Is a Healthy Functioning Spiritual Community Just a Dream….. Probably

Image by Bob Jagendorf
Image by Bob Jagendorf

I find myself wondering: What do I really want in a community? Is there such a thing as a healthy functioning community – spiritual community in particular? Is the desire to be part of a healthy, respectful, and functioning community even realistic? Given that the previous statement seems idealistic, do the benefits of committing to an individual community outweigh the unwholesome consequences?

To clarify, when I speak of committing to a spiritual community, I am referring to an organized group of lay people and like-minded practitioners not the actual path or teachings. I am, and I remain fully committed to a Buddhist path. The Buddhist teachings in the Thai Forest tradition form the foundation of my life. I take refuge with deep gratitude in the Sangha (monastic community). Yet, I keep getting the sense that there are more aspects to a lay person organization that have to do with supporting personalities than genuine practice.

Where do we draw the line between recognizing the limitations of our own defilements and delusions with one another and simply avoiding that which is unwholesome?

Part of the question for me lies in the issue of control. I listened to a talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Ajaan Geoff) titled Independence. He was speaking about how others are frequently trying to keep us in their grasp. I realized how much I struggle with that. Far too often for my liking, I observe people attempting to keep me and others in their grasp; usually by exhibiting manipulative and passive aggressive behaviors. The issue of control is obviously not new or rare. Certainly if one is to get involved in leadership, it is very likely that we will encounter someone who is attempting to maintain control. Not far away will be codependent supporters. It’s a common dynamic regardless of context.

To be honest, I doubt that those who seek control genuinely understand the consequences of their behavior. Born from fear and anxiety, the desire to control is an attempt to defend against pain and suffering. Unfortunately, these attempts are then projected onto others as if they don’t really exist independently or as equal beings. It can be easy to feel invisible when on the receiving end of passive aggressive, manipulative, and controlling behaviors. In community, these behaviors create isolation and disconnect amongst participants. In the long run, it’s unlikely to be sustainable and it prohibits healthy membership growth.

Even though we may not be able to escape interactions with those who seek control and their codependent supporters, we can limit how much we chose to expose ourselves to the behaviors. Hence my question: Is being part of a spiritual community worth enduring the unwholesome and unskillful? I realize that we are unenlightened human beings with plenty of work to do. For me, it’s not about expecting the behavior of an Arahant. It is about how one responds to challenges, difficulties, and diversity.

Is it too much to ask for simple kindness? In the absence of kindness, are we required to endure lack of respect, not being heard, and isolation? Resolving conflicts doesn’t mean enduring them. First, one has to ask: Is there really a conflict or is it simply resistance to something unfamiliar or unwanted? Where does the “conflict” really lie? Does it serve any constructive purpose – as in wholesome growth – or is the situation simply fostering unskillful behavior? Is expanded awareness and personal responsibility embraced or is delusion running the show?

image by Joao Vicente
image by Joao Vicente

Often, I have been the recipient of genuine kindness and compassionate support with community. For that I am grateful. No surprise, I’ve also experienced lack of respect and unkind behaviors. I think that is to be expected. What I struggle with is the attempt to corrupt diversity into conflict. Instead of opening to a variety of perspectives as strengthening, they’re viewed as a threat or challenge. In my experience, the result is rarely skillful or wholesome and it serves avoidance of reality, denial, and delusion. Defilements win. Compassion and empathy are overshadowed.

For me, the question regarding whether participating in a dysfunctional (good luck finding one that isn’t) spiritual community creates more benefits than hindrances remains unanswered. It’s not about what we are but how we function as a community. I attempt to balance the awareness of reality and genuine desire to practice and grow with acceptance, compassion, and empathy. Yet, I cannot ignore that I have a choice. I am no less committed to my path if I choose to simply remove myself from unnecessary suffering. I also do not want to limit myself to the solitude of not being part of a spiritual community and the many gifts that arise from that.

In the end, as is frequently the case in life and relationships, there is no real answer. The world is complex and being human is not an easy process. Balance is key and boundaries are required. I find that it helps significantly to have a sense of humor, lighten up, and to not take myself too seriously – even in the face of Dhamma drama!

© Sallie Odenthal 2014

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