Perhaps it's due to the residual trauma of being the last girl chosen for my seventh-grade softball team, but I have always been ambivalent about groups. Even during periods when I've been an enthusiastic member of various spiritual organizations, I've remained uncomfortable with certain group behaviors—the tendency that groups have to create their own self-referential culture and jargon, the sheer unwieldiness of making group decisions.
Yet, all that aside, the fact remains that nearly every great spiritual or inner-growth breakthrough of my life has in some way been inspired, triggered, or supported by practicing in a group. Ever since I sang "We Shall Overcome" at my first peace demonstration, I've adored the feeling that contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber calls the "we-space"—that state of unity and love that arises when a group of people give themselves over to selfless emotions. At such moments, the pain of separateness melts away, egos stand aside, and we are able to enter into a shared heart-space that is the deepest possible evidence of our interconnectedness. "Consciousness, which exists as all things, becomes contracted due to the differences generated by our separate bodies," says the Tantric sage Abhinava Gupta in the Tantraloka, "but it expands into oneness when [individual consciousnesses] are able to reflect back on each other." This mutual self-reflection, he goes on to say, happens when a group focuses as one—particularly in spiritual practice, but also during a performance of music or dance. (Haven't you always suspected that certain rock concerts or Mozart performances were spiritual events?)
This is a no-brainer, of course. As social creatures, humans benefit from turning our sociability to higher ends. The Buddha, after all, did make the sangha, the spiritual community, one of the three cornerstones of his path, just as Christ told his disciples, "When two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." As his words imply, a group practicing together creates a mystical field, a field of grace. The Sanskrit name for that phenomenon is satsang—usually translated as "truth-company," or being in the company of the wise. And satsang, according to several texts of yoga, is one of the great doorways to inner freedom. In the Tripura Rahasya (The Secret of the Three Cities), Ramana Maharshi's favorite Vedantic text, the sage Dattatreya tells his student, Lord Rama, "Listen! I will tell you the fundamental cause of salvation. Satsang, association with the wise, is the root cause for obliterating all suffering!"
By "association with the wise," Dattatreya meant keeping company with sages. Nowadays we use the word satsang as shorthand for any kind of program in which teaching and meditation take place, but when the yoga texts speak about satsang, they mean being with someone who is enlightened, someone whose very presence reminds you that a single wise and radiant Presence lurks inside every atom of the world. I've had teachers like that, and I have to say that there is no faster way to elevate your consciousness than hanging around with someone who knows who he or she is and who you are, and who won't let you get away with being anything less.
It's a lot to ask of a group that it carry the wisdom and conviction of an enlightened teacher. On the other hand, when you spend time with people committed to seeing each other's intrinsic greatness, you might be amazed to discover how enlightened we ordinary, garden-variety humans can be. In the past few years, I've had, and read about, so many powerful experiences of peer satsang that I'm beginning to accept that we bozos on the bus—to quote activist Wavy Gravy—do have the power to create situations that will support mutual awakening, much as the "official" wisdom teachers have historically done. In traditional Buddhist lore, the Buddha is supposed to make one more appearance in the form of a teacher called Maitreya. Maitreya means friendly or benevolent. Several contemporary writers have suggested that the Maitreya Buddha may have already appeared—in the form of the spiritual friends who come together to help enlighten one another.
Here's a small example of what I mean: Last year, meeting with three other teachers who'd never worked together before, I was awed to see our group shift in 30 minutes from mutual misunderstanding and chaos to a state of inspired synergy that let us put on a spontaneous program without a glitch. I'd often had this experience working with members of my own spiritual community. To have it with virtual strangers amazed me.
But friends who do organizational development tell me that this is not uncommon once a group agrees to put away egoic agendas in favor of finding solutions that truly serve the situation. One result, I'm told, of the infusion of spiritual values into mainstream culture has been a phenomenon called "the magic in the middle," where in the midst of a discussion, wisdom begins to surface spontaneously and people find that the group can make quantum leaps of insight.
Longtime spiritual practitioners committed to making their spiritual insights part of their secular lives have seeded a yeasty mix of contemplative practices, group dynamics, and basic yogic principles into the culture. As veterans of countless meditation or yoga-based workshops and retreats, they've come to see that satsang is both life changing and portable—that it can become a vehicle to transform the workplace as well as the family.
