Discovering Your Inner Strength

Teenward Bound! Mindfulness Retreat on the Sunshine Coast


At the end-of-retreat celebration BBQ on the beach


My partner, Ly Hoang, and I have just returned to Vancouver from the beautiful Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, a place where the Pacific Ocean meets the land in a rugged display of cliffs and rainforests, and where orcas and humpback whales dance offshore. Right away, we fell in love with the Sunshine Coast communities of Gibsons, Roberts Creek, and Sechelt. These small coastal towns are made up of tight-knit communities that really take care of each other. I was astonished when our hosts checked us in to where we were staying, and told us “No need to lock your door, no one does that around here!” (We couldn’t imagine doing that in Vancouver!)

We were invited to the community as guest facilitators for Teenward Bound, a mindfulness retreat for teens, organized by the Roberts Creek Community School Society. (Ly is a high school counsellor in Vancouver and teaches mindfulness to her students, and we sometimes team up together on mindfulness projects for youth.) To the best of our knowledge, this was the first-ever teen mindfulness retreat in British Columbia and in Western Canada, so we felt that this small and humble gathering was creating a small piece of history together!

We spent two mornings with about fifteen young teens at a house on the beach, exploring and practicing mindfulness together. Many of them had already been introduced to mindfulness through the MindUP program at their school; a few of them were pretty new to mindfulness. We practiced mindful walking on the beach, a long and relaxing body scan, and tea meditation (drinking tea slowly and mindfully.) We were amazed by the open-heartedness, keen observations, and depth of wisdom, that the teens shared with us over the two days:

  • “Sometimes my eyes clench up when I’m stressed and I don’t even know it. Mindfulness can help me to recognize that.”
  • “Drinking tea more mindfully, I could really notice the smells and the tastes of it, it was a lot better than I thought it would be.”
  • “Being mindful can help me to recognize when I have stress and problems that I would otherwise want to deny or to push away.”

At the end-of-retreat celebration BBQ, I gave a talk on The Mindful Teen to the parents of the teens. Afterwards, a mother of one of the teens told me, “My daughter hadn’t done mindfulness before, she wasn’t in one of the schools that taught it. Last night she told me, ‘Mom, maybe the body scan could help me with my chest pain.’ The mother explained to me that her daughter had had a medical condition when she was younger, and continued to have chest pain now. But, her current chest pain wasn’t related to her previous medical condition, and was likely more related to stress and anxiety. I told the mother, ‘That’s amazing that your daughter had that insight into mindfulness after just one day of practice!'”

We also appreciated the honesty and courage that we saw during a question-and-answer period on the second day. One teen asked, “What if I do mindful breathing and body scan, and I still feel upset and overwhelmed all the time?” (Our answer: Mindfulness is a powerful tool to handle stress and strong emotions, but sometimes you also need other tools and support. Please find an adult you trust to talk to, like a parent, teacher, school counsellor, or doctor. You can get more help, and mindfulness can be a part of that. Asking for help when you need it is is an act of courage.)

We left the coast and returned to Vancouver this morning, feeling inspired by the mindful young people, and very hopeful for the future of our society.

Special thanks to Stacia Leech and Ron Skene for hosting and organizing this visit, and to Ted, Frances, and Tonya, the retreat co-facilitators. We hope to come back in the future!


Rainbow at Roberts Creek Beach

Rainbow at Roberts Creek Beach


Help! I’m Stressed About Going Back to School!



I hope you’ve enjoyed your summer, spent lots of time outdoors, with family and friends who you feel connected to, and also had plenty of time to relax! If you’re like many teens, you’re realizing that your summer vacation is about to be over, and school is about to start.

Perhaps you’re having thoughts like:

  • “I wish summer wasn’t about to be over, that really sucks!”
  • “Who am I going to hang out with this year?”
  • “What if my teachers are mean?”
  • “What if my physics class is too hard?”
  • “What if I don’t make onto the basketball team?”
  • “This is the year I have to apply for college, how the heck am I supposed to do that on top of everything else???”

