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The Zen of Teen

by Julie Tallard Johnson

The three of us were waiting for the light to change. Next to me was a young male teen, with one foot off the curb, and his mother, who stood facing him as he looked out onto the passing traffic. For a few moments, I found myself in their inner circle. He stood quite a bit taller than his mother, and his pants flared out from his heels, looking like slumped boat sails. His tattooed and pierced navel showed above his jeans. He talked down, into his belly, "You're ripping on me, Mom." She was intent on looking at him, bewildered but determined, "I'm not, I'm not, you're just not listening to me. You've got to give it a chance." And then the light changed and the two of them headed down the sidewalk; the mother following just behind the young man, looking frustrated and slightly embarrassed.

How can such tension between mother and child be exactly what our culture needs? How can The Zen of Teen help us heal this hurting planet? My understanding of Zen is that it emphasizes direct experience, becoming one with our experiences rather than separating ourselves out. In Zen, we are not the dancer but the dance. So, to experience the Zen of Teen means to open up to the creative tension within ourselves as well as to the teens we encounter. It is realizing and experiencing teens as not truly outside of ourselves, but understanding them as part of us, and part of the greater community. We cease our pushing and pulling against this intensity, and live in the uncomfortable zone of allowing ourselves to truly be with this vital energy. Then, positive movement and change can take place, inside and outside ourselves. Within this tension between mother and son breathes the Tao, the Tathata, the Brahman whatever term you use for the Divine, for the invisible, unifying principle that has within it the innate ability to bring everything together. This tension between that which is coming in (the youth) and that which is leaving (the adult), is the Zen of Teen.

Instead of being so set on conforming our teenagers to the rules set out by the various institutions, we need to live with this tension between the new and the old. Teens are the breath of fresh air, the Tao we need to open up to in each moment, and the freshness we need to bring into our lives so it can carry us into the coming decade. I can easily remember being a teen, and this remembering can help. My pants, too, were bell bottoms, but they hung tightly to my body. I remember when adults pushed against my teen energy, I pushed back. Once, sitting in the Headmaster's office (just his title alone turned me off), I was being disciplined for speaking back to a teacher. He took up an hour, talking at me and attempting to shame me out of my behavior.

All I could see and hear was how he hated teenagers and that he was in the wrong job. When I told him so, he sent me home for three days. He told me that it was not my place to speak up to him or any of the other teachers. I couldn't survive, let alone thrive in such an environment. Even today, I still believe I saw too easily through the lies and misconduct of the system, and they saw me as a troubled youth, a "delinquent."

Much like my story, most teens today naturally resist the systems and institutions that were formed by their predecessors, and as a result are natural weavers of the Tao. Being fresh and in the "now" of their lives, they are less invested in the prevailing systems. Because they have no real claim in these systems, they have a tendency to see through its shortcomings and deceptions. They are motivated by a need to live authentically and discover their place in the world-community.

So what are we afraid of? Often we say we are afraid of what they will do to themselves. However, through my work with teens and their communities, I find that adults are often just as afraid of what this teen energy brings up for them. Too many adults shut themselves off from their teenagers, thus shutting themselves off from their own teen energy within themselves. For those of us who haven't been able to open up to this time in our own lives, we find ourselves unsure and uncomfortable with this intensity. Too often everyone (including the teen) just wants to get through this time and on into the adult years. I am in agreement with Robert Bly, Michael Meade, and Christina Groff (to name a few) who believe we are hurting because we are shut off from our own teen psyche. How can we open up to this energy when we have become blind to our own? Too many suffer because they go throughout their life shut off from this vital energy.

A teen client of mine had a father who could not live outside the rules he set up for his children. What might have worked for my client when he was eight (a point system, where they were sent to their rooms if they broke any rules), no longer worked for a boy of sixteen who was coming of age. His father, who was unwilling to open up to his son as a teenager, instead estranged him, and has now left a large gap between them. This is not to say that teens don't need guidance and support. They need it in abundance. But they need guidance and support that comes from a place of flexibility, spaciousness, and receptivity. We should show up for our teens in a mutual place of tension, wisdom, and vulnerability, rather than with a inflexible approach that leaves no room for the teen's input.

All teenage energy, regardless of the form it takes, is an expression of a hope to find a meaningful place in the world. Their natural and strong "unease" to find their place in the cosmos is the Tao pursing through them. When teens are allowed to open up to this Tao, they realize that this tension is where they are suppose to be. They realize that most everything is in a state of unresolved and creative friction. Teens bring with them a natural curiosity for everything. When not denied or threatened, this curiosity flows out from the teenager, creating that necessary tension and creativity that propels them into their adult years, and all of us into the next generation. Instead of teaching our teens to "fit in," we need to help them "find themselves." We need to have less emphasis on rules and more on boundaries. While rules are about conformity, boundaries are about respecting our place in the world and community.

