Creating Mindful Community
















In my last essay I wrote about the benefits and advantages of being part of a mindfulness community or sangha.  Having discussed these benefits, I wish to explore how to find a meditation community that suits your needs.  Beyond locating a group, how do we actually show up and go past merely attending to actively participating? Let’s unpack some of these issues and explore creative solutions that might help if you get stuck along the way.

Finding the Right Group

The first step is finding a group. Here in the Boston area we are blessed with a plethora of them. How do you choose what type of meditation group is right for you? With so many lineages, traditions, styles, approaches and teachers, it can feel overwhelming. A good place to begin is by reading books and articles by different teachers in various traditions. Attend a few different groups and get a feel for culture and style. Chances are you will feel intuitively drawn by a particular approach.

For some, traditional aspects of Buddhism will be fascinating and rich avenues for exploration. Others may be turned off by religious trappings and prefer secular varieties of mindfulness. Trust your gut. However, beware of hopping around from one group to the next, avoiding any commitment. This can be a way to avoid establishing relationships. You don’t have to feel permanently wedded to a group, but there is value in giving it time before discarding it. Keep a sense of openness and curiosity as you explore Chances are you will pick up something of value even if you later decide to move on.

Some people worry that Buddhism, or mindfulness, is just another form of religion. While that’s open to debate, it’s important to note that Buddhism offers an approach that is distinctive in many ways. As the Dalai Lama put it, “My religion is kindness.”  For starters, Buddhism does not require nor exclude a belief in God. It shares with science an emphasis on experimentation and direct experience over blind faith. Meditation practices are meant to be taken on in order to discover truth for ourselves. Faith based on teachings alone is strongly discouraged. In these, and other, fundamental ways, Buddhism offers a path that may be useful, even for those who have issue with other religious traditions.

Another difficulty people encounter is the absence of diversity in mindfulness groups in the U.S., which are generally populated by relatively affluent and lighter-skinned people. For those who are poor, working class, of color, queer, and otherwise different, it can be a challenge to fit in. Some centers have responded to this dilemma by creating groups for people of color and LGBT communities. In addition, attempts have been made to make mindfulness groups more accessible to diverse groups, such as prisoners, low-income people via health centers, and inner city youth via school programs. Hopefully this will lead to more diversity in U.S. sanghas. Of course, this does not address how to alter the culture of existing sanghas to make them more inclusive in content and approach.  This is a broader issue than can not be adequately addressed here. To change this existing groups will have to begin to acknowledge suffering is not merely individual, but speak to institutional suffering and oppression. We must have more dialogue and action about how sanghas can play a role in addressing larger social, political and ecological issues.

For some it may simply be the case that there are no groups near you, or none that meet your needs. This can be a wonderful opportunity to create your own group This doesn’t have to be daunting. Sangha simply means two or more people coming together regularly to support each others practice. Any space where you can sit quietly for an hour or two is fine; a living room is perfect. Many local churches or community centers will offer use of a room or hall for free or a nominal fee. You can use recordings from your favorite teachers, easily downloadable online, or just sit silently, making space to share in conversation.

I speak from experience. Some time back I was struggling to find a Sangha that fulfilled my desire for a group that wasn’t only about practice, but about creating a real community of friends. I had attended groups where we would sit and go home. At best we might chat for a few minutes before or after practice. I wanted a group that acknowledged the importance of justice and ecological issues, explored how they were woven into spiritual issues, and forged community that would support these efforts. I decided to start a group. I spread the word among friends and online. I found others who shared my vision and we began to gather regularly. In addition to sitting, we make time for food and conversation.

Internal Challenges

Ultimately the most challenging obstacles may be the internal ones. Most of us become interested in these practices because we are suffering. Our fears, traumas, and past experiences can present major obstacles to getting closer to others. I understand this on a personal level. For years I felt extremely isolated and struggled to show any parts of myself that felt vulnerable. I wrestled with depression, anxiety and addiction issues on my own, and felt a terrible sense of shame and self-loathing when I failed to make progress. I had internalized the American mentality of self-help. Even with therapy I still struggled to connect to people, feeling isolated and cut off from a deeper sense of community.

In time I found I needed to take a chance and reach out. I started attending recovery and meditation meetings. Like many, I sat in the back, hardly speaking to anyone. It was all I could do, but it was a step. I kept showing up and over time began to feel more comfortable, talking to a few people, and eventually opening up more and more. All of these acts, tucked neatly into one paragraph, took some time and every shred of courage I had. The good news is I finally started to break out of my sense of isolation and shame, because I saw that many others had the same struggles.

I won’t sugar coat this: taking this step may be the scariest part of your healing process. The good news is that like most things, our worst fears are only in our imaginations. What we anticipate is usually never like the actual experience. Furthermore, stepping beyond the realm of comfort is necessary for growth and healing. Luckily this is one of those risks that pays of in immeasurable ways. Don’t let your fears stop you from taking this tremendous step. Community is integral for our individual, social and ecological healing. Sangha supports this by creating a sacred space where we can be ourselves, authentically, as we are, with tremendous compassion and support.


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