Deep Change and Renewal: Meeting Metta’s Guiding Sangha and Teachers Council

There are positive changes unfolding at Metta, replete with the pangs of transformation and the sense of potential. I recently returned from two meetings concerned with the essentials of Metta’s functioning, and I came away from both of them tasked with sharing with you, our larger community, a view of what’s going on at this dynamic time. The first was a gathering in Seattle of the Guiding Sangha; the second, beginning a day later in North Carolina, was with the Teachers Council. At both meetings, we could feel both the crunch and the promise of Metta’s transformation. In the Guiding Sangha (GS), we are 6 months into participating in a phase change in Metta’s development. The Teachers Council (TC) meeting was a time of regathering and, above all, renewal.

Even the fact that I’m writing these words carries a message of our commitment to a new initiative of greater transparency. As Metta moves to a shared leadership model, the first thing you need to know to understand the Guiding Sangha is we have committed ourselves to a significant challenge: to engage all of our worldly work as an uncompromised part of the path of practice. In fact, this is the first of the three priorities the GS has set for Metta Programs. They are:

1. Metta as Sangha – The people forming Metta Programs relate to each other as noble friends, committed to awakening as they serve the Dhamma through Metta’s programs and practices

2. Training Insight Dialogue teachers to excellence

3. Supporting Insight Dialogue Communities of Practice

At Metta, fully integrating the Dhamma into the organization’s mode of working has been a tacit part of the landscape. Sometimes we’ve done it well, as with the RIM (relational insight meditation for psychotherapists) team, and sometimes less well. But as Metta undergoes significant changes, from budget cuts to a shared leadership model, the challenge is tougher and more important than ever. With so much planning and doing, how does one maintain a meditative practice? Is full meditation practice even what is called for in a working mode, or is there a new hybrid waiting to be discovered? With a high work load (and all GS members are volunteers, some putting in substantial number of hours on a weekly basis), how do we support each other in maintaining calm, or a perspective on the impermanent nature of all we do?

It was with this question in mind that we met in Seattle for three days of what we viewed as a six-month opportunity for reflection.

GS 2014

GUIDING SANGHA (left to right): Dow Gordon, Michele Zukerberg, David Selwyn, Lucy Leu, Jean Wu, Gregory Kramer, Mary Burns, and Nic Redfern.

We began with a full morning of Insight Dialogue practice. I had the privilege of leading the session to help ground our GS work/ practice in the Dhamma. (Mary Burns, the other ID teacher on the GS, was unable to attend this meeting, having just returned from teaching ID in Oceania.) We entered the meeting being frank that at times the work had been difficult and our conditioning sometimes activated. So during our ID practice we focused on the awakening factor of tranquility, which inherently challenges the planning and doing mode of typical organizational meetings. To nourish us with energy and joy in meeting the challenge, we also contemplated shared intention, one of what I call the relational factors of awakening. The point of shared intention is not only alignment of purpose, but the amplification of joy, energy and resolve as fully experienced in that alignment.

Throughout the 3 days of meetings, random bells rung during the meeting, from an iPad, became reminders to check tranquility and shared intention. But unlike an ID retreat, following the pause we would continue with our work: we heard from Metta’s Transition, Operations, and Programs teams and were briefed on the teacher training program. We talked about partnerships with other organizations, legal considerations for a non-profit religious corporation, expanding the GS, and other concrete issues. We explored how our teams can work together better, and how we can connect with our larger community. The bells continued as we shared one afternoon with the Seattle contingent of Metta’s staff, Rachel Hien and Sarah Ruth Gomes, and Sangha Institute’s staff, Erica Pittman. Throughout our meeting, we wondered, could we touch deeply enough into tranquility and remember the shared intention from our formal ID practice to go forward into the content-rich work of Metta Programs embedded in the felt sense of wakeful serenity at work?

After several days of integrating our practical agenda and our meditation practice, we closed with an afternoon of Insight Dialogue. This was an opportunity to reflect on the challenges we’d named and to enjoy the fruits of our practice together. Actions and decisions that emerged were recorded in the GS Meeting Notes, but it is clear to all of the GS that these notes do not reflect the depth of discussion of MP’s vision and organizational direction that took place. And no after the fact record could capture the sense of dedication, mutual care, joy, and intrepid hopefulness that infuses this group of committed Insight Dialogue practitioners in service of the Dhamma.

The next morning, I was up at 5:30am to fly out to our first dedicated Teacher Council meeting. We met at Phyllis Hick’s home in Chapel Hill. Gary Steinberg drove down from New Jersey. Sharon Beckman-Brindley drove from Charlottesville, and Mary sauntered over from her home nearby. We were joined by a highly recommended facilitator, Wes Taylor, who was invited to support us during our time together.

