by Dan Donohue

As I look back on the year, there’s a theme that keeps coming up for me — the importance of community. As we emerge into what’s often referred to as the post-pandemic new normal, it’s ever more vital that we come together to support one another and work with intention to bring about the compassionate society we want to live in. The word ‘community’ is used a lot these days so I wanted to share some thoughts on what this word has come to mean for me.

When I first found my way to Buddhism and heard about the three treasures — Buddha, Dharma and Sangha — I have to admit that sangha or community didn’t really resonate with me. I came to Buddhism because I was suffering. All you other people? You’ll need to help yourselves. Well you can imagine my surprise at a ceremony for trans day of remembrance, when asked to look deep inside myself and write down what it is that I need to be resilient I had written: Community. What does that mean? How did that happen?

My initial individualist approach to Buddhism isn’t really all that surprising given the hyper-individualist society we live in. From an early age we’re told that our success or failure in life is mainly due to our own merits. I grew up in what seemed like a small family of individuals each shouldering their responsibilities and burdens as best they can in a “life’s a bitch and then you die” world (a favorite expression of my mother’s). I can’t say I was ever sold on material success being the end goal of life. I was more motivated by what you might call an existential search for meaning. You come into the world alone and die alone so it made sense that in an individualist society this search is carried out alone as well.

When I eventually found my way to Buddhism I was emotionally numb, although I only know that now in hindsight. Working with the breath helped me regain contact with my body — and in time (years really) through meditation, the walls I had built up within and around myself started to come down. I liken it to a block of ice melting. As this process unfolded, as I opened up to feeling, my compassion for others grew naturally and with that, a growing connection to sangha.

So community is what I need to be resilient. It teaches me love and inspires me to practice — to keep turning towards instead of away.

I remember finishing a meditation retreat with a feeling of profound connection and care for everyone around me. I talked to a friend about this feeling afterwards and she asked, do you think that’s love? It was a wonderful revelation for me having only identified love as more of a self-centered attachment to someone or something. In my experience, this feeling of love grows when my self-centered thoughts and concerns get dialed down or give way. And it’s what buoys me through the more tumultuous feelings of fear and anxiety that are also present in my life. Is that what I meant by naming community as a source of resilience? Yes, but there’s something more…

We face a lot of problems — racial, gender, income inequality, political polarization, climate injustice and destruction just to name a few — which can be overwhelming and debilitating. What am I to do? How can I as a white, straight, cisgendered, male solve these problems with what I have to offer? I was at a talk with Bill McKibben, author and environmental activist, and he was asked, “What’s the most important thing I can do as an individual to support the environment?” And he said, “Join a group.” On one level the answer points to the fact that we’re more powerful in numbers, which is true. And at another level, the answer points out how the question is rooted in the very viewpoint driving the climate crisis: hyper-individualism.

Hyper-individualism separates — person from nature, person from person, mind from body. We exploit what we see as an inanimate world for our own gain, cut off from both the harm that we’re doing to a living ecosystem in the present and the harm we are doing to future generations. We are cut off from each other and deprived of feelings of care, connection and love. And we’re cut off from ourselves — emotionally numb and alienated.

Coming together in community is one of the tools we can use to break down this system of individualism. On a practical level, as an individual I can show up in community and give all I can at any given time to the cause at hand. This frees me from the debilitating, and quite frankly ego-driven feeling that I need to solve the problem. I’m learning to let go of my attachment to outcomes and developing trust in community — that others will add to whatever efforts I make and together we can move things forward. It’s also helpful for us to pull back and see how community takes place across time. In this way we’re not only living by the ideals we believe in today but we are planting seeds that may grow into something larger tomorrow.

I find myself very lucky to be part of the Nalanda Institute community. Across our courses and affinity groups, I’m inspired by the integrity and sincerity of people in this community to show up and face themselves, in tenderness and care, in order to ease their suffering and the suffering of those around them. It’s this inspiration that I use when I feel like turning away from myself and plugging into social media or any of the many other distractions on offer.

So community is what I need to be resilient. It teaches me love and inspires me to practice — to keep turning towards instead of away. And in community is how we build a better world.