Spiritual Community: Your Hesitation is Valid.

I grew up in New England and attended many a church baptism, wedding and funeral service. Some Catholic. Some Protestant. All Christian. Walking into a church always brought mixed feelings because I didn’t belong. Still, there was a reverent familiarity in the stillness that hung in the air that I couldn’t quite explain. It was like a comforting blankie or stepping into Grandma’s house. Yes, there was a familiarity in the air but the perplexing thing was – I could also feel it inside of me too.

This comfortable, familiar feeling made no sense, because I never stepped foot in a church except for the obligatory attendance of one family event or another.

On the rare occasion I got curious and picked up a bible, that beautiful feeling would be replaced with confusion and repulsion. If I scanned the newspaper reports of priests doing unspeakable harm to children my stomach would curdle with disgust. When I was 30 I visited the Vatican. As my eyes took in the opulence, my mind flashed to the woman I’d seen sleeping on the sidewalk with her children. Same eyes, two very different scenes that painted a picture of incomprehensible imbalance. That hypocrisy took any enjoyment of the art and turned it into a bitter taste resembling heartburn. 

In the years following, I’d drive through the winding hills of the Berkshire mountains to the yoga centre where I trained. I’d feel a magnetism drawing me in as I got closer. The building used to be a monastery and I imagined the many years of devotional practices performed by the monks followed by years of the yogi’s asana practice creating a sort of beacon pulsating through the hills, talking to my heart.

Walking through the doors I’d feel the same familiar, reverent stillness hit me in the face and wash over my body. Same as when I was a kid in those churches. There was a strange ‘rightness’ in me being there. It felt like the home and foundation I’d always craved but never had as my single mom, brother and I hopped from one rental to another.

Even there, the foundations of that ashram-turned-not-for-profit were built on abuse of power (the offending guru was ousted and in this case the community went on). It seems these days a new guru is outed for sexual abuse more often than the seasons change. Just scroll Netflix and, almost as horrifying as the true crime series, you’ll find hours of documentaries about spiritual communities gone wrong.

Maybe, like me, there’s a desire within you to find a place and people that can bring you that familiar still feeling, but everywhere you turn you see spiritual red flags. Beyond the typical abuses there are conspiracy theories. Toxic positivity. The Cult of Manifestation. Spiritual bypassing. No wonder you’re hesitant to walk through any door labelled ‘spiritual community.’ 

Yet though it may be buried deep, for many of us the desire is still there even if we don’t understand why. The reason for that desire is that being human is a hard gig. For one, there are a lot of things that don’t make sense in the world. My father-in-law likes to yell rhetorically at the nightly TV news: If there is a God why in the hell would he let (insert horrific act of humanity here) happen?”

We are inclined to look for meaning and understanding where there’s no sense to be made of humanity or the circumstances surrounding us.

Then there are those moments when we connect to that feeling of peaceful stillness. It could be in a church, at the beach or looking into the eyes of a loved one. Consciously or unconsciously we become aware of Something Greater. It’s an awareness of the unseeable thing that is the interconnectedness of all things. That feeling of stillness is the moment when that awareness can become almost palpable.

When we feel that, whether we can name it or not, we naturally want to stay with it. It feels good to linger there in that liminal space, like those moments after love making when you want to stay in bed all day, but then the phone rings or the dog barks needing to be walked and there you go, swept away into the whirlwind of life as a human.

A spiritual community is meant to be a touchstone to that peaceful, still awareness. It should serve as a learning container. It’s a space shared with other people to explore how to stay more and more connected to that inner feeling of stillness because that’s where your own resources of power, wisdom and guidance are housed. 

Unfortunately, many people feel burned by religion and new age communities. A long-time friend of mine loved her Catholic faith. To be honest, from my exposure to east coast Catholic churches, I didn’t understand it until I attended her west coast church wedding. It was a beautiful, inspiring and relatable service. As much as she loved her church though, after having children she couldn’t reconcile it with the cover-ups and hypocrisy she read about in the news. Now she wonders how she’ll guide her children’s spiritual lives.

And me? Well just like an old church might show signs of fracture as cracks run along its stone walls, I’ve seen a fair few cracks in new age spiritual communities.

What I’ve also seen in the past few years are new teachers with more grounded perspectives and little pockets of community popping up like fresh sprouts after a forest fire. The old way of practicing spirituality may have burned down, but there is hope.

In this desolate worldly domain, this I can promise you.

It might look like women’s circles or business groups or online communities. However it shows up, I’m encouraging you to keep an open mind. There are grounded spiritual teachers out there if you are looking. Religious affiliation is on the decline. That’s a fact. People are starting to see through the old ‘new age’ type communities as being repackaged religious-like groups with their own set of problems.

Ok, so if that desire is still there how do you know whether a particular spiritual community is right for you?

I could list a bunch of red flags, but I’ll just sum it up by saying: if you feel a red flag, stop and listen. Ask yourself: is this group triggering something in me? Is it taking me away from my own power or enhancing it? If it’s triggering you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s stripping you of your personal power, that is.

Here are some spiritual group GREEN FLAGS:

  • The group brings you back to your inner power through self-reflection.
  • Rather than fixing or providing solutions, there is active listening, exploration and contemplation.
  • There is a focus on self-development and discernment.
  • Mutual respect, autonomy and individualism are valued.
  • There is a shared reality of the human experience. It’s acknowledged, not shamed, that we all experience difficult feelings including jealousy, anger and vengefulness that are signals to something deeper needing understanding. 
  • Also acknowledged and openly talked about are the ‘shadow’ and ego aspects of the human experience.
  • Privilege is acknowledged and social justice is valued.
  • It’s encouraged that you to tune into your body for signals/intuition.
  • The group validates and supports your personal intuition and healing capabilities; even if you are there for support and guidance.
  • The group sees the human experience as an evolution, an ongoing learning – not a state to attain (enlightenment, constant positivity, etc.)
  • The earth, the body and the human experience are honoured as much as the unseen mysteries of spirit.
  • Even if committed to a particular path, the group is open to the idea that all paths are unique and lead to evolution.
  • The group encourages you to have a direct relationship with the divine within – no intermediary needed.
  • There’s an understanding that we’re all equal and connected, though different and unique.
  • The leadership of the group acknowledges the power they hold and makes effort to avoid hierarchical structures to the extent possible within the group. 

Throughout writing this I’m reminded of a line in the bible:

Whenever two or more are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).

There is truth between some of the more cringe worthy lines of that book.

We started by talking about a ‘familiar’ feeling. So close to the word familiar is the word familial. Yes, we carry the familiar within us, but we also seek to connect with it through others and with others. When we come together that familiar feeling is multiplied. There’s connectedness.

I’m sure you’ve heard before that we are wired for connection. Science has proven it, but we didn’t need science to tell us. All we ever needed to do was get still and connect to ourselves first and that answer would have been there all along.

So while I recognize your hesitation, I encourage you to keep your heart open to the possibility of a spiritual community. Humans are surely fallible, but they also have the great ability to keep trying at something until they improve it… even if it does take a few millennia.  

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