Spiritual Communities: There’s More to Them Than Meets the Third Eye
Publisher’s note: This directory has a trio of articles about spiritual communities: one on groups that exist to rigorously follow a specific spiritual discipline by Mariana Caplan; one on eclectic spirituality by Stevie Abbott-Richards of the Lama Foundation; and one by Joe V. Peterson outlining what’s offered by Christian communities. They all explore different senses of “spiritual community” and are included to offer as full a picture of the spectrum as possible. The Fellowship for Intentional Community does not endorse one definition or type of spiritual community over another. Rather, we celebrate the extraordinary diversity among groups that identify themselves as “spiritual,” and we encourage readers to explore all the possibilities and aspects that feel right to them.
Many communities identify with the word “spiritual,” and they do so for many reasons: to follow the golden rule, or because they believe in the power of meditation, for example. However, the word “spiritual” has an ancient, sacred meaning, and I use it to refer to a community that exists for the sole purpose of furthering the spiritual development of its members.
Spiritual communities are not like ordinary communities. Even communities with a spiritual bent to them—communities that give workshops, meditate, and do circle dances together—are not necessarily spiritual communities. Ecovillages are not spiritual communities. Cohousing communities are not spiritual communities. Any number of deeply spiritual people may live in these places, but there are important distinctions between spiritual and other communities. Spiritual communities are comprised of spiritual practitioners who have come together in community to share in the study, practice, and expression of their common spiritual values and traditions.
For Spiritual Seekers, Community Is a Means, Not an End
Although the form may be familiar, the context and intention of spiritual communities are distinct from the majority of communities. In spiritual communities, the “community,” even the joyous functioning community, is the vehicle, but it is not the destination.
Community is an effective and beneficial lifestyle for many spiritual practitioners for a number of reasons. One reason is that “spiritual friendship” is an essential source of inspiration and sustenance for spiritual practitioners. It is so valuable that the Buddha considered the community of like-minded practitioners to be one of the “three jewels” of Buddhism, along with the other two jewels of the Teacher and the Teaching. The spiritual path can be a rough road, and support is needed to sustain the given discipline and get through the rough spots. For this reason, monasteries, nunneries, convents, yeshivas, and similar communities are found in the spiritual traditions of every culture.
A less recognized value of community to spiritual work is the transformational possibility the stress of community provides. The process of spiritual transformation, or alchemy, requires tremendous energy, or “heat.” The clashing of personalities and the struggles that inevitably and frequently arises in all communities creates this heat, and the advanced spiritual student can learn to use this for their own spiritual transformation. Even shy of this alchemical possibility, the continuous contact with others that occurs in community serves to expose the ego. In community one is continuously getting feedback about what they are “up to,” if only through watching how others respond to them. It takes a lot of individual and collective denial for the ego to hide out in community, and rarely does it succeed.
Jakusho Kwong Roshi, founder of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, said that the most difficult years of his life have been the 25 years since he was given the transmission to teach by Suzuki Roshi. Already sanctioned a Zen master upon the completion of many years of Zen practice, he went “to the mountain” to create spiritual community. In an interview quoted in the book Halfway Up the Mountain he explains: “The metaphor for the sangha (spiritual community) is like rocks. You put all the rocks together, you shake the bucket, and the rocks rub each other and become smooth. You won’t become smooth without being rubbed. I started spiritual life when I was 25 years old. I’ll be 63. It’s still a very short period. I’ve been here running our center for 25 years and this has probably been the hardest time of my sadhana (spiritual practice). I raised four sons here. The rocks rub. I didn’t expect that. Even after you’re a teacher, the rocks rub.” (1)
The Need for Discernment
One must cultivate and exercise a refined level of discernment when discriminating between the various spiritual communities available. The current craze and popularity of spirituality has done an enormous disservice in terms of understanding what real spiritual discipline is about. Whenever anything becomes as popular as “enlightenment” and “spiritual development” has become today, it must lose the essence of its meaning, because true spiritual principles cannot be communicated in mass form. Therefore, those who seek community in order to live a life of spiritual practice and devotion can never assume that every community that labels itself as spiritual will be able to offer them what they seek.
Spiritual principles can also go against the grain of what some people imagine communities to be. Spiritual communities are often not egalitarian or democratic. Financial responsibilities are not shared equally. There is often a hierarchy, and as things would have it, a man sits at the top of the ladder more often than a woman. The guru, teacher, or founder of the community may indeed have the final say in all matters, and disciples or community members to some degree feel the effect of this. For these and other reasons, spiritual communities receive a lot of flak.
