The Teen Retreat: “A Combination of Everything I Love”

A Q&A with Teen Retreat Co-Leader Cara Lai

IMS Teen Retreat
June 25 – 30, 2024
Learn more about the Teen Retreat here.

As a teenager, IMS teacher Cara Lai felt a lot of pressure from the adult world to pursue happiness in a particular way: to get good grades, go to a good college, and make a good living. She didn’t get many chances to explore how she wanted to live. She did notice, though, that many adults didn’t seem happy. She tried to avoid that fate by going to art school rather than following an academic path, but that landed her in a desk job in animation. Cool as it was, she says now, it was still a desk job. Then she was introduced to meditation. She soon began to have profound experiences in her practice and feel present in a new way, free from social anxiety and worry. That led her to IMS in her mid-20s and to becoming a Teen Retreat mentor in 2014. Ten years later, she’s co-leader of the summer retreat with 50 to 100 teens ages 15-19.

“This retreat is a combination of everything I love,” she says, “meditating, being with young people, being playful, being in community. Working with people for what feels like an important, worthy cause is enlivening.”

When she’s not at the Teen Retreat or practicing metta with her 17-month-old son, Cara teaches her own courses in meditation and parenting online and leads retreats for IMS, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Ten Percent Happier. To join a retreat or class with Cara, please visit her website. Here, Cara discusses some of the benefits of the five-night Teen Retreat as it heads into its 34th year.

Why would a teen want to join IMS’s Teen Retreat?

A lot of the teens come back year after year because of the community and the friendships they have. It’s a really safe group, and people feel free to totally be their weird selves. That doesn’t happen in high school. There’s lots of love and embrace for all genders and sexualities, and everything people say and do is met with support. It’s freeing to walk into an environment like that and be met with love and feel seen and meet likeminded people, so people form some of the deepest connections they’ve ever had.

Some teens love the meditation and being quiet, too. A lot of teens are happy not to be using their phones and to be around peers who aren’t using their phones.

They get to live in a world that doesn’t exist for a while. Half of them dread giving up their phones going in. Most teens have a love-hate relationship with technology. But a lot of them find by the end of the retreat that they love not having it.

What do teens do there? What’s an average day like?

They wake up at 7 a.m., do a pre-breakfast meditation, eat breakfast in silence, and stay in silence almost all morning.

They go into the hall, get meditation instructions, do a sitting meditation and a walking meditation, and then right before lunch, they get into a small group that meets twice a day—eight teens and two mentors—and they share about what’s going on for them—in their lives, in their practice, or maybe they just play games. It can get silly or serious. It’s designed to be an intimate experience for the group. Then there’s lunch, when they can talk to each other. After that, we do a yoga session together and then they go into one of about six workshops led by the mentors. The workshop could be on mindful Frisbee or writing poetry or discussion groups about what it’s like to be a woman in the world today—whatever the mentors decide to offer.

Then teens have free time, when they can talk. Following that, there’s a metta session, and then dinner. After dinner, there’s a dharma talk, another meeting of the small groups, a meditation, and bed.

They spend half the day in silence. The rest of the time, everybody talks.

What do you consider the high point of the retreat, the juiciest part?

One thing that’s definitely worth describing is that on the last night, there’s a community share, and if they want to, the teens can share something. It doesn’t have to be impressive. That’s when we get to see the fruits of unconditional positive regard.

I have seen some things that have really inspired me.. The most unassuming teen who seemed quiet and didn’t really say much before the last night. I would never have known that he was this masterful spoken word artist. He spouted beautiful poetry at lightning speed about love and pain and what was happening in the retreat. It was a free flow of beautiful self-expression that he made up on the spot.

Then there’s super-hilarious goofball stuff, like this kid who read a passage from a book while other teens were spooning yogurt into his mouth.

And you get stuff that melts your heart, too. I remember this one young woman who needed to express her voice more. We were all like, “Yeah, go, do something for Community Share!” You could tell she was really nervous. And at
the end, she said, “I didn’t like how I did it, and I want to do it again.” But she was just as nervous the second time! So, she said, “I want to do it one more time” —and we were all sitting there for half an hour while this went on. In any other context it would have been humiliating, but everybody’s inner awkward person could relate to it, and it was so endearing. It made us all feel free to relax and be ourselves.

But ultimately, the high point of the retreat is witnessing teens learn and understand the Dharma for the first time and be transformed by it. I would have given anything to know this from a young age. What happens at Community Share is just a taste of the freedom and self-expression that unfolds over the course of their lives as a result of their encounter with the Dharma on this retreat.

Some feel it’s important to make the Dharma accessible to young people. Do you agree? If so, why is it important?

Lots of reasons. So many of us wished we had encountered the Dharma at a young age and know how much we would have benefitted from it. Those of us with kids in our lives have a stake in this younger generation’s mental health and mindfulness, and really we kind of all have a stake in it if we care about the world and our fellow humans. The world today is very intense. How can we set the next generation up with the tools they need to inherit the world in the state it’s in? How can we give them what they need to survive and thrive? As
practitioners, it’s our gift to give and our responsibility to give it. What else would we do with the love we have practiced but pass it on to those who need it most?