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A Look Back at Pema Chödrön's Weekend Retreat

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Betty Marton, a writer on the Omega Membership team, shares her experience of facilitating the live chat for those participating virtually in Pema Chödrön's 2019 retreat.


The excitement was palpable. By 5:00 p.m. on Friday, May 17, people were lining up near the entrance to Omega’s Main Hall to claim a seat close to the stage where Pema Chödrön would be speaking in two hours. This was Pema’s 23rd visit to Omega. At nearly 83 years old, she is one of the most beloved Buddhist teachers in the country, and an air of reverence and peace threaded the anticipation.

I, too, wanted to partake of that mindset—to benefit from whatever message Pema would deliver. But I was working as part of the team that would record and stream four sessions of the event online. My role was to represent Omega to people in the virtual audience from countries around the world, who would ask questions and share their comments about what they were seeing and hearing.

Omega’s production team was ready: preparations in Main Hall—transitioning the space to accommodate this weekend’s audience—were complete.

In this timelapse video, Omega's crew prepares the Main Hall for the capacity crowd that gathered for the weekend retreat with Pema Chödrön.

Along with members of the camera and sound crews, I set up my computer in a small trailer parked in back of Main Hall. We gathered at 4:30 p.m. that afternoon to make sure all of the cameras, lighting, and sound equipment were in place and working, and that the software and internet connections were up and running. Advance prep paid off, allowing us to break for dinner and return to our stations a half hour before the event was scheduled to begin.

A Welcoming Virtual Community

Just as people had lined up for their place in Main Hall, so were virtual participants ready and waiting when I returned from the dining hall.

I was somewhat anxious and a little awed. I wanted to help participants feel connected with the event as it unfolded but not interfere with the experience that was being offered. Because the recording of the workshop would be available online for 60 days, there was no way to know how many people would choose to watch in real time. I was ready to meet whoever showed up. 

As I sat down, a steady stream of comments filled the chat—people introducing themselves and sharing their excitement and location—from Portugal, Pennsylvania, Toronto, Minnesota, Mexico, Seattle, Northern California, Texas, Montana, Maine, Florida, Wyoming, London, Beirut, Australia, and more. It was fun to respond to their anticipation and see chat participants acknowledge and interact with each other. “I bow to the magic of technology for the Good.” “It's starting!” “Hurrah!” “I love her.” “YaYYYYYYY!” “We are HERE!” “Breathe in Pema's love!” “I'm so excited.” “Yes!!!!”

Then the chat fell silent as Main Hall participants stood in the traditional Buddhist stance of respect for teachers entering or leaving. For the next 90 minutes, we all opened ourselves to the space Pema creates, her inimitable way of conveying ancient Tibetan Buddhist insights with humor and an innate connection to American culture. She introduced the theme of the workshop, the six paramitas, and the time melted away.

By 9:00 p.m., with many campus participants assuming silence until the end of the following afternoon session, we closed shop for the night. Saturday’s technical check-in would be at 7:30 a.m. for a 9:00 a.m. program start.

Sharing the Experience

Throughout the course of the weekend workshop, online participants were invited to submit questions to Pema, which I collected. While most of the questions she answered came from the Main Hall audience, it was gratifying to hear her acknowledge virtual participants and respond to a few of their inquiries. In addition to questions, some participants used the chat to offer their reflections of her teachings to others.

Connecting with people from around the world and sharing their enthusiasm and energy for Pema and her coteacher Tim Olmsted added a rich dimension to all of the teachings they offered throughout the weekend.

I closed out the chat with the words from Shantidiva that Pema used throughout the retreat:

"And now, as long as space endures,
And as long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain,
To drive away the sorrows of the world."

An on demand version of the Weekend Retreat With Pema Chödrön we be available until July 19, 2019. As a Member, you can create your own retreat at home by redeeming the free online course that comes with your membership.