Edited by Jerry Katz
David Zinn is founder and one of the organizers of the Open Awareness Meditation Group. I think you’ll find some of his responses extraordinary. I certainly learned a few things.
How did your group start, why was it started? Who started it? Where and when?
Our group is called the Open Awareness Meditation Group and we meet in Cambridge, MA on Monday nights at 7:30 at the Cambridge Friends Meeting House (a historic place for Quaker meetings) just outside of Harvard Square. It’s a very nice, welcoming, neutral space where we have plenty of meditation cushions and benches in a large, high ceilinged room. However we do pay rent ($50 a night) so as a result we do have to solicit donations to keep it rolling— but the space is well worth it.
The Open Awareness group technically had its origins in the early 90’s as a Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen group that had a guiding lama, organization, retreats, etc. The meditation sessions then were quite formal with opening and closing chants and a specific structure. I connected with this group in 1996 and practiced with them for around four years.
Eventually I became interested in a more open approach to meditation (and life!) and was inspired by the writings of Jean Klein and a number of other teachers to begin my own explorations without the map of a specific tradition.
Ultimately the Buddhist group split off into a couple of other organizations and the Monday nights became available for other possibilities so at that time (2009), with the help of some of the other friends from the previous Buddhist sangha, we began the Open Awareness Meditation Group.
How do new people find out about your group? How do you distribute information, especially meeting times and places, to your members?
I set up a website for the group under the first name as we made the transition: Open Awareness Sangha— http://openawarenesssangha.org/ — but the website didn’t really accomplish much.
Joining Meetup however made a huge difference, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to try to start a nonduality group (or really any kind of group for that matter). Through Meetup you get all the tools you need to let people know about your group, promote the meetings, and keep in touch with new members. There is a fee, but all you need to run your group is there. I believe they may still have a low cost introductory membership to check out their service for the first six months.
We average around 20 attendees a week, and almost always have people entirely
new to the group (or to meditation) showing up. I find this very inspiring.
The key to making Meetup work I think is the way you describe the group you are trying to form, putting together a clear description/mission statement. This is a kind of an exercise in clarity which helps put into words the intention and direction of the group. Just taking the time to write this up might be very revealing in understanding what your real motivation is to start and run a group, and this is how people will ultimately become interested enough to stop by.
Do you have anything in writing that describes your group in any way?
Yes. This is from the website and the Meetup site:
—About This Meditation Meetup
We sit in silence for around 45 minutes, followed by discussion for around 30 minutes or so. The silent sitting is interspersed with some meditation instruction, perhaps a brief reading, a little simple inquiry, exploration or movement. Sitting posture is relaxed, either on a meditation cushion or a bench. It’s not a rigid practice— we move whenever we need to!
If you find you are running late, come anyway! The format is very relaxed and open— anyone interested in contemplative practice is welcome!
—About Open Awareness Meditation
At the heart of these meditation sessions is the silent exploration of what we refer to as Open Awareness. We all know what it means to feel closed, limited, vulnerable, or separate. What is it like to allow ourselves to return to our natural condition of openness, presence, non-separateness and ease? This is what we explore in our meetings.
We have been meeting for over a decade, and those who lead the meditations have known each other and been attending sittings together for many years. They have all deeply explored a variety of traditions— for some it has been the Tibetan Buddhist practices of Dzogchen or Mahamudra, for others it has been the Indian traditions of Yoga, or Advaita, or what is currently referred to as Nonduality (some popular examples of this are Francis Lucille, Rupert Spira, Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti).
However all of these traditions ultimately point to the same truth, the truth of our basic awareness or presence which is beyond any tradition, practice or teaching. This is the presence we share and the presence we are, beyond words. This is what we explore in our meetings.
This group is somewhat unique in that there is no specific guiding teacher, lama, or guru. We all meet as equals to question, share, and inspire each other to explore the Open Awareness we most deeply are. The meetings are suitable for newcomers as well as experienced meditators, and all are very welcome.
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So as you can see from the write-up, the nonduality aspect is evoked but it’s not used to define the group. This means that we don’t have to limit the discussion to seeing from any particular perspective. Whatever we happen to be feeling (open, closed, separate, non-separate, empty, full, etc.), all perspectives are valid and honored as a statement of one’s present condition.
And for those of us who happen to be experiencing the sort of openness and non-separateness that the meditation is meant to evoke and explore, it might be possible to point the conversation in that direction. The point is for our conversation to be coming from our direct experience as opposed to from any idea or ideal of a nondual perspective.
Do you have a core group, that is, two or more people dedicated to sharing the values of the group?
We have four meditation leaders in all. I consider them to be some of my very best friends, and I adore hanging out with them. There is a sweetness to these friendships which arise out of a background of freedom and open awareness which just gets stronger as the years go on.
In fact in a way it seems that friendship is the key to the whole situation— cultivating and enjoying the friendships that help us stay awake. And on a deeper level, it can be the possibility of seeing the one awareness shining out of the eyes of all who attend.
As I like to say “Friendship is the doorway we step through and lose our selves.”
What is the purpose of the group?
To explore the direct experience of open awareness… both in meditation and in
Is there a screening of potential members?
Is there a moderator? What are the duties of the moderator? What are the greatest challenges now and in the past? What are your core values?
The four people we refer to as “meditation leaders” have a tremendous depth in terms of their commitment to waking up. Exploring awareness, compassion and non-separateness is the most important thing in their lives, and so they have a lot to share with someone who is just starting to consider these things.
However all four meditation leaders often see things quite differently, and that, along with the great questioning and sharing of the others who attend, creates a very powerful and rich situation. No one has the final word, we all just try to keep it real and speak our hearts.
Though the meditation leaders are for the most part “sharing” as opposed to “teaching”, there is a great transformative power to being put on the spot, to try to find words for and to communicate the unspeakable. How does one tap into the simplicity of presence and open awareness, and how might one point to that very naturally, without reverting to Buddhist, Advaita or nonduality dogma? That is what the meditation leader attempts to explore.
I have come to feel that there are severe limitations to the format commonly referred to as satsang, where all the questions are addressed to one person who is assumed to have all the answers. Granted, there is a huge value to communicating and working with a skillful teacher. I have had many, and I am incredibly grateful to them. But the point is that more than any teacher or teaching we have ever been exposed to, the voice we most long to hear is our own voice. We need to make our own discoveries, and to hear the voice of truth come out of our own mouths, in our own language— and in a sense this is what our group tries to facilitate.
The beauty of it for all concerned, both during the meditation as well as the discussion, is the possibility of hearing yourself say something you didn’t know you knew, but in the moment of saying it you know you know it. That is, to simply hear yourself say what is deeply true. And this speaking and hearing take place in the light of our shared presence, open awareness, beyond the limitations of words.
For me the Open Awareness Meditation Group has just gotten more and more beautiful. It’s a place to put down the burden of being somebody, and to discover what is here. I treasure the experience of being with these people, both old friend and those completely new, and I have found the group to be one of the most helpful, transformative things I have ever encountered.
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