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Building a Unified Community: Connecting Wake Up and the Broader Sangha

14 Oct 2018 4:26 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Building A Unified Community: Connecting Wake Up and the Broader Sangha


With gratitude to Bryan Hindert for this article, which was originally published in the Plum Village publication,  "the Mindfulness Bell." Please consider subscribing to the Mindfulness Bell to help support our greater Plum Village community. Visit www.mindfulnessbell.org/subscribe for more information and to subscribe.


It was a moment of connection across generations.  I smiled.

     

At the end of a recent retreat with the Florida Community of Mindfulness (FCM), a sangha in the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh based in Tampa, a fellow Wake Upper shared an insight during closing circle.  He was surprised to learn that some practitioners older than forty were dealing with many of the same issues that challenged him and his Wake Up friends.  


The seeds of aspiration to build a sangha where members of all generations could connect, learn from each other, and see they aren’t so different after all were beginning to bear fruit.


I began my own Dharma journey with FCM, an all-inclusive sangha.  In 2013, my teacher, Fred Eppsteiner, the founder and Dharma teacher of FCM, encouraged me to find a way to help young adults who came to our practice center to connect with our community and to the Dharma.  


In all honesty, I was not thrilled.  I had been practicing with FCM for a few years and was quite happy being one of the only two or three really engaged young adults in the sangha.  Although I had been making significant transformations in my life and had healed much of my own wounding and mental suffering through the practice, looking back, there was a whole area of life I was avoiding because of the pain it often brought me.  Due to various causes in the past, I would go into a comparing, jealous, and self-critical mind-state when I was around other young adults.  The idea of spearheading a group to invite more young people into our sangha felt counter-intuitive, to say the least.  


Luckily, I had learned through practice that listening to my thoughts was risky business, and Fred had taught me that to grow in the practice we can’t be afraid to get uncomfortable.  Thus, with Fred’s guidance, and a bit of a nudge, Wake Up Tampa Bay was born.  


Before we had our Wake Up group, young adults would visit FCM, but they would usually come only once or twice, and then disappear.  Once we started having a Wake Up meeting every other Friday night, when young people would come to the sangha, I or one of the other younger members would personally welcome them and invite them to our Wake Up group.  It became clear that the ability to connect with people their own age was a key factor in whether young adults continued to come to sangha gatherings. 


Over time, our Wake Up group grew from an initial three members to twenty to thirty participants, a thriving community of young adults supporting each other in living wholesome, mindful lives.  In addition to our Friday evenings, we also began having our own Wake Up Days of Mindfulness, Wake Up Dharma study and practice groups, regular social activities, potlucks, nature walks, and many informal events.  


In one sense, it seemed that FCM was becoming a more age-diverse sangha.  In reality, however, two separate sanghas were beginning to emerge. In the early days of FCM, most of those who came to Wake Up Tampa Bay were also interested in participating in the activities of the broader sangha.  However, as attendance grew, a shift began to happen.  More and more, the young adults who came to Wake Up seemed satisfied with the peer support and did not seem particularly interested in attending gatherings of the broader sangha.  Rather than being an extra support to younger members in our community, Wake Up had become, in a sense, an island unto itself.  


While it was wonderful to know that a community of practitioners had developed that nourished and supported mindfulness practice in young adults, it seemed that both Wake Up and FCM were missing out on an important connection by this bifurcation of the sanghas.  To me it seemed that our Wake Up community had much to gain from the wisdom and experience of the older, more seasoned practitioners, as well as an opportunity to deepen our practice through the many Dharma programs and the connection with a teacher that FCM offers.  Likewise, FCM could benefit greatly from having the youthful energy of Wake Uppers join in their activities.  It was also striking that our sangha, while professing to offer an alternative path to the unwholesome elements of our culture, was, in a certain sense, mirroring the division and separateness we often find between different age groups in society.


Thus, with Fred’s guidance, a few of us Wake Up organizers began a concerted effort to integrate the two divergent groups. While the first few years of Wake Up were aimed at creating a space where young people could come to heal, transform and support each other in mindfulness and meditation, these past few years have been more focused on integration into the larger FCM community. Our intention has been to create a unified, truly age-diverse sangha that offers both peer support for the Wake Up group and the experience of seasoned practitioners. 


