Teens, Mindfulness, and Social Justice: A Q&A with Andrea Poile

Through her work and studies, Andrea Poile has had the opportunity to evaluate, research, and teach a number of mindfulness-based curriculum and interventions for youth. “Of all of them,” she says definitively, “iBme is the best. It’s the most developmentally appropriate, it’s the most transformative, the most effective, and it’s evidence-based.”

Andrea graduated from McGill University with a degree in English Literature and Psychology and earned her Master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she specialized in adolescent development, the neuropsychology of resilience, and mindfulness in education.

A meditator since college, Andrea plays an active role in iBme’s Toronto Teen Retreat, coordinating, fundraising, and doing outreach. But her favorite part is serving as a retreat mentor. She is passionate about education, young people, mindfulness, and the need to address systemic issues to create real change.

At 23, when Andrea found out she had to wait two more years to work on an iBme retreat, she went to grad school and she did a research project on iBme instead. “If iBme were a person, I’d have been a stalker,” she laughs. “I just wanted to understand why it was so effective. And I wanted to be a part of it.”

We sat down with Andrea recently to talk about her path, iBme, and the Toronto Retreat as it heads into its 5th year.

How did you come to meditation and mindfulness?

I grew up in a household where my mom practiced meditation and all the books were lying around — Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sylvia Boorstein, and Thich Nhat Hanh. But as a sensitive, highly perfectionistic, pretty moody teen, when my mom or dad said, ‘There’s this thing you should try,’ on some level I was like, “No way, if my parents think this is cool, then it’s not for me.” [laughs]

Things shifted when I went to college. I was 19 years old. I was going through a rough time, dealing with anxiety and depression and, on top of that, struggling with all the typical young-adult identity development angst, too.

I sought out help for my mental health issues, and as helpful as therapy and medication were, I found myself craving another kind of support. I Googled “mindfulness” and also found a student sitting group at my school. The seeds my mom had planted finally sprouted, you could say.

Meditation offered me a taste of freedom. Mostly I learned that no experience — no emotion, thought, or sensation — is permanent. With meditation, I was able to witness an emotion rising, and then cresting, and then falling away. I went from thinking “I am sad” to “I feel sad” — from “I am a loser” to “oh, this is what feeling like a loser feels like. This is what loneliness, or shame, feels like.”

It sounds so basic, but I was hooked.  (For any psychology nerds out there, meditation is the “how” of CBT, or cognitive-behavioural therapy.)

What did that change for you?

As soon as I got this visceral experience, I launched into research. I wanted to know how mindfulness meditation worked and why. That’s how my mind is. I shifted my major at university to study more Buddhist psychology, neuroscience, and education. My experience and those of the other students was so profound, so undeniable, I couldn’t understand why young people weren’t being given access to these skills.

I had this sudden realization, “This is it.
This is exactly what I want to do with my life.”

While I was a student, I also attended the Vancouver Peace Summit. Everyone in the fields I was interested in was there, including the Dalai Lama. And there was a focus on “Educating the Heart” — integrating neuroscience, mindfulness, social justice, and education. I had this sudden realization, “This is it. This is exactly what I want to do with my life.” That doesn’t happen often in my life. iBme was mentioned several times at this conference, and their work with teens resonated with me. I followed them for years before making a connection.

When I graduated college, I moved to Vancouver to do research in the public school system on a particular mindfulness and social-emotional learning program. My dream job. I thought mindfulness would save the world, and I was stoked to be involved in the research. What ended up happening, though, was that I got really disillusioned.

What happened?

We’d go into the schools and do all these measurements and take cortisol saliva swabs and the kids would do self-assessments. Some classes participated in the mindfulness and social-emotional learning curriculum and some didn’t. But all I could see were the enormous class sizes and buildings in dire need of repair and kids who hadn’t eaten breakfast. The teachers were stressed and underpaid and the kids were experiencing all kinds of trauma.

That’s when I realized that mindfulness can be helpful, yes, but we have to look at the underlying, systemic reasons for why people are struggling and suffering in the first place. Otherwise, mindfulness is just a band-aid. We need to invest focus and resources in teacher education and child welfare as well. I’m not trying to make perfect the enemy of good. But we need to look at and talk about what’s not working — and then do something about it.

