February 14, 2017

Imagining the dharma

In This Moment

№ 37 ¶ February 2017


In his new book, Secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor invites us to ‘imagine the dharma in an uncertain world’. In this newsletter, practitioners, facilitators and teachers from around the world invite us to imagine the dharma communities they are involved in, how they function, and why. 

You’ll find contributions from:
  • Bernat Font, who runs a secular Buddhist group in Barcelona,
  • Sylvie Vanasse, a member of Beaches Sangha in Sydney and the online community, Re~Collective, who teaches for Sydney Insight Meditators,
  • Invercargill southernzen facilitator Leon Frampton (also a Re~Collective member),
  • Jennifer Hawkins and Mark Knickelbine, board members of the U.S. Secular Buddhist Association,
  • the Sydney secular insight meditation teacher Winton Higgins, and
  • lastly some thoughts of my own on the secular dharma practitioners’ group in Wellington.

Each of these will be posted separately to the blog on secularbuddhism.org.nz and you are invited to add your thoughts there.

¶ Dharma and community for meditators

~ by Winton Higgins

Like all practices worthy of the name, every form of meditation is informed and moulded by a tradition – the Buddha’s tradition (‘the dharma’) in our case. And like all practitioners, dharmic meditators rely on a community to transmit and renew the tradition, and to support each individual in her or his development. That’s why the Buddha anointed community (sangha) as one of the three central values in his tradition, along with the project of awakening and the teaching that inspires and guides it.

So what is community, and what is it not? We’d be wide of the mark if we adopted the common ideas that:
(a) institutions constitute communities;
(b) a particular identifiable group of people make up a community; and
(c) ‘the community’ is a catch-all phrase for a horde of people with no organic connection – as when politicians use the word as a fuzzy term of endearment for all those who (they hope) will vote for them or agree with them.

No, community refers to an active process whereby people with common interests actually engage with each other. Community doesn’t imply fixed membership and rules. It does imply warm interaction between people on the basis of mutual commitment, equal worth, equal influence, and inclusiveness.

This is how the Buddha understood sangha, his (Pali) word for communities of practitioners. But after his death the word came to stand for an institution – monasticism – that had strict hierarchies and rules of membership, and in most cases failed to satisfy each and every criterion of community listed in the previous paragraph. Theravadin Buddhism has even gone the further step of restricting the word sangha to its male-only monastics, thus excluding all women and all male non-monastics from a sense of practising in a dharmic community.

Obviously such conceptions of dharmic community won’t cut the mustard in the modern west, with its values of equality, inclusiveness and democracy. So we face the challenge of restoring community to its original dignity and essential role as part of our retrieval and cultural adaptation of dharma practice (including meditation) as a whole.

It’s a big ask, but we also enjoy some distinct advantages in nurturing the communal aspect of our practice. The requirements of equality, inclusiveness and active membership of voluntary organisation actually help define western civic culture as such. For all but the most privatised among us, these features are second nature to us – familiar aspects of our civic lives. It’s no wonder, then, that more and more western dharma practitioners form communities outside of hierarchical and deferential (that is, institutional) settings.

Sometimes we choose to register our sanghas as formal associations for pragmatic reasons (such as opening bank accounts!), but the typical constitutions of such associations support equality, inclusiveness and democracy anyway. They’re not going to stop us being able to look around the room as we settle into a meditation session and seeing our good friends going about the same business.

• Winton Higgins began meditating and practising the dharma in 1987. He took up teaching (mainly vipassana) meditation in 1995, in city classes and in silent residential retreats in rural venues in Australia. In 2003, he became and remains one of the regular teachers of the Bluegum Sangha. These days he also teaches regularly for Golden Wattle and Beaches sanghas, as well as at residential retreats for Sydney Insight Meditators, which he helped to found in 2005.

Since that time Winton’s meditation teaching has developed towards non-formulaic insight practice based on the Buddha’s original teachings, while his dharmic orientation inclines towards a secular Buddhism. He fosters interest in the original teachings and their affinity with modern streams of thought and progressive social commitments. Winton ran a weekend workshop in Wellington in February 2013. His most recent book is the novel Rule of Law (Blackheath: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2017). He has a brand new website at wintonhiggins.org and much of his dharma writing can be found here.

