Exploring the 2nd Body Practice at MorningSun Sangha

Exploring the 2nd Body Practice at MorningSun Sangha

By David Viafora, True Zen Mountain

Isolation has been high and loneliness stronger than ever for so many people this the past  half year or longer. What is a good way to create more robust friendships and social connection as a spiritual community? This summer at MorningSun, we started a new practice together in our residential Sangha – a second body system!

My experience from living in Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery as both a lay practitioner and novice monk is that this is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to grow healthy friendships and help everyone feel more socially connected. As a young novice in Plum Village, I remember the first time I got sick with a head cold and needed to stay in my room alone for a few days. I was still new to the monastic community in Plum Village and so I was feeling especially lonely, distant, and cut off from the Sangha during my illness. It was a total surprise to me during the first day I was sick when my second body delivered hot oatmeal and fruit to my room. I slept right through breakfast, and woke up to find the caring gift on my nightstand. Every meal thereafter, he came again!  Every day, we shared lunch and dinner together, enjoying the delicious food in silence together, like I would with the Sangha. We stared out of the glass doors to the lush forest outside, content with each other’s presence without words.  Since I was alone all day, his wholehearted presence with me each day helped me feel cared about, loved, and valued. Even though it was just him coming, I felt that I truly belonged as part of the whole Sangha family.

The second body system is so powerful because you don’t need to improve your friendship with everyone in order to feel connected to the larger community and for friendships bloom across the entire Sangha – you only need to focus on one. If everyone focuses on one person, then it spreads around the whole Sangha like fertilizer in your garden. No matter if your friendships are young seedlings or well established, this compost helps everyone grow together.

We started our second body practice at MorningSun just a few weeks ago, and already I’ve heard some wonderful accounts. Joaquin went for a 9 mile bike ride around Lake Warren with Mary Beth during her typical weekday outing to split up her work day.

Candace is my second body and she invited me to plant tomato and sweet potato seedlings on Saturday afternoon, after I finished work. She’s also invited me to go for a walk and have tea together, but planting young veggies seemed so much more fun!

I treated Fern, my second body to share some dark chocolate during my work lunch break. This stimulated some great conversation, as Fern shared about her family’s newfound interest of playing Dungeons and Dragons together. Without our 2nd body practice, I would have never learned (or imagined in my wildest dreams) that Fern enjoys D & D so much now!

So what is 2nd body and why is it called that? Well, everyone looks after themselves first – we care for and attend to ourselves as our first body. Everyone is assigned one person in the Sangha as their 2nd body, whom they try to be a special friend for a period of time. Everyone is thus tied together in a circle of 2nd bodies.

Here is the explanation that we developed at MorningSun, which both Michael and I spoke about during our resident meeting to explain to people.

2nd Body practice is an opportunity to deepen our friendships as a resident community. Strong communities depend on the personal relationships between members, like a quilt that is woven together of many threads and seams. By strengthening each individual friendship, we strengthen the entire fabric of our community. The 2nd body practice help us expand beyond our typical and most frequent connections, as everyone is given the name of someone to look after for a given period of time. In our case, we will experiment with this practice for 3 months. 

Everyone in the circle of participants has someone who they are caring for and being cared for, as we are connected together like a circularly linked chain. So if we care for just one person, then in a way we are caring for our entire community. We approach this practice with lightness. We’re not trying to be someone’s therapist (or guru :). We are just keeping the friendship alive and growing in the circle of our community. Connecting with our 2nd body each week extends us out of our normal habit energies of busyness and narrow looking. One of the intentions of this practice is to pull us out of our habitual forces of self-interest, self preservation, and isolation from others, and gently pull us into a spirit of more openness and connection together. The practices extends our attention outwards to be more deeply aware of our Sangha sisters, bothers, and siblings; as a community, we respond to each other’s needs in our own individual ways.

The Sangha expressed that connecting for about 30 minutes each week was a reasonable standard for connecting with our 2nd body each week. This means that each of us who chooses to participate will arrange a half hour (or so) time to connect each week with our assigned person. At the same time, someone else will be assigned us and reaching out to connect for 30 minutes as well. If we go above and beyond the 30 minutes, that’s fine (but not expected), as half an hour per week is our stable baseline of practice. As these 2nd body relationships are assigned, sometimes they connect very easily, and other times they don’t really click. Relationships are always shifting and changing, and after a few months, the practice will end. Afterward, people may opt in for another round of different 2nd bodies depending on the community and individuals’ interests.

It is up to each 2nd body relationship how people wish to connect, whether in person (at a safe distance), by phone, zoom, etc. People may believe it’s easier to connect for one hour every two weeks versus 30 minutes per week, for example. Aside from the half hour weekly foundation, people may like to offer other means of support or gifts to brighten the day or week of their 2nd body (a card, a flower, a bar of chocolate, a warm smile in passing, etc.). People are welcome to be as creative as they wish! 

Let’s remember that this is an experiment in community together!  No one will do this perfectly, and we are bound to make mistakes here and there. But we are all encouraged to give it a try and do our best to enhance the friendships in our Sangha life together. As Honey Bear shared during our meeting on Saturday,  “Anything worth doing is worthy doing badly.”  I love that!  

Every Sangha can choose how they would like to implement the practice especially including how often people are encouraged to meet together. For example, at MorningSun, we suggested about 30 minutes each week, but you could also suggest anywhere between 10 minutes and one hour every week or two. Depending on what works best for you and your community, make the practice your own!

Thay also wrote about the 2nd body practice in Joyfully Together. Here is his take on it:

“The second body system is a Sangha building practice at Plum Village. IN a large Sangha, it isn’t possible to be close to everyone, so we are each given a “second body” to take special care of. Your own body is your “first body,” and a Dharma sister may be your second body. Her second body may be another sister, and so on. In this way, everyone has someone to look after, and everyone is looked after by someone else. “looking after” means taking care of and helping our second body when she is physically ill, afflicted in mind, or overworked. For example, when you are traveling together, you are responsible to see that your second body is not left behind. When your second body’s spirts are low, you can find a way to raise them. When your second body is not able to smile, you can help her to smile.  When he has the flu, you can bring him food and medicine. If you need to, you can also as for the help of an elder brother, sister, or lay friend in the Sangha.

We use the second body practice in all the Plum Village practice centers, and it is something we take seriously. This practice raises the quality of our happiness living together. Many lay Sanghas also practice the second Body system. It can be a wonderful way to stay connected to the whole sangha by taking care of just one member of the Sangha. In a large family we could do the same.

After hearing some of our inspiration for the 2nd body practice, maybe you would like try it out in your own Sangha! Not everyone needs to join – even if you have just three people, you can be ready to go. There’s no perfect ways to do it and there’s no perfect friend – only perfect mistakes.

As this experiment is still new at MorningSun, I will update you in 3 months to tell you how it goes!

Thank you to all those who have shared their depth of 2nd body practice with me over the years.