skillful means

The Importance of the Dharma Discussion Guidelines

At our weekly Sangha gatherings, we present the Dharma Sharing (Dharma Discussion) Guidelines before each session. Doing so reminds us of our aspiration to listen deeply and to speak mindfully. The Guidelines also provide tools that enable us to build a safe and harmonious environment. Here we can learn to speak about our happiness and our difficulties in the practice, thereby contributing to the collective insight and understanding of the Sangha. We are concerned that these guidelines are sometimes not offered by facilitators, both lay and monastic, at larger retreats. This has occasionally led to advice giving, interrupting or crosstalk, which has resulted in causing some harm and disharmony. Sometimes folks theorize rather than sharing the experience of their practice, and we have been in groups where a few persons speak multiple times, which does not leave time for others to speak. These types of interactions result in a loss of safety, support, trust, focus, and full participation within the group.

We invite everyone to consider deeply the benefits derived from using these Guidelines and to look at them anew. We may then be encouraged to take responsibility for requesting that our facilitators present them at the beginning of the groups that we are participating in and also be ready and willing to do so ourselves.

Please contemplate how to present the following Guidelines in a loving and mindful manner. It is wonderful to hear them through the many voices of the Sangha as each person adds his or her special freshness.

Guidelines for the Practice of Dharma Sharing

1. Practice deep listening and loving, mindful speech

Topics emanate from our life and practice. It is best to avoid discussions that are theoretical rather than experiential. Our deepest aspiration is “to learn [Avalokita’s] way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world.” We can invoke the name of Avalokita before the Dharma sharing begins.

Even though we have the intention to listen deeply, our mind will wander. Perhaps we are agreeing, disagreeing, feeling agitated, wanting to respond, or drifting. If we are mindful of our thoughts and inner dialog, we can choose to come back to being present with the person speaking. Many in our Sangha use this as a training to become more attentive listeners for family and friends

Our speech, like our listening, is the fruit of our practice, a response from within. It is good for the atmosphere of the Dharma sharing when participants take three breaths before speaking, to allow time for the previous person’s speaking to be fully received. Speaking from the heart about topics that emanate from our life and practice involves speaking with awareness in a way that could be of benefit to others as well as ourselves; speaking with kindness, in a voice that is clear and loud enough for everyone to hear, including those with some hearing loss; connecting with others by making eye contact; perhaps smiling from time to time. We all benefit from hearing each other’s insights and direct experience of the practice.

2. Bowing

Before speaking we may wish to make a flower bud with our hands and bow. When we bow, or put our hand on our heart or use a signal we are comfortable with, we are signaling that we would like to share. The Sangha bows back, acknowledging that we are ready to listen deeply. When we are finished we let the Sangha know by bowing/signaling again. Knowing that we will not be interrupted creates a safe and harmonious environment.

Instead of bowing we can use an object, often referred to as a “talking stick,” to pass around the circle. The facilitator might introduce this method if the group is very large or if the facilitator senses that there are participants who wish to share but are too shy to do so. If a person is inspired to speak, she/he will do so; if not they will pass the object on to the next person. If time allows it is considerate to send the object around a second time so that those who were not ready to speak the first time have another opportunity.

3. Saying our name, each time, before we speak

This practice fosters a sense of inclusion for newcomers as well as aiding those of us who might have some difficulty remembering names. We do this in our Sangha even when there seems to be only “regulars” present.

4. Avoid giving advice, even if it is asked for

In general it is helpful to always use the word “I” instead of the word “you”. Speaking from our own experience eliminates the opportunity to give advice. If someone asks for advice and a practice that we have worked with comes to mind it is fine to share our experience.

5. All that arises is confidential

“What is said here stays here.” Confidentiality secures the safety of the group and helps avoid gossip. Also, after the Dharma Sharing time, if we want to talk with someone about what they said in the group, we first ask if it is okay. Sometimes a person does not want to talk more about what they said and this is a respectful way to honor that.

