The Sunday evening of October 15, 2012 marked the first gathering of the SBA Practice Circle. When we get together this Sunday at 8 PM CST, it will be our 47th meeting, a number that shocks me when I see it written down. In a lot of ways, every Practice Circle session still feels like a brand new experiment to me, and I still feel very much the beginner as I facilitate our gatherings.
Some things have changed since we started. We have overcome some of the technical hurdles we faced at the beginning, and I think we do a better job of helping new arrivals get connected. As a result, we’ve been able to make more thorough use of Adobe Connect, most notably the breakout group feature that allows us to have one-on-one or small group discussions in addition to working together as a full group. This gives Practice Circle sessions more of the interactive flavor that Ted Meissner, Dana Nourie, the late Jan Ford and I hoped for when we originally planned this venture in the summer of 2012.
Even though it remains a practice group rather than a group for sutta study or philosophical discussion, Practice Circle has been a place for exploring what the dimensions of a secular Buddhist practice can be. One of my goals has been to share a wide variety of different practices, some of which are drawn more directly from traditional Buddhist lineages than others. Our discussions often come back to what it means to integrate such practices, which originated in a religious context, into a secular approach to the dharma. I know these discussions have informed my own thinking about what Secular Buddhism is all about, I think the more so because they take place in the practical context of what we’re actually doing rather than in more abstract philosophical ways.
The thing that has impressed me most about Practice Circle is that, even though the video conference format is quite different than an in-person practice group, it accentuates the importance of the energy every participant brings to the group. Because of the technology involved, it can take more effort to join the session and stay connected with all of the other people present. We sometimes have to wait for our words to be heard, and pay more careful attention to hear what others say. We use hand gestures to help each other know when we are connected and to avoid speaking over one another. For me, one result of that extra effort is that everybody seems fully present and available for everyone else. One can’t simply sit back and passively consume the experience — we really do join together as a group to create the space in which our dharma practice is shared.
One of the rituals that has sprung up in Practice Circle sessions is to mark the moment when the 10th participant arrives. The effect is to break us out of the three-by-three-by-three arrangement of faces on screen that Ted has dubbed “Sangha Squares” since it reminds us of the old Hollywood Squares human tic-tac-toe board. For me, seeing the screen become more and more populated with faces, each changing the configuration of our online space, is a very graphic reminder that the value of Practice Circle is a direct result of the people who come together to make it happen.
The fact that that’s still happening two years on is a sign to me that participants find Practice Circle a valuable aspect of their dharma practice, even those like me who have in-person groups to sit with. I hope you’ll come join us and be part of this exploration into sharing the dharma in the digital age. Check out the Practice Circle page to find out how.