PICTURE: Koi pond at Deer Park Monastery, where members of Ventura’s Friendship Sangha of the Heart sometimes travel together for meditation retreats. Photo by Alex Wilson
by Alex Wilson
The coronavirus pandemic has closed the doors of churches and other spiritual gatherings, but a Zen Buddhism meditation group I belong to has successfully switched to the online meeting platform Zoom. Although we were no longer able to form our usual circle for our weekly meditation, we found comfort in sharing our practice online during these troubled times. It has also helped me deal with significant personal setbacks in my own life.
circle of friends
I joined the “Friendship Sangha of the Heart” about 10 years ago, and meeting other members has become a key part of my meditation practice. (Sangha is a Sanskrit word that basically means a community dedicated to mindfulness, spiritual growth, harmony, understanding, and love.)
Everyone who meditates with our sangha is considered a member, regardless of whether they are present regularly or occasionally. We usually meet at 7 p.m. on Mondays at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ventura and attract around 12 to 15 people. However, our zooming practices have approached 20 on some nights.
Our Sangha does not have an official leader, but I am one of several “caretakers” who take turns running the practice. We practice in the tradition of the well-known Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is known for his work with Martin Luther King Jr. and his common pursuit of peace during the Vietnam War. (Sometimes we travel to his Deer Park monastery in Escondido for meditation retreats.)
Sangha meetings include two 20-minute sitting meditations where participants can choose mediation pillows, stools, or regular chairs to help them feel as comfortable and conscious as possible. When we are in church, another volunteer sets a nice table in the middle of our circle for the sangha to focus on. It can contain candles, tapestries, flowers, or statues of the Buddha. (This part of our tradition was apparently put on hold after the church closed.)
The weekly leader also conducts an inspiring “Dharma Lecture” between meditations, often chosen from the scriptures of Nhat Hanh. (The word Dharma in this sense basically means Buddha’s teachings.) Sometimes we sing songs in his tradition instead.
Go the way
The exercise includes a 10-minute “walking meditation” during which we are aware of the sensation of every step we take. We go to church in the dark winter months. In spring, when it is light enough, we walk along a tree-lined outdoor path where we can connect with nature. During the Zoom meetings, we walked through our own homes and yards.
Part of each gathering is dedicated to “Dharma-sharing,” where everyone has the opportunity to speak openly about their meditation practice or other aspects of their life, while everyone else listens quietly and mindfully.
Generosity is an important Buddhist virtue. Therefore, sessions provide an opportunity to donate money to charities that we select in a practice known as “Dana”.
At the end of the meditation session, practitioners hold hands and sing a song called “I Have Arrived,” which reinforces our efforts to live in the present moment and share the benefits of the practice with the wider community and the entire universe. The holding of hands has of course been postponed during the pandemic, but we’re still singing our song about Zoom.
Peace this time
My Zen Buddhist meditation practice helped me develop the mental strategies and resilience required to deal with the stress and anxiety many of us experience during the coronavirus pandemic. It also helped me cope with being fired from a job I loved for 21 years and the sudden and unexpected end of a four year romantic relationship that coincided with the disappearance of my career.
As I worked through these emotional trauma, I missed the opportunity to interact face-to-face with friends in my spiritual community. Moving our mediation sessions to Zoom helped me reconnect in a time of great loneliness and inner turmoil.
Mediation and the study of Zen Buddhism help me to accept the true nature of reality and to move through the difficulties of life with peace and equanimity. It also keeps me focused on the present moment instead of worrying about the future or thinking about the past.
Just before ordering at home, I was chairing one of the last meetings we could have in church. That night I talked about the interconnection of everything in nature, our planet and the rest of the universe. I brought a couple of small flashlights so that we could go our meditation path in the dark – a first. It gave us a new perspective on the trees and statues that lined the path.
When we switched to Zoom a few weeks later, I agreed to lead again, although until then I had the heartache of losing my job and my girlfriend at the same time. During this session, I spoke about gratitude and how grateful and honored I have been for all of the years reporting on radio news and serving the community, and the wonderful adventures and love I have shared with my girlfriend.
Human energy connection
I continue to find great comfort in our Zoom meetings after being socially isolated at home for weeks. Other members of the Sangha say that they are grateful for the human contact, even if it is only online.
Neal Ortenberg is another caretaker who has been meditating with the Sangha since it was founded about 25 years ago. He volunteered to set up the Zoom account for our meetings.
“At the first meeting I didn’t know how it would go on – but it went pretty well,” said Ortenberg. “Many people deeply experience that although they meditate at home and find it valuable, they feel that the group’s energy enhances the value of meditation.”
Although the Zoom meetings help us to maintain our meditation practice, Ortenberg looks forward to the day when we can all meet safely again. “The difference is that the other people are not physically present. I’m more likely to experience a human energy connection that I can’t get with Zoom, ”said Ortenberg.
Our Sangha always welcomes new members from all faiths, or even if they have never dealt with spirituality or Zen meditation. We hope more people will join us at Zoom or stop by the church when we return.
“Friendship Sangha of the Heart” meets every Monday evening at 7 pm on Zoom. To sign up or for more information, visit sites.google.com/site/friendshipsanghaoftheheart.