Arising, Persisting, and Passing Away

2020: Its 10,000 Sorrows and 10,000 Joys 

“No, Ananda, said the Buddha, Spiritual Friendship is not half the holy life. … When [one] has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades one has the support needed for bearing that which is unbearable in this life, with wisdom and kindness.”  Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2)

“That which is unbearable” is the most direct way that the Buddha explains the unavoidable, essential human experience of dukkha. Most often this word has been translated as “suffering.” Yes, it is that, but it is more nuanced. It refers to the very natural arising of difficult, challenging experiences––pandemics, shutdowns, “sheltering in place,” acts of public cruelty and political unrest––as well as the very natural human response of not liking and not wanting such experiences. In Dharma teachings, our relationship to dukkha is the key to liberation. The Noble Eightfold Path explores the cultivation of a wise, courageous, compassionate, and resilient heart, one which can mindfully face the unwanted challenges––while still knowing joy and happiness.

It is undeniable that there has been much that fits into the category of “unbearable” in the year 2020. Also undeniable is that there have been many joys and blessings too. We have seen them in our personal and collective lives. They have shown up in remarkable ways in the Valley Insight Community. Our Sangha has grown broader in its outreach and offerings––and deeper in its understanding and committed practice of Dharma. We are becoming wiser and kinder, stronger and more confident.

Below, Valley Insight Board President Michael Stoner shares his reflections on the many positive changes in our Sangha during 2020. Throughout this past year, Michael’s leadership and guidance have been invaluable––unfaltering––even though he himself had a difficult case of the Covid-19 virus in early March. We are very grateful for his all-encompassing resiliency, his return to good health, and his strong presence in our lives.

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2020: Taking Refuge in the Sangha
by Michael Stoner

In saying goodbye to 2020, isn’t it understandable that we call out all the ways in which it was a terrible year? In so many ways, it was. In fact, it may have been the most challenging, disruptive, disturbing, confusing year that many of us have ever faced. It definitely demanded changes in the life of Valley Insight.

In 2020, we had to let go of a lot. I certainly miss our in-person sits and retreats, where we could greet each other with hugs and smiles and sit nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. I miss being in the physical presence of our teachers and Dharma brothers and sisters. And so much more. . ..  It feels like the pandemic upended everything. 

At the same time, it is clear that we learned a great deal from 2020. It brought home, in so many ways, the real experience of the basic Dharma teachings. Things we take for granted can change in an instant, and it is important to be creative and flexible in response––not to cling to our fixed views of how things “should” be or used to be.

Fortunately, as a Sangha, we were able to step forward with the vigor and courage needed to address the situation.  I now view 2020 as a year in which Valley Insight thrived. This is a tribute to the practice we share, to our collective resilience in the midst of many significant challenges, and to the flexibility and wisdom of our teachers and so many others.

From the beginning, our Sangha showed how flexible we can be. As the shutdown order came, we stayed in close touch with the medical and logistical concerns. So it was with clear information that our teachers––Peg Meyer, Doreen Schweizer, and Karen Summer––worked hard, with crucial and abundant assistance from Bob Metz, to adapt to Zoom. Together we quickly created an online Dharma Hall, which allowed our weekly sitting groups to continue without missing a beat.

We soon began thinking about other programs that we might offer that could help bring people together in the midst of a sudden shutdown and the resulting isolation. How could we help people find balance and a sense of safety in the midst of what had quickly become a scary, unknown world? How best to meet our needs for community and for support in turning towards the wisdom of the Dharma? Our online Vesak Day, a sangha-wide celebration in early May, drew more than three dozen people––including some who are part of our Sangha but who don’t live in the immediate area. This pattern of larger gatherings, which include people who are physically distant from the Upper Valley, has continued in our regular weekly sits and other program offerings.

It feels to me as if there’s a new energy that has awakened in our Sangha. Maybe it’s because many of us aren’t as distracted as we were when we could just leave the house and go places and see whoever we wanted whenever we wanted. Or maybe it’s because what we truly value in life is a bit more apparent as we face the mounting virus death toll. Or maybe it’s because we feel an even stronger need to connect with each other and with the Dharma now, in this new, uncertain reality we share.

