Waking up together (Six benefits of spiritual community)

I want to talk about community. Community, or Sangha, plays a very important role in Buddhism. It’s regarded, along with the Buddha, who represents the goal of awakening, and the Dharma, or the teachings that lead to awakening, as being one of three objects of reverence that are collectively known as the “three jewels.” They’re called this because they’re precious. They could also be called the “three treasures,” though, which I think might be a more helpful translation. Sangha is something that is treasured.

Sangha literally means just “a bringing together.” It’s a bringing together of people around a common purpose, which we could say is spiritual development or even spiritual awakening. We come together in order to practice together, so that we may wake up together.

And here we are, having connected through Wildmind, which is a community-supported meditation initiative, or sangha-supported meditation initiative. Here we are, creating a community. So the question arises, how can this community help us to wake up, spiritually?

I’m going to describe seven ways that coming together as a community can help us wake up, but before then I want to say that sangha is not just a question of membership. It’s not that you pay your dues, or whatever, and then by some magical process we’ll experience all kinds of benefits. Sangha is something we have to do and to participate in if we want to benefit from it. We benefit by doing.

So I’d encourage you to make use of the online community that’s open to all sponsors. (If you haven’t figured out how to access that, then shoot me an email — you can do that just by replying to any of the community newsletters.)

1. Community Encourages Us When We’re Down

We all struggle sometimes. We get depressed or despondent. We doubt ourselves, don’t believe in ourselves, and lose touch with a sense of our own worth. And at those times we need others. We may have lost confidence in ourselves, but others still believe in us. And they can remind us or our own value. They can encourage us. And that word “encourage” is rather beautiful. It has “courage” embedded in it. When we lack confidence in ourselves, other people can give us courage. There’s something magical about that!

2. Community Strengthens Our Practice

I remember noticing, quite early on, that it was much easier to meditate when I was sitting with other people. Sitting on my own, 20 minutes of meditation might seem like a struggle, but sitting with others it was easy to sit for 30 minutes or more. Most people have the same experience. When we’re on our own we might feel a bit restless and shaky. Our practice doesn’t feel very strong. But when other meditators surround us, we feel rock-solid. Even with online community, where we’re not physically present with each other, just knowing that others are practicing with us can help us to commit to meditating.

3. Community Offers Us Connection

This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of community. We’re social animals, and even those of us who are introverts need a sense of being meaningfully connected to others. We have a deep-seated need to feel that we are part of something that is larger than ourselves. We have deep-seated needs to see others, and to be seen by them. We can share what’s going on with us, and we can learn what’s going on with others. These connections aren’t just of the mind, but are of the heart. We can care for others, and be cared for by them. This is a particularly meaningful — and perhaps the most meaningful — form of connection.

Sangha lets us see we’re not alone. Sometimes we struggle, and we might think that we’re inadequate — worse than others. And then we see that others have the same kinds of struggles as ourselves, and feel feel less alone, and judge ourselves less.

4. Community Challenges Us

It’s great connecting with other people, but it’s also difficult. That’s why Sartre said that “Hell is other people.” Sometimes people don’t behave well,  or they react to or point out a fault in something we’ve said, or maybe they just express something we don’t like. Recently I found it very hard to deal with the fact that another member of my Order was a climate-change skeptic. I had to deal with quite a bit of reactivity around that. But in the end that’s good. I have an opportunity to learn more about myself, and to work through and rise above my reactivity.

The question arises, “How can I relate respectfully and kindly to someone whose views I disagree with? How can I disagree in a way that doesn’t fall into belittling or name-calling?” Reactivity is a centrifugal force that pushes us apart. We see that in social networks when we block or mute people in order to keep life comfortable. Being committed to a community provides a centripetal force that counteracts this and helps us to grow through our discomfort.

5. Community Helps Us See Our Own Worth

We tend to discount our own positive qualities, but other people can be better at seeing us than we are at seeing ourselves and help to teach us our own worth. As part of my training to join the Triratna Buddhist Order I used to go on special retreats, in which we’d often participate in small discussion or study groups. At the end of the retreat the group would “rejoice in the merits” of each person in turn. Everyone in the group would talk about something they’d admired in that person. There can be a certain amount of discomfort when we’re on the receiving end of this kind of rejoicing, but it helps us to see ourselves more accurately and more positively.

On a related note, one of the things that stops people from contributing in an online community is that sense that they have nothing to offer. But it’s simply not possible for us to know what we have to offer until we offer it. At the very least, putting yourself out there when you think you have nothing to say is modeling the act of putting yourself out there. The simple act of saying something gives others permission and encouragement to come forward themselves.

6. Commmunity Inspires Us

Seeing other people act kindly, compassionately, and with wisdom challenges us in a very positive and even inspiring way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen members of the Wildmind community (when, in a previous incarnation, it flourished on the Google Plus platform) show great kindness to each other. Often they would respond to each others’ struggles in ways that would never have occurred to me. I’ve learned a lot about kindness in this way. Seeing other people having insights is inspiring. Seeing people develop friendships is inspiring. Community enlarges our sense of what it is to be human.

Let’s come back to that question, “How can this community help us to wake up, spiritually?” In order for it to help us we have to be prepared to be a part of it. Community isn’t a given. It’s something that arises out of people reaching out to each other and making connections. We create it by being part of it. Together we forge community by innumerable acts of bravery, kindness, and communication.

Community is a treasure. It’s invaluable. In fact the Buddha said that acts of spiritual friendship were not half, but the whole of the spiritual life. Awakening isn’t possible without community. So let’s do it. Let’s make this community happen.

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