One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual path is that we are on our own and we can't do it alone. By on our own I mean this: no matter how devoted we might be to a particular faith or teaching, we and we alone determine what to believe and not to believe, what practices to engage in, where to affiliate and how to spend our time. We make these and other choices based on our personal needs, our level of commitment and the unique circumstances of our lives. At the same time, no matter how independent we might be, we all need help. We need teachers, guides, scriptures, traditions, institutions—and each other. Companions provide comfort, support, insight, practical information and a lot of other things, which is why every spiritual tradition emphasizes the importance of community.
In my work I constantly meet people who resolutely maintain their freedom of choice as they pursue spiritual growth. Many had once been part of a community only to have turned away—perhaps because they were wounded by an authority figure, or alienated by harsh or hypocritical teachings, or simply weren't getting their spiritual needs met. Even people who have never been involved with a religious or spiritual organization are wary of them: fearing that they'll be asked to conform too much in belief or behavior, they’d rather freelance than join. And yet, despite these concerns and misgivings, there are times when they feel isolated and yearn for spiritual companions.
Does this sound familiar? Do you ever wonder how you can find a community that's right for you? One thing you can do is to check out the religious institutions in your area. Many of us have become so cynical about organized religion that we assume every house of worship is just more of the same. But religions are changing, and you might find an affiliation that suits you. Just don't expect perfection; institutions are as flawed as the human beings in them. I think of formal spiritual organizations as packaged tours. They can be stifling, inhibiting, irritating and restrictive. They can waste your time with superficial activities, keeping you from finding the most profound treasures. But they can also make a journey safer, more comfortable and more orderly—and, they provide companions. As the credit card company says, membership has its rewards—if you find an institution that suits your needs, your personality and your ethical standards; if you can stay true to your values and beliefs; and if you can tolerate the follies that afflict most organizations. Remember, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing commitment: you might find a place that provides a satisfying community, even if it doesn’t meet all your spiritual needs.
You might also look for unconventional organizations. More and more of these are cropping up, attracting seekers who wish to reach beyond the borders of traditional religion. People are gathering in small groups to study, learn new practices and share experiences. As an example, my colleagues in the Forge Guild of Spiritual Leaders and Teachers have created a membership organization for people who want to grow spiritually in a diverse, non-dogmatic context. Called the Community for Spiritual Wisdom, it is open to people throughout the world, and in certain areas will bring members together in facilitated gatherings called Forge Hearths (for information, go to www.TheForge.org).
Another way to reap the rewards of community is to create one of your own. Why not round up some spiritual chums and form an ongoing group? If you choose to take on this challenge, these are some of the issues that you will have to consider:
- Diversity or uniformity? Cozy groups consisting of people on the same path offer common beliefs, language and practices. Diverse groups, on the other hand, can be exciting crucibles in which a variety of perspectives can be shared.
- What is the main purpose? Do you want a support group that stresses emotional comfort? A discussion group, focusing on ideas? A reading group that studies sacred texts? A religious gathering that emphasizes inspiration and ritual?
- Should there be a format? Do you want every session to have a predetermined agenda? Should discussion be freeform or follow a set procedure? Should there be an opening and/or closing ritual, and if so, will it vary or always be the same?
- How do you want to be together? Which rules of communication and behavior, if any, would best serve the purposes of your group?
- Should there be a leader? If so, how are they selected? What authority should leaders have, and what role will they play?
- How often will you meet? The more frequent, the more continuity and intimacy, but also a higher likelihood of absenteeism.
- How big should the group be? Too small and the meetings can bog down in familiarity and repetition; too big and they can lack intimacy or become unwieldy.
- How will you deal with conflict? Try to agree from the get-go how you will manage tension and disagreement.
Wherever you find community, knowing that you have trusted companions to rely upon can keep you steady, bolster your faith and speed your progress along the spiritual path. But only if you choose your companions well. The crucial question is: Can you derive benefit from a person or group without giving up your autonomy or violating your deepest values? The best companions are those who come together in the spirit of this Indian proverb: "Help your brother's boat across, and your own will reach the shore."