A Look Inside the Family and Youth Program at Spirit Rock
Thoughtfulness, wisdom, compassion for others, the ability to nourish and care for themselves, inner direction, a sense for what is wholesome and unwholesome, true happiness — these are all qualities parents wish for their kids. For that matter, these are all qualities we wish for ourselves as adults too, but it’s not always easy to live up to them. It feels a bit cliché to state that the world around us is often at odds with these ideals, but I sometimes find it a battle to keep my priorities and values straight due to the consistent bombardment of marketing and pop culture that tells me to buy more than I need, talking behind a friend’s back is only wrong if you get caught, and connection is found through some kind of screened device. As someone who works with children and teens, I find myself asking the question, how do we balance the upbringing of young people in this seemingly imbalanced culture?
I’ve come to understand through the families I’ve worked with over the years that finding a community that embraces and works to cultivate those previously stated inner qualities is invaluable. And guess what, the Buddha would agree. He put high emphasis on sangha and being around wise community and friends. Spirit Rock has worked hard to support such a community for many years, which includes a robust family and adolescence program. When kids and their parents come spend a day at Spirit Rock, they are held in unique space — the stillness of the surrounding nature, the beautiful practice halls and the warm, caring people who put it all together — so that a range of families looking for refuge, connection and love feel fully welcomed. The program provides daylongs, class series and retreats for all interested families and youth. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in many of the offerings over the year, but my favorite is the annual Family Retreat.
From a superficial standpoint, you could call Family Retreat a Buddhist summer camp. Take a closer look though and you’ll see an intricate weaving of meditation, play, teaching and togetherness that children, teens and their adults travel great distances to be a part of. “I want to keep coming even after my kids graduate the program,” and “I asked my kids what they wanted to do this summer and they said definitely Family Retreat,” are normal responses from the parents. Family Retreat is a little Spirit Rock gem to these families and to the larger community as well.
Each year the retreat activities are guided under a theme that reflects some aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. Last summer’s theme was loving-kindness (metta) for self, others and all. We sang, we meditated, we played games, we began meals in silence, and we ran through sprinklers when days got hot. All was held in a cocoon of loving-kindness and acceptance. Even though many of us holding the space where worn out by day three, it was hard to escape the childlike happiness that seemed to permeate even the simplest activities, such as helping the six- and seven-year-olds strike the large walking-meditation bell or sweating away in the art tent with the 13-year-olds making friendship bracelets (I started at least three but never finished one – the end product wasn’t really the point). We explored the loving-kindness theme carefully together over the four days through the lenses of speech, action and thoughts. Every day I would find time to wander around the different activity areas and witness the quickening of kindness from the kids. In the "tween" group, some of the girls who had been coming for years and were close knit decided on their own to include the newer girls. The teens became inseparable and seemed to enjoy expressing their care for each other openly. The retreat volunteers spent their downtime thinking up fun games and activities for the elementary school-aged children. Parents sat with other parents and shared the joys and major struggles they were navigating in life. Amid the happy squeals and running around there would be the stillness of meditation practice — both energy and stillness were equally cherished. The whole community was supporting and cultivating loving-kindness together.
The whole week comes to a head at the bonfire that’s lit on the last night. Everyone gathers together, singing familiar songs, many now classified as “oldies” by the newer generation, like Beatles’ tunes. Kids get up and perform in a makeshift talent show. The retreat volunteers roast marshmallows for s’mores and pass out cups of hot apple cider. Though it could seem like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting, all the components of a quintessential wholesome childhood moment, it’s much more real than that. At this point in the retreat, we witness youth and adults alike discovering the world around them with a more mindful eye, tapping into new-found reserves of compassion for family members and nourished by the acceptance of community. When we think of Spirit Rock, we might not think of chalk art, metta tag, or singing in the meditation hall, but we do associate our beloved spiritual home with the transformation cultivated by the experiences we have here. This transformation is palpable in the family program and is greatly valued by the generations whom attend.