The Importance of "Sangha"
In Sanskrit and in Buddhist philosophy, the word "Sangha" means "community", typically a spiritual community. In the Upaddha Sutta, it is said that "Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie." (To which the Blessed One replied), "Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path." (as translated by Pali, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html)
We know the importance of social connection - to family, friends, neighbors, community - and yet, somehow many of us live in isolation from each other - without a support network. Research is showing how important social connections are to both our physical health and our mental and emotional well-being. People with strong social networks (and I don't mean a bunch of Facebook friends) tend to live longer, healthier lives. According to APS Healthcare, "While there continues to be discussion over what actually defines a community, for many people it is a sense of cohesiveness among a group of people. For generations, an individual’s community served a vital role in terms of offering camaraderie and acting as a support system. With our society moving at a faster and more detached manner due to technology, busy schedules and the frequency at which we change jobs, homes and locations, it makes it harder and harder to feel any sense of community. It is too easy to become isolated in our homes and yet isolation tends to beget a sense of loneliness and depression not to mention the breakdown that can occur in communities due to a detachment from others—increased violence, substance abuse, mental illness and so forth." With the rise in popularity and access to social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter - the convenience of connecting online often leaves us feeling dis-connected. I have definitely experienced this in my own life. I am of the generation that still remembers growing up without cellphones, texting and Facebook. Having gone through divorce, job loss and separation from my community, I longed for the kind of sharing and communication I experienced when I was younger with my group of peers when we would get together to dance, watch movies or cook with each other - share meals, or gather socially to hike in the mountains, or to pray in a sweatlodge (inipi) or pipe ceremony. Simply connecting online does not offer this kind of face-to-face connection. Not to mention that it completely leaves out the element of touch - wrapping your arms around a friend in need or simply placing your hand on their back. In fact, the power of touch could be a whole separate blog post (coming soon?)! In yoga, we talk about the illusion of separateness that causes dis-ease and how to help individuals achieve Whole-ness and connection - to themselves, to community, and to a higher power. I think that one reason yoga has become so popular in the United States is because it helps us to "reconnect". The word Yoga literally means "to join" or "to yoke". The practice of yoga - including meditation and mindfulness - helps reconnect us with our own Divinity, but also with each other. By recognizing our Divinity and the Divine in one another, we recognize that we are also intimately connected. Not only does the practice of yoga offer this connection but joining a yoga class often includes bonding with other like-minded individuals in your community. Recently I met with my own community meditation group in Salisbury and we discussed sustainability and "eco-consciousness" and what it means to be guardians of this planet we all share. We talked about interacting with the most needy members of our community, like the homeless, and we also talked about caring for our environment and raising food in a humane and sustainable way. If we are indeed going to create a sustainable world - we must first care about our community - our neighbors on this planet we share together, as well as the animals and plants with whom we share this earthly home. The way forward is not through divisiveness and hatred but by sharing and working together to solve our planet's and our people's greatest needs.