– Comment on this article here: http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/dharma-and-community-for-meditators/

¶ Creating a secular Buddhist association in the USA

~ by Jennifer Hawkins and Mark Knickelbine

In the U.S., the Secular Buddhist Association has grown organically around Ted Meissner’s podcast, The Secular Buddhist, and its associated Facebook page. The individuals who were frequent participants on Facebook became the core volunteers who would go on to create the Secular Buddhist Association website and, later, the non-profit organization incorporated under that name.

While there are a number of study and practice groups around the United States that are allied with the SBA, our association has principally been an online phenomenon. The SBA website receives about a half million visits a year. It features ‘The Secular Buddhist’ podcast, articles by a variety of contributors, a discussion forum and online recorded guided meditations. It also is the portal to webcast meetings, including Practice Circle, a dharma practice group that meets twice monthly, and Social Circle, an informal discussion group that meets once a month.

As an organization, the SBA has grown slowly for several reasons. Being a volunteer organization with no fundraising capacity has limited our organizational capacity. Beyond that, however, we’ve intentionally allowed the organization to grow organically, without an attempt to aggressively market it or impose institutional or ideological structures. This grows from our consensus that secular Buddhism is not a new Buddhist ‘school’, but a community in which individuals can support one another in the study and practice of the dharma without the need to explicitly or implicitly endorse the supernaturalism of most traditional Buddhist lineages. We waited to see who would show up and what they would ask for, and responded accordingly.

Probably the biggest challenge we have faced is maintaining a community that supports the precepts of skilful, compassionate speech and action. Striking a balance between facilitating open, lively debate and not contributing to the cultivation of harmful speech and minds requires us to continually reexamine our values and responsibilities to the SBA community.

It seems that those who are most in need of the dharma tend to naturally seek it out, and those who cannot believe the supernatural elements of other schools are literally true seek out secular Buddhism. Often, our participants would not have any other access to a sangha, especially a secular Buddhist one. In turn, their diversity adds to our collective awareness, empathy and engagement. Through the forums, participants can learn and discuss Buddhism (of any tradition) at any time of day or night. And through our online meetings, we build deeper connections to one another through open discussion, meditation, and simply seeing each other’s faces in real time.

As we build our organizational capacity, we plan on eventually hosting more online events, a camping trip (where we can meet in real life) and perhaps even physical meditation centres. We are also beginning to sponsor other events/organizations, retreat participants and guided meditations on Insight Timer. However, because of the way SBA has developed and because of the reach digital communications provides, our ‘heart’ will probably always be online.

• Jennifer Hawkins and Mark Knickelbine are on the board of the U.S. Secular Buddhist Association; Jennifer as Community Director and Mark as Practice Director.

– Comment on this article here: http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/creating-a-secular-buddhist-association-in-the-usa/

¶ The Summer Day

~ by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

• Mary Oliver received the U.S. National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has published more than 25 books of poetry and prose including Dream Work, A Thousand Mornings, and A Poetry Handbook. Her latest book of poetry has the title Felicity.

¶ On secular Buddhist sangha

~ by Sylvie Vanasse

Sangha is considered one of the three ‘jewels’ or refuges, along with the dharma and Buddha. According to some Buddhist traditions, however, the sangha is reserved for monks or those who have achieved a ‘high level of awakening’. But interestingly, Gotama would have also summoned his monks to leave their monasteries to go and ‘expound the teaching for the good of the many’. In doing so, one can, therefore, assume that he believed that the layperson could also be enlightened. 

According to the Upaddha Sutta, Ananda, referring to the sangha, said to Gotama: ‘This is half of the holy life, Lord – admirable friendship.’ Gotama then replied: ‘Don't say that... Admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life’. Is this also true for the life of a secular Buddhist sangha member? If yes, what makes it so? My personal answer is ‘yes’ and here are some of my reflections behind it.

I find that most regular members of my local sangha are, indeed, quite admirable. In one way or another, most are involved in some activism, being ecological or social. Some stand up for the preservation of our natural resources, for human or animal rights. Others volunteer in one capacity or another to help relief human suffering, or generously offer their time to care for the environment or animals. Others are involved in supporting healthy lifestyles, teaching ethics to children, to name only a few examples of activism. We can easily link all of these actions to the eightfold path and sila or ethics.

Even if we have not achieved a ‘high level of enlightenment’, whatever that means, the intentions and values of our sangha members seem pretty aligned with the dharma. They appear to be beyond a mere desire to meditate to relax or calm their mind (not that there is anything wrong with that) to raise their awareness of the four great tasks and to endeavour to make their life and those of all sentient beings around them more peaceful and satisfying. With such intention, it is not surprising to me that the sangha is a place when one can develop ‘admirable friendship, companionship, and camaraderie’, to use Gotama’s words.  