The Teachers Council is a group of senior ID teachers who are dedicated to not only teaching relational Dhamma and Insight Dialogue, but also to nurturing teachers and providing spiritual guidance to the Metta community. The TC works with the Guiding Sangha towards our mission to share the practices and Dhamma teachings that will support insight and release, particularly those teachings that draw from and nurture the power of relatedness. We know we can only make modest contributions to the bigger Buddhist world, and we know how deeply humanity is suffering. But we’re doing our best, and being pioneers is not always easy.

We met because we were experiencing stress, disconnection, and change. Sharon had shared her plans to retire, and this TC meeting was her last. The loss of such a beloved and wise companion sent waves through our already fragile system. So much to do; what will happen now without Sharon? What happens to our communication when we never see each other in-person? How do we handle the time demands and stresses of only one of us being paid staff, and the culture of dana not flowing in Metta’s community? And as conditioned beings, how do we acknowledge and heal ruptures, within the TC and in the wider community? We needed some face time, and made the investment in time and money to finally gather.

Right from the start I felt grateful for the opportunity to be with my spiritual friends. At the same time, there was tension arising as we entered into our first serious look at what was working or not working, and at how we have configured ourselves as a system. Wes reminded us at the outset that every system is perfectly designed to produce exactly the results it is producing. It was time now to learn what this “we” is as a whole functioning group. This community perspective is no small thing in a community dedicated to intrapersonal (traditional introspective) and interpersonal (Insight Dialogue) practices. We were extending our perception to the whole group, and committing ourselves to acting with the group in mind, even when we’re not together.

We began by setting three goals for our retreat:

1.  To regain trust and confidence in each other

2.  To create working relationships with each other that reflect the integrity of the Insight Dialogue practice and values

3.  To create clarity and alignment around organization structures that enable us to carry this working environment forward

It was interesting for all of us to maintain our sense of the Dhamma, which inclines the mind to cool the fabricating process, while addressing so explicitly things like our vision for the Teachers Council (e.g. open access, harmonious mutual support, efficient in our actions together, substantive in Dhamma, shepherding teachers, an ethical beacon for Metta Programs, etc.). We were also looking at: our decision making procedures and how to move from decisions to actions; and major trends in our community of both success (e.g. high commitment to the teachings, love among us, joy in the Dhamma), and of difficulty (e.g. lack of clarity about multiple roles, power differentials, stress around livelihood concerns). Also, we knew we’d soon have to get clearer about how the TC’s evolving leadership relates to the leadership provided by the new Guiding Sangha, and how these two bodies can best work together. Yes, these are all constructs, although important ones that were demanding our intelligent attention.

So we spent time airing our concerns in ways we had not really done before. There was a great deal of respect and care as we touched the tender places of personality and history, fully integrating our relationships as friends in the Dhamma and friends in this very human, conditioned life. We began to address concrete issues in our community, but more importantly we started to craft ways we could carry forward this hard work into our TC process.

TC 2014

TEACHERS COUNCIL AS OF APRIL, 2014 (clockwise from upper left): Gary Steinberg, Gregory Kramer, Guiding Teacher, Phyllis Hicks, and Mary Burns, TC Chair.

We knew we wanted to re-focus on the Dhamma as such and on teaching teachers (the last couple of years have largely been taken up with attending to teacher training policy and curriculum). We knew we wanted to communicate better. We knew we wanted to address ruptures not only in the TC but as they may arise in the larger teacher training community. It was this basic work of skillfully addressing what matters that was to be a major take-home from this gathering.

TEACHERS COUNCIL CORE VALUES

Wisdom
Relatedness
Generosity
Accountability
Joy
Transparency

 

We left with action items that included things like clarifying how the TC will work with Metta staff and the GS, updating the TC charter, planning future in-person meetings, advancing the inquiry into sustaining teachers’ livelihoods, and generally nurturing the health and beauty of the Dhamma community we have been gifted with. More than this, however, we left North Carolina reminded of the centrality of both our relationships as human beings—as friends, and our shared commitment to work harmoniously in community as we deepen, transmit, and live the relational Dhamma.

Flying home to Orcas Island, north of Seattle, I felt lighter, more hopeful. I’d reconnected with my spiritual friends. I’d participated in a profound renewal process of our core teaching community. And while I am humbled by the learning process still ahead of us, I take heart in the care and love of the Dhamma that has carried us so far.