Why We Need A Sangha

Why We Need A Sangha April 3, 2020

Sangha is a Sanskrit word whose meaning is similar to ekklesia in Greek, the word that becomes church in English. It has been used to refer to any kind of assembly or gathering. In Buddhism, it refers specifically to a monastic community and also the whole community of those who are in one of the four progressive stages of Enlightenment. In my own personal spiritual journey, I have come to a very specific use of the term and there’s a specific reason that I’m choosing the label sangha rather than ekklesia.

As I’ve started to talk about my sangha, I mean the people with whom I share a mutual commitment to our processes of spiritual growth. We set boundaries with each other. We navigate conflict without fear. But we do not abandon or reject each other when one person is being more of a child in the relationship than an adult. We expect continual renegotiation of our boundaries and we never give ultimatums because we are fundamentally committed to each other.

This is different than the expectations I can have for the group of people who are ekklesia, or church, with me. I believe very strongly that Christians have the purpose of becoming incorporated together as an actual physical body of Christ through the celebration of Eucharist. We are saved by becoming the body of Christ, which is also how Christ offers salvation to the world. But very few who share the body and blood of Christ with me have the capacity to hold me down lovingly while my inner teenager rages and cries about the world’s rejection.

I wrote a post recently about the counseling concepts of attunement and containment in which we commit as counselors to helping other people feel safe and sane by attuning with their affect and being non-reactive when they let out powerful emotions even if they seem to be “attacking” us. My sangha are people who can handle me in whatever state I’m in, whether I’m being a complete Lucifer or a boddhisattva. And I likewise am committed to sitting with them in their full catastrophe whatever form it takes, trusting that they can be restored to the best version of themselves through covenantal community.

The reality I’m discovering as a counselor and pastor is that we are always role-playing in every relationship in our lives. We never actually relate to specific other people as themselves. There is always projection and transference. I will always working through my wounds from the middle school cafeteria, though it may get progressively better. We are always inhabiting multiple aspects of our identity simultaneously.

I’ve had a lot of teenage boy coming out lately, which is very hard for some of my friends to take. Those who can’t love the teenage boy in me and just think “narcissist” or “pathetic clingy weirdo” or “presumptuous, spoiled rich white man” are not in my sangha. And to the degree that I judge others dismissively and refuse to engage in complete solidarity with their process, I am not in their sangha. That isn’t a moral judgment, just a recognition of who has the bandwidth and intention to be there for me right now and who doesn’t. And of course these things are continually evolving.

Some people in my sangha are Christian but most are not. It’s probably most accurate to talk about having multiple sanghas. I have several overlapping sanghas: the innermost being my biological family thankfully, also an internet mom and internet brother who pray Christian prayers with me daily at 9 am and 9 pm, my queer Christian family, my charismatic mystic family, my 12 step recovery family, and my shamanic medicine family.

At times, I have had some degree of sangha within the official collegial structures of United Methodism but not according to the shape of the institution. When you have an official covenant group where you have to perform a safe version of vulnerability in order not to jeopardize your ordination, that’s not a sangha. It’s very hard to create a true sangha with any colleague who could potentially turn you in to the official hierarchy for being a heretic and with whom you are at least theoretically in competition for jobs because you’re going to protect yourself in conversation with them. You cannot really have a sangha with people you are serving in ministry if being fully yourself with them would jeopardize your career or their spiritual growth, though you can help them form sanghas with each other.

Interestingly, in my college ministry, I have found that I am able to be my real self mostly with students who aren’t Christian. To some degree, I would even say that non-Christians have allowed me to pastor them with much more trust and vulnerability than my active Christian students, with a few exceptions. And also to some degree, my non-Christian students with whom I have grown close have become another sangha for me though I’m not sure if my boundary choices of personal disclosure have always been wise or beneficial to them.

You don’t have to use the same word that I use. But I would suggest figuring out which people in your life are able to covenant together around mutual commitment to spiritual growth. It’s fine to have friends and collaborators of all kinds as long as there is a core group of people who are there for you and know that you’re there for them.

Obviously, a very important part of this is to be very intentional and introspective about the level of mutuality in your relationship. I have been broadcasting a lot more than I’ve been receiving lately, which is fine for a season, but I need to make clear to my various sanghas that I am not a one-way transmitter and I need to be very deliberate about listening and making space for others. I’ve actually lost some friends recently because of my volume of output, and while that is very painful, it has been a good lesson and reminder to continue on the path toward loving my inner child unconditionally while also letting the wise grandmother inside of me lead the teenage boy.

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