It was hard to explain to my friends what I was doing for six weeks. I flippantly described my volunteer work at Karuna as a mixture of meditation, group therapy and telesales. Whilst this depiction clearly undersold my experience, on the surface the job did primarily involve calling up Karuna supporters and asking them to increase their donations – an activity undertaken by numerous charities.
And yet, I have come away from these six weeks with a profound sense of gratitude that I took part. I have a commitment to the Dharma that I have not felt before. I see tangible changes in my behaviour, mental states and the way I see and interact with the world and a new excitement to be alive. No retreat, or amount of meditation has had this effect on me.
I learnt about the appeal whilst attending a Transforming Self and World session at the LBC. Sanghamani stood up and made the announcement that Karuna was looking for volunteers to commit six weeks of their time to a telephone fundraising campaign. I was only vaguely interested at first, but a couple of phrases had caught my attention: Sanghamani had said the process was transformative and a chance to practice Right Livelihoods. Still, I was up to my eyeballs in freelance work at the time – plus the thought of being in an office through all those long summer evenings of June and July, instead of by the sea where my partner lived – meant that initially I dismissed the idea. Nevertheless, a seed had been planted and my email address half-heartedly given to Sanghamani. When she rang me to talk it through a few weeks later, I was already beginning to think this could be quite a unique opportunity. The freelance work was tapering off and what if it rained throughout June and July anyway?
One element that felt quite important when embarking on these six weeks at Karuna was a sense of venturing into the unknown. I had read through the information on the charity’s website and watched the short videos where previous volunteers spoke a little about their experience, but in essence I did not know what my days would consist of other than making calls. There was a real feeling of discovery involved which would be a shame to ruin for anyone who might read this and consider signing up, so I will not detail our activities here. There was also a lot of emphasis on keeping pre-phone call activities fairly fluid, in order to be responsive to what the team needed. Suffice to say we underwent a very comprehensive training, with exceptional input from the Karuna team and other members of the North London Buddhist Sangha. We also spent time in the park, played frisbee, meditated together and had daily ‘check-ins’.
What I do want to describe – which for me feels like the heart of this work – is the beautiful synergy that was woven between three different worlds: my world as part of a team of volunteers, the supporter’s world at the end of the phone line and the world in which the projects take place, in India. Developing a deepening awareness of each of these simultaneously, permitted a subtle yet profound alchemy to take place. The emphasis that Sanghamani placed on authentic connection was the key to all of this. Letting my guard down with our team of volunteers gave me the confidence to let myself be seen, to show vulnerability and be open to people’s responses to that. This meant feeling and accepting discomfort and just sitting with it. Coming into touch with this feeling enabled me to have more honest communication with supporters. Rather than being nice and polite, I learnt to name the tension between us: that I was asking them for both their time and money.
The more I became aware of what was happening in my body on a physical and emotional level, the more I was able to open up. Self-compassion through awareness increased my ability to feel real compassion towards the people we were fundraising for and for those we were asking funds from. At times I felt so in touch with the people for whom we were fundraising, that any money I raised brought forth real tears of joy. The generosity of the supporters did the same – I discovered that so many people want to give. My role felt like one of reconnecting them with that sense of compassion. Even writing this now I am moved by that sense that I felt so strongly time after time on the phone. It is hard to think that calling someone up in this way can have what felt like such a profound effect and affect. But really it was a case of meeting people, in their homes, in their busy lives and opening them up – just as I had been – to the lives of people half way across the globe, whose well-being, happiness and survival can be so tangibly and radically turned around by Karuna’s work.
Frances – Karuna Volunteer