RIM Voices RIM Volunteer Reflections Spring 2024

Unfolding a Rusty Lawn Chair

Offered by Chawki Belhadi

Chawki Belhadi is a volunteer greeter at RIM.  He is also completing his Ph.D. in anthropology at UW-Milwaukee and serving there as a teaching assistant. His professional path included degrees in biology, psychology, experimental psychology, and sociology. In the midst of all this, Chawki sat down in an interview with LoriLee Villwock and Christine Jacobi to talk about his experience as a greeter at RIM.

Chawki was attracted to the role of greeter because he knew firsthand how isolated some people feel when joining a new group of people. He knew that felt sense of anxiety and separateness. Chawki self-identifies as a person who is “autistic by nature”, which left him feeling as though he was “plopped here on earth without a manual”. Chawki speculated that many newcomers arrive with worries about being accepted, with anxiety about doing something new, or with hopes that meditation will help them manage difficult features of their lives. With his own personal experiences and cultivated empathy, Chawki made the compassionate choice to actively try to make people at RIM feel welcomed and valued. He used phrases like “non-judgmental acceptance,” “walking together,” and “my heart reaches out to them” to describe this generous offering.

Throughout the interview, Chawki continually eluded to the balance of giving and receiving. Leaning on his professional background, he cited the well-researched psychological benefits of volunteering and the value of expanding a base of like-minded friends. But Chawki lit up when he started talking about our shared responsibility to each other as we develop our practice.

“As practitioners, you really can’t practice all that completely by yourself.  You need the Sangha to facilitate a lot of your practice. You can’t really bloom into your practice unless you have other people, whether it’s in Dharma talks, whether it’s meaningful interactions, whether it’s seeing people smile back at you and welcome you to a space.” ~ Chawki

Extending himself, in an authentic way, as the first welcoming face when someone enters RIM, wasn’t totally in Chawki’s wheelhouse. Paradoxically, initiating meaningful conversation to foster a sense of belonging was a social skill that made Chawki a bit anxious. With a light-hearted laugh, Chawki said the responsibility of initiating conversation with strangers was initially like "unfolding a rusty lawn chair."  Still, life is full of challenging situations which are best met directly.

While we might hope to arrive at a new volunteer position fully prepared, the needed skills actually develop gradually. Now, with many hours as a volunteer greeter, Chawki recalled how other greeters and the volunteer coordinator, Wendy, helped him “smooth out the process of engaging a stranger” so they felt like they belonged to the RIM community. The generous act of stepping outside his comfort zone to make someone else feel comfortable and welcomed, also resulted in his expanding sense of social ease and an expanding base of spiritual friends.

Looking forward, Chawki hopes to move past a spontaneous offering of warmth and friendship toward a more intentional pattern of open-hearted welcoming. The intentional pattern may make more space for ‘those small moments when you are interacting in a really meaningful way”.  

To others thinking about volunteering, Chawki offered wonderful advice … “Be yourself,” Be prepared to grow,” and “Recognize you can’t fully bloom into your Dharma practice alone … you need a Sangha.”  In conclusion, Chawki returned to the concept of giving generously, saying, “We think of Dāna as giving financial support. Time, energy, and effort are Dāna, too.”

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

See Chawki's Bio Here

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