Ananda: “It seems, 0 Buddha, that half of the holy life is having good friends.”
Buddha: “Not so, Ananda. Having good friends is the whole of the holy life.”
After sitting on a retreat it’s common to experience appreciation and gratitude for the gift of meditation practice as well as a strong desire to make the practice more a part of one’s daily life. Frequently, this intention gets obscured as the high of the retreat experience fades and the busy-ness and responsibilities of life return. Even if the commitment to daily sitting practice is carried through, it’s not uncommon for feelings of isolation and alienation to emerge if the support system of group practice isn’t available.
This was my experience when I was first introduced to vipassana in the summer of 1974. After returning to New York City it didn’t take long for the honeymoon period to pass (as things seem to do) and be replaced by a typical isolated winter of hibernation in my apartment. Although I was sitting every day, I still felt a painful emptiness and lack of connection to dharma energy.
When I moved to the Bay Area in 1977, I made it a priority to connect with like-minded dharma friends. It helped a great deal to share a flat with some friends who practiced, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t find regular sittings in our particular tradition. A friend and teacher, Richard Barsky, encouraged me to start group sittings instead of waiting for it to “just happen.” Although I had a number of nervous mind-moments filled with self-doubt, my friend John and I decided to commit to having a regular weekly sitting followed by a tape and discussion. At times it was just the two of us, but gradually a core group grew. Since that time, with the guidance of my teachers, I’ve gotten more involved with sharing the dharma and now our sangha has sittings on Sundays, sittings followed by a talk and discussion on Thursdays, introductory classes on Mondays, and weekend silent retreats in the country about once a month.
If your area doesn’t have a strong sangha at this time you might, for a moment, imagine what it would be like to be able to practice with friends on a regular basis or to know that you could connect with a nearby support system for dharma when your daily life got hectic and out of balance. If you find that fantasy appealing, another thought might be “too bad that’s not happening here.” I suggest to you a thought to follow that one: “Why not make it happen here?” or even more positively, “How can I make it happen here?” You can. I’d like to offer some suggestions on how to do just that.
To organize a sitting group the first and most essential ingredient, I feel, is having a strong intention to make the idea a reality. Once the commitment is present the rest is just doing what’s needed to carry it through. Next, contact Insight Meditation Society (IMS) for information on meditators in your area. You may even discover that people near you have already started a sitting group for you to join. If not, ask the Center for names and addresses of people on their mailing list who live near you. IMS has over 10,000 yogis on their zip-coded mailing list, so there’s a good chance that there’s someone living in your area who’s interested in practicing with others. The next possible step might be to send out a letter sharing your idea and inviting people over for a sitting and/or dharma party where a core group could be formed.
[Editor’s note: This article was published in 1984. Today, the Buddhist Insight Network maintains a website with links to sitting groups, retreat centers and other resources—around the world. www.buddhistinsightnetwork.org ]
It seems important to establish a regular time and meeting place. Even if people don’t come each week, knowing there’s a weekly sitting group nearby may serve a valuable function. (Many meditators express appreciation to IMS just to know that at almost any hour there is someone practicing sincerely in Barre.) After the sitting you might play a tape of a dharma talk followed by a discussion and/or tea. Recorded talks can be obtained from IMS Tape Library. It’s helpful also, I’ve found, for people to have a few minutes to connect informally at the end of the evening so that the sangha bonds are strengthened. If there’s enough interest, you might also have a dharma tape/book lending library, as well as a bulletin board where people can exchange housing, job and events information. Perhaps people would like to have an all-day or weekend sitting. This can also strengthen dharma connection as well as re-establish one’s practice.
A few words of caution. I would suggest that people take turns as practice leaders to share the responsibility for making events successful and to avoid unnecessary “teacher-student” roles. It would also be a good idea to limit daylong or weekend sits to people who’ve practiced intensively before. Content might come up that could be difficult for a person brand new to practice to handle, without an experienced teacher available for interviews.
Something else to keep in mind: Do not be discouraged if the response is not what you had hoped. It would be unfortunate to judge the importance and value of the sangha by the “numbers game.” If you get together with one or two others regularly it’s a tremendous boost to your commitment to practice.
If your group develops a real feeling of sangha, let the Center know so that others in your area can practice with you. You might even want to invite speakers or teachers to give talks to the group. There’s a possibility that teachers at the Center may send people they feel qualified to various areas in the country to lead weekend retreats where needed.
The words Kalyana Mitra or “spiritual friend” are used to describe a teacher in this tradition. Really we are all each other’s spiritual friends. I’m most appreciative of the value of group support to keep the dharma connection and sitting practice strong. The more we can help create a network among dharma friends, the more likelihood that others outside the dharma circle will be affected by our commitment. Lastly, I invite anyone moving to or passing through the Bay Area to come sit with us at
Harwood House in Oakland the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley. It will be a good chance to meet and practice with other like-minded people.
Jamie Baraz leads sittings, classes and weekend retreats in the San Francisco Bay Area, and teaches retreats with Joseph, Jack, Christopher and other teachers.