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The Importance of the Dharma Discussion Guidelines

At our weekly Sangha gatherings, we present the Dharma Sharing (Dharma Discussion) Guidelines before each session. Doing so reminds us of our aspiration to listen deeply and to speak mindfully. The Guidelines also provide tools that enable us to build a safe and harmonious environment. Here we can learn to speak about our happiness and our difficulties in the practice, thereby contributing to the collective insight and understanding of the Sangha. We are concerned that these guidelines are sometimes not offered by facilitators, both lay and monastic, at larger retreats. This has occasionally led to advice giving, interrupting or crosstalk, which has resulted in causing some harm and disharmony. Sometimes folks theorize rather than sharing the experience of their practice, and we have been in groups where a few persons speak multiple times, which does not leave time for others to speak. These types of interactions result in a loss of safety, support, trust, focus, and full participation within the group.

We invite everyone to consider deeply the benefits derived from using these Guidelines and to look at them anew. We may then be encouraged to take responsibility for requesting that our facilitators present them at the beginning of the groups that we are participating in and also be ready and willing to do so ourselves.

Please contemplate how to present the following Guidelines in a loving and mindful manner. It is wonderful to hear them through the many voices of the Sangha as each person adds his or her special freshness.

Guidelines for the Practice of Dharma Sharing

1. Practice deep listening and loving, mindful speech

Topics emanate from our life and practice. It is best to avoid discussions that are theoretical rather than experiential. Our deepest aspiration is “to learn [Avalokita’s] way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world.” We can invoke the name of Avalokita before the Dharma sharing begins.

Even though we have the intention to listen deeply, our mind will wander. Perhaps we are agreeing, disagreeing, feeling agitated, wanting to respond, or drifting. If we are mindful of our thoughts and inner dialog, we can choose to come back to being present with the person speaking. Many in our Sangha use this as a training to become more attentive listeners for family and friends

Our speech, like our listening, is the fruit of our practice, a response from within. It is good for the atmosphere of the Dharma sharing when participants take three breaths before speaking, to allow time for the previous person’s speaking to be fully received. Speaking from the heart about topics that emanate from our life and practice involves speaking with awareness in a way that could be of benefit to others as well as ourselves; speaking with kindness, in a voice that is clear and loud enough for everyone to hear, including those with some hearing loss; connecting with others by making eye contact; perhaps smiling from time to time. We all benefit from hearing each other’s insights and direct experience of the practice.

2. Bowing

Before speaking we may wish to make a flower bud with our hands and bow. When we bow, or put our hand on our heart or use a signal we are comfortable with, we are signaling that we would like to share. The Sangha bows back, acknowledging that we are ready to listen deeply. When we are finished we let the Sangha know by bowing/signaling again. Knowing that we will not be interrupted creates a safe and harmonious environment.

Instead of bowing we can use an object, often referred to as a “talking stick,” to pass around the circle. The facilitator might introduce this method if the group is very large or if the facilitator senses that there are participants who wish to share but are too shy to do so. If a person is inspired to speak, she/he will do so; if not they will pass the object on to the next person. If time allows it is considerate to send the object around a second time so that those who were not ready to speak the first time have another opportunity.

3. Saying our name, each time, before we speak

This practice fosters a sense of inclusion for newcomers as well as aiding those of us who might have some difficulty remembering names. We do this in our Sangha even when there seems to be only “regulars” present.

4. Avoid giving advice, even if it is asked for

In general it is helpful to always use the word “I” instead of the word “you”. Speaking from our own experience eliminates the opportunity to give advice. If someone asks for advice and a practice that we have worked with comes to mind it is fine to share our experience.

5. All that arises is confidential

“What is said here stays here.” Confidentiality secures the safety of the group and helps avoid gossip. Also, after the Dharma Sharing time, if we want to talk with someone about what they said in the group, we first ask if it is okay. Sometimes a person does not want to talk more about what they said and this is a respectful way to honor that.

6. Refrain from speaking a second time

We don’t speak again until it appears that everyone who wants to speak has spoken. This ensures that everyone can speak and provides a space where we can benefit from all of our Sangha wisdom. We are encouraged to speak mindfully, “not too much and not too little” for the number of participants. Near the end of the time the facilitator may offer an opportunity for those who have not spoken to do so if they wish and may address any unanswered questions.

7. Share with the whole circle

Whatever we share is for the benefit of all those present. We do not engage in cross-talk with another participant. If we ask a question we ask the whole group and if we answer a question we speak to the whole group and not just the person who asked. If we ask a question we should not expect an answer straight away. Another topic may be addressed first and only when someone feels ready will the question be addressed. However, if towards the end of the sharing, the question has not been addressed the facilitator may do so to the best of his/her ability.

How to Use the Guidelines

Offering the Guidelines at the beginning of each Dharma sharing enables the facilitator to refer to them when a situation arises that could disrupt the safety of the group. For example, by having stated at the onset that we intend not to give advice or interrupt each other, a facilitator is more able to gently correct this situation when it occurs by reminding the group of the Guidelines, thus protecting the group in a skillful manner.

In our Sangha we continue to practice using the skillful means provided by the Guidelines. If this is new for your Sangha or if you are just starting a Sangha we invite you to enjoy experimenting! If your Sangha has been using similar Guidelines all along you may want to reflect on them anew both individually and during Dharma Sharing.

Thinking of the wonderful Dharma Sharing Guidelines as trainings and learning to apply them skillfully, in all of our interactions, will help us to cultivate compassionate communication wherever we are.

Respectfully submitted by The Riverside Sangha of the Community of Mindfulness NY/Metro

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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