Author: Kai Siedenburg
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #154
If you had access to a powerful, universally available source of support that could make your group or community more grounded, connected, inspired, and effective, wouldn’t you want to tap into it?
But what if you also knew that many people had suffered negative experiences with various guises of this force—ones that promised truth, peace, or joy, yet delivered crushing boredom, repression, guilt, or worse?
Such is the complex and dramatic backdrop for introducing spirituality into groups. And while it can be tricky to navigate these shores, the rewards from traveling them even a short distance can be great.
This article offers simple, inclusive, and effective practices for integrating spirituality into groups and communities. It is rooted in a very broad understanding of spirituality, expressed well by cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien: “Each person’s unique way of connecting with the rest of the universe.” The practices highlighted here don’t require belief in anything in particular, and they are accessible to people from a wide variety of spiritual and religious traditions, as well as those who wouldn’t identify as spiritual. Most can be done in just a few minutes if needed, and can actually save a group time by helping participants to ground, focus, and connect.
These practices are drawn from my experiences with a variety of ongoing groups and reflect the convergence of two major currents in my life…
I’ve been part of many groups and communities over the past 30 years, and I’ve been to a LOT of meetings and events—good, bad, and ugly. Most of these involved good people working together to make good things happen, but were not as connecting, inspiring, and powerful as they might have been.
I’ve also been a dedicated student of diverse spiritual practices over the past 30 years, and I’ve been to a LOT of workshops and retreats and done countless hours of individual practice. I have experienced the profound gifts that flow from opening to deeper connection with myself and with “the rest of the universe.”
I found myself on two major but somewhat parallel quests: for enlivening and effective ways to work with groups, and for ways to deepen my connection with the sacred and express that through my words and deeds. Sometimes these two paths came together, and it was good. But in my professional life and some other settings, there was more separation between them than I wanted.
Like most separation created by humans, it wasn’t really necessary, but I maintained it because I didn’t want to impose my own ideas on others or alienate anyone. In recent years, however, I’ve found more inspiration and more tools for bringing these two paths closer together. This is mostly due to many positive experiences with ongoing groups that are not primarily spiritual in orientation, but that have successfully integrated simple practices to deepen participants’ connections with themselves, each other, and the sacred. I have witnessed how these practices have made groups more harmonious, creative, joyful, and successful.
A few brief examples:
● I arrive at a meeting feeling scattered and stressed out, but then quickly drop into a more calm and focused place after the group takes several deep breaths and sits in silence for a few minutes.
● A women’s choir blends our voices beautifully and brings a special magic to performances, partly because we take time at the start of each rehearsal to ground ourselves and connect with each other.
● A weekly conference call on cultural mentoring begins with everyone expressing something we are grateful for, which helps us focus on the positive and understand what each other value.
● At the end of a conference, two Hawaiian men stand up and spontaneously offer a powerful traditional canoe chant, shifting the energy in the room dramatically and closing the event on a much more inspiring note.
I hope this article will inspire you to use some of the following practices or to create your own, and that you also will see them bear fruit in your groups and communities.
Simple and powerful, gratitude is one of the most universal spiritual practices. It can transform our relationship to our own experiences, other people, and the world around us. As with all the practices, if we allow ourselves to be present, take it in, and feel it deeply, the impact will be greater.
Giving thanks before a meal. This is one of the most common cross-cultural traditions, for good reason. Pausing to feel gratitude for a meal helps us be present for the meal and strengthens our connection with ourselves, each other, and our food. If this thanks-giving includes acknowledging the people, plants, animals, and elements that brought the food to our table, it also deepens our connection with them and the Earth. It can be done silently, by one person or a few volunteers speaking, or by a group speaking a blessing or singing a song together. Holding hands can strengthen the sense of connection if the group is comfortable with this.
Expressing gratitude at the beginning or end of a gathering. This helps us ground and connect with our hearts, and sharing it with others builds relationships. The focus could be related to the group’s work, or anything else people feel grateful for. Expressing gratitude can be done by one person, by a few people who feel inspired to share, or by everyone in the group. Simply inviting participants to spend a few moments noticing what they are grateful for and feeling that gratitude (even if they don’t speak it) can help start the gathering in a positive way.
