By Brent Purple Oliver
Group practice is a valuable thing.
Whether you’re sitting with a Buddhist community or a secular one, it’s a totally different dynamic than sitting alone. There’s a specific energy and a deeper level of accountability. The group is kind of depending on you, and you’re depending on the group. It’s elegant and powerful.
Just any old place won’t work, though; I think it’s hugely important to feel a connection with a group and the methods they practice. There are many different kinds of people and many different kinds of practices and communities. Searching around to find the one that’s right for you is a worthwhile endeavor.
It can be a daunting task to find that right one. It’s sort of like dating. You’re probably going to have a lot of awkward first meetings before you get something that clicks. If you live in a big city, there may be a lot of different groups for you to choose from.
In LA, you can’t swing an organically grown tofurkey without smacking it into a meditation center.
As for myself, I live in a small city nestled beneath the Bible Belt’s drooping beer belly. Buddhism is scarce and secular meditation often gets the side eye from the skittish Christian population. So, just from geography, we’ve got two immediate issues: a shit-ton of choices or next to nothing. Which means we will either be visiting a lot of places or concentrically expanding our search to ever-farther areas.
No matter which situation you find yourself in, let’s get one thing out of the way: there is no Goldilocks option. Perfection is unavailable.
You’re going to have to accept some downsides, because no group is without them. And those are very important, because we should be challenged by the people we practice with. It’s not always going to be comfortable and it shouldn’t, because working with discomfort is a huge part of the practice.
That’s one reason it’s vital to connect with a group, its methods, and its teachings. We go through thick and thin with these people—laughter, tears, terror, jubilation, the whole gamut of human experience. They’re your support system, your home. Whether it’s spiritual, therapeutic, religious, scientific, mystical, or contemplative, what’s a home without warmth and safety?
Just like your family, you’re not always going to get along with these folks. They may have different personal opinions, politics, and passions than you. What unites you is the commitment to practice. So you’d better resonate with that practice; you’d better feel a deep connection to it and be able to trust that it can take you where you want to go.
That resonance, connection, and trust don’t come from some magical, divine covenant. They arise from the demonstrably beneficial effects of meditation with others, from your interactions with those treading the same path as you, and from the spirit forged by people who are together to do something difficult.
If the philosophy and methods of a group don’t feel right to you, give it some time.
This shit isn’t instantaneous; see if something develops. Maybe there’s a bond there underneath your resistance and often misguided sense of self. It’s absolutely possible that something which didn’t feel right at first turns out to be exactly what you needed.
If it does, you’ll start to feel that resonance and connection that’s so crucial to being part of a practice community. If, however, everything continues to feel wrong and there’s no connection emerging, that may not be the place for you.
The first Buddhist community I was part of was a semi-cultish group with deep roots in Tibetan lineages. I was a newly-minted Buddhist with few local options and that seemed like the best one. But the more involved I got, the more their approach clashed with what I knew about myself and the world. There were lots of devotional practices, elaborate rituals, and chants to unseen deities, along with strong emphases on reincarnation and karma and unquestioning devotion to the controversial founder.
I didn’t want a religion with all its attendant superstition.
I don’t believe in ghosts and heavenly Buddhas and celestial bodhisattvas watching over us. Rituals in their honor make absolutely no sense and reincarnation seems patently ridiculous. I’m also not much into devotion. I don’t like surrendering myself, and the slavish dedication I saw to a guru who’d been dead for over a decade set off all my alarms.
Nonetheless, I persevered for five years, completing numerous trainings and even living at one of their meditation centers for over a month. I kept thinking I’d eventually fall in line with their ways and everything would be smooth sailing. That never happened for the simple reason that what I was doing just wasn’t the right path for me.
So I left.
Don’t let your beliefs and personal quirks stop you from practicing with others who don’t share them. This practice is meant to erode your deep identification with the things that make up your phantom “self,” but don’t ignore your feelings and senses, either. Learn to trust your intuition, which this practice tends to bolster.
Look, you know who you are. Even though we often meditate in order to transcend our limited selves and see through our habits and illusions, that doesn’t mean we forfeit our personalities. If you’re interested in mindfulness from a scientific standpoint, Tibetan Buddhism might not work out for you. If you want a mystical experience with chanting and incense, MBSR probably isn’t what you’re looking for.
Know yourself. Find a group to practice with that really resonates. Then get over yourself.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.
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