This increased interest in being together is also evident in the many new offerings we’ve established. Here’s a short list:

  • small groups who gather to talk about their practice or who process Dharma teacher Gil Fronsdal’s weekly online offerings with Valley Insight teacher Landon Hall;
  • a Dharma Study program using Bhikkhu Analayo’s “Mindfully Facing Climate Change” course material;
  • a group participating in a year-long course study of racial awareness offered by Ruth King;
  • a book group that has just finished reading Caste and is now looking forward to the next book;
  • an affinity group that coalesced around concerns about the election; 
  • an Engaged Buddhist team that is considering how to continue supporting people in our Sangha who are engaged in various forms of social action;
  • and a practice group that meets every weekday morning to practice Metta and to chant and commit to the Refuges and Precepts together.

We have also offered introduction to meditation and weekly dharma courses, a workshop on home retreats, and the first weekend retreat we have held in more than five years. While all of the above have been held online, Valley Insight teacher Lee Steppacher created and led our only in-person events, a series of nature walks in which participants, appropriately masked and socially distant, could do a short, meditative hike together.

To support all of these Dharma experiences, we have had to think through a myriad of administrative details of operating virtually. One example: we had to retool our process for offering dana to our teachers and to Valley Insight, allowing people to give online because many people don’t want to handle cash or write checks during the pandemic. And of course, we still have to attend to our operating budget and make good decisions about the ongoing life of Valley Insight as our world continues to change. For much of this, we can thank our flexible and creative board––Suzanne Champlin, Charlene Gates, Joel Lazar, Sue McGilvray, Mindy Schorr, and Gina Sonne. Many others have been invaluable in this process: Bob Metz, who manages our website, and Anne McKinsey, who helps us with this and other online challenges; Teresa Thurston, our bookkeeper; Dorothy Gannon and Geri Deluca, who keep the Sangha informed through their work on the monthly newsletter; Joyce Mechling, our google-doc and research maven; and so many others who have volunteered actively in large and small ways this year––including those who have generously given monetary support through our fund appeal and dana to the Sangha and teachers. In fact, every single one of you reading this newsletter, through your energy and your interest, have helped in some way to keep the Dharma alive and thriving. Valley Insight Meditation Society truly has become a “community of care.”

In February and March, we circulated a “Sense of the Sangha” survey that asked questions about people’s practice, what Valley Insight programs and retreats they participated in, and we invited feedback about how we could serve the needs of our Sangha more effectively. Our original intention was to share results from the survey in the early summer and see what ideas we could incorporate into our fall and 2021 programming. This had to be set aside as we shape-shifted our offerings to adapt to the pandemic.

Since things have settled into something of a new normal, we have revisited the survey in earnest. Valley Insight’s teachers and board have discussed the responses, and the teachers have made changes in their offerings. We will continue to consider how we can evolve other programs and other events based on some of the feedback from the survey. *

Interestingly, in the survey, we asked whether respondents thought that it would be valuable for Valley Insight to have a place of its own where we could hold sits and other programs. Just slightly more than 50% of respondents thought this would be a benefit to our Sangha. Yet, amazingly, we now have a Dharma Hall of our own. But rather than a physical place, it’s a virtual one.

Still, our Dharma Hall allows us to come together and share our practice and support each other. Our online home has been critical in this pandemic year. Now, it’s not a big deal for any of us to log in to participate in a retreat, a sit, or an online conversation. Think about that for a minute: Zoom allows us to transcend the boundaries of space to gather in fellowship and to continue to learn and practice with each other, and we have all become comfortable using what was once an unfamiliar and intimidating tool!

If nothing else, 2020 reinforced once again the Buddha’s assurance to Ananda about the importance of spiritual friendship:

“Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.” (SN 45.2: Upaddha Sutta — Good Friendship; trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)I’m grateful for how, despite the challenges and difficulties of the past year, we have been able to strengthen our connections with each other and to acknowledge joy and celebrate community where we find it

Health professionals believe that we will be able to return to more normal lives in 2021, though one person’s “normal” will be different from another’s. We anticipate that the same will be true for our Sangha. Surely, our old ways gathering will incorporate, in some way, the more spacious and flexible options for participation that are available through Zoom. We already have a team looking into this. And we look forward to seeing what does arise by way of “causes and conditions” in the year to come. We promise to be as responsive as we can.

* On December 2, Karen Summer and I presented an overview of results from the survey and about 20 people from our Sangha joined us on Zoom for questions and discussion. If you’re interested, you can take a look at what we presented here https://valleyinsight.org/about-us/sangha-news/and if you want to view a video of the entire discussion, you can email me (at: mstonervt@icloud.com) for information about how to access it.

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