STARTING A SITTING GROUP
by Philip L. Jones
After you've been on a retreat and have experienced the power of practicing these teachings, you may feel enthusiastic about the practice and want to support it when you return home. One common suggestion for support is to practice with others in a sitting group. But what if there isn't a group in your community? One option is to start a group.
Forming a group may be a big step from sitting by yourself in the morning or evening. At first it may feel like an overwhelming task and commitment. Breaking it down into some basic issues may help you think through whether you want to form a group and, if so, how you want to do it.
Dimensions of a Sitting Group
One of the first things to consider is what type of sitting group it will be. There are several dimensions to consider.
One dimension to explore is how closed or open the group will be. Occasionally people want to have a sitting group just for a small group of friends. They don't really want to open the group to others because it might change the feeling of intimacy and safety. This would be a closed group. Most sitting groups are open to anyone who expresses an interest, as long as the general rules of the group are followed. This would be an open group.
Some groups have qualities of both open and closed groups. They are open to anyone who has a certain set of characteristics but closed to others. This inclusive/exclusive quality is usually part of an effort to create a sense of safety so that the participants are able to relax and do the work of inner exploration. Examples of these groups would be a women's group, a men's group, a people of color group or a gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender group.
Another dimension to consider has to do with the focus of the group. Will the focus be on presenting the teachings and practices of one spiritual tradition, such as Theravada Buddhism, or will the focus be on presenting a variety of spiritual teachings and practices, such as Theravada Buddhism, Insight Meditation, Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Christian Centering Prayer, Kabbalah, Sufi practices and so forth?
It is often easier to begin a group with a mixture of spiritual traditions as this will draw upon a larger population for the group. However, in the long run there are often conflicts concerning which tradition should be emphasized. Offering multiple traditions may provide a broad perspective on teachings and practices but it may also be confusing and prevent one from exploring one approach in depth.
Another factor to consider is where the group will meet. Using the same space for each meeting makes it easier for people to know where to go when they want to attend the group. But should it be a private space or a public one?
It is often easiest to begin by meeting in a private residence since that space is already available. A private residence may also provide a sense of comfort and privacy that contribute to the inner work of spiritual practice. On the other hand, using a private residence means that the host will lose a degree of privacy. The space may also not be available if the host is out of town. And there is often a tendency to perceive the group as "belonging to" the host which may interfere with the group's development.
Public spaces also have advantages and disadvantages. A public location may be more accessible and have fewer problems with parking. Because it is not associated with a person's personal space, it may seem more neutral, anonymous and may feel safer for some people as compared to the intimacy of a private home. Churches and yoga studios are frequently used for sitting groups. One disadvantage of a public space is that there is often a fee associated with their use. There may also be more noise and less privacy, particularly if the building is used by other groups at the same time.
How often the group will meet is another issue. Some groups meet every week, others meet every other week and some meet once a month. While a weekly group may provide the most support and continuity, it may not be realistic for you to meet every week. Considering the other commitments in your life, how frequently are you willing to show up during the next year? It may be easier to start out with less frequent meetings with the option to meet more frequently in the future, rather than trying to cut back once you've begun.
The way that you let people know about your group will also affect who attends and how the group develops. The simplest way to advertise is to notify the people who you think will be interested and then to let the group grow by word of mouth. One advantage of this is that it allows the group organization, leadership and culture to develop organically as the group slowly grows. Leaving notices in health food stores and restaurants, yoga studios, bookstores, coffee shops and similar places will open the group to a broader range of people and probably lead to more rapid growth. A web site is also an easy way for people to learn about your group. When considering how you want to advertise, keep in mind the type of group that you are seeking for yourself and others.
Another factor to consider is how the group will be organized. Will the host/originator of the group decide how it runs? Will the group be led on a consensus basis by peers? Is there another form of organization to consider?
How long each group meeting lasts is another important consideration, especially for people with very busy lives. An hour or an hour and a half is usually as long as most people want to commit for an evening.
How long will the sittings be? While a thirty minute sitting may be most attractive to newcomers, more experienced practitioners may want longer sittings.
Will there be any activities other than a sitting? Groups often follow a sitting with short readings from Dharma books, by listening to Dharma talks on tape or cd or by having a discussion on Dharma practice. If the group does this will it happen each time it meets?
There is often a temptation for the host, originator of the group or most experienced student to take on the role of teacher. At other times an experienced student may be ready to teach in a small group setting and hold back out of fear or feelings of inadequacy. In either case, it is best to check with one's own teacher.
In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, being a teacher requires extensive personal practice, study and regular work with one's own teacher. One takes on the role of teacher only when your teacher has acknowledged that you are ready to teach, whether at the level of a local sitting group or retreats.
This doesn't preclude, though, being a kalyana mitta, a spiritual friend who shares what he/she has come to know. It is a wonderful gift to offer to others.
The Most Important Factor for Success
When all of the other issues have been thought out and you are ready to start your group, there is one more factor to keep in mind. It is bringing the quality of metta, of loving-friendliness to your interactions with others in the group. When people feel welcome and safe, their practices will grow. That is the most important indicator of a successful sitting group.
Helping to form a sitting group is both a wonderful service and another form of practice. May the results of your practice be to the benefit of all beings.
An earlier version of this article was published under the auspices of Mid America Dharma.