6. Refrain from speaking a second time

We don’t speak again until it appears that everyone who wants to speak has spoken. This ensures that everyone can speak and provides a space where we can benefit from all of our Sangha wisdom. We are encouraged to speak mindfully, “not too much and not too little” for the number of participants. Near the end of the time the facilitator may offer an opportunity for those who have not spoken to do so if they wish and may address any unanswered questions.

7. Share with the whole circle

Whatever we share is for the benefit of all those present. We do not engage in cross-talk with another participant. If we ask a question we ask the whole group and if we answer a question we speak to the whole group and not just the person who asked. If we ask a question we should not expect an answer straight away. Another topic may be addressed first and only when someone feels ready will the question be addressed. However, if towards the end of the sharing, the question has not been addressed the facilitator may do so to the best of his/her ability.

How to Use the Guidelines

Offering the Guidelines at the beginning of each Dharma sharing enables the facilitator to refer to them when a situation arises that could disrupt the safety of the group. For example, by having stated at the onset that we intend not to give advice or interrupt each other, a facilitator is more able to gently correct this situation when it occurs by reminding the group of the Guidelines, thus protecting the group in a skillful manner.

In our Sangha we continue to practice using the skillful means provided by the Guidelines. If this is new for your Sangha or if you are just starting a Sangha we invite you to enjoy experimenting! If your Sangha has been using similar Guidelines all along you may want to reflect on them anew both individually and during Dharma Sharing.

Thinking of the wonderful Dharma Sharing Guidelines as trainings and learning to apply them skillfully, in all of our interactions, will help us to cultivate compassionate communication wherever we are.

Respectfully submitted by The Riverside Sangha of the Community of Mindfulness NY/Metro

PDF of this article

Someone Committed to Your Full Awakening

By John Bell At the January 2007 Order of Interbeing retreat at Deer Park I found myself in a handful of conversations with monastics and lay members about mentoring and support of OI members. It seems that aspirants for the Order get mentoring in preparation for ordination — the aspirant does assigned readings, a Dharma teacher checks in on the aspirant’s practice, and the Sangha sometimes holds a Shining the Light for the aspirant.

But typically once you are ordained, you’re on your own! It seems that only rarely does an OI member have ongoing mentoring by a Dharma teacher or monastic. Even lay Dharma teachers have little personalized support. It seems that this lack of structured support leads some lay OI members to feel disconnected, isolated, and lost, or to leave the Order altogether.

I’m wondering if there might be a missing piece in our community’s structure. I pose it as a question: What would it look like if someone were committed to your full awakening? What would it be like if someone more experienced and wiser in the practice personally cared about your liberation? How might that accelerate your development along the path?

A Personal Spiritual Relationship

As I understand it, at Plum Village, Blue Cliff, and Deer Park Monasteries, there is a mentoring relationship among monastics; each has a specific big brother or big sister. Other traditions have built this relational piece into their practices. If you are in a Twelve-Step program, you have a “sponsor” whom you call or who calls you on a regular basis. If you are in psychotherapy, you have the therapist who not only listens deeply, but also asks important questions that you might not ask yourself. In a peer counseling community, at least one other person is committed to your “re-emergence” and actively assists you to identify and shed unwholesome habit energies.

Another way to get at this issue is to reverse the question: What would it look like if I were committed to someone else’s full awakening? When asked this way, some elements of a caring, personal spiritual relationship become clear for me.

