Get to Know Desung Sara Lewis

Having recently completed a program at the NYC Shambhala Center on Entering the Desung Path, I came away with a strong desire for our community to not only know our own Desung better – but to also share a heart connection with this rich practice based in deep listening and understanding of all-pervasive basic goodness.

So, what is a Desung anyway?

As Susan Wright notes in an article on the Shambhala Times:

“The Desung Arm operates within the Dorje Kasung and is principally concerned with safeguarding the well-being of the community. Desung means “bliss protector” or “harmony protector” which can be understood at both a relative and absolute level. On the relative level, Desung, in their role as harmony protectors might be involved with bringing attention or expertise to support a Shambhala center member experiencing emotional or psychological difficulties, they may also be called on if there is conflict within center leadership or any other threats to centers manifesting the Shambhala vision.

At the absolute level, Desung practice is grounded in the certainty that basic goodness pervades all situations and is inherent in all beings. Problems or difficulties that arise are held within a container of wakefulness and precision; with the ground of compassion providing a space so that confusion and fear can be seen clearly and dissolved, and intelligence and dignity can shine. Again and again [Desung are asked] to notice our tendency to try to “fix” problems rather than resting in the confidence that arises when we experience our own, and others, basic goodness.”

Boston Center Desung Sarah Lewis

I met Ms. Lewis in the fall of 2016 in the woods of Karme Choling, the weekend I “accidentally” became a Kasung. She was one of the kindest and most cheerful people in our small gathering. I recently had the pleasure to converse with Desung Lewis, who took her post in Boston last year.

Nicole: What first drew you to Kasung Practice?
Desung Lewis: I first connected with kasung practice in 2010 when I was living in New York City. The notion that community members would take turns serving as protectors really spoke to me; I thought it was an amazing idea that we could support each other to fall apart safely. I’m still humbled and amazed by that idea. It is actually very radical. The best Dorje Kasung don’t see chaos and disruption as an inherent problem; people might actually be wakefully angry, wakefully grieving, wakefully depressed. Extreme states can be deep teachers and ultimately there is nothing to be fixed. At the same time, there is deep injustice and harm happening all around us. Kasung choose to walk directly into this paradox.

The notion that community members would take turns serving as protectors really spoke to me; I thought it was an amazing idea that we could support each other to fall apart safely.

Nicole: How did you decide to follow the Desung Path?
Desung Lewis: Members of the Desung arm within the Dorje Kasung are known as “bliss and harmony protectors” and we work with extreme states, illness, death, conflict and harm. Like many desung, I have an interest and training in mental health. But desungship is much more about love, space, and connection than with merely addressing problems.

Nicole: What aspect of being Desung do you feel most connected to?
Desung Lewis: The desung path calls me because it is ultimately about understanding the mind, clear seeing, and love. We are known as specialists who work with holding space. When conflict arises people may initially expect a desung to swoop in and start directing or solving problems; it could be unnerving to see a desung “holding space” when we think they should be fixing things. But space is what allows clarity and love to emerge; only then should we act.

Nicole: How has being a Desung affected your personal meditation practice?
Desung Lewis: The kasung dharma has affected my own meditation practice in that I’ve learned that the more space and gentleness we offer ourselves, the more room we create to dance and play as wild, authentic beings.

Nicole: What challenges arise for you around service?
Desung Lewis: One challenge that arises in service is the practice of giving and receiving feedback. As a new kasung I focused a lot on offering and service–the idea of helping others. As my path deepens I am now gaining courage to consider the ways that being Dorje Kasung means looking inward, accepting feedback, and being vigilant about not causing harm. If we can offer and accept feedback non-defensively we are actually offering to take turns protecting one another. It is very kind and beautiful.

Nicole: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about being a Desung?
Desung Lewis: Sometimes desung need to give the Big No to get the Big Yes. By that I mean that if someone is being harmed or creating a lot of disharmony the wisdom of the situation may call for swift and decisive action. But working with harm can be karmically precarious. On the one hand, helping someone to stop hurting others can be deeply beneficial; on the other, often when we want to help we just create more confusion. This is why we need to work collaboratively and practice radical honesty with our community–are we helping or are we introducing more confusion?

On the one hand, helping someone to stop hurting others can be deeply beneficial; on the other, often when we want to help we just create more confusion.

Desung are not special people; it is just a willingness to serve in a specific role. Actually for the sake of harmony I think it would be really beneficial for all of us to rotate periodically into new posts and positions across the four pillars. Each pillar comes with its own dharma, its own wisdom and its own neurosis. My partner in enlightened crime, Rusung Kimball, and I are deeply committed to bringing new people onto this path. It is a path for meditators, for those looking toward social action, and for those who might be a little outrageous!

My deep and heartfelt appreciation to Desung Lewis for taking the time to share from her experience. A little more about this beautiful human…

Sara Lewis is the Center Desung of the Boston Shambhala Center and the Trident Executive Officer – a post dedicated to supporting Dorje Kasung studying the Trident teachings recently given by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. She has been a member of Shambhala since 2007 and has served in a number of kasung leadership roles in Boston, New York, and Eugene, OR. In her professional life, Sara earned a PhD from Columbia University and currently teaches at Wellesley College in the area of religion, medicine, and healing. She is trained as a social worker and previously worked as a psychotherapist in community mental health.