How To Use Community To Deepen Your Practice

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“Community is the natural condition of all true spiritual activity.”
—Adi Da Samraj, My “Bright” Word

Before I became a devotee of Adi Da, I did my spiritual practice alone in my bedroom, reading books and meditating until my knees exploded. For me, practicing in relative isolation was a fertile breeding ground for delusion. And, unconsciously, that’s precisely why I liked it.

I liked practicing on my own because that way no one would interfere with me. For example, no one would deflate my secret fantasies that I was a great practitioner, like Siddhartha in Herman Hesse’s book (inexplicably, neither my wife nor any of my friends had the eyes to see my greatness, poor blind fools). Also, no one would puncture my Disney-like idealism and romanticism about spirituality.

Don’t get me wrong. I also tried to practice “out in the world” as I went about my busy day. I bestowed compassion upon cashiers at the co-op through beatific acts of hyper-politeness. I tried to be mindfully present whilst waiting for the red light to change (having just screamed psychotically at the subhuman fuck who’d made me miss the damn light in the first place.)

Also, having devoured spirituality books since I was a kid, I was masterful at talking about my spiritual practice at hipster coffee shops—usually with people who also read a lot of books and practiced alone in their bedrooms. We traded delusionary notes. Adi Da Samraj addresses what I was (unwittingly) up to here:

 “People who are moved to approach spiritual things are generally motivated by their own delusions. They use what they gather through reading and the usual meditation to isolate themselves further, to console themselves, to generate forms of self-imagery, good feelings, immunity, various narcissistic qualities.”

—Adi Da Samraj, My “Bright” Word

Then, at the age of 29, I became a devotee of Adi Da and suddenly, for the first time, I was thrown into community. I mean, I didn’t move into community—it was still just me and my wife in our little condo. But I went on many month-long meditation retreats. I also met several times a week with local devotees for meditation, study, service, and these diabolical things called devotional groups. In devotional groups, everybody straps on pith helmets and digs into each others’ practice and craziness.

All this messy interaction with my fellow students—combined with the Guru’s Spiritual transmission—was a crash course in humility. Metric tons of illusions about myself and spirituality got sandblasted off me. The shit was brutal. Still is. But my practice got grounded in a way it never could have otherwise.

Traditionally, serious aspirants would never try to engage spiritual practice on their own. It would be like a modern-day athlete trying to train for the Olympics alone in her kitchen. Community has always been understood to be crucial for spiritual practice. There’s a reason the Triple Treasure of Buddhism includes community (the Triple Treasure of Buddhism is Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—the Realized Being, the Teaching, and the community of practitioners).

I’ve always loved the picture of community painted in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Soon after Ramakrishna has passed away, his closest devotees rent a small house, the rent paid for be a wealthier devotee.

“He [Narendra—the young Vivekananda] and his brother disciples, filled with an ascetic spirit, devoted themselves day and night to the practice of spiritual discipline. Their one goal in life was the realization of God. They followed to their hearts’ content the injunctions prescribed in the Vedas, Puranas, and Tantras for an austere life. They spent their time in japa and meditation and study of the scriptures. Whenever they would fail to experience the Divine Presence, they would feel as if they were on the rack. They practiced austerity, sometimes alone under trees, sometimes in a cremation ground, sometimes on the bank of the Ganges. Again, sometimes they spent the entire day in the meditation room of the monastery in japa and contemplation; sometimes they gathered to sing and dance in a rapture of delight. All of them, and Narendra particularly, were consumed with the desire to see God.”

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Yes, we read about yogis in caves. But the overwhelming majority of serious aspirants practice intimately with other people—in ashrams, monasteries, temples, hermitages, or some other creative form of engaged, collective community.

Four Reasons Adi Da Emphasizes Community

1) Egoity is all about separateness; community works against separateness.

“People commonly have negative and resistive feelings toward all forms of community and human relationships. And the reason, the ultimate roots of these feelings, is the tendency towards separation itself…Truth is manifested only in this relational condition…Therefore, the community of Truth, the community that lives this Teaching, is absolutely necessary.”