These are some stressful thoughts! If you pay close attention, you might even notice that when you have these thoughts, your body starts to feel stressed and tense. Everyone feels stress differently. Maybe it feels like a tightness of fullness in the pit of your stomach. Maybe it feels like a headache. Maybe you’re having trouble getting to sleep right now.

If you are experiencing any of these things, there’s no need to feel bad about that. All of those things are totally normal, and you’re not alone! The good news is, mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment, with compassion towards yourself and others. When you’re fully mindful, you won’t get as carried away by your stress and worries about going back to school.

Here’s how it works:

Be in the now. As best you can, enjoy the last few days of summer, but without trying to “hold on” to it. Savor each day, each moment, each breath of summer – and also let it go without regret.

Be in the now. You might wish to try an informal mindfulness practice, a mindful walk outside – in your local park, through the woods, along the beach, or just in your neighborhood. As best you can, notice what is interesting and enjoyable about the walk. Maybe it’s a patch of flowers sprouting in the sidewalk, or perhaps the sight of birds flying overhead, or a ray of warm summer sunshine on your cheeks.

Be in the now. As best you can, notice when your mind wanders off towards those stressful thoughts about school, all of those “What if…?” kind of thoughts. Say to yourself, “Hello mind, I know that you are being pulled off into the future, but the present moment is right now. Come on back!” Try saying this without any judgment, perhaps even with a gentle smile. Then, bring your awareness to your next breath, to this very moment. Do this over and over, as many times as you need to.

Be in the now. Once school starts, you can continue to stay present and mindful at school. You can walk mindfully to the bus stop, the same way as when you’re enjoying a walk in the park. When you go to your first new class, you can take a few mindful breaths before stepping in the door. Then, as best you can, keep your mind in the here-and-now during class, with curiosity and an open heart. If your mind gets pulled away into thoughts or fears about what might (or might not) happen in the future, remember you can just come back to your breath, with a smile. You can do the same thing when you meet someone new at school, or before your first sports tryout.

Be in the now. Try practicing a formal meditation. I call it “formal” because it means you take some time just to be mindful. But, formal doesn’t mean it has to be serious or “stiff.” In fact, I encourage you to practice it with a lightheartedness, inviting a sense of ease. You can start by listening and breathing along with my five-minute guided meditation, “Mindful Breathing,” which you can download onto your phone. Experiment with practicing this meditation every day for the next week, either before you go to school, or in the afternoon after school, and also anytime you feel stressed out and want to take five minutes to “just breathe.”

There are endless ways to practice mindfulness, to help you to handle stress one moment at a time. As an adolescent medicine pediatrician, I’ve worked with lots of teens who have found creative and powerful ways to bring mindfulness into their lives, and handle stress in a healthier way. To learn more, check out my book – written just for teens! – called The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time.


(Note: This blog post has also been cross-posted on

“I See It As A Life Saver” – Note from a Mindful Teen

I am feeling very moved by a note that I received from a mindful teen recently. Her note is from the heart. Hearing messages like this is why I wrote The Mindful Teen, and I hope others might feel inspired as I do.

Here is a part of her letter, quoted with her permission:

“Dr. Dzung X. Vo, I have read your amazing book, The Mindful Teen, that I just have to say has helped me a lot. Other people at my school look at it as dumb exercises, but I see it as a life saver. My high school is really stressful because all they are doing is preparing us for college, which means a lot of work in one sitting. Also, I play an instrument in a Youth Performing Arts Magnet of my high school, who, as well, push me to exotic levels.
This was just an assigned summer reading book for me this year, but it really helped me a lot. It helped me stop crying about the past and it making afraid it would happen again in the future. Heck, I woke up one morning and realized school was starting that day!…

I want to thank you for all the hard work you do for us raging teenagers. Many adults just think of it as drama, but you see the truth behind it all, and I want to thank you for that too.”

