In recent weeks, I have been contemplating the benefits, and challenges of creating, and sustaining community. Hundreds of people have attended my mindfulness courses, most of whom express a deep wish to continue in their meditation practice after completing the course. To this end I have sustained a monthly meditation group for the last four years, as well as offering the graduate courses Deepening Mindfulness, and, the Interpersonal Mindfulness Programme. The graduate courses are well attended, however the monthly group has at most a half a dozen people at a time. As a teacher, my intention is to provide a space where participants can be supported in their practice and their lives. If one person turns up, I am happy to be there, I know it is of benefit to them. At the same time it does make me wonder why the people who were so enthused don’t follow up.
Having sustained a meditation and yoga practice for the past 23 year years, I have been reflecting on what has supported me to do this. In the first instance, it is the immediate sense of benefit that I receive from the practice, the vitality and sense of well-being, that I experience from Yoga, and the capacity for insight that I experience during, and as a result of, meditation. However these alone would not be enough. Over the years I have engaged in an ongoing process of study, reading and listening to podcasts, that help to nourish my practice. I have also attended meditative communities on a regular basis, often in a Buddhist context, though I am not a Buddhist. In these communities I have been able to find a sense of shared aspiration and belonging. An aspiration to live in a way that expresses grace and beauty, as well as being of benefit both to myself and to others.
In my experience, the groups that involve verbal sharing of experiences, build the strongest sense of community. In sharing experience, both my own and listening to others, I have found deep affirmation that I am not alone, both in my difficulties and in my capacities. I have found the courage to share my vulnerabilities and strengths, to stand firm in that which I am, and to be met in this. There is the experience of mutuality. This has led to a greater sense of confidence in my own life experiences and voice. An important factor in this has been a commitment to regular attendance, meeting the same people monthly builds a sense of trust, belonging and support.
In times gone by meditative practice was found solely within the realms of the religious traditions. Traditions that for thousands of years, recognised, extolled, encouraged and cultivated the benefits of community. In a predominantly secular, individualistic society it seems we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, losing a vital sense of community in our movement away from religion. Is it any co-incidence that in this move away from community towards a more individualistic way of being, depression and anxiety have increased? Being alone with ourselves 24/7, we can become acutely aware of our own difficulties, and preoccupied with our problems. The sense of isolation and alienation that many of us feel cannot be soothed by ‘I’-pads, ‘I’-phones ‘I’- macs, or social media. It’s time to recognise that ‘I’ is not enough, it is in the experience of ‘we’ where connection, belonging and importantly perspective can happen. Focusing teacher and musician Rob Foxcroft, speaks of the radical shift that occurs when we open out from a predominantly individualistic focus to including others, in his poem ‘Ethical’:
It’s natural to ask, what about me?
One day we wake up. What about you?
Such a question disturbs our peace.
What about you?
The world spins on its axis.
In meditative traditions, community is considered essential in sustaining a meditation practice. Despite the recent explosion of mindfulness based interventions, those of us who meditate are a minority. Think about it, how many of the people around you meditate? Invest some time each day in ‘attuning’, listening to their body/minds? Endeavouring to live mindfully has been likened to the experience of a small turtle endeavouring to swim against the tide. The tide of consumerism, productivity, growth, speed and 24/7 virtual connectedness that is our current collective cultural paradigm, leaves us little time for community.
We need friends. We need like-minded others with whom to share the joys and sorrows, the insights and challenges, to strengthen and affirm our chosen way of being. The 16th century poet and cleric John Donne, coined the phrase, ‘no-man is an island’, pointing to this interconnectedness, the fact of our dependence, and need for each other. What Thich Nhat Hanh the Vietnamese Zen teacher calls ‘interbeing’.
A community provides the conditions for the deepening and strengthening of our practice, with support. Just as a gardener cultivates the conditions for her plants to grow, we need to do this for our mindfulness practice. We cultivate the attitudinal foundations of non-judgment, acceptance, beginners mind, patience, letting-go/be and non-striving internally, and externally in community. We learn together. This circles outwards in widening circles to our relationships with family, friends and neighbours, we see as Ian MacLaren so wisely said, that we ought to ‘ be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” We draw on our mindfulness community as a place of resource and self-nourishment. So, make a commitment, come along to the monthly group, get to know each other, share, grow and learn. Together.