Changes at WIMG

A message from the Chair, Nelle Oosterom

As a new year approaches, this seems like an appropriate time to announce some changes to the Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group — all of them positive.

The changes would be invisible to most of you who regularly receive our email reminders and attend our sits and other activities. They are about the behind-the-scenes activity that keeps a group like this running. Like the engines in our vehicles or the foundations of our homes, most of us don’t notice the work that goes into holding a community together until something breaks down.

Those of us who work to keep WIMG going, and growing, realized that we needed a more structured way of doing things if we are to continue moving forward. To that end, we recently formed an administrative body that includes a chair (myself), a vice-chair (Marc Forest), a treasurer (Jillian Preston-Gren), and an advisor (Thomas Steur). Together, we form a core group. This small group ensures that the day-to-day running of the sangha takes place and directs the activities that happen over the longterm. 

The core group does not work alone. There are a number of other people whose work is vital to our sangha. For instance, Kurt Schwarz, a spiritual care practitioner in his professional life, volunteers his time as one of the key practice leaders in our sangha. Bruce Johnson brings his organizational skills to bear in attending to the many details of our weekly sits and days of mindfulness, Amy Teakle works tirelessly as our retreat registrar, Paul Renault  designed and runs our website, Catherine Sproat edits our blog and newsletter, Barbara Barnett shares her time in leading contemplative walks at Fort Whyte and Marjolaine Pelletier recently initiated our social events committee.

In addition, many people participate on Wednesday evenings as dharma readers. Their voices, and the voices of all who participate by sharing their day-to-day experiences of dharma practice, help to energize our sessions and to build a diverse, inclusive community.

How is having a core group different from what existed before?

The main difference is that we now have a more defined leadership structure. Each member of the core group has a specific role and there is more clarity around who is responsible for what. The core also oversees several committees. These committees include finance, retreat, communication, social, and study groups.

Still, we who are members of the core group realize that running a meditation group is not like running a corporation, a co-op, a community club or even a self-help group. Nor is it the same as a faith community, although a group like ours does share some of the same features of a community that is bonded by spiritual life.

We often refer to our group as a sangha. In the Buddhist tradition, a sangha originally referred to the community of monks and nuns and dharma teachers who were supported by the lay community. As Buddhism has taken hold in the Western world, the meaning of sangha has expanded to include lay groups such as ours — groups that support the practice of the teachings of Buddhism.

Yet, even as a lay sangha, WIMG does not fit the usual mold. Many sanghas have designated guiding teachers — individuals who are trained and recognized as qualified dharma teachers. Our group is peer-led. In practice this means that a few of us with some degree of training have stepped forward to act as practice leaders. As practice leaders, we prepare dharma talks, or read prepared talks, during our sitting sessions, and do our best to guide those who have questions about their practice. 

We take care not to set ourselves up as spiritual authorities, however. In my own case, I have been functioning as a practice leader for close to twenty years. But I am still very much a beginner.

To help guide the group, we are reaching out to recognized Insight Meditation teachers. We envision being able to turn to them as informal advisors and/or mentors.  As a first step, we have invited a senior teacher from Spirit Rock in California — Howie Cohn — to lead a non-residential retreat next November. 

In addition, the core group is also seeking to start or strengthen connections with sanghas in other locations, particularly in Canada. For instance, a  Prairie Sangha consisting of meditation groups in the Prairie provinces is in the early stages of development. There is also the Buddhist Insight Network — Marc has attended past conferences of this American-based network and came back with helpful ideas and contacts.

Another important function of the core group is to manage the dana (donations) we receive. The dana is used to pay for expenses, such as rent, as well as to help ensure that our retreats are affordable for anyone. Practice leaders and core group members do all of their work on a volunteer basis and do not receive any payment. However, there will be expenses when we bring in outside teachers. These teachers rely on dana for their livelihood.

The core group’s other major challenge is to ensure we always have space to meet in. We currently gather at two different locations, which can be challenging. Ideally, we’d like to have our activities take place at one dedicated site. So this is something we are looking toward for the future.

The Winnipeg Insight Meditation Group has been around in various incarnations for more than two decades. It is a growing, evolving entity. The challenge is to grow at the right pace — neither too slow, nor too fast. 

For me, it brings to mind the growth of a plant. A plant “roots and shoots.” Its initial rooting stage takes place out of sight. This is the quiet work of establishing itself so that it has a base for nourishment. This cannot be forced. Once established, the plant shoots above ground and into the sunlight, where it grows into a blade of grass, a sunflower, or a tree. 

As members of a sangha, each of us does the quiet work of rooting ourselves in spiritual practice. As we become established, we collectively rise to the challenges of establishing our dharma practice within a community of spiritual friends. 

I will close with this well-known exchange between Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, and the Buddha:

When Ananda observed that spiritual friendship (kalyana mittata) must surely be half of the spiritual life, the Buddha replied: “Ananda, you are mistaken. Spiritual friendship is not half the spiritual life; it’s the whole of it.”