I recently had the incredible opportunity to volunteer as a server at California Vipassana meditation center in Yosemite. As part of a diverse team of 12 volunteers, we cooked and served meals for 120 meditators every day.
There were so many great lessons and practical reminders about real teamwork, leadership, and adapting to change - all within the Vipassana kitchen, of all places!
Our team consisted of individuals from widely various cultural backgrounds, professional careers, and walks of life - coming together from the United States, Mongolia, India, China, Sweden, Colombia, Iran, the Netherlands, and Russia.
Professors, bartenders, Series A startup founders, engineers, marketers, writers, students, and retirees - a truly diverse mix of people working and sharing a living space together.
Despite our differences - and sometimes challenges communicating in plain English since it was a second language for the majority of the group - we operated like a well-oiled machine, cooking, serving, cleaning, and meditating in the most inclusive, peaceful, and productive environment.
So, what was our secret to making it work? Here's what I discovered:
🍎 Adapting to change: the key principle of the Insight meditation practice is learning to adapt to change without losing mental balance (equanimity), which allowed us to respond to situations non-judgmentally and take the best course of action.
🥑 Awareness and emotional intelligence: The practice of meditation itself served as an attunement tool, fostering better communication and flow within the team.
🥬 Shared purpose: We approached our work with a willingness to be of service, recognizing our direct contribution to creating the best meditative environment for others. Doing humble work became an empowering experience.
🍅 True leadership emerges when a manager willingly takes on the most humbling tasks, stepping in for others who needed a break. It's all about supporting the team and creating a culture of camaraderie and collaboration.
🍊 Good documentation and knowledge sharing: Daily tasks were organized on a whiteboard, and every recipe or routine task had step-by-step instructions accompanied by videos on using commercial-grade equipment (ever used a Robot Coupe? It can be intimidating!). Timely tips from experienced servers also helped avoid a couple of kitchen disasters.
🍋 Selfless environment: By setting aside our egos and prioritizing collective goals, we had a greater sense of unity, trust and support. That feeling of knowing your team has your back, even after just a few days of being together.
🍞 All of the above sparked creativity and a bit of "kitchen innovation" into our service as we were thinking what else we could do to make the meditation experience even better.
Surprisingly, despite the long days from 4 am to 10 pm, I felt energized and brimming with ideas.
🍫 I had an idea to dedicate 10% of our volunteer time to create artisanal chocolate for sale at wellness-minded grocery chains like Sprouts Market and Whole Foods. I envisioned marketing it as chocolate made in a meditative environment, infused with the tranquility, awareness, and serenity of the meditators who made it.
Interestingly, Whole Foods partnered with meditation platform Headspace to help consumers improve their well-being through "Food for Mood," tapping into positive moods associated with certain foods. It feels like we might be onto something here as mindfulness expands into the retail world!
All proceeds from the chocolate sales would support non-profit meditation centers and make meditation courses more accessible to people. Everyone seemed to love the idea, and we collaborated on a pilot batch, creating varieties like "Zen & Zest," "Raisins & Seeds," and "Prunes & Walnuts."
While it's uncertain if it will ever hit the stores, we had a blast co-creating and supporting each other's mindfulness practice at the Vipassana course.
Bottom line, I don't know which I liked better: sitting or serving a course as each offers a deeply rewarding experience in its own way. One thing you should know if you are considering serving a course, this is going to be a fantastic way to deepen your meditation practice and benefit from giving back.
Photos taken by Maud, one of our Dhamma workers I had the pleasure serving with.