Cultivating Spiritual Presence
The Spiritual Group
The truism that no person is an island applies in the spiritual arena even more than it does in the material. From the most ancient times, people have gathered in groups and communities to engage in spiritual practices addressing the Source of life, the Ineffable hidden beyond our senses. Monasteries and other spiritual communities bring seekers together to live in a protected and conducive environment. In lay or non-monastic environments, the work of the congregation, the sangha, the minyan, and the halka offer spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood within the context of life in the greater community.
Why has this always been the case? Primarily because the spiritual community or group multiplies, empowers, and reinforces the efforts of the individual. Meditation, prayer and other practices, when pursued in a group or community, qualitatively and quantitatively magnify what each person can offer and experience. The coalescence of the group into a shared will and shared consciousness in communal practice creates a greater spiritual whole that enhances individual possibilities. The vehicle of the spiritual group or community carries all its individual participants to far greater spiritual depths than they could typically reach on their own. The group serves as a container for energies and as a reminder of the sacred. Each person in the group or community helps all the others by their very presence and by their orientation toward the Divine, toward love.
In business and other life endeavors, people form alliances and partnerships to create much more than they possibly could by themselves. In the spiritual endeavor, the same holds. We can join forces, share our hearts’ search for the spirit, and help each other climb the mountain of transformation.
Nevertheless, spiritual groups and communities often succumb to pitfalls. Some principles to consider in the work of a spiritual group or community include the following.
1. Equality in Relation to the Divine
In the most basic sense, we are all beggars and beginners in the spiritual path. In the face of Divinity, we are all equal, equally children of the Will of the World. This bedrock principle must pervade the work of any spiritual group. Elders, teachers and those with more experience of the path, if their inner work has been rightly conducted, will, through their genuine humility and respect for others, exhibit an implicit assumption of equality in all their relationships, including with people in the spiritual group or community. We all serve the same Source.
2. Shared Vision
For a group to function well, the members must agree on the path and methods to be studied and followed. Without some commonality of technique and direction, the group will (or should) be short-lived.
3. Peer Group Versus Having a Leader
The question of leadership in a spiritual group raises complex and difficult issues. If there is to be a leader, it must be someone with consistently deeper experience in the path than the rest of the group; otherwise the leaderless peer group offers a more appropriate form. Kindness and non-attachment form two more qualities required in a group leader. Without these, history teaches us that spiritual leaders tend to grow abusive, emotionally, sexually, and financially, or they demand loyalty to themselves and their particular path rather than loyalty to the Divine and to the great community of all life. The leader must inspire trust in his or her goodwill, and confidence in his or her wisdom and knowledge of the path. Condescension, a patronizing attitude, an air of being special, abuse of power, arrogance, and insults do not characterize an effective spiritual leader, regardless of the pious justifications and excuses offered for such behavior. The essence of the role of the spiritual mentor is to share his or her passion for the path and to instill confidence in the possibility of realization.
More subtly, we can look at the leaderís role in terms of the three aspects of will: active, passive, and reconciling or synergistic. The great temptation of a spiritual leader is to play an active role, with the students being passive or receptive to the leaderís lead. This causes many, hard-to-recognize problems. It feeds the leaderís ego, as do the group members by fawning over him or her. Then the group builds an ego around the leader, instead of fostering humility. It robs initiative from the group members, for whom initiative in their own inner work is crucial. The group members become dependent upon the leaderís judgments of them, on the leaderís criticism or praise. This stifles real progress. A truly effective group fosters freedom and individuality in the group members, an individuality that forms the basis of service and surrender to the Divine.
The alternative to the active leader is the reconciling or synergistic leader, neither active nor passive, but both and more. Such a leader, in his or her being and in his or her teaching, points the way toward the Sacred, while leaving room for the group members to be active and work from their own initiative. The qualities of humility, lightness of touch, and non-judging, as well as a deep understanding of the spiritual path and a living, thriving connection to the Sacred characterize the ideal leader.