Without this attention on social justice and equity,
mindfulness is just a band-aid.

This is one of the reasons I think iBme resonates with me, because it explicitly promotes and explores social justice, equity, interdependence. By learning how to celebrate diversity and learn from each other’s experience and getting people to care about each other and be at home in the natural world, that is how we achieve liberation. It’s not through the capitalist model of individual achievement over social welfare. I feel very strongly about this.

What do you want for the teens attending the Toronto Retreat?

[Silence] There are many things. [Silence] The first thing that comes to mind is kindness. There is this radical acceptance and compassionate community that is fostered on retreat that is often one of the first places where a young person feels they can be totally authentic. Not only is it okay to be who they are, it is welcomed. Everyone belongs.

What we’re asking ourselves as the guides and leaders at iBme is how do we make sure our kids are happy and successful? On retreat and in life. A lot of the teens who come on retreat are sensitive, they are deep thinkers, creatives — or just young people wondering where “their people” are. And they find this community, everyone unique in their own way, and a sense of belonging that is incredible. Many deep friendships form on retreats.

The dominant ethos is “You can just be yourself.” There’s a softening and returning to the body. We get a chance to drop in and uncover this fundamental goodness about ourselves. The mentors reflect that, the teachings reflect that.

What makes iBme special?

iBme is so developmentally on-point for teenagers and what they need, neurobiologically, emotionally, socially, pedagogically. The emphasis on relational mindfulness is so important. The teen brain is wired to value peer approval and developing new relationships. That’s a completely developmentally valid and normal part of the adolescent process.

Rather than fighting against that, we make it the focal point. There’s small-group work, processes on relationships, practices for compassion, opportunities to learn, share, and grow with each other, as well as to just witness, without words.

In my experience with that first sitting group at college, one of the things that was so healing was hearing other students talking about what brought them to practice. Often it is suffering of some kind. Or craving greater connection. And everyone is living with something. Hearing what the other students were dealing with helped me realize I wasn’t so weird or different. That nobody gets through life unscathed. That kindness toward others and myself is paramount.

There is this radical acceptance and compassionate community that is fostered on retreat
that is often one of the first places where a young person feels they can be totally authentic.

Social justice, of course, is the other critical component of what makes iBme unique and important.

Most teens are grappling with big questions: What will the future hold? What is my purpose? What are we doing here? Will there even be a planet? Rather than shying away from “raw, messy” topics — gender, relationships, race — we actually turn towards them. In developmentally appropriate ways, we get real and talk about questions of privilege and power.  It’s part of the curriculum.

This is how they make the connection between how their individual practice of learning to self-regulate translates into their capacity to be leaders and their impact in their world, which is so often the part that is missing in mindfulness youth programs. They focus exclusively on skills — and it is great that these programs exist. But they lack a larger context.

Teens have the best BS meters on the planet. With iBme, they have a different experience. We validate the truth of their questions, experiences, concerns, and confusions. We welcome their voices, their emotions, and their leadership. I’ve learned more from iBme teens than maybe from anyone else.

What does your practice currently look like?

I’m still sitting. I’m 29. It’s been 10 years now. Doesn’t the Dalai Lama say that you should step back and evaluate your practice every 10 years? My practice has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the last couple of years, it’s really picked up in terms of consistency.  I sat my first month-long silent retreat in March of this year, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I usually meditate in the evenings. I’ve tried to do the morning thing — I wish I was a morning person, but I’m not. There’s been a shift in my practice over the last couple of years, where I have been intentionally turning to more joy and ease. My thing is striving and so my default wiring is to push too hard, to achieve. And morning meditation just wasn’t working, no matter what I tried, it was like pulling teeth. So I started experimenting with the times of day that felt pleasurable to me and would be sustainable. Evenings are that time.

Mostly I practice open awareness but lately my practice is more focused on loving-kindness and compassion, those really juicy Brahma Vihara-type practices. I try to practice appreciative joy or gratitude for around 15 minutes a day even if it’s not in the form of a typical sitting practice. Mudita practice is so fun and juicy and keeps my heart open. I like to do it on the subway and beam out good vibes like a metta ninja. What can I say? I’m a joy junkie.