Awakening in the Age of the Meta-Sangha

June 3, 2016

In the late 1980’s when I started seeking in earnest you could work with a number of different spiritual teachers. The Indian sage J Krishnamurti and the Tibetan master Trungpa Rinpoche had already died, but had left bodies of work behind them. Da Free John, U.G. Krishnamurti and Swami Muktananda, were all actively teaching. I spent time with Gurumayi, Thich Nhat Hanh and Ram Dass before meeting Andrew Cohen who would be my teacher for many years.

Each of these teachers had their own communities, their own philosophies and their own practices. And generally speaking each saw their way of teaching as superior to the others.

There was no Internet and therefore no online courses. If you wanted to work with a teacher you had to either wait for them to come to you, or go to them. This meant that most people who wanted more than to read spiritual books only worked extensively with one teacher, some intrepid souls with time and/or money would set out to meet all the great teachers, but it was much more of a challenge then. In my circles, once we chose a path and embarked upon it we generally saw it as better than all others. To be honest, most of us had only limited knowledge of other paths.

During the years that I lived in an experimental spiritual community with Andrew Cohen I looked down on the idea of moving from teacher to teacher. I had come to believe that you could not gain real spiritual depth if one moved around. I am no longer sure about that. Life is too complex for one-size fits all solutions to the challenge of awakening. I no longer believe that a single teaching or a single teacher can satisfy all aspects of our development.

We are all different people, on unique paths, and our needs along the path change and shift with each next step. We need teachers who can share their wisdom with us and we also need each other, our fellow dharma sisters and brothers who do much for us to further our own awakening. We need to work together as we navigate the waters of awakening. We need to inspire, support and challenge each other, and we need to provide solace for one another during those inevitable times when darkness descends on the path and the wind of change runs cold.

The gathering I believe that we have the opportunity to form now is a community of inclusivity. Instead of communities that differentiate (or exclude); we need communities that bring us—and hold us—together – as loosely or as closely as we need so that our paths can open in all kinds of unexpected ways. We can differentiate and be supported. Of course, we still need to have the opportunity to focus together on specific modalities and particular ways of awakening when we are drawn to, but I believe that given the circumstances of our times, and perhapys how authentic awakening may always have been for the deep mystics, the boundary between communities of spiritual focus need to be porous, open and free. I believe that the solution to the spiritual needs of this moment involves drawing a bigger circle around all of the communities of focus and creating a community of communities – a meta-sangha.

Fortunately the meta-sangha has arrived just in time. In my recent retreats I have started to set aside time to ask people which other teachers they have worked with. The list of luminaries represented is impressive. There are always a number of people who have worked with my friends and colleagues Craig Hamilton, Claire Zammit, and Katherine Woodward Thomas. And, of course, many who have worked with me during the time that I was teaching with Patricia Albere. In addition there are those who have worked with Thomas Huebl, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Eckhart Tolle and a host of others.

Without any of us having planned it, a meta-sangha has formed, not just because there are many teachers offering different work and different communities – that was always the case – but because it is now easier than ever to work with different teachers and sometimes more than one at once. As participants, we see each other in one course or program and then in another, and as teachers we have the opportunity to work with other teachers. We all move in and out, uniting and reunited with our meta-sangha brothers and sisters over and over again. We are a community of communities, in some ways we haven’t realized it yet.

About ten years ago the Integralist Clint Fuhs and I did a series of workshops focused on what we were then talking about as the second-generation phenomena and trans-lineage spirituality. Essentially we recognized that as our teacher’s students and spiritual friends we had the opportunity to explore our own paths in the context of each other’s. We were the second-generation, committed to the strengths of the journey that brought us here and open to learning from the wisdom of the other’s path at the same time. This was not just a mixing of paths; it was a new path, a trans-lineage path.

It now seems that the trans-lineage efforts of so many of us has given birth to a meta-sangha of individuals who move between focus communities generating awakening along the way and cross-pollinating all of the communities they touch. Like bees flying from flower to flower we leave a little bit of our own awakening each time we take the next course, workshop or retreat. And we take a little insight from our current experience that becomes part of what we have to pass along.

In retrospect, this feels like the inevitable outcome of the growth of alternative spirituality and the technological capacities that connect us. As I already said, when I first met Andrew Cohen there was no Internet, no online courses, no Facebook groups. We didn’t even have the benefit of free conference call services. If you wanted to be involved with a path you either had to be satisfied with reading books and discussing them with friends, see a single lecture by a visiting teacher, or move to live in a community or visit a far off ashram. I decided to leave everything behind and spend twenty years living in an intentional community. Although I grew tremendously from that experience, I don’t see it as the answer to the world’s problems.

Everything is different today. You can be deeply involved with a community for years without ever having met other members in person. You can work with any number of teachers virtually on any given day. Yes there is always the danger that all of this choice will tend toward superficial engagement – but that doesn’t have to be what happens, and more importantly a new opportunity has appeared.

We have the chance to go deeply into the opening of trans-lineage work as part of a meta-sangha of practitioners.

What are the awakening potentials that arise with this heightened level of spiritual cross-pollination?

How do we do trans-lineage work well? What is the form of community and connection that will promote both spiritual communion and personal empowerment?

There is no reason to assume that trans-lineage work is superlative to any other path. There is and will likely always be the need for focus communities that give themselves exclusively and whole-heartedly to a single form of practice towards awakening. Any one of us, at any time, may need this kind of focus to facilitate the next step of our path. Some of us may even need twenty years of focus in a very particular area. The awakening that we are all a part of operates according to a design that none of us knows entirely. At the same time, my experience tells me that if we listen carefully we can always hear the very next step – and that is all we ever really need.

As a teacher myself, the emergence of the meta-sangha elicits a sigh of relief. I don’t have to be everything to everyone – thank goodness. I have the opportunity to think honestly about what I truly have to offer and to focus on exclusively that. I also have the opportunity to work with other teachers who have gifts to offer that I want and need. Currently I am in many relationships in which my students in one context are my teachers in another.

It will take effort for us to grow into the full potentials of this new model. I am sure than to many the vision of a cross-pollinating spiritual growth community is thrilling, and there are forces that we will need to resist in order to make it so. As alternative spiritual pursuit has become more popular the demands of commerce have inevitably exerted their influence. Many of us who teach feel pressure to offer one-stop spiritual answers. If we are not careful we will find ourselves offering what we think will appeal to people rather than what we truly know we most clearly have to offer. We will be tempted to hold on too tightly to the people we work with to retain students and clients.

The birth of the trans-lineage meta-sangha is an opportunity to change that and to find ways to work together that more effectively allows our gifts to be shared. If we can resist the temptations of the forces at play in the current economy maybe we can create a new one. Can we create a way of exchanging value that rewards openness, authenticity, and freedom?

The trans-lineage path and the meta- sangha that is forming around it are opening up possibilities for awakening and living together. Let’s embrace them whole-heartedly. I am continuing to think about the significance of the meta-sangha and in the weeks ahead I intend to share some further thoughts on this exciting emergence.

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