So, I suspect that we may be experiencing a time when the kind of deep satsang the sages referred to—the wise company that we have historically associated only with enlightened teachers—may be available in any group of practitioners who are willing to be true to their intention to grow toward a truly awake, Self-less, or God-centered state. I say this with a few strong caveats: Such peer satsangs work best when they're formed around an awake teaching—that is, around the insights of the truly wise. They work even better when there are elders in the group, people who've done enough practice and study to be able to tell the difference between group wisdom and group autosuggestion. The elders don't necessarily have to be teachers or obvious leaders. They do need to be willing to stand in what they've learned, and to speak from that wisdom.
Many of us know this from having done group meditation or yoga practice. If even a few people in the room can meditate deeply, their presence lends strength to the others. Practicing asana with someone who can do deep backbends always improves my own arch—even if the other person isn't giving instructions.
The same principle also holds true in a group that forms to discuss teachings. I'm presently leading a group of about 30 people in a nine-month course that involves several retreats and ongoing study and practice. Between retreats, members of the group meet in subgroups of three or four, either in person or by teleconference. They discuss the text we're studying; they talk about their practice and how it's affecting their lives. In several of these groups, the members have become such clear mirrors to one another's processes that just being with the group helps the members see where they're stuck in old assumptions or mental fabrications.
One woman shared that on the night her group discussed a Tantric teaching about the mind, the group created such an accurate mirror of her that she was able to see her tendencies to make negative assumptions about her son's behavior or to create her own anxieties by projecting worst-case outcomes on various situations facing her family. Since then, she says, she's been able to notice the tendency when it crops up, and she uses the wisdom of the teaching to shift out of it. She hadn't asked for advice or discussed her problem. The insight simply arose through the clarity of the group process itself.
Truth in Numbers
As is the case with meditation and asana, the more you practice satsang, the more likely you are to experience its power, and you don't have to join an existing community in order to do this. Some of the most powerful satsangs are the ones we create informally.
An informal satsang group should be small—five to seven is a good number, and you can easily form one with two, three, or even just one other person. All it takes is (1) a decision to have a spiritual dialogue, (2) some sublime and true words to spark your insight, and (3) a shared agreement on the ground rules.
Basic ground rules might be to allow no gossip, no discussion of news or sports, no replay of arguments with lovers, no blow-by-blow dissections of personal problems. This doesn't mean that members shouldn't discuss personal issues with the group, only that they do so in the context of applying spiritual insight to a life situation. However, satsang is different from therapy. In satsang, the commitment is to awaken, uplift, and enlighten yourselves and to unmask illusions. In short, the commitment is to know truth.
Start by creating a shared intention to be together in the service of spirit, for the sake of experiencing the deepest possible level of truth for a given period of time. The time commitment is important if you want your group to evolve. It's helpful, at your first meeting, to take time to discuss your shared intention, write it out, and periodically revisit it.
Then, find a teaching to study together, something that opens you up and invites truth to be in the room with you. Though chanting and meditation are satsang activities and will enhance the experience, satsang deepens through discussion.
Here's how a satsang program might go:
- Light a candle, representing the Witness, or divine awareness.
- Chant mantras or meditate together for a few minutes.
- Read your chosen passage aloud, contemplate it, and then discuss it. (See "Passage to Truth" to learn how to contemplate a passage.)
- In the conversation, aim at allowing wisdom to surface, instead of giving opinions. You might take the attitude that the wisdom inside the text is calling forth inner wisdom from each of you, and that it will reveal itself as you invite and allow it. Understand that each of you has a natural intelligence that can help bring it forth, and that wisdom can arise through any of you.
- Allow each other to speak. Listen carefully to what the other says. If an insight arises in your mind while you're listening, write it down rather than interrupt the speaker to blurt it out.
- As you listen, notice any judgments that may be arising and let them go. One friend of mine says that in listening, he tells himself that God is speaking through the other person. I find that this works well.
- Don't be afraid to challenge each other, but do it from a state of feeling connected to your awareness.
- When something is said that feels powerful and true, pause for a moment to let it sink in.
- Close with a brief meditation—perhaps simply sitting with an awareness of the movement of breath, or meditating with an insight that arose during your discussion.
Through all this, open yourself to the feeling-space of satsang, the openness or tenderness that will arise. Treasure it. When it does arise, say "Thank you." Satsang is a rarity. Some people say that it's the reason we take birth.