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The Importance of Community in Contemplation

The Importance of Community in Contemplation

Community at Shambhala Meditation Center

The Shambhala Meditation Center of St. Petersburg, Florida is a bit tricky to find after sundown. Located in a large building occupied by alternative healers and a yoga studio in a residential neighborhood in downtown St. Pete, the entrance to the Shambhala Center is located around the corner from the front of the complex. My first time there was on a Friday evening in December — my birthday, as it turned out — and the late autumn sun had already set by the time I parked my car, just a few minutes before the evening’s program began at 7 p.m.
I stumbled around in the dark until I finally noticed a sign directing me to the modest door where Shambhala was located. I opened it and stepped inside a small vestibule where ten or so folks were milling about waiting to be summoned into the shrine room. As I walked in, the conversation stopped. Clearly, this was a fairly tight-knit group: everyone here knew (or at least was acquainted with) everyone else, and I presented a new face.

Someone looked at the stranger standing at the door (me), and said, “You must be Carl.” I smiled, and replied, “I guess there aren’t too many out-of-towners for this weekend’s training?” The person who greeted me nodded. “Nope, you’re the only one.”

For months prior to that night, I had tried to schedule this particular class at the Atlanta Shambhala Center, where I had worked with a meditation instructor for the past few years. But every time it was offered, some sort of conflict stood in my way. Finally, my M.I. suggested I look at offerings at other centers in the southeast, and the first weekend in December at St. Petersburg fit perfectly. As a bonus, driving to Florida provided me with an excuse to visit my brother and sister-in-law who lived in nearby Dunedin, as well as a way to celebrate my birthday—and my brother’s, only a day later—while also finally taking this weekend class, the next one in my meditation training.

So there I was, at a small meditation center nearly five hundred miles from my home, the lone newcomer in a group of people who were pretty much already familiar with each other. But immediately, they welcomed me as one of their own. Over the next three days my fellow students became my acquaintances and then my new friends, with folks eagerly curious to chat with me about my interfaith approach to meditation (I may have been the only out-of-towner, but I was not the only Christian present), particularly bonding with a young couple in the process of relocating to Georgia. By the last day of the weekend training, everyone was asking me if I would be back for the next level of the training in a few months’ time.

Southern hospitality? I suppose you could say so—this was Florida, after all, although like many residents of the sunshine state plenty of the Shambhala members were transplants from other parts of the country. Buddhist friendliness? Perhaps, although I’m not sure that demographically speaking Buddhists are any friendlier than the adherents of any other wisdom tradition. Rather, I think my wonderful experience of welcome and friendship at that small meditation center has to do with an interesting spiritual paradox: contemplation—and meditation—while fundamentally personal spiritual practices that entail tending to one’s inner life, seem to benefit from, and perhaps even require, supportive communities in order to thrive.

Community in Contemplation

In other words, contemplation, despite its reputation as a “navel-gazing” pursuit, a solitary “flight from the alone to the alone” as Plotinus put it, seems to work best when we explore it in a social context, just like a beautiful cut diamond requires a setting to show off the fullness of its shine.

Inquire Within proclaims the T-Shirt with a picture of the Buddha in the lotus position blazoned across it. Isn’t that the heart of contemplation: to withdraw from the world, the environment, even our relationships, and settle in to the grand adventure of interior exploration, seeking meaning and purpose, if not joy and ecstasy, deep within the silence found beyond and between our most private thoughts? And yet, like so many aspects of the spiritual path, it seems one truth is always nestled in a larger, paradoxical truthand the solitary nature of spiritual practice is but one half of yet another paradox. Jesus instructed his followers whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you Matthew 6:6). Solitude, right? But hold on: Jesus also insisted that where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20). Solitude pretty much disappears as soon as two or three people come together. So when Jesus instructs us to pray in secret, clearly that’ s not the entire story. Inquiring within needs to be embedded in a network of relations.

It’s not just Jesus who invited his followers into the paradox of solitude and community. The path of the Buddha—with its focus on meditation, clearly a more “introverted” tradition than chatty Christianity—has its own social emphasis. The three jewels of refuge within the dharma include the Buddha (the teacher), the dharma (the path), and the Sangha (the community). The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, like Christ’s forty day sojourn alone in the desert, is a model not for the spiritual life in its entirety, but for one aspect of a practice which needs to be embedded in fellowship with like-minded seekers—whether monks or nuns, a church or a sangha, or even simply a group of folks who participate in a monthly meetup.

