Last time we looked at the nature of love and how to bring spiritual practice into your relationships with family, friends and partners. But the network of your relationships goes far beyond those closest to you. In this post we extend the circle further to explore practices that connect you to the wider community…
Everyone exists within a network of interdependence with other people. We literally depend on each other in order to survive. Even a hermit who lives alone in the woods is dependent on the trees, plants and animals who share the woods with them. Beyond the woods, the hermit is also dependent on other humans whose distant actions have an impact on the environment, even if the hermit never sees them.
Most of us don’t live as isolated hermits, but whatever your level of connection to others, your community includes every sentient being you come into contact with – humans, animals, ancestors, etc. – as well as those who influence your life from a distance – farmers, delivery drivers, factory workers, politicians, and so on.
You also connect to community on multiple levels simultaneously: from family and small groups of like-minded friends, to the wider local community of your town or city, and then beyond to the global community of humanity and the natural world of the Earth herself. More here: Active Hope and the Power of Community
Most of the time, your interactions with the community happen unconsciously and you tend to take it for granted. It may only be when something breaks down or there’s a crisis that you notice your dependence on others. In an emergency people spontaneously come together to help each other, as in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire disaster when the locals provided support to the residents. This was in contrast to the lack of response from the local council and politicians. More about that here: Active Hope and a New Kind of Power
But you don’t have to wait for the shit to hit the fan before connecting with others. Practices for Community include things like:
- Spiritual community or sangha
- Sacred Activism – social, ecological, etc.
- Karma Yoga
- Volunteer work
- Charity and philanthropy
- Political and civic participation
A spiritual community is called a sangha and includes everything from monasteries and ashrams, to spiritual retreats, meditations centres, and even regular meetings with friends in your living room. In Buddhism sangha refers to the monastic community, but can also mean any group of lay followers who gather together for mutual support. Thich Nhat Hanh says:
“A sangha is a community of friends practising the dharma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.”
Being part of a sangha or spiritual community doesn’t mean abandoning society or cutting yourself off from the larger world. The sangha exists to support your practice so you can go into the world and be of greater service than you would be otherwise. It’s a place to build spiritual friendships that can help you through difficult patches in your life, and where you can learn from each other as you put the teachings into practice.
These teachings aim to awaken you to your true nature as spirit by freeing you from the ego and its fears. The question then is what to do with that freedom. In other words: What’s the point of awakening? In The Direct Path Andrew Harvey says:
“In all the serious mystical traditions, the final aim of the Path is not ecstasy, or revelation, or the possession of amazing powers, or any kind of purely personal fulfilment, however inspired or exalted, but to become the humble, supple, selfless, and tireless instrument of God and servant of divine love.”
So the real goal of spiritual practice is service. However, you can’t do this effectively until you’ve at least glimpsed the truth of who you are. As we saw in the Relationships post, your true nature is love so when you operate from that awareness, everything you do becomes an act of love and service to others.
Service is often linked with the idea of sacrifice: you have to give something up in order to serve. It’s seen as an onerous thing, a burden or heavy responsibility – and certainly no fun. It may even be seen as a kind of punishment or the cross you have to carry. But this is a misperception.
True service is selfless and given out of love and done with joy. At best, you serve from your true Self as spirit, so it’s not personal. You’re not giving away something that you possess or that belongs to you. The sacrifice associated with service refers to the ego and the need to let go of expectation of reward. But why would you need a reward if you’re acting in joy and love?
There’s no sacrifice in real service and no need for a reward. The work itself is the reward. At least, that’s the ideal to aim for since most of us aren’t as selfless as we like to think we are!
Andrew Harvey describes five interdependent types of service:
- Service to the Divine
- Service to yourself as an instrument of the Divine
- Service to family and friends
- Service to the community
- Service to the world and all sentient beings
You can serve the divine through spiritual practice, the study of sacred texts, prayer and worship, and so on. This leads to service of yourself when you recognise the divine as your own true nature as Buddha or Christ, or however you want to conceive of it. This realisation then extends to everyone else, starting with those closest to you and expanding out to the larger community and the world.
Service to others arises spontaneously from the recognition that everyone is divine at heart, just as you are. They’re all disguises of God – including animals and the natural world. So treat them all with equal respect and love, even the annoying ones!
Before you go rushing off to find a service to perform, you need to examine your motives. You can have several reasons for wanting to do something, and they can be contradictory. Your motives may mixed – selfless and ego-based at the same time – because none of us are perfect or perfectly enlightened. So you need to be honest with yourself.
Service can be a way to make yourself look good or achieve some personal ambition, something to put on your CV. You might want to help others because it makes you feel superior over those who are weak and dependent – a real power trip. Or perhaps you want to alleviate suffering, not because you feel compassion, but because it makes you uncomfortable: you want to get homeless people off the streets because it makes your town look bad, rather than actually caring about the individuals concerned, for example. There are endless examples and you see corporations and politicians indulging in this kind of thing all the time.
