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Group Advice: Buddhist Recovery Network Suggestions on Setting up and Facilitating a Group
Before a group can get off the ground, a few things need to be established:
Setting a clear intention is the vital starting point for someone thinking about forming a group. Is your main focus going to be in deepening your Step work? deepening your meditation practice? dharma study? forming community and giving a place to share? Answering these and other questions about what you want from your group will help you to decide on the other questions of leadership, membership, form, and content. For instance, if your main interest is in growing the community, you might want open membership, whereas, if you want to focus on deepening meditation and forming intimate connections, you might want a closed membership.
What might be more critical in thinking about intention is in distinguishing the purpose of a Buddhism/Twelve Step group from that of an ordinary Twelve Step group. What I always try to look for in any Buddhist discussion is, How does what we’re talking about relate to the dharma? So, if someone is helping a sick relative, to put it in the context of the Buddha’s teaching on suffering, that we are all subject to sickness, old age, and death. This doesn’t mean that we deny people their need to process grief or any difficult emotions -on the contrary, being fully present with those painful experiences is vital to the process of moving through them and healing- but it does mean that at some point we remind ourselves of the context of our experience and don’t stay stuck in the “story.” This is a common difficulty in any group focused on spirituality and healing -it’s so easy for us to stay in the “problem” and forget the solution. While it’s helpful to talk about our difficulties, if we don’t move beyond examining our pain toward looking at the Path of freedom, we miss the point of the spiritual teachings.
So, whoever is facilitating, be it a teacher or just a member of the group, this focus on intention should be kept very strong. In Twelve Step groups we call this “primary purpose” and in Buddhism “Right Intention.”
Leadership can be approached in two basic ways: set facilitators who organize and lead the group, or “group conscience” which is essentially a democracy. The advantage of having set facilitators is that they would be more experienced practitioners who could hold the group together more strongly. Some of the disadvantages are the potential for projection that a leader gets, where people in the group like or dislike things the leader says or does and the tendency for members to not take responsibility for the group, expecting the leader to do all the work. So this form opens the door for the “personalities before principles” issue that Twelve Step groups seek to avoid. The advantage of a more democratic form are that everyone feels fully invested in the group and takes their share of responsibility. The disadvantage can be that if there is no experienced practitioner, the group might find itself going down unproductive paths. Kalyana Mitta (KM) groups can devolve (as can Twelve Step groups) into little more than group therapy sessions, and, without a leader to guide the group back to its foundation principles, this can undercut the group goals. My preference, then, is for leadership, but I also know that the “benign anarchy” of Twelve Step groups can be very effective. What I think is most important in that case is that the group have a very strong intention -even a mission statement of some sort- so that it can always come back to its core purpose, in the same way that Twelve Step groups emphasize a “singleness of purpose.”
When I led a KM group, I was asked to lead it by a senior teacher. This is the typical way that one takes a teaching or leadership role in the Buddhist community, through the aegis of an established teacher. One could say that Buddhism is hierarchical (which is true), but the hierarchy isn’t supposed to be based so much on power as on wisdom. What this means is that a teacher or leader’s authority grows out of their realization, out of the depth of their practice and their understanding, and not out of some personal “leadership qualities” which might make them popular or powerful, nor out of their own desire to be a leader. Traditionally the person who certifies this depth of practice is another, more senior, teacher. In this way, the Buddhist tradition has kept alive a “lineage” of enlightened (or at least wise and trustworthy) masters through two and a half millenia. It’s a system that, although it doesn’t fit so well with our culture’s current concerns about consensus, democracy, and egalitarianism, has, nonetheless worked, and success like that, I believe, needs to be respected and at least considered as a legitimate criteria. After all, if our spiritual leaders were elected on the basis of their popularity we’d have teachers with great personalities, but perhaps not a lot of wisdom (like our political leaders?).
So, what I’d suggest is that if a group is forming around some leaders, that those leaders should be certified or supported in some way by more senior teachers. If they are taking a leadership role, then that suggests that they have a depth of practice, which in turn suggests that they have studied with a teacher or teachers who they could call on as support. Anyone in a leadership role in a spiritual community needs such mentoring and support -the difficulties and risks associated with these roles are too great to handle alone. Specifically, if you are thinking of starting a group, I suggest that you contact a teacher with whom you have studied and ask for their support and mentoring in your new role.