Which is not to say that the followers of these exemplars haven’t sometimes made their own efforts to keep their spirituality a strictly private affair. In my home faith of Christianity, a key turning point in the history of the faith came in the fourth century, when numerous men and women, alarmed at how lax “public” Christianity had become, abandoned the cities of the Roman Empire and relocated into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to embrace a life of austerity—and solitude. Soon caves were inhabited by hermits, and huts were scattered across the desert area, where these zealous Christians would seek to make their lives into full offerings given to God—all alone. Although younger hermits would seek out the older ones for an occasional blessing or word of wisdom, the heart of desert spirituality remained essentially lonely—that is, until a Christian named Basil (later St. Basil the Great) began to wonder, “If I live alone, then whose feet shall I wash?” —referring to Christ’s actions with his disciples the night before his crucifixion, when Jesus not only himself washed the feet of his followers, but then instructed them to do the same for others. Oops. It’s hard to wash someone else’s feet when you’re a hermit.

St. Basil’s one simple question contributed to the emergence of monasteries in the Christian world, where men or women could live in a community with like-minded people of prayer, balancing their yearning for God in silence and solitude with their zeal to love and care for one another. By the early sixth century, St. Benedict wrote his famous “Rule for Monasteries” in which he instructed monks on the skills and characteristics necessary for living together successfully. After fifteen centuries, St. Benedict’s Rule is still a classic statement on how to foster community well. Many gems can be found within it—but one statement in particular continues to inspire monks and other drawn to their life. “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: “I was a stranger and you took Me in” instructed Benedict, quoting from Matthew 25:35. For monks, the presence of Christ came not only through prayer, or meditation, or the sacraments, but also in one another—and especially in guests. This suggests that, to reach its fullest potential or fullest flowering, a spiritual community must not only take care of its own members, but offer hands of welcome to the world at large.

All of this talk about community can be piously affirmed by spiritual seekers, regardless of religion or tradition. But before we get too complacent in our blessed communality, let’s bear in mind that we live in a society that often ignores the concept of community altogether—and, for a variety of social and economic reasons, in many ways actually undermines community. Does this impact how we live our spiritual lives? You bet.

Frank Sinatra and Loverboy

When I was in college, a Canadian band called Loverboy had a top-ten hit single called “Turn Me Loose.” The song featured a lyric that bluntly said “I’ve got to do it my way, or no way at all” (and the singer goes on to complain about to his romantic interest “You had to have it your way, or no way at all”). Of course, this wasn’t the first pop song to make such a bold declaration of independence; back in 1969 Frank Sinatra had a hit with Paul Anka’s song “My Way” (later covered by a variety of artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Sid Vicious). Within the past decade, the R&B act Little Jackie scored a hit with a song called “The World Should Revolve Around Me”—showing that our cultural obsession with individualism and self-reliance is showing no sign of letting up.

Isn’t it the American way? After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson published an essay on “Self Reliance” in 1841; America’s archetypical mythic figure is the Lone Ranger. We seem to have it embedded in our psyches that we need to be strong and independent—in other words, we need no one else to support us, or worse yet, to encumber us, as we seek to live out our lives, each of us loyal only to “my way.”

But what does this have to do with contemplation—or spirituality in general? Plenty, it seems, for America is the home of the idea that spirituality and religion are not only separate, but should be separate: and religion (which is communal, social, public, governed by moral and ethical norms, and often institutionalized) is clearly inferior to spirituality, which by contrast is personal, experiential, individualistic, and private. When I wrote my first book, Spirituality, in the mid-1990s, my research suggested that, especially among younger Americans, the gap between those who consider themselves “religious” and those who consider themselves “spiritual” was huge. If anything, the last twenty years has only increased that gap, to the point where “Spiritual but not religious” (“S.B.N.R.”) has entered our lexicon to describe those who, in Rami Shapiro’s words, are “spiritually independent.” In 2010, USA Today declared 72% of young Americans to be more spiritual than religious.

I’ve encountered this trend in a surprising way. I wrote The Big Book of Christian Mysticism to introduce all people, not just Christians, to the splendor of contemplation and mysticism as it has historically been practiced in a Christian context. But Christianity has nearly always expressed its mysticism in communal ways, so of course one chapter in my book is all about the importance of community to the mystical life. That chapter has, more than any other element in the book, received the most push-back from readers. I’ve had students say “I love everything about your book—well, that is, except for chapter 9.” It’s easy to fall in love with mysticism, but the relationship hits a rough spot when it’s time to meet the family.

