Spiritual Direction about Community and Love
Spiritual Director (SD): Please come in and sit. Not often do I get a seeker from Texas.
Seeker: I come seeking spiritual help in regard to two specific concerns.
SD: Please tell me about these concerns.
Seeker: The first is about community. I been told that having a community is essential for emotional and spiritual growth and that this community should be intentional, self aware, and trusting so that its members can be safely vulnerable with each other. Turns out that is a very tall order, and neither of the groups I participate in meets those criteria. One is a friendly group of guys who like joshing with each other and venting about those of a different political persuasion. The other is willing to explore complex meaning-of-life topics openly, but are not eager to talk about their personal lives in encountering big questions. How do I find or create community that feeds me?
SD: Your question about community is an especially tender one to come from someone who lives in the only state that once was an independent country — it takes a lot of maturity before we realize that freedom is found in belonging, not in a fight against belonging. All that by way of saying that there are many forms and levels of community. I had a friend who moved from a small town in Maine to Florida to retire. After two years he moved back. I asked him if he moved back because he missed seeing his close friends. He said no. He kept up with this close friends. He moved back because he missed running into the postman and stopping to chat; going into the grocery story and talking to the check out clerk about each other’s family. In other words community, at what may seem at first glance a superficial level, is a very important layer of community.
Seeker: I have worked all my life as a counselor but I have never thought of the importance of different layers of community. What you have said is helpful but doesn’t tell me about how to find the most meaningful and intimate level of community.
SD: Fair enough! The most intimate level of community is with God. But let’s put that aside for the moment. You are talking about human community and in that sense our most basic community is with another person. Some people by their nature tend to bond very strongly with one person. Not just a life partner but their friendships tend to occur in the context of one-on-one encounters. For these folks the upper layers of community may be less important because they tend to put all their eggs in the basket of intimate relationships with one other person at a time.
Seeker: I see what you mean. But I don’t think I am a one-on-one kind of person. I am interested in the next layer of community just beyond the layers of a life partner, one-on-one friendships and family.
SD: Often a deep level of intimacy at the first layers of connection with one other person and family is necessary to build the more outer layers of community. We will usually not be successful in finding intimacy at outer layers of community, without some experience of intimacy at a partner, close friend or family level.
Seeker: I don’t think I neglect core relationships. I have been in a good long-term relation with my partner now for a number of years. We love and cherish each other. I keep up with family.
SD: Excellent, a core partner relation and good family relationships create a layer of trust and love that help make us more able to risk at the next layer — trustworthy friends. After the intimate friendship layer of community, the next layer up is usually small social groups of connection, then the next layer up might be a church or a community or civic group, above that your town, then your state or region and finally your country and/or the planet. All these different levels are important to us from an ego perspective to be able to identify with others to help discern who we think we are and to get affirmations of being seen for who we think we are.
Seeker: That is a good and helpful overview. Thank you. Between the family layer and identification with humankind, the planet, is where I feel lost.
SD: The good news is that it sounds like you have a core relational foundation. You very importantly also wish to be in groups of people where there is the opportunity for finding deep, meaningful friendships and with whom you can be intimately vulnerable about who you most truly are. Let me come back in a minute to this need to be seen in a group by who you are.
As you correctly intuit many groups provide some level of social community even though it’s for the most part just on a superficial level. In other words you could be in a group of guys that just talks about sports all the time. That is not bad if you enjoy it and in the process of that superficial engagement you might come to really connect with one person where the possibility of a deeper intimate friendships could unfold. Still I understand from what you have said that this more intermediate level of community has not been fulfilling in providing you with close new friends or with a sense of deep connection as a part of the group.
Seeker: Okay. Now we are getting to the heart of my concern.
SD: The fact that you are in two groups that had to be organized to bring people together reflects how our historical cultural patterns of group intimacy are frayed and tattered. In the example of my friend from Maine — none of his wider circle of friendships were organized in an intentional way, they just occurred naturally. The benefit of community that occurs naturally is that you usually get a much more diverse group of people and the more diverse a community the stronger it is. In this context being a part of a more diverse group allows you to grow in the experience of truly being yourself and not simply trying to enhance an image of yourself in a group that is already so like you that all it can do is reflect this image back to you. But the big challenge of being in a diverse group or what me might call in the context of our discussion a superficial group is that in order for the group to reach a more intimate level of sharing someone has to set the example of being more vulnerable. Because it is your wish for greater intimacy at this level of community maybe it should be you.
Seeker: Yeah, I was afraid you might say that.
SD: I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty here. Because of the appalling lack of cultural cohesion this quest is hard. But remember all that is at stake is our ego getting hurt when we open up and are not understood or made fun of. From a spiritual point of view this is good spiritual discipline to practice — not allowing our ego to run the show when we are being open and honest with others. Their responses are about them and not us. But if you try to be more open and vulnerable with one of your existing groups and it doesn’t go anywhere find another group. The difficulty is you don’t want to find a group that sees the world exactly like you. If you all see the same way the group will probably stay at a superficial level. The ego self loves that kind of reinforcement. It creates a stronger sense of ego self which is itself an obstacle to intimacy. The challenge we face individually and as a culture is to be willing to be vulnerable and share with those who are different. It is from this kind of vulnerability that real intimacy occurs.
Seeker: Very helpful. I can see how my ego wanting a level of acknowledgement that I am a deep, thoughtful person has reinforced me being unwilling to risk.
SD: If we see the world from a non-dual viewpoint and not an ego perspective every event, every interaction no matter how superficial is a deeply luminous, beautiful event.
