Some ideas and guidelines to help you set up a Meditation Group and develop a local sangha (community).
Setting up a Local Meditation Group:
Having discovered the value of meditation in a retreat setting, one way to develop and support your practice is by being part of a local group or sangha community. There are many local meditation or sitting groups already, set up by people inspired by their experiences at Gaia House. However, if there is none in your locality, you may wish to start a new group. Here are some ideas to consider:
A place to meet:
Ideally you will need a quiet and pleasant environment for your group to meet in. Initially, especially if you have only a few group members, someone’s living room at home might be suitable. If people are willing, perhaps the venue could rotate around members’ houses.
Alternatively, a Meditation Group need not always involve physically sitting together; it can be virtual, meeting on-line or via Skype (for example) or it can allow a loose network of people to stay in touch, to reflect on their practice and to feel supported.
How many people do you need?
Some groups have run successfully with just two or three regular members over a period of years, however a larger group generally generates more energy and provides a richer group meditation experience. Also, a larger group puts less pressure on everyone to attend every session. The dynamic of a group will be affected by its size. For instance, if you want to include some discussion or sharing in your group, some people may feel more comfortable speaking in a smaller group. If your group is very successful or numbers feel too large, you could consider meeting more frequently, such as twice a week instead of once.
What about people who need instruction in meditation?
Basic instruction and guidelines for beginners can be given by group members who feel confident to do so. Attending Gaia House or other retreats and meditation sessions led by a Dharma teacher, will help deepen and enhance your group practice.
The form of your meetings:
Typical sessions might include a combination of some of the following: a period of silent sitting meditation or guided meditation – (30-45 minutes); a tea (& chat) break; listening to a recorded Dharma talk (See: Talks from Gaia House Teachers); a talk by someone in the group or a guest speaker (shorter talks tend to work best); a pre-arranged discussion topic, perhaps introduced and led by one of the group; a sharing session e.g. inspiring poems or writing, or sharing of experiences in relation to a particular issue.
When and how often to meet:
Most groups tend to meet on a weekday evening, weekly or fortnightly, for one to two hours. A weekend daytime meeting is also possible, and this has the advantage of more wakefulness for sitting and discussing, but it may be more difficult to get people to commit to regular weekend meetings.
Letting people know about the group:
Ways to do this are:
- List your group in the Gaia House newsletter and on the website.
- Produce posters, flyers or leaflets and distribute them to local centres, such as community centres, doctors’ surgeries, complementary health clinics, health-food shops, newsagents, libraries etc.
- Leave some of your group leaflets at Gaia House.
- Ask friends and colleagues to spread the word.
- E-mail friends who might be interested.
- Advertise in a local newspaper, or an ‘alternative’, or ‘what’s on’ type magazine.
- Set up (and promote) a group website – or even a Facebook page!
Keeping people informed:
An easy way to do this is by producing a regular or occasional e-newsletter. Most people now have internet access and can keep in touch with group activities in this way.
Developing your sangha community:
As the group grows, you may need to consider hiring a room or hall on a regular basis. This can be paid for by a subscription or ‘sitting fee’, calculated to cover costs, with a bit of reserve for sessions where there is sparser attendance.
Suitable venues might be a church hall or meeting room, a Quaker meeting house, a centre run by another Buddhist or spiritual group, a room in a doctor’s surgery or Complementary Health clinic, a school or village hall, or a room in a community centre.
Larger groups may find it helpful to set up a website with useful information: events, contact details, Dharma talks, etc. (For example, see: Bristol Meditation Group.)
People wishing to find out more about meditation could organise a meditation teacher or experienced practitioner to run a local ‘Introduction to Meditation’ class, e.g. as a half-day workshop, or a 6-week evening class.
It will be helpful, especially for larger groups, to identify different roles or tasks within the group structure and organisation, and to get individuals (or committees) to undertake these roles for an agreed period of time. Such roles might be:
- A sitting group coordinator (to organise the regular meetings).
- A secretary (to deal with correspondence and a newsletter).
- A contact person (to deal with enquiries).
- A treasurer (to deal with financial aspects of the group including a bank account if one is needed).
- An event organiser (contacting teachers, arranging day or weekend retreats, organising visits, etc).
Day and weekend retreats:
A day or weekend retreat provides an opportunity for deeper and more sustained meditation practice for group members. It can also be a way of attracting new members to your meditation group, if it is advertised more widely. Such days are often suitable for those new to meditation practice, as well as experienced practitioners, as basic meditation instruction can be given.
Day retreats or meditation days tend to be held in silence apart from any input (meditation instructions, Dharma talk) from a teacher. The lunch break can also be held in silence, although this may be uncomfortable for those new to meditation or retreats. One way to address this may be to incorporate a question and answer, or discussion session, led by a teacher.
Gaia House teachers may be available to lead meditation days, but usually need to be booked well in advance (at least 6 months) due to their other teaching commitments.
You will need a quiet, adequately heated hall, suitable for the number of people you anticipate, ideally with enough space for walking meditation, either inside or outdoors. Remind people to bring mats, cushions, blankets etc. and to wear comfortable clothes.
Usually the cost of the hall (plus any other administrative costs, including the teacher’s travel and accommodation costs) is met by a fee charged to participants – typically about £10 – £30 for a day. In addition to this fee, a box or bowl is usually put out to receive Dana (generosity or offerings) for the teacher, and a short talk about Dana given by either the teacher or one of the retreat organisers.
Participants can be asked to bring a vegetarian dish to share for lunch. Remember to supply plenty of drinking water and cups or mugs, as well as having other drinks available.
It is also possible to hold ‘self-led’ day retreats or meditation days, perhaps at someone’s home (using the garden for walking meditation) where everyone agrees a pre-arranged schedule of sitting and walking meditation sessions, perhaps with a recorded Dharma talk, and a shared meal.
Specific interest groups:
For larger groups, separate meetings may be set up to study particular aspects of the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) or to explore particular forms of meditation practice. Such groups might meet periodically; monthly or bi-monthly. They could be walking groups, community action groups, inquiry groups (e.g. working in pairs with reflective questioning), film groups, book groups, women’s groups, to name a few ideas. They may choose to be closed groups to preserve the group dynamic and build trust, or they could be open to new members.
More help and advice about setting up a Meditation Group:
A useful contact, with considerable experience in organising and running meditation groups and day retreats, and available to give advice and support in setting up these activities, is Gordon Adam of the Bristol Meditation Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone him on 07796 087351. Alternatively, contact Gaia House directly for help. Where appropriate, it may be possible to ‘franchise’ the Gaia House name in setting up your group.