Community at Christmas: Reflections on The Importance of Sangha

This Christmas has been a strange one – a festive season with little festive cheer.

Separated from our relations, many of us have had far smaller gatherings, or no gatherings at all.

We’ve clung to our tinsel, tried to extract every ounce of “Christmas” that we can.

Yet we’ve all discovered something clear in our isolation – that the value of the Christmas period is not in the lights, the music, or even the food, but in the joy and celebration of our connections with others, and our capacity to provide joy, care and comfort to them.

***

Without people, many of us have felt lost – unsure of our “place” in our family, our society, or our world.

What is our role now? What is this free time to be filled with? What is it for?

A community fills these gaps, silences these questions before they have room to arise.

The family unit offers structure and purpose – a sense of being okay, being supported and being part of something bigger at Christmas.

These solid foundations that allow us to enjoy the present moment… where are we to find them now?

***

You might imagine I raise such questions to offer mindfulness as the answer – the perfect way to feeling grounded, supported, and at ease in these times.

Yet, while I believe that a meditation practice can go a long way on this front, I have different ambitions here.

In fact, I think such questions can reveal something important about the path of mindfulness itself.

For the current feeling of disorientation that comes from our aloneness reminds us that any path is fragile without the support of others.

It can remind us that mindfulness too needs to be about people.

The power of mindfulness is rarely unleashed when it is a solo enterprise.

Whether we are 12th -century Japanese monks or 21st-century social workers, the truth remains that one of the principal ingredients of an effective practice is a community of fellow practitioners.

Such a community is known in the Buddhist traditions as the “Sangha” – the assembled people who follow the teachings and practices of the Buddha.

In the contemporary Triratna Buddhist Community, the Sangha is considered one of the three “jewels” – three things that practitioners go to for “refuge” to support their progress along the mindful path.

Here are three big reasons that the Sangha is important, and three reasons that you should consider providing one for yourself in 2021.

  1. A Sangha helps us to take our practice seriously

Though enthusiasm for mindfulness is on the rise, there are still plenty of people (perhaps the majority) who view it as little more than a humorous fad – something to poke friendly ridicule at, or to shun as a thin-skinned fashion.

It’s useful to become aware of how we behave when we meet with such attitudes.

Do we join in with the humour?

Do we apologize for our “strange” and “inconvenient” habit?

Do we get defensive? 

Or do we subtly relegate our practice on the list of our priorities?

Surrounded only by people who have no connection to the power of mindfulness, we can quickly start to relate to it without the conviction we had upon our first discovery.

That sincere and motivating belief in the importance of the practice falls away.

And so does the power of mindfulness in our lives.

To counter this, we need to be around people who understand the power of the practice

People who understand the power of mindfulness are not bashful in conversation with others.

They view their practice seriously – and they speak about it seriously – because they understand its transformative potential for our world.

They understand its capacity to radically transform our habits, our societies, and ourselves, and this understanding generates speech and behaviours that inspire and motivate us in turn.

***

Being around such people makes a difference.

Their conviction prompts us to reconnect with our past motivations – to find belief and confidence anew.

Think back to the time when you felt most moved by the profound importance of your practice.

Were you alone, or were you with others?

For most, they were listening to a talk by a renowned teacher, hearing the story of another meditator, or simply being in the presence of others who had the same sense they did that there was something powerful in this practice – something that deserved some effort and discipline to kindle.

2. A Sangha gives structure and allays doubts

If we join a large and established meditation community, this provides structure to our training – an organized way of growing awareness through a proven set of materials, routines, and practices.

Having clear tasks to follow – clear topics for reflection and clear practices to engage – we find it easier to experience direction and purpose on our path.

And these are crucial ingredients if the path is to be sustainable.

***

Do not fear having a purpose in your meditation journey, even if you hear that the ultimate aim is to have no purposes at all.

To discard all sense of purpose would be, as Buddhist scholar Paul Willams notes, “to confuse the destination with the path”.

In fact, purposes are as natural to humanity as the hair on our heads.

