This is Part 3! Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2!
What spiritual communities and contributions are you drawn to?
For inspiration on how to give our spiritual life more structure, it can actually be helpful to adapt some of what religion has learned, as discussed in Part 1. As spirituality can too, religion provides a framework for people to find belonging and higher purpose. For example, the community of Muslims is called the Ummah, all members of which are expected to engage in Jihad, which means striving for peace and justice (NOT propagating violence, as is commonly misinterpreted). The community of Buddhists is called the Sangha, all members of which are expected to engage in Dharma, which means duty to all life. And the community of Christians is called the Church, all members of which are expected to engage in Charity, which means enacting God’s love in service to the world (NOT simply donating money, as is commonly misinterpreted).
Just like religions have their origins in our deep human needs for clarity and consistency, so have they grown from our deep needs for kinship and work for the common good. But as religions build up over time, they can sometimes sadly fall prey to the same tendencies plaguing other large institutions, like rigid exclusivity, conformity, and hierarchy. These are some of the main reasons so many of us have been turning away from participation in these institutions, and toward participating more deeply in our own individual spiritual lives. This is a healthy and necessary development for humanity as a whole – and wake-up call for religions – but it poses a difficult challenge for individual spiritual seekers.
As we migrate from the outlets for community and contribution offered by religion, sooner or later we find we need community and contribution to migrate to! But supportive networks for this can seem nowhere to be found. We can feel like our own little boat has left shore, but without other land on the horizon. Though this may be exciting at first, we can soon feel vulnerable and lost on the open sea. Even if we have clarity and consistency, we still need companions on the voyage and a sense of responsibility to something greater.
So how do we find:
a guiding star and fellow mariners?
Even better, islands of belonging and purpose?
Best yet, a new mainland we can serve and call home?
Before exploring these questions, it’s helpful to ask a more fundamental one: How will we know when we’ve found these things? Here again our experience with religion offers another way of asking this: What good things does religion sometimes promise that we now want to truly recover? If we don’t know the answer to these questions, we may try something out, only to soon find ourselves drifting on again because it didn’t fit us well. Let’s minimize our time adrift and maximize our time headed in the right direction, by illuminating our primary goals in this search:
EXERCISE – Identify your Spiritual Moment
Possibly the best place to start is to ask “what does my spirituality need – what am I seeking – right now?” then to flesh that out a bit.
The goal here is to get past generalities like “belonging” and “purpose” to more concrete interests you might share with someone or a group. Next questions that may flow from this are:
"What outlets are feeding or would feed my spirituality?”
“What kind of process am I in or do I want to be in?”
“What do I need to focus on?”
This is how you can characterize your current Spiritual Moment, and it’s essential for everything else going forward.
Here are some priorities people are already exploring to some degree in their Spiritual Moment (you may have many others beyond these):
Navigating your life story
Navigating a difficult life transition, healing, and grief: loss of career, community, or partnership; loss of a loved one; mental/physical health, sobriety, or aging challenges; or a wholesale falling apart of the life you’ve known
Religious deconstruction – moving away from a religious community, toward the unknown, and redefining or questioning your beliefs
Seeking hope amidst despair about the planet and future
Try to see if you can write up a paragraph or more about your Spiritual Moment. You’ll need to bear this in mind as you enter new relationships and communities.
OTHER POSSIBLE CRITERIA –
Mutuality, Modularity, Co-Mentorship, and Meaningful Action
As part of alleviating institutional exclusivity, we spiritual seekers want our communities and causes to work for inclusion of all people and belief systems. At the same time, we may want to focus our energy on relationships with a smaller and more like-minded circle, to ensure we’re well supported. A way to find a good compromise is to consider mutuality – are we consistently able to offer as much of our perspective as we and our companions want us to?
Stepping into the spiritual life entails primarily following the callings of your individual Soul, rather than conforming to a preordained structure. It may seem like our need for solitude in this process precludes belonging to an organized group, but the right kind of structure can really enable invaluable opportunities for exploration. We find a nice balance in modularity – are we consistently able to shift into multiple levels of involvement?
While we have many reasons to be skeptical of hierarchy these days, all of us need to be in venues where facilitators, teachers, and elders are sharing their greater experience and wisdom to help us find our way. In that, it’s just important that everyone gets to share their experience and wisdom as well. That’s the culture of healthy co-mentorship – are we consistently able to learn and be learned from?
A community that's working on specific projects together – beyond simply having certain kinds of conversations – is more likely to stay intact over time. Shared, meaningful action is a binding, animating force. This can take infinite forms, and hopefully you already have a sense of what you're drawn to in your Spiritual Moment. If you're unsure what kind of project may fit you, note the section below on your "guiding star." Beyond that, the subject of meaningful action merits an article all its own: Amidst so much turmoil in our world, how do we find truly meaningful action and sustainable spiritual activism? I hope these considerations can also inform your Spiritual Moment.
With these goals in mind, let’s return to our big questions – how do we find:
a guiding star and fellow mariners?
Even better, islands of belonging and purpose?
Best yet, a new mainland we can serve and call home?
GUIDING STAR & FELLOW MARINERS
1. EXERCISE – Find your guiding star
2. EXERCISE – Start with who you know
Chances are you’ve known people who have offered you some kind of spiritual presence or inspiration at some point in your life, whether you or they knew it at the time or not. Think about who those people might be, and look through your contacts and social media if that helps you remember. If you’re still close with a person, but haven’t broached the subject of your spiritual journey with them before, maybe now is the time! If there’s someone you’ve lost touch with, maybe now is the time to reconnect! In either case, you may be surprised to hear how similar your journeys and longings for company have become in the intervening years. You may just rekindle a Soul-friendship, and they may know others for you to reach out to as well.
