by My Tong
Steve Yoonhyung Doh, a 14-year-old first-year high school student who recently revisited Deer Park Monastery on a Day of Mindfulness, sat with me to talk about his first Teen Camp in July of this year—an experience which he rated as the best overnight camp ever in his life: a 10 out of 10! Surprised by his exulted enthusiasm, I asked how he came to know about the camp. He told me the conversation with his mom went like this:
Mom: I signed you up for Teen Camp next week.
Steve: Mom! But I had stuff I planned to do with my friends. Are you sure, Mom? Can’t we just go swimming at the beach? I don’t know if I want to go…
His mom had already practiced mindfulness for a while, but it was all new to him. Still, he packed his clothes, and she dropped him off at the monastery shortly after that. The next five days brought a completely new and profound experience to his life—an experience that brought about much insight and changes within him.
At home, Steve would spend hours playing videogames or watching YouTube, but here in the hidden mountain, camp rules dictate no cell phone and no internet. This was hard at first, but each day was so full that it felt like nothing was lost—like a whole week’s worth of activities were packed in one day. There was simply no need to be online. For someone who doesn’t go to bed early, Steve was happy to follow along with the rhythm of going to bed around 9 pm and waking up early at 6 am. In the morning, the campers would huddle around the fire in silence drinking tea, then practice mindful exercises in a circle before walking to the morning session of sitting meditation.
The silence and mindful eating practices made him reflect on all the conditions that had come together to bring him this food. Steve sees himself as a once-or-twice-a-week meat eater, and he honestly didn’t expect vegetarian food to be this good. He found Deer Park food to be the best he had ever had—the cooks transmitted the food along with their love, and he found himself ready to receive the nutriments with gratitude.
The Dharma sharing circle in Solidity’s meditation hall, attended by many other young people, older monastics and staff, left a strong impression on him. He was surprised by the depth and honesty of what each person said. He thought that he was the only one who had gone through some dark periods in the past; now he realized that others had similar struggles.
The Five Mindfulness Trainings helped him have more awareness of the strengths and weaknesses in his communication skills. During the interview for this article, he glanced over at his mom—with her sangha friends on the table behind us—before admitting that he used to scream at her during arguments. A few months after receiving the trainings, he started to reread and follow them. Noticing when feelings of frustration and anger arose, Steve would give himself a few minutes to come back to himself and become grounded. He recognized that his mom was a human being with whom he could talk without having to yell. When I suggested that he and his mom might read the mindfulness trainings together to have a common ground of values and directions, Steve agreed and added that it would be nice to have a Zoom Dharma talk or recitation of the trainings specifically for the teens who attended the camp. That would help him and many other teens to stay connected to each other after the camp ended.
After the camp Steve would remember to take three deep breaths whenever he felt too excited or nervous—like when he would need to present in front of others, whenever he was fearful of messing up, or when he would become frustrated over homework. He struggled with school before but now he doesn’t feel as stressed out. Steve also began practicing slow mindful walking on the grass, on the sand at the beach, or even when marching with the Civil Air Patrol in his town. He was able to increase his capacity to sense the bottom of his feet, or the pain in his boots, in ways he hadn’t experienced before. Stopping and standing still for a while brought freshness to the moment. At times like this he didn’t feel the need to run anymore.
Jonathan Borella, a Teen Camp staff member, recalled fondly: “Ah, that Steve! He was the one taking pictures of himself on my phone, which was left charging in the bathroom. Ha-ha! He was such a sincere and respectful guy—and an amazing beatboxer.” Steve’s eyes lit up when he recalled the Be-In on the last night—a bright and unexpected highlight. He fully dove into a fun beatboxing collaborative performance with his friends.
Looking at how excited Steve’s face was in anticipation of the next Teen Camp, I couldn’t help but feel how much we had all contributed to this unique experience in his life. Many of us keep coming back to staff Teen Camp for this very reason. I hope Steve will get to beatbox and make more friends next year.
At some point during the interview, Brother Peace (Minh An) came by to say hello after recognizing Steve. His encouraging way of interacting with Steve stayed with me through the day, and brought up the memory of Brother Peace’s opening talk at the camp: “You don’t know how much all these humans, who are here for you love you so much.” This wisdom was so simple, but so true.
Teen Camp is the product of many loving hands—both monastics and lay— and preparation begins weeks beforehand. The monastic organizing team worked on the program for months and, as it came closer, 22 lay friends on staff started cleaning up the camp area: weed whacking on hot summer days, wiping toilet seats, taking out trash, and setting up the campfire ring for making ‘smores. We had a particularly fun, creative and artistic time building and painting together the two big entrance signs for each side of the camp, complete with little side gates for our inner child to go through. Brother Phap Dung also created a bonding space for us around a campfire, where we could tell wondrous stories about encounters with nature. In the air was the excitement of doing all these preparations with care, anticipating the moment when the teens would come to enjoy it. It was a way of showing love to our inner teen as well. We all shared a collective intention to create a loving, caring, and safe space for the teens to arrive at.
Teen Camp has been around for many years, and some staff members grew up in it. In previous years, when they attended the camp themselves, they would figure out how to break rules, but now that they had transitioned to this new role as staff, they would need to figure out how to encourage teens to follow the rules! It was a strange space ample with opportunities for practicing with our views about who we are. For many of us, being a teenager was challenging, and, seeing the teenagers arrive at camp with their cool clothes and the latest slang, we worried that we wouldn’t understand them—and vice versa. Acting as some “wise authority or model adult figure” for the younger generation could bring up so much stress and so many seeds of inferiority or superiority! Things that we hadn’t fully healed yet could emerge unexpectedly—such as being bullied in school, hating our bodies, not fitting in, or doing things damaging to ourselves out of the desire to be accepted and liked by others.
Dharma sharing circles for staff had us crying at times, yet we emerged from these circles more solid in our practice of the Dharma, steadier in the flow of the sangha’s practice, with the capacity to let go of ideas of about who we were supposed to be or how to control the situation. We simply came back to our breath, our steps, and were fully present and accepting of what was arising within—leaning into the wisdom and joy. I remember Brother Phap Dung speaking with the staff about how a group of teenagers during the camp might run very fast past us, and how we could learn to be the stillness within that flow. The hike up to Breakfast Rock was memorable to me for that very reason – the stillness and ease I cultivated with each step allowed me to be free amidst the rushing of fast footsteps and conversations of the energetic youths around me.