The sangha might also be the ‘whole of one’s life’ because when we are quite clear on our values and ethics, we might also, at times, hold them too tightly. As a result, we can fall into judgment about the foibles of our ‘less admirable’ friends. Jack Kornfield calls this ‘spiritual pride’. I call this my ‘holytude’. At other times, it’s the opposite. I compare myself to other sangha members who are kinder or ‘better’, who know more about the dharma than I do, and so on. 

So, at any time during my sangha interactions, I can fall into any of the three conceits: thinking ‘my self’ to be better, less or the same. Also, I came to realise that the way that I relate to others within the sangha is no different than the way that I relate to people outside it. I might be afraid of speaking up or be too blunt – craving for being liked or being right – or anywhere in between. So, everything that happens within the sangha can become grist for the mill. 

By being actively involved in my sangha, I have a chance to cultivate compassion towards my foibles and those of my companions. I learn to trust, and with this trust, I can develop a sense of safety and, indeed, find refuge.

• Sylvie Vanasse has been a member of Beaches Sangha in Sydney, Australia for six years; she teaches recollective awareness meditation and is a member of the online community, Re~Collective.

– Comment on this article here: http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/on-secular-buddhist-sangha/

¶ Re~Collective

Is an experimental, secular, recollective awareness meditation community that meets online in English once a month. Participants are from Australia, Austria, Finland, New Zealand, the UK (from the next meeting), and the USA.

With participation by invitation, the group brings together people who facilitate and teach in a range of dharma communities that have an interest in a secular approach to the dharma and may use recollective awareness meditation.

If you have any questions about Re~Collective, send a Reply to this newsletter by email. Letting us know which country you’re in will ensure you get a response either from the person closest to you or the one most appropriate.

¶ Where am I? How did this get here?

~ by Bernat Font

I have just met with a group of people to meditate and talk about the dharma, as I’ve been doing weekly for the past two years. I didn’t know any of them before. So where does all this come from? One way of defining Buddhism is as a tradition of practicing the dharma. In this sense, Buddhism began with the Buddha preaching his first sermon to the five ascetics, not with any private realisation under a fig tree. The tree is where his awakening bloomed, where the ideas that would become his dharma coagulated into something solid enough to be articulated and communicated to others. But it’s not until it inhabits a shared space that something becomes a tradition. I like to imagine that scene: a man going to meeting with his friends, peaceful and enthusiastic, ‘Buddies, I got it. I got it!’

I’ll be honest: I’m writing this quickly, with absolutely no planning because I have a Pali exam tomorrow at noon, and before that I have to call someone to help me organise a public talk for a dharma teacher we are inviting, and I couldn’t study very much because, among other reasons, I had to send the weekly email to the sitting group and plan the next meeting. If this sounds a bit frenetic, imagine me saying it with a big smile on my face. This is where my dharma path has taken me; something inside us makes us want to share that which we find valuable. When I discovered the secular approach to Buddhism, and I gained renewed energy to investigate, study and practice more fully, I simply couldn’t keep it to myself: the thought ‘I have to help make this available for others’ wasn’t an option.

Secular Buddhism is little known to a Spanish-speaking audience. Theravada (and its offspring, the insight meditation tradition) is by far not the most popular form of Buddhism. And the mindfulness craze is only beginning to take off here in Spain. There is so, so much to be done; humbly promoting contemporary approaches to Buddhist practice and creating community has become a huge part of my dharma practice. But the lessons have been everywhere: in translating articles, essays and book chapters, I have learnt some translation skills, improved my English, deepened my understanding. Week by week, and by no means at a great speed, I learn how to facilitate group meetings and discussions, how to inspire others, how to be honest and drop prefabricated notions of leadership. I have also met wonderful people in situations similar to mine, as well as teachers and writers.

If the raft can be kept from drifting towards the black sea of abstract theorising, discussion with fellow practitioners highlights just how comprehensive and difficult this path can be. By comprehensive I refer to the application of the main principles of values of the dharma to cooking for one’s family, walking down the street, opening one’s mouth to speak… the list is endless. And by difficult I don’t want to suggest hardship or straining, but a lot of the times this practice comes down to facing one’s darker side, examining habits and prejudices, which can be uncomfortable. Organising events, I deal with my impatience, my greed for results, my annoyance with people; slowly, I’m learning to be as organised as possible while at the same time patient with others, letting go of the pretension that if I plan well enough, write the clearest information and anticipate everything that can be anticipated, nothing will go otherwise, no-one will make mistakes on the application form or send emails asking for information that’s already on the flyer. In brief: the wish for things to go my way.

