Sangha

Tonight I’m participating in a group, or “sangha,” that meets regularly to meditate. Like Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of people coming together to practice. Whether this speaks to the transformative alchemy of multiples or the importance of learning to put up with the guy with sniffles, or both, is hard to say.

Many sanghas are formed by the regular meditation periods held at the various Buddhist centers, but others are less formal groups of ordinary people who assemble on their own. I’m surprised to learn how prevalent these gatherings are—at the coffee shops and Buddhist establishments I visit around campus I pick up half a dozen little flyers advertising the different sanghas in the area. Some groups cater to a specific demographic, or life-experience, such as age range or gender or interest.

Others, like the one I select, are more general. Anyone who wants to meditate is invited to this one. It is held once a week, hosted in the office space of a nonprofit organization during off-hours. When I show up, about 20 people are already sitting cross-legged on the carpet in a big circle. The majority here are males who appear to be in the first few years after college. They have that particular dishevelment of young men newly introduced to the regular work week. A smattering of young women breaks up the monotony of bedhead.

I join them on the floor. For several minutes, as we wait for a few stragglers to arrive, I feel exceedingly awkward wedged shoulder-to-shoulder between two strange boys. I fear that at any moment someone will pull out an empty bottle, place it in center, give it a whirl and I will be forced to endure the most uncomfortable game of Spin the Bottle known to humankind. Thankfully, this does not happen. The facilitator, a young man whose crisp shirt lends him an air of authority, announces that it is time to begin. He claps together two wood rods and everyone settles into stillness.

The soft focus of my gaze falls mid-circle; I can make out my fellow meditators along the periphery. It’s a new challenge to see those bodies, but not let them distract me from the task. I watch my thoughts approach and recede, resisting the urge to let them sweep me away. I start to enjoy the rhythm of my thinking, how the ideas rise and fall, rise and fall, like the surface of water.

I’m so relaxed. I’m floating on the sea. I think of the popular Buddhist analogy of the ocean: each of us is like a wave. We think of ourselves as distinct and separate entities but we come from, and return to, a common source. At this exact second, I understand this sentiment not just as an objective concept; I feel the absolute truth of it at the core of my being.

But it’s too big a thought and suddenly it scares me. A tingle of panic moves from my belly to my chest. It begins to block the air to my lungs. I think I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying. I’m on the verge of grabbing the guy on my left and begging for help. He will understand. He will tell me to lie down and put my feet up. Everyone will stop meditating and come to my aid. One will fetch a cup of water; another will say it’s going be fine. The thought of the aid from my fellow meditators is enough to slow my pulse. I hang on another few seconds and the anxiety eases. I take a deep breath and the lightheadedness lifts. I’m going to be okay. Tears of gratitude come to my eyes; they don’t even know how much they helped me.

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12 thoughts on “Sangha

  1. I have this huge, ear to ear grin on my face, just thinking about your most uncomfortable game of Spin the Bottle known to humankind. I think it will come back to hit me now and then. I love it.

    I also understand your moment of panic. I have experienced it in deep meditation before, at least once. Now, mostly, I just find myself calmed and peaceful and unafraid (mostly during Mass). Enjoy your meditations.

  2. when we had a running crown wildfire burn over our place two years ago that left over 55 k in damage on our personal property, massive cleanup and left dead and dying animals that we had to live with, if it wasnt for those who came forward to “catch me” during the time afterward, some who were complete strangers, I would have been in a constant state of anxiety and despair… like those negative feelings you experienced while you were mediating – getting “lost” in all of it – it wasnt money that could help you or I, it was humane compassion that we needed to pull us up out of the depths and to move again…

    so I was smiling when you stated you were able to continue on, because you reminded yourself that others would understand and help. Humanity is a wonderful thing.

    • Hi Janice, And what’s funny about people “being there” for us is that sometimes the people who help us the most don’t even realize that they’ve helped us. I’m glad the people around you were able to support you during a difficult time. That truly is the most holy, beautiful thing in my opinion.

  3. Corinna, you have woven here very different things….which is what life is about, after all. One thing that struck me with a knowing sense of humor was “that particular dishevelment of young men newly introduced….” Priceless. We helped for a couple years with a church plant in Hollywood, and it seems that there was quite a lot of that particular dishevelment in attendance… 🙂
    The thought that set off your panic….WOOF!!! Absolute truth is right! Though I’m guessing that you didn’t come across it here for the first time….Would that we would all get that. As it is, we Americans are much too individualistic and fiercely independent (don’t you dare correct me on this!! 🙂 )
    In Christianity, it is the “Body of Christ,” the truth that we are all really one and part of one, performing as we were each designed….a truth which is little practiced though spoken of with much lip service…….sigh 😦

    • Hi Walt, I can see that monotheism in general helps nudge us toward that understanding of “oneness,” of being a part of the greater whole and I found that Buddhist practices helped me feel this on a deep level at times. I guess that’s sort of ironic because Buddhism doesn’t necessarily have the monotheistic God concept, but it helped me understand it more. Sometimes that understanding felt great and sometimes it really freaked me out.

      • There seems to be an innate sense of identity with all of mankind, and I think that comes as part of human hard wiring from God. If that’s true, then any religion, to the extent that it comes close to truth, will have insight on that oneness. In the grand scheme of things, as I understand it, that (ideally) begins with our sense of oneness within the family, then the larger community and then….
        Now, if someone would just explain that to Congress!… 😦 (sigh!)

  4. I would contribute that this “sense of oneness” goes far beyond any monotheism and any organized religion. For me, it is a much greater concept…..one that I strive to be a part of even though I have realized that I am atheistic and non-religious.

    By the way! A happy new year to all of you out there. Peace to you all. Merrill

  5. One of the remarkable things about humanity is this near-universal sense of being connected, regardless of religious (or non-religious) belief. As a couple of others have said, there is a strong feeling of “something not being right” when we feel cut off from that connection. We can choose how we attribute that sense (e.g. the Body of Christ, the Buddhist Ocean, or a simple, innate urge), but we certainly can’t deny it exists.

  6. Tim,
    Total agreement with your statement! I guess this is why atheists are forming churches….as we commented on in a much earlier posting. Connections and belonging and being a part of that “oneness” which we can experience……not necessarily being with other people, but being “with the world,” I guess I would say for want of better words. MET

  7. Hi folks, I’ve been learning to practice mindful eating, and to that end have been following a book with that title, written by a Zen master. One of the meditations is called lovingkindness toward the body. It’s simply starting at your feet and going up, focused on your breathing and on the out breath, saying “thank you, feet, for…” filling in the blank with whatever comes into your thought. Today I had an overwhelming sensation of gratitude toward my body and a sense of the parts helping each other out to be a whole together. It reminds me of what Corinna has recounted here. The connectedness of all of life is the one of the holiest of things, isn’t it?
    Love,
    Shelley

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