by Bill Gayner
I introduced our fledgling Touching the Earth (TtE) approach to Secular Buddhist Network readers about six months ago, after our first Touching the Earth daylong in November (see https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/touching-the-earth-exploring-a-new-secular-self-help-mindfulness-group-approach/). Our group had a second in-person quarterly daylong in February. With the advent of COVID, we successfully transitioned to an online, monthly, three-hour format in April which has allowed us to include people from other parts of Ontario outside of Toronto and as far afield as Denver and Zurich. The group has grown slowly and steadily from ten participants last fall to seventeen in June with a total membership now of twenty one.
A democratic self-help community for cultivating secular mindfulness
We are exploring developing a non-teacher-centric, democratic self-help community for cultivating mindfulness as an embodied social practice. Practices include meditation, journaling, sharing and exploring meditation experience in triads or dyads, and then gathering back in the larger group to reflect on the process, followed by a brief meditation and sharing what we are carrying forward from the session.
Touching the Earth (TtE) emphasizes cultivating a genuine relationship with experience and other people in order to better address inner conflicts and unfinished business, navigate situations and life, and cultivate growth and flourishing. The practice provides an opportunity for people to come alive to how our interdependence with others and the world can support us.
TtE is based on EFMT + secular Buddhism
The approach is a self-help adaptation of Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy with deep roots in contemporary and secular Buddhism (see https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/emotion-focused-mindfulness-therapy-and-stephen-batchelors-four-tasks/). Currently, all participants are psychotherapists with a range of formal or informal training and mentoring in Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy.
In experiential therapies, therapists balance following clients with recognizing opportunities for and facilitating experiential and emotional processing in them. Les Greenberg, the founder of Emotion-Focused Therapy, a major type of experiential therapy, described the process as “oceans of empathy and islands of work.” Touching the Earth, as an experiential self-help approach rather than a psychotherapy, shifts the locus of control more to participants. Each participant is responsible for recognizing opportunities for deepening their own experiencing and engaging in different kinds of processing both in their meditation practice and when they are sharing and exploring their meditation experience with others. The active listeners follow and reflect what they are hearing and may ask open ended questions, but do not lead people into new experiential tasks the way they would when providing experiential therapy.
Participants’ experiences with TtE
Participants in our Touching the Earth (TtE) group remark on how meditating, journaling, and then describing and exploring their experience out loud to people who are carefully and responsively listening, enables them to go deeper in discovering how to make sense of and navigate their own experience oriented to a deepening sense of what matters to them and what works best for them. A participant recently remarked how TtE sessions provide “a fresh revelation every time… in how to be human” rather than “treating each other as separate islands.” Participants describe learning about the importance of listening and how to be a better ally to oneself and others. The focus on developing genuine relationships helps to create a community of practice participants describe as safe and sustaining. Many have shared how lonely the work of psychotherapists can be, especially now during this pandemic, and how grateful they are to have found a community where they feel so deeply seen and heard.
People also describe a new sense of freedom and confidence in being true to their own experience that extends beyond the TtE sessions into their lives. Stephen Batchelor has emphasized the vital role independence, self-governance and confidence (aparapaccaya in Pali) play in mature contemplative practice.
Developing a system of democratic governance for TtE
I am taking an online course in effective nonprofits at a local university to learn how to develop an appropriate system of democratic governance for Touching the Earth that will help to ensure its continuation, relevance and thriving. A key learning for me is how nonprofits tend to be more complicated to manage than comparably sized for-profit corporations because they do not have a profit-oriented bottom line. Instead, it is vital nonprofit boards understand the success of their organization as a social construction dependent on the various perspectives and values of the different stakeholder groups involved. To succeed in their mission in today’s increasingly complex environments, it is vital nonprofits stay attuned to all of their stakeholders’ views.
Our current TtE participants are clearly grateful for having found a community of practice where they feel safe, supported and nourished. People have agreed to cap the group now at 21 members, since expanding the group further would mean having to alter its format and could affect our sense of group coherence.
Most people feel TtE’s monthly three-hour commitment, while worthwhile, is already a lot, especially in this difficult time and do not have the time and energy for additional activities such as helping to start a new TtE group or contribute to developing appropriate governance and policies. Moreover, perhaps because they trust my ability to shepherd the process forward, it is unlikely most place the same importance on developing appropriate democratic governance as I do.
However a couple of participants who are Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapists have expressed an interest in starting online Touching the Earth groups within their social, professional and meditative networks outside of Toronto. I look forward to supporting them in this. In the meantime, I will be reflecting on the timing and kind of process to put in place for electing representatives and developing appropriate governance and policies for Touching the Earth in order to better support TtE groups and develop responsible, sustainable ways of sharing this approach with a wider public.