Aiding as a Practice
They say it’s better to give than to receive, and I had done a lot of receiving. The beautiful, potent teachings and tools I’d received at the DC Shambhala Center were helping me work with stress, gain clarity, face fears, and re-order my life, and I was profoundly grateful. I decided that I wanted to help support what I had found when I had wandered into the Center not long before then.
The first thing many people who are new to the Center assume about aides is that they’re advanced practitioners, or they’re specially trained, or they’re paid employees. Alas, none of these things are true. Aides are just people who volunteer their time to help out.
It’s very interesting to aide because the curtain gets pulled back and you see that what appears on the surface to be a very smooth operation actually involves the dozens of people and hundreds of interdependent variables that come together perfectly to support the environment for the people practicing at the Center. There’s a tremendous amount of care involved, with the goal of creating an uplifted environment and container so that the participants can have the best possible situation to work with their minds and hearts.
While the container is intact, the participants hardly notice what’s going on behind the scenes – and that’s the point. Meanwhile, someone is picking up lunch, arranging apple and cheese slices into an aesthetically pleasing formation, charging the microphone batteries, getting water for the teacher, taking out the trash and setting up interview rooms. This all happens with a very light touch – no big deal. The Lojong slogan saying “don’t expect applause” comes to mind.
Aiding is very simple, and yet it can really surprise and challenge you. You’re forced to be honest with yourself and really see your own patterns and how working with others brings them out. Sitting on the cushion, it’s just you and your mind. But aiding presents a middle ground somewhere between a practice environment and everyday life, where a situation arises and you’re not always able to just label it “thinking” or have a check-in with your meditation instructor. When you’re aiding, your practice is to notice whatever’s arising – a bad attitude, exhaustion, irritation with others and yourself, or whatever other obstacles come up – and to stay mindfully present.
Some situations put you on the spot, like when you’re the designated Umdze during sitting meditation. I distinctly remember the first time I was asked to sit in front of a room full of meditators, facing everyone, and hold that seat for half hour increments: nowhere to go, nothing to do except be present, adrenaline pumping. I never walk away from an aiding experience without having worked with some kind of fear or resistance, however minor. But this helps connect you with the participants, who are themselves working with many of those same feelings.
I’ve heard it said that often new meditators don’t remember the teacher of the program but they do remember the people who aided. In my case, I sometimes don’t remember the programs as a participant, but I remember the times when I aided the programs and the new levels of meaning and depth I encountered when hearing the teachings at different points in my own path, with different teachers explaining them and different students grappling with them.
One purpose of the container at Shambhala is to put the participants at ease, so that they can truly be present. I’ve found that aiding has a similar effect on the aides themselves. When you’re giving your time and energy and opening your heart to people, you naturally relax and begin to appreciate all ranges of experiences people are having. You realize that we’re all experiencing a lot of the same things, and that my own issues are not as big of a deal as they might seem. It’s often a joyful, delightful experience to share in a new meditator’s experience and an honor to be part of what makes that possible. It’s also humbling to see the selflessness and dedication that other aides, coordinators, and teachers display.
There’s also a more immediate reward; you go home at night feeling tired but content, appreciative of the opportunity to be of benefit, and grateful to the people who make the Center what it is in small, often unseen ways.