Perhaps it is good that I didn’t have time to craft a well-reasoned mini-essay on the true nature and importance of the sangha. Perhaps my message, as a young facilitator of a young and small community of practitioners, is that sangha is the practice, that sangha is  the dharma. My message is that, if – as I was two years ago – you are considering starting a sitting group, or an online forum, or whether to get involved in the local sangha, stop questioning – do it. Chances are this is going to be one of the best practices. After all, a path is well-maintained if walked by groups of friends, peaceful and enthusiastic, gradually singing, ‘I got it…!’

• Bernat Font is currently doing an MA in Buddhist Studies. He blogs at budismosecular.org and earns his living as a musician, with a website at bernatfont.com.

– Comment on this article here: http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/where-am-i-how-did-this-get-here/

¶ Previous newsletters

Can be found at http://tinyletter.com/SecularBuddhismNZ/archive. If you received this newsletter from a friend, you can subscribe here too.

¶ Creating and maintaining a secular dharma community was never going to be easy

~ by Leon Frampton

Doing something a bit different, a Buddhism that’s not Buddhist – not my words – was always going to present a number of challenges. Some of these were to be expected, others unexpected. I would like to offer just three key reflections here. Think of this as part of a conversation that you’ve just walked in on.

My own style of meditative practice is a developing one. In my own particular way I combine Dogen’s shikantaza with Jason Siff’s recollective awareness. Having connected with other secular Buddhist teachers and group facilitators, it is clear that I am not alone in this approach. As a group leader, I have found that some people would be more comfortable with a leader who appears to have at least some of the answers. Being ‘in charge’ gave rise to the notion that I had a doctrine or programme to teach and was there for others to follow. Discussions around terms such as emptiness, enlightenment and awakening were made far more complicated by an assumption that I must know what they really mean in order to talk about them. 

The perspective that we are each following our own path can have an unintended consequence; it can lead people to question why one needs to attend a regular sitting community – especially face-to-face – to sustain a practice. People who join a church or a temple with a well known doctrine or liturgy and ritualised behaviours to adopt can quickly fit into what is going on and feel at home, safe and secure in the routine of worship. 

For me, though, the value in the secular approach is what emerges over time, created just as much by the darkness as the light. That however takes a willingness to work through difficulties and a commitment to attend regular meetings for a sustained period. People do derive some personal meaning from identifying with a community, but if the identity of the community is a process rather than a doctrine, newcomers have an extra hurdle to overcome in developing a sense of belonging and fellowship with others. 

It is no accident that many secular practitioners have fallen out of an established Buddhist tradition and, perhaps, this is why those of us that have been through that  process, quickly feel at home in this process. This is my journey too, I’ve not arrived at a destination, so it is up to me to balance teaching with learning when I am in community with others, and to make this as transparent as possible.

In the absence of lineage with institutional support systems for group leaders, group leaders can end up feeling isolated. The near enemy of isolation is discouragement and we may be losing good people who have a lot to offer the growing secular movement by not having adequate support available. This comes home to roost most clearly when conflict arises. 

Two years ago, when I started Invercargill’s secular Buddhist group, my biggest concern was around attracting enough people to sustain the community. Being open and inclusive, allowing others to express their thoughts and views, has been by far the most significant challenge. Inclusivity and tolerance (surely a strength, right?) became our Achilles’ heel as the meetings became increasingly centred around random expressions of belief, of dissatisfaction with the world, and (occasionally) of intolerance of others within the group. 

I felt very discouraged. I started to believe this was due to my naïve, idealistic ideas about community ownership of the group, and shut it down. When I spoke to Ramsey Margolis in Wellington some weeks later, I realised my experience was actually quite common. When I set up the group again a few months later, I made sure to identify some supports. Alongside Ramsey, I attend online meetings of Treeleaf Zendo, and meet online with the Re~Collective group of secular recollective awareness practitioners and teachers. I also seek the counsel of regular group members.

Anyone who has looked at the southernzen website will have noticed the claim that is based on the soto zen style of Buddhist practice. I am not alone in grounding a secular practice in something more traditional and see no conflict of interest in that. I have not received dharma transmission from an authorised zen teacher but, then again, I do not claim to be a teacher. Think of me as a guy who listened to a discourse the Buddha gave and then went and told his friends about it. That’s the character of what I am trying to bring to my town, to my community.

