By Suma Varughese November 2005 A real community is an inclusive, accepting space in which love and intimacy flourish and healing and growth happen. Such a community is a profound joy. My first experience of the value of community happened when I was around 28. My father had been diagnosed with cerebral haemorrhage and had been admitted to a hospital in Vishakapatnam. Among us six sisters, only one lived near my parents. The rest were scattered all over India, and although we rushed to their aid, others had got there first. The entire Syrian Christian community had risen up as one and ministered to my parents. One of them was an intern at the hospital and I recall with gratitude that he took care of my father as tenderly as if he had been his own. The women would drop in with tempting little morsels in wire baskets; one or the other of the church members would help us to liaison with the doctors and to run errands. Most of all, they gave us moral support and the sense that we were not alone in this. I, who was then an agnostic and non-churchgoer, was humbled by the wave of love and care that and supported us in our hour of need. Since then, I have never questioned the value of the church as a community. In his book, The Different Drum, writer and psychiatrist Dr M. Scott Peck describes an intense community experience while participating in a T-group process. He writes, ‘We were a very diverse group of people, we sixteen. The first three days were spent in intense struggle. It was not boring. But it was often anxious, often unpleasant, and there was much anger expressed, at times almost viciously. But on the fourth day something happened, and I remember the suddenness of the shift. Suddenly, we all cared for each other. Thereafter some cried and a couple wept. Much of the time I had tears in my eyes… For me they were tears of joy as I observed much healing taking place. We continued to have moments of struggle, but it was never again vicious… I knew that for this limited period we members loved one another, and the predominant thing I felt was joy.’ The Need for CommunityDeep in our hearts each of us longs for community. The word itself has mystical connotations, reminiscent of communion and union. In truth, community is all that and more. Community is being part of a larger whole, a space in which by some miracle we and the other, or group of others, are so attuned to each other that we surge past our individual egos and differences to merge into a collective oversoul, an entity that is larger than ourselves. Through community we experience the fundamental truth of oneness; through community we discover the secret of living in love and harmony with the other; through community we fulfil our deep soul need for the other. The truth is we need the other. In his relation to society the individual has two powerful and opposing drives that he must struggle to balance and reconcile. He must strive for self-reliance and self-sufficiency; for independence of thought, word and action. He must be free of need of the other and be content with his own company and self. He must, above all, become his true self. At the same time, he must learn to get along with society, to experience intimacy and fellowship; to go beyond himself and merge into a larger whole. Through our lives most of us strive to find the optimum balance between these two forces. Unless we find this balance, we will never entirely bloom or embrace the full span of life experiences, the full spectrum of human emotions and the full understanding of what it means to be human. Experiencing and embracing the other is as much of an imperative as it is to embrace, experience and realize oneself. There is enough material available to prove the importance of the other in our lives for physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Dr Dean Ornish has reserved an entire chapter in his book, Love and Survival, on scientific evidence that our health is safeguarded and upgraded by close ties with family, friends and with regular social interactions. For instance, in the Ni-Hon-San study, scientists examined 11,900 Japanese who lived in Nippon and compared them to those who had migrated to Honolulu and to San Francisco. They found that the incidence of heart disease was lowest in Japan, intermediate in Hawaii and highest in California. However, the most traditional group of Japanese-Americans, who maintained their social networks, family ties, and community, had a prevalence of heart disease as low as those living in Japan. Social networks and community fellowship protect the heart and keep it healthy. Dean Ornish concludes, ‘Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing. If a new drug had the same impact, virtually every doctor in the country would be recommending it for their patients.’ Dr M. Scott Peck’s landmark book on community formation, The Different Drum, is mandatory reading for all those interested in the idea of community.In it, he talks about the process of soldering a true community and observes, ‘…as the love and acceptance escalates, as the mutual intimacy multiplies, true healing and converting begins. Old wounds are healed, old resentments forgiven, old resistances overcome. Fear is replaced by hope.’ Says Dr Dayal Mirchandani, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, ‘We have evolved from tribes and therefore need to be with people. Studies prove that contact with an optimum number of 100 people with whom you relate at varying degrees of intimacy, keeps us psychologically healthy.’ He adds, ‘People who have large networks of friends and relations are less likely to get cancer or heart disease.’ Finding our FeetAt the same time, not all experiences of community are happy. Observes Indu Kohli, a trainer and specialist in intercultural behaviour, ‘Not everyone is really happy being in community. Many observe that the underprivileged have a greater sense of community than the affluent but that could be their way of dealing with insecurity.’ Where you are at in your own search for autonomy and growth can influence your experience of community. Recalls HRD professional Ajay Kalra, ‘I started my spiritual search with the Art of Living (AOL). Being with likeminded people united by a love of the master is so valuable that you freely choose to spend time with the community. The two years I spent with AOL were extremely useful learning years of my life.’ He likens it to the protection a tender plant requires when it first begins to grow. He adds, ‘However, since you are still a small plant, you are not able to stand up for yourself or be yourself. For instance, I remember a senior Art of Living teacher who I looked up to, expressing reservation about a spiritual teacher I adore. At that time I was unable to stand up for my preferences and it created a certain amount of conflict within me. I now realize that it’s okay to have differences even in a community. It’s important to have your individuality flower within the community.’ To be a fully participating member of a community you need to be fully yourself. Leslie Nazareth, a member of an organisation called Phase 5, which conducts programs that link man with the environment, recalls his own tortuous relationship with community, ‘I was living as part of the Initiatives of Change (I of C) community in Panchgani when I first got a passion for my calling – natural farming. I could not communicate my excitement and commitment to the community and it left me disillusioned and skeptical about working with people.’ Leslie decided to farm on his own, but found himself lost. Finally, he set out on a 16,000 km yatra around India in search of a teacher and to heal himself. His wanderings led him to the Vipassana course in Igatpuri, Maharashtra, which he found an invaluable source of spirituality, bereft of the baggage of rituals and beliefs. Shortly after, he was recalled by the I of C to help them assist with maintenance. Determined to stay aloof and meditate, Leslie returned. ‘However, I found that the community was under tension and stressed out over issues at that time. After observing this for a while, I decided I could not continue to polish my halo and took the plunge back into community.’ He adds, ‘I saw myself getting muddy and dirty, so to speak, with negative thoughts, but everyday, Vipassana would help me to clean myself up. It gave me the energy to keep going. I began to see community in a different light. I now see that one cannot do natural farming without community because life is community. I see community as the equivalent of co-evolution in the human sphere. Co-evolution is about adapting to each other and to life.To ignore community is to ignore a fundamental force of life.’ In an interconnected world, you ignore the other at your own peril. To move as Leslie did from shying away from community to voluntarily taking on responsibility for it, is the task all of us must undertake if we wish to know the joys of community. For this we need to work on ourselves. It could mean building healthy stores of self-esteem, and shoring up our boundaries. Or being responsible for our states of mind and not holding others responsible. Or developing independent views and values. Or going beyond our own narrow perspectives and needs and focusing on that of the other. Or developing communication skills that ensure that you are true to yourself without damaging or hurting the other. Since relationships with oneself and the other are so intimately entwined, you can also gain these skills through community, but inner work is a crucial part of the process of loving the other without destroying oneself. We may also
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