"To begin a sangha, find one friend who would like to join you for sitting meditation or walking meditation or tea meditation or sharing."-- Thich Nhat Hanh
"For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst."
-- Jesus, Matthew 18:20, Holy Bible (NAS)
|Our Gang Contemplates Dog's Buddha Nature|
It makes a difference.
In Buddhism, as in most of the world's religions, a community of kindred spirits is seen as an integral part of one's Spiritual Practice. In fact, a commitment to Sangha (a group of one's fellow practitioners), along with "taking Refuge" in the Buddha and the Dharma, is one of the Triple Gems, the foundational vow of Buddhism. In other faiths as well, a commitment to the fellowship found in churches, temples, mosques, ashrams and monasteries, etc. is also often seen as an important aspect of one's Path.
I suppose that stems from the fact that humanoids, like most species of beings on this planet, naturally operate as members of groups. We sentient beings travel through life, often moving as One whether we realize it or not, in packs, herds, flocks, prides, gaggles, colonies. There are Buddhist, Islamic, Christian and Hindu schools and there are schools of tuna and salmon. We live and breathe in concert with others.
Although human beings, especially here in the modern capitalist west, have a belief structure that reinforces the notion of "individuality", our fundamental interdependence plays out moment to moment. Even when you are by yourself, alone in your room thinking, those thoughts are existing in a language you didn't invent that itself has been collectively evolving for a long, long time. Even the structure and grammar of that language have a significant impact on your perceived world. The meanings emerge for you, not as isolated phenomenon, but in the context of your past interactions with other members of your family and tribe stretching back throughout time. Most of this operates on a sub-conscious level.
With Practice, what had been sub-conscious increasingly surfaces into our awareness. With time, effort and patience, on and off the meditation cushion, a whole new realm of experience becomes quite ordinary. As Practice unfolds we get a sense that Descartes seems to have gotten it "ass backwards." Rather than "I think, therefore I am", Reality is closer to "I am, therefore I think." Then, looked at closely, even the notion of an distinct, solitary, isolated "I" independently existing becomes highly suspect.
Getting It Together
Unlike most species, to some extent, we human beings have the ability to make a conscious choice about what groups to associate with. Although we are born into a group, a clan, a village, a nation, if we are fortunate enough to realize and act on it, we then get to choose our gang, the folks we run with. Unlike our fellow mammals, we human beings can choose our colors, costumes and customs. For those of us on the Path, ideally, our gang is a group whose values, aspirations, and intentions support our own of cultivating wisdom and compassion, not one devoted to some sort of mayhem. (although as Little Rascals, a bit of minor mayhem can be quite delightful, of course) As myself and many others have found, the support and guidance provided by a meditation group can be invaluable.
I see the reality of that often in the Mindfulness Circles that I facilitate here in Greenfield, a small town in Western Massachusetts. (I also practice with a few other meditation and yoga groups at times.) Just the creation of a regular "structure" in space and time to join together with others in Practice can have a huge impact in very basic ways.
On the most basic level, the peer support (this is perhaps a more palatable term than "peer pressure", no?) provided can help establish and regularize one's individual practice. Over the course of the past couple of years, I've seen a number of folks who hadn't been able to develop and sustain a daily personal practice on their own do so as a result of kick-starting and supporting their practice with a regular weekly group sitting.
Even though there may be no formal vows, just sharing one's intentions with others is a valuable way to provide the external support to follow through on those intentions. You know that they know that you know that they know. A feedback loop is established that resonates at the frequency of your best intentions. Unless you get stuck in reflexively being a "rebel", which can set up another feedback loop that oten ends up with you rebelling against yourself, you can relax into the environmental support that a group provides.
Just the structure provided in a group setting supports the cultivation of Practice. Once the bell is rung, you are much less likely to find yourself spacing out to then find that you've pulled out the iPhone, or are standing at the refrigerator getting yourself a beer before your timer goes off. (Both of which I've done over the years.) Sitting with others, someone may notice. We notice that.
It makes a difference.
In the midst of "the gang", the accumulating time on task on the meditation cushion, like the time on task at the gym, has an impact. (In the Mindfulness Circles we usually sit for one twenty minute period at the beginning and another, sometimes briefer, period towards the end.) Through the repeated effort, both the comfort of our bodies and our ability to collect and direct our attention improve, the Practice deepens. We establish a momentum.
That support also operates on another, perhaps less widely acknowledged, level. Although the foundation of Mindfulness Practice is always one's own personal experience, it can become obvious in a group setting that who we are is much more than "skin encapsulated egos", the term that Alan Watts once used to describe the way we are conditioned to view ourselves. Sitting together in Silence, attuned to the finer sensibilities that we are capable of, we can actually feel one another's Presence, we can sense the collective pool of consciousness that we are co-creating and participating in during the period of meditation.
IMHO, in its finest form, this is what Yogi Jesus was talking about in the quote above. In the depths of that collective pool, There is the Presence of Oneness. It is perceptible to those gathered in the name of Love. It is the Heart of Communion.
Unfortunately, an ever-present shared pool of consciousness isn't restricted to those on the Path. It actually exists all the time. usually operating below the level of our conventional consciousness. The truth of the matter is that we each are constantly co-creating the ripples and waves of thoughts and feelings that play across that pool. It may not feel so good if those around us are stressed out, fearful, angry, grasping, etc. Some of what we humans co-create can be quite nasty, creating virtual tsunamis of destructive energy that can then lead to horrific actions causing great harm.
That's why it is so important to make a conscious choice of who we hang with and how we spend our time. For those of us who choose political activism, it is especially important to share Practice with others, so that we are able to plunge non-reactively into the more challenging pools of energy in street demonstrations where the potential of violent anger exists.
These days, it is much easier to find a group to support Practice than it used to be. If you're reading this, you are probably on the Web and any search engine is going to generate a number of meditation groups in your location. There is a vast array of Teachings and Teachers and Practices available in many faiths and spiritual traditions. Shop around for something that feels right. Try it out.
Myself, I tend to shy away from groups that appear to claim exclusive ownership of "THE Truth" or "THE Teacher". After 45 years of Practice and the exploration of a number of approaches to spirituality, it's quite clear to me: We are all Buddhas and we are all Bozos. There is no "one size, fits all" Dharma. We each have the ability -- and the responsibility -- to follow our heads, our hearts, and our guts.
|Meditators at #Occupy Wall Street! 2011 *|
I can't think of anything better to do. How about you?
*One of my group meditation commitments arose out of the #Occupy Wall Street! Movement. Since the fall of 2011, some of us have been sitting from Noon until 12:30, Monday through Saturday, on the Greenfield MA Town Commons. Although in true #Occupy! style the group is leaderless and has no statement of purpose, I call it this daily Meditation Vigil #OMG! (#Occupy Meditation Group!)
Originally Posted: March 21, 2015
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