Running a meditation group

Over the past few months I’ve been encouraging people at my classes to start their own meditation groups, at their workplace, school, or home. Mainly, of course, this is so that i don’t have to do so much! But I really believe that, in pretty much any context that you find yourself, there will be others who would like to meditate, but just need a bit of support and encouragement.

I was thrilled to hear that one of the students on my Early Buddhism course, Stuart Amoore, had started a meditation group at his place of work. I asked him if he could write up a how-to guide from his experience, and here it is. Thanks, Stuart!

In the comments, please let us know of your experiences with meditation groups at work or other places, and especially, tell us if this inspires you to start your own group.

Running a local meditation or Dhamma discussion group is a rewarding experience.

I have been a Buddhist for over twenty years and I have been running meditation groups for nearly as long.

The first meditation group I started was in 1992 whilst I was a student at a TAFE college. After that I went to university where, for 4 years I organised and facilitated meditation groups there as well.

Between 2008-10, I organised and ran a meditation group in my previous work place. Then, last month I started up another such group in my new workplace.

Bhante Sujato said recently that setting up a meditation or Dhamma discussion group is “…as easy as falling off a log.” I can attest to this – it is. After listening to a recorded talk by Bhante where he was encouraging people to set up a local meditation and/or Dhamma group I organised this most recent meditation group in my work place in just 4 days where 30 people turned up in the first week. All you need to set up such a group is three things:

  1. A suitable place to meet like a class room or meeting room.
  2. A means to promote the activity. I have approximately 2500 working in my building. I used a combination of group email and flyers which I placed on people’s desks.
  3. Someone (usually you, the organiser) to run the activity.

Added to this, there are a few supporting factors required to make the activity successful:

The ability to give guided meditation (for a meditation group) or direct conversation (for a discussion group). This responsibility usually rests upon the shoulders of the person that sets up the group; so if you do not feel comfortable or confident in this sense then you may have a hard time maintaining interest in the group. People who turn up to these activities look to someone who is orchestrating the proceedings. If they see that it is disorganised or there is no one taking the lead, people will not have the opportunity to develop confidence in the activity in which they wish to participate. You need to be prepared to take a lead. If you know someone who is willing to run things then this is fine. If you can’t find such a person and you are of a shy disposition or you just don’t feel confident running such an activity, then you may try other things like listening to pre-recorded classes, such as pod casts of a guided meditations. There are numerous such resources available on the internet. But whilst this can be good, you still need someone to introduce the topic, give a preamble, answer questions and bring the meetings to a close. Recorded teachings can be good, but having done this before, I have also been told by the people attending the group that they prefer a real person in the room to be doing the talking as it is much more personal. It also gives them confidence that there is someone there who knows what to do, especially say, if the CD you brought along to listen to is scratched and doesn’t work. In a situation like this there needs to be someone who can run the activity without external aids.

Commitment. You must be able to turn up to every meeting and if you can’t be there, you must have contingency plans.

A steady number of people who come to every meeting. Although these may not be the same people, it is good to have regular attendance. This gives you confidence that the group can ‘survive’. It gives people a sense that there is some continuity to the activity. It can be discouraging to you, as the organiser, if no one turns up. It can be discouraging to the people turning up if there is only one or two people present because they may not feel like they are part of something regular, but instead part of something that is ad hoc and that really doesn’t have much support.

A risk assessment. Yes. You heard it correct. For the current meditation group that is running in my work place I was required to do a risk assessment. While on one hand this may seem ridiculous, the intent of such an assessment is usually to satisfy those endorsing or approving the activity that you have done your due diligence. The risk assessment I prepared identified only 3 risks and took only an hour to prepare but it gave a level of assurance to the building management team that I had considered the safety of the participants. The result of the risk assessment eventuated in the meditation group being given access to a room that had no tables because they deemed that moving furniture in the meeting room I had previously booked was an unacceptable Work Health and Safety risk. They decided that rather than attempt to manage this risk, they would find me a suitable space that did not have tables. This was a benefit for our group because the room we were given is much better and I don’t have to rearrange furniture each week.

