Valentine’s Day this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). The retreat center was founded in 1976 by Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield. The three first met in 1974, after each had returned from their studies in Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. They founded IMS two years later in Barre, Massachusetts, and went on to become among the most prominent Vipassana teachers in the West. Since then, IMS has hosted tens of thousands of people on retreat.
“We’ve gone from the days in the beginning when the teachers were teaching and doing the cooking, plumbing, and registration,” said Linda Spink, who joined the center in 2006 and has served as its executive director for the last two and a half years. “And as things became larger and the demands on the organization became greater, we really have created a structure that attracts people who are incredibly qualified and committed.”
Tricycle’s web editor, Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, recently spoke with Spink on IMS’s important role in spreading the dharma.
Can you speak about some of the highlights so far during your tenure as executive director and tell us what you’ve got planned for IMS’s 40th year?
The highlights are just coming to work every day. I walk out from the parking lot and come up the hill, and as I do I enter that quiet, silent space of the retreat, and I can feel my body sinking into that energy. It’s pretty awesome that we’ve been here for 40 years offering retreats.
The first 40 years have really been about helping to establish the dharma in the West and understanding what it takes to support people who engage in long-term practice. As I look to the future, I’m inspired, because I think the next 40 years will be about increasing the accessibility of the dharma to all.
What are some of the ways IMS can help increase accessibility?
There are some very specific initiatives. One of them is directly addressing the need for new teachers. A lot of our teachers are reaching a period in their life when they want to cut back on formal teaching and do more personal practice. So we need to be doing all we can to identify, train, and support the next generation.
The teachers in the early days had challenges—I think that was a time when people weren’t even taking meditation seriously. So they had to figure out if people would come and what a retreat would look like. The challenges going forward are different. There’s a proliferation of mindfulness-practice opportunities. We’re trying to increase the dialogue with the new and up-and-coming teachers, increase our financial assistance as best we can for people who are in training programs or are assistants, and really work with them to establish IMS as their spiritual home and a place where they want to teach.
Can you speak more on IMS’s commitment to increasing diversity?
We’re investing energy and resources in creating a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for young people of color and LGBTIQ people who will hopefully come to IMS in greater numbers. We have work to do in understanding the place of silent retreat in the lives of young people and what’s going to appeal to them. And for people of color, how to help them feel welcome, respected, and included in the dharma here.
IMS has been offering people of color retreats for the last 10 years. Is the center planning to continue the “separate” retreats or work toward “integration”?
We’ve been very fortunate over the years to have a growing number of people sitting at our people of color retreats, and they are well attended. We’re going to continue to offer those because there’s a need for people to know that they can come and practice with a group of other people who have similar experiences. We’ve started the LGBTIQ retreat for the same reason. If you’re one of three people out of 100 who are persons of color or gay, retreats can be awkward, uncomfortable, and frustrating.
At the same time we’re working so that there’s a greater sense of safety and welcome in the other retreats. We want our white teachers to incorporate diversity issues in their dharma talks to establish that sense of welcome and support. And we definitely need to have more people of color as teachers, because doing so will communicate that “it’s okay for me to come to this retreat because the people up there teaching reflect me and have had similar life experiences that I have had.”
I was looking back at a Tricycle interview with Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield for IMS’ 30th anniversary. Joseph said it was “good timing” when they started IMS, because they “caught a great wave of interest.” With the recent surge of mindfulness, are we riding a new wave?
I don’t think the wave has ever gone away; it’s continually grown. Meditation is a hot item. It’s in. And that’s not a problem for us. We’re excited because more people are being introduced to it. What we want to do is to continue offering a deeper understanding of meditation—the teachings behind meditation and how to reduce suffering. We think more and more people will want to come here for deeper practice, versus something that’s just a temporary technique that helps you get through the day.
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