“Stillness: An Attainable Ideal?” Guest Blog by Manpreet Deol (Grade 12 Student, York House School)

Guest Blog Photo 1

As part of an English 12 Independent Project I explored the concept of Mindfulness and the ability for adolescents to be “present in the moment.” I was drawn to these 2 concepts firstly due to my brother. My brother’s high-functioning disability ironically enables him to live day by day, not influenced by his past or future life. He has a relatively carefree lifestyle – something that I personally want to adopt. A summer trip to India and a kayaking trip with the Advanced Outdoor Education Club at my school also illustrated to me the value of both being “still” in the present moment and reflecting internally. Experiencing the benefits of tranquility during these trips, my goal for Grade 12 was to be more “present in the moment.” I started the year on this note and subsequently finished the year examining this very same topic!


The original question that my project focused on was: What factors make living in the “present moment” an unattainable ideal for adolescents in developed countries? Firstly, I conducted research by reading articles and books such as The Mindful Teen. Asking fellow students questions such as “What thoughts occupy your brain in the short-term?” and “What conflicts are troubling you in the long-term?” I also collected my own data. Furthermore, during this part of my project I asked students to draw their Brainspace, an exercise that allowed students to translate their emotions and thoughts into images. With my research collected, I then developed 3 conclusions. These conclusions highlight a few obstacles teenagers encounter that inhibit being “present in the moment.”




  1. Mental Darting –

A concept that explains the constant motion of thoughts and the resulting lack of focus that individuals can expend on tasks that they want to pursue.


  1. The Checklist –

A concept that explains the inability to accomplish tasks in the present due to the preoccupation with tasks that need to be accomplished in the future.  Also a byproduct of society’s obsession with productivity.


  1. The Lingerings –

The indefinable, larger life goals that burden everyday living.



These 3 conclusions describe some possible scenarios teenagers might find themselves in. After constructing the conclusions, I formulated 2 guided audio recordings as partial solutions to ease the tensions caused by these situations.



  1. Meditation#1

My first audio recording which falls under the Bodyscan and Focus branch of Mindfulness provides a process to relieve the Mental Darting scenario (CTLPR method).


  1. Meditation #2

My second audio recording which includes nature themes, guided imagery, and symbolism helps put the present in perspective, hopefully relieving the effects of The Checklist and The Lingerings.


This project has been incredibly meaningful for me. Not only have I fortified my personal Mindfulness skills and practices but I have also spread Mindfulness out to my community in an appealing way. The response after presenting my project to my class was surprisingly positive; many students asked for copies of my recordings to use in university next year. I use the term “surprisingly” because when I first expressed my project idea there was some skepticism. Many students were unable to go beyond the stigma of Mindfulness being a “hokey” practice for individuals that are “soft” or “in need of help.” This was definitely a challenge I had to overcome in my project.

Needless to say, this project has been an incredible opportunity to explore human nature and adolescent behaviours. I hope some of my work is able to aid my fellow peers in living more peacefully and mindfully every day! ☺


– Manpreet Deol (York House School, Vancouver, British Columbia)

Guest Blog Photo 3


Mindfulness = Unconditional Love



There has been a lot of discussion lately about what the word “mindfulness” really means. I sometimes say trying to describe mindfulness in words without experiencing it directly, is kind of like reading the menu at a restaurant without tasting any of the food. It misses the point, and can even be misleading.

In The Mindful Teen, and in my work as a pediatrician, I quote Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.” That said, I think it is useful to not get too attached to any definition. Elsewhere, Kabat-Zinn has stated that “That definition [of mindfulness] that you are asking me about is actually what I call an operational definition. It is not meant to be a final definition of mindfulness. It is more like a working definition of mindfulness.” He describes that definition not as an answer, but as a question to contemplate and look deeply into.

