Life School: The Solace of Teen Mindfulness Retreats
A Q&A with Jess Berkun
In the fall of 2021, iBme manifested a long-time goal of incorporating youth voices into our daily work with the inauguration of our Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). Comprised of esteemed, awesome young people – mindfulness practitioners and iBme retreat alum – the YAC helps guide and influence iBme’s mission, vision, voice, and programs. Acting as a compatible steering committee, the YAC sits alongside fellow Committees that together form our Collaborative Leadership System.
In essence, iBme is enriched by the minds and hearts of young people and adults alike, with various backgrounds, identifiers, and life experiences.
Here is YAC member Jess Berkun’s take on mindfulness and the “life school” offered through iBme’s teen mindfulness retreats.
What is mindfulness to you? What do you love about it?
Mindfulness is really a state of heightened awareness, a way of understanding and comprehending the world. It’s taking back power over your choices and your experiences. I love the freedom it gives me, the time it gives me, and the deep understanding I can feel with it. When I go to make a decision or react to something, I have space and knowledge that I do not have to respond in any kind of way. It’s soothing to tell myself that I don’t have a choice when I go to eat sugar or buy something, but the truth is that I have built that choice in me and I have it if I need it.
I don’t need anything or anyone to be okay and at peace. Of course, I want those things, but if I don’t have them, I am okay. That, to me, is the most powerful thing in the world. That life could take everything from me and it would hurt, but I would still have my breath and my body and my awareness and the ability to focus on whatever I want.
You’ve been on an iBme retreat. What was your experience like?
I’ve been on 3 in-person retreats and 4 online retreats, I believe. I will be going on my final retreat this summer (2022). After thinking and brainstorming about it, I think I would describe retreat as time away at “life school”, and a place to celebrate being alive.
“I fully believe I have, in my time with iBme, learned how to be human, how to navigate relationships and pain, how to communicate, how to listen, and how to love. It’s life school.”
There’s no other way to describe it. And it’s never too late to learn how to live; that’s what we do our entire lives anyway. So maybe it is accelerated life school. On retreat I have no choice but to learn healthy coping mechanisms, no choice but to open up to strangers, and no choice but to sit with myself and see who I am each time, and no choice but to absorb amazing wisdom. It’s like Odysseus being bound to the mast when he goes past the sirens, but it’s you binding yourself, and you are the sirens, and everyone around you on the boat is comforting you and giving you wisdom and food and hugs and really cool vibes and cool music and cool ideas and friendship, and more love than you’ve ever felt, so you don’t even want to leave anyway.
If you could gift your friends and loved ones something you learned on retreat, what would it be?
First, I would give the power over my decisions that I talked about in question 1, but I would also give people the love and awe of life, something teachers often call “beginner’s mind–” training yourself to feel like you are experiencing something for the first time. We are often disillusioned with everything and nothing seems meaningful or exciting, and, honestly, for good reason in this day and age. I like the meme that says “go outside and touch grass!!!” whenever someone says something absolutely insane on the internet, and I hate to say it, but there is genuine merit in that. The awe and curiosity at simple, concrete things is one of the most valuable things I have ever been given.
As an example, one time on retreat, before breakfast, a teacher gave us all honey from their bees. We sat there for like 15 minutes, just eating different kinds of honey and seeing if we could taste the difference and thinking about all the effort and bee lives put into even a spoonful of the stuff. Sure, we were all hungry, and maybe some of us bored, but for the little moments of fascination, the rays of sunshine that poked through, the thoughts of “some kind of being’s lives went into this food!! and I can taste the sweetness, all throughout my mouth!!! What is it like to taste??!?!?! Tasting is so weird!!!!” it’s all worth it. I wish everyone had the power to appreciate every simple thing in their lives, and find awe in their consciousness and senses and feelings.
Even things like pain and emotions have fascinating little nuances, and I’ve found that even in my darkest moments, the space in my mind and the thought of “isn’t this absolutely fascinating? the way this emotion moves throughout my body? the way my pain feels?” are my little escape routes without even needing distractions.
“I want everyone to have the option of fascination and awe with their bodies and pain and anything they experience.”
How do you see mindfulness intersecting with the collective issues of our time?
We can see how we fit in and our place within or outside of an issue. We can see what concerns us and what is about us and be open to hearing how we can help instead of assuming we know. Mindfulness can often transform pure anger, fear, and guilt into awareness, action, and acceptance. It also helped me to be more open to change and keeping my opinions as things that can shift according to new information. Knowing I am not my thoughts or my opinions helped me to be willing to shift them and keep them in flux in response to new data.
Retreat has given me hope that there is a chance for humanity, and that helps me to keep dealing with the absolute disaster of our world right now. It’s one of the first places I was introduced to people who are passionate about the issues that I find myself passionate about now, and it was very inspiring. At the end of retreat we talk about ways to bring what we’ve learned back into our lives at home, and for those moments of shared energy and hope, change actually feels like a possibility.
Anything else you would like to add?
If you’re considering going on retreat, do it! If your reservations are monetary ones, iBme will help. If your reservations are about travel, you can carpool and there is usually a bus to get people there! I’m 20, and I’m going to miss it so much; enjoy it while you can. Try it while you have the chance. You can eat good food and absorb whatever experiences are helpful to you and listen to what really fascinating and smart people have to say. It’s your experience to make work; it’s your little escape from the world. The retreat experience can really be transformed to fit you; you can socialize and make friends, you can read or write at any available time, you can get to know teachers, you can go on hikes, etc. If you have questions, I’m sure you can email some of the staff. If you can’t go, there are also recordings of some of the wisdom talks and meditations on the website.
“On my very first retreat, I was really really scared because I saw a lot of people talking to each other who already knew each other and my social anxiety at the time was awful.”
I started crying and I almost left because I was so scared. I ended up talking to a teacher and going on a walk with her, and she was kind enough that I felt alright to stay. Later that night a teacher let me use their phone to text my mother that I was ok, even though usually phones aren’t allowed. By the end of retreat, I was comfortable and had made friends of my own, but even if that didn’t happen, I knew I’d be supported, accepted, and loved.
If you are looking for somewhere to find faith, somewhere to find some kind of love for humanity, this is the place. I found so much hope and love here that really do not seem to exist in other spaces in our world. As a teenager, this is one of the first places I felt fully accepted in my own skin, and I felt free to exist as I am and not try to change anything. It’s the first place I heard the phrase, “I love you; keep going.” I offer that phrase to you now, if you find it to be helpful, from an internet stranger.
Thanks so much for reading what I have to say 🙂
Jess Berkun is a senior at Bard College in Red Hook, New York. She is double majoring in Psychology and Written Arts and is a Peer Counselor (RA). Jess has been on seven iBme retreats — 4 in person and 3 online — and cares deeply for the organization and community. iBme has brought her so much faith in humanity and indispensable life lessons. Jess is particularly interested in how meditation can affect creativity and change perspectives as well as influence necessary conversations and communication.