Insight Meditation Society - Tranquility. Wisdom. Compassion.
IMS is a spiritual refuge for all who seek freedom of mind and heart. We offer meditation retreats rooted in the Theravada Buddhist teachings of ethics, concentration and wisdom. These practices help develop awareness and compassion in ourselves, giving rise to greater peace and happiness in the world.
“What does diversity work have to do with the Dharma?”
“Why does IMS offer ‘Affinity Sits,’ separate sitting groups during retreats for people of color and other groups? Isn’t the goal for us all to come together?”
“What’s diversity work been like for IMS’s teachers? One more thing they have to do, or an opportunity they welcome?”
These are some of the questions IMS regularly fields regarding the diversity initiatives we’ve undertaken for more than a decade. And such questions are understandable, considering that diversity work is relatively new to the Dharma world. Since the dawn of the mindfulness movement in the 1970s, those flocking to retreat centers, including IMS, have been largely white and middle-class. For years, few people of color (POC) attended our retreats and LGBTIQA+ people and other marginalized groups remained unacknowledged.
Over the past 10 or so years, however, IMS has been committed to challenging and transforming the barriers that have kept diverse communities from finding a spiritual home at our centers. Although this work never really ends, we’ve come a long way. For example, a third of our Board members now self-identify as people of color, three as LGBTIQA+. Each year, we sponsor diversity and inclusion workshops and trainings for Board members, teachers and staff. We offer annual retreats for marginalized groups, and we provide financial assistance for people of color who otherwise might not be able to practice at IMS. In 2017, we launched a new, four-year Teacher Training Program in which 75% of the trainees identify as POC. (For more on our major initiatives, visit our Diversity and Inclusion page.)
Diversity and the Dharma
Still, a list of steps we’ve taken doesn’t explain why diversity work is so important to us, what impact it’s had on our centers, and what it means for newcomers to IMS, both teachers and retreatants. To address such questions, we’ve developed Diversity and the Dharma, a series of video interviews with IMS teachers and staff, including Joseph Goldstein, IMS co-founder and a leader in our diversity work since it began, guiding teachers DaRa Williams, Rebecca Bradshaw, and Greg Scharf, teachers Winnie Nazarko and Brian LeSage, and retreat support staffer Phoenix Soleil.
Topics covered in these videos include: the historical background of IMS’s diversity work; white privilege and the Dharma; the challenges and opportunities inherent in this work; diversity and the retreat “container”; affinity sitting groups; the future of diversity and inclusion efforts at IMS.
Above all, we hope that Diversity and the Dharma highlights the rich rewards we continue to reap, as individuals and as a community, as we strive in our commitment to make IMS a place where all feel welcome, safe and respected.
To view this series, click first video at the top of this page, followed by the others, below, or visit IMS’s YouTube channel.
During January, Sayadaw U Jagara and Shaila Catherine will support retreatants in investigating how a correct observation of our manifold experiences gives rise to wisdom and courage. Priority will be given to anyone applying for the full month of January or longer.
Throughout May, Rodney Smith and Narayan Liebenson will lead The Magnanimous Heart. As awareness is freed from the bonds of our personal narrative and mental projections, we can cultivate a fearless presence that holds the entirety of life within the magnanimous heart. Priority will be given to those applying for the entire month of May or longer. A lottery will be conducted for stays during this time.
Then in June, Sayadaw U Vivekananda will offer Satipaṭṭhāna meditation in the Burmese tradition of the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw. Retreatants will focus on developing continuous mindfulness in sitting, walking and general activities. Priority will be given to anyone applying for the full month of June or longer. A lottery will be conducted.
In September, Guy Armstrong and Sally Armstrong will teach The Still Heart of Awareness, a course to strengthen our understanding and experience of the nature of awareness. A minimum stay for the full month of September is required. A lottery will also be conducted.
A number of highly qualified teachers will be in residence during remaining months.