Typically, KM groups have two facilitators. This is a good idea for many reasons. (Check out www.spiritrock.org and select “Community” then “Dharma Friends” to find a discussion of KM groups).
If, on the other hand, a group decides to form without a leader, a different approach will be taken. What I would suggest is a revolving facilitator role, where at the end of each gathering, one or two people agree to be facilitators for the next meeting. The group could keep a list of guidelines which the facilitators would follow. Such guidelines should be simple, but specific so that the group meetings are consistent. This is essentially the secretary role that is held in most Twelve Step groups. This person keeps track of the time, stays sensitive to the needs of the group and the individuals in the group -for instance, making sure that one person doesn’t dominate or that a quieter person doesn’t get left out of the discussion. They lead the group through the session, ringing the bell for meditation, reminding people of the structure of the session, and so on. Structure and a sense of orderliness are important for allowing people to relax and feel safe in the group.
How should you determine membership? How many members should you have? Who decides who can join? Or should it be a drop-in group, like a Twelve Step group, which is totally open to anyone who is interested. All of these questions need to be addressed by the facilitators and/or the members. While some KM groups require a certain meditation practice experience (like two years or a ten-day retreat), for a Buddhism/Twelve Step group, this seems unwise, because such groups are going to be especially appealing to Twelve Steppers with little or no meditation experience who want support in their practice. So, my suggestion is that groups have no requirement for meditation experience. On the other hand, if what you want is a group of experienced meditators who are also sober (clean, abstinent) then by all means, set a practice requirement. What any group will want to do is suggest that members establish a daily (or as close to daily as possible) meditation practice.
Do you want to have a sobriety requirement? Again, this is a decision for your group and/or leaders to make. If you are a closed group, you might want to have a suggested sobriety length (six months or a year?) and then take other applications on a case-by-case basis. If someone is completely new to meditation, slipping a lot, and perhaps detoxing, they might not be great members of the group. However, your group might want to reach out to such people, in the same way Twelve Step groups welcome people so openly. The only problem is that the nature of a meditation group is one of more quiet and a bit more serenity than a typical Twelve Step meeting, and any disruption could really have an adverse effect. Another person might want to join who had previous meditation experience and is newly sober but seems stable in their recovery. They might be a welcome addition to the group.
Typically a KM group is closed, as opposed to drop-in. This allows for the development of community and closeness among the members and a feeling of safety and support. Buddhism/Twelve Step groups might want to consider this structure. However, you might feel that it’s more important to be welcoming to the community than to keep the group closed. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Usually a KM group tries to maintain a range of membership, typically between 5 and 12. I’m not at all sure a Buddhism/Twelve Step group needs to stick to these relatively low numbers. Again, consider the pluses and minuses. It’s amazing how intimate a Twelve Step group can be even when there are dozens of people there-still, there’s no doubt that a smaller number allows for more of a sense of safety and support.
If you are starting a group, how will you attract members? If you’re in a large urban area, you probably won’t have much problem. You might even know a dozen people already, or at least by inviting a couple friends and seeing if they know anyone who might be interested, you might quickly fill the group. In a smaller area, or one in which Buddhist practitioners are more scarce, you might need to do some outreach. Clearly the first place to go is your Twelve Step meeting. If there’s an Eleventh Step meeting in your area, that would be a likely starting point. You might also consider putting up a notice at a health food store or independent bookstore. Of course, the Internet gives us almost unlimited resources in terms of connecting with people.
Once the group is formed, you’ll want to consider how new members are added. Can anyone in the group nominate someone or should everything go through the facilitators? In either case, any decision to confirm a new member should be contingent on their visiting the group and seeing how they fit in. Once someone’s in, it’s tough to get them out, so you don’t want to make mistakes at this stage.
