December 15, 2020

IMS Board Member Spotlight: Salma Abdulla

Salma Abdulla is a stock portfolio manager at E. Magnus Oppenheim & Co., member of the Chartered Market Technicians Association Board of Directors, and IMS donor. She has attended numerous retreats at IMS and serves as the Secretary-Treasurer for the IMS Board of Directors. In this season of giving, we wanted to introduce you to Salma, one of the key stewards of our organization and a leading voice for inclusion and access in the Dharma. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and content.

Salma, thank you for the opportunity to learn more about your contributions as an IMS donor and board member. How and when did you become involved with IMS?

I started meditating at New York Insight for a couple of years, getting deeper into the sangha, when a friend asked if I wanted to go to IMS over Labor Day weekend, 2013. It scared me at first, but she explained that I could just follow other people in and out of the meditation hall and figure out the rest.

I decided to do that retreat with IMS teachers Pascal Auclair and Anushka Fernandopulle and that started my love affair with IMS. I remember feeling a sense of contentment that I had never experienced. That sense of ease was life changing for me, because I knew that it was now accessible.

I was very much a beginner at that point but there was a feeling of being invited into the space at IMS, and being welcomed in a very warm way. The teachers, the front office staff, the staff in the kitchen who were helping us do our service—they were so patient, letting us feel around and offering some gentle advice. They helped me feel at ease. When I left, I was in a rhythm and I wanted to continue that rhythm. After that retreat, I just kept coming back to IMS to re-engage with that sharp sense of ease.

Did you have prior experience with meditation before connecting with New York Insight and IMS?

I didn’t know anything about meditation but my therapist recommended that I get in touch with something spiritual. I was raised a Muslim, but I wasn’t practicing at the time and I didn’t really want to go the religious route. I just happened to read an article in The New York Times by Andy Puddicombe, the creator of Headspace, who was talking about meditation for business people. I’m in the business world, so I downloaded that app and tried it ten minutes a day for seven days. But I wanted something in person, something more practical. I went to New York Insight and signed up for a beginner’s course. 

I loved that class so much, I wanted to keep going. And I started thinking a little bit more about the teachings of the Buddha. It took me two years to get the nerve up to do a three-day silent retreat, which I thought was a really big deal.

Did your early experiences with meditation have any immediate impact on your life as a busy professional living and working in New York City?

I’d always felt like there was a pathway that I had to follow in order to be successful in life—go to college, get a job, get financially independent, and move up the ranks professionally. I was doing that, and ticking off all these boxes. But there was something missing. I had been working for eight or nine years and that’s long enough to know there’s no box to check. I had to start figuring out for myself what I wanted out of life. When I took the beginner class at New York Insight, I started to see these little glimpses of what I had to figure out about myself that would make life more fulfilling. 

What did you discover as you searched for fulfillment and went deeper into the practice?

A big part of insight meditation practice is to be here in the present moment. I started to notice that my mind was always going to the future—always asking, “What’s next?” I was striving for something and trying to control what I was doing in order to reach that milestone. There was anxiety and I was chasing something, like on a hamster wheel, always looking. I started to see that I was missing everything that was right in front of me.

I was missing what was here—the underlying sense of ease, this feeling of okay-ness. When I started to focus on that sense of ease, the anxiety and nervous energy started to calm down. I started to feel more in my skin. That stillness helped me to figure out if I really wanted what I’d been striving for all this time.

I’m in the finance profession so money has always been a central part of my life. I began to ask, “Can richness be defined in another way? Is there some balance between an inner life that is rich and an outward life that is rich?”

For some people, asking such questions can lead to a temporary feeling of instability. How did you navigate through this period of self-discovery?

It could be destabilizing at times, but it was nice to have a couple of years of meditation training before I went on retreat. It established a groundedness. I had learned to trust coming back to the breath. There were times when a lot of emotions would come up, but being able to come back into the present moment was very helpful. I was also in therapy, helping me to process some of the emotions as I went along. The two practices—meditation and therapy—went hand in hand for me.

After that first retreat, I realized it was something I wanted to try again for a longer period of time and I continued to sign up for more retreats. I always had a retreat on the horizon. There was always more to learn.