The Forest Refuge is a practice community where stays can range from seven nights to a year or more. With teacher guidance and support, experienced insight meditators can settle into greater depths of practice, strengthening meditative faith and self-reliance.
As part of our efforts toward greater diversity and inclusion, IMS now reserves a portion of all spaces for people of color. Read details here. In addition, thanks to generous donations, funding is again available to support a number of experienced people of color meditators who wish to sit at the Forest Refuge in 2020.
April 2019 – As part of IMS’s efforts toward greater diversity and inclusion, we reserve a portion of all retreat spaces for people of color.
This applies to every course, whether at our Retreat Center or Forest Refuge, including any retreat where a lottery will be conducted.
We encourage you to apply, even if our website says a course is full – spaces for people of color may still be available. And so we can support your participation in the retreat of your choice, please fill out the people of color affiliation section of the registration or application form.
Please note that these spaces will be reserved only until a certain time before courses begin. At the Retreat Center, for courses lasting a week or less, unused places we’ve held for people of color will be released two months before the start date. For retreats longer than seven days, unused reserved spaces will be released four months prior.
At the Forest Refuge, any unused slots for people of color will be released four months beforehand.
We hope you can help spread the word about this initiative.
Susan and Bill Morgan, in part one of a seven-part video series, reflecting on their four-year silent meditation retreat at IMS’s Forest Refuge. (View parts two through seven, below.)
By John Spalding
Wherever we may be in our practice, we’ve all at times asked ourselves: What would it be like if I sat a little longer? Perhaps after our first afternoon, or daylong silent retreat, we thought—“I was really able finally to settle in there and experience stillness. It was powerful, and some interesting thoughts arose. What would sitting two days be like? Or three? What if I did a full week of silent meditation? What deeper levels of insight and compassion might unfold then?”
Few have understood and heeded this call of the cushion quite like Bill and Susan Morgan. For years, this Boston couple, both of whom are meditation teachers and longtime meditators, had been coming to the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge to sit silent retreats for three months every year. Some years, they have sat for three months straight. For others, they’ve sat for two six-week periods. For several years in a row, they sat in silence for one week each month.
Then, one day in 2009, Susan said to Bill, “I think we should do a deeper dive. Let’s really step out, and go more deeply into the practice.” Her proposal? A two-year silent meditation retreat.
That November, the couple—Bill, a clinical psychologist, and Susan, a psychiatric nurse, both with private practices—made arrangements to undertake their two-year journey in stillness. Bill found coverage for his clients; Susan closed her practice. They rented out their home, and settled in at the Forest Refuge. Located in the woods adjacent to IMS’s Retreat Center, the Forest Refuge is designed for experienced practitioners seeking longer-term retreat practice for periods ranging from a minimum of seven nights to stays of a year or more.
After two years, Susan and Bill decided to continue sitting for another year. After that, they stayed on for yet another, final year, emerging from the Forest Refuge in December 2013, after four years of silence, with only two weeklong breaks each year to check on their affairs at home.
Now, in a series of seven videos entitled, “A Deeper Dive: Reflections on a Four-Year Silent Meditation Retreat,” Bill and Susan look back on their experiences at the Forest Refuge, sharing how they came to the idea to commit to such a prolonged period of practice, the challenges they faced along the way, and several profound insights they gleaned both about themselves as individuals, and as a couple, practicing side-by-side every day, without speaking, for four years.
To view this series, click first video at the top of this page, followed by the others, below, or visit IMS’s YouTube channel.
Bill and Susan Morgan will be teaching a course entitled “Cultivating the Holding Environment: Setting Up the Posture of Mindfulness,” at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, April 17-21, 2019. For more information, visit BCBS’s website.
Early Buddhism is a living spiritual tradition based on the original teachings of the historical figure known as the Buddha, or Awakened One, who lived in northern India in the fifth century BCE. The term can also refer to the doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha, including understandings such as the Four Noble Truths, guidance on conduct such as the Five Precepts, and meditation practices like insight (vipassana), mindfulness, and lovingkindness. Today in Asia the followers of Early Buddhism are found primarily in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Many IMS teachers trained in these countries before bringing the teachings to the West.
