One of the most common practices in our community is dharma sharing or dharma discussion. This is an opportunity to explore our practice together in a group. There are many models for facilitating dharma sharing and here are some guidelines.
Guidelines for Dharma Sharing
1. Practice deep listening and loving mindful speech.
Topics emanate from our life and practice. It is best to avoid discussions which are theoretical rather than experiential. Our deepest aspiration is “to learn your (Avalokita’s) way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world”. We can invoke the name of Avalokita before the Dharma sharing begins.
Even though we have the intention to listen deeply our mind will wander. Perhaps we are agreeing, disagreeing, feeling agitated, wanting to respond, drifting, etc. If we are mindful of our thoughts and inner dialogue, we can choose to come back to being present with the person speaking. Many in our Sangha use this as a training to become more attentive listeners for family and friends
Our speech, like our listening, is the fruit of our practice, a response from within. It is good for the atmosphere of the Dharma Sharing when participants take three breaths before speaking, to allow time for the previous person’s speaking to be fully received. Speaking from the heart about topics that emanate from our life and practice includes, speaking with awareness in a way that could be of benefit to others as well as ourselves. For example, speaking with kindness, in a voice that is clear and loud enough for everyone to hear including those with some hearing loss and connecting with others by making eye contact and perhaps smiling from time to time. We all benefit from hearing each other’s insights and direct experience of the practice.
Like the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Guidelines protect us and offer direction towards the “North Star” of clear and compassionate communication.
Before speaking we may wish to make a flower bud with our hands and bow. When we bow, or put our hand on our heart or use a signal we are comfortable with, we are signaling that we would like to share. The Sangha bows back acknowledging that we are ready to listen deeply. When we are finished we let the Sangha know by bowing/signaling again. Knowing that we will not be interrupted creates a safe and harmonious environment.
In place of bowing we can use an object, often referred to as “talking stick”, to pass around the circle. The facilitator might introduce this method if the group is very large and/or if the facilitator senses that there are participants who wish to share but are too shy to do so. It may be suggested that folks introduce themselves by name and if a person is inspired to speak, she/he will do so, if not they will pass the object on to the next person. If time allows it is considerate to send the object around a second time so that those who were not ready to speak have another opportunity.
3. Saying our name, each time, before we speak.
This practice fosters a sense of inclusion for newcomers as well as aiding those of us who might have some difficulty remembering names. We do this in our Sangha even when there seems to be only “regulars” present.
4. Avoid giving advice, even if it asked for.
In general it is helpful to always use the word “I” instead of the word “you”. Speaking from our own experience eliminates the opportunity to give advice. If someone asks for advice and a practice that we have worked with comes to mind it is fine to share our experience rather than telling someone what she or he should do.
5. All that arises is confidential, or “What is said here stays here”
Confidentiality secures the safety of the group and helps avoid gossiping. Also, after the Dharma Sharing time, if we want to talk to with someone about what they said in the group, we first ask if it is OK. Sometimes a person does not want to talk more about what they said and this is a respectful way to honor his or her space.
6. Refrain from speaking a second time until it appears that everyone who wants to speak has spoken.
This ensures an opportunity for everyone to speak and provides a space where we can benefit from all of our Sangha wisdom. We are encouraged to speak mindfully, “not too much and not too little” for the number of participants. Near the end of the time the facilitator may offer an opportunity for those who have not spoken to do so if they wish and may address any unanswered questions.
7. Share with the Whole Circle
Whatever we share is for the benefit of all those present. We do not engage in crosstalk with another participant . If we ask a question we ask the whole group and if we answer a question we speak to the whole group and not just the person who asked. If we ask a question we should not expect an answer straight away. Another topic may be addressed first and only when someone feels ready to address the question asked does it need to be addressed. However, if towards the end of the sharing, the question has not been addressed the facilitator can assure the group that the question has not been forgotten.