July 5, 2023

Building Sustainable Abundance in Life, at Work, and on Retreat: A Q&A with IMS Board Member Gina LaRoche

Gina LaRoche, MBA, is an organizational consultant, facilitator, and executive coach, and co-founder with Jen Cohen of Seven Stones Leadership. Gina is a former visiting faculty member at Simmons School of Management, where she taught and coached in the school’s executive education programs. A 2017 graduate of Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s Community Dharma Leaders program, Gina has attended People of Color and other retreats at IMS since 2010. She currently serves as the chair of the IMS Board’s Governance Committee.

In this Q&A with John Spalding, IMS Director of Partnerships and Communications, Gina shares what brought her to meditation, how it influences her work in leadership development, and what she sees for the future of IMS.

When did you first discover meditation?

The first person to teach me meditation was my Unitarian minister, 20 years ago. His approach was more in the Zen style, although I didn’t know that at the time. He taught us walking meditation in a circle. I remember teaching my son to meditate around that time—he was four, and I would have him sit with a candle and just watch the candle flame, and he really enjoyed it.

I learned about insight meditation and IMS when I met Jen Cohen, who became my business partner. She had taken a meditation retreat as part of her training as a somatic coach. I decided to try it, and in 2010, I signed up to do a Labor Day Weekend sit at IMS. I got there on a Friday night, and by Saturday afternoon, sitting in the hall, I had this moment where I thought, This is a silent meditation retreat, but it is so noisy. And that’s when I saw that the noise was in my mind. For the first time, I heard the voice of my constant inner critic. And my next thought was, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. That was the gateway into the practice for me. Just the awareness of it was so helpful, just noticing it and being with it.

The second retreat I did at IMS was a five-day retreat for people of color, and we learned lovingkindness meditation. It happened to be the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. My sister had been in the towers that day, and even though she was okay, we were still very traumatized by it 10 years later. I remember, after that retreat, sitting in meditation and offering lovingkindness to the 9/11 attackers. That was something that hadn’t even been in my consciousness before. What kind of suffering would these humans have been experiencing to choose to sacrifice their lives? All of this grief and hardship I was carrying around after 9/11 really melted inside of that practice.

You and Jen founded Seven Stones Leadership in 2009, and your guiding philosophy is Sustainable Abundance—Sustabu for short! How does Sustabu inform what you do at Seven Stones?

Jen and I met in a group that would get together once a week to explore the concept of enoughness—the idea that we are all swimming in a sea of scarcity and what it would be like to live from a place of sufficiency. As we got to know each other, she and I started wondering if we could create a company and a livelihood around this concept—what we now call Sustainable Abundance.

We brought together Jen’s skills in coaching and systems work and my skills of consulting and facilitation to offer transformational leadership development, coaching, and training, working with individuals and systems to build Sustainable Abundance. Since the racial reckoning of 2020, Equity, Power, and Belonging have been a primary focus of our leadership work. We have focused our energy on teaching how to heal collective trauma and embody anti-racism.

I’ve also been very interested in how brahma-vihara practice can provide liberation and suffering for Black people, and people of color in general. Just after I was appointed to the Board, I came to an IMS retreat with Jen Cohen for her 50th birthday. I was the only Black person there, and it was the hardest retreat I ever sat at IMS. When she and I returned home, we had a lot of conversations about our individual and collective experience and brought the conversation into our work at Seven Stones. We eventually decided to organize a community talk about it. That was the first time I was willing to talk about race and racism publicly—about my own journey and my own struggles. Then, when George Floyd was murdered, we were all feeling so much upset and grief that a group of us at Seven Stones wrote an email to our community entitled “Let’s Get to Work.” This was addressed to the White community, and for us that was a bold step to speak publicly what we would have historically only said privately.

In what other ways do you integrate your meditation practice and Buddhist philosophy into your leadership development work? How have your practice and your profession overlapped and evolved together?

Sustainable Abundance is about a personal journey and a focus on your own right relationships, and also a commitment to building a just world where everyone is free. When we first started the company, people would say to me, “This sounds like Buddhism.” I didn’t know anything about Buddhism, I just knew about meditation, and I wanted to understand this connection people were making. That’s part of what brought me to IMS.

Meditation and mindfulness have always been a foundation for our work, and it very much shapes my work and my life. I lead a secular sitting group that meets every week—it’s open to everyone and some of our employees attend. We are currently doing the paramitas—I don’t call them that, I rarely use the Pali words, but we talk about cultivating qualities, like energy or courage. I don’t believe that meditation and mindfulness are separate from an ethical path. For folks who are Christian, for example, I encourage and support them to connect their meditation practice to the ethical path of their Christianity.

We were also inspired by IMS in terms of how we created our company’s pricing model. When we started, we asked people to pay whatever they wanted to, like the IMS concept of dana. But people were freaking out—they wanted us to tell them what to pay. So we gave them a price range, and that exists to this day and is similar to the choices we have when registering for retreats. We also have a generosity marketplace, where one can give money for others to take trainings, and if you need money, there’s no application process or award, you just take what you need for what you’re signing up for. Conversations about money are at the root of many conversations around scarcity, so to create sufficiency, you need to talk about financial resources and build systems around them.

What inspired you to serve on the IMS Board?

I consider IMS my spiritual home. I don’t have enough words to convey what it means to me in terms of my own growth and development and personal freedom. I’m getting emotional right now just thinking about it. I would do absolutely anything for IMS. I want to bring my gifts and talents to the Board in whatever way is needed to make IMS stronger for the next decade and all the years after that.

What do you envision for that future?

The pandemic showed us what technology can bring into the practice space. For example, we could have a year-long online retreat where yogis come to IMS twice during the year and also meet online. I am curious how householders can walk this path without having to leave family and work for weeks or months. What does it mean in this day and age to hold a silent meditation retreat? I think experimenting with the retreat form will be really interesting for IMS as we move into the future.