Aloneness and Community
“The tension between being alone and together is a creative tension. As human beings we balance our longing to belong to one another, or to the collective, with our desire to be true to our individual paths.” – Joshua Boettiger
I’ve lived in an intentional community in Northern California for over 25 years. During this time, I’ve often struggled with the question of what it means to be both an individual and a member of a community. How do you balance the need to follow your soul’s deepest vision with the need to participate in a collective enterprise? The work of guiding people on rites of passage has helped illuminate this question, through the vehicle of the temporary community we co-create in the field.
First of all, aloneness: this means being true to ourselves. In the Four Directions teachings, it shows up in the West direction, as listening to our inner voice, to the calling we feel, to the truth of our own nature. There’s no getting around this. But to truly trust ourselves, we need to be heard and witnessed by others. Being “true to ourselves” can only make sense in the context of feeling loved, supported and empowered to recognize ourselves, and to pay attention to what we discover. On the Wilderness Quest, Nature is a great ally, providing unerring feedback, and reminding us of our truth again and again-through the glory of a starry sky, the challenge of a wild storm, or the wonder of watching a red tail hawk in flight.
One vision of community would be the demand to sacrifice what makes us uniquely ourselves, in order to fit into a collective vision or need. In this context, people may face criticism for not “getting with the (community) program.” There are stories of groups where members were called out for having needs that were seen as incompatible with community needs. This take on community resolves the individual-community tension in favor of the community. While this approach may be widespread, it doesn’t describe any community to which I’d want to belong! And here I remember the many times that folks registering for a Rites of Passage program mentioned most dreading the group aspect of our work, because of previous group experiences when they felt shamed or blamed.
I’d like to introduce the idea of “Authentic Community” as way of considering both individual and community needs. In this paradigm, individuals are tasked with discovering, speaking and acting from their unique nature and unique gifts, and community is tasked with holding space for individuals to do this. Authentic Community means that you cannot go wrong by speaking your truth-this is what the community needs from you. This makes community a place of particular voices, where each can be heard and honored. The effect psychologically is to find a place where being oneself is enough to find belonging and value. To quote Joshua Boettiger again: “Something happens, is made possible, in the human heart when we are told we belong. It is something underneath language, something embodied.”
The Four Directions also teach that the self-discovery and self-recognition of the West Shield are not enough: we need to bring the gifts of our deepest nature back to community, as our give-away in the North. As people share the stories of their Wilderness Quest, the community of fellow questers and guides holds and affirms them. Perhaps this is why participants often underestimate the task of returning home to the world they left behind. One of the challenges of the return must be to engage with community as a place to receive the gifts of your journey. That’s not an easy task, but it is easy to fall back into old habits. So begins the next stage, what Steven Foster called “The Quest of your life,” which calls for creatively living the gifts you received on the solo. This may involve finding or helping to create the community whose task it is to receive those gifts, for without that community, the vision of the solo may become just a dream.
Mike Bodkin, Executive Director