Until recently the tradition of Early Buddhism was more commonly known as Theravada, or Way of the Elders. In fact IMS originally considered itself to be a Theravadan center. However, modern scholarship has revealed that Theravada is just one of some eighteen schools of Early Buddhism, each with its own views and foundational texts. Early Buddhists today agree that the discourses of the Buddha (collectively, the Dhamma) and his monastic code (the Vinaya) are authoritative. The Theravadan school also considers the Pali Abhidhamma and commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga to be authoritative, while other Early Buddhists may not. Hence Early Buddhism and Theravada are not synonymous, although there is much overlap.
IMS has recently launched a major project: the construction of a Teacher Village. This will be situated on five acres already owned by IMS on Pleasant Street in Barre, MA, very close to the Retreat Center.
The Teacher Village will solve several pressing challenges. In coming years, many of our original faculty will be reducing their teaching commitments or retiring altogether. Before then, it’s critical that they spend time mentoring our newer teachers and trainees, ensuring that the breadth and depth of the Buddha’s teachings at our centers continue long after they are gone.
As we plan for this succession, larger teaching teams are needed, making our current teacher housing and the lack of a dedicated faculty meeting space unworkable for the longer term.
And so the idea of a Teacher Village was born. Our vision calls for four single-story duplexes (eight accommodation units) and a Commons House dedicated meeting area. Thanks to a most generous initial gift, we’ve been able to already engage our architects and contractor. Final plans are in process, building permits are in place and all the foundation walls have been poured. Slabs for two of the buildings have also been set and framing has begun. Work will continue through the winter, as weather permits.
An important additional benefit is that when the Teacher Village is built, we can make our current teacher accommodations available for much-needed staff housing.
We held a moving ceremony on the site on October 16 to bless the land and all beings who have been nourished by it through the centuries. Many teachers and staff attended.
We invite you to join us in supporting the creation of this very special space to support IMS and our growing community of Dharma teachers. A significant fundraising endeavor is underway to raise the rest of the funds needed. This project will be the theme of the 2019 Spring Appeal. Please feel free to contact Executive Director Inger Forland, Development Director Gyano Gibson, or Development Specialist Margo Mallar if you have any questions or are interested in partnering with us to bring this exciting project to completion.
Teacher Village groundbreaking ceremony: with offerings of flowers, fruits and water, teachers Bhante Buddharakkhita, Greg Scharf and Jaya Rudgard led Pali chants with staff and guests.
For many of us, the current environment, magnified by 24-hour news outlets and social media, has created a level of stress, fear and anger that impacts our lives and relationships. How can we meet these challenges with a clear mind and an open heart? IMS co-founder and renowned meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein discusses the two qualities of mind—equanimity and compassion—that enable us to unhook from reactivity and engage the world with purpose and hope.
Sarah Doering, a spiritual guide, meditation teacher, dear friend to many in the IMS community and major benefactor of the Insight Meditation Society, died peacefully at Hospice of the Fisher Home, in Amherst, MA, on November 16, 2018. She was 92.
Through her teaching, counsel and financial support, Doering played a vital role in helping Buddhism flourish in the West. Her generosity provided a stable financial base from which insight meditation and Buddhist centers from IMS, the Forest Refuge, and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies to Cambridge Insight Meditation Center and Spirit Rock, have been able to offer retreats and life-transforming opportunities to tens of thousands of people from around the world.
“Sarah exemplified an unusual combination of dignity, wisdom and warm heartedness,” said Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of IMS. “She took a rare delight in simple pleasures, beautiful aesthetics, harmony between people, and more than anything, being of service. Sarah knew that large, magnanimous acts interspersed with immediate direct moments of kindness—listening to someone, encouraging them—make up a life of compassion. She lived a life of compassion fully.”
Sarah Doering, portrait by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson.
