Setting Up a Mindfulness Meditation Group

Betsy Nelson on how she did it, why it helps, and how you can too.

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We often have newcomers to our twice weekly meditation groups.  If they are over age 50, their introductions often start with some version of “I’ve meditated on and off for 30 years…”

That was my story, too, until about two years ago. Now I meditate daily, almost every day in some form of “formal” meditation, and every day in “aware of this moment” mindfulness. I’m able to sustain my practice with the help of some people, now friends, who join me regularly in meditation.

After a five-day silent retreat in Vermont, year 2000, with Thich Nhat Hanh and his monks and nuns, I returned to Sarasota with the plan to start a meditation group. There were two others at the retreat who I had identified from my area—the group lasted for two to three meetings. We weren’t able to sustain the group, and I felt I had no business “leading” the group, since I had no training in the dharma and I was certainly unqualified to do any dharma instruction.

What Changed?

In 2008, I attended a five-day conference for psychotherapists that dealt with mindfulness and the neurophysiology of human relationships. One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Dan Siegel, had referenced a panel he’d been on in Seattle, with the Dalai Lama, at Seeds of Compassion. At the end of the conference, I went home and watched this conversation on the Internet, and at the end I heard His Holiness charge these brain scientists with spreading mindfulness as a secular practice.

When I heard these words, I felt a huge sense of mission and possibility. I knew that mindfulness was an important practice for me. And I also knew that to sustain my practice I needed a community of other mindfulness practitioners. What I was not looking for was a dharma teacher. My passion for mindfulness comes from knowing that it has profound effects that can be demonstrated scientifically and from the changes I’ve experienced in my own life as a result of regular practice.

Since I was in the process of looking for a new office anyway, I decided to find one with a room large enough for a dozen people to sit together. I purchased enough equipment for six of us. And I sent out an email to everyone I know. After a few months I listed the group on Meet-up. We send out an occasional press release.  And we have a website, that is easily found when search terms include “Sarasota” and “meditation” or “mindfulness.”

For the first few months, there would be times when I was the only one meditating at the scheduled times.  But now, in month 14, we have an average of seven people at each group, ranging from 3-15.  A “good will offering” donation bowl has provided enough money to purchase equipment for 12 and to supplement rent. There are about four others who lead when I’m unavailable, and we are beginning conversations about how to share that leadership on a more on-going basis.

What is my role with the group? I facilitate. We have a few group conventions, such as speaking in the first person and from our own experience, and encouraging ourselves to watch for the tendency to want to “fix” others. Gentle reminders are part of my job! Group members know that I am a fellow traveler; I offer what I’ve learned, and as I listen to others I discover new ways of seeing my own attachments and the squirrelly nature of my mind. I am open about how the group meets my need for structure and accountability—without this group, I doubt that I would have sustained my practice.  With the support of the group, and a regular practice, I now am mystified that I was ever able to live without mindfulness meditation!

So, PLEASE start your own meditation group!  The world needs it!  Your community needs it!  You might even need it!

Here’s How:

  • Set a time, place and a start date.
  • Send out emails to your network—ask people to bring their own cushions, and if you are unable to purchase a few sets, you might ask who has any sitting around that they are not using—perhaps they’ll give or loan it to you.
  • Meditate at the scheduled time, even if you are alone.

Here’s how we organize our group time:

  1. We do a quieting, centering, “getting present” five-minute sitting.
  2. If there are new people, we introduce ourselves with our name & something about our current practice or what drew us to the group.
  3. Then we talk about our practice until it’s time to meditate.  This year, we are also going through Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming To Our Senses, approximately 12 pages at a time (optional reading outside of group—the facilitator might read a paragraph or two from the week’s reading and prepare a question or ask how members relate to the reading).
  4. We meditate—for about 20–25 minutes in our 60 minute group, and 30–40 minutes in our 75 minute group. If there are newcomers, I usually lead the meditation for a few minutes in this format:
  • Note what is, currently, before the impulse to fix, change, or censor.
  • A few breaths to steady the body into a relaxed and dignified posture.
  • A general body scan.
  • Attention to the breath, breath in body, with instructions about the mind wandering, coming back gently, starting over and over again, breath by breath.

We keep a sign-in sheet, both to collect email addresses and for any future use should we seek outside funding (to demonstrate attendance).

That’s about it. Keep it simple—and, please, give yourself permission to start. The only ordination in mindfulness practice is that which you gain from returning to the present moment, breath by breath.