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Conducting Ourselves & Caring for Others

An Interview with Societal Health & Well-being Director Mary Whetsell

flowerBeginning on October 20, 2015, a suite of three policies providing guidelines for kindness and care will be introduced to the Shambhala mandala by the Office of Societal Health & Well-being. The newly revised Care and Conduct Policy offers a path forward for all parties when a complaint has been brought against a Shambhala office holder. The Child Protection Policy provides guidelines for enhancing safety for children at Shambhala Centers. And the Harmful Sexual Conduct Policy will address education, prevention and care related to this topic. Below, Dr. Whetsell discusses with Times Editor Carol Henderson the view supporting these policies and the process of developing them.

Times: What is the overall view related to the development of these policies?

Whetsell: Policy can be one of the most potent tools used to shape culture. The over-arching aspiration in developing each of these policies is that they support the creation of ever more kindness and sanity within Shambhala, so that we can truly be of benefit to our world. In each of the policies, the twin functions of Protection and Care are addressed. Protection refers to the development of clear behavioral guidelines about wholesome, respectful conduct. This is done under an umbrella of Care, so that harm can both be prevented and responded to skillfully when it occurs.  We especially aspire to protect and care for those who are relatively less powerful. This increased vulnerability could be based on age, gender, race, etc., and also on their status as a student.

Times: I’m really curious to hear why these policies are needed. Also, it seems like more emphasis is being given to sexual conduct these days. Why is that?

Whetsell: I think the simple answer is these policies are needed because we’re all human. We’re all capable of causing harm, and of being harmed. In a sane and kind culture, this simple truth is recognized and then we go about the business of building cultural norms to help us prevent harm and also for healing from harm. Because the norms are congruent with Shambhala vision, working with them becomes inseparable from our spiritual practice.

Photo by Jennifer Woodhull

Photo by Jennifer Woodhull

Reports about sexual behavior that is inappropriate and causes harm have been one of the most frequent Care and Conduct complaints.  In the past two years, we know of eleven cases of harmful sexual conduct by Shambhala teachers and/or leaders. Just as in greater society, women, and especially young women, are at higher risk than men for experiencing hurtful sexual overtures from teachers/leaders in Shambhala. They are also far more likely to arrive at our doors having experienced sexual trauma in their lives, and are thus significantly more vulnerable. Another vulnerable group is young gay men. Our task is to develop recommendations for prevention, response, education and policy regarding sexual boundaries within our mandala in order to make our Shambhala culture a safer and more respectful place for everyone.

Times: The Care and Conduct Policy is not new to Shambhala, so I’m wondering why it was revised and what the revision process was like.

Whetsell: The current 2015 revision has been underway for over two years. Along with myself, the authors of this revision are the current Care & Conduct Panelists consisting of Acharya Emily Bower, Desung Care and Conduct Officer Dan Peterson, and Representative of the Office of the Kalapa Court John Sennhauser.  The revision process sought to address a number of areas in the previous version that were either unclear or left out altogether. In addition, the previous version was found to be quite difficult to read and procedurally confusing. Definitions of terms such as “office holder” and “conduct that causes harm” were unclear and important points were buried in the appendix rather than being in the main document.  In order to remedy these issues, a number of key persons who had extensive experience with the Care & Conduct process were interviewed, either individually or in small groups, and asked for feedback about the previous version of the Care & Conduct Policy. The current policy incorporates most of their suggestions to address the issues above and make the policy altogether more user-friendly.

Times: I think people might be a bit surprised that all officers of Shambhala are required to sign an oath stating they have read and understood the Care and Conduct Policy, and that they will adhere to the guidelines in the policy. What was the thinking behind creating this requirement?

photo credit: rogiro via photopin cc

photo credit: rogiro via photopin cc

Whetsell: Without exception, everyone who has heard about this requirement so far has had a very positive reaction, so I feel quite good about that. In general, we had two main goals with this. One was to offer office holders a safety net in the form of guidelines for conducting themselves; the oath simply assures that our officers are familiar with the policy and that they agree to adhere to it. Second, we would like everyone in Shambhala to know how to go forward if they feel they have been harmed by an officer of Shambhala. Because a person who feels they have experienced harm is most likely to confide in a trusted Shambhala leader/teacher, it’s really crucial that all of our teachers and leaders know the complaint procedure when offering advice.

Times: Beyond this suite of policies, what else do you feel needs to be done related to conducting ourselves well and caring for others?