The obvious danger of spiritual communities is the capacity for blind following, for charismatic but self-deluded leaders, for corruption in the hierarchy of the system. The media has detailed many accounts of this phenomenon. It is important for the community seeker considering a spiritual community to use careful discernment regarding this issue.
Lee Lozowick offers three basic criteria for considering a spiritual teacher and their community:
If you aren’t very serious about your desire to progress on the path, don’t look for a teacher in the first place.
Don’t be impulsive in signing up.
Study the teacher’s body of students. How are the students, and how is the teacher with the students? (2)
It is also useful to look at how long a group has been in existence, and to engage long-term members of the community regarding your questions and concerns. If you are to truly benefit from a lengthy involvement with a community, particularly with a spiritual teacher, you will need to trust him or her. There is no other way. Therefore, there is no need to rush in.
There is no definitive method for discernment. “Following one’s heart” is not necessarily reliable, as what one perceives as the “heart” is often instead the ego in disguise. Similarly, following one’s mind can be equally hazardous, for the mind is renowned for its tricks of perception. Therefore, one watches out for the ever-present possibility of self-deception, and proceeds with their decisions to the best of their abilities.
Involvement in spiritual life will always be a risk: only high stakes yield high payoff. Of course it is always better to avoid an unproductive situation from the outset, but important lessons can be learned even from seeming mistakes. When one finds oneself in an unproductive situation, the best thing to do is to leave the situation as gracefully as possible.
Spiritual communities often receive media attention when they appear to go out of control, while those spiritual communities that are functioning long-term, quietly, soundly, and do not encourage guests or advertise community are overlooked. Even these communities are often criticized for being aloof and separatist, and in these cases I would suggest that much of the bias against gurus, teachers, authoritarian structures, and spiritual hierarchies may reflect the self-preserving ego that fears the loss of autonomy and of a life controlled by a force greater than itself.
Spiritual Communities Are Not for Everyone
Spiritual communities are very attractive to people who are looking for community. The authentic spiritual community is comprised of a body of dedicated practitioners, and spiritual practice creates a brightness and radiance that is very compelling. Therefore, community seekers are drawn to what they see in spiritual communities, often mistaking the brightness to be a product of community instead of recognizing that it is the result of decades of disciplined practice.
Spiritual communities are not for everyone. In fact, I do not recommend that anyone who feels that they have any other choice but to live in one seek out such a lifestyle. Real spiritual life is often a circumstance of “love in hell.” It’s a bitch. Spiritual life is the ceaseless wearing down of the egoic system of defenses, a process that often involves tremendous discomfort, disillusionment, and frustration. When spiritual life is undertaken in community, this defense structure is ceaselessly grated upon. As the ancient Sufis said, “The ego does not go with laughter and caresses. It must be chased with sorrow and drowned in tears.”
Spiritual life is something that you give your body, mind, soul, guts, psyche, energy to–something you give your very life force to. And that can be different from community. Most people who are interested in community are interested in sharing resources, living off the land, growing food, raising children consciously. They may not be interested in pursuing an intense regime of discipline, in abiding under the teacher’s authority. They prefer to learn to follow their own inner guidance, to dissipate stress and tension, not to make use of it. And who could blame them?
While I discourage spiritual community for those for whom it is not an imperative, and perhaps create a somewhat daunting overall picture of this lifestyle, I suggest if one indeed has no other choice, there is no greater option. There is a type of bonding that occurs among people when their relationships are based on a mutual pursuit of God or Truth that is a rare and sublime type of friendship. There is profound joy in knowing that your fellow practitioners intend to hold the highest possibility of your life for you, and that an important aspect of their life is to serve your spiritual development, and vice versa. It is tremendously satisfying to know you are attempting to live in a way that teaches and serves others, and that you will be reeled in when you get too far away from yourself or become lost in self-deception. It is a source of profound gratification to live together knowing that, although you are unquestionably passengers on a “ship of fools,” at least you are all in it together. There is a love among fools that is not based upon personal likes or dislikes, but instead upon a shared intention and devotion.
- Feuerstein, Georg. Holy Madness. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
- Rawlinson, Andrew. The Book of Enlightened Masters. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1997.
- Trungpa, Chogyam. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambhala, 1973.
- Tweedie, Irina. Chasm of Fire. Inverness, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 1986.
1. Caplan, Mariana. Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims for Enlightenment. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 1999, p. 332.
2. Ibid., p. 416.
Mariana Caplan is a psychologist, author, and lecturer. Her books include: When Sons and Daughters Choose Alternative Lifestyles (Hohm Press,1996), When Holidays are Hell! A Guide to Surviving Family Gatherings (Hohm Press, 1997), Untouched: the Need for Genuine Affection in an Impersonal World (Hohm Press, 1998), and Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment (Hohm Press, 1999).