Community of Mindful Living: Our History

The following is a history of our group written by a former member who was there from the beginning. The title refers to the former name of our sangha.

History of the Raleigh Mindfulness Meditation Group

The impetus for a sangha began when Marcia Curtis was interim minister of UUFR. At that time Marcia had been a follower of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, or “Thay”, for about ten years. She gave a sermon on Buddhism and Mindfulness in May 1996 and in June offered a six-week course in meditation called Peace is Every Step. She chose Hanh’s Peace is Every Step and The Blooming of a Lotus as texts.

Marcia taught us how to sit on a firm pillow or Zafu with knees wide apart and a straight spine. She always brought us some flowers for the center of our circle and lit a candle. She taught us some simple songs that Thay uses, “In, Out, Deep, Slow” and “Breathing In, Breathing Out”, which we sang at the beginning and end of each meeting. Beautiful hand movements accompanied the songs. She brought her bell and instructed us in how to “awaken the bell” with a light tap to the rim and how to “invite the bell” on its side to produce a clear, long tone.

After a short sitting and a song, Marcia would give a Dharma talk relating to a reading from the texts. Some of the topics I remember were breathing, releasing thoughts, smiling, emotions (especially anger), mindfulness, and walking meditation. A guided meditation from the text followed. We began with the simplest ones from The Blooming of a Lotus. Between each session of the meditation Marcia awakened the bell, then invited the bell to sound to begin a new section; the end of meditation was signaled by three sounds of the bell. Afterwards, we had a discussion about the topic in which people could bring up issues relating to their own practice. Sometimes we talked about how to bring the teachings into our everyday lives. On a couple nights Marcia showed a video of Thay giving a Dharma talk. His unusual demeanor fascinated me; one eye was filled with compassion while the other always maintained a look of amusement. His speech was measured and gentle; one had to sit quietly and alertly to understand him.

A lot of interest was generated during Marcia’s class. In the fall of 1996, a small group met and decided to form a self-led sangha with members leading on a volunteer basis. The sangha began meeting bimonthly in October or November with Marcia leading for a couple of sessions. The first person to step up into the leadership role was Laurie Cone. Laurie capably continued with the format and challenged us with longer, more difficult meditations. Early on, Jim Whitlock joined the group; he brought his experience gained with the Eno River meditation group and and helpful suggestions for topics and format. It was his idea to discuss the book A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. One night Jim presented us with our own bell; his wife made the red velvet bag that it is kept in.

At some point we decided that we wanted to meet weekly. Monday was agreed upon as the day and continues to be. We also moved permanently into the Clara Barton Room instead of alternating with Fellowship Hall. During this time, there were many changes in the group. People came and went, and the format of the weekly sessions kept evolving. For a period of time, we tried letting each person share about his or her own personal practice; this proved to be quite time consuming. Now we simply go around the circle and state our names. Others who took on the early leadership role for the group were Joyce Todd, John Iler, Andrea Nelson, Karen McGee, Lynn Lyle, Yijin Qui, and Leslie Inman. As our sitting practices have matured, we have become more focused on meditation; songs and lengthy discussion have fallen by the wayside in favor of longer sitting sessions and a monthly evening of silent meditation. Once each month we renew the five precepts, or Five Mindfulness Trainings as rewritten by Thich Nhat Hanh. Laurie Cone started this practice after attending a weeklong retreat with Thay. Gail O’Brien committed to continue the practice after attending a five day retreat with Thay at the Omega Institute in June 1998. Recently we have enjoyed wonderful dharma teachings from Judy Schattner, John Iler, Gail O’Brien, Joyce Todd, and Leslie Inman. (Leslie [Venerable Lhundub Tendron] received her monastic vows from Geshe Sopa at Deer Park Monastery in Wisconsin and is undertaking a five-year course at Chenrezig Institute near Brisbane, Australia. We feel honored that one of our own is there.)

The name Raleigh Mindfulness Meditation Group was adopted in the fall of 1998. We wanted to be recognized as an established sangha and be listed in the Mindfulness Bell. We continue to enjoy status as an adult education group at UUFR, whom we thank for the use of their space. Attendance is open to anyone interested.

As I leave this sangha, I know that it will continue to be a source for compassion and peace in Raleigh. Many blessings to all of you.

Andrea Nelson
May 1999