A good practice guide. This is only a recent idea and not one that I have pursued as yet, but it is something that I realise I probably need to develop for my meditation group. The intent the guide would be to explain what meditation is, the type of meditation that is being taught and practiced and the rationale for running such an activity. The reason I see this as necessary is because meditation is a non-regulated activity. There is no governing body that certifies meditation teachers. There is no government accreditation. Even in religious circles, those meditation teachers who are endorsed by a higher religious authority may not be widely recognised themselves. Anyone can set up a meditation group, however, with so many different types of meditation practiced in the world, it would be good to explain what type(s) of meditation practice are acceptable in a public spaces such as, in a work place. By acceptable, I mean, the meditation practice should be inclusive to all and clear and easy to grasp. People should be able to understand the how to do the meditation and the results that should be expected. As I work for a government department, I have an APS (Australian Public Servant) Code of Conduct and set of values to which I must adhere. My meditation group is not above these codes of conduct or values and therefore must fall into line with them. As such, the meditation activity must be conducted with integrity so that anything that might damage the department’s reputation must avoided. It may sound impossible that teaching and practicing meditation could bring disrepute to a government department, however, if I was to use the meditation group as a platform to push my own beliefs and agendas, this could have a damaging effect not only for myself but for others in my department as well (not to mention effect it could have on my career!). A good practice guide would explain how the meditation group will operate in a way that is open, honest and free of agendas. It should be embrace values such as equity and diversity and be free of sectarian views or beliefs. If certain views or beliefs are to be shared, the good practice guide should explain how the person(s) putting forth such ideas must first declare their sectarian affiliations before discussing them. (The last thing you want in running a meditation group is to be accused of trying to convert people). Unless you are openly setting up a group that is specifically affiliated with a religion or movement such as Buddhism where it is understood that Buddhist meditation will be practiced, then you cannot be creating a perception that you are trying to use covert methods to push certain ideas. If the meditation you are practicing is from a particular tradition, you should make this known before teaching it. The whole idea is about being honest with people.

Another purpose that a good practice guide could serve is to avoid situations where some people may wish to have their own agendas or ideas introduced to the group. The risk is that such agendas or ideas may not be holistic or inclusive. For example, one person in a meditation group I organised requested that a regulated breathing-yoga meditation be practiced by following a Youtube video of a teacher giving such instruction. This is not a meditation with which I am familiar. That is not to say that I do not accept that practicing this meditation does not have benefits, but that before introducing this technique to the group, certain things should be covered off. The good practice guide could document the strategies for how ‘non-mainstream’ meditations might be practiced, if at all, within the group. Such strategies may involve the person preparing short paper that describes what the meditation is about, how it is practiced, etc. Then if people agree that they would like to try this meditation, then they may do so, and the meditation could be given a go. Afterwards, feedback should be sought as to whether people found this meditation beneficial and whether they would like to do it again. The idea here is not to discourage people from introducing new practices and ideas, but to introduce them in such a way that people are given sufficient information first before they try the technique so that later people cannot protest that they are being taught something that is damaging to their health or well-being.

A few things I have learnt in setting up and running meditation groups:

Being the “meditation guy” at work means you have to watch your p’s and q’s every minute of every day at work. It puts a bit of pressure on you. You can’t talk about peace, kindness and gentleness at the meditation group then lose it with a work colleague later that afternoon!

Be prepared for those that will knock you. There are some people that believe that things like meditation do not belong in the workplace and/or that you are up to no good. I have, on occasion, been teased (all be it in a very light hearted way) and other times been berated and threatened. However, I have never needed to defend myself as to do so would be contrary to the values meditation teaches and develops. People soon forget and move on. Workplaces are dynamic environments and things don’t stay the same for very long. The person that complained about receiving an unsolicited email about meditation may, in 6 months time, be in a different role which may have changed their whole perspective of things.

It’s hard to know how much benefit you are. You get thanks and the occasional bit of praise, but most of the time you don’t know whether what you’re saying resonates. Some people don’t say much but just keep coming, week after week. It is not until some time later that you find that they have been getting something really good out of the meditation group that works for them, yet because they don’t say much, you really had no idea. Conversely, some people heap praise and thanks on you to such an extent that you think they will be coming to the group every week without fail and then, for whatever reason, you never see them again, let alone get any explanation as to why they seem to have had an apparent change of heart.

Cost. People ask me how much it costs but it’s free. The best Dhamma teachings I’ve received were free and I just want to pass it on, but maybe some people think there has got to be a catch. I think it helps if you are aware of this.

6 thoughts on “Running a meditation group

  1. For several years I was a member of a small, leaderless Zen meditation group that met weekly in Menlo Park, Calif., not far from Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Most of us were members of the California Diamond Sangha (renamed Pacific Zen Institute), led by John Tarrant Roshi, of the Harada-Yasutani-Yamada-Aitken line of Zen. The PZI had weekly sittings in Oakland (30 miles away) and Marin County (70 miles) so it was difficult to attend after work, given Bay Area commuter traffic.

    A long-time Zen practitioner and her husband donated the parlor of their home to Dharma. There we met one evening a week for a 1.5-hour meditation session. The regular group consisted of some students who had been practicing Zen for decades, as well as some rank newcomers–including me.

    Our schedule consisted of 25 minutes sitting, 5 minutes walking, 25 minutes sitting, and 5 minutes just resting and drinking tea. Then on alternate weeks we either did Zen puja (chanting), or we would take turns leading a discussion. Total time: 1.5 hours.

    On discussion nights, one of us would be moderator, speaking for 10 minutes or so on a particular topic. We would then share, formally and in order, our experience on the topic. Sometimes a senior student would give some kind of talk on an abstruse Zen koan, but mostly people would talk about a spiritual topic that was meaningful to them—perhaps a line of poetry, a sutra, or something very personal. For example, once I gave a talk on the Girimananda Sutta, and posed this discussion question to the group: How can ten perceptions cause physical healing?

