So I started looking for a volunteer opportunity at the Shambhala Center, one that would somehow mesh with my crazy schedule. They put out a call for morning umdze volunteers, and that sounded perfect. It's an hour one day a week, in the morning before work. Of course, I really had no idea what an umdze does, other than sit up front and meditate facing the group.
here's what they do:
The Umdze, or Timekeeper, has overall responsibility for each public meditation session. The umdze opens the Center, pays attention to the physical environment (orderliness, temperature, lighting), opens the shrines, leads chants (when appropriate), signals alternating sitting/walking periods, closes the shrines, and locks up. Performing as Umdze is an opportunity to deepen one’s own practice as well as serving the sangha.
So, I didn't read the description before volunteering. And I really really didn't think through the whole "open the center" part; it means getting up at 5:30am, and being at the center by 6:50am. I am not a morning person. I am NOT a morning person.
I had only been to the center in the evening -- it turns out the morning session is different. for one thing, it has chants. OH SHIT!!. I volunteered to do something that involved sitting up front and CHANTING. I can't carry a tune. I have no rhythm. Is it wimpy to just back out, say sorry, didn't know?
I spent the first couple of weeks ducking the issue. I open up, turn on the lights. I learned how to set up the altar. I lit the candles, filled the water bowls, lit incense, put out the chant books. I learned how to make the tea for the shrine. All of this is very ritualized, very precise. There is an order to it all, and I found I really enjoyed it.
But I let the person training me do the actual timekeeping and chanting. I acted as support. I took home a chant book to practice. I practiced. And I practiced. And each week, the trainer asked if I wanted to take a turn leading, and each week I said I wasn't ready.
This morning, I took the seat up on the dais, faced the group, and went through the ritual of timekeeping. I rang the gong three times. I said 3 of the 4 opening chants. I rang in the session. I meditated and watched the clock. I lead the walking meditation, remembered to light the incense, rang the next sitting. I did the closing chants.
I made many mistakes, mostly small, I think. I skipped the longest chant, the Heart Sutra, because I still stumble over it and make a mosh of it. The experience was not horrible. It was not nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. Everyone is facing you, but they aren't really looking at you. They are looking at a representative, a figurehead. So that "oh god, everyone is looking at me" feeling just wasn't there.
I was surprised at how different in quality the session was for me. I felt responsible. I didn't want to move or fidget or make the slightest sound because I felt I had to create an atmosphere that would support the people in the room. I felt like I was meditating for them rather than for myself alone.
I have a lot more training to do, I think. But I like how it feels, stretching in different directions.