Kalyana Mitta: The Blessing of Spiritual Friendship
An Interview with James Baraz
by Melanie Speir, Kalyana Mitta Dedicated Volunteer
James Baraz, beloved Spirit Rock teacher and prime mover and shaker of the Spirit Rock Kalyana Mitta network, recently offered an interview in which he talks about his passion for Kalyana Mitta (KM) groups and about how participation in one can enrich your practice in surprising ways. James is leading a KM workshop on June 16 at Spirit Rock, in which he’ll teach skills and experiential exercises that help bring out the natural wisdom of each group member, vastly deepening the whole group experience.
Melanie Speir: What inspired you to create the KM network?
James Baraz: I first started to see the need for this about 20 years ago. It’s fine for people to come hear an inspiring Dharma talk by a teacher with a hundred other people in the room. But that’s not quite enough. For many, to feel the power of sangha, to truly experience like-minded friendship, they need to have an ongoing supportive relationship with others.
MS: So KM groups supplement Dharma talks and regular individual practice?
JB: There aren’t enough teachers to address all the needs of students. It’s not feasible for everyone to have contact with a teacher. What’s more, there’s something very inviting and uplifting about getting together with a small enough group for practitioners to hear each other’s wisdom. There’s real connection in the give and take. If you’ve ever had a juicy Dharma conversation with a friend that went late into the night you know what I mean. So I thought that encouraging people to from small Dharma support groups could fill that need. I called them Kalyana Mitta groups since that phrase means “spiritual friend”, which was the essence of what I hoped to help create. After a few groups started, I wrote the Kalyana Mitta Guidelines to encourage anyone who wanted to start their own group.
MS: In addition to facilitating rich Dharma friendships, are there other benefits to practicing in this kind of sangha?
One of my main intentions as a teacher is for people to see that the Buddha is right inside of them now. When you hear someone say something inspiring it’s easy to think, “Oh, they’re so wise, I wish I could be that wise.” Often (you) don’t realize that the words are actually touching and resonating with the wisdom that’s already inside of (you). KM groups are a great vehicle for this realization. They can create an environment where people practice the skills that make it possible for members to hear their own wisdom.
MS: How are the groups structured to facilitate this kind of insight?
JB: These groups usually have a sitting, a check-in period, and a discussion of contemporary readings, classical suttas or Dharma topics that explore how the material relates to each member’s practice in daily life. With skill, KM facilitators (who are encouraged to work in pairs to avoid projection from others and identification with the leader role) create a respectful “container” in which the group dynamic invites the best in everyone and ensures each person’s wisdom is heard.
MS: What do you think might surprise people about this kind of practice?
JB: Often people are surprised to hear for themselves the wisdom they already possess. This can be a big surprise and is one of the greatest things a group like this can illuminate. When you’re on the receiving end of a Dharma talk, you don’t have access to that. When you see people touched by what you say, or you come to a richer clarity as you hear your own words, you begin to realize that there is a wisdom in you that knows life or understands the Dharma. That is huge!
Another pleasant surprise is the power of a group to keep you focused in your practice. Some groups go deeply into specific themes or books, supporting one another’s exploration. When you know you’re coming back to the group and everyone will be talking about your theme, it can motivate you to be accountable in an ongoing way. The group helps keep practice in the forefront of your life since you tend to look at your experience more through a Dharma lens.
MS: Is participation in a KM group consistent with classical Buddhist practice?
JB: As the Buddha said, having good friends is the whole of the holy life. Sangha is one of the three jewels because it’s so easy for us to get sidetracked and fall back into old patterns of mind. When we have like-minded friends and feel connected and supported with a mutual intention, it keeps the Dharma in the forefront of our lives. I’ve always found that having good friends makes a huge difference. It would be a much lonelier and less rich path without like-minded friends. They help keep me on track and feeling more alive.
Another classical benefit is breaking down the barriers between self and other as you experience being part of something greater than yourself. Groups create an energy field that doesn’t belong to any one person. It’s the experience of anatta non-self. When there is a real flow to the group discussion, there’s no longer a concern of “How am I doing?” but rather the joy of “How wonderful it is to be part of this conversation!” The ego gets subsumed by something much bigger that comes through that Dharma field.
MS: KM groups are sometimes hard to find or start. Do you have suggestions for people trying to join one?
JB: I suggest asking spiritual friends about groups in your area. If you’re in the Bay Area look at the Spirit Rock website for group listings. You can also check out Inquiring Mind or google the name of your town along with “Insight Meditation.” If there are no listings in your area or you don’t see a group discussing your interests, then start a group of your own, ideally with another spiritual friend. And if you have no spiritual friends near you, then you might contact one of the meditation centers, like Spirit Rock, Insight Meditation Society, or one of the Spirit Rock teacher’s sanghas to see if there’s anyone in your area that you might connect with. And if you’re in the Bay Area join me at the June 16 KM event at Spirit Rock.
MS: Thank you, James, for sharing the wisdom behind your passion!
For detailed information about starting a group, check out https://www.spiritrock.org/kalyanamitta or contact the Spirit Rock Kalyana Mitta volunteer coordinators at KalyanaMitta@Spiritrock.org or (415) 488-0164 x325.