Mindfulness and Holden Caulfield

How the technique – now being taught in schools – could’ve been the saving of J. D. Salinger’s tortured teenager


Selling approximately 65 million copies worldwide and a staple for teaching English, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was revolutionary when it was first published in 1951.

It’s a tale of teenage angst, but sensationally at the time, told in the words of 17 year-old Holden Caulfield, with his frequent goddams, lousys and crummys!

It also, however, describes the protagonist’s deep depression triggered by the death of his younger brother, but also by his general inability to understand the adult world.

He’s in a no man’s land, described in his own words as a contradiction – six foot two, but sometimes acting about thirteen. There are lots of other hints at his struggle to mature – “In my mind, I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.”/”Sex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t.” – with the overall impression that he’s heading for a fall.

A meeting with a former teacher confirms exactly that with Mr. Antolini delivering the memorable passage: “This fall I think you’re riding for – it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other, were looking for something their environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking.”

That loss of identity and purpose during the transition to adulthood is something my teenage sons have wrestled with at various stages, and still do.

Fortunately it hasn’t tipped into depression, but the concept of young people feeling aimless and unworthy is something teachers are now having to address lest an epidemic of self-harm continues unabated.

Cries for help are happening at an alarming rate, as teenagers grapple with the perennial questions of what will I do when I leave school and will anyone ever love me.

Holden’s teacher advises sticking in at school, “it’ll begin to give you an idea of what size mind you have”, but he could also have suggested mindfulness to overcome negative thinking.

So prevalent is the Buddhist practice nowadays, that some school guidance teachers are being trained to deliver mindfulness coaching to kids.

What would Holden have made of living in the now – neither thinking back to past events that he can’t change, nor worrying about the future?

I’m sure he would have found out much sooner that it’s good to talk! After complaining for 25 chapters that many of his schoolmates, most adults and quite a few girls were “phonies”, on the final page he says:

“I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told (you) about. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

For angsty teenagers and anyone who lives life at a lick, Jon Kabat-Zinn says the seven attitudes that form the foundation of mindfulness are nonjudging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, nonstriving, acceptance and letting go.

He furthermore defines the practice as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment nonjudgmentally.