Young Urban Zen Meets the Pandemic
By Tova Green
In the early weeks of 2020, Young Urban Zen (or YUZ), a practice group geared towards people aged 20-40, was filling the City Center Buddha Hall on Tuesday evenings with 90 to 110 participants each week. Many gathered in a cafe afterwards to continue conversations begun in the Buddha Hall and to socialize. Volunteers organized activities including hikes, work days at Green Gulch Farm, and Thanksgiving dinners. YUZ volunteers created a website in 2019. Pre-pandemic, YUZ had eleven dedicated volunteers
I spoke with Mei Elliott, a City Center resident who has been the lead facilitator and organizer of YUZ since 2016 to see how YUZ has adapted to the conditions of sheltering in place and meeting on Zoom, and to ask what she has learned from her work with YUZ.
Mei told me that YUZ has continued meeting every Tuesday on Zoom.The group is much smaller — now twenty-five to thirty people attend — but many are regulars. Mei attributes the smaller size to the sense of community participants got when meeting in person. Nevertheless, Mei has received messages of support from those who attend YUZ on Zoom, such as: “This makes a big difference for me, please continue doing it.”
However, in other ways interest in YUZ has exploded during the pandemic. During the last year membership in the YUZ Google Group has grown to about one thousand members. Recordings of weekly YUZ talks are now a podcast on Spotify and in December 2020 it had 2,000 subscribers. Now there are five volunteers who do the Zoom hosting and upload talks to the website.
The format of YUZ meetings has not changed — twenty minutes of meditation followed by a twenty to thirty minute talk, Q&A, triads in breakout rooms to discuss a prompt, and announcements. Mei invites speakers who are long-time Zen practitioners who have done practice periods at Tassajara. Frequent speakers include Eli Brown-Stevenson, Kodo Conlin, Kristin Diggs, Heather Iarusso, Zachary Smith, and Michael McCord.
Many of the issues YUZ attendees are facing are common to people in their 20s and 30s: finding one’s true vocation in the world, building wholesome relationships and dating, and connecting deeply to community/sangha. There’s interest in learning to trust one’s self, working with indecision and doubt, and with grief, loneliness and longing.
Mei first experienced YUZ as a participant, attending her first meeting in 2012, the year after YUZ began meeting. It was her gateway to Zen practice. In a way she is a YUZ poster child, illustrating the path from being a member of an affinity group to becoming a Zen Center resident. She is now on Senior Staff in the position of Guest Student Manager. Many other YUZ participants have come into residence at City Center or Green Gulch Farm in the last few years.
After several years of attending YUZ meetings, Mei began co-facilitating with Simon Moyes (other early leaders were Shundo Haye and Tim Kroll). Facilitating YUZ has been “amazing training for me in how to lead a sangha, give talks, and deal with conflict,” says Mei. No longer nervous about giving talks, she has given a talk every month for the last 4 years.
The most challenging aspect of facilitating YUZ has been the time commitment. “I want to meet the needs of the community and build the group; this takes a lot of personal time. It’s what I do on Sundays. Since the pandemic started I have more weekend time for myself, which ideally I will be able to sustain after the pandemic.”
When I asked what sustains her, Mei said, “Leading this group is aligned with my vow of helping beings wake up. That’s central to what I’m doing here [at SFZC] and on the planet, waking up myself and helping people be more free in their lives.”
Young Urban Zen meets on Tuesday evenings, 7:15 – 8:45pm PT. For more information on how to join, see the YUZ page on the SFZC website.