Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Building a Community on the Level of the Heart

A great yogi from another tradition, Yogi Berra (the greatest catcher in baseball history) once said, "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” I think this happens to many of us, as we float through life without much awareness or purpose. Well, at least that’s how it was for me for most of my early life.
In 1991, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar invited me to live at the Art of Living Foundation’s new international center in Bangalore India, which everyone there referred to as the ashram. Not having much of a clear direction in life, except for my great zeal to grow spiritually, I was off on a grand adventure. Before long, I became the ashram manager, a new position in the startup organization. The only people I had to manage, though, were a cook who had no culinary talent, a bus driver who had no sense of direction, the occasional plumber, and an electrician who charged a lot of money for work half done. The ashram staff consisted of a handful of Western volunteers who where constantly threatening to leave and a few local Indian devotees who came and went whenever they pleased. 
It was frustrating living without a proper staff, telephone service, and basic creature comforts like a hot shower or a comfortable bed. Yet I was lucky to interact with Sri Sri daily and to watch him magically transform barren land into what is now considered one of most flourishing spiritual centers in the world.
Now, twenty years later, I’m still at it. I’m no longer an ashram manager, but I’m at another startup. This time it’s the Art of Living’s International Center for Meditation and Well-Being, in the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Boone, North Carolina.
Although Brahman, the Supreme Self, is felt throughout the campus, there are still many obstacles to overcome. Not having a clearly defined position, I question why Sri Sri has asked me to live here. How I can contribute?
When I lived at the ashram in India I was more concerned about finding solutions to the physical challenges, but as I ponder my role in Boone my attention is on something subtler — learning the skill of creating a real sense of belonging, creating community.
Everyone at the center has a common bond, of course. We are all on the same spiritual path and committed to sharing a lifestyle that is enriched with human values and knowledge about the Self. Yet everyone has a unique perspective on what this means. If dealt with unconsciously, these differences can sometimes lead to disharmony or conflict. Before you know it, alignments form and politics begins. 
Sri Sri has said, “When belongingness expands to include everyone, spirituality has grown.” For this wonderful spot in Boone or for any local center to become a thriving spiritual oasis, we need to create an environment where the sense of connectedness with each other is stronger than our differences of the moment; where people feel free enough to share and secure enough to get along. Otherwise our community will be limited to just eating meals together, group meditations, and working on service projects. The old ways of immediate self-gratification, personal recognition, and adhering to fixed opinions cannot coexist in an environment where people are committed to building community.
I want to see the same miracle that happened in Bangalore happen in Boone. Not only on the physical level but also on the level of the heart. All that is needed is for each person to be willing to live with a high degree of personal integrity, openness, and vulnerability. It means being sensitive and considerate of other people’s feelings and expanding ones perspective by being open to feedback and being more cooperative with others. And it’s all very possible.
The higher our prana, or life energy, the easier it is to act with this kind of feeling and awareness. So as obvious as it may sound, being regular with meditation and Sudarshan Kriya, eating properly, and all the other things we do that naturally make our prana and energy high are underlying secrets and advantages we can appreciate. 

I’d like to know what skills you’ve used to create more coherence in your community, how it has worked, and what has changed.


  1. Hey Michael, loved your new blog. I think what has really worked with me is unconditional acceptance and love, along with the willingness to serve in any possible way. And just to see that these qualities start with me, instead of expecting them from others :)

    What has changed is that there is a lot more harmony around me.

    I really loved your other post too, about the fastest man.

  2. Dear Michael,
    I found this useful in creating a community:
    When you meet a person, think in your head that this person has a certain quality, a certain greatness that you don't, not to the extent that that person has (though you may have a greater portion of another highly regarded quality). I found this removing all bias and first impressions especially negative ones. It leads me to see light in a person that my mind may say is dull, conceited or spiritually not as advanced. Seek that core quality in the person you meet and suddenly you discover there is more in that person than you first tried to find!
    Interestingly, you land up finding more qualities in yourself too and the family grows. No space to write more!!!
    Ah! now there is suddenly space created!!! Yes indeed, we must create that space in Boone but a Boone that has no boundaries and can flow freely across the world. Love...

  3. Hi Michael,

    That was a beautiful read. Fellowship and a sense of community is the collective need of the human species. I attended the Guru Purnima at Boone this year and returned with some deeper realizations. I wasn't certain how these realizations would play out in practical every day life. I came home with this definite learning, 'how can I be useful to others', 'how can I engage with people in our Art of Living family and also in our local communities'. This quest led me to volunteer and have meaningful exchanges with people I know and seek to know. I am learning the skill to connect with people exactly at where they are in their journeys, that skill brings along its twin brother of listening to people, rather than hearing my own voice. This skill has made me aware of people's need to be heard and also to contribute in ways that best mirrors their values and commitment. I am connecting with friends who are moving through transitions in their life. By being their support in these uncertain times, I am able to see their situation in a different light. Often this translates to being able to empower them to make a difference in their community, inspite of seemingly difficult crisis in their lives. It is acting like the butterfly effect, where one person has the power to initiate transformation and share struggles and victories of others, thereby deepening a sense of belongingness and shared community. Still have a long way to go, but the journey begins with the first baby step.

    Thanks and would love to read more in your future blogs.


  4. Hello,

    In creating a parent participation public school some years back I learned these three skill and would use them again given the chance to community build again:


    This prevents unnecessary competition and promotes heartfelt cooperation and compassion between community members. Drop the tit for tat, I did this, you did that and rather accept people for what they can do in that very moment which most likely various from day to day.


    Post and follow the agreed upon norms all in meetings and in everyday routines. This is best if communication norms are created with community members to get intrinsically motivated "buy in" or accountability from group members. Some norms might be, "Go to the source" if there is a problem instead of complaining or gossiping, go talk directly to the individual; "use honest and open communication"; "no put downs or blaming"; "stay in the moment"

    -Non-violent Communication model by Marshall Rosenberg uses an empathetic model that can be useful when establishing communication norms for groups. Our school used classroom meetings revolving around this model, and I use it during my family meetings with my three children.

    Front loading information is far better than scrambling with knee jerk reactionary communication. It is better to over communicate than to leave people frustrated and in the dark because it brings a better sense of belongingness, security, involvement and cohesiveness to the group. Consider using a combination three modes of communication to best reach the various types of learners. Remember the three: 1) Say it, 2) show it and 3) do it -for those auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners.

    The following unknown Chinese proverb still inspires me today:

    “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”

    Blessings for continued abundance in your community building opportunities.


  5. Hi Micheal!

    I am glad i read this.. i believe this is exactly the "need of the hour"!! Fellowship..the need to feel and act as one..to serve and accept and move on together.."sanga chhatvam"!!!.. I am sure Boone ashram, will witness and evolve with HIS grace and love each day!


  6. After your book wanted to read more from you and this blog is like a continuation.....keep writing, love it.