Last night, I participated in an interfaith concert event called Tangible Hope, which was put together by the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative (MIC). Every year we have an interfaith summit event, but this was the first year is was turned into a concert at the Wilma Theater.
It was a wonderfully diverse concert, starting with bagpipes and ending with a Christian rock band, with a hand bell ensemble, community choir, and local singer/songwriter sandwiched in between. Included in the mix were also a couple of speakers and two storytellers, which is where I came in.
After weeks of preparation and a workshop session with our local storytelling pro Marc Moss, who runs Tell Us Something here in Missoula, here’s what I came up with along the topic theme of Tangible Hope:
In the fall of 2002, when I was 23 years old, I started a weekly meditation group called Be Here Now, based in the Buddhist tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. And for the first 8-years, I was the sole facilitator of the group. Flash-forward to present day, we are now over 15 years old and have grown from a small meditation group into an active, vibrant, and relatively large sangha. And in Buddhism, the word sangha means: spiritual community. In our tradition, sangha is one of the most important and highly emphasized components that we are called to develop and strengthen in our daily lives. Sangha is an action verb; and it’s a quality of heartfulness that propels us in the direction of cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood. And for me, when I practice to fully embody the spirit of sangha, I’m also able to encounter it wherever I go.
As an example: I remember a time a few years ago when I was standing in a long security line at the LAX airport. I had just spent 4-weeks on a retreat at Deer Park monastery, which is based in our tradition located in southern CA, so I went from this beautiful, sequestered and quiet environment to a place that was decidedly quite different: LAX. And as I was standing in that security line a wonderful insight arose, which was that I didn’t feel as though I had left a lovely setting with my extended sangha friends and was now tossed into a hectic and unpleasant environment filled with grumpy strangers; I felt as though I had simply transitioned from one sangha to another – from my monastery sangha to my air traveling sangha. This insight allowed me to interact with the space and the people around me in a different way – a way that was more open, friendly, caring, and kind. So, when I look and operate through the lens of sangha I experience it wherever I go, all around me because I carry it with me and I actively create it.
Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that sangha is more than a community, it’s a deep spiritual practice. So, it involves relationship building, spending time together, learning how to communicate and negotiate with various personalities and ways of doing things – it involves interacting with everyone around us in a way that promotes love and connection. And oftentimes the work of sangha building, of community and relationship building, is not easy. I’m reminded of our very first Be Here Now council meeting, which took place in November of 2010. There were 7 of us in attendance and it was the first time we were delving into the group becoming more of a collective endeavor, vs. just me holding down the fort. People shared a wealth of feedback and input mostly centered around all the changes they wanted to see have made; things we weren’t doing that we should be doing, things we were doing that we shouldn’t be doing, format adjustments, and so on. And what I recall most about this first meeting is getting home afterwards and breaking down crying. I was so overwhelmed, wondering how we would be able to incorporate everyone’s ideas and changes they wanted to see made and I was filled with worry that the simplicity and loveliness of our group was going to be lost. So, while it took some time to adjust and find our way together as a council and we had some growing pains, it was also the most beneficial thing we could’ve done to help ensure the health and vibrancy and stability of our group. So while it’s often challenging to do this work of sangha building, it’s also incredibly important that we do it.
And I’m so very grateful to be part of a tradition that ushers us in this direction and that we have the great fortune to be partners with the MIC in this regard, so that we can extend our capacity for sangha building outwards to include our interfaith sangha, which then ripples out to include our citywide Missoula sangha, our statewide Montana sangha, our nationwide American sangha, and our global worldwide sangha. Because the good news is: we’re all in this together, truly, there is no separation. And for this reality – and the opportunity that we have to be part of this interfaith collaborative – I am filled with joy and appreciation, because it’s this work that will allow us to continue beautifully into the future.
I spent most of yesterday rehearsing my story. I must’ve run through the darn thing 40 or 50 times. I was nervous. And it was clear to me that waiting is truly the hardest part.
We had a run through at noon and then a call time of 5:00pm, with a showtime of 6:00pm. The time between 5:00 and when I got on stage – around 6:45ish – was the most challenging. We were situated in the Green Room (which is the industry term for the staging/waiting area backstage at musical venues), which was located downstairs in the basement of the building. I did slow walking meditation in the Green Room and periodically tucked away in a small pocket room to rehearse my telling for the umpteenth time.
I was glad that I’m not someone who experiences a high level of self-consciousness, so I was able to use walking meditation as a tool and resource to help me care for my nervous energy, verses feel strange and uncomfortable about it or feel as though people were judging me in a certain fashion whilst doing it. When I’m nervous, it helps me to move the energy around in a physical way, but it’s important that I find an intentional, practice-based way to do it and not in a way that simply allows the nervousness to build on itself and go unchecked.
Yesterday morning, I watched a portion of a Dharma talk given by Brother Phap Dung in Plum Village in early April. He spoke about the practice of stopping and how there’s a way to stop without physically stopping. He spoke about stopping in terms of stopping the frantic, harried energy that we move and operate with. So, there’s a way to walk, a way to wash the dishes, a way to drive, a way to work, a way to prepare to be on stage at the Wilma theater where stopping is possible by the way I approach the task/activity/action at hand. The practice of stopping means to stop something – and oftentimes, that something is the energy that’s driving the car of our experience.
I was so glad that I listened to that talk yesterday morning, as it really helped support my stage preparations.
I continue to investigate ways to interact with people before performance-based events, as I have a very difficult time casually interacting with people before such things, due to my nervousness. I also continue to find skillful ways to communicate when I do socialize with folks. Yesterday, when I told people I was nervous, they would say things like: Don’t be nervous! or There’s no reason to be nervous, you’ll do great! or I’ve seen you speak/perform before, you’re great! or Really? You shouldn’t be nervous!
While I understand that they’re attempting to come from a good place in wanting to help alleviate my nervous energy, their reactionary responses are not a conscious-based choice or helpful. And, really, their misguided sentiments are more about trying to ease their own feelings of discomfort when confronted with someone else’s experience of being ill at ease. Telling someone not to feel a certain way is never helpful.
My aspiration is to one day be able to say in the moment something along the lines of: Well, I appreciate your want to help reduce my nervousness but really it isn’t something I’m needing to have fixed. Nervousness happens and I’m practicing to embrace it with care and kindness. Please note: this is an aspiration, meaning I’m heading in that direction, but I’m not there yet.
The practice continues!