Appreciating each other. Do you know anyone who wouldn’t like to be appreciated more? Probably not. Expressing appreciation for others builds connection and positive feelings in a group, and helps us notice what we are accomplishing together. It is most effective when the appreciation is heartfelt, specific, and when people feel like they really have been seen and heard. Appreciations can be a regular part of meetings for ongoing groups, and can be done at the beginning, the end, or any time—there’s rarely a bad time to express appreciation!
Cultivating gratitude in challenging times. It’s easy to feel grateful when things are going well, but especially valuable to practice gratitude when things are more difficult. One simple method is to generate a list of the things we are grateful for. This helps us shift the way we hold a challenging situation, and sheds a light on the internal and external resources that can get us through the rough spots. At the same time, it’s important to provide space to honestly acknowledge and address what is difficult.
Silence is a central pillar of most spiritual traditions. Observing silence helps us center and focus, and allows space for deeper wisdom and guidance to come forth.
Starting or ending with silence. A few minutes of silence can alter the course of a gathering by taking participants to a deeper place. Silence may be more effective when combined with other grounding practices, since the initial transition from busyness into silence may trigger a mad rampage by the “monkey mind.” As experienced meditators know, the practice of sitting with these thoughts and sensations, letting them go, and allowing moments of stillness to emerge is very valuable, even if those moments seem few and far between.
Inviting silent reflection. Taking time for focused, silent reflection on a topic can help participants access greater clarity and wisdom and create a strong foundation for group discussion. The reflections may be written down and shared with others in the group, or held by participants and expressed later if they feel inspired.
Allowing space between speakers. Pausing between speakers or topics helps people integrate information and experiences more fully, and allows us to respond from a deeper place. It also creates opportunities for those who need a little more time to formulate their thoughts to participate more fully. I’ve observed many occasions when someone who sat quietly through most of a meeting offered a very valuable contribution after some space was allowed or they were invited to speak.
Grounding practices allow us to connect with ourselves and with others, release some of our mental and emotional “baggage,” and become more present and focused. They are especially valuable when we are tired, stressed, or scattered.
Connecting with our bodies. Taking a few deep breaths and releasing them with a sigh or a sound helps us arrive in our bodies and the present moment, and doing this in unison helps the group connect. Stretching or shaking our bodies or tuning into different areas of the body through a simple “body scan” also can help us ground. A wide variety of simple exercises can be found in various healing traditions.
Connecting with our environment. Using our senses to tune into our physical surroundings also can ground us, especially if we are in a beautiful room or outdoor setting. This process can be lightly guided by inviting people to notice things like the warmth of the sun on their faces, the sound of wind in the trees, or beautiful flowers in the meeting space.
Expressing gratitude or allowing silence, as described above, also can be used as grounding practices.
Setting intentions clarifies what we want to create, focuses our efforts, and draws guidance and support. It provides a compass point and invites wind into the sails.
Clarifying individual intentions. Connecting with our intentions helps us focus our role in the group. This could include the skills and qualities we wish to contribute, how we hope to benefit, or hopes for what the group might accomplish together. These intentions can be held individually or shared with others.
Affirming the group’s intentions. Holding shared intentions with a group and reaffirming them helps to inspire and align participants. The group may want to do this on a regular basis, perhaps even at each meeting. It can be done quickly, or by taking more time to hold the intentions and imagine them being realized. It’s important to clarify which intentions are supported by the whole group, and this may need to be revisited periodically.
Whether we notice it or not, we humans are innately connected with the Earth and receive many gifts from it every day. Honoring this connection is part of daily life in many traditional cultures but mostly absent from modern cultures. Still, we all have the power to reconnect with the Earth to ground, balance, and inspire ourselves, and to align our actions with the vast intelligence and resilience of our living planet.
Coming to our senses. The senses are a powerful gateway for connecting with our environment, but we’re often moving too fast to notice. Taking time to drink in the natural beauty around us helps us slow down and connect with ourselves and with the Earth. We also can practice sensing our energetic roots going deep into the Earth, or feeling the Earth holding and supporting us.
Expressing gratitude. Acknowledging the many gifts we receive from the Earth is a simple way to honor our connection with our amazingly abundant home planet. We can give thanks for the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink or cleanse with, other resources we use, or for rain, trees, birds, microorganisms…the possibilities are endless!