However, you don’t have to be perfect or have spotless motives before serving your community. And don’t wait until you’re enlightened because you could be waiting a long time (!) and there are far too many people (and animals and trees) who need your help. Just be honest about your motives and do your best to let go of ego as much as you can.
To perform effective service you also need to choose the most appropriate actions to take and in what context. It’s important to discern the difference between what people ask for and what they really need. There’s nothing worse than well-intentioned do-gooders going about ‘helping’ people who don’t want or need their help. And you don’t want to make things worse. You can’t fix every problem and can’t fight every battle, so you have to choose wisely.
Another challenge is to be aware when you’re getting attached to outcomes. This can be quite subtle and difficult to spot. You might feel disappointed if you don’t get any recognition for your service, for example. It might not be until later that you realise you were secretly expecting praise or a reward. Or perhaps you feel narked when you don’t receive gratitude or thanks for your hard work.
These emotional reactions are a sign that your ego is still insinuating itself into your actions. In The Hope, Andrew Harvey discusses the importance of getting your ego out of the way and how that relates to the practice of Karma Yoga:
“All the mystical traditions tell us that for action to be the sacred channel of Divine Grace, it needs to be performed selflessly and for the sake of God alone.”
To do this you need to surrender the fruits of your actions to the divine and this protects you from accumulating any karma. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains:
“The world is in the bonds of action, unless the action is consecration. Let thy actions then be pure, free from the bonds of desire … The man who has found the joy of the spirit and in the spirit has satisfaction, who in the spirit has found his peace, that man is beyond the law of action.”
When you perform service, or any action, in this way, it reflects the way the divine works. Acting selflessly and without attachment means you’re acting out of love. The action comes from your true Self – the spirit, or divine in you – so it’s really God’s grace acting through you.
This gets you out of your own way. It stops the ego from interfering with what you’re doing and means you can get clearer guidance on what needs to be done and what the divine wants from you.
It also helps you to approach whatever you do in the right spirit – if you want peace, you have to be peaceful, for example. This applies whether you choose to serve through volunteering and charity work, or through more confrontational means, such as protest and activism.
Activism doesn’t have to mean going on marches and shouting a lot. In Active Hope, the authors define activism as anything done in the spirit of bodhicitta, the awakened heart and mind. This is your true nature, so again, it’s anything done with love. Andrew Harvey calls this Sacred Activism, which combines the mystic’s compassion and the activist’s ability to get stuff done.
On their own, the mystic and the activist have limitations. Mystics tend to get attached to being, while activists get attached to doing, and this creates a destructive shadow in each of them. In The Hope, Harvey explains:
“The mystic’s shadow was a surreal dissociation from the body, the world, and the gruelling tasks of implementing justice. The activist’s shadow lay in the messiah and martyr complexes that accompany the addiction to doing, with its vulnerability to burnout, rage, and despair.”
The way to deal with this problem is to bring the two together: the mystic’s passion for God and the activist’s passion for justice, creating wisdom and love in action. This combination is also found in the ideal of the bodhisattva and was the inspiration behind the Mystic Warrior Practice – the marrying of contemplation and action, or love and will. More in the Introduction post.
In the end, there’s no real separation between your spiritual path and serving others. In an article on the Suffering System, David Loy says:
“any individual awakening we may have on our meditation cushions remains incomplete until it is supplemented by a ‘social awakening’.”
You need to recognise that the society you live in reflects the ego and its fears – the same fears that you’re trying to overcome in your spiritual practice. To do one but not tackle the other means your awakening is incomplete because it’s not grounded in the real world.
When you awaken to the level of suffering that exists in the world, you can’t simply turn away from it and go back to sleep. You have to do something. At the very least, you can ensure that you don’t make it any worse than it already is, by returning to peace within yourself. If you can do that, genuinely, then whatever you do will have transformative consequences.
So how do you decide what to do? There are so many problems and so much suffering – where do you even start?
To find the right cause to serve you’ll need to keep yourself informed about what’s going on in your local community and the wider world. This isn’t easy, as we saw in the Mind War post, and the scale of the problems we face can be overwhelming. But you have to start somewhere. Andrew Harvey suggests you follow your heartbreak:
“Determine which one of all the causes in the world really breaks your heart. When you identify this, you have found the cause you will always have the energy and passion to work for.”
It’s a good idea to think globally, but act locally. Get involved with projects that align with your values so you can share your particular skills, talents and gifts within the limits of your temperament and resources. This also includes contemplative actions that are suited to those who work best behind the scenes on the level of consciousness and spirit.
You don’t have to do big heroic deeds, like throwing yourself in front of tanks or saving lives in a war zone – unless that’s your sort of thing. No matter your circumstances, there’s probably something you can do. It could be something simple like donating a few tins to a local food bank or helping to clean up your neighbourhood.
Simple actions may seem too small to make a difference, but even doing small things can be empowering and will inspire others to join you. Whatever you do, never underestimate how powerful a small action can be. More here: Active Hope and How You Can Change the World (Yes You!)