And it is natural to look to others – to structures that others have built – to provide this for us, as we moved in the direction of greater lightness and ease.

We might ultimately let them go, but we might need them to get us to the point where we’re ready for that.

Living in a structured way helps to keep us occupied and attentive to what is in front of us.

Even the “purposeless” Zen monks in their temple have this – a regular schedule that helps to keep their minds on track.

By joining a community, they use its traditions to become absorbed in life once more.

The structure silences practical doubts that could derail their practice:

“What now?”

“Is this the right practice?”

“Is this the right technique?”

Simply sitting down on the meditation cushion and attempting to “be aware” – without context, without anything to look for, and without any teaching to relate their experience to – they can quickly become lost and disoriented.

But finding a sangha and a teacher has given them direction and assurance.

It has given them the permission they need to re-immerse themselves in the world.

Freed by this structure, they simply choose something to do and then they really do it – with full attention.

3. A Sangha brings the practice back down to earth

Many people begin to practice meditation after being inspired by a teacher.

This teacher might be a book, a video, or an internet guru, and all of them provide the impetus we might need to get started.

Yet, if our only meeting with the world of meditation is with the accomplished teacher, we can quickly get disheartened.

Expecting to become like them, we demand too much too quickly, and can lose motivation as we fail to replicate their saint-like qualities in a hurry.

So, we need also to meet other students, on our mindful journey

Joining with others also walking the meditative path helps bring the practice back down to earth – something that is also walkable by mere mortals like ourselves.

Seeing people on the same path, facing similar struggles and setbacks, we are reminded that every meditator is just another fallible human being who faces difficulties in their practice (even the teachers have their moments!) – something we can often forget if we meditate alone – and the sangha makes this plain, clear and manageable.

Sharing time with other students also gives us the chance to connect with real people.

We turn them from “other meditators” out there in the world into unique, charming, funny and relatable individuals – all worth getting to know for their own sake.

Growing relationships with other meditators, we are drawn back to the practice not because we should do it, but because we want to spend time with people whose company we enjoy as we go forward together.

The path of mindfulness is also about the peopleit is about getting to know others on a personal level – and sharing in the struggles, the stories and the laughter together, supporting each other as we all attempt to do something meaningful for this world.

Doing this, we not only remind ourselves that this a task conducted by humans, not by saints, but we actually enjoy the path itself as we walk it with wonderful, enriching comrades. The path is to be enjoyed, and people make this possible.

So how do I find a Sangha right now?

“All very well,” you might say. “But how can I find a Sangha in times like these?”

It is much more of a challenge to find a community to support you in times of national lockdown and social distancing. But if anything, this makes it more important than ever to make that extra effort.

Many existing meditation groups and centres are running online versions of their events, so get in touch with those around you to see whether there are things happening on Zoom.

Just watching talks by teachers online is another good way to start to feel connected to others. Tune in to Sokuzan Bob Brown (https://sokukoji.org/video-dharma/) or Ajahn Brahm (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6M_EhnSSdTG_SXUp6IAWmQ) to experience teaching sessions with fellow students in attendance.

Even if you’ve never met your teachers flesh, you can grow a real connection with them online, that you can build upon when we are all able to reconnect in person once more.

At the start of the New Year, many other mindfulness-meditation organizations are offering programmes to help you find community and regularity in you practice.

You might join fellow Sangha seekers for Susan Piver’s 21-day meditation challenge (https://openheartproject.com/) or join a “Circle” on the InsightTimer app, where you can self-organize sessions together and join existing Circles including the 31-day “Mindful Mornings Challenge” which offers daily meditation gatherings in January with a variety of different teachers. Perhaps you will find a teacher and a community that suits you.

Or you can be the Sangha builder yourself – Do you know people who would like to start a group with you? Some wonderful advice for building you own sangha from scratch can be found here: https://www.tarabrach.com/starting-meditation-group/  

However you manage it, be sure to find support for your practice in 2021 – this year has taught us the importance of community, so seek this out for you mindfulness-meditation journey too.

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