So, I believe that foremost, the Zen of Teen is about not having an inflexible stake in the existing system, and allowing the natural teen force that can wake it and us up, that can keep the system and individuals alive! This is because teens haven't yet established habitual patterns that are entrenched and difficult to break. They are the change we need as families and communities. This very energy was respected in the ancient cultures as something to listen to and interact with directly. You will not find an ancient culture that did not hold Coming of Age Ceremonies. These ceremonies they understood as benefiting both the youth and the community. A youth who is acknowledged by their community as valuable and is welcomed into the community, is much more likely to add to the quality of that community. Our teens too often feel estranged by the very community in which they live.

Another characteristic of the Zen of Teen is the teen's authenticity. Teens are effortlessly authentic. As Shunryu Suzuki explains in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, "Without any intentional, fancy way of adjusting yourself, to express yourself as you are is the most important thing." When allowed, teens are more routinely expressing their authentic selves. This authentic self is not something we go in search of, but something which is within us all the time. Teens can make us uptight when we are in denial of our own teen psyche or of our own True Natures. Their intensity bumps up against our ego's defenses and we react. Instead of being vulnerable to this vital energy, the Tao, we protect ourselves against it. And, as we know, the Tao cannot be controlled.

Just because teen energy has a way of igniting our adult ego defenses (because we defend our habits and our systems), this does not mean that the teen is expressing ego. At these times, it is quite likely that the teen is actually expressing his or her authentic nature, and it is generating an experience of discomfort for us. There are many times I've sat unsure and uncomfortable in a conversation with a teenager. Yet, when I open myself up to the Zen of Teen, becoming vulnerable and spacious to this energy, I find we both travel to a place we both get to hang out in together. So, the Zen of Teen is ultimately something we invite to move us to a more authentic place.

Finally, another aspect of this Zen of Teen is the elemental expression of transiency that teens express. Everything is constantly changing. Teens are a dynamic expression of this natural law, and, as with all the dynamics of the Zen of Teen, a reminder to the rest of us of how we too must evolve. We too are changing, growing, moving, and would benefit greatly from daily reminders of being with this dynamic reality, in whatever form it takes. This principle often means we need to be with other's suffering, which can come in many forms during the teen years. When teens are robbed of their own Zen qualities, they suffer from anorexia, depression, panic attacks, harmful acts, drug and alcohol abuse, and obsession with perfection. They are then "out" of the Tao that flows naturally through everything. And, they are reacting to a community environment which has not likely been responsive to their intensity. Teens will find a way to express their intensity it is the community's responsibility to offer many containers and alternative uses for this intense energy.

We are constantly bumping up against this teen energy, which is a "treasure," but instead of being transformed by it, we are often wounded by our own blindness.... "Ordinary people caught in bondage are unaware and do not know, like blind children of a rich family, sitting in a storehouse of treasures without seeing any of them, just bumping into them when they move and thus being wounded by the treasures" ­Chih-I (538-597). We suffer as individuals, and in our overall communities, when we shut ourselves off from our teenagers. When we truly open up to our youth and their intensity, and to our own teen psyche, we are expressing a fundamental practice of compassion, and a fundamental practice of our basic humanity.

Julie Tallard Johnson is the author of "The Thundering Years: Rituals and Sacred Wisdom for Teens" (see p. 67 to order) and "I Ching for Teens." She has a new release coming out this December titled, "Teen Psychic: Exploring Your Intuitive Spiritual Powers." Julie counsels teens and adults and offers workshops on Intuitive Empowerment, Opening Up To The Teen Psyche, The Unleashed Writer (Creative Writing), and the practice of Meditation. She can be reached at (608) 963-0724 or via email at:

Opening Ourselves to Teen Energy

What can we do differently? Mostly, we need to be receptive, like the Earth is to us, and open ourselves up so that we can be with teen energy, recognizing it for the value it contains. This will likely be a gradual awakening, or what I like to call an organic revolution. Most organic processes happen in a multitude of small steps and then we find ourselves changed and somehow revolutionized.

The Zen of Teen can be invited back into our lives and communities through:

  • being willing to open up to this energy within ourselves and those around us everyday;
  • creating places for our teens special areas in our bookstores, Teen centers, meditation and yoga classes just for teens, drop-in centers, Nature retreats for teens;
  • mentoring programs that are well established and easily accessible to teens and the mentors, each of us being a mentor to a youth;
  • offering coming of age rituals and groups for older teenagers;
  • inviting more teens on local and national boards there needs to be a place available for teens on every board (remembering they are the future);
  • offering more alternative education for those who have difficulty in the traditional school systems;
  • teen articles in local and national papers and magazines, written by teens;
  • gradually separating competitive sports from our high schools, having competitive sports be community-based and sponsored.