Honoring natural cycles. Seasons, solstices and equinoxes, phases of the moon, and other natural cycles have been an important focus of celebrations and ceremonies for millennia. Simple ways to honor these cycles with a group include enjoying foods that are in season, appreciating a beautiful sunset, sharing something we love about the current season, and reflecting on what the full moon, the winter solstice, or other aspects of natural cycles mean to us.
Music and Arts
Singing, dancing, music, and visual art are essential ingredients of human culture and powerful vehicles for self-expression, teaching, and inspiration. The arts can evoke deep feelings, lift our spirits, and remind us who we are. Sharing music and art in a group can call forth more creativity and wisdom and connect us with each other and something greater than ourselves.
Working with beauty. Having beautiful, inspiring art or images in the meeting space changes how we relate to the space and each other. This can include art co-created with nature: a bouquet of flowers, a basket of produce, or artistic arrangements of leaves or stones. Lighting candles also provides beauty and helps create a sacred, magical space.
Starting with art or music. Sharing a song, a poem, or other inspiring words during a gathering helps us be present and open our hearts, and can provide inspiration and food for thought that directly support the group’s purpose. Singing a song together can be an uplifting and bonding way to start or end a gathering if a group is comfortable with that.
In general, it’s safer and easier for a group to appreciate art or music that others created, or for volunteers in a group to share their own creations. Asking the whole group to participate in making music or art can be wonderful and powerful, but unfortunately it is not a simple and accessible practice for some. While making music and art is treated as a natural ability in many cultures, in modern consumer culture it is often viewed as something that should be left to the experts, and many people believe they are not good at these things. That doesn’t mean arts and music should be avoided in groups, but rather that it’s important to make the experience as safe and accessible as possible. Fortunately, it gets easier with practice, often very quickly.
Start small: It’s better to start small and leave people wanting more than to overdo it. Many people have had negative experiences with spiritual events that went on much longer than they wanted. As a group becomes more comfortable with spirituality, it’s fine to take more time for it.
Lead by example: Take time to ground yourself before working with a group, especially if you are in a leadership role. If you are clear and grounded, people will be more open to working with you. When introducing these practices to a group, you may want to start by demonstrating them yourself before asking the group to participate directly, for example by giving thanks at the beginning of a gathering.
Speak from the heart: When you come from your heart, you connect and communicate more powerfully, and others are more open to hearing you and more responsive to your requests. You also create space for others to speak from their hearts.
Invite, don’t command: While this is good advice in general, it is especially true with spirituality, since people have diverse beliefs and many have had negative experiences with being pressured to participate in religious services. A spirit of invitation can be conveyed through language and non-verbal cues, and by making things optional or getting agreement from a group before introducing a practice.
Honor diverse perspectives: Unless you are in a group that requires people to accept a particular belief system, it’s important to acknowledge (both directly and indirectly) that people have varied beliefs and traditions and that this is natural and good. You can do this partly by not assuming any shared beliefs and by avoiding common triggers like the “G-word.” Also, do your best to avoid anything that might come across as proselytizing, as well as any attachment to others adopting your beliefs or practices.
Be open to feedback: Demonstrate that you welcome feedback and are willing to listen and respond when you receive it. Especially when you are introducing new elements into a group, you might want to ask directly for feedback. Giving people the option to speak up in the group or approach you individually is helpful.
One caveat: Any spiritual practice, no matter how simple or accessible, has potential to trigger negative reactions in some people. Indeed, almost anything you do with a group, including very common activities like doing check-ins or following an agenda, could provoke some negative reactions because of participants’ history and wounding. That is part of why we learn so much from working in groups. At the same time, if you want the group to be effective, it’s important to proceed mindfully and build trust and a sense of safety.
The practices described here are just a starting point. If a group is more comfortable with spirituality, there are many other ways to strengthen connections between participants and “the rest of the universe.” These include meditation, visualization, ceremony, prayer, and creating shared altars or sacred space.
All of these practices can be powerful and effective—or not. They will be much more effective when they are led by someone who is grounded and connected with their group and when participants embrace the practices with openness, presence, and heart. But fear not, gentle human…perfection is not required! A key purpose of spiritual practice is to help us develop these capacities over time—hence the term “practice.”
May this article provide some light and sustenance for your journey.