    It was a “teacherless” group. Oh, on rare occasions a teacher from Oakland or Santa Rosa would attend, but mostly we learned from each other. For example, someone might be bothered by pain in the knees while meditating. Others would share their experience with pain. It often turned out that there was no single correct answer to this problem, but that there might be several correct answers. Thus the questioner would be able to relax and find the own best solution, either from those offered, or by developing his own.

    We also had a program called “Way-Seeking-Mind” in which the discussion leader gave a thumbnail biography of his or her spiritual journey, culminating in this evening’s meeting.

    I found that the group experience was invaluable to my meditative practice.

    During the week I might skip a meditation, thinking I was late for work or had some other good excuse. Skipping one session would make it easier to skip the next. But then, once a week, with my intimate meditation friends, my spiritual batteries would be recharged and I was again back on track. “…intimate meditation friends…” I think a proper Pali term might be Kalyanamitta.

    The meditation and support of this group is the one circumstance from lay life that now as a monk I miss terribly–that is, to have a group of close, intimate, and supportive friends in meditation.

    A year ago I delivered a workshop on “Meditation and Counseling”. In the course of that presentation, I suggested that interested parties might meet at the counseling center for a weekly meditation session. Management was supportive, so the group began. Since the participants (mostly teachers, social workers, or counselors) are Hindu, Catholic and Protestant Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim, I felt that a strict Vipassana/Samatha Buddhist approach would be inappropriate. Instead, we practice various styles of meditation. Our approach is quite eclectic: we have done bare attention (after Jon Kabat-Zinn), Zen breath-counting, mindfulness in the Mahasi style of labeling, walking, awareness and visualization of body parts, meditation on death, and even a meditation that involves mantra, visualization, and mindfulness–a technique adapted from St. Theresa of Avila.

    We always finish our session with metta meditation, and recite this little verse three times:

    May the suffering ones be suffering free,
    And the fear-struck, fearless be.
    May the grieving shed their grief,
    and all beings find relief.

    (You may be familiar with this gatha!)

    Unfortunately (in my view) the participants look to me as some kind of teacher–which I emphatically deny being. At most I am a facilitator, an encourager. I am certainly not some kind of mystical guru. Therefore I was moved to tears when,once, being hospitalized and unable to attend a session, the the group went on without me. There were six people present, and five of them led a short session on their favorite topic——prana yoga, walking, and mindfulness of breathing. I was astounded and pleased that one member, a nominal Christian, let the group in a kind of mindfulness-of-the-mind meditation, in which the participants were instructed to visualize thoughts as they arose and disappeared.

    These are some of my experiences regarding small, leaderless meditation groups.

  2. I help run a meditation group at Armadale hospital in Western Australia on behalf of BSWA. We are given a free room by Community Health. Being at the hospital helps people feel comfortable with coming along. I am not sure it is as easy as falling off a log but it is great to do. Thanks for the great information Stuart – much appreciated and very helpful.
    Being warm and welcoming so people feel at ease coming to do something that at first may be “strange” for them is also important.
    Helping people to feel comfortable with what they perceive to be a lack of progress (when they came expecting to be blissed out and all they discovered was how restless their mind was), also helps people to feel encouraged and to return.
    A sense of humour helps too!
    Have had the group round to my home too – can’t think of anything better than having a group meditating in my own home, a wonderful experience.

  3. Hello and thank you very much for this information.
    I live in Costa Rica and I am trying to start a group here.
    I think one missing part of all the information posted here might be ‘proper guidance’, it was mentioned that there is no central entity that provides titles for meditation teachers, but depending on your intention and the type of setting you want to create, having someone to guide you is very important. My major set back has been exactly that, I recently travelled to England and took the opportunity to visit Amaravati monastery where I met Ajahn Amaro and other great monks, this was very revealing for me. In just a few days there I was able to experience the one on one guidance that I was missing, internet can create a lot of great opportunities for communication, such as this place, but nothing beats having a direct master with whom you can share your experience and go to when you feel lost, discouraged or just for some good extra inspiration.
    I am by no means an experienced meditator but I am willing to start a group and learn next to everyone there, still my concern remains on what will I do when we hit a wall in the practice. I will follow Ven. S. Upatissa words and make it a group setting and not a master-class one as I think it may be more beneficial for all people in regards to their own practice.

    Bhante Sujato, once again thank you for this of post, I will use the information and I will try to publish as much of my own experience, including the meditation guide I am working on (is in spanish at the moment, but I will translate it), hopefully that will help others in their journey.

    With metta,

  4. Hi Sujato – thank you for sharing. Like Stuart I’m also a member of the Australian Public Service and interested in setting up a meditation group within the Government agency I’m employed. So was very interested in reading Stuart’s thoughts and experiences.

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