Community is the Heart of Mindfulness

In his teachings, the Buddha emphasized what are called the Three Gems of the Eight-Fold Path, the path to enlightenment. Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has said that of the three, Sangha, which can be translated as the “community of practitioners”, is the most important in the Western world right now. Why do the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh place such high emphasis on community? Let us examine what is so valuable in Sangha and how it contributes to mindfulness as a path and to liberation.



Dissolution of Community


There is ample evidence that modernity in most Western countries has been accompanied by the dissolution of traditional community structures. As we have shifted to emphasis on individual and economic mobility and freedom, we have become increasingly dislocated from place and from kinship networks. In this environment, we are forced to become more self-reliant or reliant on fewer people for emotional and material support. This shift is a part of why many people are increasingly overwhelmed by stress and other emotional and mental health problems.


The most popular solutions to these problems in Western society are decidedly individualistic, avoiding the issue of community dissolution all together. Western medicine has tended to locate the core of the problem in the persons psychological or biological dysfunction. The solutions generated from such understanding are, most often, individual treatment with some combination of therapy and medication. Occasionally people are encouraged to attend support groups. Mostly these groups are temporary and/or reliant on insurance payments, subject to time-limits. A few models outside the mental health systems, such as 12-Step communities and peer networks, offer radically different approaches that are community based.  Due to their emphasis on anonymity, their impact is understood mostly on an anecdotal basis.


This individualistic emphasis is seen, also, in popular culture, where the focus is on people’s attempts to fix themselves. Appropriately titled “self-help” books emphasize techniques and tools we can apply in order to improve our condition on our own. In some ways mindfulness has become another one of these tools. As mindfulness is increasingly divorced from its cultural and Buddhist context, many people are learning these techniques online and through books without the aid of a teacher or community. The traditional lineage of teachers passing on this wisdom via direct transmission to the students within a supportive practice community is being lost in our modern individualistic culture.


The Costs of Isolation


As a clinician who works with many of the poorest and most marginalized people in my community, I hear stories daily of how isolated people feel. The most marginalized of us live in constant fear of crime, violence, eviction, and prejudice. Many have been severely traumatized and have difficulty trusting others, which keeps them further trapped. Without access to communities that offer alternatives and support, they are often left to their own devices or become dependent on formal systems that are often disempowering and inadequate.


For those with more privilege, the sources of isolation may be different, yet the impact is no less damaging. Those who are barely making it, having to work multiple jobs or long hours to support themselves and their families. With dissolution of traditional community support structures, people are forced to pay for child-care and other services, the costs of which lead to an even greater need for longer work hours and less time for community involvement. Even those fortunate enough to make higher incomes or with fewer expenses, may work for organizations making more demands of their time. Changes in technology are one of many factors contributing to this dynamic, blurring the line between work and non-work.


The effects of this are evident in the rampant increase in rates of depression, anxiety, and stress-related health issues. As opportunities for authentic community connection an involvement decrease, people turn to other means to soothe themselves, find meaning, and distract themselves. Everything from addictive behavioral patterns, consumption patterns, and increased use of technology, can be understood as stand-ins for the authentic sense of belonging to a community.


Community as the Path


In traditional monastic communities, monks must take vows of refuge before learning any mindfulness practices. One of the refuges is the Sangha.  As the term refuge implies, these are understood to be protective spaces that guard and encourage the development of mindfulness. Much as we must nurture and protect a young child from harm so it can grow healthy and strong, developing and deepening a nascent mindfulness practice requires great care if it is to sustain all the challenges our modern world poses. Sangha offers us important ways out of the current isolation that contributes to our suffering in individual and institutional ways.


In the Sangha we hold for each other the intention of wholeheartedly investigating these practices amidst the currents of a culture that promotes distraction, impulsivity, and indulgence. Being in the company of others who are working to face and surmount these obstacles gives us faith that it is possible and inspires us to try.  Furthermore, to paraphrase author Charles Eisenstien, Sangha is the new guru. There is no one teacher who may have all the answers, but in searching together we create solutions together. Guidance and direction comes from fellow practitioners, who by sharing their experiences and struggles offer insight into our own journey.


The actual spaces created by a community of practitioners, whether in a living room or a retreat center, also create conditions that support and nurture mindfulness. In these spaces we find others willing to cultivate silence, simplicity, and stillness in the sea of screens, images, and activity. What seems impossible alone in a room, becomes possible in the company of other spiritual warriors who find the courage to meet themselves without any filters.


Sangha works as an antidote to isolation because it is a space where we connect to ourselves and to one another directly and transparently. Increasingly reliant on virtual and digital forms of mediated interaction, Sangha orients us to apprehension and connection via all of our senses without additives. In spite of all the new mindfulness apps promise they can not replace this direct, embodied experience of community. Only by witnessing directly via our senses and minds, minimizing distractions, are we are able to fully appreciate the moment as it is. This type of connection is becoming endangered.


Joining or creating a Sangha can support our efforts to heal the many rifts of separation modern life imposes: separation from our bodies, from nature, from each other, from full presence and attentiveness. It supports our individual practice, energizing and giving us confidence, and reminding us why we practice mindfulness in the first place. Community is not an ancillary part of this process. What we are practicing is the art of creating real unity with others, which involves transparency and presence. This requires showing up fully, in person, and committing to staying engaged even when things get uncomfortable. Ultimately, like the other refuges, Sangha is both an integral part of the path and the final goal.

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