Born Sarah Cowles on August 11, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, Doering was the second of four children of John Cowles, Sr., and his wife, Elizabeth. In the 1920s, Doering’s father became vice president, general manager and associate publisher of the Des Moines morning and evening newspapers. In 1935, her paternal grandfather, father and uncle bought The Minneapolis Star, and in 1938, her father moved the family to Minneapolis so he could manage the paper. Her mother was active in women’s rights and civil rights, helped found the first branch of Planned Parenthood in Iowa and was a lifetime member of the NAACP.
After graduating with a Ph.B. from the University of Chicago in 1947, Doering studied for a year at Radcliffe College before marrying, in 1948, her first husband, John Marshall Bullitt, a graduate student who became a professor of English literature at Harvard. The couple had four children, whom they raised for many years in Harvard’s Quincy House, where John served as House Master, entertaining thousands of Harvard students, faculty, staff and guests of the university. After her first marriage ended, Doering married William von Eggers Doering, a professor of chemistry at Harvard, in 1969.
A new chapter in Doering’s life began in the mid-1970s, after she turned 50. While caring for her husband’s aging father, who lived in their home, she began to wonder, “What is this life all about? And what am I, anyway? Am I Christian? Am I Buddhist?” The last question startled her, for she knew little about Buddhism.
She decided to pursue answers at Harvard Divinity School, located next door to her home on Francis Avenue in Cambridge. She enrolled in one course, signed up for another, and before long was immersed in studying the New Testament. Seeking a stronger sense of community, she transferred to Episcopal Divinity School, then in Cambridge, where she received a Master of Theological Studies degree in 1980.
During her last year in seminary, a line she read in The Inner Eye of Love, a book by the Jesuit William Johnston, stuck with her: “The practice of vipassana helps one to discern the will of God.”
“I remembered that sentence in 1981, the year after I graduated from EDS,” Doering later said, recalling her introduction to vipassana, or insight, meditation. “I was walking in Harvard Square and on a lamppost someone had taped a sign, ‘Introductory Class in Vipassana, taught by Larry Rosenberg.’ I went to the first meeting of the six-week course, and found myself so fascinated that I signed up [for the course] again.”
The following year, she registered for a nine-day silent retreat taught by Rosenberg at the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, MA, marking the beginning of a profound and enduring relationship with IMS, its founders, teachers and extended community. Before long, Doering was sitting IMS’s annual three-month silent retreat, a retreat she sat regularly for some 17 years.
In Cambridge, she continued to take Rosenberg’s courses, which were held wherever they could find space—an acupuncturist’s office, a bookstore, a church and Rosenberg’s own apartment, which was so small that participants had to practice walking meditation standing in place.
Doering decided to help the group secure a regular meeting spot. With her support, they eventually bought a run-down, single-family house in Cambridge. After extensive renovation, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center opened its doors in 1985. In the mid-1980s, Doering’s contributions enabled the purchase of a vast parcel of undeveloped land in northern California that became Spirit Rock. The same decade, she helped to fund the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, a non-profit educational organization, located a half-mile from IMS, that’s committed to integrating Buddhist scholarship with meditative wisdom.
Doering, with IMS’s Joseph Goldstein.
Another gift to IMS enabled construction of the Forest Refuge, a retreat facility for experienced meditators who devote themselves to sustained, long-term practice for periods of up to a year or more. When the Forest Refuge opened in 2003, Doering moved to one of its cottages and lived there for several years. She taught meditation at IMS, the Forest Refuge and Cambridge Insight. She also served on IMS’s board of directors.
Doering’s generosity extended to more traditional centers of education. Interested in promoting Asian studies, particularly Buddhist studies, she funded a full chair in Asian Studies at Smith College and a full chair in Tibetan studies at Columbia University. She was also a generous supporter of her two alma maters, Episcopal Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, funding half a chair at HDS, whose first occupant was the Roman Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. Although keenly interested in the welfare of the organizations she supported, she left them free to chart their own course.
