A Communal Spirit

The inquiry: "Who Are My People?" stands among the perennial questions we come to face when the meaning in our usual, familiar answer fades away. As Sam Keen writes in Hymns to an Unknown God (1994) perennial questions lie beneath currents of time, culture, and conventional knowledge. They subtly, yet profoundly, fuel our quests for significance and spirituality. These underlying, ancient inquiries lead us to seek new horizons, understanding, and risks through connecting with different communities, beliefs and relationships.

At particular junctures in our lives we step out of our established identities, be it family, neighborhood, church, or workplace to discover fuller responses to another deep, recurring question: "Who Am I?" Treading that inner path is ultimately solitary, yet as Keen notes: "The spiritual journey is one we take alone together. It begins in community, leads out into the wilderness of solitude, and returns to community. Again and again." And with each return, the explorer is undeniably changed, seasoned in quite unexpected ways yet fresh and new as s/he looks for a welcoming shelter.

We hope the new communities we dare to enter will bear little resemblance to what was, especially if we found former groups to be rapt with division, prejudice, and insincerity. As we retreat from old dogmas, rites, and social structures we search for a sense of kinship full of feeling, validation, cooperation, and shared vision. We eagerly seek to find true belonging and new beginnings. And perhaps we search imagining that what was "wrong" about "them" or ourselves will be set right when we find the perfect refuge. Yet, how often have you found those same niggling traits tagging right along, for "wherever you go, there you are".

When we venture into new community, the thrill of discovering its treasure or the awkwardness of being new will often color those first few meetings, classes, or celebrations. And then we come to experience the challenge of true communion with others. Questions start to filter through: Do I step forward or withdraw? Do I initiate or wait? What can I give? What will I receive? Am I safe? Here we face that delicate tension between separateness and unity, solitude and communion. Our spiritual teachings may speak of Oneness and interdependence but our insecurities or fears tempt us to forsake communal contribution for solitary enlightenment. Building the bridge to span these opposites is crucial in this 21st Century, when through our technology and social awareness we are experiencing a greater sense of universal brother/sisterhood and global citizenry.

Recently I attended a talk by a Buddhist monk at a spiritual center. Though I walked into a room of strangers I sensed the safety and warmth among 50 meditating attendees. The peace in the room was palpable and as I found a place to set my cushion someone turned to me, smiled and shifted over to make space. Not another word or glance was exchanged but we both wholly understood we were sharing a communal spirit. As I listened to the monk’s insights on kindness and "right relation" I started to wonder how well do I bring the spirit of compassion and communion to others in everyday encounters? How much am I wholehearted to my self and the parts of me hidden behind the persona I present? Are they not cut of the same cloth? And is it not the absence of awareness and compassion that characterizes the groups we leave or the struggle we have with shadowy parts within ourselves?

Compassion is not just a product of spiritual living but a practice that can free us from our sense of separateness. It is the natural, spontaneous spirit of an open heart. Cultivating compassion opens us to our basic aliveness and wise and skillful presence. So as we become aware of our own humanity through a spiritual lens how and where do we face one another? Do we communicate appreciation and care toward our own fragmented self so that we may come together for support, respect and shared purpose? Do we shift abit to smile, greet and make room for each other? Through these facets of compassion we call on Spirit to weave oneself and community together. As the poet Marge Piercy envisions:

It goes on one at a time,
It starts when you care
To act, it starts when you do
It again after they said no,
It starts when you say We
And know who you mean, and each
Day you mean one more.