Jesus told his followers that he would be in their midst whenever two or three of them were gathered in his name. Evidently, there is value in coming together for a spiritual purpose. In the same vein, Shakyamuni Buddha told his students that the community, the sangha, was one of the ‘Three Jewels,’ apparently as precious as the other two, meaning the Buddha or the manifestation of enlightenment, and the dharma, or the way of reaching supreme liberation.
One of the benefits of meeting together with others is that it helps to create a spiritually healthy community. There is no guarantee of success, of course, for humans have shown the ability to distort any form of wisdom, but virtually every cultural group has had religious gatherings in its structure, whether a daily prayer ritual, or a weekly worship service, or periodic festivals linked to the changing seasons. In this way, teachings about our place in the universe, and the need to maintain harmony with our surroundings and amongst ourselves are kept alive.
When we follow a path like Sufism, though, we also commit ourselves to solitary practice. Students are given various exercises, and we sit by ourselves and try to tune our spirit by means of prayers and breathing patterns and concentrations and meditations. These are no different to the hard hours that musicians devote to mastering their body and mind and the music they wish to perform – work inevitably done alone. The sincere student needs this, for the medium we have to master is our own being; we must look at ourselves honestly, strive to change old habits and learn to untie the knots in our mind, as Hazrat Inayat Khan puts it.
There is, however, a peril in sitting alone in meditation, and that is that we may become overly self-concerned. Spiritual practice is hard, but it should also bring the joy of forgetting ourselves, and some people miss that. We risk becoming like a little crab on the seashore, trying to sort grains of sand while the vast ocean surges and sighs no more than a meter away. An antidote to this self-absorption is to adopt a wider view, and think of the hundreds and thousands of souls who, since time began, have struggled to free themselves from ignorance, who have opened their hearts in praise of Divine beauty and love, who have surrendered to the silent embrace of the Truth. That is our real community. If we have a view of a thousand years, and think of all who have done the same work, we may remember that we are not alone, that we are one spark in a cascade of light, and the celebration of one is the joy of all.