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Buddhadharma : Summer 2013
SUMMER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 63 In one instance, I was working with a non- profit board of intelligent visionary thinkers who were at a longstanding impasse. Even though they wanted to strategize about their future, they could not get past arguing from their entrenched positions. After facilitating their discussion for a time, I said, “I’ve noticed you have a pattern: when you start talking about certain issues, you get stuck in a back-and-forth dynamic that doesn’t go anywhere.” Many heads nodded. Some in the group looked hopeful. Others seemed less sure. “If it’s okay with you,” I continued, “when I notice this escalation, I’ll point it out to you, and we can step back from the discussion for a few minutes to reconnect with your overall goal.” After reminding themselves that this was precisely why they’d invited my assistance, they agreed. I suggested that any one of them could also call for such a step back. As we progressed through the rest of the day, sparks still flew as differences of opinion were expressed. But the step-back agreement allowed the participants to disengage momentarily from their stuck patterns. They realized they could express their differences without having to prove who was wrong and who was right. This liber- ated their minds, allowing access into broader intellectual territory. A Zen center board of directors used a dif- ferent technique to step back. They crafted a set of working agreements—essentially, an articu- lation of how they wish to practice together as they negotiate the difficult work of sangha governance. Later, they decided to bring a bell to their meetings and put it in the center of the room. They made an agreement that at any time, anyone could ring the bell, signaling a time to pause and perhaps reflect on how to strengthen a particular working agreement. It’s important to note here that arousing prac- tice doesn’t mean you’ve solved your problems once and for all. It means that you commit to doing your best to enact your vow. You under- stand that working through tough issues involves making mistakes over and over again. Dogen emphasizes the necessity of this work: “This is not made to happen by Buddha, but is accomplished by your all-encompassing effort.” You set your intention and take action. It doesn’t go so well. So you share your thoughts and feelings, reflect on potential improvements, and recommit. You reset your intention and start again. Groups can carve out time to engage in this kind of active learning cycle. We can all take steps to articulate and arouse our practice. One group I worked with wanted to improve their ability to disagree with one another without being aggressive or defensive. They aspired to be more courageous about saying what was not being said. So we devised a practice. Every twenty minutes, a timer would go off and I would ask, “Is there anyone with a different point of view? Is there something that’s not being said?” This explicit invitation emboldened the participants to speak with more honesty. Having the invita- tion extended by a neutral guide with whom they didn’t have a triggering behavior pattern reduced the need to raise the aggressive sword or defen- sive shield. Dogen offers further encouragement: “More- over, what practice calls forth is enlighten- ment; your treasure house does not come from outside.” It sure can feel like those pesky others are “outside” and if they’d just go away, our suffer- ing would be relieved. Maybe. Or maybe bump- ing into others is what brings our awareness to the less conscious parts of our being. Perhaps we come to realize how we co-created the mess, and that it’s our very intimacy—however pain- ful—that will open us to the path of liberation. So how do we do this? We stay connected as we walk through these dharma gates, letting our vow be a lodestar. We try not to give up on one another, no matter how hard it gets. We take a break if we must. Return if we can. In my most desperate moments, what’s ulti- mately brought me back is the recognition that I’m practicing for the next generation. This priceless gift of the buddhadharma comes to us through the efforts of those who have gone before, from all the times when our ancestors, new and old, let themselves be polished against each other—in work, in struggle, in laughter, in tears. So the job now is to sustain just this, in all its messy splendor, for the new practitioners coming to peek at the treasure and for the maturing ones stepping up to assume responsibility, because they, too, realize that this is the most important work of our lives.