The Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness (MAM) is so fortunate to have a strong and supportive practice community. A number of teachers and regular practitioners have been with us from the very beginning and we’ve continued to welcome new members over time. At MAM, we believe the community is one of the most important aspects of what we offer. We honor thousands of years of wisdom tradition in elevating the importance of community in the development of a robust practice.
In Buddhism, the sangha (a community of friends practicing together) offers a place of refuge and is a deep spiritual practice in and of itself. The word means “to bring together”. In yoga, the word kula means “community of the heart” and is used to refer to a group of yogis practicing together with shared intentions. Why do so many contemplative traditions practice in groups and why do so many wise teachers recommend it? I resonate with the observation that the collective energy generated by the group acts like a slipstream, supporting and assisting our practice.
To practice right mindfulness we need the right environment, and that environment is our sangha… When you allow yourself to be in a sangha the way a drop of water allows itself to be in a river, the energy of the sangha can penetrate into you, and transformation and healing will become possible. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Though we can feel the energy and support of a practice community for ourselves, there is also some objective data emerging to validate this phenomenon. Researchers found two helpful aspects that stand out when studying the practice of meditation in groups: 1) our experiences are normalized (we don’t feel like we’re the only ones feeling what we’re feeling), and 2) we are better able to persevere with our meditation practices. These two factors seem to give group practice an advantage over exclusively solitary practice. In addition, Cormack et al. (2017) concluded that a group culture of safety and acceptance had a profound and powerful effect on mindfulness participants’ learning experience. The experience of being lovingly held within the accepting culture of a mindfulness group (Malpass et al. 2012) combined with the development of a deep sense of empathy for others, results in participants reporting increased emotional closeness even outside of the MBP group, extending to friends and family (Cairns and Murray 2015).
Cognitive-behavioral avoidance, a hallmark of depression and anxiety, is a set of strategies (such as distraction, worry, rumination, thought suppression, procrastination, safety and reassurance seeking, novelty and risk aversion, and withdrawal and isolation) that we tend to rely on to avoid unpleasant feelings and experiences. The problem is that these avoidance strategies can make things worse over the long term if over-relied upon. One of the healing consequences of mindfulness practice is that practitioners cultivate an approach orientation to unavoidable difficult experiences rather than compounding suffering by struggling against what cannot be controlled. Some research is demonstrating that people who participate in group mindfulness practice engage in less cognitive-behavioral avoidance than those who practice exclusively on their own (Mantzios & Giannou, 2014).
Another advantage of community practice is related to co-regulation and neuroplasticity. According to neuroscientist
The sangha is called a practice in and of itself because it can be challenging at times. Group “storming” (boundary pushing and conflict, according Tuckman’s model of team building) can arise in MBP groups as participants start to feel some resistance to turning towards difficulty. If participants can persevere and support one another through this stormy stage of group development, a stronger and more cohesive community often emerges. If we can welcome it all in, the challenges as well as the benefits, our practice community can become one of our most valuable and treasured assets.
Teach me what I cannot learn alone.
Let us share what we know, and what
we cannot fathom. Speak to me of
mysteries, and let us never lie
to one another.
May our fierce and tender longing
fuel the fire in our souls. When we
stand side by side, let us dare to focus
our desire on the truth. May we be
reminders, each for the other, that
the path of transformation passes
through the flames.
To take one step is courageous;
to stay on the path day after day,
choosing the unknown, and facing
yet another fear, that is nothing
short of grace.
– Dana Faulds, Sangha
Cairns, V., & Murray, C. (2015). How do the features of mindfulness based cognitive therapy contribute to positive therapeutic change? A meta-synthesis of qualitative studies. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 43(3), 342–359.
Cormack, D., Jones, F. W., & Maltby, M. (2017). A Collective effort to make yourself feel better^: the group process in mindfulness-based interventions. Qualitative Health Research, 28, 1–13.
Feldman Barrett, L (2020).People’s words and actions can actually shape your brain — a neuroscientist explains how. Ideas.Ted.com
Griffith, G. M., Bartley, T., & Crane, R. S. (2019). The Inside Out Group Model: Teaching Groups in Mindfulness-Based Programs. Mindfulness, 10(7), 1315-1327.
Imel Z, Baldwin S, Bonus K, Maccoon D. Beyond the individual: group effects in mindfulness-based stress reduction. Psychother Res. 2008;18(6):735-742.
Malpass, A., Carel, H., Ridd, M., Shaw, A., Kessler, D., Sharp, D., et al. (2012). Transforming the perceptual situation: a meta-ethnography of qualitative work reporting patients’ experiences of mindfulnessbased approaches. Mindfulness, 3(1), 60–75
Mantzios M, Giannou K. (2014). Group vs. single mindfulness meditation: exploring avoidance, impulsivity, and weight management in two separate mindfulness meditation settings. Appl Psychol Health Well Being. 2014;6(2):173-191.