Friday, January 22, 2010

Dysfunctional Spiritual Communities - Ever Been in One?

Irisha over at An Appropriate Response had a great post about the potential pitfalls of being a member of a spiritual community, or any group for that matter. She writes how she came to realize the value of community recently, but also the troubles that can come when you don't stay focused and fresh as individuals and as a group. Keeping the beginner's mind together I'd call it.

Here are some of the traits that I noticed a group could develop that can take it into a different direction than the one intended from the start:

* Being nice - syndrome: Socializing can take over and overshadow the initial purpose for which the group is created. People start getting to know each other, get comfortable with the ideas of others and themselves, develop friendships and …new attachments. To help each other grow we need to be open to fuelling our practice by dealing with whatever comes up when the Pandora’s box is open. Conflicts? This, too. I believe a teacher can help in a situation like that by rattling the cage now and then and bringing in the element of discomfort and uncertainty.

* Rubbing the wounds - syndrome: Groups can help us notice our neuroses and work through them; they can help us heal. Groups can also amplify our neuroses by sustaining our ego and feeding it. We can get stuck in exchanging our stories rather than moving beyond them.

* Us vs them – syndrome: While the underlying intentions of a particular group/community might be those of integration and inclusion, the vocabulary used in a group and the sense of sharing something that is unique to this group can contribute to creating the us and them - attitude: us Buddhists vs them non-Buddhists, us evolutionaries against everybody else, us men vs women in men’s groups, etc.

Having spent nearly a decade in my current zen center, and also having been a part of a team that created and developed a non-profit education organization together, I've seen all three of these at work. "Being nice" is especially troubling because it leads so easily to so many other problems as people bury disagreements, lose a sense of freedom to express themselves, and eventually either give up membership or explode in anger and rage.

In addition the the three categories Irisha provided, I would like to add a few more. As someone who would like to see more community in my neck of the woods, and also someone who sees the online world as having some potential to be another community, I think it's valuable to explore the ways in which groups - especially spiritual groups - function in healthy ways and not so healthy ways. This post is focused on the unhealthy, but I can envision future posts about healthy communities, and in some ways, the post I wrote yesterday about children in Buddhist communities is pointing towards one aspect of a healthy community (i.e. it's cross-generational).

So, here are a few other issues I have seen that greatly impact the energy and focus of groups:

1. Co-dependence Syndrome - Not to be confused with Buddha's teachings on interdependence and co-origination. Co-dependence is referring to those beliefs and behaviors that create unbalanced relationships between members of a group that have, at their core, spoken or unspoken demands that are basically non-negotiable without creating serious conflicts. For example, the teacher or leader who expects a student or small group of students to do all the work needed to sustain the organization when these same people also have jobs, families, and other issues to take care of. Another example is when students come to rely on a teacher, or more experienced members of their spiritual community for answers to everything in their lives. Should I get up at 4 am every morning for group zazen even though I'm falling asleep at work everyday? Should I eat more tofu - is that spiritual? These may seem like stupid questions, but I've seen this kind of behavior before, and it's indicative of co-dependent relationships where one side has given up the basic reasoning skills people have because they believe the other side (teacher, elder, etc.) will give them all the answers to their problems.

2. Expansionist Syndrome - So, you have this wonderful community. People are doing great things and learning so much. And then you go and say, "We have to bring in more! More people must experience what we are experiencing!" Now, to some extent, the lifeblood of any organization is maintaining and developing membership. However, when the focus of the group becomes all about expansion, that's when the trouble hits. Much has been said about Genpo Roshi's "Big Mind" work and his center in Salt Lake City. In my opinion, one of the biggest missteps there was an over-emphasis on expanding the reach of the Big Mind programs to the point where money and power overtook the original healthy impulse. When you need exponentially more money to fund a project, it tends to take over, and the power within an organization, which before may have been more healthily distributed shifts towards those the money and those who are producing the "products" that bring in the money. Healthy expansion within a spiritual organization takes time, and is done so in accordance to the ethical teachings of the tradition the group represents. When almost everything goes up for sale, in order to "spread the gospel," you know that those ethics have been tossed out the window.

3. Perfectionism Syndrome - Things are going well. People keep coming back. They respond positively. Disagreements are handled respectfully. Finances are good. But we lost two members last year. What happened? How can we get them back? Was it something someone said or did? There's no excuse for people feeling bad here.

This kind of thinking is troubling because no matter what, someone in any group, at any time, might decide it's time to go. And maybe it WAS something that was said or done that triggered it, but maybe that trigger was unavoidable, or simply an excuse for an action that was coming anyway. People come and go in spiritual communities like anywhere else. Sometimes, there are real grievances that need to be addressed. And other times, the person's stay was over, they needed something else, or they're confusion about life lead them to leave. Bending over backwards to keep everyone happy is a certain sign of dysfunction in any community, and especially in a spiritual community, where the teachings presented are often designed to push discomfort to the surface.

Overall, it's really important to remember our intentions for joining a spiritual community in the first place. Sure, a sense of belonging and shared values are probably high on the list. But I'd also guess that just as high, or even higher, is a desire to be liberated from all the screwed up ways in which you relate to the world.


Kyle Lovett said...

I agree, bending over backwards to placate everyone makes for a very dysfunctional community. It almost always turns into Us vs Them. Even our online community here, th us vs them thing is pretty evident.

Jomon said...

Great post -- such an important topic to maintain awareness on our Sanghas. We have used some materials and resources from the Alban Institute, a Christian consulting / publishing agency whose area of expertise is congregational studies. Granted, there are a lot of areas in which much of their information does not apply, but it has been quite helpful not to have to reinvent the wheel either. It's kind of fun to "translate" the materials. For those of us trying to take the pulse of our Sangha's health, it's helpful to have some idea of what to look for.

Emma said...

Interesting post, and something important to keep in mind no matter what the community we belong to. I can relate to the 'us and them' issue. I used to belong to a community following Ramana Maharshi (an Indian guru), and I felt a very strong 'us and them' vibe from this group. It really made me feel uncomfortable, because I could see this was exactly how a cult-like organisation could begin.