The Blessings of Community

It's Friday morning, April 8, 2011, and the big news is that our government is on the verge of shutting down. When the problems we face are so large and complex that we can not think our way out of them, then we need to develop a level of insight that can address what are systemic problems, and we're just not able to make this step  at this point in time. So we are all experiencing some anxiety and concern about what the future holds for us. When things fall apart, be it society's institutions or your physical body, you are faced with sickness and illness that can be crippling. So I think gridlock is a good metaphor for our country and for ourselves. You can become stuck and rigid in your response to crises in your life. When you contract in this way, it's easy to become more reactive. The fear has a way of taking over. So having a strong foundation of mindfulness meditation in your life is an important way to help you remain more open and present, even as things around you are falling apart.

People commonly think Zen has something to do with attaining some special state of mind. But Zen is much more than this. Living a Zen-inspired life is a way to clarify who you are and how you function in your society. If you are closed and reactive, you are less empathic and connected with others. If you are less connected with others, you become increasingly isolated and lonely. It's a vicious circle and any one of us can easily fall into it. So the larger truth of Zen is that this special state of mind is relational in nature. You are a social being. And when you are not attuned in this way with yourself and others, you suffer increasing isolation, loneliness and alienation.

When people come to our Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago (ZLMC), they often remark on our wonderful sense of community. This kind of community is not so common in our culture. And I believe what makes our Zen community so vital and spiritually healing is that we accept some deep paradox that allows us to hold in tension the seemingly opposite qualities of fellowship and solitude.

Because there are many different faces of community at ZLMC, it becomes a rich and textured experience. Walking through the door you experience a sense of hospitality that is welcoming and inviting. You meet people who are open and present, and this feels safe and invites you to relax and risk being more open yourself.

And then there's the food. What would community be without food? Every Tuesday night we have what we call "Zen Eats". One of our members, James Sullivan cooks an amazing supper that  you can enjoy in the company of other like-minded people. It's so pleasantly obvious when you're eating in the company of others, that I don't really need to say anything else about it.

So there are many aspects of community we could appreciate. But, as I said earlier, I believe the heart of what makes our community vital and genuine, is the kind of alchemical vessel our Zen practice creates that allows us to practice together in the deep silence of solitude while remaining connected together in fellowship.

For instance, we hold weekly meditations that are done together in silence. We hold monthly Days of Mindfulness (one-day retreats) and longer residential retreats that are held in a deep container of silence.  If you come to these you'll discover a marvelous sense of intimacy and connectedness.

If you come to a class at ZLMC, you'll always experience moments of stillness and silence within the class, amongst your fellow classmates. At ZLMC we always invite space and silence into our gatherings, because we have found through years of spiritual practice that this strengthens and honors this special sense of community.

Finally, we practice council circle at the end of all our retreats. And this also seems to provide support for the growth of community. It allows us to listen and speak from the heart to each other within this vessel of stillness that seems to enhance the feeling of safety and connectedness many feel at our center.

So I am grateful for community. It remains a mystery to me which I can not fully explain because I am myself a fairly introverted and private person by nature. Community sustains me and enriches my life beyond all measure or understanding. I'm grateful and honored to be a part of such a brave and honest group of people who are living their lives with intention, integrity and kindness.

Robert Althouse