This week marks the 6th anniversary of our first meeting at the Friends Meeting house on 15th February 2010. We had started meeting at another venue in the Autumn of 2009 which is why, like the Queen, we have two official birthdays, a Spring and an Autumn!
Anniversaries are often a time to look back and reflect as well as to look forward – and as a mindfulness group it’s also a reminder to be in the present moment!
There were many people who helped the group come into being. For those of you who have been watching War and Peace you’ll be aware of how a simple event requires many people to be involved, some clearly seen, others in the background. I read War and Peace when I was 20 and I was struck by the vastness of human interactions it depicts. It’s a great reflection on how we do not exist alone or in a vacuum. We exist as a result of the interplay of individual actions that create a matrix of interconnectedness from which this moment takes birth. Sometimes we know the people who cause it, sometimes it’s the effects of someone’s actions whom we have never met that ripple out and have an impact on us. As this is our anniversary I’m going to dedicate the rest of this email to the people who have helped contribute to that matrix out of which the group has arisen.
Our principal benefactors were David Hews Esq. and my mother and stepfather Jillian and Steve Clements. When I went to discuss setting up the group at the Friends Meeting House the requirements were to pay three months rent in advance and three months rent as a deposit. This meant finding £1,600. As my bank account was more often in debit than credit I had no way of paying this. For a moment I thought it was hopeless. But then I made the resolve to make it happen and thought of who might be willing to help. I presented the idea of the project and what my hopes and intentions were for it to David, who is a good friend and to my parents, with the promise that once I was in credit I would repay them their loan.
David was excited by the project and eager to help and to my surprise my parents also decided to help. This was the same step father who when I came out to him aged 20 told me he thought homosexuality was dirty, disgusting, immoral and something he never wanted to speak of again And now here he was 20 years latter putting his money into a mindfulness group for gay and bi men. It shows how people can change if we stay open to them.
Whenever I think of this time in my life I see it as one of those moments of standing on a cliff edge and deciding to jump, trusting that I could fly. We had been meeting twice a month previously in a small venue on Sundays and about 10 people were coming to the class. I had the confidence that if the group became a regular weekly event people would want to come to it and we would get enough to pay for the room. I had paid for six months so at the worst we would meet for those months and if it didn’t work out then I would have tried and have had the satisfaction of knowing I had seen if it could work. I had recently watched the film Field of Dreams in which there is a recurring theme of “build it and they will come”. It’s a very moving film and I won’t say more so that I don’t spoil it for any of you who have not seen it. I started the group with that sense, build it and they will come – create a space that provides a healing and welcoming environment for gay and bi men to learn mindfulness and to hold themselves with love and compassion and people will come. And so it turned out to be. This New Year we had our largest meeting yet, with 64 men sitting together quietly focusing attention on their breath.
I did not create this in a vacuum though or only through my own efforts. Juan Serrano encouraged me from the the time I left the monastery to set up a group as he had seen one work very well in Madrid. So we party have the efforts of the gay men’s Madrid group to thank for the example they provided. Juan continued to support and encourage me once the group was established and led an evening when i was away on a retreat in Greece last year..
Then came the work of promoting the group and getting it seen. I was able to enrol various friends in the idea of what the group could offer and they all gave their services for free. Kam Munsamy provided help with graphic design and photography. Ian Patrick was one of our first members and has consistently helped with tea making and clearing up along with Tim Waldron and Meirion Todd. They were the initial dream team as I could relax knowing tea would be brought out and everything cleared up at the end. Thank you. As is the case with all things everything changes, and there are now new people helping with the tea and clearing up at the end – a big thank you to all of you for your help and generosity. I also thank Boyz magazine, which ran an article about the group when we first started which brought in a lot of the first members.
Then there are our door babes! It took me a while to develop a system for welcoming people as they arrived. The first helpers to welcome people were Meirion Todd (who can no longer attend due his therapy work) and Olivier Droillard. Andy Jones helped for years with setting up the room and being on the door until his work at TFL left him no time to come, but I’m grateful for all this help in the early years as it made it a lot easier to get the room set up. Kevin O’Neill helped me with IT and to get the web site set up and Graham Humphries designed the first fliers. Darren Brady was always available to run ideas by and provide support and it was his life coaching that helped me start to feel more confidence in myself so that I could take this leap.
More recently Malcolm has stepped in from his help in the kitchen with the tea making and washing up to be on the door along with Dan and Sam. As I now teach an earlier class and can’t be on the door as people arrive it is so great to know that they are there welcoming people and being a friendly face to all those who are new or returning. Thank you for your regular and committed help and for organising your rota between yourselves so I do not have to be involved with ensuring there will be someone on the door.
And of course there is a big thank you to all of you! If you did not come, we would have no meeting. Thank you to all who have come in the past but who for various reasons no longer are able. And thank you to all who are coming now.
Finally, I have to thank those without whom this would never have been possible, my teachers. I thank the FWBO for initially introducing me to meditation and Buddhism through the Cambridge Buddhist Centre. Then I thank Ajahn Chah, whom I never met but whose insight and teachings were passed down to me by my teachers Ajahn Munindo, Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Vimalo. Little did Ajahan Chah know when at the turn of the 20th Century he set off to live in the forests of Thailand to follow the Buddha’s original teaching that one day a disciple of his disciple would be teaching a group for gay men In London. I also thank the generosity of the many lay people whose support meant the monasteries where I lived were able to run and function. My six years in the monasteries were so impotent to me and without the generosity of the Thai community in the UK and other supporters the monasteries would not exist.
To return to what we learn from War and Peace, here we see that the actions of Ajahan Chah, someone whom we have never met, has sent ripples out that touch us this very day. It is a reminder to reflect on our own actions and consider what ripples are we sending out into the world?
If there is anyone I have omitted to mention – thank you.