Sunday, April 11, 2010

Animals, Zen Center Branding, and Dropping Your Worries

Took a few days to be mostly off-line. I checked e-mail maybe twice since Thursday, and looked at blogs only for about 15 minutes. A nice break. Most recommended for anyone who has been tech-focused, which is a lot of us these days.

Among other things, I did some squirrel meditation yesterday evening while walking. As some of you know, I have been loosely doing a photo project documenting alleys, so I often find that when I go walking, I end up touring alleys and yesterday was no exception.

Behind a large apartment building, I saw a squirrel leap on a dumpster. I stopped, and watched as it lifted one foot to it's chest and looked around a bit. Seeing me, it froze. We locked eyes as the thought passed through my mind "I wonder if people are going to think I'm up to no good back here." The squirrel scampered across the top of the dumpster, stood up, and did the same foot to chest gesture as it watched me.

Breathing in, I saw this pause. Breathing out, I saw a gray flash down the side of the dumpster. Thus was the end of the squirrel meditation.

This morning was a different kind of animal. A Gopher perhaps. We had our monthly board meeting and made some progress on our strategic plan. Lots of ideas and healthy discussions, as well as some specific steps forward. Gotta love that.

Toward the end of the meeting, we got into a discussion about attracting new members. Previously, I and some other board members had brought up the lack of people of color, working class folks, and young people in general in our sangha. So, some today's discussion was about that, but it also veered into the thorny areas of how to "market" programs and classes, as well as what the center should offer to attract people. Kabit-Zinn's mindfulness programs came up a fair bit, as did offering "introductory" classes, in-services, etc. that stripped out the "Buddhist" and "Zen" talk. Our guiding teacher wasn't too keen on putting a lot of energy into these kinds of programming, partly, she said, because those who come in through a more secular gate aren't necessarily going to appreciate or being interested in being an active member of a zen community. It's an interesting point, one that I find myself aligning with to some degree, while also thinking that offering Kabit-Zinn type workshops might be a way to support people in the community who may never otherwise be affiliated with our center.

The elephant lurking behind these discussions is, of course, money. How do you maintain what you have going, and also possibly build upon it for the future? No one on our board, thankfully, wants to be a huge community bringing in millions of dollars and selling off every last bit dharma in the process. However, we seem to be at a crossroads as to how to define ourselves for the coming decade at the very least. It's a very interesting place, and we'll be having a more thorough discussion on these issues in the next few months.

In the meantime, it's a warm, sunny day here in Minnesota. I'm sitting outside a local coffee house as I type this, taking in the fresh breeze and passing people, cars, and yes, squirrels. On days like this, I feel no need to hurry, and no need to worry.

I'll leave you with the words to a Thich Nhat Hanh community song I learned a few years ago.

Happiness is here and now,
I have dropped all my worries.
Nowhere to go, nothing to do,
And never in a hurry.

Happiness is here and now
I have dropped all my worries.
Somewhere to go, something to do,
But never in a hurry.

p.s. Click on photo to see a little furry friend.


Algernon said...

Squirrel meditation! Kyle will be pleased.

It is nice to be part of a new Zen group that still gets by with a garage space and an old coffee box for donations. On the other hand, if the group is ever to have a more public space, some growth and fundraising will have to be instituted. This occurs to me at the same time we are weaning our son and the parallel is audible.

Petteri Sulonen said...

FWIW, the group I'm with organizes zazen introductions in two formats: a one-day introduction that's about six hours total, and a long introduction that's about six two-hour sessions every week.

The introductions are very matter-of-fact, with the main focus on "sitting technique" -- i.e., the physical parts (posture, finding the right size zafu and support cushions and so on ), and breath counting. Additionally, we cover zendo etiquette, how stuff like daisan, dokusan, and recitations are done, and there's a basic explanation of what more intensive forms of practice like zazenkai, retreats, and sesshins are for.

These courses have been pretty big successes; the zendo has been pretty much full up with all of them. There's also a steady trickle of new members coming from them.

To give you an idea of scale, our Helsinki group numbers about 100 people, with a roughly even split of men and women, and an even mix of all ages from late teens to late seventies; the retreat I attended last month had about 40 attendees.

I don't know if this kind of format would work for you, but it's been working pretty well for us.

Kyle said...

Did someone mention squirrels? :-D

Nathan said...

Hi Petteri,

Thanks for the comments. The class formats you're doing sound interesting. We have shorter, similar versions that we offer regularly.

It sounds like you're group is working well. 100 members is excellent!

Our center is even larger than yours, which is why the funding issues are on the table. 130-150 members. A fairly large children's program. Staff salaries. On and on.
We've also had a new head teacher for about 4 years now, so we've gone through some changes, and now are at a place where we can look at the bigger, longer range picture. It's exciting, and a bit exhausting at times.


Sometimes, I'd love to just be a part of a small group like yours. My sangha is wonderful, and there are many benefits to having a larger group to practice with, but there sure is a lot of "stuff" to deal with to make sure everyone is supported well.

Jomon said...

Hey Nathan,

I have organized some Sangha-building workshops in our similarly-sized Sangha, and would be happy to geek out on it with you some time. I wrote a very brief post about it
but there is also a pdf report of the whole shebang, for the true Organizational-Zen-Nerd if you would ever like to peruse.


Nathan said...

Hi Jomon,

I'd love to see the PDF report. My board position requires org. nerd credentials, so I should use them :)