Why is S.B.N.R. the hottest trend in American spirituality? To some extent, it reflects how rapidly our culture is changing, both in terms of social change (from the rise of feminism to the increasing acceptance of GLBT persons) and the increased accessibility that people have to literally all the world’s religions—an accessibility that simply didn’t exist for most people even forty or fifty years ago. In this emerging context, many people may opt for spiritual independence simply as a way to avoid what can often feel like overly restrictive boundaries that characterize many religious communities.
That’s understandable, but I wonder if there could be a shadow side to S.B.N.R. identity as well: an uncritical acceptance of American hyper-individualism, that rejects religion not because of a carefully examined theological or philosophical conviction, but rather simply because community seems boring or inconvenient—in other words, it interferes with doing spirituality “my way.”

Spiritual But Not Religious is Not a Threat

Dear readers, before you write a comment to this essay either praising me for my strong commitment to community, or excoriating me for trying to guilt-trip the spiritual independents, please join me in taking a deep breath or two (after all, that’s an essential part of contemplation). My hope and prayer is that the S.B.N.R. phenomenon that is so prevalent in our time is like the Christian hermits of the deserts in the fourth century. In other words, S.B.N.R.s and spiritual independents do not represent a threat to community. Rather, my hope and prayer is that the current fad of rejecting religion might reflect a sea-change in the nature of how we create, organize, and maintain spiritual community. In other words, religion is not dying out, but rather may be undergoing a significant transformation. Postmodernity, shifting understandings of the family, of gender and sexuality, even of economics and the environment, and of course the encounter of all the world’s great religions, all will contribute to what shape the religion(s) of the future will take.

Certainly, there are hopeful signs. Social media resources, from Facebook pages to Ning Networks to Meetup Groups, have contributed to the ability to create new and alternative forms of community, including spiritual communities. House churches, neomonastic communities, third order and oblate groups, and parachurch organizations like Shalem or Contemplative Outreach, all provide ways to foster spirituality in a communal setting that functions as an alternative to traditional churches (even while some of these new community models exist in relationship to traditional religion).

Outside of Christianity, similar dynamics can be seen especially in the Neopagan community, where various Circles, Covens, Groves, Hearths and Kindreds represent new ways of forming community, even when based on ancient forms of spirituality. Such communities can be hierarchical or egalitarian, with membership ranging from the single digits to the hundreds. But what all these emerging forms of community have in common is a desire to foster spiritual growth in a social setting, as a gentle alternative to our “My Way” culture.

What does all this have to do with contemplation? Plenty, apparently. Karl Rahner’s classic observation that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all” could arguably be applied to all the major wisdom traditions. Mystical spirituality, after all, is the spirituality of contemplation, deep silence, and intentional inner transfiguration. Meanwhile, the old conduits of mysticism and contemplation, especially within Christianity, are either in decline or undergoing transformation. Traditional monasteries, parish churches, and denominational structures are all rapidly losing adherents, even while the hunger for personal spirituality appears to be more robust than ever. With or without contemplation and mysticism, religion as an institution is changing radically. Perhaps all of this change represents, at least in part, a deep yearning for authentic contemplation, unfettered by traditional dogma or religious boundaries, but clear in its commitment both to personal transfiguration but also social liberation. Perhaps contemplation could be the great nexus where traditional religion and the yearning of the spiritual independents can come together, to co-create new ways both of being spiritual and being religious—or, at least, being communal.

Religion has its dangers: it can foster fundamentalism, authoritarianism, or a kind of bland piety that abdicates real inner growth for the sake of social conformity. But the lack of community also has its problems: it can point to isolation, narcissism, or a kind of solipsistic pseudo-spirituality that emphasizes experience as a type of interior entertainment that lacks any real power for growth or healing. This brings us back to the paradox we considered earlier. To experience the full blessings of contemplation, it needs to be nurtured in a social context. But for communities to be healthy, they need a meaningful contemplative core. Chögyam Trungpa understood this well. “If we try to solve society’s problems without overcoming the confusion and aggression in our own state of mind, then our efforts will only contribute to the basic problems, instead of solving them.”[2] Perhaps the reason why so many people today eschew religion is because the all-too apparent problems of such faith communities (that often lack a contemplative dimension, or are even hostile to contemplation). But looking to the future, the ultimate solution is not to dismantle community altogether, but to reform community from the inside out — beginning with contemplative practice. Once we do that, the jewel and the setting will both truly shine.

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The Importance of Community in Contemplation

Carl McColman
Carl McColman

Carl McColman is a Christian contemplative writer, speaker, retreat leader, and spiritual director. He studied Christian meditation at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation and trained in spiritual direction at the Institute for Pastoral Studies in Atlanta. He is a professed member of the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, a community devoted to the practice of contemplation within the context of marriage and family, outside of a traditional monastery. Carl is the author of over a dozen books, including Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality, and The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. Read his blog at <a href="https://www.carlmccolman.com/">www.carlmccolman.com</a>.