Why Spiritual Community is So Crucial Right Now
There are a lot of “solo” spiritual seekers out there. In the West, we’re born into a culture of separation. Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” shapes self-perception more than we realize.
Obviously, daily life requires thoughts of “me” not being the same entity as “you.” Separation is necessary to function in a world where blurring of individual boundaries can be fatal — if you try to run through someone on a city street like they aren’t there, you might knock them under a bus.
But we’ve internalized Western individualism to an extreme without realizing it. A man from Nigeria visited us once. I happened to mention that a man in my old neighborhood was having an affair in which two women were being strung along. He said that in his village, in a case like that, the other men would go to the guy’s house, listen and talk to him, and help him straighten out his path. Here, we gossip, and people respond with either defiance, flaunting the transgression — or shame, trying to hide.
The cultural inheritance of folks who proclaim “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual” is predicated on being mistrustful of organized religion. It also has a lot to do with charting your own spiritual course, often without much guidance. This means that spiritual seekers may reverse-engineer their aversion to institutions, putting excessive trust in individual spiritual teachers.
I used to think that when it came to spirituality, anyone who presented as an authority was automatically good for me. If their presence and teaching seemed “spiritual” it must be good, and more must be better. It’s actually a consumer mindset. But how do you know if an impressive-sounding messenger is truly helpful?
We in the West have a make-it-up-as-you-go approach. We need wise elders who know the terrain and its pitfalls. “Follow your intuition” is good advice, but when growing up, I had no support from my family or community to help me distinguish between intuition and mental noise.
The following can be helpful in the absence of a trusted community: Do the messages you receive help you be more kind to yourself and others? If they feed your spirit, do they also help you heal emotionally? Or do they reinforce the idea that your inner life is separated into emotional and spiritual “zones”? Do they help you feel more connected to Nature as well as other humans?
We were never meant to go it alone, spiritually speaking, any more than we were meant to go it alone socially. So many of us have been burned by spiritual/religious communities that solo spirituality seems our only recourse, but this isn’t the case. If you hunger for true community, Spirit will get you there — perhaps in a completely unexpected way, which certainly happened to me.
I had never been in AA or any other recovery program. But in January ’22 I found myself in an online workshop for all addictions that’s based on a deep dive into the 12 steps of AA — in the Big Book, I change “alcoholic” to match my addiction — “control addict.” Of course I worried that I might be in a cult, mostly because of my fear that the message was too good to be true. Honestly, if it is a cult, it’s a damn good one.
I’d spent hundreds of dollars on beautifully produced books by revered spiritual teachers; lots of money on seminars and meditation retreats in serene locations, always hoping something would happen. There’s nothing wrong with those things, I see Divine humor in my path.
The AA textbook was written by white businessmen in the 1930’s, uses the language of salesmanship, and my own much-written-in copy was printed on cheap newsprint. Who could have known that a Zoom-based community and a set of guidelines written without regard to gender equality would provide me with such a living connection to the Divine? I certainly didn’t know that the “village” my Nigerian friend recalled would be something I could realize in my own life, but this has been the case. I’m so grateful!
Obviously my path doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. But if you feel lonely on your spiritual path, there’s probably a good reason for it. And it’s probably not that you are one of the rare, few, solitary humans who has a nose for the Transcendent. I wouldn’t trust a spiritual teacher who reinforces such a view, because that is the view of isolation, dualism. and ego-reinforcement.
If you really need a spiritual community, please keep seeking and hoping. Drop a word in the comments if you like!