I’m a member and ‘practice leader’ of a meditation group, called the New Jersey Sangha, that meets in northern New Jersey, about a half-hour drive from New York City. The group is one of the offsite sanghas established by New York Insight Meditation Center (NYI), which offers workshops and courses in Insight meditation and hosts various meditation groups at the center’s mid-town Manhattan location in the city. In addition to the New Jersey sangha, there are offsite meditation groups in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem.
Established three years ago by a member of the NYI board of directors who lives in New Jersey, the group meets each Wednesday night from 7 to 9 pm in a room rented from a church. While there are over 30 people on the mailing list for the sangha, attendance ranges from 8 to 14 members each week. Most of the members of the sangha are fairly experienced practitioners, and while the sangha was formed under the aegis of NYI, sangha members have been influenced by a range of approaches, including Zen, MBSR meditation practices and yoga. I’m the only explicit secular Buddhist in the group, but there are several sangha members who are interested in a secular approach.
Since the sangha was formed, we’ve slowly evolved in a more democratic and participatory direction which, in some important ways, diverges from the NYI’s model for how sanghas should function.
The NYI model of meditation groups
While NYI is, within the world of western Buddhism, not particularly hierarchical and is open to a fairly wide range of ideas and practices, NYI’s view of how sanghas should function bears the imprint of a more traditional, teacher-centric model. If a teacher leads the sangha, the teacher provides an introduction to the meditations and then gives a dharma talk, followed by comments and questions directed to the teacher by individuals in the sangha. There are limited group discussions and the teacher remains the focal point throughout the process, controlling the ‘lesson’ of the meeting and providing feedback to each individual in turn.
If no teacher is available, a practice leader runs the group. Based on getting a recommendation from an NYI teacher, an individual can submit an application to NYI’s teachers’ council; if the application is approved, the individual is designated a practice leader who can facilitate a meeting of a sangha. However, unlike a teacher, the practice leader does not give a dharma talk; instead, she or he shares a reading with the group and discusses it in terms of its relevance for the practice leader’s life and/or meditation practice. The discussion that follows, however, is similar to the teacher-led sangha meeting. Each individual, in turn, can respond to the reading in terms of their own practice, but there is no group discussion.
New directions with the New Jersey Sangha
At New Jersey sangha, we’ve moved away from this model to a large extent. First, we have four practice leaders who rotate leadership. Practice leaders introduce the meditations (we have a 30 minute sitting meditation and a 10 minute walking meditation) and after meditation is over, sangha members have the opportunity to share significant meditation and/or life experiences connected to their practice. When an individual does so, other group members may comment or add their own perspectives.
The practice leader then shares a reading with the group. (Occasionally, someone who is not a practice leader may share a reading as well.) Following the reading, which is either an article or a section of a book chapter related to Buddhism or mindfulness, the sangha members break up into dyads or triads to discuss the reading. The guidelines for discussion are based on insight dialogue processes for mindful communication: pause, relax and open. (There are actually three others – trust emergence, listen deeply and speak the truth – but they’re implicitly included in our group in the open process.)
Invariably, these discussions are quite lively and energize the group’s members. Often, it’s difficult to end the discussions as they are so animated. They clearly are providing a wonderful opportunity for sangha members to share ideas and experiences on the topic.
After the dyad or triad discussions, the whole group gets back together and there is an opportunity for further discussion involving all the group’s members. At this point, the role of the practice leader is to facilitate discussion and ensure that each person who would like to speak gets an opportunity to do so. (The practice leader is not trying to make sure that a particular point or perspective is seen as the right one.) In many cases, the discussion in the whole group will involve individuals sharing ideas and practices with each other, offering support, and providing a broader perspective on the topic.
We end with the practice leader doing a brief loving kindness (metta) or compassion (karuna) meditation.
In many ways, New Jersey sangha is not that different than a traditional meditation group. We practice sitting and walking meditation, then discuss a topic related to the dharma. However, our group is more participatory and has a strongly democratic element. And while the format for the group is partially based on NYI’s model, the members have modified that format in significant ways, based on discussions and decisions that were democratically arrived at.
As a practice leader, I’m recognized as a someone who is committed and is a fairly experienced practitioner, but I’m certainly not seen as someone who has a special status based on wisdom and meditative attainments.
Often, members of the group say that one of the things that they like most about the group is its non-hierarchical process and the ability to share experiences and ideas with others in a meaningful way.
Our group is just one example of practitioners searching for a more participatory and democratic form; we need to encourage as many experiments as possible.
If you’d like more information about how the group functions, either comment below or feel free to email me.