|by Jay Kinney|
Centuries ago, when group endeavors were the norm, the solitary spiritual seeker was very much the exception to the rule. In those days, with Catholic monasteries and churches, Jewish shtetls, Sufi tekkes, as well as independent brotherhoods like the Brothers of the Common Life in full bloom, the notion of a person reaching enlightenment alone was not the norm. Even the Desert Fathers and other anchorites, as often as not, were members of communities of hermits.
Today, for many in the West, the situation has reversed itself. Now it often seems like the spiritual seeker who has found a good solid group to work with is the exception, while most of us are left with our books, our private meditations, and our dreams. Moreover, given the bad track record of gurus and cults over the last twenty-five years, many of us are skeptical of the whole idea of individuals banding together to support each other with prayer, ritual, or teaching.
Still, a lot of it goes on, and with good reason. For when all is said and done, there are some aspects of spiritual growth, such as learning to see one's ego in proper perspective, that benefit greatly from the kind of feedback that only a conscious group can provide. Humans are social animals, after all, and it's hard to get a handle on the universe at large if you're stuck off by yourself in some fifth-floor walkup. Thus anyone who is really serious about such growth may sooner or later be faced with group work as a real option.
To take an example from my own life, I know that I didn't have the first clue about Kabbalah until I joined in a group study of it. There, the verbal explanations of a teacher who knew more than I, as well as the questions raised by others that I might never have thought of, helped pull an abstruse subject into the realm of understanding. In similar fashion, seeing the different reactions of others in the group to shared experiences helped me gain insights into how we each carry our own psychological baggage with us.
In this issue of GNOSIS we take a look at a variety of groups both past and present, with the hope that each of their different emphases will illuminate another facet of the phenomenon. Our gaze ranges from the ghetto to mid-America, and from late medieval times right up to the present. And it should become apparent that some of these groups entail more of a sense of community than others.
Community is one of those words that gets bandied around in reference to all sorts of things these days - including computer bulletin boards, sexual orientation, and retirement condos - until it has almost lost all meaning. While it is often used to refer to a widespread group of people with common interests and identities who keep in at least nominal touch with each other (perhaps via something as remote as modem or phone), what is often forgotten is that the traditional meaning of community in times past included a geographical rootedness where people were, in effect, stuck with each other. As with the late lamented institutions of marriage and family, social pressure and inertia strongly influenced people to work things out and find some kind of peace or compromise over their personal conflicts. In this way the sense of community, of "us," could survive.
Two obvious casualties of ever-increasing American mobility have been the very longevity and continuity that made community something hard-won and real. No amount of enthusiasm for the "virtual community" of an on-line computer forum can eliminate the fact that "virtual" is the operative word here: an uncanny facsimile of community that people can easily pop into and out of. Alas, as with that other ubiquitous word "movement," what passes for community these days all too often boils down to a few self-appointed spokespersons spinning an ideology of group identity, setting an agenda, and presuming to speak for scores of other people, few of whom may actually know each other by name or face.
Given this situation, we should all the more prize the concrete attempts at face-to-face community that arise with some spiritual consciousness. Some of these are discussed in this issue. The paradox, of course, is that the very sense of collective identity fostered by groups or wider communities often ends up being an even more unwieldy exercise in ego inflation. One is no longer little "me" but has become part of a bigger "us" that vows to save the world by soliciting everyone else to join it (or by eliminating everyone who disagrees). Escaping the confines of your own ego only to succumb to the illusions of a group ego, you are in a bigger jam than ever.
To prevent such cultish stagnancy, those of us involved in spiritual groups need to be very aware of our own intentions and behavior at every moment; we also need to be clear about the role of leadership in the group. It is all too easy to get sidetracked into jockeying for front-row seats or for the feeling of self-importance that comes from gaining the group's approval, all the while thinking that one is growing. By the same token, the group's leader may be seduced by the temptation to cast others as followers, especially when people often seem so willing to take on that role.
The only way to avoid such traps is continual observation and evaluation. For instance, self-examining questions like "Why am I in this group? What do I really want? Does my behavior reveal some impulse that I'm barely conscious of?" are good to pose from time to time. Looking at the group as a whole, it is worth reflecting, "Are we immersed in group politics? Have we lost sight of our true purpose? Are we perpetuating cult-like relations with each other and those outside the group?" If things seem to get out of whack with the group leadership or group dynamics, you should speak up - the worst that can happen is expulsion from the group, in which case you are better off gone anyway. However, if the group is basically healthy, such feedback may be a vital help in keeping things on course.
All of this is easier said than done, of course, and the very act of working on this issue of GNOSIS has dramatized some of these questions for us as we've struggled to meet deadlines and maintain our equilibrium. Groups and Communities has proved to be one of our least abstract topics here at the office, and we suspect it may turn out the same way for you as well.
(c) copyright 1992 by Jay Kinney