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Being in Community

By Rev. Sheila Graves

The name of the magazine in which you’re reading this article reminds us not only of the importance of being in community, but of being conscious while we’re there. Nowhere is this more evident than in communities whose explicit intentions are to explore and live our spiritual awareness. But, as with so many of our journeys, there are pitfalls along the way!

In the past 25 years, I’ve been a significant part of three spiritual communities. In each, it was clear that some people came with the expectation that in a spiritual community people would be free of ego agendas, that they’d always act in accordance with the Greater Good, and that everyone would agree on what that “Good” was.

Yet despite our ongoing discussions about birthing new human awareness, there can be gaps between what we expect and what we find in the company of others. So in each of these communities, when expectations weren’t met, some people had less patience than they might have had with those not in their spiritual community, because they’d come to this one with such high expectations.

And the less people were allowed to be real, the farther they fell when seeming not to meet expectations or needs. When that happened, some thought it was the others with the issue. Some left with the judgment that these people aren’t at all who I thought they were.

We put a lot of hope for renewal of life, faith and purpose into the container of communal spirituality, and seem to assume that because we’re sharing a journey in awareness, these communities won’t have the same relationship bumps that other communities do.

But we’re all part of many communities. And it’s neither fair nor realistic to expect that when we enter a spiritual community everyone will magically be pure in intent…will have addressed and resolved all issues that cause separation from their Source…and will always agree and act in ways we think we can trust. Never mind that in such company we might feel a bit inadequate!

So community can be a cradle, a safe space in which issues are addressed. But it’s also a tool for personal growth…a mirror showing us what of ourselves we’re expressing…and a rock tumbler, smoothing our rough edges as we constantly bump into each other at every level, knocking off little chips and sharp edges along the way.

For all of us, there are questions that arise from our communal experiences: Are we coming into community with the hidden expectation that everyone is advanced in spiritual beliefs and abilities, and will be “together” in peace and light? Will conflicts be deal-breakers for us? Or will we gather in allowing and appreciation?

What we can hope for, and ask others to participate with us in creating, is a community in which all who gather be as self-aware as possible…willing to see our own agendas…willing to grow…willing to resist projecting wounds onto others as much as we can. We can also ask that those that gather hold the well-being of the community in great value, because at every level of life, human and otherwise, if community doesn’t survive, we all lose.

There’s no doubt that being in community asks a lot from us. It takes self-awareness, responsibility, and commitment to staying and working things out—even more difficult in a spiritual community, precisely because we do come into it with higher expectations, and because many of us are truly, sincerely working on what separates us from an abiding sense of the nearness of the Divine. And that intensity can create some challenging situations.

Certainly, we can leave anytime. For some, it seems easy to walk away as soon as things get difficult, when we don’t see eye to eye. For some, it’s too easy to be disappointed because we’ve expected that what’s been lost in our lives will now be found, and that our wounds will be healed. And they will be, just not as quickly as we’d like!

So if our intention is to grow beyond old responses and littleness, community is a good experience. The challenges will quiet down, but they’ll never end. Like people, communities change. They’re organic. That’s the only way we know they’re alive and vital.

In fact, the most useful communities are those that not only encourage and inspire us, but push our personal buttons, asking us to look at ourselves as part of the process. Maybe we think that by going someplace else we’ll be happier, that another group will have a higher vibe. But all communities we join with will have one thing in common…us! And as Ram Dass said…Wherever we go, there we are. So we might as well stay and work on what comes up.

This doesn’t mean we have to stay put no matter what. We need to follow our beliefs where they lead us. But while we’re in the room we commit to being conscious of old tapes and agendas. We acknowledge what makes us uncomfortable and do the work to heal those places. And we allow others their process, too. After all, isn’t being gracious exactly what we want from them?

Along the way, we might ask ourselves how much we might have contributed to any difficulty. We might hold a vision of what/where/who we want to be and keep re-orienting selves to that. We might make a conscious effort to stay and be part of the group before moving on, assuming, of course, that the spiritual conversation is one that touches us.

And we might have the reasonable communal expectation that others, too, will reach for heights of behavior greater than they can currently grasp. That everyone who gathers will agree to see the community not as a tool for ego expression, or meeting old needs, or taking out frustrations, or creating marketing opportunities—but as a place to experience the vitality of sharing lives, gifts and passions as cradles for growth and change.

Because we’re all on a spiritual path, moving toward a clearer sense of ourselves as an essentially spiritual being. And not only do we reveal ourselves through time, we become ourSelves through time.

It is a foundational spiritual and psychological truth that we grow in relationship, and through relationship. Being in community is one of the most challenging of relationships. Especially in a spiritual community, where we balance between expecting people’s best and most honorable in the moment—and committing to stay open to the everyday people that walk this way with us in all our glorious messiness. If we’re seeking the Divine Countenance, it’s right here among us where it’s always been and will always be.

AND, in a spiritual community, what’s important is that (1) we enter with acceptance of the human condition; (2) we come from the highest place in us that we can access in any moment; (3) we reach beyond farther; and (4) in the process we grow, we open, we learn, we Love, we stand up, and we walk into the future…together.

Because in every way, on every level, we do our best work… together.

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