Looking back Working on a Karuna door-knocking appeal is said to be the ‘classic’ transformative team experience: learning to ask something meaningful of another human being in a way that is authentic and sensitive and, in doing so, helping others who are much less fortunate than oneself. Jenny Roberts has recently returned from one such appeal and now she looks back at how it was for her.
It’s a beautiful sunny day and I’m relaxing in the shade of a tree on a caravan site somewhere in Surrey. I’ve been on holiday for the last week, and the Green Tara Appeal that seemed so all-consuming at the time, is now no more than a memory. During the last few days I’ve been reflecting on how those six challenging and intensive weeks might have changed me. And I have to say that I have absolutely no idea. Which is less than helpful when I’m writing a blog that I hoped might convey the transformative nature of Karuna door-knocking appeals.
But bear with me, all is not lost. While it may be hard, subjectively, to notice any changes in myself (maybe that’s for other people to assess anyway), it certainly isn’t difficult to appreciate how much I’ve learned during those six weeks.
The most obvious teaching has been that of impermanence. Time seems to have moved on so rapidly, so tangibly that I’m left a little dazed by the process. Just over seven weeks ago I was sitting on a train heading for London, feeling apprehensive and unsure of what to expect, not knowing whether I would survive the appeal, wondering whether I would fit in. Fast forward a little to the first excruciating role-play in training, then again to that first scary evening on the doors, the first meeting of our community when we attempted to reconcile all our diverse needs and expectations, the steady improvement in confidence, that first intoxicating direct debit on the doorstep, the hard-knocks of feedback and the challenges of being with, and accepting, uncomfortable feelings day after day, the joy of constantly being valued and nurtured by my new friends and of valuing and nuturing them in return, the support of all of our teachers and, finally, that exhausting, exhilarating, joyful and inexplicable final week when we achieved the impossible and smashed our target beyond all expectations.
Somehow l think I’ve learned to value the present moment in a different way. An understanding that however hard it might be - or however easy - it isn’t going to last. I believe I know something more, about patiently being where I am and simply experiencing whatever it is that I am experiencing - without trying to ignore it, push it away or hold onto it. I think I’ve learned a little more about equanimity too. Staying grounded with the feeling of success has been much harder than staying okay with the feelings of not doing so well. Intoxication takes many forms.
I’ve also learned someting about confidence. Not the outward bravado that hides the fear within, but the kind of inner certainty that allows me to trust that I am far more than I think I am. And to accept that that is enough to get me through. Over the length of the appeal I have been with my vedana (feelings) almost constantly, snuggling up to and stroking the unpleasant ones, trying to accept the pleasant ones without trying to prolong them.
There have been periods of intense spiritual death: when I admitted my fears about fitting into a women’s community, when I realised that I had fallen back into old (and very male) habits on the doors, when I went nearly a week without a direct debit after being at the top of the chart the previous week. Moments too of a smaller, though no less valuable kind when a householder was rude, or simply ignored me, when someone who was pleasant on the first knock was irritated and closed-down on the call-back, when the evening’s door-knocking yielded no rewards and Mara whispered in my ear that all this was pointless (and so was I).
And there have been gentler moments of self-transcendence as well: talking to the wife of a man who had been paralysed suddenly and really feeling her distress and confusion, conversations with a man who had just lost his grandfather and whose mother was incapacitated by grief, the connection with so many people who cared about others, who had their own stories to tell and who offered real encouragement to me in my fundraising work.
There was the feeling too, that I was bringing loving-kindness to my streets and to each door - connecting in a very special way with complete strangers. Finally, there was a rich sense of connection with the people behind the doors and with my beautiful community back at the flat above the London Buddhist Centre. It really felt as if they were out there with me on the streets each evening.
Which brings me to my appreciation, and perhaps a little more understanding, of pratitya-samutpada (conditioned co-production: that everything arises on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease). Conditions of all kinds were impossible to ignore during those six weeks. How I was on the doorstep affected, to a greater or lesser degree, how the person behind the door was - and vice-versa. In the latter part of the appeal I made great efforts to be more interactive and to allow more space for the householder to respond to me. It was very noticeable how this created the conditions for much deeper communication between us (and more donations). In the final week I started to challenge wrong views about poverty and the response to it, and this too resulted in a deeper connection with people who might well have shut the door on me in the earlier weeks. Most still didn’t donate but maybe I planted the seed of greater generosity with a few of the people who were ‘giving enough already’ or who ‘never give at the door, on principle’.
I noticed too how meditation helped me keep my feet on the ground and moderated my inclination to believe that I was the centre of the universe. I noticed how the care taken on the training helped me break through the barriers on the doorstep and deal with my own potential feelings of rejection. How sometimes other people’s conditions and conditioning affected me - pleasantly, unpleasantly, movingly and humorously. I learnt how to create better conditions for myself - by going slower, letting go, indulging in a little idling between doors or a sit in the park. I learned to stop clinging to outcomes and began to really see that just being, just resting in each particular moment with tenderness and acceptance was enough.
The biggest lesson that I have learned is about communication and intention. It is what I struggle with most of all, and this appeal brought it right into focus. I have been deeply moved by by the love and Anuruddha-like friendship of my friends in the community. How they have so often demonstrated what it means to care about the wellbeing of others ahead of oneself. Between them, they have given me the gift of seeing another path to transformation.
I confess it fully, that I too often believe that I am at the centre of my universe. I’m too easily drawn to talk about myself, to believe that this is the most interesting subject of all. In my ignorance I often forget to remember others and to take an interest in them. To ask about their feelings, their experiences, their sense of who they are. To take delight in their lives and to rejoice in the interconnectedness of all things. To give myself generously to others, rather than tending to wonder ‘what’s in it for me’.
So what I take away, above all else, is a personal precept to continue working on and letting go of this sense of self that gets in the way of where I aspire to be. I’m resolving to try much harder to really see other people, to try and bring more awareness to all my interactions. To learn, and practice, the skills of drawing other people out as well as allowing myself to be drawn out by them.
Finally, as I said at the beginning of this blog, I feel an acute awareness that time has moved on and that good things have passed. I miss my friends in the community, I miss being around the LBC and amongst so many kind and beautiful practitioners. I miss the people and the streets that became so familar to me during those six weeks. But I rejoice wholeheartedly in the people I have met and the lessons I have learned. It has been an enormous privilege to be one of the Magnificent Seven of the Green Tara Appeal and it is a memory which I shall treasure for the rest of my life.
I am so grateful for all the riches that the experience has given me. And for the very real financial riches that will be helping to improve the degraded lives of countless men, women, and children in India. Now, the final lesson for me is to let go of those challenging, uplifting and joyful six weeks and move on. Not so easy.
Still… next year, I hope to be back on another appeal.
Would you like to join me?
Fundraising as Spiritual Practice A Karuna Appeal has a daily programme similar to being on retreat, but with the added element of asking strangers for money each evening! The resulting intensity can support a dramatic deepening of spiritual practice - for some greater even than their ordination course - and also leads to successful fundraising. Why? The people that you meet on the doors have none of the usual investment in pleasing you, and so will instead respond only to you as you are: friendly or curt, present or distracted, engaged or listless.
Sangharakshita once described this as “objective feedback par excellence”. And of course you want something from these people: you would like them to take a booklet about Karuna’s work and later sign a direct debit. More often than not this wish is not fulfilled - in a sense you are rejected - and you are challenged to respond positively and creatively to this. For if you do not, there is no reason why the next meeting will go any better! Read on at: http://www.appeals.karuna.org/index.php/the-experience.html