Sangha Voices

Issue #2: Phi Shectman

Feb 2021

Chris: When did you first become interested in meditation and Buddhist teachings, and what specifically brought you to the Dharma?

Phi: I took an Intro to Buddhism class with Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in early 2001.  That got me interested in meditation as a life practice.  I “shopped around” various local meditation groups off and on and maintained a sporadic practice for quite some time after that.  I found that the practice, and the teachings, made me a better person, in a scattershot kind of way.  But it was not until much more recently, on retreat, that I really connected with the Dharma in a broader sense.

Chris: What does ‘being a better person’ mean to you and how do you recognize ‘being a better person’ in your own life. Are there specific changes that you attribute to your meditation practice and study of the Dharma? 

Phi: I mostly mean kinder and more patient.  I’m more aware of how my actions set an example rather than just how they will directly affect people around me.  On my most recent retreat I sat a bunch with anatta (Pali: not-self) and that gave me some really great perspective on how individual actions fit into the world, shape it, and are shaped by it, when they’re not busy being harnessed to the Western myth of individualism.  I look at the Dharma as a call to action and I’ve been energized by that to stay engaged in the work I do in my community.

Chris: I also see the Dharma as a ‘call to action.’ It’s easy to miss this aspect of the dharma or to overlook it in the pursuit of self-awakening, particularly at times when our own suffering is acute. But compassion also plays an important role in our own liberation. I think one of the ways that the dharma manifests in our life is through our interest in other people’s wellbeing. Do you see any correlation between compassion and your community involvement?   

Phi: Certainly a lot of my community work is to help heal trauma and compassion is an important motivator and a critical technique.  The heart practices are what get me through it, and recently I’ve been leaning pretty heavily on the phrases you gave me of “I see you”, “I care about you”, “I am here for you” to help keep me close to community.  Those are definitely a compassion practice.

It is only in the last year or two that I’ve really gotten beyond lovingkindness (metta) in my heart practices, despite another one of my non-buddhist communities having a strong concept and tradition of empathetic joy (mudita).  And that has really opened up my practice in general, both in community and in compassion for self which can be a struggle as well.

Chris: It is quite touching for me personally, to learn more about how your Dharma practice might impact other communities that you are a part of, and to know how the compassion phrases we often use at BMC might support that. I don’t see sangha (Pali: community) as separate from the rest of our life, and the other spaces that we give our time too. BMC was founded on the idea that a community like ours could be less insular and more invested in the wider world. Our vision is “to create and guide a culture of care, where the virtues of wisdom and kindness help sustain wellbeing for all people everywhere.” I see compassion as a natural extension of wisdom and kindness.

You mention your struggle with self compassion. This is common. Do you have a sense of why this is hard for you, and for so many people in general? Do you have any “tips” from your own success in being kinder and more compassionate to yourself? (I think one way this question relates to the community aspect is that the more able we are to be compassionate towards ourselves, often the better able we are to be compassionate toward others).  

Phi: Soaking in Western and particularly American culture as I am, I’m certainly fighting the illusion of self-reliance, the myth of exceptionalism, expectations of performative masculinity, and I think I’m going to put duality into the “general” bin.  By that I mean that as with everything else, it’s hard to keep from filing myself into buckets and among those are the separate “provider” and “recipient” buckets, so the moment I am closest to compassion is ironically when it is hardest to be compassionate to myself.  Adding to that I was a child prodigy and it took a long time to realize how depersonalizing that was and start down the road to identifying with my own needs.  I’m sure there are plenty of other depersonalizing experiences out there.  Mostly the thing that helps the most for me is perspective.  It’s pretty eye opening to consider myself as another community member or think about a stranger in my situation.  It’s also helpful that both BMC and my other communities are big on self care and “putting your own oxygen mask on first”.  This is a case where the “try it for yourself and see” approach of Buddhism really works.

Chris: Your self-described experience of being really close to compassion when you find it hardest to be compassionate is really interesting. This is subtle. While being cautious not to overlay my interpretation onto your own experience, I think I have some sense of what you might mean from moments in my own life when I am really struggling, suffering in some way, and then the mind gets clear and sees in very simple terms that I am not being friendly to myself, I am not accepting some aspect of suffering, some aspect of my life, but instead fighting against it. At that moment, when I see suffering as true and also impersonal, something in me softens and a kind of tenderness shows up that is very gentle. 

Phi: Yes, like that.  The moment comes on me very suddenly and seems a million miles away until it does.  But it doesn’t take a lot of effort.  For me it’s not that the tenderness shows up, it’s just that I’m suddenly able to direct it inward.

Chris: Well said, Phi. The Dharma is so often exactly like that, a million miles away until it suddenly shows up! And then there it is, embodied in our own body, speech, and mind. And it was so easy, effortless actually most of the time. This can be very encouraging to anyone who is interested in the Dharma and meditation practice. It reminds us that we can relax our grasping, keep meditating, and remember to be gentle and patient with ourselves. 

Thank you, Phi.

