With my impending departure for a sabbatical, I’ve begun to ponder if this word and its meaning extend beyond my immediate locale. I keep wondering if the power of this community is stronger than proximity.
My internal answer is a resounding Yes, but I’ll be curious what sangha means when I’m living on an island far from those who’ve surrounded me over the years, those who know how to tilt the mirror just so, so that I may see my falsities, blind spots, and eternal nature shimmering back at me. What happens when I’m physically separated from those who show up again and again and encourage, nay, insist I show up even when I think I have nothing to share and want to hide in my mental constructs.
The term sangha has roots in Buddhism and often points toward monks and nuns who are committed to the advancement of enlightenment and liberation, both of which sound good to me. The root conjures a life of meditation, reflection, and practice in a community of people desiring to awaken together from a state of delusion. Okay, that sounds about right—familiar, even—from my own experience of sangha and the mutual support it offers on this sometimes challenging path of practice.
When reading social media dharma (oxymoron?), it often seems the current trend is to “manifest” some big dream and get what you can while you’re here. The time and care we give to the whole—to each other—seems to wane in significance, replaced by a “self above others” manifesto. Granted, I teach that we must tend to our own foundation before sending it out in the world. Still, I love this practice of revealing ourselves along the journey with other folks, from various tribes, life experiences, all carrying various karmas.
To find a place, a community, where we’re attempting to peel the off the mask of our own deceptions. Together, we make up a family-tribe-collectivity that sits together, looks more closely at our habits and patterns, and sees—truly sees—ourselves and each other. This is the world I desire to create wherever I am.
Okay, wait, let me correct that: I don’t desire to be in that world, but I need to be there. Desire? I would most likely desire to keep shoring up my ego with people who will tell me that I’m great, all good, possibly even amazing. Desire? I would desire solitude where I can churn in my own self-delusions and not have to bump into others’ reflections. But the truth is that we hold each other, even in our collective desire to turn—or run—away.
I’ve been teaching weekly classes for 12 years at one space, Yoga Tree, and during those years, you could say that I have taught a form of fitness that, from afar, may look like an incense-infused, sitar-booming aerobics class. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t argue with you on that. This practice offers whatever you are looking for, and many are looking for … that. Many students have come, gotten what they were looking for, and headed off to the next thing: soul spinning, Zumba, road biking, whatever boosts endorphins and creates a sensation of relief or release from discomfort.
But look more closely and you’ll see something else. You’ll see people who have shown up year after year, practice after practice, sit after sit. People who, when they’ve wanted to go, have sat back down, looked within, talked to a fellow practitioner, or kicked and screamed and had a grade A teenage melt down…and then stayed. These folks have stayed and been held in the humanness we all share.
The teachings of Buddha and dharma persist beyond our individual lives, beyond me and mine and all my individual concerns. Right alongside Buddha and dharma, though, comes sangha, a togetherness that can help remind us of the power of connectivity amidst the impermanence of this solitary path. Sangha is that which binds and guides us while we’re here. Ultimately we each go through this life in our own body, with our own perspective, but gathering those around who have a different viewpoint can offer a wider vision while here. And finding companions on the way who share this weird desire to wake up—well, that’s something, too. Maybe everything.
Someone asked the Buddha which is the most important, the most indispensable—the teacher, the teachings, or the sangha, the community of spiritual friends. Which one, they asked, is the deal-breaker, the sine qua non, the one we just can’t do without if we want to wake up. You know what he answered?
Yeah: sangha. Because we walk this path alone and yet we can’t walk this path alone. Or maybe we can, but we sure won’t make it very far. So, though my body will be far from those who have made up this heart sangha in the coming months, I’m already convinced it’s a global phenomenon. Mine is a tribe that thrives wherever my body may be. In the months to come, we’ll each sit before our own altar, but we’ll never be far from each other.