  • First I would have to be committed to my own full awakening! Do I really intend to be free or am I just going through the motions? Am I willing to recognize and embrace my own suffering in order to realize true peace, or am I wanting to stay comfortable and comforted? How do the five hindrances operate in my own practice — desire, aversion, dullness and drowsiness, agitation and regret, and doubt? If I knew that I could only truly assist another to the extent that I had freed myself, then such questions would motivate a more sincere effort, sharpen my practice, and increase my ability to be present to the person I’m committed
  • I would want to practice the four levels of love toward the person — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and I would want to be active in knowing the person and their struggles, showing love, and giving him or her my best.
  • I would want to check any ego tendencies to “help” or “save” the person, to create dependency, or to pat myself on the back for feeling wise, more advanced, or in some way better than the person I’m committed
  • I would want to continually study and practice the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings as the grounding for my If I were not walking the talk, it would show up (at least to myself) in the relationship with the person I’m committed to.
  • I would have to learn how to accept the expression of deep emotions, since the person’s suffering would arise in the course of their liberation I would want to be present when it happened, even urge emotions up and out, if appropriate. I know from my own experience that full release can cleanse and permanently relieve long-stored suffering. The more I have done my own emotional work, the more capacity I have to accept the emotions of others.
  • I would want to continually add to my toolkit of skillful means so that I could think about the person from many To twist an old saying, I want to avoid having only a hammer so I don’t treat everything as a nail. A person’s journey to inner freedom is sometimes subtle, nuanced, non-linear; sometimes wild, roaring, ecstatic; sometimes depressing, confusing, scary. A hammer won’t do for all these!
  • I would want to ask for help when ) didn't know what to This is where the person committed to my full awakening could come in handy! Or a trusted advisor, or the Sangha, or a Dharma teacher, or a text.
The Benefits of True Love

There are risks in setting up such committed relationships. Since we are human beings and can get hooked by all sorts of unwholesome behaviors, we can fairly well predict that sticky situations would arise. For example, the mentee feels judged or shamed; the mentor feels unskilled or unsuccessful as a mentor; unhealthy dependencies develop; the two cross some boundaries and cause further suffering. However, I suspect that beneficial relationships would far outnumber the distorted ones. The benefits are two-way: if I commit myself to your full awakening, then that intention will necessarily encourage me to grow. True Love is never one-way.

mb51-Someone1

There are a couple of methods that we could experiment with:

  • Formal mentors. Upon ordination each OI member is helped to find an older Dharma brother or sister who would serve as a mentor. This might be the same person who mentored the person as an aspirant. It might be someone with whom the Order member has built a good relationship. It could be a monastic or lay Order member. The mentor would find ways to get to know the person, set up regular practice check-in by phone or in person, and try to attend at least one annual retreat with the person.
  • Practice Partners.  Where an older brother or sister is not readily available, two Order members might pair up and agree to check in regularly. They might ask each other about learnings and challenges in their practice. They could offer reflections, feedback, and suggestions. They might attend retreats together. They might occasionally check in with a Dharma teacher if they feel stuck in their relationship. This kind of peer mentoring would encourage mutual deep listening.

Still other arrangements would occur to us if we began thinking about mentoring. We might need a monastic or senior lay Dharma teacher in charge of thinking about and tracking these support relationships. Maybe when registering for retreats, in addition to stating our Dharma name we would also list our mentor.

A Cascade of Mentors

Creating such mentors or practice partners would call for a crucial shift: each individual, beginning with each lay Order member, would be thought about in a personal and ongoing way. The most important piece is for the Order member to feel personally known and cared about by their support person, and to feel that their practice is deepening partly because of the support person’s commitment to their spiritual development. While it is true that we are all connected and safe in the ultimate dimension, it is most helpful to feel the connection and love on the personal level. I’m envisioning a kind of cascading mentorship, from Thay to senior monastics, senior monastics to senior lay Dharma teachers, senior lay Dharma teachers to senior lay Order members, senior lay Order members to newer Order members, newer Order members to aspirants and Sangha members.

The two guiding relevant questions for Order members are:

  1. Who is personally committed to my full awakening?
  2. Whose full awakening am I personally committed to?

Would this approach be worth trying? What might the benefits be? How might we begin?

mb51-Someone2John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts, and he offers retreats on mindfulness and emotional healing. John is co-founder and vice president of YouthBuild USA, a national network of 226 local YouthBuild programs that work with low-income young people who have dropped out of high school.

PDF of this article