, and ethical framework that are missing in their experiences at school and in their communities. Perhaps the staff at Vajrapani hasn’t thought explicitly in terms of the third dimension of social space, and the self-transcendent needs of these kids, but is fulfilling this mandate nevertheless in a world so desperately in need of these alternatives.