After Mindfulness: In Service To A Common Heart
Posted by Audrey Lin on Jul 10, 2019
Last week, Diana and Coleman convened bunch of us at UC Berkeley for a conference that explored a unique question: What's After Mindfulness?
How do the values behind mindfulness extend beyond meditation? Their vision was not only a curation of content, but a movement -- a convening space for values and transformation -- the seeds of which would ripple forward long after the two-day event. What began as two non-Buddhists signing up to organize an 11th Global Conference on Buddhism turned into a remarkable journey in innovating around the age-old values of our human spirit.
In a recent newsletter, Nipun recounted: "Originally, Diana and Coleman invited us to offer a presentation; but as they learned more about our organizing principles, they became enthralled with the idea of spreading a culture of non-commercial spirit of service throughout their conference. We invited them to move from legal contracts to trust in friendship, and they ditched the contract for all speakers. We invited them to explore inclusive ticketing, and they have whole heartedly embraced multiple forms of capital unTickets! In the vein of Karma Kitchen, 30+ groups are convening a midday "Festival of Sharing" that nurtures a shift from transaction to trust."
Ultimately, the conference that surfaced focused on sincerity over sensationalism, many forms of wealth over commodification, and depth over breath.
Before the weekend even began, many people began practicing the values in their local contexts. An unTickets platform was launched as a way to accept kindness, silence, creativity, and community capital as "payment" for one's conference admission. People engaged 7 acts of kindness, mediated 8 hours in one day, made a 5-minute selfie on what mindfulness means to them, or volunteered directly for the conference. The unTickets Team reviewed the submissions and issued tickets.
What was beautiful was that so many of the submissions noted how much value was generated in the unTicket experience itself -- weeks and months before the conference! In reporting his 7 acts of kindness, Stanley concluded: "They have helped me reflect on what kindness means." Sisouda had never meditated so many hours in one day before -- and she reflected: "I was initially reluctant to choose the Silence Wealth offering because I have never meditated for such a long amount of time within one day, but I’m glad that I did. During the meditation practice, the thought “what if they don’t believe I did eight hours of meditation” arose, and my response was 'I am still glad I did the practice because I wouldn’t have otherwise. I would not have had the chance to cultivate the wholesome state of mind and attitude that I did.' That then brought a sense of fearlessness and gratitude."
Even volunteers showed up from a spirit of contribution, rather than as a means to get entry to the conference. Desmond in Toronto joyously offered to bring anything in his offer to volunteer -- including maple syrup cookies. :) Another couple in Canada hadn't planned to travel the long distance to attend -- but then wrote: "I was just browsing the conference’s website and saw the “unticket” option as an alternative form of payment to attend the conference. This immediately caught my attention and after consultation with my husband we decided that this is one event that we would not want to miss. We would love to be part of this special community and are willing to contribute to the success of the conference. I thought that it is such a novel and revolutionary idea to invite participants to contribute in their own ways other than monetary terms."
When the conference weekend finally came, that same spirit pervaded. Inside Zellerbach Hall, between talks from Buddhist luminaries like Ajahn Brahm and Karma Lekshe, Zilong shared poignantly on his personal spiritual journey with his family. Rev Heng Sure and Brian Conroy convened a humorous puppet dialogue between an old monk and a certified award-winning meditator. :) Birju moderated a panel on climate change. Nipun spoke on designing systems with multiple forms of capital (with real-time stories from conference unTicket submissions!), and Melissa and Kozo shared personal examples from their experiences in education and healing. Jin Wei spoke poignantly on the ripple of his personal bowing practice with his family members. Weeks beforehand, Bonnie and Brian diligently researched the speakers, panels, and navigated the timings as the seamless and spirited emcees! Everyone was a volunteer, simply offering of their time and heart to serve the collective values.
Outside on the plaza's festival of sharing, local love warriors were finding small ways to make people's day. Bradley led an intention-bracelet-making activity -- write a value on a metal bracelet for yourself or to gift to others! Bela taught passerby how to fold origami peace cranes. Tejas and Dustin filled in all throughout with smiles on their faces. At lunchtime, someone quietly tagged the group with wraps (for all 20+ of us!), on both days! Vishesh and Rajesh led folks in beautifying the grounds with inspired sidewalk chalk quotes and art. Manish and Ari were ready on standby to serve in any way -- bringing spare chairs, setting up cushions, carrying jugs of water, and even offering rides to elders! Avni offered to listen to people's stories and turn them into a poem!
When conference organizers handed us 500 granola bars, asking: "Is there a way to offer these to people so it's more than just a handout?" our summer interns were ready to go! :) Vishesh, Arnav, Sanved and Tarang in writing kind messages on post-its, and they got busy meeting and finding strangers to gift them to. 13-year-old Sanved reflected poignantly on how we respond to stuff given freely, and how humans trust each other. :) The next day, Anuj, Jamie and Guri found a shady spot and took up the quote-writing while the interns gifted people heart pins. That afternoon, they managed to gift them all away! Arnav recalled: "A memorable moment was when we were passing out gifts to the college students in the study hall. When we were walking around, four people walked up to us (3 students and a parent) and asked us what we were doing and why because they were curious. We explained that we were just spreading joy because we knew that the students were working hard and needed something to smile about."
It's amazing to see what people will do for love. Five members of Bonnie's interfaith church road-tripped all the way from SoCal to be of service. When they arrived Friday night, after being on the road since 6AM, they quickly jumped at the opportunity to move tables and chairs on the festival grounds. Saturday morning, they setup an "Encouragement Booth" station to listen deeply to strangers: "Tell us your highest aspiration. We will listen devoutly and encourage abundantly". Many hands colored-in the table cloth, creating a vibrant community artwork. They also printed bookmarks as a gift, and towards the end of the conference, a monk inquired: "I'd love to gift these to people in prison that I work with." With delight, Peter handed them the whole stack.
