By Suma Varughese
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 Community
Deep 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 Feet
At 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 need to detach ourselves from the communities that we are unhappily embedded into. At adolescence, most of us need to spend some physical or mental distance away from family before we can solder adult relationships with family members. We need to get some distance from the religious and social community we have been born into in order to find our own truths, before we can choose to voluntarily merge with them again.
True community happens when we have found enough of ourselves to avoid the fear of submergence or obliteration. Thus it is that we leave community in order to find it again.
Characteristics of Community
One of the chief characteristics of real communities is inclusivity and a respect for differences. Says trainer and seeker, Abhishek Thakore, who is a member of many communities, ‘I would say that a successful community is where there’s room for all opinions.’ He cites the example of his group of 15 friends who have been together since school. ‘We have a wide disparity of interests and affiliations in our group. For instance, we have one person who is deeply into Art of Living and is training to be a teacher. Another is opposed to organized spirituality and is following his own path. A third is simply interested in having fun. Earlier, we used to ridicule each other’s belief systems but we have progressed to having tremendous tolerance for each other. We have learnt to weather differences.’
Says M. Scott Peck, ‘In community, instead of being ignored, denied, hidden or changed human differences are celebrated as gifts.’
In order to find the space to accept human differences, Peck points out, we need to ‘hang in there when the going gets a little rough… Our individualism must be counterbalanced by commitment.’
Other aspects of successful communities include realism, humility and contemplativeness. Realism arises because of exposure to multiple points of view, which enables us to survey the situation from many perspectives and therefore have a deeper understanding of it.
Humility, Peck says, naturally arises when we discern others’ gifts and become aware of our own limitations. He says, ‘Witness others share their brokenness and you will become able to accept your own inadequacy and imperfection. Be fully aware of human variety and you will recognize the interdependence of humanity.’
It is contemplative because it is in touch with itself. Members are conscious of the group’s moods and states of mind and consciously introspect on it.
Above all, Peck says, members feel safe in a group. He says, ‘Community is a safe place precisely because no one is attempting to heal or convert you, to fix you, to change you. Instead, the members accept you as you are.’
Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, is responsible for starting a number of communities under the aegis of Ananda Sangha. The Sangha has a number of communities in the US, one in Italy and is currently setting one up in Delhi. According to Swami Kriyananda the key to successful community formation is crystal clarity, which empowers us to put spiritual principles first.
He writes in his book, Cities of Light, ‘The members of Ananda frequently exclaim to one another, ‘How did such a wonderful thing as this ever happen to us? Our friends in the cities often earn more than we do, yet they haven’t a fraction of what we have here! They live in little apartments, are forever in debt, quarrel with their neighbors or their landlords, have few, if any, close friends. Here at Ananda we have lovely homes, open space, beautiful scenery, wonderful friends, harmonious relationships, meaningful lives. We even get to take vacations more than many people do! If only we could get people to see that this is the only possible way to live.’
So is it possible to form a true community or does it just happen by glorious happenstance?
Formation of a real community is not easy, but according to Dr Peck it is possible. Indeed, there is a clearly perceptible four-stage process to he activity. The four stages are pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness and community. If a group succeeds in working through these stages it can become a sanctuary for its members.
Pseudocommunity is the stage where we are polite to each other and sweep differences under the carpet. This is the state most communities are stuck, but with courage, determination and with the knowledge that Dr Peck here gives, we can take them through the other processes that will create a community. What we must remember is that the joys of true community are so powerful that the pain we undergo in forming it is worth it.
Writes Dr. Peck, ‘In pseudocommunity a group attempts to purchase community cheaply by pretense… it is an unconscious, gentle process whereby people who want to be loving attempt to be so by telling little white lies, by withholding some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict.’
What is the way out of this tacit compliance? By openly asserting disagreements or opposing points of view. The process calls for courage and commitment for this stage can be unpleasant. No wonder Dr Peck calls it chaos. Chaos is preferable to pseudocommunity because disagreement is now out in the open and not locked away, so it is worthwhile to brave its volatile manifestation.
After enough time and effort has been expended on chaos, the stage is set for the most difficult and crucial aspect of the exercise: Emptiness. Dr Peck writes, ‘When the members of a group finally ask me to explain what I mean by emptiness, I tell them simply that they need to empty themselves of barriers to communication. And I am able to use their behaviour during chaos to point out to them specific things – feelings, assumptions, ideas and motives – that have so filled their minds as to make them as impervious as billiard balls.’
Emptiness means to free ourselves of expectations and perceptions, prejudices, ideologies, the need to heal or convert the other or the need to control. During workshops, Dr Peck asks the members to reflect during a break or overnight, on what they as individuals most need to empty themselves of in their lives. He says, ‘Such giving up is a sacrificial process. Consequently, the stage of emptiness in community development is a time of sacrifice.’ Indeed, the members must individually die to themselves before community can be born.
Because it is such a profound act, it is also extremely difficult. It follows therefore that the more inner work we do, the easier it is to empty ourselves. Ultimately, community formation is a spiritual exercise. We must be willing to put the interests of the whole over personal interest. Here is what Dr Peck says about it, ‘What it means is that given the right circumstances and knowledge of the rules, on a certain but very real level we human beings are able to die for each other.’
And thus comes the fourth stage, community. Dr Peck explains, ‘When its death has been completed, open and empty, the group enters community. In this final stage a soft quietness descends. It is a kind of peace. The room is bathed in peace. Then, quietly, a member begins to talk about herself. She is being very vulnerable. She is speaking of the deepest part of herself. The group hangs on each word. No one realized she was capable of such eloquence.’
Writes Dr. Peck, ‘When I am with a group of human beings committed to hanging in there through both the agony and the joy of community, I have a dim sense that I am participating in a phenomenon for which there is only one word. I almost hesitate to use it. The word is ‘glory’.’
Glory is a strong word but a compelling one. Personally, I can’t wait to experience it. Community, anyone?
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