That’s quite a broad question, but I’ll answer in terms of the small piece of this aspiration that could be addressed from my Office. I’m delighted that these three policies will all be in place over the next year, beginning with the Care and Conduct Policy which is available now. This is a good start, but it’s far from all that is needed. In particular, I feel there are two areas where we definitely need to target. First, we need to focus on prevention of harm through education and training. In many cases, we find that the individual involved does not understand why their conduct was harmful, and the person harmed can also feel confused about their own responses to the harm and how to seek help. Second, when harm has occurred, we aspire to care for all parties involved, providing a way forward for both the person who caused harm and the person who has been harmed. I feel we are just in the beginning stages of understanding what’s most helpful for all parties concerned, and fortunately we’re learning from each case. I would very much like to invite everyone’s thoughts and comments about these areas where we have so much to learn – we are all in process, and we’re all in this together!

Times: Thanks for the interview and for your work.

Whetsell: You’re welcome, but everyone should know all of this work is manifesting through the fabulous teamwork of many devoted Shambhalians. So many people have contributed to the development and launching of the Care and Conduct Policy, and others are now preparing the other two policies for presentation to the mandala. I want to thank them all: The Kalapa Council, the Care & Conduct Panel, President Reoch, Acharyas Cashman and Asrael, Debbie Coats, Anna Weinstein, Terry Rudderham, Irene Vliegenthart, Andrea Doukas, Simon La Haye, Heidi Mecklenburg, Susan Wright, Chris Kreeger, Crina Bondre Ardelean, Alexis Shotwell, Candlin Dobbs, Bernard and Sophie Leger along with her translation team. I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!

Editor’s Note: To read more about Shambhala Care and Conduct, and to access the text of the revised policy, click here: http://shambhala.org/community/ 

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4 responses to “ Conducting Ourselves & Caring for Others ”
  1. Mary Whetsell
    Oct 29, 2015

    Hi all. The article referenced here as a “related post” – “Nourishing the Three Jewels” – is quite dated since it was published in 2009. Although we continue to work towards the same goals of kindness and care within our Shambhala communities, the configuration of who is working on this and how the work is being done has changed quite a bit. For example, this article was published before the Sakyong created the Office of Societal Health and Well-being, which has now assumed the duties of the former Community Care Committee. Also, the Sakyong’s Council has been disbanded since 2010. So if you go this post, just know that the spirit remains the same but much else is now inaccurate!

  2. Here we have an example of talking about something without actually showing what it is. A policy has been revised. Do we have a link to that policy so it can be read? If so, why not post it? (Editor’s Note: An excellent idea! A link has been added to the story.)

    As for the sexual conduct policy why is only for leaders and others? I had a young daughter (no longer young) but now I have stories, events, occurrences. (Editor’s Note: Although the role of leaders and teachers is emphasized in the interview, this policy is not just for them; it applies to all members and participants in Shambhala.)

    I’d also like to make a suggestion that could be added to the policies of all centers. If a well-being position is part of the make-up of centers,then that person might have a working knowledge of the membership. What that means is to make at least one ear to ear, or eye to eye contact at some point. If that person(s) is not seen for a long while then to make note and phone them. As people age this is an important feature of concern and societal well-being. It’s like going to the doctors office and having your vitals tested. If it is a place where delegs are still in effect, then this could be done by the dekyong and reported to the well-being officer. In no ways is this like a parole officer though but a form of ongoing concern about each and every person, sort of like a good auntie/uncle. This policy might extend to those who are no longer directly active at a center but you know they are hovering in the area. Many, alas, past students of Shambhala no longer go to the centers. But, as a culture, they, we, are still part and parcel of the overall, wider, panoramic practicing sangha. In order to actualize a culture of kindness this aspect cannot be overlooked without some repercussions.

  3. Susan Chapman
    Oct 22, 2015

    Bravo and thanks to you, Mary Whetsell, and to all your team. You’ve done an amazing job of making the culture of kindness a reality in our community. We’re grateful for your ‘behind the scenes’ hard work and collaboration.

  4. Thank you for this article and interview. Manifesting enlighened society becomes possible through nourishing and gaurding the third jewel, ‘Sangha’.

    The practice of Care an Conduct is also related to ‘Shambhala Culture and Decorum.’

    What is the right care and conduct in action? This morning I was reading this on how Buddha taught his young son Rahula.

    [The Buddha:] “What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

    [Rahula:] “For reflection, sir.”

    [The Buddha:] “In the same way, Rahula, bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts are to be done with repeated reflection.

    “Having performed a bodily act, you should reflect on it… If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction… it was a skillful bodily action with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.

    …[similarly for verbal and mental acts]…

    “Rahula, all the brahmans and contemplatives in the course of the past who purified their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, did it through repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.” – MN 61

    By the merit of this initiative may all who enter the Shambhala path and mandala find strength, happiness and freedom from all fears and anxiety.

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