Back in February, me and the rather excellent Paul Cons started a weekly sitting group in Central London. Now six months on, we thought it might be useful to reflect on how it has developed and where it might go.
Why we started it. As the big guy said, get the view and intention right and good things tend to follow. As part of the team behind London Insight Meditation, Paul and I had been talking a lot about the importance of building a genuine sense of sangha in the city. For us this is based on the belief that in order to live a life awake in the city, you can’t do it by yourself. Urban practice (and indeed all practice) is a team game and a central weekly drop-in space for people to practice, share and learn together felt like too important a piece of the jigsaw to be missing.
How we’re doing it. Given Paul’s not insignificant experience of putting on events, we quickly settled into a simple and powerful format. After a short welcome and introduction we typically start with a 20min guided meditation on CD or mp3. Teacher recordings we’ve used for this have included John Teasdale, Gil Fronsdal and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Starting with a guided practice, often with a strong emphasis on body-based awareness has proved to be particularly useful to help settle the group, the majority of whom have come straight from work. Then we move into a discussion, reading or talk (live or mp3). This normally lasts for about 25 minutes and really can take us into all sorts of places. Recently we’ve had a nice recent run where the topics Paul and I have randomly chosen have seemed to resonate – these are have included summer retreat experiences, leaving nothing out and relationship as practice. After this section, there is a longer silent sitting of around 30mins which closes with a short lovingkindness dedication and then we break for tea. Most often it is either myself and Paul who facilitate the group but we have also enjoyed sessions led by guest teachers such as Sharda Rogell and Chris Cullen. We also once offered a ‘field-trip’ to a photo exhibition themed around death and dying which was very well received. This theme of bringing art and other areas of culture into the practice hopes to be one we continue to explore.
Who’s coming by. With a typical group size of 12-24 we tend to have three types of people. A third will come every other week or so. A third will come by one a month. And the last third will either be newcomers or people who can only make it occasionally. This cocktail of attendance which has emerged has proved to be wonderful since while there are enough familiar faces to really allow genuine friendships to form, it avoids being at all clique-y and there are always new attendees to meet and learn from. There is a varied mix of practice experience as well as people who have their centre of gravity in other traditions (be they contemplative or therapeutic). I have to say that I’m often moved by the genuine warmth that can exist in the room as we support each other in this often challenging work of awakeness. The appetite for understanding is quite staggering and much more than I anticipated.
Challenges (1 of 2). Paul and I often check in with each other as to what we are finding difficult. Something that came up early on was how we were unsure as to the line between teacher and friend. Both of us fully recognise that we are nowhere near qualified enough to play a teacher role (I for one often fail to teach myself!) but given our levels of interest in the Dhamma, our relatively senior level of experience compared to most of the group and our roles as instigators and facilitators, we can sometimes feel perceived in this position. Chris Cullen gave us some wonderful advice on this when he said: if there’s something to be shared and to be said, then say it. But check motivation and know the limits of your understanding.
Challenges (2 of 2). One of the really significant factors behind the success of this sitting group so far has been its incredible intimacy. We meet in the front room of the house where Paul and his wonderfully generous partner live, which as well as being a lovely home, is as central as central London gets and is therefore uber-accessible. The risk therefore is as the group becomes more and more popular we may outgrow the current venue and as a result, lose some of that so-precious intimacy as well as incur costs which affect access. These are ultimately nice problems to have so let’s see what I write in six months time.
What’s coming up? Recognising that our relatively hotch-potch approach to what the group discusses has its limitations, we shall be starting to introduce more thematic elements. For example, in the next few weeks we shall be starting a series on dana-sila-bhavana or generosity-ethical action-mental development, a classic Theravadan trio. To kick this off, Martin Aylward will be guest teacher leading us on September 9th in an exploration of dana as practice; and in a first for us (and for him) he will be teaching via video Skype from France. And in a special Monday session on the 1st, Rob Burbea (resident teacher at Gaia House) will be hosting a practice surgery.
The next episode. Will be exciting and I can’t wait.
August 30, 2008 2 Comments
1 September 2008
Reflections from an urban sitting group
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