Make Meetings a Refuge
“Those might be the nicest things people have ever said to me,” a BPF board member reflected sincerely as we closed our yearly board and staff retreat with a circle of appreciation.
Seven of us beamed back brightly, hearts bursting generously with metta-maitri-lovingkindness for each other and the ways we collectively hold the vast network of BPF’s community.
While we meet regularly on the phone, it’s a special treat for BPF’s geographically-diverse board of directors to meet in person. At our gathering in December, we cherished the opportunity to meet post-election. We could hold our worries and our wounds in a spirit of refuge, while committing to horizons of resistance and revolution — both horizons we’ve been heading toward and pivoting toward newly needed work for 2017.
As part of that work for 2017, we want to share more of the wisdom BPF has gleaned from almost 40 years of spiritual-political organizing.
In these times, we need more people thinking like political organizers — people figuring out how to get people involved, educated, and capable of working alongside diverse communities for liberation. Yet we’ve found that bringing a spiritual tenderness to our organizing work has helped people stay connected and engaged, even when conversations get hard and strategies feel scary.
Yet tenderness is hard to force into existence. As Zenju Earthlyn Manuel describes in her penetrating book, The Way of Tenderness:
You will not comprehend this way [of tenderness] without laying bare your human conditioning. You will not comprehend it by intellect alone. You will not arrive at the door of complete tenderness through manipulative words or through passivity. You cannot be trained or taught, at any cost, to walk this path. It cannot be practiced. I repeat: It cannot be practiced. There are no diplomas or progress reports on whether you have succeeded in not being racist or sexist. Complete tenderness simply rises up as an experience void of hatred — for oneself or otherwise.”
Tenderness arose in our board meeting, providing important moments of refuge for our extremely human vulnerabilities. Sharing vulnerably builds honesty and trust, which strengthens our ability to collectively resist harm and build the world we long for. Vulnerability can’t be rushed. When in doubt, we follow the advice of Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors who encourages our movements to “move forward at the speed of trust.”
While we can’t be taught tenderness, I hope hearing about our board meeting moments of tenderness give you new ideas about where and when to cultivate a sense of refuge in your gatherings.
Organizing with spiritual tenderness: A few meeting strategies for cultivating refuge
1. Encircle the meeting with reverence for life
We began the day with a body scan that tenderly connected us with our diverse bodies, sometimes in pain, sometimes at ease, welcomed to be present just as they are today. We blessed our Ethiopian takeout lunch, recognizing the many causes and conditions, people and plants that made it possible for us to nourish our bodies. We took a moment of silence to pray for the 36 lives lost the night before in Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire that happened just a couple of miles away.
Despite being behind schedule, we made time for movement practices based on the Forward Stance techniques of Norma Wong, Roshi — embodying the mountains, clouds, and waterfalls we seek to protect. And we ended our day dedicating the merit of our efforts for the day to all beings, wishing our work to make a beneficial impact for all.
2. Find the Middle Path between focus and flexibility
When I started facilitating our first conversation, I realized quickly it was going to take much longer than we’d allotted on our packed agenda. Yet I also could feel that it was the most important conversation of the day, as we collectively explored the long term directions for BPF. People had a lot to share, and the conversations got deep quickly — questions about what it would mean to: decolonize Buddhism, become a regenerative hub within the network of social movements, or propose economic systems beyond the failures of capitalism and state socialism.
The 40 minute embodied activity and conversation quickly ballooned to 2 hours, even with regular pressure to keep it moving forward. We were all hungry for an extended break after, but the time spent getting ourselves aligned at the beginning seemed worth it — we still met all the main outcomes for the meeting as other conversations flowed with greater ease.
It took us a minute to realize we could flow more quickly. During some parts of our staff presentations about 2017 plans, we belabored details until board members asked, “What exactly do you need from us here?” Where we anticipated push back, board members felt ready to boldly trust our work and the directions we were headed. “Moving at the speed of trust” can be surprisingly fast.
3. Wash the meeting in the gentle rain of loving kindness
The day started with tears from a board member who had been on constant go during the weeks leading up to the meeting. The opportunity to stop for a few moments in beloved community gave space for release and relief. As we welcomed those tears in, we made space for a whole range of other emotions in the meeting. We welcomed a greater part of our whole selves.
This was especially important as we explored tensions in the organization. People expressed difficult questions, conflicts, and disagreements; they were listened to with open hearts and limited defensiveness. When people trusted they would be heard, they could express the vulnerability of difference with gentleness. When people could listen open heartedly, our collective wisdom could grow and be strengthened.
Our appreciation practice described above misted eyes and hearts, where each person received a short, heart-inspired gratitude from every other member in the group. We decided to share these publicly, so we could appreciate each others’ appreciations. This space for joy and love buoys the harder work of growth we do together, and does so much to knit together a strong and committed team.
As the call is out for stronger and larger coalitions to defend against climate change, fascism, and anti-immigrant sentiment, we must get more skilled at creating containers that can hold us through tough times with joy and love.
While these meeting practices have Buddhist roots, their intent can work well in less spiritual settings as well. Sometimes that spiritual tenderness is upfront about being Buddhist! In less-spiritual communities we bring our Buddha hearts but drop the Buddhist details.