If we imagine the dharma as a raft, as someone once did, and there is a rope attached to it that we are holding to stop it drifting away in the current, I see the left hand as traditional Buddhism and the right as the modern mindfulness and secular approaches. I am more likely to successfully hold onto my raft if I use both hands to hold the rope … you can see where this is going. 

This describes how the Invercargill group is developing. Will it stay that way? Who knows? One thing I do know is that, once in a while, one has to let go with one hand and let it rest while the other takes the strain, all the while maintaining a vigilant eye on both the raft and the river. The person who refuses to use one or other of their hands altogether will surely lose their raft and be left standing, frustrated and stuck on the riverbank.

Everything I have studied, watched and listened to over the last few years seems to point to a form of secular-religious community that is both localised and globalised, rooted in the past but responding to the present, and able to respond to the secular and religious needs of its members. A psychologist on their own cannot do that (aka some forms of modern mindfulness), a priest on their own cannot do it (i.e. may discount the significance of some events in your life if they fall outside of doctrine), but someone who embraces both may stand a chance. Even the Dalai Lama appears to be advocating such an approach, on behalf of humanity.

I would like to close with an excerpt from an email I recently sent to Ramsey Margolis. The Wellington group was in the process of changing its name to One Mindful Breath from Simply Meditation, and this prompted me to think about how, as secular communities, we don’t seem to be evolving out of random mutations, but by reflective and purposeful changes that have the wellbeing of other people as a central tenet of our ‘faith’. 

‘Observing from a distance, I think you have done well to keep your group alive and I am sure you are still thriving because of your efforts to be inclusive and diverse while balancing the need to stay a bit on track. These are times when peoples’ interest, commitment and attention spans seem to be getting shorter in an inverse proportion to advances in cell phone technology. It seems to be a natural consequence of reaching out and doing something new that you go through several rebirths over time.

‘I sense that ultimately our path will be somewhere between the traditions and modernity, and in the meantime we must keep the dharma alive by any suitable means and try to reach audiences that are put off by monastic traditions. That the dharma has the ability to change countless lives I have absolute faith in, that we have the ideal medium (if one indeed exists) to transmit these teachings alive right now I doubt, but we must keep treading the path to prevent it from becoming overgrown and lost.’

• Leon Frampton
From the UK, I’ve been in New Zealand for 10 years and am in my 2nd marriage with two children. I have worked as a nurse for the last seven years, with two years in the army including a deployment to Afghanistan. For four years I worked in an emergency dept, and I now work in Invercargill Hospital and Hospice Southland as a nurse. My interest in Buddhism started when I was 20 and led me to join the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. I have also been very interested in pop psychology over the years, starting with NLP (seems so old now...). My primary underlying purpose in life is to help others and one of the persistent messages I offer to my group is loving kindness, to yourself first and letting that flow naturally on to others.

– Comment on this article here: http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/never-easy/

¶ New book

Secular Buddhism, Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World
by Stephen Batchelor
Yale University Press (2017)

With this book due to be published just after this newsletter goes out, on 21 February 2017, this is a preview rather than a review. Described by the publisher as ‘an essential collection of Stephen Batchelor’s most probing and important work on secular Buddhism,’ the texts gathered in this book start from the early 1990s when Batchelor started to write for Tricycle  magazine. It’s important to remember that his 1997 book Buddhism Without Beliefs  was commissioned by Tricycle.

The introduction, ‘In Search of a Voice,’ and the conclusion, ‘An Aesthetics of Emptiness,’ were written for this book. ‘A Much Younger Man, but No Less Charming’ is being published here for the first time. The other essays and interviews have appeared in a range of journals, anthologies, newspapers and magazines. These include The Buddhist Forum, Journal of Global Buddhism, Tricycle, the Rochester Zen Center newsletter, the London newspaper the Independent, the Times of London, Sati Journal, Insight Journal, Resurgence, and the International New York Times.

As the practice of mindfulness permeates mainstream western culture, more and more people are engaging in one traditional form of Buddhist meditation, or another. Many of these people have little real interest in the metaphysical aspects of Buddhism, however, and the practice often occurs within secular contexts such as hospitals, schools and the workplace. 

