In previous articles, I described a quest I was on in the mid-2000s: I was looking for a set of meditation instructions that would allow me to experience the altered states of mind and advanced stages of development that Ken Wilber had described in his work. Wilber’s work suggested that the instructions I was seeking could be found in various world religions, so I spent some time checking out various branches of Buddhism and Hinduism before finding a branch of Tibetan Buddhism that was a good match for me.
I’d been involved with a number of other spiritual groups earlier in my life, as well; in my 20s and 30s, I’d participated in a couple of Unitarian Universalist congregations and a self-help organization based on Nonviolent Communication. These days, I’m not involved with any particular religion or spiritual group, but my involvement with all these groups has been an important part of my spiritual journey.
Many groups are available to provide support for your spiritual journey—from religions to spiritual movements to self-help groups. For simplicity, I’m going to call all of them spiritual groups. What all spiritual groups have in common is that they all support spiritual awakening, which I define as evolution toward greater empowerment and greater compassion.
Three Modes of Involvement in a Spiritual Path
In previous articles, I described how technology and spiritual teachers can support your spiritual journey. Technology, teachers, and groups are supportive in different ways. In using technology, you’re applying practical knowledge to help yourself awaken; when you seek a spiritual teacher, you’re using the influence of relationship; and when you seek a spiritual group, you’re using the influence of culture.
Technology, teachers, and groups represent three distinct modes of involvement in a spiritual path, in that they involve a relationship with zero people, with one person, and with many people, respectively. Of course, these modes can be mixed (and often are); for instance, you might follow a spiritual teacher while participating in a group of her followers and using her online course to learn various practices she teaches.
Benefits of Spiritual Groups
Let’s explore some of the unique ways that spiritual groups can support awakening. Some of us like to do spiritual practices alone, but many people prefer practicing with others; groups can inspire us to do our practices, can amplify the impact of our practices, and can support forms of spiritual practice that simply aren’t available when we’re practicing alone. Also, when we’re in a group with others who are walking a similar spiritual path, we’re likely to meet people who are further along on that path who can provide support and guidance as spiritual friends, mentors, and teachers. Humans are social beings, and we have important social needs—needs for social interaction, companionship, belonging, and so forth. Spiritual groups can meet these needs while also supporting our awakening. Group participation can also support us in learning the views, customs, and culture associated with a given spiritual path.
Group involvement supports both explicit learning (that is, learning via intentional study) and implicit learning (that is, learning through assimilation). In a previous article, I described how, when you’re in a student-teacher relationship, you can learn from your teacher implicitly, without even being aware that you’re learning. The same thing can happen when you’re deeply involved in a spiritual group; however, in this case, the operative force isn’t your relationship with a teacher; it’s your immersion in the culture of the group.
Because of implicit learning, cultural immersion can have a powerful influence on you, for better or worse—so consider carefully before immersing yourself in any culture. Ideally, if you’re choosing to get involved in a spiritual group, the people in that group will have values, beliefs, and skills that you respect and appreciate. Immersion in that group’s culture can help you quickly assimilate those values, beliefs, and skills.
Implicit learning supports our awakening up to a certain point; that point is the average level of development of those around us. After that point, we have to put in extra work to awaken. What this means is that if you want to leverage the power of implicit learning to develop beyond the average level of the culture at large, you’ll need to start spending time in cultures that are more highly developed than the culture at large. Spending time in spiritual groups can be one way to do this.
Finding a Spiritual Group
If you want to participate in a spiritual group but you weren’t lucky enough to be born into a group that’s a good match for you, finding the right match can take some time and energy. Look for a group with a culture that appeals to you. As with finding a teacher, a good way to start learning about a given group is by exploring its websites, books, and other published materials.
Accessing published materials is a good way to get started, but from the outside, you can’t get the full benefits of participation in a spiritual group; for that, you have to get more involved and start actually interacting with people. You will most likely do that through some form of organization. Many spiritual groups are supported by a network of local organizations; ideally, there will be one in your community, there will be some people there that you like, and there will be someone there who can serve as a spiritual friend, mentor, or teacher. If you like the leaders of your local organization, that’s even better. If a spiritual group doesn’t have a local organization nearby, it may have an online community that will work for you.
Some of your local spiritual organizations may have roots in far-away parts of the world. From a diversity perspective, this is a good thing—but it can be problematic, too. It can be hard to make sense of teachings that have been translated from another language and culture; often, a lot gets lost in translation. Metaphors that made sense in another culture may not make much sense to you.
Make sure to do some research on criticism and controversy related to groups you’re considering getting involved with. Most groups are well-intentioned, but no group is perfect and some groups are downright abusive and exploitative; you’ll want to stay away from those. Aside from obvious abuse and exploitation, a more subtle problem that can arise in spiritual groups is what I call belief installation. Belief-installing groups will gradually erode your open-mindedness and convert you into a true believer—and you won’t even notice that it’s happening! I’ll have much more to say about this in a future article.
What supports for awakening have worked best for you: technology, teachers, or groups? What has your experience with spiritual groups been like? Let us know in the comments section of this article.