Jundo has enlisted my involvement in putting together a human service project to incorporate into our practice as a sangha. This project would serve the Treeleaf community by bringing us together to work on a shared project and would serve the larger community by offering a service addressing an actual area of need.
My first thought was to come up with something that would be able to utilize Treeleaf's Internet base as a strength rather than an obstacle. This got me thinking about how, as I have shared here before, Internet based communities like Treeleaf remove a lot of the social cues that create prejudice and obstacles in embodied interactions. People with physical disabilities, social difficulties, or other obstacles in embodied interactions can meet others on an even playing field on the Internet.
If there is any malaise that defines our current age, it is increasing social fragmentation, isolation, and loneliness. And people who are home-bound, either by choice or by restrictions they cannot overcome, such as mobility challenges, extreme social anxiety, depression, or illness, can be particularly affected by loneliness.
So my idea was to develop a project at Treeleaf where we connect and interact with socially isolated individuals who are seeking connection with others. Jundo wanted to incorporate a physical aspect of samu to this project, and what is great about this project is that it could be done both through the Internet and through face-to-face and foot-to-pavement action, by physically going out in one's community to spend time with socially isolated or home-bound individuals. This would allow us to reach both people who use the Internet and those who do not. For example, many elderly become home-bound, but many elderly do not use computers or the Internet, and this is where "on foot" community outreach would be important and effective.
The easy thing about this project is that it is a very simple task, to have a conversation and/or to simply listen to someone. We could use any number of formats: face-to-face meeting, Skype, IM, e-mail, telephone.
But there are two distinct challenges that would need to be met for the project to be successful:
1) How do we locate and do outreach to our target population--socially isolated individuals with a desire to connect with others and share their stories? This is where the most creative thinking and groundwork is needed. This in many ways is a "hidden population," not easily reached by advertising or easily locatable through a database.
2) How do we engage the people whom we would be serving through this project in a way that honors their dignity and worth? The last thing that someone suffering from loneliness needs is pity or condescension--these actually increase loneliness. This is the mind training aspect of this project, to work with our own resistances and tendencies to map people onto a social hierarchy, to see someone as weaker than us. How can we honor the strengths of those to whom we are reaching out, the journeys that have brought them to where they are and the wisdom they have gained along the way? How can we help people who may feel scorned or outcast feel respected and valued? Genuine respect and interest is required.
Of course, none of us are perfect saints, and there are some people we may have difficulty respecting or being interested in. But this would be our practice--seeing where we are setting ourselves apart from someone and learning how to drop that mental tendency. This is a perfect avenue to bring together Buddhists in an act of service because our practice gives us a way to work on the tendencies of mind that get in the way of truly addressing the issue of loneliness. This project would allow the people we serve to become our teachers, and not just passive recipients of our good intentions.
So I would like to ask others with interest to either PM me or post to this thread so we can put together a committee to refine this idea and get this project off the ground. Any ideas for how to address #1 above are especially needed and welcome. There will be more than one answer and the more ways we can come up with successful methods of outreach, the more tools we will have to make this work.