 How did you get involved in board level activity at IMS?

I continued to take classes at New York Insight and dug deeper roots into that community. I got to know people at the meditation center and developed friendships. Because I have a background in finance, and because every meditation center needs a finance person, New York Insight asked me to be on their board.

That was a huge honor for me. Growing up Muslim, and having gone to Catholic school as a kid, one of the things that my parents instilled in me was that when your spiritual house asks you to give service, you give service. Service is part of being in the community.

At that time, Linda Spink was the Executive Director of IMS and she also sat on the New York Insight board. When Linda asked me to join the IMS board, I felt it was important for me to say yes.

 Were you hesitant in any way to mix your spiritual practice with the activities of nonprofit governance?

I definitely thought about how it might change the dynamic. I knew that I would come into contact with many of the Guiding Teachers who I had studied with. And I wondered how that relationship would change or if it might take the shine off of my experience. But above all, I felt it would be worthwhile.

I was already donating to IMS at the time and I was curious to know how the finances worked behind the scenes. How did the money get put to use? What is the organization prioritizing? I was curious, so it was helpful for me to come onto the board to see how that process functions.

Your answer offers an amazing opportunity to pull back the curtain on the subject of IMS finances. What have you learned about IMS financial practices and processes by sitting on the Board of Directors?

It’s a very thoughtful process. And it’s a very thought out process.

Before the Executive Director and the staff at IMS undertake a project, it’s been brought to the board. Everyone has taken a lot of time to think about the needs of the organization, and more importantly, the needs of the community we serve.

I think that the board and staff and teachers do a very good job of taking our stakeholders to heart. We’re considering experienced yogis, and also new people coming in, asking “What do we need to do to bring insight meditation to a wider audience? What financial support is needed?” Our local community, the town of Barre, is also taken into consideration, and the staff—making sure that we have the resources to meet the needs.

Another thing I have noticed is that IMS is very cost conscious—we aren’t frivolously spending money because there’s always a need for more. One might say we are a frugal organization. Sometimes you go to your room and you wish the heat was a little bit warmer, but it’s important to me that IMS is thinking about the way we are spending. It’s important that the spending values are aligned with the Dharma.

What about the issue of access? What is IMS doing to ensure that the Dharma is accessible to as many people as possible?

That is the issue talked about most at the board and teacher level—how to keep costs down for the yogis so that the teachings are accessible to everybody. That’s the lens in terms of finances.

As donors, when we are contributing to IMS, we are contributing to the philosophy that these teachings should be accessible and available to anybody who wants them. And it’s the board’s job to make sure that this philosophy is translated into accessibility—that the teachers and the staff are putting that into action.

 Why is access so important?

IMS creates ripples that reverberate out for society.

I can tell you personally, before I came to insight meditation, I was like a little stress ball and really tight. Being part of this community has led me to relax, to be kinder, gentler, more patient, and to be a little bit more trusting in my fellow human beings. That kind of change creates a kinder world. In the fiber of its being, IMS teaches us to be more humane to one another.

You shared that you are an IMS donor, and like all of our generous donors, you have many options for giving—there’s no shortage of need in the world. Why do you give to IMS and what impact are you hoping to have as a donor?

The teachings have been priceless for me. The amount of personal growth that I’ve gone through at IMS is profound. It has led me to completely change my life perspective. It’s changed my values. And IMS has asked me for nothing. So, it’s where I choose to put my resources. I would like to pay that forward.

For that reason, I just put IMS in my estate plan and it’s the only organization that is in my will. As a finance person, I believe that everybody needs to have an estate plan. It doesn’t matter how old you are, and whether you have children or don’t have children, if you are single or married or partnered. Even if you don’t know of any person who can benefit from your estate, there are organizations that could benefit from your generosity. So, I would just like to encourage people to give it a thought—it doesn’t have to be IMS as the beneficiary—just don’t leave it unfinished. Make it a resolution to do an estate plan in 2021.

A significant portion of the annual resources available to IMS and its teachers comes from dana—the freely given generosity of donors. Why is this practice so unique and special in today’s society?