Issue #1: Sarah Mitchell

July 2019

Guiding Teacher Chris Crotty and Managing Director Sarah Mitchell

Chris: Hi Sarah. Recently I found myself wanting to connect more in-depth with individuals in the Boston Meditation Center community, to hear people’s stories, and then to share those stories with the sangha. That is how Sangha Voices came to be. 

Many people in our community know you already because you occasionally facilitate our Thursday night group and you are the treasurer of the Board of Directors. You also recently became our Managing Director and I thought this would be a good opportunity to introduce you to people who may not have met you yet.

Could you share a little bit more about why you have chosen to be involved with BMC? 

Sarah: Being a part of this sangha has been really important to me. I originally started by volunteering to help take care of the space as a way for me to get to know others in the sangha a bit better, while giving back through service. I love being a part of communities that take care of each other – I think that is something this sangha does really well.

When you invited me to facilitate on Thursdays, I was eager to jump at the opportunity (but also a bit nervous!). I see it as a chance to challenge myself and deepen my knowledge of the Dharma, sharing what resonates the most deeply. My hope is that I can help others connect with the Dharma, too.

Professionally, I’ve been working for non-profits for the past decade in various leadership capacities. I took on a leadership role with BMC to offer my skills and experience in this arena because I believe so deeply in the organization. I see a wonderful and fruitful future for this community, especially now that we’ll have a center soon!

Chris: You express an appreciation for sangha, which is the Pali word for community, one of the “three treasures or jewels” in Buddhism. I meet a lot of people who are new to Buddhism or who are interested in meditation but experience some anxiety in groups, or others who like myself are considerably introverted and tend to be restored in solitude rather than in groups. Can you say a little more about how you understand the value of sangha.   

Sarah: I’m absolutely the same – I can experience a fair amount of anxiety around certain social situations. It’s just in my wiring. But the great part about meditation communities like ours is that we’re actually given the tools to work with that. Once I started to notice and label the anxiety, feel it and acknowledge it in the body, it started to soften quite a bit. And this process was definitely supported by the sangha itself because we’re all on this path and practicing together. 

Now I know how much I need the connection of a community to survive and thrive. I’ve found that something phenomenal can happen with introverts like myself when we have a genuine connection with another person. There’s a certain lightness and relief that can wash over when we’re reminded, “I’m not alone in this.” From there, we can give that same kind of connection and acknowledgment back to others. This is the value of sangha for me.

Photo by Katherine Taylor

Chris: What does your practice consist of? What meditation practice(s) are you currently doing? Any retreat plans? Do you have other practices that support the unfolding of Dharma in your life? 

Sarah: I prioritize maintaining a daily home practice. I like to recite the refuges and the precepts in the morning as well, as a sort of reminder to myself of what I’m intending towards for the day. In addition to going to our Thursday night sits every week, I’ll pop into a few other group sits if there’s a teacher I’m interested in sitting with or a community I’d like to connect with. 

Most recently, I went on another 9-day silent residential retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, MA in May to sit with Michele McDonald. I’ve got my eye on a few programs at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies – hopefully, I’ll be able to go there this year as well.

I also recently finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training and have begun teaching! Astanga yoga has been a hugely supportive practice in my life and I’m really excited to take this next step.

Chris: For people who might not know about them, how would you describe the refuges and precepts – the idea of taking refuge is central to early Buddhism, and I think also a very practical tool for people interested in meditation today. 

Sarah: For me, the three refuges (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) all have special meaning. The Buddha to me is the innate Buddhahood which I believe lies in everyone. We all have the potential to wake up. The Dharma is the path and the practice. And the Sangha, as I mentioned above, is the community that supports each other along the way. Reciting the refuges reminds me of the safety and strength that can come from all three. They all come together to create a home.

Reciting the precepts (or commitments to abstaining from unethical conduct) is about setting an intention – whether it’s for the next week, day, hour, or minute. As a person in recovery, it also means for me maintaining a commitment to my sobriety. In recovery communities, we often talk about how you’re less likely to be triggered if you take ownership for your actions and make amends – it helps create a sort of emotional balance and stability. For me, ethical conduct has a similar interplay with my meditation practice. If I’m acting ethically, there’s less self-criticism and anxiety popping into my practice.

Photo by Katherine Taylor – BMC Thursday night sit

Chris: Do you have any advice or encouragement for people new to meditation, or to people who might be curious about the role of spiritual community in their life, but who might also have some reservations? 

Sarah: Just be curious! Find out what’s helpful and what isn’t. Visit different communities, try different practices, and find what works best for you. I’d also encourage people to sit with lots of different teachers. I think finding a teacher you connect with is really important. Even if they don’t teach in your area, many teachers post their dharma talks and guided meditations online at sites like dharmaseed.org. If people want to hear more from Chris, they can go to chriscrotty.podbean.com

And if you have any questions about Boston Meditation Center, you can email us here, and follow us on Facebook and Instagram to stay updated on our programs and other news. Come visit us on a Thursday evening sit or a weekend program and say hi!