Why our most unpopular group is at the heart of the temple

Heart by Lisa L WiedmeierEvery Sunday night at 6.30pm we clear away the service books and the zafus in the shrine room, arrange a few chairs into a circle and sit around a big stone on a purple cushion.

A few people come – sometimes just one, sometimes four or five – and we take turns picking up the stone and speaking of whatever is in our hearts. The rest of the group listen. Nobody gives advice. Nobody says anything to make anyone ‘feel better’. We receive whatever people are saying in silence. It’s that simple, and that complicated.

Sometimes people talk of the practicalities of their weeks, or something they’ve been puzzling about. Sometimes there are tears – of sadness, anguish, anger or gratitude. By the end of that hour, I always feel more connected to Amida Buddha – often more connected than I have all week.

Why does the practice of stone-passing connect me with the divine more powerfully than all the other spiritual practice we do here – the chanting, the walking meditation, reading the sutras, hearing the Dharma and talking with my spiritual friends in a less formal way?

I’m sure there are lots of reasons, and some of these will be personal to me. I think the most interesting reason, however, is that the listening circle is a powerful spiritual practice in it’s own right.

In these circles, we are asking people to trust the group with the parts of themselves that they are struggling with. This is only possible because the rest of the group looks upon those parts with eyes of love. And we mostly manage this because Amida has our back – he is making a bigger golden circle around us, and giving us the faith to face the darkness without shrinking back or reacting defensively.

As we hold this group in the shrine room, we are literally looked upon by the Buddhas – many of them look down from the walls, the golden standing Buddha keeps watch from one end, and the sitting Buddha smiles at us from his peacock chest at the other end. But we don’t need a shrine room – wherever we go, when we pick up a stone, members of the Amida sangha know that it is really a magic stone, and that if we trust the process we will create a unique sacred space between us regardless of how ‘spiritual’ or ‘nice’ we’re feeling. In fact, it’s more helpful to the group if people are able to speak about the darker and pricklier aspects of being human – because then others in the group can witness this being received, and feel that maybe it might even be safe to reveal their own grief or anger or fear.

Why is this group less well attended than all the other things we offer here? We’ve had this conversation over the years. Are we holding it at the wrong time of the day or week? Do we describe it properly?

People access the divine in many different ways, and it may just be that other people find a more direct route to Amida through other means. But I also think that the nakedness of sitting in a circle with others is just plain scary. What might I say? What might the others think? What might I discover about myself that I’d rather not know? What might leak out?

As a therapist who’s undergone many years of therapy myself, I know I have an advantage in this respect – it does get easier! – but I’d like to finish with some words of encouragement as I would love for our little circle to get bigger. If you want to come along and just listen for the first few weeks (or the first few years!) you will still benefit – listening to others will bring you all kinds of unexpected insights and will connect you to the Buddha just as powerfully. If you’re afraid of getting it ‘wrong’ or feeling nervous about what might come out, just take the stone and say ‘I’m nervous about what I might say, my stomach is full of butterflies, and that’s enough for today’ and hand the stone to the next person. Or just hold it in silence for a few minutes and let the group hold you. These things unfold in their own time and there’s no point in rushing things. Experiment – take a little risk and see what happens. When you start feeling nervous, remind yourself that the most important thing is to listen to others, and tune in again to what they are saying. Above all, remember that the group, and most importantly Amida, always has your back.