Here is what I find when I contemplate that definition: The idea of being “nonjudgmental,” while extremely valuable, has in my opinion also caused many people to misunderstand what mindfulness is really about. “Nonjudgmental” can be misunderstood as being distant, apathetic, selfish, or ethically neutral. Being “nonjudgmental” can sound to some people like “Whatever, I don’t care,” or “Anything goes.” But in mindfulness practice, “not judging” doesn’t mean “not caring.” Mindfulness is actually about staying present with whatever is happening in the present moment, and caring very deeply about it –– caring open-heartedly, inclusively, unconditionally.

Other translations of mindfulness are “Heartfulness,” or “Present-Heartedness.” These translations invite us to not only pay attention and concentrate and focus on the present moment, but to do so with a spirit of affection, of kindness, and of compassion. This is especially useful when dealing with pain and difficulties. In my own experience, just simply paying attention to pain, without embracing it with self-compassion or heartfulness, usually just makes me suffer more. On the other hand, when I stay present as best I can with my own pain and the pain of others, with unconditional compassion and open-heartedness — I find that I can touch the possibility of transformation and liberation.

So I invite you to hold lightly to any definitions of mindfulness. Instead, embrace your own lived experience of the practice, looking deeply and seeing clearly what is beneficial or not, for yourself and for others. With all of that said (and with apologies to Kabat-Zinn), I humbly offer a modified definition of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and with unconditional love.”

Please share your thoughts and wisdom here so that we may all benefit.

Thriving Faculty: Supporting Others in Health, Well-Being, and Self-Care

Thriving Faculty: Featuring Dzung X. Vo

Originally posted on the Healthy UBC (University of British Columbia) Newsletter, May 5, 2015

Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting UBC Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and communities. Thriving Faculty support others in their health and wellbeing, in addition to making a commitment to their own self-care. 


What are central challenges you face in your role as Faculty?

My central challenge is managing my limited time and energy, and knowing my capacity. In my job I’m incredibly fortunate to have so many opportunities to engage in work that aligns with my values and deepest aspirations as a person, and can have a meaningful impact. The flip side of that is I have a desire to say “yes” to every opportunity – which I know is not healthy, sustainable, or ultimately helpful for others.


Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health & wellbeing and learning?

My mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says “Happy teachers will change the world.” The same is true for students. When my medical students and trainees are well-rested, emotionally balanced, and mindful, they are able to learn more and provide better care for our patients.


 Do you implement any strategies to support student mental health and wellbeing in the classroom/lab?

For me personally, my mindfulness training and practice has helped me to get through some difficult and intense periods in my own medical training and in my life. Based on this experience, I encourage and support my trainees and mentees in developing their own mindfulness practice, and provide resources and opportunities to do so whenever I can.


 Please describe the role of your own mental health and wellbeing in your teaching, research and service to the community?

My own mental well-being is the foundation for my service and teaching. I could adapt Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying and suggest that “Happy doctors will change the world”! The more mentally and emotionally healthy I am, the more present I am able to be with my patients and trainees, with a more open mind and open heart. That’s where the magic and transformation can happen. All that being said, I don’t want to imply that I’ve got it “all figured out,” and it’s certainly an everyday challenge for me!


What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?

I practice formal mindfulness meditation on my own, and with a community of practice in Vancouver. I also try to bring that same mindful, open-hearted and nonjudgmental awareness to my daily life. For example, when I am walking from one part of the hospital to another, if I can remember to, I practice mindful walking, being fully present in the moment with each step and each breath, and allowing my worries and anxieties to simply come and go with my breath.


Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?

As a pediatrician and specialist in adolescent medicine, all of my work is about helping young people develop their resilience to thrive in the face of adversity, and develop into their full potential.


In your role as faculty, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments? Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?

Balancing work-life commitment is like breathing in and breathing out. Breathing in is taking on responsibilities and commitments. Breathing out is letting go, taking care of myself, and allow myself to simply “be” without needing to “do” or “strive.” A healthy life for me is having a rhythm and balance of breathing in and breathing out, inhaling and exhaling, moment to moment, and riding the waves of this adventure we call life!