The Power of Community

One source on the etymology of the word “community” has it related to Old French comunete meaning “reinforced by its source”.  When we access community we are, in essence, being reinforced by our source.  In this context our source can be our extended family and cultural communities – our biological source, or communities based on shared values and goals – our spiritual source.

Familial and cultural communities, reflecting our biological source, remind us of the forces shaping the early creation of our lives, our foundation or fate.   Communities based on values and goals, reflecting our spiritual source, remind us of what we want to create in our present-day lives and lead us toward destiny.  Here I am using Michael Meade’s definition of fate and destiny; fate being those things we are born into and cannot change, and destiny being what happens when we “follow our star” and live from the place of our unique self.  (Note: Our destinies extend over time and are not restricted to particular events.  Destiny is not a goal that is reached, it is a state that is lived.)

We can then break community into two main types:  communities of fate and communities of destiny.  These two types can either have a harmonious relationship to our lives, when our familial and cultural communities reflect our values and goals, or be in a state of friction, when our familial and cultural communities do not reflect our values and goals.  In either state, the communities of fate support the expression of our destiny, either directly by reflecting our goals and values or indirectly by providing a contrast from which we want to differentiate.

The power of communities of fate is in their ability to provide the fodder for growth.  They provide our life’s “set-up”, the conditions that shape us early in our lives and give us the foundation from which to grow.  Whether we experienced these conditions as positive, negative, or likely a mix of both, the communities of fate served the same purpose of setting the stage for our later life development and the unfolding of our destiny over time.  Note that in this sense communities of fate are also communities of destiny.

Whether we come from communities of fate that we can relate to, or ones that we want to differentiate from, we can all participate in communities of destiny that support and nourish our values and goals.  Communities of destiny can include professional communities, artistic communities, and spiritual communities as well as groups of friends.

The power of communities of destiny is that they directly support the unfolding of our life purpose.  They provide strength, reinforcement, clarity, and nourishment on the road of life.  They help keep us going when we encounter challenge and obstacles.

The Power of Community Ritual and Ceremony

Communities of destiny can be casual, as in a group of friends, or more intentional and systematic, as with spiritual and ceremonial communities.  When communities of destiny use tools like ceremony and ritual, they can be potent catalysts in assisting individual growth.  They do this by giving us access to a collective energy pool which can include the community members present, the ancestors, and Spirit.  Ceremonies create “containers” in which we can access support and go through change and transition.  These containers provide large energy fields that distribute energy in ways that facilitate the process of transformation and provide reservoirs of support that we may not be able to access when alone.  Imagine the difference between a container of energy that is only you verses a container that is you, everyone at the ceremony, the good and true ancestors, and Spirit in its most compassionate forms.

Ceremony and ritual are external representations and enactments of internal conditions.  They are ways of resolving psychological stress and conflict.  They can be done alone, but community is a powerful contributor to the process.  Community provides a large energy container, as mentioned above, and also provides the power of objective witnessing.  Where we are witnessed we cannot go back.  The objective witnesses hold the reality of our new, transformed way of being and hold us to that reality.  It is the difference between one person saying “this is how I am now” and one hundred people saying “yes, this is how you are now” and holding you to that new state.  The awareness of the collective provides energy and power to the process.  It also means that the individual is not left to carry the burdens of life and provide all of the energy of change on his or her own.  This makes life, and transition, easier on the individual.

The community, especially when accessing a spiritual container, can easily and benignly hold energy that is oppressive or destructive to the individual.  In the general American culture we are experiencing some effects of the loss of the use of this kind of spiritual container.  Soldiers come home with PTSD and are given few resources to manage the impact of their experience.  People accumulate stress and trauma over the course of their lives with no ritual or ceremony to transform the impact of those experiences into useful and functional energy.  We enter adulthood with an accumulation of issues and psychological complexes and take for granted this is just how it is, when in fact it is a condition largely specific to modern Western culture.  Then we seek out health care professionals that can help us manage the impact of our past retroactively instead of having systems that enable us to manage challenges and transitions as we encounter them.  We deal with the problems of life as individuals, or in one-on-one dyads with a professional.  Both of these circumstances have their place and should be utilized to whatever extent needed, but the addition of community ceremony can mitigate the extent to which we need professional care as well as provide a larger container that can assist when individual and dyadic work is not as effective.

In Western culture we have created a culture of personalized issues, issues that the individual then needs to deal with, even though most psychological issues arise from the context of some community dynamic.  There can be power in de-personalizing our psychology.  An example of this is described by Reginald Ray in Touching Enlightenment:

“It appears to be true that emotions seem especially overwhelming and frightening for us modern people because of our overly disembodied individualistic and personalistic understanding of them.  In other cultures, emotions are often understood within a much larger, less individualistic context.  For example, Malidoma Some speaks of emotions within a different, more transcendent frame of reference.  Malidoma says that when someone in his village is taken over by a strong emotion, the entire village attends to that person.  The reason is that, for the Dagara people of Malidoma’s homeland, strong emotion is never about just one person alone, but rather about the village community itself.  In his or her highly charged emotional state, a certain person is understood to be giving birth to something that the entire village needs to know and needs to address.  Beyond this, emotion is considered one of the primary ways that the ‘unseen’ or ‘other’ world of the ancestors–the transcendent source of life, well-being, and wisdom–transmits needed, life-giving information to the human community.

Vajrayana Buddhism articulates a similar perspective.  When strong emotion erupts within us, it is regarded–in its own nature–as beyond ego and inherently pure.  This means that it arises from a realm beyond ego–the buddha nature–it cuts through our ego stability and desire for control, and it invites us to contemplate the wisdom that is contained within it.  Hence, in the Vajrayana, practitioners invite the chaos of emotions and attend to them with meditative presence and openness.”

The Dagara people lead a highly ritualized and intentional community life.  For those interested in learning more about the Dagara people and their customs I recommend the book Welcoming Spirit Home by Sobonfu Some.

For people living in the Seattle area, the community High Seat ceremony is an opportunity to engage in a community environment for transformational and healing purposes.  The High Seat holds a potent and compassionate container for the transformation of energy.  We can bring our troubles to the High Seat and lessen the burdens on our individual psyches.  See the Community Ceremony page for more information on the High Seat and how to attend.