First, it’s tradition, and I think that tradition is important. It’s hard to come by nowadays.

Second, faith is one of the teachings of the Buddha. Any of the teachers at IMS could go the transactional route, start their own website, run their own retreats, and get money directly from their students by charging a set fee. They don’t do that because the teachers believe in IMS. Especially the big-name teachers—they’re still 100% fully committed. I think it shows the power of community and shows that this model works. And if my teacher believes that this model works, it gives me faith that this model should be supported.

At the board level, the idea of moving to a fixed price per program is often debated. Especially when you consider that teachers who are more established pull in more dana than newer teachers. And during the pandemic, when the center is shut down, examining how to support our teachers is another consideration that we need to hold. So, there has been regular talk about a move to a fixed fee so that we may alleviate that burden of worry. The teachers are the ones who want to stay on the dana model, which is fascinating to me, because it creates uncertainty for them. It speaks to their faith in this model. The teachers sincerely believe that it always works out.

Their faith has certainly been rewarded over the years as the generosity of donors continues to support and uplift the organization. What would you say to other donors who may be considering a gift to IMS?

Our main purpose is to share the teachings with as many people as we can, and the way that we feel we can do that is by offering the teachings freely, and having people contribute what they can. That is paramount to the teachers. And if that is the teachers’ wish, I believe that it is our job to help make that come to fruition. Maybe in 20 or 30 years this won’t be sustainable anymore. But for now, that’s what the teachers strive for. As an organization, we have to back them on this because they are the lifeblood of the transmission. You know, you can build a center, but you can’t have the center without the teachers. So, the teachers are at the core of this decision and the donors are at the core of sustainability.

IMS has a new online program fee statement that clarifies our intention when it comes to access. It reads:

As one part of our ongoing effort to expand access to the teachings of the Buddha, all IMS Online programs feature sliding scale registration fees, scholarship opportunities, and no-fee enrollment for those who request a fee-waiver. Our “Pay What You Can Afford” system supports the cultivation of a dynamic and inclusive community and contributes to the health and vibrancy of the sangha. We thank our generous donors and full-fee participants for supporting the potential of all who wish to study the Dharma.”

This is an astonishing offer in contemporary times. Could you speak to that intention? Where does the courage to make that commitment come from?

Every spiritual organization and spiritual practice requires faith. And if you have faith in your teachers, and you have faith in the organization, and you have faith in your donors, I do believe it’s going to work out. Having sat on the board, I feel like I have the added proof that IMS is well intentioned and it’s all worthwhile. It’s worthwhile because we need good things in this world, and they don’t come along that often. This one—IMS—right here, it’s sitting in our lap. It sounds a little fantastical, but why wouldn’t you support that?

At the heart of it, every organization has a set of values that it’s built upon. This center was built by Sharon and Joseph and Jack and a small group of friends and donors who put their values into practice. If you start with that intention—that there’s a right way to do things—it can happen.

You then need like-minded people to put those values into action. The founders, teachers, and the Executive Director recruit people who share the values to serve on the board and the staff. And the donors do their part. Me being one of them. Our donors give monetarily, and some give time, volunteering to help support the staff.

Good values attract good people, and good people attract good values, and it just keeps growing on itself. It’s a circle that supports IMS. In my mind, that circle requires me to pay it back in some way.

As you reflect on your relationship with IMS over these last seven or eight years, what do you hope for as you envision the future of IMS?

My hope is to make the retreat experience accessible for more people and I think that can present itself in three different ways:

One would be to make it free for more people, for as long as they want to come. I think there’s value in sitting a three day retreat, or sitting a three month retreat, depending on your circumstances.

The second would be the possibility of physically moving the IMS experience, or replicating IMS in different centers, because getting to Barre, Massachusetts is not an easy task. Maybe do mini centers, or “pop up IMS,” or something along those lines. That would be wonderful.

Third would be establishing a permanent online presence for retreat practice. Right now, IMS is experimenting with different online retreats, but I think it would be fantastic going forward to create something that was permanent, to reach a global audience. That would be incredible.