The Power of Teen Camp
by Julia Hengst
First published on: May 29, 2016
The following article appeared as part of Vajrapani Institute’s 2015 Annual Report
The Wise Heart Teen Camp officially started in the Summer of 2014, however it had it beginnings in the the “teen tracks” taking place during Wise Heart Family Camp. Within this ten-year span, huge shifts in technology and access to drugs/alcohol have created an extremely challenging environment for teenagers — an environment so different that many adults cannot even comprehend it. If you do a search for the top problems facing teenagers today, they include: cyber bullying, drugs, body image issues, eating disorders (on the rise among boys), technology issues, depression, teen sex/relationships, social anxiety, obesity, academic pressures and lack of motivation.
As a Marriage Family Therapist who specializes in teenagers and young adults, I can say without hesitation the number one issue raised by teens – whether in counseling or in group teen events – is self-hatred. Self-hatred is epidemic, and is paradoxically tied to the high levels of interaction teens can have with each other through various forms of technology. Before their brains have reached adult levels of growth and maturity (now scientifically proven to be around age 25!), teenagers live as if on stage in front of a panel of virtual judges everywhere they go and in everything they do. While the internet is a blessing in many ways, bringing connection and integration, its ability to give bullies the power to express violence, misogyny and discrimination in all its forms (homophobia, racism, classism, etc.) is a curse.
Young people today have higher levels of self-consciousness and self-criticism because they have so many social platforms that can mirror negativity back towards them. They need help. They need to know there are other teens who struggle with similar thoughts of depression, loneliness, anxiety, shame and fear. They need to know it is possible to create community and build trust, that there are other teens who genuinely want to connect with each other in deeper, more vulnerable ways. One teenager told me she is “surprised there aren’t more school shootings” and “everyone goes through an eating disorder phase.” This is the new norm, and we want to counteract this horrifying “norm” to help kids know there is positivity inside themselves, inside each other and that they can create meaning and purpose in their lives.
Buddhism says we are stuck in cyclic existence, and as Dr. Robert Thurman puts it, we are all infinitely inter-entangled. Once we realize our fates are connected with those of everyone around us, and that it is in our best interest to be more compassionate to all living beings, we can begin weaving consciousness with others rather than suffering. Teen Camp provides the space where kids can learn how to create happiness rather than suffering. They can learn which actions of body, speech and mind become seeds for connection, joy, equanimity, and which ones will cause future misery. After asking me about teenagers recently at a lunch at Vajrapani, Lama Zopa Rinpoche told me that karma is so powerful, if teenagers could learn how to make one offering in the morning or at night to all the Buddhas and dedicate the merit for the benefit of all beings, it is unbelievable how much good karma it creates. Then parents, parents who worry so much about their teens and have no idea how to help them, won’t feel so powerless in knowing how to help their kids. Rinpoche said if teens learn some techniques for creating good karma, parents won’t feel so worried all the time.
Teen Camp empowers teens by showing them how to connect to bigger sources of positive power during a time when negativity permeates the airwaves (literally, psychically).Yes, we help teens develop mindfulness, but we go further in that we help them use that mindfulness proactively: to create merit, to see their own karmic patterns, and to discern what is needed to dissolve the negative karmic patterns and grow the positive ones. It is a tall order, but as one of my mentor’s told me, the world is a calamity right now, and “we need to get as many people through the fence as we can!” In the west, we tend to think we can just “will” things into being with magical thinking and intellectualizing. This is a mistake. We must create the karma for positive future outcomes. Teen Camp – and all the camps at Vajrapani – help young people learn how to do just that.
Julia Hengst is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in working with teens and delights in supporting their self-exploration in any way possible. She has a private psychotherapy practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and occasionally runs groups in Santa Cruz.She has been associated with Vajrapani Institute and its sister center, Land of Medicine Buddha, for more than 20 years and has been part of the Wise Heart Teen Camp at Vajrapani Instituten since its unofficial beginning ten years ago.