“With her characteristic grace, modesty, and generosity, Sarah was one of the great benefactors in the spread of Buddhist meditation and teachings from Asia to the West,” said Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of IMS. “As a dear friend, a profoundly wise meditator, a compassionate and skilled meditation teacher, and a magnanimous supporter of both individuals and institutions, Sarah’s contributions will continue to be a blessing for so many.”
Doering, left, at the blessing of IMS’s Forest Refuge in 2003, with Winnie Nazarko and Joseph Goldstein.
“She was a remarkable human being,” Goldstein added, “who inspired everyone who had the great good fortune of being in her presence.”
Larry Rosenberg recalls Doering as “a true spiritual seeker.”
“In my 45 years of teaching Buddhist meditation,” Rosenberg said, “she stands out as someone who really grasped the profundity of the teaching and who actually lived it, including during the last days before she died.”
Doering’s survivors include Elizabeth Bullitt and her husband Allan H. Friedman of Durham, NC, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and her husband Robert A. Jonas of Northampton, MA, Sarah Bullitt of Belfast, ME, and John Bullitt and his partner Jane Yudelman of Steuben, ME. She is also survived by a brother, Russell Cowles of Naples, FL, and by seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her sister Morley (Cowles) Ballantine in 2009, and by her brother John Cowles, Jr. in 2012.
A Q&A with Oren Jay Sofer, IMS Teacher and Author of Say What You Mean
By John Spalding
In his forthcoming book, Say What You Mean, IMS teacher Oren Jay Sofer draws on three streams of practice—mindfulness, somatics and Nonviolent Communication—to offer practical exercises that develop healthy and effective ways of communicating, creating more connection and understanding in our relationships. Recently, we sat down with Oren to discuss his book and the challenge of applying its insights at a time when our conflicts and differences seem greater than ever.
What motivated you to write Say What You Mean?
I think our world needs these skills now more than ever. With the internet and social media, we’re all so connected yet real dialogue is almost completely absent from the public discourse. I think we need to re-learn how to listen and talk to one another. Family gatherings turn into political feuds, and so much of mainstream journalism has become limited to espousing the views of one side or another. If we are to meet the immense challenges we’re facing on our planet and our society, we need to be able to work together—and communication is the key to that.
Many have an idea about what mindfulness is. What is “mindful communication”?
Mindful communication is creating understanding through awareness. We can apply both our intention and attention to the flow of connection and information in a relationship, and use mindfulness to create the conditions for mutual understanding to arise. So it’s a process of first learning to recognize what those conditions are, and then training our hearts and minds to support them more consistently.
I break the process down into three main steps. First, we train ourselves to lead with presence—which is rooted in basic mindfulness practice, but with a strong emphasis on embodiment, relational awareness, and specifically awareness during the flow of thinking, speaking and listening. Second, we train in an intention to come from curiosity and care. This too is an extension of mindfulness practice, learning to becoming conscious of what’s driving our speech and our actions, and steering in more wholesome, helpful directions.
The last step is training our attention—to focus on what matters. Here, we apply mindfulness to specific aspects of our experience and learn how focusing on different perceptions can be more or less useful to create understanding. For example, attending to perceptions of right and wrong, or should and shouldn’t, lock us in conflict and defensiveness. When we can place our attention on specific observations, emotions, and the underlying needs or values we hold, it creates more space for hearing one another.
Conversations often go awry when strong emotions arise. How can we best work with difficult emotions, both our own and the other person’s?
This is such a huge area of practice. Again, the foundation is mindfulness. We need to develop the capacity not only to be aware of our emotions but also to tolerate the discomfort of strong, unpleasant emotions. For meditators, we train in this everyday—sitting with knee pain, restlessness, or boredom. If we’re really paying attention, we learn how those moments of patience, tolerance, energy, and letting go apply to the flow of our everyday life and interactions.
