Profile: IMS Turns 30

When Sharon Salzberg joined two other twentysomething meditators to buy a former Catholic seminary for $150,000, creating the Insight Meditation Society, she learned for the first time what a mortgage was. Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein were just back from several years of practice and study in South Asia. They knew what they wanted to create, more or less, but they weren’t sure they had the skills and experience to make it happen. Could they transmit the teachings? Would people come?

IMS officially opened to the public in 1976, and on July 8 the center will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary with a gala event. IMS has become one of the largest, most influential, and most popular meditation centers in North America. Surrounded by 200 acres of woods on the outskirts of Barre, Massachusetts, it attracts more than 2,000 students a year to more than 25 programs and is supported by an international community of 20,000.

“In the beginning everybody did everything, because there were just a few of us. And we were, generally speaking, pretty unsophisticated,” Salzberg says with a chuckle. “Suddenly we had an institution.”

IMS Founding teachers: Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz and Joseph Goldstein.

Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz, and Joseph Goldstein in the early days at IMS.

Today, IMS is a nonprofit society with an operating budget in excess of $2.1 million. Half of its income comes from member donations and the other half from endowment funds. The center is run by a staff of over forty people. Half are long-term paid professionals, and the other half have signed on to serve the center for 18 months for a small stipend.

Despite the growing complexities of administration, IMS has stayed true to its founders’ vision: a center rooted in the Theravada tradition, offering training in Vipassana (Insight) meditation, yet open to learning from all lineages. The backbone of the training at IMS is the retreat, held at what is now called the Retreat Center. The schedule begins at five in the morning and ends at ten at night. Silence is maintained except during question and interview periods. The day is devoted entirely to sitting and walking meditation practice, except for a one-hour work period, meals (vegetarian with dairy and eggs), occasional interviews, and an evening talk. Men and women do not share rooms, and there is no camping out, journal writing, mail, or phone calls.