In all of these cases, here’s what you talk about: your Spiritual Moment. You just have to start with the right question, and listen as much as you share. For example:
“Lately I’ve really been working through…
“Lately I’ve really been struggling with…
“Lately I’ve really been curious about…
[TOPIC (speak to the general – like ‘why our generation is dealing with so much disillusionment’), related to
YOUR SPIRITUAL MOMENT (speak to your particular – like ‘I know I am’)].
What’s your experience with that?”
Hopefully your conversation can flow naturally in this direction, so you don't have to ask a question like this abruptly. But that's not guaranteed, and you should plan to be forthcoming early on about your Spiritual Moment. This will feel uncomfortable, but we need to set a tone of vulnerability, again, maximizing our time headed in the right direction with people. Remember: you're also creating a rare opportunity for someone else to share what's in their heart too. If they have any sense of their own Spiritual Moment, they'll gladly accept your invitation.
3. EXERCISE – Venture out
You may also need to do the scarier thing of meeting entirely new people. While this is best done in the “islands” contexts of the next section (since there’s less inhibition around deep conversations) it might be good growth for you to bring that uninhibitedness into interactions with perfect strangers. Just use the same questions above. These are so much more fun than small-talk anyway! If you can’t avoid small-talk, see if you can lead the conversation in the direction of this big-talk.
The people who aren’t ready for this won’t know what to do with it – and that’s about them being not quite awake to life, not you, and you can both just move on. The right people will find it utterly refreshing and magnetic when you’re upfront about your Spiritual Moment. A lot more people than you realize are already in your same boat, but they struggle to muster the courage or language to be open about it. You can be the muster-er! And soon you may have another new companion on the journey.
4. EXERCISE – Cross-pollinate and convene
Once you have some good conversations with good people, introduce them to each other! Even host a gathering of them, coming up with some discussion prompts ahead of time related to points of connection between everyone’s various Spiritual Moments. It doesn’t need to be too ironed-out – people will be eager to talk big-talk and flow will develop soon enough. By the end, you may decide to keep meeting like this (in which case refer to the previous article on spiritual consistency), or revert to one-on-one conversations. You may even look into heading toward an “island” together, if you aren’t already headed there individually.
1. EXERCISE – Map things out
Many people are leaving the shores of old spiritual homelands, but haven’t yet found significant new ones. Thus we live in a time of great innovation, with new islands of spiritual community forming before our very eyes. This is exciting in principle, but the sheer number, diversity, dispersal, and experimentality of these islands can be disorienting to navigate. Here are some suggestions for mapping things out:
Start with your Spiritual Moment as your guide.
Hopefully you’ve already had experience with at least one community context that was spiritually fulfilling to some degree – consider that or something like it.
Try to remember other groups you’ve already heard of at some point.
Look at groups that people you respect are connected to – mentors or public figures who’ve informed your spirituality. Check the indexes and references in their books, articles, podcasts, and websites. Never forget to browse the library for new ideas too!
Look local – browse maps apps, Meetup, Facebook, and the internet generally for variations on words from your Spiritual Moment plus the name of your city.
Don’t rule out religious communities – great innovation is happening there too!
Here are some of the islands I've been fortunate to be part of.
Whenever you find something that seems like a possibility, ask:
Would I be able to talk to potential fellow mariners there about my spiritual moment?
If I visit, can I bring a fellow mariner or two along?
What other groups is it affiliated with, officially or in terms of beliefs and practices? What are the affiliations of those adjacent groups?
Who is part of any of these groups that may have ideas for other resources? Can I talk to them about my Spiritual Moment, or at least ask for referrals?
2. EXERCISE – Show up, with patience
Once you find an island that interests you, don’t spend a lot of time circling around it – just walk into it and see what happens! And remember: in order to gauge whether a spiritual venue offers what you’re seeking, you may have to show up to it more than once. Every human community is messy, and we can’t presume they’ll exceed our expectations at first – or at all. A given community may be strong in one category and lacking in others, and no matter what, it’ll have plenty of work to do to accommodate the fullest spirituality.
What we’re looking for in our search is not a place that satisfies our desires from the get-go (and even if we find a place that seems that way at first, the shine always wears off). What we’re looking for is a place that’s open to change, that we feel good about improving over time, where our own messiness is at home with others’.
So, unless you get a potent gut feeling that it’s not a good fit, try showing up at least twice to give it a chance, observing the dynamics. By halfway through the second time, try introducing the energy you want to see more of, and pay attention to the response. You may be surprised at how ready people are to move with you!
Maybe you’ll find one of these islands actually feels like a mainland to you – that’s great! For many of the rest of us, we’re still waiting for a new continent to appear on the horizon, as great as or greater in scope – though different in quality – than modern religion. Contrary to many previous predictions, science and secularism don’t seem like they’ll be able to offer that same or a deeper level of meaning on their own. Nowadays, nobody seems to have a solid – or even optimistic – sense of what’s going to happen. But I do have a hopeful hypothesis.
Amidst the profusion of islands – including the scientific and secular ones – I’ve detected a common substance in the soil. This is actually the same substance out of which the old mainland of religion originally grew. And its reemergence now heralds, I believe, good news for all of us: more beautiful islands to come, an ancient religious mainland restored to humility and health, and a whole new, exciting frontier approaching – all of if energized with the life-giving substance of the Mystic Tradition.
What is the Mystic Tradition?
Read on to the next post on Mystic Spirituality!
In the meantime, as always, I offer you some reflection questions:
How have you been working toward spiritual community?