Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire. This is Michael's fourth "dharmablog" entry. To get caught up, read posts 1, 2, and 3.
If you’ve read a book, taken a class or attended a retreat that deals with mindfulness meditation, chances are you’ve noticed a reduction in your stress levels, and experienced greater clarity and, perhaps, spiritual growth. You may want to build on these benefits by developing your own meditation practice.
But then comes the really tough part: Resisting the temptation to check email every five seconds, refresh that website you just left, update your Facebook profile daily or otherwise fritter (or Twitter) away the hours -- anything but sit still!
Fear not: the support you need may be right around the corner. Five years ago, I was doing my best to enrich my practice by taking advantage of the opportunities provided by InsightLA. But I live in Laurel Canyon, and the trips back and forth to Santa Monica were sometimes more stressful than a bad day at the office.
Trudy encouraged me to connect with Gene, a fellow Canyonite who was looking for someone to sit with. We clicked, and he began coming over every Tuesday evening around 7 to meditate for an hour or so -- something I’d never have dreamed of doing on my own. Our conversations were interesting -- Gene is a brilliant guy and something of an insight machine -- but mostly we just sat.
Over the next six months, several other friends, neighbors and InsightLA-ers dropped in, and before long, we’d turned into a small but mighty group. When InsightLA put our group on their activities list as a kind of East Side outpost, still more folks joined.
Typically, we start with a few questions or comments and then sit for 40 minutes, after which I’ll read something from a favorite author -- often a Buddhist, but sometimes not -- and we discuss whatever dharma-related issues are on our minds. (Members are also encouraged to bring stuff to read.) We end with a very brief sit.
Feedback from attendees -- at least those who come back! -- indicates that they feel safe sharing intimacies they might not have revealed even to close friends or loved ones. The energy of the group -- a mix of discipline, peer pressure and emotional/spiritual connectedness -- helps bring out compassion, humor and empathy. (This will be explored in a forthcoming blog.) And many find that the collective meditation experience makes it easier -- though by no means easy -- to establish and keep up a regular practice.
For me, hosting the group has been an extraordinary experience. I’m not a trained teacher, but I know enough to help beginners with the basics. The young daughter of a good friend didn’t think she could sit still for 40 minutes; all I had to do was convince her that she could, and she did. I can tune up my managerial skills by guiding discussions and keeping them from getting off point. (Okay, I’ll admit it: One time, when an art aficionado returned from a long trip to Italy, we spent a whole discussion period talking about cameras.) And the research I do to prepare the readings -- poring over the latest tome by Jack Kornfield or finding a dusty copy of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” the first book I read about meditation -- is an education in itself.
In the past year, we’ve held several one-day mini-retreats, patterned after InsightLA’s day-longs. Sometimes only a handful of members attend, which provides a unique opportunity for extended practice with a small group.
InsightLA also sponsors several other groups around the city. (Check out the list here.) There are no fees for attending, but participants are given the chance to make a donation to InsightLA.
Another benefit of neighborhood meditation groups: They can provide a connection to your micro-community. In Nichols Canyon, for instance, a group emerged from neighborhood email blasts.
Recent brain research indicates that the astonishing success of Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t so much about a belief in a higher power or the Twelve Steps, but resides more in the power of the safe group dynamic. You can be the catalyst for just such a group -- or just join one. It might make the difference between wanting to practice regularly and actually doing so.
Next time: Let’s get metta-physical
Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company. He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint. He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond. Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.