But we also need wisdom. We need to understand where our emotions come from, to recognize the meaning they often carry. If there’s emotion, something matters. Emotions are deeply rooted, biological signals that point to something that matters for us. When we get the information underneath an emotion—what we’re valuing, wanting or needing—the intensity of the signal can settle and we can go about attending to the situation. That might mean working internally with our relationship to a specific need or desire, or engaging external to explore the possibility of meeting that need with another.
In the book, you quote an intriguing saying—“the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Can you talk about that?
Yes—I love that saying. (It’s attributed to George Bernard Shaw, though that’s in question). This points to a fundamental truth: communication is about sending and receiving messages. However, we often don’t check if message sent equals message received. We can have a whole conversation without ever really confirming that we’re understanding one another. There’s a certain amount of validation that happens nonverbally, through facial expression, body language, and even intuition.
So much difficulty can arise from assuming that we’ve understood one another, only to find out later that we were mistaken! Instead, we can learn to build understanding step by step in a conversation—especially in challenging moments—by checking that we’re on the same page and confirming we’re really hearing one another. When we start to get a feel for this it can be quite satisfying.
You make a strong case for why it’s important to approach conversations with the intention of curiosity and care. What if the person seems to be trying to provoke us or make things difficult?
Then it’s all the more important to be firmly rooted in a wholesome, skillful intention. When that kind of energy is present, things can get explosive quickly if we’re not able to bring a cool, clear, and steady intention to the interaction.
I think it’s important to also be wary of our assumptions. Even if the person is trying to get a rise out of us, if we’re connected to curiosity and care we can see more deeply into their heart. We may sense their pain, and understand their behavior as a tragic attempt to find relief, understanding or empathy for how they feel. We may intuit a feeling of helplessness underneath the aggression, and a desire for autonomy, agency, or even deeper knowing that they matter. Seeing through the eyes of compassion can allow us to connect with the humanity in another in spite of unskillful or harmful behavior. Our response will then be much more likely to deescalate the situation and cool the flames.
We now live in a “post-truth” world full of “alternative facts.” How can we have a constructive conversation with those with whom we can’t even agree on basic observations?
That’s the question for our time, isn’t it? I think there are a few important points here. One is to see if we can find basic agreements on how we want to have a conversation. We may disagree on the facts, but if we can establish a framework of mutual respect, listening, and kindness, we’ve already changed the dialogue.
That isn’t always possible at the outset, and we may need to work to embody those qualities in ourselves until we’ve engendered enough trust and personal connection to create that kind of space. So the second point is seeing if we can listen beneath the information to what really matters. Regardless of which set of data you’re looking at, where it’s coming from or why you’ve chosen it, what’s important to you? Even if we can’t agree on the data, we can find common ground in our basic human values. Do we want a society that provides clean drinking water, access to food, education, meaningful work and medicine? I believe that our conflicts and differences arise in how to get there.
The last avenue is the possibility of having an honest conversation about our value for truthfulness, and genuinely exploring the validity of our data together. Right now, there’s spin on both sides. It’s hard to find objective, balanced reporting. What would it be like to own up to that and really explore creating shared criteria to evaluate data?
What do you most hope people will take from reading your book?
First and foremost, communication is a learnable skill. We each have the capacity to communicate better. Second, conflict can be a source of creativity, discovery, and even intimacy rather than pain and disconnection. And last, that it’s not separate from our contemplative practice. Communication and relationship can be the source of profound and transformative insight.
Interested in learning more about mindful communication? Join IMS for a Facebook Live conversation with Oren Jay Sofer and Sharon Salzberg on Mon., October 29, at 8:30 PM EST.
We are happy to announce that in August we reached our fundraising goal for IMS’s four-year Teacher Training Program! This is much sooner than anticipated. The IMS community’s commitment to supporting the training of new teachers and increasing the diversity or our faculty is inspiring.
We’ve posted a short video on our website: “A New Dharma Wave” features core faculty and several of the trainees talking about the program and their experience to date.
IMS Teacher Training Program participants and faculty, August 2018.