The leaderless peer group can operate by consensus. If the group spends time speaking about experiences and efforts in the path, then what each person shares must be treated with respect. If the members of the group analyze, criticize, offer advice, or make suggestions in response to another member, they risk poisoning the atmosphere of the group. For honesty and sincerity to prevail, an environment of trust and respect must be developed and protected. Peer group members should limit what they share to relating their own experiences and efforts, and not stray into playing the spiritual mentor. No one can do the spiritual work of another. Guidance, to be effective, must be asked for, not offered gratuitously. In a peer group, guidance can come from hearing the efforts, successes, and failures of the other members of the group.
Both forms, the peer group and the led group, have their place and can greatly accelerate the inner work of the members of the group. In the earlier stages of the path, having a leader offers important benefits. In the first years, we need to be taught the methods by someone who understands them. We need to be nudged back onto the path when we stray. We need to recognize the limits of our own understanding and be willing to ask for and receive guidance. This promotes humility and insulates us from that bane of spiritual work: arrogance. We also need confirmation of our understanding, so our confidence and self-reliance can grow. However, a led group requires a leader with the characteristics described above. Lacking such a person, the peer group can be an excellent alternative.
4. Frequency of Gathering
Living in a genuine spiritual community that works and practices together confers the blessings of a powerful, traditional way toward the spirit. Few of us, though, exhibit a willingness to become monks or nuns. Furthermore, living full-time in a spiritual community does not constitute the best approach for everyone. It depends on one’s temperament and style.
Retreats convey the advantages of life in a spiritual community on a temporary basis. Periodic retreats, in which we focus entirely on the work of presence, deepening awareness, and opening our heart, can prove enormously beneficial in reinvigorating our inner work.
In our normal life situation, a weekly group meeting, attended regularly, offers an external reminder, a source of energy, and a shared commitment, enabling us to maintain our practice in the face of life’s many distractions and pressures. In certain respects, this creates the ideal circumstance. We need great determination to continuously return to our practice in the midst of family, job, community, and other responsibilities. Life becomes our training ground. If our spiritual practice can flower within the challenge of normal life, our practice will grow strong indeed, our hearts open, and our lives transformed.
Practice in the special environment
of a retreat or a spiritual community can usher us into deep experiences,
tastes of the true spirit. Yet when we return to our normal life, those
experiences gradually fade, while thankfully leaving a residue of purification
and commitment. Practice in everyday life, however, can bring lasting
transformation. Daily progress may not be as dramatic and rapid as during
a retreat, but can be more permanent. Gradually, the path and our life
merge, so that our life is our path, carrying us toward the opening of
our hearts and the Great Source of All.
5. The Structure of the Group Meeting: Practice and Sharing
The spiritual group, to be effective, devotes time to both shared practice and shared discussion. A group which does not meditate, pray, or engage in some other collective spiritual practice misses the remarkable opportunity. Discussion alone, even of the most profound, heartfelt and weighty topics, rarely touches our soul. Discussion alone does not serve the transformation of energies and the purification of will in the way that shared practice can.
Group practice alone, however, may not illumine certain valuable details of the path. For this, the group needs shared discussion. The discussion, though, must not be solely theoretical: it should focus on the details of practice, how one actually practices, what obstacles one encounters, what helps, what experiments one tries, what new insights come, and so forth. If each person in the group describes such living details of their own spiritual efforts, every person in the group benefits thereby. Everyone can relate what the speaker articulates to their own life and path. A theoretical discussion of ideas rarely has such an impact.
Like every individual, each spiritual group or community is unique, and will have its own style, its own lifecycle. But all genuinely spiritual groups and communities support the transformation of their members and enable them to serve in a deeper way than would be possible on their own. If we are fortunate enough to participate in a spiritual group that suits our needs and our taste, well and good. If not, perhaps we can find one other person to share our practice with, forming a group of two. Otherwise, we do our best to pursue our spiritual practice on our own: for this also is possible and necessary. No one else can free us; no one else can do our inner work for us. But we can help each other.
Copyright © 2001 - 2017 Joseph Naft. All rights reserved.