“Lights will guide you home, and ignite your bones, and I WON’T try to fix you.” -not Coldplay
Before meditation and the CEC completely took over my life, I spent over a decade running recreational and support programs for young people who would often be described (especially to secure more program funding) as “at-risk” (aren’t we all?), “low income “ or, gulp, “inner city” (a euphemism right up there with “urban”). The aim of the programs was to help level the playing field for the youth by providing access to…blah blah blah, I almost started writing the sales spiel to potential donors there! Force of habit after years of social service hustling…
The hardest part of my job was being a housing worker in high schools, trying to connect homeless teenagers with almost nonexistent affordable housing. Housing programs and subsidies have epically long waiting lists in Toronto, and it was an incredibly hard sell for any landlord to take a chance on renting to a high school student. So whenever a youth in need of housing walked into my office, a low level panic would set in, so scared was I that I wouldn’t be able to solve their housing woes.
I went into youth work wanting to do something helpful and meaningful with my life, full of good intentions but also deeply rooted ego-driven needs. My self-worth was tied up in my ability to help others, to find some kind of utility that would justify my existence. I’m hardly alone in that: the charity industrial complex is notoriously problematic, with a power-imbalance and unhealthy codependency inherent in so many helping relationships.
I started meditating about halfway through my tenure there, and it transformed my work life. The panic was replaced by presence, as I was increasingly able to actually listen to the stories and needs being communicated instead of frantically flipping through the rolodex of housing options in my head while they spoke. As I became more attuned to the impermanent, ever-changing nature of nature, I was able to honestly convey a belief that things will change for them. Even if they couldn’t see or believe it, I could offer to hold that hope for them. Increased self-awareness allowed me to get real, with myself and them. I couldn’t single-handedly magic a solution to a decades-old housing crisis. I could, however, listen, empathize, share resources I had access to, and be honest about both the harsh realities they faced and my absolute faith in their ability to find a way through.
I learned it wasn’t actually possible or desirable to fix another’s life, that it was in fact at odds with true empowerment and liberation. Both theirs and mine. ‘Cause of course they’re connected. So my perspective shifted from trying to fix everyone’s everything to trying to create the conditions for empowerment. Doing what I could to nurture resilience and capacity, make the necessary tools more available, and use my position of power and privilege to create opportunities and space for them.
In the end I’m proud of the work that I did there, the connections made and the space created for youth to feel safe and supported. But that perspective shift also allowed me to finally recognize that I was burnt out and needed a change. It helped me let go of thinking that I was the only one who could do that job, that they somehow needed ME and only ME (turns out it actually wasn’t about me at all!). Once I got over myself, I was freed to attend to my own needs and interests. That’s how I came to take the helm of the CEC and make a life out of teaching and fostering mindfulness.
Which has led me back to youth work in a whole new way.
This summer I attended my first in-person retreat in over three years, serving as a teacher on an iBme retreat in California (Inward Bound Mindfulness Experience – an organization that does meditation retreats with teenagers). Pre-pandemic, I went on a couple of their retreats closer to home and found that being able to combine my years of youth work experience with my dedication to meditation practice was a dream come true.
Coming back into that environment for the first time in this Covid era highlighted the toll the last few years have taken on me. I’ve written other CEC pieces about my recent depression and ongoing mental health challenges. Now on the other side of that acute crisis, back in a once-familiar youth-soaked atmosphere, I noticed the lingering effects this tough time had on my self-esteem. I found myself awash in negative thoughts, backsliding into critical self talk, poor body image and low self-confidence. I felt like a fraud, after so many years of running programs meant to foster confidence and inner resources, to be unable to practice what I was preaching.
The youth on this retreat blew me away. These teens seemed to have a whole different, more evolved understanding of self and world. They talked about mental health in a way that I didn’t even have language for until my 40s. They supported each other’s growth sincerely, with fierce compassion and kind accountability. In a full circle moment, I realized that they were nurturing my capacity, and that their inspiring example was empowering me to re-commit to self-love and say “no thank you” kindly but firmly to those destructive inner voices.
Our theme this month is empowerment. A CEC staple, in keeping with our philosophy that everyone can be their own teacher and has wisdom to share from their own unique experience. Like embodiment practices bring us into our bodies, we’ll be exploring techniques that help us come into our power. This power cannot be bestowed upon you, it comes from within. But maybe, when we feel far away from it, we can remind one another of the way back.