We all have a desire for escape. ‘Running off to join the circus’ was the Victorian version. Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ was the 1950s version. Buddhists run off to join the sangha. Even the Buddha did that. Kind of.
The question is: is it a good idea?
The desire to hang with kindred spirits
When you get into the whole ‘spiritual development’ thing, you may well find that you start seeing things differently.
Although this is positive and it feels like you’re on the right path, it can also be challenging in many ways.
You may find that the most important relationships in your life start to feel quite different. You may feel frustrated that this amazing thing you’ve found doesn’t seem so amazing to your friends, family and loved ones.
Maybe this leads you to seek out other like-minded types.
You get involved with a bunch of fellow spiritual aspirants where you can talk about ‘spiritual stuff’.
A gap opens up between the way you feel around those people and the way you feel around the people you’ve previously filled your life with.
At some point, if you continue down this road, you’ll have a choice to make.
A fork in the road
I’ve known quite a few people who’ve left their partner, ditched their friends and moved full time into the ‘sangha’ (the community, group or religious order they’ve been getting involved with).
There was a time in my own life when I lived in a Buddhist community, worked in a Buddhist business and spent my leisure time either teaching or supporting Buddhist classes, or hanging out with my Buddhist friends.
Choosing that path also brings its own challenges.
For a start, it’s quite a small pond. And there are some weird and wonderful fish swimming about in a pond like that.
More importantly, if you fill your entire home and work life with a certain bunch of people, it can be very difficult to walk away if that doesn’t work for you anymore.
So you’re in the same position you were in before you left your old mates and your partner.
Fortunately, I never actually left my old mates or my partner, so it was fairly easy to spend more time with them again when I decided that I needed to create some space between me and the sangha. I needed to do this because I actually found it was detrimental to my Buddhist practice!
But I know a whole bunch of people who have been pretty damaged by that same sort of journey.
Many people stay with the sangha when it doesn’t really fit them anymore because the alternative is just too scary. They don’t even acknowledge to themselves that there’s a serious issue there.
A carpet for your elephant
If your job, your status and your friendships are all at stake, there’s a strong bunch of incentives to cover that elephant with a big old carpet and carry on as normal.
Here’s what I’ve learned: your friends, your partner, your current life – they are your practice.
It may be that you need to make a change. But maybe you just need to re-engage, get creative or develop contentment with what is.
The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is ‘dukkha‘ or unsatisfactoriness. Running off to a spiritual community doesn’t bring an end to it. Becoming a Buddha does. Perhaps you can do that right where you’re sitting?