John Spalding and Leah Giles are two of the mindful leaders working with IMS Executive Director Inger Forland, the IMS Board, and our Guiding Teachers to chart the future of IMS. We wanted to introduce these newer members of the team to you, our donors, and offer the opportunity to learn more about their background, priorities, and practice. John serves as the Director of Development and Communications, and Leah as Senior Development Officer. Here, in their own words, they talk about their roles and the direction of IMS as we reflect on the last decade and look forward to the next.
John and Leah, thank you for sharing your time with us. For those friends of IMS who do not yet know you, would you share a little bit about your history? How long have you been working here and how would you describe your role?
John: I started at IMS two years ago. It was a perfect place for me to pair my passion for meditation and helping people (I’d recently finished a second master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling) with my professional experience in marketing, communications, and business development. I was initially hired as IMS’s Director of Marketing, where my first priority was to redesign our website so that our mission and connection to the dharma would be more readily apparent. This past summer, in the wake of Gyano Gibson’s retirement, I was hired as IMS’s Director of Development and Communications. My job now is to integrate our efforts so that all energy at IMS is focused on expanding our impact. I have a gratifying sense that my work here not only reflects my values, but provides a means by which I can do something to make the world a better place. This feels especially important during these uncertain times when it’s so easy to get discouraged.
Leah: I started at IMS last August. I have a background in history and a master’s degree in American Material Culture. In my previous role at the Concord Museum I oversaw a successful $13 million capital campaign to build a new education center and renovate the museum. My intention at IMS is to connect people and what they care about to the work we do here – to help donors see how their generosity has a direct impact on other people and on society. I am so inspired by the ardent care and support of our sangha. And I hope our donors derive great joy knowing their generosity impacts so many lives.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned while working at IMS?
John: The most rewarding surprise has been the extent of our efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion so far. I say this recognizing that our work is incomplete and will be an ongoing process. Nevertheless, IMS has accomplished a lot over the past decade, particularly: fostering greater diversity on our Board of Directors and among our teachers; demonstrating a commitment to diversity workshops and trainings offered to the staff and board; investing in robust financial assistance programs for people of color and people in need of aid; and embracing diversity and inclusion in our new Teacher Training Program, in which 75% of the trainees identify as people of color or as a member of a marginalized group. The more I visit other retreat centers and connect with their leaders, the more impressed I am with how much IMS has accomplished in its diversity efforts, and I take hope knowing that our leadership at all levels has committed to do even more moving forward.
What are you most excited about as IMS turns the page to 2020?
Leah: IMS is entering this new decade from a position of strength and growth that’s really exciting to witness. We’re moving forward with the solid foundation of a peaceful and harmonious retreat environment, with courses taught by amazing teachers. For the first time, all of our teachers are able to live and work together while they’re here in the new Teacher Village. We’re continuing to see the fruits of the Teacher Training Program as our trainees gain more experience, both deepening their own practice and teaching at IMS and around the world.
Are there any other new IMS programs or initiatives that you are particularly excited about?
John: Yes, this month we wrap filming for a new online mindfulness course developed by Bhikkhu Analayo. This will be IMS’s first online course, which we’ve created in partnership with Wisdom Publications. The course covers a range of practical subjects—mindful eating, ethics, compassion, wisdom, health, death—and features an all-star list of guest teachers, from Jon Kabat-Zinn and Sara Lazar to Judson Brewer, Bonnie Duran, Nirbhay Singh, Diego Hangartner, and Nikki Mirghafori. These are exceptional teachings from extraordinary teachers, and they represent another way IMS can share the dharma more widely.
Leah: As John mentioned earlier, we’re committed to making IMS more accessible to people, which can take many forms. I’m especially excited about two new on-site weekend retreats happening at the Retreat Center in 2020. The first is the retreat taught in Spanish, and the other is the retreat for Indigenous People. Both offer a space for practice in community, whether folks are entirely new to meditation or have been practicing for decades. And we now have affinity sits for people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ-GNB (Gender Non-Binary) at almost all IMS retreats. I am grateful that our organization and so many donors are supporting this work.
Do you feel that IMS could be doing more in any one area of focus?
John: As our founding generation of teachers and yogis enter their later stages of life, I’d like to see us offer additional programming around the dharma and aging. Perhaps a retreat or teaching tools that focus on how we can tend to our inner lives and develop resilience, compassion, and gratitude as we face our declining years and the realities of death and dying. I’d love to see IMS create a residence, or even a hospice service, for our senior yogis and teachers—a place to live that reflects the practice and values they have held throughout their lives.
If you could wave a magic wand and develop one brand new program or service at IMS, what would it be?
John: A third retreat center building on campus—with 100 beds and a big meditation hall—to remove or shorten those long waitlists we currently have at the Retreat Center.
Leah: Yes, and desserts every day in the Dining Hall! A little more sweetness to balance all of the suffering in the world.
How do donors directly support the mission and vision of IMS?
Leah: Striving to create a safe and welcoming refuge for all to deepen compassion and wisdom and upholding the possibility of liberation for all beings is no small organizational mission and vision. And it’s only possible because of the generosity of many people sharing their time, talents, and financial resources. Since our founding nearly 45 years ago, donors have represented the living heart of IMS that has sustained this center and the teachings offered here.
The manifestation of generosity can take physical forms, like the Teacher Village and new solar power systems at the Retreat Center and Forest Refuge. It is also apparent in less visible but equally important ways, such as financial assistance for yogis who otherwise could not afford to attend a retreat. Retreatants who give teacher dana affirm the faith of our brilliant and courageous teachers who beautifully continue the Buddha’s traditions of offering the teachings freely, trusting their material needs will be met – not an easy path to take in contemporary western society.
Is there anything else you would like our generous donors to know about you?
John: I work remotely at IMS from the Connecticut shoreline, where my identical 16 ½ year old twin sons are juniors in high school. Once they graduate, I look forward to moving north so I can spend more time in the IMS community I love.
Leah: I am so happy and grateful to be at IMS. I feel it was a fortuitous set of circumstances and twists and turns that brought me here, as it was not a direct path. Prior to IMS I worked in museums for a decade. Visiting museums is still one of my favorite activities, along with traveling, hiking, and spending time with my family – which is growing! My husband and I are expecting our first child on Leap Day, February 29. I know becoming a mom will expand my perspective and ideas about generosity and love (and patience and many other things) in totally new ways.