In Early Buddhism, the word “sangha” refers to a community of enlightened monks and nuns. Today, we also use the term to describe any community of people connected to the dharma, including the vibrant and motivated IMS staff and volunteers who come from near and far to serve other beings on the path to awakening.
To support the development of wisdom and compassion among the staff sangha at IMS, the organization has developed a unique program — appropriately called the Sangha Program —that encourages community members to practice mindfulness and kindness in daily interactions. Under the skillful guidance of Resident Teachers, the staff and volunteers who participate in the Sangha Program are encouraged to use their work as dharma practice, so that effort naturally emerges from a place of generosity, patience, equanimity and loving-kindness.
Chas DiCapua and Susan O’Brien are the IMS Resident Teachers who lead the program. Chas shares that “the intention of the staff Sangha Program is to support what goes on in the Meditation Hall. By practicing together regularly, the staff is more connected to the retreat experience and the needs of the yogis on retreat.” The Sangha Program also ensures that there is integrity throughout all aspects of the spiritual sanctuary that is IMS.
Insight Meditation Society Program Director Christine Marshall adds, “I find it invaluable to connect with my co-workers as my sangha. Being at IMS supports and renews my experience of interconnectedness, my faith in the goodness of all beings and my joy in work as practice.”
There are six components of the Sangha Program and staff members can participate in as many or as few as they choose. Each month, the teachers select one aspect of dharma study as a focus area. Then, staff and volunteers can attend any of the following gatherings:
- Visiting Teacher Dharma Talk: Once a month, a special dharma talk is offered to the staff by one of the visiting teachers at the Retreat Center or the Forest Refuge. This encourages the staff to access the leading minds in our field, in an informal and supportive setting.
- Kalyāṇamitta Group Discussion: A kalyāṇamitta is an admirable friend, like a mentor or teacher. Each week, staff members may choose to connect with other staff members from various departments to discuss the monthly topic and support each other in work and practice. In this way, each staff member can serve as a spiritual friend to their peers.
- Department Sangha Meetings: As in most organizations, individual departments meet routinely to discuss business needs and do planning exercises. Every other week at IMS, these meetings shift their focus away from business concerns, so that staff members have an opportunity to connect on a human level and discuss how to bring dharma practice into their work life.
- Resident Teacher Meetings: All staff members can meet with one of the Resident Teachers for 30 minutes a week. This personalized approach helps staff members navigate office challenges through the lens of dharma. While resident teachers will not diagnose or treat mental, physical or emotional issues, they often help reframe habitual patterns in terms of Buddhist principles and offer support for individuals seeking to apply Buddhist practices while managing conflict.
- Formal Sitting Practice: Every other week a formal sitting practice period is offered to staff. Sitting together regularly invites a feeling of community and shared commitment that permeates the entire organization.
- Staff Retreat: Once a year, IMS closes its doors to visiting guests and offers a free week-long retreat for staff and volunteers. Perhaps more than any other offering, this formal practice connects the staff and volunteers to the experience of the yogis in the Meditation Hall and ensures that the container of the retreat environment is maintained continuously.
IMS Front Office worker Roberta Lewis shares, “In the first year that I got to sit the Staff Retreat, I was struck by how different it was to sit next to my co-workers and actually experience them in formal practice. Instead of relating to them as their personalities, I was aware of other aspects, something not necessarily seen in day-to-day interactions: a tenderness of commitment to the dharma, an intention to settle the busy mind/body spin, a sincerity in engaging and embracing our shared aspiration, both as individuals and as a sangha. Since then, I interact with my co-workers with a perspective that attempts to remember the greater layers of each of us, not simply the upfront momentary personality that we may meet as we get the next job done.”
Roberta’s experience — and the experiences of countless other IMS staff members over the years — serves as a reminder that staff life at IMS can be an ongoing learning opportunity. In addition to performing a functional job to support our mission, staff members commit to execute their job duties in accordance with the ethical standards outlined by the Buddha. While the laundry needs to be folded, the snow shoveled, and the budgets balanced, IMS staff members treat each other with kindness and respect. By combining secular work with daily spiritual practice, each moment becomes a precious opportunity to learn and grow.
Carey Kasky, the Manager of the IMS Forest Refuge, adds some perspective as a newer staff member. “Going to work had always been something I did just to pay the bills,” Carey shares. “(But) joining the community at IMS has been a joy and it feels like I have finally been able to blend retreat life and work life seamlessly. This happens organically at IMS because of the Sangha Program. We are given so much support in our own practice that we can show up every day and support the practice of others.”
It is important to note that IMS welcomes staff members from all backgrounds and beliefs and one does not need to be a practicing Buddhist to work here. “IMS is not a guru center. There is no expectation that someone practice in a certain way or even practice at all,” Chas says. “You can really find your own way and go at your own pace. But there is a whole department dedicated to support those who want to practice. Teachings on generosity, ethical conduct, and the training and development of the heart and mind are freely available for anyone who wants to participate.”
Ultimately, the intention of the IMS staff is to work diligently to create a tranquil, safe and nurturing experience for all meditators. Serving others in this way requires a strong personal commitment, and IMS staff members make great effort to cultivate wisdom and compassion in themselves, so that they may serve with greater effectiveness.
Chas relates a story about the Buddha to summarize the value of the IMS Sangha Program. He says, “People would often ask the Buddha, ‘What will most help me on the path of dharma?’ And the answer the Buddha gave most often was, ‘associate with the wise.’ We are therefore blessed that the vast majority of people who come to IMS are walking the path; there is intentionality and wisdom and compassion being cultivated. And while the Sangha Program is dharma training, it is really about building community.”