Seeker: So the answer is not in me finding the right group; it is me surrendering the need for ego reinforcement and reflection and being fully present in the reality of each moment.
SD: (Smiles) I couldn’t have said it better. When we do that our levels of social connection take care of themselves. Our essential personhood emerges. Our ego is not in need of reinforcement. We naturally attract people to us because they pick up on our energy of self acceptance and our acceptance of them. This acceptance creates the trust where deeper levels of sharing naturally emerge.
Seeker: So the answer is not about me finding the right group, but more about me not letting my ego’s need for affirmation and approval run the show.
SD: Correct. All the levels of social connection we have talked about are important not because we need those levels of ego affirmation, although that is the way it feels to the ego. They are important because ultimately we realize in our essence we are all related and connected. In the commandment to do unto others as you would do to yourself, the little word “as” is important. It is not “like.” From a non-dual perspective we relate to others as ourselves because we are all essentially a part of each other.
Seeker: Okay, can I shift gears and ask another question?
Seeker: I am not sure exactly how to ask it but the topic is the
meaning/expression of Love. I may ramble a bit to try to get clarity.
SD: No problem.
Seeker: I know this is a huge subject and has been thoroughly intellectualized about as well as trivialized. Nevertheless this topic has always obsessed me and eluded me. Recently, I heard a guy define love as “wishing other people well, with no strings attached.” That intrigues me. I had always presumed that love required me to be interacting with someone, instead of generating energy of kindness by word or deed and simply offering it. My payoff, of course, has always been the other person or the audience responding positively toward me. That has made me feel I was loving but maybe I am totally off base. Does real love have to be something where we are not seeking anything back? What do you think of this framing? What are your favorite “channels” for expressing love ?
SD: Love — what a great thing to be obsessed about. I hope you always stay obsessed by its meaning and expression and never find “the answer.” I hope this doesn’t sound too cavalier. I had a good friend who from the time he spent a summer in Paris when he was young always dreamed of living in Paris. But after he got married and had a family and commitments the opportunity to move and live in Paris become more and more remote. However he has always been this person, who a part of who he is — is a guy who wants to live in Paris and the fact that he has that desire and outlook on life has changed much of his experience of life. So what I’m suggesting is that your journey to know and understand love and how to express love is a beautiful part you. And one to be celebrated.
Seeker: You mean it is enough to long to understand love not to actually understand it.
SD: While you have not found an answer and that is frustrating, the desire to know the answer has I am sure meaningfully shaped your life. Part of how you experience life is as the kind of person who wants to continue to search deeper and deeper for the meaning of love and the experience of that meaning.
Seeker: That is sure true.
SD: Recently I had a friend tell me that her 14-year-old daughter had told her that she, the daughter, had decided that she was a pan-sexual. I have no idea what a pan-sexual is. But something very interesting culturally is this breakdown in gender definition. This suggests that eros may have a whole spectrum of attraction, which may reflect a similar kind of spectrum for love that the Greeks parsed with their three different names. So to always be searching for a deeper experience of love in all the messiness of life — what a noble way to live.
Seeker: I appreciate the encouragement, but that doesn’t overcome the frustration.
SD: You know better than I do, from your studies in psychology to become a counselor, that part of growing up emotionally and maturing is to have good mirroring. So we all want to be seen and acknowledged by others. We all need early in life to build and have a healthy ego. And in some way the mirroring we get is always deficient or too much, but if it is “good enough” we manage okay and our love-wound becomes a part of us shadow and light.
Seeker: So you are saying that my desire to understand love is part and parcel of the object relations patterns I developed when I was young and that these patterns are still running my life — that the wound of not feeling loved as a child is why I am seeking to understand love now.
SD: You are right that the object relations patterns we learned as a child run the ego’s need for love, approval, control, power, security all of our lives. And part of emotional maturity after reaching adulthood, is coming to be centered less in our ego and more in our own inner essential authority. As we mature spiritually we become less dependent on how the ego’s objects relations patterns need us to be seen or understood. And yet there is a way in which how others see us is also how we continue to grow and an ongoing part of our unfolding.
Seeker: I don’t quite get it, are you saying as we mature emotionally we need to let go of our ego object relations patterns but we still need others to reflect back what they see?
SD: Yes, I am saying both are important. We need to not be attached to external affirmation from another. In this sense we are detached, but we are not un-attached. When we are detached we are free of the ego’s need for affirmation, but we are not disconnected or un-attached, we are engaged and open to learning from what we see reflected from others. I’m suggesting the idea of trying to be a pan-lover, being increasingly open to the broadest possible spectrum of caring and intimacy, of where love can be found and how it can be expressed.
Seeker: Do you mean love is not something I do but it’s more a perspective through which I experience life?
SD: Yes, this is how your questions today are connected. Love is the willingness to take the first step into being vulnerable, just opening that door of possibility for a deeper depth with another person whether it’s the grocery store clerk you don’t really know or someone you’ve known for years. You take the risk not because your ego needs a pat on the back. You take the risk because who you most truly are in your essence wishes to express love and caring into the world and your expression of love and caring will unfold when another person welcomes the door of intimacy and love being opened. What you are participating in then is really not your love but the Love that holds all life together.
Seeker: Could this expression and interchange of love also be true with animals and nature?
SD: Absolutely, St Francis taught about the joy of being in the field of love with other creatures. And you would be amazed at what happens when we allow ourselves to be open-heartedly vulnerable to a tree, especially a wisdom tree that has reached a certain age. But don’t give up on humans. Be a pan-lover of each experience and you will feel connected intimately in an interwoven web of relations and you will taste the beauty and joy of each moment.