To foster this integration, many initiatives were experimented with, and much consistent encouragement, creativity, and patience have been needed.  There are signs that the fruits of this effort are blossoming as more Wake Uppers are now participating in much that FCM offers.  For instance, at our recent sangha picnic and at our last tea ceremony, we had about as many Wake Uppers as non-Wake Uppers in attendance.  We also now have about thirty Wake Up-age participants who have become formal members of FCM.  With close to 300 FCM members in total, this is still a small percentage, but we have come a long way from the original three young adult members.  We are also beginning to see a good representation of Wake Uppers at our weekly Sunday sangha meditations and Dharma talks, and many are beginning to take part in more of the intensive Dharma programs that FCM offers, working with mentors, and taking advantage of having a Dharma teacher to guide them in their practice.  


Perhaps most telling, this year we had two Wake Up members take on leadership roles within the larger FCM community.  We in our Wake Up group are maturing in our practice and there seems to be a real thirst for deepening our study and engagement with the Dharma.  Also, as more Wake Uppers are getting to know the older practitioners in a deeper way, there appears to be an eagerness to explore further ways of connecting with them.


Last February I had the opportunity to meet several other Wake Up Ambassadors at a Wake Up Care Taking Council Retreat at Deer Park Monastery.  In our discussions during the retreat, I learned of the many ways that Wake Up sanghas are watering wholesome seeds in young adults and helping them to heal their suffering, cultivate joy, be of service to others, develop leadership skills, and begin their journey on the path of Dharma.  What also became clear in our discussions was that the division that FCM had experienced between its Wake Up group and the broader sangha is the reality for most of the Plum Village sanghas in North America, rather than a special case of our Tampa Bay community.  Although our experience in Tampa may be somewhat unique, since our Wake Up group was born out of our broader sangha, perhaps it may be helpful to share what we learned in the experience of integrating our two groups.  I believe it is in the best interest for the entire Plum Village community to integrate these two sangha streams, and it takes consistent effort from both ends to make it happen.  


For Wake Up organizers who would like their Wake Up groups to benefit from a connection with the broader Plum Village sanghas, I would suggest to begin by asking which of your Wake Up activities are key to meeting the needs particular to young people, and which do not necessarily need to be age specific. Our Wake Up organizers have taken several steps to cultivate a connection with the rest of FCM.  We:

  • Host regular “meditations and mixers” where we invite older practitioners to spend an evening with us in meditation, deep sharing, and communing over tea. 
  • Invite our Dharma teacher and more experienced practitioners to offer Dharma talks and answer questions about practice at our Friday Wake Up meetings every other month.
  • Discontinued separate Wake Up Days of Mindfulness and instead are encouraging attendance at FCM Days of Mindfulness.
  • Schedule fewer Wake Up only social events and are encouraging attendance at FCM social events.
  • Organize Wake Up hang out time after an FCM activity, such as a work meditation day, giving us the space to connect with our peers while also participating in FCM events.
  • Organize community involvement activities such as volunteering at a local community farm and invite the broader sangha to join us.

I encourage my fellow Wake Up organizers to consider the importance of integrating our Wake Up groups into the broader sangha for the health and well-being of the Plum Village community.  Although the initial development of separate Wake Up groups has allowed the space for young adults to experiment and find their own connection to the practice and lineage, the broader sangha needs our energy, creativity, and excitement for the practice in order to continue beautifully into the future. 


For practitioners from the broader Sangha who would like to support and connect with Wake Up groups, the following efforts have been fruitful in our community:


  • Our Dharma teacher and experienced practitioners act as close mentors in practice and sangha-building for our Wake Up organizers.
  • We have a monthly “Tea with the Teacher,” giving Wake Up-aged members of FCM a chance to seek Fred’s guidance in an informal setting.
  • Experienced practitioners in FCM lead Dharma study groups to support Wake Uppers interested in going deeper into Dharma teachings and practice.
  • Older members of the sangha invite Wake Uppers to dinners, teas, and other informal ways of connecting.  


In general, I would also encourage all-age sanghas to understand the need of young adults to have space to support each other in the practice and experiment with how to bring the practice into their lives.  I encourage giving young practitioners a chance to take on responsibility in the sangha and, when ready, to take on leadership roles. When young adults are given this opportunity, I believe they both step up to the occasion and take more ownership of the sangha. 

     

From a personal perspective, these past five years of sangha building with Wake Up and FCM have helped me to untie many internal knots and heal emotional wounds I had developed around interacting with my peers.  The act of doing something meaningful in my life while taking care of and transforming my suffering has allowed me to feel whole again.  I now enjoy spending time with both younger and older people equally and have many Dharma friends of all ages. Through this experience, Fred has taught me to set aside my personal preference and to instead do what is most beneficial for the sangha, and what is most beneficial for beings.  In putting aside my personal preference, I have also found a truer happiness and well-being than I could have ever found from staying in my comfort zone.  


In the Dharma,


Bryan Hindert

True Legendary Opening


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