In another post, I listed every single Buddhist meditation group in Portland, Oregon. Today’s post is both a counterpart to that one, and also a more general piece that speaks to meditation communities in any location. Here’s the rough outline of this post:
1) The major reasons why meditation groups are worthwhile
2) What to look for in a meditation group (objectively)
3) What to look for in a meditation group (subjectively)
4) Concluding challenge
As a note, I use the words community, group and sangha interchangeably — a collection of people that gather together to deepen their meditation/spiritual practice (internally, with each other, and in the world).
Why Go To A Meditation Group?
Some people are naturally drawn to community, relationship and connecting with others. When those folks get into meditation or spiritual practice, finding a group to drop into will seem like the most obvious thing in the world.
Other people, like myself, are naturally drawn to introversion, and need a pretty good “why” to make the effort to get out there.
The reasons listed in this section on “why” will help the extroverts frame how it’s good for their practice, and help the introverts understand why it’s worth their while.
1) Develop Community with others on the path
It’s tempting to see meditation as a solitary activity. Something we do by ourselves for a few minutes (or hours!) a day, and then try to weave into our lives.
However, meditation is actually just one part of a much greater path towards well-being. Some other big components include living with integrity/ethics, and also deepening connection with “spiritual friends.”
As modern science has shown us, there’s something very hardwired into our biology about finding well-being through community. We are very much a social species, and no amount of introverted-tendencies, prolonged solitude or intensive meditation will override the benefit of connecting with like-hearted individuals.
More specifically, spiritual/meditative community provides encouragement when things are tough, celebration when things are going well, and countless opportunities for inspiration and deepening curiosity.
Sometimes this happens directly, like other people actually saying something to you. However, it more often comes indirectly, like sitting in a group, getting to share ourselves openly, hearing where others are at, tuning into our natural empathy & care, and feeling understood not because someone hears what we say but because they experience life the same way.
Being involved in community is both an incredible aid to deepening our practice, and also in-and-of-itself an enriching & enlivening activity.
2) Receive Teachings & Instruction
In some ways, the path of meditation and spiritual practice is very straightforward—greet every moment, person & internal state with deep equanimity and fierce love.
Of course, while this instruction is very simple, it’s also extremely challenging – so how to do it?
There’s many ways to learn the nuances of the “how,” but one of the most efficient and powerful avenues is to learn from others who are engaging with the same questions (i.e. a meditation group!).
Every meditation group has a different lesson to offer; and, even within a single group, different members have varying strengths that shine into the community. Here’s some of the main offerings to look for:
1) In-depth meditation instruction.
2) Deepening relationship & integrating practice into daily life.
3) Textual learning & developing an accurate map of the path.
4) A balance of the above.
Sometimes a good a strategy is just to find a group that feels like a good fit, and soak in the lessons they have to offer. Other times, it can be helpful to hone in on what you’re really needing in your practice, and seeking out a group (or teacher) that really shines in that particular aspect.
Any way you look at it, there are potent lessons to be learned from connecting with others on the path.
3) Anything else you can think of
Get enlightened? Get a date? Learn something new? It’s better than sitting around watching TV? Maybe you’re not even sure why, but there’s a vague sense that it would be good for you. Any reason that gets you in the door works!
Although, why I most like the “anything else you can think of” option is because it gives you space to put your why in your own words.
For you, what is the most worthwhile reason to participate in a meditation/spiritual group?
4) What to do when you know you “should” go but don’t want to
I’ll keep this brief. What worked for me was shifting my mindset. I decided that my practice was not meditation, being kind or any other classic reason. Instead, my practice was showing up to sangha every week.
Of course, the other things still happened, but when I made simply showing up that big of a priority, it started to happen regularly, and before I knew it, going to group became a habit that I didn’t have to convince myself of every time.
What To Look for In A Meditation Group (Objectively)
So you’re convinced of the value of going to a group, but which one to choose? In Portland there are 29 different communities, with many of those having multiple different groups throughout the week. The amount of options can be overwhelming!
I’ll say this over and over, but you really just have to take the leap, and try a few out. Maybe you hear about something through word-of-mouth. Maybe you just randomly pick one. Whatever gets you in the door!
However, once you get in the door, it’s helpful to have a framework for discerning the “good” ones from the “not so good ones.” As we’ll get to later, a lot of this is subjective, and is just about the personal fit.
However, there are two essential “objective” criteria I look for in every community. If these aren’t present, I usually move on:
1) Strong Ethics / Integrity
Along with many other spiritual traditions, the core value of Buddhism is non-harming (aka kindness).
When you visit a group, notice if a sense of non-harming is present in the group vibe, or at least in the facilitator. Is there a sense of kindness and respect shared among the members, even if they are challenging each other?
Also pay close attention to issues like sexuality, power, inclusion & safety. Does it seem like these are being handled with care and integrity?
