As Westerners on a spiritual path, we are called to inquire into how to live a good and wise life. In response, we have put together individualism and contemplative ideals with Asian meditation practices and come up with this heroic me, the individual meditator out to conquer the mind. Frankly, it’s not possible! Our forebears knew the importance of solitary practice, but they also knew it was part of a communal life.
In early Christianity and in Asia to this day, there is a sense of community in which the spiritual life is embedded, and out of that comes meditation and prayer practice. The formal practices are part of an entire lifestyle. When we take the contemplative practice out of the communal context, and put it together with a Protestant work ethic, our incredible intellects, and our individualistic society, it creates this warrior-hero-seeker, isolated and alone. This tragic hero has a genuinely hopeless task. We leave retreat or get off our hero’s reflective seat and go back into a society that is embedded in greed, aversion, and tremendous confusion. What then? We can go back on retreat another year, go back to church another Sunday, and get a little shot of deep-wisdom nourishment, but then go back all by ourselves again, alone, to live a spiritual life. It does not sound workable, does it?
It’s not. Not when you consider mind moments, where with each moment of arising, the inclination of the mind is being set and reset. This is neuroplasticity at work, the forming and re-forming of the brain and the body and its hormones around stress and acquisition. Our poor hero takes a step forward and a step back; a step forward and a step back. On the other hand, if we have the communal support for remembering, those mind moments can have support to go the other way, towards ease, towards freedom, towards wisdom, towards clear understanding.
But if we have this individualized heroic notion driving us, we will constantly be living like Sisyphus, the son of a king who is forever pushing a boulder up a hill. We are swimming alone against a powerful river of our own conditioning and the aggregate conditioning of a dysfunctional society. Wise teachers—the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus—knew this. Why do you think community was considered such a jewel in all of their teachings? What do you think monastics today have that we do not? It’s not the clothing! They have each other, to remind each other and to support the good, together. We have each other, too. We are not monastics, nor do we live in physical community. But if we chose to engage together–in meditation practice, study, and service–we have each other. We just have to wake up to that.
What does spiritual community look like when we incorporate our intentions towards not only healing, not only joy or service, but also the deepest wisdom of which we are capable? We touch the essence of this in relational meditation practice. Here, we are invited to touch the mind moments where our experience of ignorance and suffering is constructed. We do so with honesty. We also touch what is unbound. We have learned how to do this in Insight Dialogue practice, even though it was not part of our culture growing up. And we sustain that touch of truth because, together, there is stability of mindfulness and native kindness. We know the craving or thirst, but also touch the release. We know what it is like to wake up in a moment and to touch the texture of being awake together.
For many of us, we may have to learn what it is like to be awake together in these moment-by-moment encounters, because we have not learned it yet. Usually, we touch each other embedded in history, in constructions and wanting. The moment of deeply simple interpersonal contact—even a single moment—will guide us in a sense of what a community of awakening could look like. Sometimes we touch being awake together naturally in our daily encounters with each other. Absolutely! But let’s also open to the value of formal meditation practice, because here we deepen, strengthen, and give real attention to our intention of relinquishment, together. Not alone, not on an isolated heroic quest, but awakening together. Together.
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Gregory Kramer, Ph.D., is the Founder and Guiding Teacher of Metta Programs and has been teaching Insight Meditation since 1980. He developed the practice of Insight Dialogue and has been teaching it since 1995, offering retreats in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. He has studied with esteemed teachers, including Anagarika Dhammadina, Ven. Ananda Maitreya, … Continue reading→