Saturday, January 12, 2013

Conjuring a collective

Things are moving at my home sangha, Wind in Grass, now a little more than three years old.  The group was started by Michael, a dynamic young businessman who started practicing with Boundless Way Zen in Boston before moving to the Bay Area.  A few times in the past couple of years he's asked regular members of the group how things might get better.  One common suggestion was smartening up the space we use, in the basement of the Potrero Hill Neighbourhood House.  My suggestion was always the same: make the group more cooperative and less hierarchical.  Now it looks like both suggestions are being acted upon.

I'll update you on the upcoming makeover of our meeting space later (if work-practice is a part of any good retreat, then sanding and decorating can be part of this blog).  This post will be about the effort to make the group more of a communal endeavour.  Or, at least, it will be about trying to keep the group as informal and horizontal in organization as it has been for the past two years.  In other words, it will be about the logic of collective action.

There are basically two ways that a group can organize itself.  It can delegate the things it needs to get done to one or two people, or it can make a concerted effort at making things happen as a group.  The first option is often the easier one, since it means that most people don't have to do anything.  It's particularly tempting for a group like Wind in Grass, where (for various reasons), a few people are going to be more dedicated than others.  But it's a dangerous path to start down, even with the best of intentions.

The reason it's dangerous is that the more tasks that are delegated to one or two people, the more power they'll have over the direction of the group, even if that wasn't their aim in the first place.  It's in any case unfair to the one or two people taking on the extra responsibilities, who are carrying an increasing burden.  The only answer to this is to insist that a broader section of the group gets the chance (and has the duty) to fulfill some of the community's essential functions.  That way, both power and responsibility are distributed more equably and tolerably for all involved.

At Wind in Grass, Michael's usually taken the lead.  That's partly because he founded the group, but partly because he's been the only one with the drive, commitment, and organizational nous to make things happen, week after week.  Chris, with his long experience of Buddhism and Zen, has headed up the more religious side of our operations.  And David, of course, is our official teacher and the closest thing we have to a priest or director.  These three usually lead the meeting three weeks out of four (or five - which happens every few months)

The reform we've now decided to make is to invite some other regular member of the sangha to lead practice on the last Wednesday of every month.  I was asked to make the invitations, and I have to say that it was tough going at first.  There was more shyness than I expected; and some uncertainty about planning two or three weeks in advance.  But as soon as one or two of us had sat on the hot seat, others were more ready to step forward.

With us, it's not a matter of doing a 30-minute dharma talk - you can do anything you want, really, as long as it involves some meditation.  Most people simply choose a koan and then lead a discussion about it.  I've done some experiments involving non-Zen forms of meditation.  One brave soul did a (refreshingly Theravada) dharma talk.  I've assured people that they're welcome to do magic tricks, a stand-up comedy routine, or a yoga session, but unfortunately nobody has taken up any of these opportunities yet.  The crucial thing is that we've stepped off the default path of leaving everything to the willing few.  

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