Mary Sehlinger Retirement
Shambhala’s Director of Societal Health and Well-being retires: “I see the Shambhala Community engaging in a long cultural shift.”
by Kalapa Envoy Richard Reoch
After six years as Shambhala’s Director of Societal Health and Well-Being, Mary Sehlinger is retiring. Known to many by her former married surname, Whetsell (Sehlinger is her maiden name), Mary has played an instrumental role in the development of Shambhala’s global community.
Like many Shambhalians, her life has been devoted to social service. With a doctorate in counseling psychology, she worked in the U.S. Federal Prison in Lexington, Kentucky where she directed a 100+ bed residential substance abuse treatment program. For 22 years she has also had a private practice devoted to mindfulness-based psychotherapy, and has specialized in working with sexual violence – rape recovery and childhood sexual abuse. Beyond her professional life, she enjoys weekly riding lessons on a horse named Wanda, and has revived the passion she held in her younger years for making art.
Mary brought her professional skills to Shambhala as well as her remarkable personality, interpersonal sensitivity and warmth. At a time when Shambhala needed to update its global internet system – a project that would bring the dedicated geniuses who developed and maintained the system together with a new generation of technology specialists – it was Mary who successfully enabled them to work together. She was open about the fact that it was all a mystery to her, but her human insights and communication skills were what everyone benefitted from. She chaired the Communication and Information Technology Steering Group that supervised the introduction of Shambhala’s new global internet systems, introduced the new data base and gave birth to Shambhala Times, our online community news magazine.
Mary will be well-known to people who attended the first Shambhala Congresses. She led the international consultation (spanning the first and second congresses) that led to the adoption of a new worldwide membership policy, and she spearheaded the first comprehensive survey of members, presenting its startling findings to the Third Congress.
In 2010, Mary was the perfect person to become the Director of the Shambhala Office of Societal Health and Well-Being, which now has a network of representatives in most Shambhala Centres. Out of this office came the creation of a worldwide team of Shambhala “pathfinders” based on the insights of “transformative mediation” which was used because of its synchronicity with the Shambhala teachings. She created and led the “Having Difficult Conversations” training at the Kalapa Governance Gatherings, and led the recent comprehensive revision and updating of the Shambhala Care and Conduct procedure. The International Care and Conduct Panel’s work fell within OSHWB, and as Director of OSHWB, she was frequently in consultation with them.
Dan Peterson, who serves on the Panel, says of Mary: “Almost every call with Mary involved discussing a painful and confusing situation. She was invariably steady, and what made these calls special was working through tough issues while hearing her colloquial phrasings and turns of speech informed by a lifetime in the American south. That was grounding for me. She had very good insight and wisdom, made all the more palatable by the noble ways she expressed herself.”
John Sennhauser, who also serves on the panel, added: “Working with Mary has been both inspiring and illuminating, as to how she is able to cut through conversations about difficult and complicated situations with clarity, succinctness, and ease. She was most often a listener and then spoke what she felt were the core issues, suggesting a path forward that made sense and held to the highest Shambhala principles of caring for others. Over the years what made it most special is that we became friends and cared for each other as well.”
Mary was interviewed recently by Acharya Emily Bower, who worked with Mary for many years on the International Care and Conduct Panel. Emily says of her: “My panel colleagues and I deeply appreciate Mary’s sense of humour, which belies her tenacity for the truth, her extensive knowledge, and her profound understanding of the human heart. With her deep understanding of the feminine principle she has carried out the Sakyong’s vision that Shambhala be ‘less like school and more like life,’ and encouraged young leaders in this direction.”
That interview follows:
Q: What does Societal Health and Well-being mean to you?
MS: I see the Shambhala community being in the process of a long cultural shift. In our centers and in our lives we are now catching up to the transformation that the Sakyong envisioned early on from a school model and into a truly societal model. Now we are operating significantly more like community centers than schools. We are really developing skilful means and practices and working with community development as an important pathway to enlightened society.
The inspiration behind the Office of Societal Health and Well-being was to hold the view of that process and to place representatives in the leadership of our centers to hold that view as well. We are working with the Office of Culture and Decorum to make this cultural shift in slow and subtle changes. These are reflected in decisions about programming and calendar, and in how people relate with one another.
To me, the continuation of our teachings depends on this shift. We have to move into the societal model, so the teachings have a place of relevance and importance throughout all our life stages and are transmitted through generations. Activities at our centers need to be relevant to our entire lives. Then we have a foundation for going out to others beyond our Centers’ walls as well. For me that’s one half of the big picture: the culture change.
The other half is bringing what we learn through study and practice into our daily lives. A class isn’t life. I don’t see practice and study as goals unto themselves; we need to explore how practice and study can inform how we lead as well as all other aspects of our lives. That piece is very important. If you have dharma teachings that aren’t applied, what’s the point?
My reflections on this have led me to try to do what I can to support that cultural shift, including exploring how we handle both conflict and misconduct. Some people think the Office of Societal Health and Well-being’s work is limited to that of the Care and Conduct Panel, which relates strictly to cases of misconduct. But the scope of this Office is far broader – encouraging people to truly take community (or society) as their Path and to look deeply into the dynamics of interpersonal life, including conflict. It seems to me that along with our culture shifting away from the school model, we are also shifting away from a strictly intellectual, scholarly understanding of the teachings to “how is this applied in every conversation, in each meeting at a center?” This is the other piece for me: building society, building community. That’s exciting to me — it’s where the rubber meets the road.
Q: When and how did you get into meditation? What’s your story of discovering the Shambhala teachings?
MS: When I was a junior in high school, I became interested in meditation. I remember discovering a book on yoga at the check-out counter of the grocery store. At the end of the book was a section on meditation and I started following the instructions in the book. It was the times; others were also exploring spirituality.
After that I got involved with Wicca, and learned about what I now know as drala—the dralas of the seasons, natural rhythms, and so on. I knew there was something powerful there. Then I read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism in 1978. I was living in Louisville, Kentucky. I had a good friend — he was a wild man — who graduated from Naropa. Through him I learned more about Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
In 1982 or ’83, I moved to Lexington, where there was a Shambhala Center. I enjoyed the levels and the programs. I didn’t practice much in between, but I loved studying the teachings. Later, when Chuck Whetsell and I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, I really missed the center and so we got a meditation group going along with Janet Bronstein. My practice really caught on fire when I had to start leading things myself!
Q: How did you come to be working at the center of the Mandala?
MS: I was the first Center Director in Birmingham, and served for six years. Around the time I was stepping down from that role, Richard Reoch came to visit our Center. As he was leaving, I offered to be his secretary. He emailed me a week later, asking me to head up a working group on membership policy. I worked on that through a number of ups and downs over the next three years or so.
Then I moved into an even stranger role, with the Communication and Information Technology Steering Group. It was ludicrous: I was tech backward! I didn’t even have a cell phone! But we pulled together the Shambhala database and that is a key thing. I would lead these meetings and didn’t really understand the technology—I was listening for communication dynamics. When they finally came up with something to roll out to the community they said if I could understand the presentation, anyone could!
Around that time I got involved in getting the Shambhala Times started with Shastri Holly Gayley taking the lead. (I like to get projects started and then hand them off.) I took up leading Societal Health and Well-being in 2010.
Q: What’s next?
MS: I’m open to new roles and opportunities to serve and learn. Continued service to the Shambhala lineage will always be my deepest heart’s longing; I’m completely curious about and open to what shape that will take next. I guess we’ll see!