The KM model is obviously a restrictive one and one which Twelve Steppers used to the benign anarchy of meetings may find too rigid. In fact, I know of two very successful groups in the Bay Area which are completely open. They do have fairly strong leadership, but they don’t seem to have any restrictions on membership. These groups tend to be full of energy and inspiration and are allowing people of all levels of sobriety and meditation experience to come together to form a strong community. My perspective as someone who is used to being the “teacher” and having more control over the setting probably biases me toward more restriction, but, the truth is that both models are completely valid and, again, the important question is, what do you want from your group? So, it comes down to intention. It’s likely that a KM model will provide more opportunity for structured meditation practice, study, and development. The more 12 Step open model I think fosters more connection, service, and opportunity for new people. Ideally, it would be nice if both could be available to people.
Now we get to the meat of the group: what’s going to happen when we get together? There probably aren’t that many different things that a group will do: meditate, talk, read, socialize. It’s just a matter of finding the form and content that is most helpful for your group.
In most meditation groups, the sitting, or meditation, period comes first. The reason for this may be that the meditation itself makes us more sensitive and open and allows us to both speak and listen with a clearer attention afterwards. It helps bring calm and stillness to the group and to give people a break from the busyness of their lives.
So, I recommend that once everyone is settled, that the group do some meditation. If you are an open group with drop-in members, it’s probably best to do give at least a little bit of meditation instruction. You can use the guided meditations in my book or any of a number of other books (see my booklist on kevingriffin.net for some suggestions), or, if your leader is an experienced meditator, they might want to just give their own instructions.
Generally it’s recommended that a meditation period be at least 20 minutes. For new people this might seem long, but it seems to be a widely accepted period. In fact, regular Buddhist meditation groups often sit for 45 minutes or even an hour. Obviously, each group will want to decide on the length of the meditation period.
Most groups end meditation with a bell. These can be purchased at spiritual bookstores, futon shops, meditation centers, health food stores, and online. A bell is a pleasant way to end a period of silence non-verbally. Some groups do chanting at the end of the meditation period, and, of course, a group might want to use a prayer, like the Serenity Prayer. In any case, it’s nice to have a ritualized way of ending meditation. It allows for a smooth transition out of the silence.
After the meditation, depending on how long the meeting is going to last, you might want to have time to stretch and have tea. At most meditation groups the break is fairly short so that the quiet developed during the sitting doesn’t dissipate too much, but for Buddhism/12 Step groups, the break is usually a more important part of the evening. This is when people get to connect informally which is very valuable.
Now you begin the interactive part of the session. If you are simply an open group, then you might just go right into sharing. A KM group often has a time for check-in where people talk about what’s going on in their lives right now before going into a chosen topic. Or the leader/facilitator might want to begin by talking on a topic as a way of stimulating conversation and sharing some dharma understanding. Any of these models can be effective.
Some groups find it helpful to read some literature together, following the 12 Step “Book Study” model. If it’s a KM group, you might suggest that people read a chapter of a book before the group meets so people can go right into discussion. A drop-in group might read aloud from the study book during the gathering. And, of course, a discussion would follow. Besides One Breath at a Time , a couple books that I think are suited for this kind of study are Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart , Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness, and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. I’m sure members of your group will have their favorites as well.
Besides someone giving a talk, group sharing, reading, and discussion, a group might be interested in doing interactive exercises for working with specific Steps and concepts for bridging Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. The following section of this guide will offer some suggestions in this regard.
For a KM group, it’s helpful to have a “check-out” time where people can mention what was beneficial and what not so beneficial for them in the gathering. The facilitators can then adjust things according to people’s needs.
It’s nice to end any group with a blessing, prayer, or short lovingkindness (metta) meditation-less than five minutes. This puts a nice closing energy into the end of the session. One group I visited did both a “dedication of merit” and then got up and held hands to say the Serenity Prayer, just like a 12 Step meeting. That seems like a nice combination of the two.
Whatever of these suggestions you might adopt, I think you will find that a meditation group of any kind will be of great help to its members. When we practice together we strengthen our practice in a way that solitary meditation can’t. The support and insight of others is invaluable in developing our practice. Everytime I join with a group to meditate my practice is inspired and energized. I wish you great joy, happiness, and awakening through your inner work.
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