Offerings, too, flooded in from out of town. Months earlier, Payal had made a collection of stunning earrings as a gift to offer for the festival, in the spirit of anonymous kindness. Nilam Aunty in Detroit mailed homemade bookmarks and ceramic key chains to offer as gifts. Nicole and Pragalbha beamed big smiles as they conversed with strangers to offer them gifts. Naren offered stunning hand-painted artworks for a silent art auction. Chris spontaneously offered homemade chickpea pancakes that he'd packed with him. Bradley spent all of Friday night baking sweet treats to offer all around. In a follow-up email, he said, simply: "Thank you to everyone for just allowing this opening for me to serve<3."
Beyond material gifts, Nirupa Aunty tuned into intangibles. Walking around the festival grounds, she beelined with an open heart towards booths with less foot traffic. "I just thought I'd support the people in those tents -- but I ended up having wonderful conversations and learning so much from them!" Kinjal read stories to young children in the "Children's Village" tents. 1-year-old Iver lit up many people's day with his joyous spirit, nurtured by Anne-Marie's gentle, watchful presence. Kara's receptive listening echoed volumes into the spaces she encountered.
With the focus on values rather than institutions, everyone had a place to shine their unique value. Deep dialogues ensued in breakout tents and rooms. Yoga instructors led diverse sessions. Ken offered a tea ceremony. Speakers sat in circle for follow-up Q&A. Volunteers setup a "Children's Village" corner with crafts, storytime, songs, and bonus puppet show. While it was a Buddhist conference with monastics and communities from many traditions, members of other spiritual traditions also joined in. At one point a group of 15-20 people sat outside Zellerbach with a guitar singing melodic songs. "I think they might be protesting the 'Buddhism' part of the conference," someone remarked. We listened more deeply, and the lyrics spoke about praising Jesus. "The song is a really soothing prayer," others commented, interpreting Jesus as a form of the divine. Diana went out and invited them to sing for everyone inside the festival, which they gladly accepted, and many enjoyed.
What was noticeable throughout the gathering was that -- usually, an event of this size (850 people) might have a lot of noise, music, and scattered energy. The schedule was jam-packed with talks, festival, practice sessions, and even a concluding "Sounds of Metta" concert with Malaysia's Imee Ooi. Yet at this particular gathering, the energy was quite grounded, calm and friendly all throughout. Maybe the collective energy of so many cultivators in one locale.
Beyond the stillness vibes -- as an entirely volunteer-run conference, the spirit of generosity was an undercurrent all throughout. Volunteers staffed the entire event -- from high-level visioning and agenda, to setting up tents to tables, managing the stage to checking in participants, and so much more. Anonymous hands home-cooked meal offerings to provide to the speakers and monastics. The organizers ordered 100 shirts for volunteers, and when that ran out, they ordered another 100 more. Beyond that, communities within communities joined in. Monasteries that hadn't known each other met and spoke for the first time. Laypeople who cook the weekly meal at Berkeley Monastery offered to the conference instead. A Tzi Chi volunteer came up to our granola bar taggers with a box of ice cream cones: "I'm looking for a home for these ice creams -- would you like one?" Ari offered a 90-year-old elder a ride to the conference and, upon learning that she can't drive herself to sit in nature anymore, is plotting to bring her to a local park once a month. The labor-of-love spirit of service created a regenerative energy throughout the weekend.
Afterwards, ripples spill onwards. Avni plans to listen and write poems out of people's stories at local homeless shelters and hospices. Nicole left a note that read: "I am going to get my kids to do random acts of kindness in Napa!" Bonnie's caravan from Ventura insisted on paying forward the toll for the person behind them, and continued to drop "love-bombs" at each pitstop on the 8-hour drive back South. Amy made a smile-filled 1-minute video slideshow of their roadtrip, as Peter schemes up more ideas for their "Kindness Ministry". Jamie soaked in meditation discussions as she head into a meditation retreat the following week.
In many ways, the conference became an opportunity to come together in the spirit of service and see what patterns of positive deviance may emerge from the collective. The container of the conference became an opportunity to practice and reflect in 'be the change' ways. Sanved observed how unnatural it seemed for people to understand why a granola bar would be given freely, with no agenda. Ray envisioned how organizational cultures might look different "if the Buddha were CEO". Vishesh quietly showed up on 4 hours of sleep, ready to help in any way. Bela rescheduled her work plans to come back on Sunday, simply to be of service. In small and large ways, with our heads, hands, and heart, the weekend became a practice ground for all of us to reignite new norms of possibility in our daily thoughts, words, and actions.
On Sunday morning of the conference, 50 people joined Jin Chuan and Jin Wei in a silent walk to the bell tower, to practice 3 steps and 1 bow. As context, Jin Chuan, Jin Wei, and Zilong offered a few words on the multifaceted practice: as a act of reverence, a practice of forgiveness, a letting go, and of humility. It's the one time the heart is anatomically placed higher than the head. Before embarking on the silent practice, Jin Chaun led us on a song -- the simplicity of which touched me:
Humble yourself in the arms of the wild
Ya gotta lay down low and
Humble yourself in the arms of the wild
Ya gotta ask her what she knows and
We will lift each other up
Higher and higher
We will lift each other up
Higher and higher
May we continue to lift each other up. And may our heads always be in service to our common heart.
More photos in albums from Avni and Stan.