IMAG0090Back last fall, we announced the start of an experiment, an online dharma practice group called the Practice Circle. As I write this, Practice Circle has met 16 times in the course of seven months, and so I thought it was time to write a fresh introduction to our online community as well as report on what we’ve learned as our experiment has unfolded.

Practice Circle meets twice monthly, on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, via the online video conference program Adobe Connect. We tested a number of video chat and conference software systems before we selected Connect, and so far I think we made the right choice. Users don’t need to load software on their machines, and it seems to run well on different computer platforms. It can accommodate a lot of people – we’ve had groups as large as 18. And best of all, it can easily facilitate whole group discussions as well as dyads and small groups.

We’ve had a learning curve regarding the technology, of course, but I think we’ve got the bugs worked out. With so many people online together at once, it’s important to use a microphone and headphones to avoid annoying feedback that is hard to get rid of once it starts. I got myself an inexpensive headset that works great, and I notice other participants favoring them, although any ear buds will do.

Although a web cam lets us all see you, it’s not strictly necessary to participate. The software even includes a text instant message system, so as long as you can hear the audio feed you can practice along with us.

When we started, I had frequent connection difficulties, which made my video and audio feed choppy for participants. Much experimentation and an investment in a more powerful laptop took care of those problems, however, and it’s much easier to lead the sessions and facilitate conversation now that I can see and hear everybody in real time. I think the other Circle members appreciate it too.

What is Practice Circle like? It starts a few minutes before the top of the hour with some icebreaker conversation as everyone logs in and gets their video and audio feeds set up. We’ll typically have a group of anywhere from eight to sixteen members join us from all around North America. Two or three minutes past the hour we begin with fifteen to twenty minutes of lightly guided sitting practice. I try to include enough guidance for those who like it and those who are new to meditating, while leaving long passages of silence for everyone to drop into.

Then we share an exercise. We’ve used all kinds of different exercises: body scanning, loving kindness and forgiveness practices, tonglen practice, visualizations of various kinds, even yoga breathing and creative writing and drawing. The common goal of all these various techniques is to help us concentrate our minds, open our hearts, and use our mindfulness practice to embrace the whole of our lives.

Every Practice Circle includes time for discussion, which is one of my favorite parts of each section. Now that we have our tech issues cleared up, we’ve been using the breakout group function engage in one-on-one mindful dialogue sessions, where we practice pausing, opening, and remaining present as listeners, and speaking truth from our hearts. Then we come back together as a whole group to share what arose in our dyads.

Finally we sit silently for a few more minutes, and I offer a reading or a poem for reflection. We’ve shared favorites like Rumi’s “The Guest House”, Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love”, Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness”, and Mary Oliver’s “The Journey”, but I also try to find something new and appropriate to offer each week.

When we started Practice Circle, I wondered if it could support the kind of interpersonal resonance that I loved from the in-person practice groups I’ve enjoyed. I’m pleased to report that, in my experience at least, it does. I’ve been gratified by the willingness of people to share on a deep level about some of the most challenging aspects of our lives. If anything, the occasional technical glitches and delays enhance the value of mindful communication and mutual helpfulness. We have a core group of Practice Circle members who have formed the nucleus of an online practice community. And people keep coming back, a sign to me that they’re finding value in it.

So, a half year on, we’ve learned and shared a lot and gotten Practice Circle off to a successful start. If you haven’t joined us yet – or you were with us in the early, buggy days – we invite you to come and experience an opportunity to share your practice with us in a safe, friendly and, of course, secular environment. To learn how, check out this article on technical requirements and then go here to register.

Also, if you are a Practice Circle member, please share your experiences and insights in the comment section below!

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  1. Terri on May 30, 2013 at 6:32 am

    This was my first adventure in the Practice Circle, so I missed the technical-difficulties phase. 🙂 I thought it was a great experience. See faces on the screen made it feel like a real group experience.

  2. Ted Meissner on May 30, 2013 at 7:08 am

    What has proven very valuable, above and beyond the regular encouragement to practice with others in a secular context, is the relationship building.

    I missed one of our sessions due to being away at a conference, and so it was nearly a month between get togethers. It was very surprising how emotionally moving it was to see the other people’s faces as they came online, how very uplifting and joyous a sensation that was.

    To me, this really is creating a foundational group of kalyana mittas, and the presence of others is genuinely appreciated more than I thought would happen.

  3. Rick Heller on June 1, 2013 at 8:22 am

    The breakout sessions have been a neat addition. Definitely more interactive than being a listener most of the time.

  4. Dwight Panozzo on June 3, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    I concur with the others, the breakout sessions have been a wonderful addition. I find the opportunity to thoughtfully share with others in the circle very beneficial. I too look forward to getting online and seeing the familiar faces of others seeking a secular, mindful, Buddhist experience.

    One suggestion to consider might be to secularize the external readings that are often offered as a preparation step prior to the Circle, unless the focus of that night’s group is the affect that non-secular, supernatural passages have on secular audiences.

  5. Mark Knickelbine on June 5, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    Dwight, are you referring to the Bhikkhu Bodhi piece I linked to for last session? It was the least woo-ish treatment I could find to link to. I do try to focus on secular authors whenever possible.

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