PICTURED: Koi pond at Deer Park Monastery, where members of Ventura’s “Friendship Sangha of the Heart” sometimes travel together for meditation retreats. Photo by Alex Wilson

by Alex Wilson

The coronavirus pandemic shuttered the doors of churches and other spiritual gatherings, but a Zen Buddhism meditation group I belong to made a successful move to the online meeting platform Zoom. Even though we were no longer able to form our usual circle for our weekly meditation, we found comfort from sharing our practice online during these troubling times. It also helped me cope with significant personal setbacks in my own life.

Circle of friends

I joined the “Friendship Sangha of the Heart” about 10 years ago, and gathering with the other members became a key component of my meditation practice. (Sangha is a Sanskrit word that basically means a community devoted to mindfulness, spiritual growth, harmony, understanding and love.)

Anyone who meditates with our sangha is considered a member, whether they attend regularly or occasionally. We normally meet Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, drawing about 12 to 15 people. Our Zoom practices, however, have attracted closer to 20 some nights.

Our sangha has no official leader, but I am one of several “caretakers” who take turns leading the practice. We practice in the tradition of renowned Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, known for his work with Martin Luther King Jr. and their shared quest for peace during the Vietnam War. (We sometimes travel to his Deer Park Monastery in Escondido for meditation retreats.)

A table set by the author to serve as a focal point during group meditation sessions. Photo by Alex Wilson

Sangha meetings include two 20-minute sitting meditations where people are free to choose mediation cushions, stools or regular chairs to become as comfortable and aware as possible. When we’re at the church, another volunteer sets a beautiful table in the middle of our circle for the sangha to focus on. It might include candles, tapestries, flowers or statues of the Buddha. (That part of our tradition was obviously put on hold after the church was shuttered.)

Each week’s leader also performs an inspirational “Dharma Talk” between meditations, often selected from the writings of Nhat Hanh. (The word dharma in this sense basically means Buddha’s teachings.) Sometimes we sing songs in his tradition instead.

Walking the path

Practice includes a 10 minute “walking meditation” where we are mindful of the sensation of every step we take. During dark winter months, we walk inside the church. In the spring, once it’s light enough, we walk along a tree-lined outdoor path where we can connect with nature. During Zoom meetings, we’ve been walking around our own homes and yards.

A tree-lined path at Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, used for walking meditation. Photo by Neal Ortenberg

A portion of each gathering is set aside for “Dharma Sharing,” where everyone has an opportunity to speak openly about their meditation practice or other aspects of their lives, while everyone else listens silently and mindfully.

Generosity is an important Buddhist virtue. Thus, sessions include an opportunity to donate money to charities we choose in a practice known as “Dana.”

As the meditation session closes, practitioners hold hands and sing a song called “I Have Arrived,” which reinforces our efforts to live in the present moment, and share the merits of the practice with the wider community and the entire universe. The holding of hands has been postponed during the pandemic, of course, but we still sing our song over Zoom.

Peace in this time

My Zen Buddhism meditation practice helped me develop mental strategies and resilience needed for dealing with the stress and anxiety many of us are feeling during the coronavirus pandemic. It also helped me cope with being laid off from a job I loved for 21 years and the sudden and unexpected end of a four-year romantic relationship that happened simultaneously with my career vanishing.

While working through those emotional traumas, I lost the opportunity to directly interact with friends from my spiritual community in person. Moving our mediation sessions to Zoom helped me reconnect during a time of great loneliness and inner turmoil.

Mediation and studying Zen Buddhism helps me accept the true nature of reality, and move through life’s difficulties with peace and equanimity. It also keeps me focused on the present moment, rather than worrying about the future or ruminating on the past.

Shortly before the stay-at-home order, I led one of the last gatherings we could hold at the church. That night I spoke about the interconnectedness of everything in nature, our planet and the rest of the universe as well. I brought a bunch of little flashlights so that we could walk our meditation path in the dark — a first. It gave us a new perspective on the trees and statues that lined the way.

When we moved to Zoom a few weeks later, I agreed to lead again, even though by then I was working through the heartbreak of losing my job and girlfriend at the same time. During that session, I spoke about gratitude and how thankful and honored I was for all the years I covered and served the community through radio news, and the wonderful adventures and love I shared with my girlfriend.

Human energy connection

I continue to find great comfort from our Zoom meetings after being socially isolated at home for weeks on end. Other members of the sangha say they’re also grateful for the human contact, even if it’s only online.

Neal Ortenberg is another caretaker who has been meditating with the sangha since its founding about 25 years ago. He volunteered to set up the Zoom account for our meetings.

The author, Alex Wilson, at Deer Park Monastery in 2019. Photo by Alex Wilson

“The first meeting, I didn’t know how it was going to go — but it went pretty well,” said Ortenberg. “Many people experience profoundly that although they meditate at home and find it valuable, they feel the energy of the group reinforces the value of the meditation.”

Even though the Zoom meetings are helping us sustain our meditation practice, Ortenberg is looking forward to the day that we can all meet together safely again. “The difference is not being present with the other people physically. I experience more of a human energy connection that I don’t get on Zoom,” said Ortenberg.

Our sangha always welcomes new members from any faith background, or even if they have never explored spirituality or Zen meditation. We hope more people join us on Zoom, or stop by the church after we return.

“Friendship Sangha of the Heart” meets every Monday evening at 7 p.m. on Zoom. To sign up or for more information, visit sites.google.com/site/friendshipsanghaoftheheart.