 “The ordinary person is avoiding relationship in complex ways. Therefore, it is necessary…for relationship to be the condition. There must be living, working, functional relationship.…”

—Adi Da Samraj, My “Bright” Word

2) Self-reflection. We don’t just have blind spots. We basically are blind spots—walking, talking, ambulatory blind spots. We only come to see and understand ourselves in relationship. We all do zany, neurotic things—lots of them—that are obvious to everyone who knows us, but that we simply have no clue we are doing. Much like Elaine Benis’ dancing.

For the most part, my practice is a spiritual version of Elaine’s dancing. But unlike Elaine’s friends and co-workers, when we work and practice with other serious students of the Way, they reflect us back to ourselves.

When we engage with people closely, we see how petulant, fearful, inflated, moody, invulnerable, manipulative, placating or flirtatious we really are. And every instance in which we are not simple and happy with others, points to a place in ourselves where we are contracted—dramatizing the spasm of separateness. As Jungian maverick Edward Whitmont put it,

“Ask someone to give a description of the personality type which he finds most despicable, most unbearable and hateful, and most impossible to get along with, and he will produce a description of his own repressed characteristics….These very qualities are so unacceptable to him precisely because they represent his own repressed side; only that which we cannot accept within ourselves do we find impossible to live with in others.”

Yes, our spouses, kids, friends, family and coworkers also reflect us back to ourselves. But we tend to have a lot of unspoken agreements in our ordinary, day-to-day relationships. We wear a “social face.” Consciously or unconsciously, we avoid rocking the boat. These relationships are mostly purposed toward comfort, pleasure, security, and satisfaction. They are not usually purposed solely toward the deconstruction of our bullshit. Ergo no one tells Elaine about her dancing.

In authentic community, everyone loses face. When it’s working right, everyone is humbled, undone, porous, together. Everybody comes to know what they’re made of, what they are “all about” as egoic characters. This difficult knowledge creates in us a profound availability to the process of Awakening.

3) Inspiration and Expectation. That’s a phrase the Guru used often—“a culture of inspiration and expectation.” We receive great inspiration from practitioners who are more mature in their practice than we are. It is invaluable to see what seasoned practice actually looks like, in the flesh.

We also grow through challenge and demand. That’s the expectation part of “inspiration and expectation.” Being surrounded by people who truly expect you to be a strong practitioner (or even just a grown-up!) is irreplaceable even if, at times, their demands can seem unreasonable. 

4) Magnifying the Field. Anyone who’s ever meditated or prayed with a group of people knows how potent it is. It’s usually a much more powerful experience than meditating or praying by one’s self. It just is. Go figure.

5) Practicalities. Lastly, Adi Da calls for his devotees to live in some form of cooperative community, when it’s doable, for very practical reasons. You can pool resources and thereby free up a lot of time, money, and energy for spiritual practice—for meditation, service, study, and devotional and sacramental occasions. Just like Ramakrishna’s devotees.

Stuff you can do

If your practice of, say, Sufism, or A Course in Miracles, or anthroposophy or Wicca has been mostly just you and books (or video, podcasts, chat rooms), try to find a local practice group or study group. Obviously look online, but also look at old-timey things like actual physical bulliten boards and kiosks for fliers…y’know, out there in the world of 3D buildings and stuff (Google it).

If you’re already part of a community, ask yourself: can you engage with them more, get more involved, participate more? Could you maybe find two or three people with whom you could meet regularly and talk about intensifying your practice? Face-to-face is best, but you could create this sort of group on the phone or via Skype if you had to.

If there are simply no local groups of any kind that work, consider joining a 12-step group, as an adjunct to your practice. There you will at least find people who are working with “the wound,” with their “shadow material,” and attempting to live by good principles—humility, integrity, honesty, service, surrender, transparency, a power greater than one’s own silly little mind.

There are 12-step groups around addictions to pretty much anything you could think of (alcohol, drugs, food, work, spending, gambling, emotions, sex, porn, codependency, and many others). And if you’ve miraculously gotten through this life without any of those addictive tendencies, well done:

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In summary, community can be a massive pain-in-the-ass. But if you want to take your practice into whole new territories, there are few disciplines that will do it quicker.

Oh, and how could you make a highly communal gesture immediately? By subscribing to my email list, of course!