The Spiritual Meaning of Community
Founder of Society of Souls, spiritual teacher Jason Shulman reveals why spiritual communities provide an express ticket to enlightenment.
Sangha. Congregation. Havurah. Tribe. It has been consistent throughout recorded history that a vital component of the personal spiritual journey has been its connection to the group, the relationship of the solitary seeker to his or her brothers and sisters on the path.
On the most obvious level it’s easy to understand: we want people to talk to, we want to share our experiences, we want support and love from like‐minded people as we take the sometimes difficult journey of awakening to our true nature, of finding God.
But hidden under these formative ideas lies a dynamic spiritual system without which, though often not overtly stated, personal spiritual progress — or complete spiritual progress — could not be accomplished. In other words, spiritual community exists not only to support us and make things easier, but to challenge us, to push us forward, and to help us see one of the primary truths of reality. Let’s talk about a few of them.
1. Community as Sandpaper
Everyone has a personality, God help us. Sometimes we like his or her personality and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we really don’t. And yet, since we have actually chosen this community, unlike the community of our families that we were born into, it’s difficult to pick and choose among members. Everyone is there for the purpose of spiritual growth and we come to understand at a certain point that our preference has nothing to do with who gets to stay part of the community and who’s asked to leave. It’s not up to us. Because we are dedicated seekers, we are forced to begin looking inward at our own preferences rather than outward at our judgments and beliefs.
A good spiritual community is one that understands at the very beginning that there will always be conflicts within a community. Because of this, two things must happen. First, each person must be completely, one‐hundred percent responsible for his or her own response. Even if another person has done something downright wrong, my personal response is still my responsibility. The second is that there must always be an avenue for things to be worked out and not papered over in the false hope of having a “happy home.”
Spiritual work is not about having a happy home. The Buddha said that Buddhas are those beings who are greatly enlightened about their delusions. This means that spiritual work is about uncovering, seeing, accepting, working with and through our own imperfections, not the imperfections of others. That’s theirs one‐hundred percent!
The community setting is vital to our growth because it causes friction. This is not a failure of community, as eventually, we become grateful for the sandpaper of community. We begin to ride more lightly and begin seeing that all of us, ourselves included, get on someone else’s nerves, and that it is our nerves that need to be a little more seasoned, a little more loose in the saddle, a little more open to the vagaries of human conduct. We understand that we are all imperfect beings and will forever need to work things through with the world around us.
2. Community as Relationship
A corollary to community as sandpaper is community as the truth of relationship. If we look at the world with open and fearless eyes freed from limiting and unexamined beliefs, we see that the world is constantly in relationship. If we are really brave, we understand that relationship comes in all shapes and sizes, from the warmest love to the coldest fury — all the possibilities of how we connect are on the continuum of relationship.
While we may fantasize that in the world of spirit there is room for everything with no chance of conflict, once out of the world of spirit and in the material plane, it’s as if there isn’t enough room for everything. In fact, if we look at anything in this world closely enough, we see that one thing is constantly eating another thing in order to survive. Some people think it better to eat things like vegetables rather than animals, but the fact remains that one thing must die in order for another to live.
Despite all this evidence, human beings nurture a thought that there is such a thing as relationship that does not contain strife. In this vision, there is no conflict. We are all in Eden or Heaven and the lion has decided to lie down with the lamb. This is not possible of course. The only way the lion and the lamb lie down together is if the lamb is going to be lunch. We have to shut our eyes very tightly not to see that conflict is fundamental to life and relationships.
Once we understand this and can begin to accept it, we can move out of fantasy and examine the fact that “community” — other people engaged in the same pursuit we are engaged in — is actually a manifestation of a basic truth of existence: we are all one. In this vision, one-ness does not mean we are all the same. Oneness includes difference and difference is the name of community. At some point, instead of irritating us, differences between others and ourselves become a cause for celebration. This one is good at singing. This one is not. This one can run fast. This one is slow. This one is good at helping others. This one likes to keep to herself.
Once our egocentric preferences are worn down by the sandpaper aspect of community we get to see the glory of difference, the enriching quality of the unusual, the deeper meaning of how abundance manifests on our plane of existence through the garden of human variation.
3. Community as Being Poor in Spirit
Years ago I was part of a spiritual community that followed a certain set of teachings. There were evening meetings, weekend workshops and a center where we stayed overnight (and some people lived). There was one fellow who, while living at the residence, did not attend any of the meetings or workshops. He didn’t even eat with the rest of us but was always busy cooking his food for his special diet; he only ate beans, rice and tofu. None of us actually ever knew if he followed the teachings or how he became part of the community. Some people wanted to ask him to leave.
Jesus is reported in Matthew as saying that the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Why is this? My understanding is that only as we empty ourselves of our preconceived beliefs and prejudices do we see the light of the world. This is the whole point of spiritual attainment. Asking this person to leave was vastly counterproductive; his presence could foster great spiritual growth for us all. If we were brave enough, we could actually listen to many of our cherished, but unfounded, beliefs falling like so many trees in the forest. “He’s weird.” Kaboom! “He’s not sophisticated.” Kaboom! “He makes me feel afraid.” Kaboom! “I don’t understand him.” Kaboom! And so on.
My effort in recent years has been to become poor in spirit — less filled with myself to allow more capacity to be filled with the divine. It’s not that everything is not divine. We just don’t see the divinity all around us until we can put down the burdens of our long held hidden assumptions about what is valuable and what is not.
4. Community as Sanctuary
Finally we come to the idea of safety, of a place we can come home to. It is impossible to take this Earth ride alone. Real sanctuary appears when we allow differences, when there is room for conflict, when we take total responsibility for everything we feel and stop believing that others cause us to feel a certain way. As this is accomplished, community becomes a true place of refuge and a place where we can be ourselves, where getting into trouble is expected and can be worked through. The community where I can grow into my imperfect, heart-felt and holy humanity, that’s the community for me.
Jinen Jason Shulman is the founder of A Society of Souls, the School for Nondual Healing & Awakening, based in the US and the Netherlands. He is a modern Kabbalist and a recognized Buddhist teacher who has received dharma transmission. He is also the creator of Enlightenment Online, the new free spiritual social networking site. Visit the site and contact Jason at http://www.enon.org.