May 19, 2008

Buddhism and Activism: Teenagers Get Off the Cushion and Into the World

“Wisdom is what keeps fearlessness from becoming aggression, and gentleness from becoming weakness.” ~ the Shambhala teachings. 

I am what some call a generic Dharma Brat, though of course nobody is generic. The one thing all Dharma Brats have in common—what defines our generation—is that we are all among of the first wave of Americans to be brought up from the get-go practicing “the profound, holy Dharma.” 

I grew up being told that even the bully has basic goodness. But when I got to middle school, I started my “rebellion.” I decided that meditation was the most pointless thing I’d ever heard of: what was the point of sitting on your ass for hours? My parents tried to explain that it was something they did to help the whole world. 


Now, almost four years later, I get it. I found my way back to my parent’s Shambhala Buddhist path through a program called Dharmic Warriors. We’re a group of teenagers who meet once a week and do five meditation weekend programs together over the course of two years. In my second year, I joined a peer education group, Sexual Health and AIDS Awareness Peer Education. S.H.A.P.E. members—all of us are high school students—go into middle and high schools in our district and give presentations on birth control, sexually transmitted infections and healthy relationships. S.H.A.P.E. is also involved in many community events: our huge local Creek Fest, our AIDS Project’s “One World Celebration” and now “V-Day” (stopping violence against women). We also give out hundreds of free condoms at local high schools, which have been shown to promote safer sex. 

It has taken me two years since I started to practice meditation to figure out that my experience on the meditation cushion isn’t separate from my trials and tribulations in the “real world.” Bringing the awareness that I develop in meditation into my community service helps me communicate genuinely, and I have a better feel for how people react to the information I give them about sex—information that’s often intimate, delicate, awkward and uncomfortable. Some people are talkative and engaged; others nervous and uncomfortable. Having unconditional compassion for all sorts of people is essential to effective community service—condemning ignorance in others just provokes more confusion. Just as I work to let go of my thoughts while sitting—letting thoughts be as they are, not trying to change them to what I might prefer to see—that is how to work with my peers. 

Of course, this works for everyday situations that we encounter. It might be someone who is driving slowly, a sister who constantly drives you crazy, a boyfriend who suddenly becomes a jerk. Whatever makes me feel that bubbling, fiery temper is an opportunity to recognize aggression, step back and pull myself out of the situation (easier said than done). Even when I just notice that I’m feeling anger, that goes a long way toward giving me the perspective not to buy into my own story, hook, line and sinker. While sitting on a cushion, it’s easy to discover how we’re feeling, but taking that with us once we get up and move into our daily routines is a work in progress. But when I can, it is a wonderful feeling and brings me one step closer to being fully present everyday, in all kinds of situations. 

Taking meditation practice off the cushion and into the real world also, strangely, helps to deepen my practice. Meditation is meant to be used in daily life. If we don’t do that, then what is the point of meditating in the first place? There are numerous ways to help your community and cultivate your compassion. There are hundreds of organizations in need of volunteers. And in our own lives, we encounter many situations everyday that provide an opening to practice what we’ve learned on our meditation cushion. 

Emilia Volz attends New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado. She has been involved in Buddhism and Shambhala her whole life, and started meditating at the age of 14.

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