Personal Practice Is The Backbone of Community

March 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post originally appeared on the Sunday Assembly blog

Every morning I creep out of bed and sit down on a cushion in our coat closet. It’s the only place in the house where I can guarantee 15 minutes of uninterrupted quiet – even if I’m surrounded by muddy boots. I close my eyes and spend the next quarter of an hour having my brain take me away from my breath, which I am trying to focus on.

I’ve been doing this for four years, and I’m still as distracted as ever. And that’s fine. Meditating isn’t about getting ‘good’ at it, it’s simply about doing it over and over again.

Secular meditation is my personal practice, and I’m not alone. Apps like Headspace and groups likeJuniper are growing very quickly – and this book and CD by Mark Williams is absolutely fantastic if you want to give mindfulness a try.

But a practice can come in all shapes and sizes – singing, swimming, painting, reading, walking, stretching, or just about anything you choose. What matters are two things;

1) Your intention – you keep bringing back your mind to focus on the practice.

2) Your commitment – you do the practice at least once a day, even if only for a couple of minutes.

Having a practice is a bit like having a dog. It looks at you with great love and affection, but also knows that you could do better. There’s real trouble if you don’t take it out for a walk at least once a day. And it can be the greatest friend you have!

Leading a community is hard work. Hard. Work.  Things will crop up that you’re responsible for – finances, resolving conflicts, developing new leaders – that are less easy to share around. In those moments when it feels like you just want to pack it in, that’s when the benefits of a personal practice really show. You might notice that you have more patience, or can suspend your judgment more easily, that you forgive mistakes with more humour. Having a practice isn’t a miracle cure for all that is difficult, but it has a habit of paying off when you most need it.

For me, much like the scientific literature on mindfulness suggests, I’m more able to pause when I start feeling stressed or angry, and more able to choose to be kind. Community works best when we’re all paying attention to how we show up and how we treat each other. If we truly want to build lasting, loving communities, it’s time we figured out what our personal practices are that will keep us there.

True Belonging: Families In Community

March 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post originally appeared on the Sunday Assembly blog

True community is always intergenerational. When I walk into a gathering where there are children running around and old people smiling knowingly, I’m immediately put at ease.

In community, we see the fullness of life. We remember our own childhood and get a glimpse of life to come, as we grow old. So often, new communities are built around existing friendships so that there is little diversity of age. For a founding team, taking the time to meet others across age groups and invite them in can be one of the key ingredients of longevity and success.

Families with kids are a great gift to those who are not surrounded by their own loved ones. There is a real generosity when people who might be alone for much of their time get to enjoy the laughter, play and silliness of a young family. Even the tantrums and tears remind them of what life is all about! 

The gift of families in community goes both ways of course. For a child, being surrounded by people of all ages whom you know, and who know you, is nesting in true belonging. And there is nothing better than knowing you belong. Whether to a family, to a place, or to another person – we yearn for this sense of belonging. I was lucky enough to grow up in a school community where this web of relationship was thickly spun. At the festivals we celebrated, the plays we put on, and the daily walk to school, I was assured of the constancy of life. 

That reliable pattern matters a great deal for a child. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and philosopher, describes childhood as a magic forest. It is the time of most intense happening, where the most immense experiences of wonder, discovery and difficulty take place – and for which children often don’t yet have the words and thoughts to make sense of. This forest can be a fearful one, full of known and unknown dangers, or it can be a place of enchanted adventure. Surrounding children with loving, familiar and encouraging faces that they see time and again are crucial to making that magic forest of childhood a safe one. 

Later, as teenagers, older friends and acquaintances become important to us as they witness our development as individuals. Teenage years are all about identity formation and distinguishing ourselves from our parents. To have older people treat us ‘like adults’ is the most wonderful thing. I remember being driven to the school bus by a family friend who encouraged my interest in politics (something we didn’t talk about much at home), who engaged and sharpened my opinions and made me feel like I had something to offer. 

These intergenerational relationships are difficult to build if not in community. What a gift that there are places like Sunday Assembly where we can meet one another across those barriers of age, and weave a web of belonging. 

People That Sing Together, Stay Together

March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

This post is cross-posted from the Sunday Assembly blog.

Every year I look forward to the Sweetback Sisters’ Christmas Sing-A-Long Spectacular – a honky-tonk festive romp featuring hits like ‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’, all performed on banjo and double bass, while the crowd throws in harmonies of varying degrees of skill. For the final song, the lights switch off and the whole room sings ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ a cappella. It starts off ironically, but by the end we can all feel the magic. That is – until we try a verse in German and the hilarity returns.

I’ve always loved singing together. As a kid, my family would drive for hours from the UK to Holland to visit family, and we’d be singing the whole way. Simple rounds, old folk songs, bad 90s pop songs, show tunes, made up songs – we sang it all, and we sang them together.

Too often, singing is dismissed as silly entertainment. But it’s much more powerful than that. It’s a social technology.

Singing expresses what words cannot. Singing together helps us overcome social formalities (anyone singing Bon Jovi at Sunday Assembly will know what I mean), and can cheer you up when you’re feeling down. It can even help diffuse tension and refocus our work. Civil Rights leaders in America would often turn to songs in the middle of difficult meetings to help remind them why they were working for freedom and to help renew their courage.

The health benefits of singing are well documented. Recent research in Sweden demonstrates that when we sing together, the physicality of breathing at the same time brings our heartbeats into sync, lowering our heart rate variability. Singing can help improve our memory and overall wellbeing. Scholars such as David Huron go further and argue that music even fulfills the Darwinian function of helping humans bond. Some of the most amazing hospice work involves teaching those who are dying songs that they can sing together in their final weeks of life.

Singing is a social technology because it allows us to do things normally out of reach. We can’t all talk at once, but we can all sing together. Singing allows for each voice to contribute in its own way, and creates harmonies impossible to craft on your own. The songs we sing connect us to people and places that matter to us. Not only what the song is about, but whom we learnt it from and with whom we’ve sung it since.

For those of us building new SA communities, the songs we choose can set the tone for who we become. Take time to reflect on the songs that matter to you and the community you’re building. What do you want to remember? To celebrate? To commiserate? Songs can help you do all this and more.

José González has a new track out this week that features the Sunday Assembly congregation in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the end of the video, as the song comes to a close, you can see a magical joy in the faces of everyone singing along. As they sing, “Let the light lead you out”, a knowing smile crosses José’s face as Sanderson wildly claps along in the background. As a musician, he knows the power of song. May that be true for all of us.

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