And, as none of us are perfect, there are inevitably moments in most communities where non-harming in breached in some way. How is that handled? Is it named, addressed, and amends tried to be made, or is ignored? It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker if something happens, but how it’s handled is ultra important.
Mostly, just pay close attention to how it feels to be there – on some level, we’re actually pretty good at noticing people’s integrity and ethical standards.
In my opinion, this is the most essential quality to look for in a group—ethics and integrity are the absolutely foundation of meditation & spiritual practice!
2) Stays True to the Tradition
One reason I advocate joining a group that’s part of a lineage, like Buddhism or Hindu Yoga, is that there is a time-tested tradition to cross-reference. The instructions don’t just rely on the charisma of one teacher, but rather thousands of years of dedicated practitioners.
In other words, I like to notice if what a group is teaching is aligned with the greater tradition.
For beginners, this can be really challenging to discern. But as you read/study more, have more dialogues, visit more groups and have your own experiences, you start to gain a greater sensitivity to what the tradition is saying.
Although, to give a general answer for what this means for Buddhist groups, I usually look out for how they handle the core teaching of awakening.
Basically, the tradition says that the deepest well-being doesn’t come through anything external, like jobs, relationships, travel, sex, good experiences and so on. Instead, it comes through the internal processes of letting go and finding contentment & boundless love no matter what’s happening.
Importantly, as non-monastics, this doesn’t mean we’re supposed to give up or reject those things. Instead, we just understand them for what they are – pleasant parts of the human experience that can be appreciated but are also not the deepest happiness.
I always look at how sincerely communities/teachers engage with this teaching on the deepest happiness. It is absolutely accessible to modern meditators, even if only 10% of the way; but, for it to get there and beyond, it’s really really helpful to have communities make it the priority that the tradition does.
Whether it’s dialogue around the overall goal or anything else, I just find it important to notice how consistent a group is with the tradition they align with.
What To Look for In A Meditation Group (Subjectively)
In the previous section, I mentioned some universal things to look out for in a potential group. However, there are also many personal, subjective things we could be seeking.
Below is a list of potential factors that could guide our choice of meditation/spiritual community. None of these are right/wrong, or better than any others. You’ll also likely find that what you’re looking for actually changes a bit over time.
Please note that no community is ever going to perfectly meet all your wishes. However, it’s very powerful to get clear on why you’re going to a group, and what qualities of that group will most arouse your interest, inspiration and lifeforce.
In turn, I encourage you to take this list lightly, and use it more as a general guide to knowing what are the variables to look out for. Maybe pick 1-3 that seem like they are particularly important to you. And then perhaps go check out a handful of groups, and see what most resonates.
Ultimately, let your actual felt experience be your guide.
- Amount of attendees. Does a typical gathering have closer to 5 people or 100? Some people prefer to be anonymous. Others prefer a smaller, intimate environment where you get to really know people.
- Typical experience level of attendees. Is the room full of long-term, experienced practitioners, or is it mostly beginners dipping their feet in the waters? Or maybe somewhere in between?
- Teacher/facilitator. Some groups are peer led, with leadership duties alternating between attendees. Others are led by facilitators/teachers, who come with varying levels of experience & various specialities. Do you have any particular preference when it comes to the teacher? Also worth considering is their accessibility – how important is it for you to have available for dialogue, questions, personal guidance, etc?
- Opportunities for engagement with others. Some groups have virtually no engagement with others – you can go for a year and never say a word to anyone. Others have discussion or little opportunities for interaction, but it feels hard to make real connections. Others have a container & consistent enough attendees that you can actually develop real community. Some have activities offered outside of the formal meditation, like potlucks or outings. How important is developing real relationships to you?
- General Orientation – Every group has different focal points – social justice, meditation, integration of mediation into life, building community, exploring the greater path/world view/philosophy. Is a particular emphasis or orientation important to you? This often spills into the itinerary for a typical gathering – how much time is allocated to the various activities, like meditation, discussion, lecture, etc.
- Source Material – do they look at the classic texts, modern books, blend together several wisdom traditions, focus more on basic principles or personal experiences? Do any of these particularly speak to you?
- Tradition / Lineage. For Buddhist groups, there are usually three major choices: Theravada/Vipassana, Zen or Tibetan/Vajrayana. However, even within those are are significant differences! It’s helpful just to check out several groups and get a feel for different traditions, and what connects most.
- Demographics. Some people like groups of similar ages, genders, backgrounds, etc. and others a lot of diversity. Are any of these important to you, one way or the other?
- Location. Some people will drive 45 minutes for the right fit. Others prefer to focus on what’s nearby and more feasible for their lifestyle.
There’s a lot of information here, but the important point is to actually show up to some groups, notice what clicks and see from the inside-out how it can be worthwhile.
So this is essentially the challenge:
Visit 1-3 different groups, and afterword ask yourself these questions:
1) Why would I come back to this group?
2) Why wouldn’t I come back to this group?
When it doubt, lean towards #1.