How does it feel to be a part of a community? Unless you are a hermit (in which case you probably wouldn't be reading this), you are part of a community - probably several. Communities range in scale from large, less-intentional groups such as cities to smaller, highly intentional groups such as a circle of friends. In-between lies a variety of networks associated with schools, churches, social and environmental causes, recreational interests, etc...A question that can be directed to all of these is: What are the factors that create high levels of personal satisfaction, provide a strong sense of belonging and promote collective well-being?
In this article, I'm choosing to focus on the conditions that lead to satisfaction not just for the individual but for the community as a whole. Many people on the spiritual path believe that transformation or liberation is a solitary endeavor. However, it has been shown that the more self-absorbed individuals are, the higher the level of disconnect from others. As a result of this disconnect, there is an increased sense of loneliness and a diminished sense of well-being.. Conversely, when we care about the health of the collective, our own happiness and well-being increases. As Wendell Berry says, "Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed."
The term "social capital" has been used by Robert Putnam to describe the quality and cohesion that we experience in our relationships to each other and to the whole. In order for quality to improve, we actually have to spend time together (more than virtual connection). Although we don't choose our families, as we grow older we tend to select people who share many of the values and characteristics that we have. Unfortunately, there is a shadow side to this, namely the exclusion of those who are different. Have you noticed that communities which are more inclusive experience greater stability and cohesion whereas those that are exclusive experience more hostility and fear?
Many religious groups are notoriously exclusive, despite the fact that their founders welcome all. One might think that performing acts of charity is a way of being connected to others. To some degree, this is true. But for generosity and hospitality to really take root, we need structures that counter our cultural tendency toward independence. Interdependence is what builds the fabric of a healthy community. It welcomes those on the margins and sees their gifts as valuable and necessary. When we have common places to meet, to dialogue and to share our visions for the future, barriers of fear and mistrust can begin to be replaced by mutual support and friendship.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his anthology entitled Social and Communal Harmony writes:
"...the Buddha did not turn his back on the human condition in favor of a purely ascetic, introspective quest for liberation. From his position as a renunciant who stood outside the conventional social order, he looked with deep concern on struggling humanity, enmeshed in conflict while aspiring for peace, and out of compassion, he sought to bring harmony into the troubled arena of human relations, to promote a way of life based on tolerance, concord and kindness."
In the next four weeks, our Web of Connection community will be exploring various facets of community life. We hope that you can join us for our meditation and inquiry classes on Saturday afternoons where this theme will be the focus (see below for details). If you live at a distance or are otherwise unable to attend, I will provide weekly highlights from each class along with suggestions for bringing the teachings into our daily lives.
Know that you are a valued member of this community and that the connections we share enrich the whole. Without you, we would not be here. Thank you!
Ayya Dhammadhira is a Buddhist monastic trained in the Thai Forest Tradition in lineage of Ajahn Chah. She spent eleven years at Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist Monasteries in England from 2001-2012. In 2012, she took the higher ordination as a bhikkhuni in Los Angeles, CA. As an alms mendicant bhikkhuni living outside the support structure of a monastery, Ayya Dhammadhira relies on the ongoing support of individuals like you to continue her practice and service in community.