Why joining communities is so hard

Community from PexelsI am a part of several different communities, as I’m sure you are too. Some of these are tighter, like the group of us who live together here in the temple, and some are looser, like my 12 step community, or the members of our sangha who rarely visit but remain connected. I see creating community as one of the biggest responsibilities of my role as priest – secondary maybe only to introducing people to the Buddha. Sangha is one of the three jewels of Buddhism, and it is very difficult for us to continue on a spiritual path without colleagues and supporters around us.

Over the years I have witnessed many people visiting our community for the first time. We watch them as they meet more established members of the sangha, try out the Buddhist practice we offer here, and begin to orient themselves in a completely new environment. Getting through the door to attend their first Buddhist service is a big deal for most people, but I’ve come to think that returning for a second time is an even bigger deal. A second visit is where they begin to play with the idea of joining our community.

There are a lot of issues that arise when we go about connecting with existing communities. Once we get over the obvious obstacles of not having enough time or energy, or finding that the broad philosophies or aims of the group don’t match our own, things get more complicated. We can think about joining a group as a bit like dating, and committing to a group as moving in together or getting married. Once we start getting to know each other there are all sorts of disappointments to come to terms with, needs to negotiate, and tangles that need untangling!

Jean Vanier founded L’Arche communities where profoundly disabled people live alongside their assistants in family units as equals. He talks about difficulties in joining communities as fitting into four categories. He is speaking here about people joining an intense community like his own or a monastery, but I think these categories also describe our difficulties in committing to the looser communities we all belong to.

“These are the four great crises of community life. The first – which is certainly the least hard – comes when we arrive. There are always parts of us which cling to the values we have left behind. The second is the discovery that the community is not as perfect as we had thought, that it has its weaknesses and flaws. The ideal and our illusions crumble; we are faced with reality. The third is when we feel misunderstood and even rejected by the community, when, for example, we are not elected to a position of responsibility, or do not get a job we had hoped for. And the fourth is the hardest: our disappointment with ourselves because of all the anger, jealousies, and frustrations that boil up in us.” Jean Vanier

So: we don’t want to let go of who we were or where we were before we joined, we discover the failings of the community, we feel rejected or feel like the community doesn’t understand us, and we have an intense encounter with our own failings. It was a relief to me to read this list, because I identified with these different crises both as a new group member myself, and in what I see when others encounter our own Buddhist group.

How can we help people negotiate these barriers, or work through these crises when they arise for us? The most important point is to recognise them as a natural and appropriate consequence of our moving towards intimacy with a new group. We might not encounter all four difficulties, or in the order that Vanier lists them, but there is an inevitability in their arising. It doesn’t mean that we are failing when we or others meet these obstacles, but rather that we are on the path of deepening commitment. Remembering this can be helpful to group leaders and to new group members.

It can help us and others to have a space where we can talk our feelings through without having to worry about being judged or persuaded – sometimes the group leader can manage this, and sometimes they can’t and someone else is more appropriate. We have found that patience is important – we have had group members who have disappeared for a year or more before coming back to continue with their journey. We need to think carefully about whether we leave or stay – sometimes our difficulties are showing us we’d be better off elsewhere, or sometimes we’re called to stay where we are even if that is very painful so we can learn what we need to learn.

It isn’t helpful for group leaders to jump to the conclusion that a group member’s dissatisfaction is their fault. It’s always important to prioritise the wellbeing of our group members and to examine what we’re doing and to make changes when we think it appropriate, but when a new member has complaints about our group it can be more about them and their safety than about our community. This is also true when we are the person complaining about a group. We don’t have to control everything or ‘make everything okay’ for group members. We can have faith that everyone is on their own path. If we leave a community because we are avoiding an aspect of ourselves, there will be a repetition of this when we next join a group (and again and again, until we see what we need to see in ourselves). This is true for others too.

Communities are precious places. They help us learn how to love one another and to receive love. They can also be intense and potentially dangerous to those who are too fragile to protect themselves or too brittle to learn the necessary lessons. We should always be gentle with those who encounter issues in community, and take the long term view. Keep welcoming group members, encourage honest dialogue, and hand the rest over. Living in community can work miracles on people, and we never know when the fruits of this work will appear.

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Photo from Pexels.com with gratitude

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