In my early years on the spiritual path, I was intimately connected to a large, spread-out spiritual organization. For short periods now and again, I lived as part of that community; at other times, I lived apart, in one city or another, but spent time with my spiritual comrades and regularly took part in group practice.
For a few of those years, I was even employed by that organization. That period of time (the late ’60s to mid-’70s) was transformative, inspiring, and for the most part joyful. I’ve been grateful ever since for the gift of community; it was a powerful launching pad for subsequent decades of spiritual development.
But the time came when I realized that I had to pull away. The organization I belonged to was by no means an oppressive cult like some other groups that attracted followers back then, but, as with all organizations both secular and spiritual, there was a palpable sense of peer pressure, especially among the inner circle of devotees and those who represented the group in public.
Holding Tight to Spiritual Treasures
Doubt and dissent were tolerated to a certain degree but not always welcome, and speaking up carried the risk of ostracism. In time, the community in which I’d thrived came to seem rigid, conformist, and exclusionary. Of course, it might always have been that way, and I hadn’t been able to see it, or perhaps my subconscious had calculated that the blessings outweighed the discomfort. In any case, I started to feel insulated and constrained, so I held tight to the spiritual treasures I’d acquired, discarded what no longer served me, and set out to expand my horizons.
I’ve been freelancing ever since. Independence suits me. I could not have learned what I have, or grown as I have, if I’d stayed within the boundaries of a single community. Now I have friendly, fruitful connections with several institutions. I draw from and explore the vast terrain of useful teachings of many reputable sources and have rewarding conversations with wise individuals from an array of traditions.
And yet, all these years later, I sometimes miss community. I miss the intimacy, the stability, the consistency, the sense of family, the camaraderie, the belonging—even as I know unequivocally that I could never do it again.
Forging a Unique Path
That’s how it is on the sometimes bewildering, always paradoxical spiritual path. We’re on our own yet can’t do it alone. We each have to make our own choices and forge our own unique way, but we also need teachers, guides, mapmakers, and companions. That’s why every tradition advises its followers to come together in a community of brethren. Buddhists call it sangha, one of Buddhism’s three indispensable “jewels” (which also include the Buddha—the teacher—and dharma—the teachings).
Trusted companions provide more than good company; they offer protection, comfort, support, advice, information, and other vital assets. Savvy ones ask sharp questions, keep us honest, and help us to avoid getting stuck. They set us straight when we wonder if all this spiritual stuff is worth the time and effort. They rekindle our commitment when we slack off. They turn us on to new ideas and practices. They bust us when we get overly excited about some new spiritual bauble—or too cynical when something promising comes along. They challenge our assumptions. They help us stay on course; they puncture our assumptions, shatter our illusions, and help us make sense of our own thoughts, perceptions, and feelings.
So, good companions are essential on the spiritual path. But what about the formal institutions where we’re most likely to find those companions? Well, that’s a dicier issue. Organizations have personalities of their own, greater than the sum of the individuals in them, and membership can be as vexing as being part of an extended family. Paramahansa Yogananda called spiritual organizations “hornet’s nests.” Yet, because it was necessary, he created one, ran it, grew it, and presided over it until his death.
That spiritual institutions are a mixed bag of blessings and pitfalls should not be surprising since all organizations reflect—and in some respects magnify—the strengths and weaknesses of the human beings in them. What’s also true is this: How we perceive and respond to institutional dynamics reflects our own needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. What seems like utopia to one member can be another’s nightmare.
Americans are ambivalent joiners. We respect those who serve their affiliations faithfully—and we see compliance with institutional power as a weakness. We value loyalty—and we’re wary of blind obedience. We honor fidelity—and we celebrate free spirits and rebels. We love team spirit—and we richly reward free agents. Our founding fathers were insurgents, after all, and one of our archetypes is the solitary cowboy with a compass all his own.
Spiritual organizations are like packaged tours. They can make a journey safer and more comfortable, focused, consistent, and orderly. They can provide ready guidance and lift the burden of decision-making that might drive us crazy on our own. But tours can also be inhibiting, irritating, and restrictive; they can waste our time with pointless activities and prevent us from having more rewarding experiences. Spiritual communities also offer comfort, order, and certainty. Who doesn’t like ready-made answers to complex mysteries? But certainty can come at a cost. As the legendary theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, Ph.D., is sometimes credited with saying, “I’d rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
Here are five things to keep in mind as you contemplate the pros and cons of membership:
1. Don’t Expect Perfection
Because they’re created, administered, and populated by imperfect humans, all spiritual institutions display a certain amount of rigidity, dogmatism, conformity, infighting, bureaucratic farce, and questionable policies. The question is, how much can you tolerate? If you hold out for perfection, you might end up living the Groucho Marx joke by refusing to join any club that would have you as a member.
2. Maintain Your Standards
On the other hand, if you put up with too much or slip into denial about a group’s shortcomings, you might end up betraying your own values and setting yourself up for a mighty disillusionment.
3. It’s Not All or Nothing
Almost all spiritual organizations allow for varying degrees of involvement. As in the classic image of an atom, they have orbits that represent levels of commitment and participation. The orbits closest to the nucleus, where the power resides, are thought to offer greater access to spiritual opportunity. But it’s also true that the nearer you get to that core, the more that will be demanded of you and the less freedom you’ll have. Find your most comfortable location, and try to remain open to moving closer or further from the nucleus as you see fit.
4. Watch for Red Flags
If you’re involved with a spiritual organization, or contemplating joining one, look out for warning signs, such as:
- Too much pressure to conform in thought or behavior
- Feeling you can’t really be yourself
- Policies or practices that violate your ethical standards
- Unreasonable demands on your money, time, or energy
- Too much fanaticism
- Us/them attitude toward outsiders
- Arrogant or self-important leadership
- Excessive competition among members
- Repression of dissent and constructive criticism
- Lack of self-reflection and acknowledgment of mistakes
5. Distinguish the Baby from the Bathwater
If you decide you must leave an organization, it’s vital to decide what to take with you and what to leave behind. That means carefully discerning what is spiritually useful and what is not, what is beneficial and what might be harmful, what serves your needs and upholds your values and what does not. Take what works and leave the rest.
Do It Yourself
When all is said and done, some people want spiritual companionship but don’t feel comfortable within a formal organizational structure. If you’re one of them, one option is to start your own group. Why not round up some like-minded souls and create a private sangha? Before you and your spiritual chums get started, discuss some important issues: What’s your main purpose? How will you spend your time together? Will you have a predetermined agenda or wing it? Set a format or go with the flow? Do you want members who reflect a diversity of spiritual orientations or a uniform outlook? Are there rules? Guidelines? How will decisions be made? How often will you meet? How many members is ideal (not too many, not too few)? How will you handle conflicts and disagreements?
There’s a lot to consider if you decide to build your own small community. If you don’t do it carefully and deliberately, you might create a hornet’s nest.
Strictly speaking, no one seeking the peace and joy of spiritual realization needs the trappings of an organization. After all, the true abode of the Divine is in the heart, not in a building, a set of procedures, or a membership list. This is especially true in today’s world where easy access to spiritual teachings makes self-sufficiency more viable than ever. As the beat philosopher Alan Watts once said, “The religious attitude appropriate to our time is not one of clinging to rocks but of learning how to swim.”
Ah, but a spiritual organization that fits your needs and personality might just help you develop the strength and skill you need to swim on your own. And every swimmer needs a rock to cling to when the seas get rough. At times along the way, a formal institution might be exactly the rock you need. Just make sure to keep your head above water.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.