Is it possible to recover from the Buddhist teachings a vision of human flourishing that is secular rather than metaphysical without compromising the integrity of the tradition? Is there an ethical framework that can underpin and contextualise these practices in a rapidly changing world?
In this book of Stephen Batchelor’s shorter writings on these themes, he explores the complex implications of Buddhism’s secularisation. Ranging widely – from reincarnation, religious belief and agnosticism to the role of the arts in Buddhist practice – he offers a detailed picture of a contemporary Buddhism and its attempt to find a voice in the modern world.

On the book’s jacket, Greg M. Epstein, author of Good without God, writes, ‘Stephen Batchelor is perhaps the finest and wisest guide in the world today to the complicated path that is combining Buddhism with humanism. For those of us who struggle with modern problems that cannot be solved by religion alone, this book will help if we are wondering what to do “after Buddhism”.’

Available as a hardback from 21 February, the book costs USD$27.50. In New Zealand (and elsewhere of course), you can order it from Fishpond for NZD$43.88 here.

¶ False starts and blind alleys – bringing secular dharma practitioners together

~ by Ramsey Margolis

Nothing is permanent. This includes the ways we come together as dharma practitioners. Without a dharmic Google Maps to show us the way, we are continually developing our understanding of what it means to be part of a community of secular meditation practitioners. Expect false starts, and don’t be too surprised when you discover you’ve gone down a blind alley.

I’m one of three people who run One Mindful Breath, Wellington’s community of secular dharma practitioners. You may not have heard of OMB; until the end of 2016 we were known as Simply Meditation. The group was started by my wife, Despina, with the intention that I would teach meditation to her girlfriends, who were keen to experience the benefits. We needed a name which would not scare them off These were people who were happy to describe themselves as ‘Orthodox’ when it came to religion, and who were happy to be part of the community of Greek New Zealanders they were born into. Why did they come? Like many who take part in introduction to meditation courses, and now mindfulness programmes, they were hoping it would offer them a way to reduce their suffering. 

Four years on, three out of the original four still come from time to time (one died, sadly), mainly to our Simply Meditation Secular Mindfulness Saturdays, and we no longer fit in our living room but rent a meeting room from the Quakers.

Our time as Simply Meditation made it clear that we were more than the name suggested, and that we need a varied programme which has both predictability and flexibility. The month now starts with Beginners Mind, introducing sitting, walking and loving kindness meditations; by default every evening had previously been a beginners session. Other Wednesday evenings may include walking meditation, a talk from and discussion with a teacher overseas – Australia, France and the USA so far – and an evening at which everyone brings or is given a notebook and a pen and asked to write down what went on during their meditation session.

Here are some of the other lessons we’ve learned.

Start small, stay small, it’s manageable
End each evening with tea and biscuits – nurture your community
Look for ways you can engage as a group in the wider community
Let people know the group exists with a simple website, it’s never been easier
Give out printed handouts often
Think carefully about the group’s name; any name you choose will attract some and repel others – so who do you want to attract, and what kind of person do you not want in the group?
Most people want to be handed the solution to their suffering on a plate – it can be dispiriting to be told they need to put in effort, to be persistent
Take the leadership role seriously and decide what kind of facilitator or teacher you want, or want to be – one who encourages participants to take responsibility, or one who wants a flock of followers?
Create a culture of generosity – don’t be scared to ask for financial support from those who turn up regularly, in particular those who understand the benefits of belonging to your group
A regular schedule is really important; weekly is better, if you meet less frequently than fortnightly people will find it hard to seriously engage
Face-to-face or online? There’s a place for both. Very real connections come with a face-to-face community but I do have good one-to-one relationships with individuals around the world and I’m a member of the new online group, Re~Collective, so I don’t discount online community entirely; it just feels so different.
Send out a short email newsletter either monthly or timed to the regularity of your meetings; for non-geeks, TinyLetter is a lot easier to use than MailChimp
Connecting with other similarly minded individuals and communities around the country, and around the world, offers lots of wonderful opportunities for the exchange of ideas and experiences
Don’t expect too much from others; few will be willing to engage, to take part, and many won’t have the desire to take responsibility for their own suffering, and the alleviation of their suffering – they won’t take your group as seriously as the organisers
Above all keep your sense of humour and share it.

The people who come along to One Mindful Breath Wednesday evening sessions have been described as a coalition of practitioners from different traditions who are working together with agreed aims. A lot of energy goes into One Mindful Breath: planning our weekly meetings, finding interesting material for a monthly newsletter; the work of a care committee to oversee it all. It really is worth it, though.

• Ramsey Margolis, who produces this newsletters, lives in the capital city of Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington.

– You can comment on this article here: http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/false-starts-and-blind-alleys

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