There are no shortages of lessons we can take away as we, as a global community, round the corner on the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps the most glaring among them, particularly for people who may live alone, is the reminder of the importance of community. Sangha is a Sanskrit word — that shows up in several Indian languages — that means community, or support system. In Buddhism, a sangha is a community of monks or nuns who support each other on the spiritual path. The term is similarly used in yoga communities. Beyond spiritual support, however, why does community matter so much to the human experience?
A study conducted in October 2020 by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project found, somewhat surprisingly, that young people were more susceptible to detrimental loneliness than the elderly. The study states:
43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic. About half of lonely young adults in our survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.”
We need to return to an idea that was central to our founding and is at the heart of many great religious traditions: We have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other, including to those who are vulnerable.
When we commit to community — whether it be for spiritual reasons or social — we are weaving our own threads into the rich tapestry of humanity. There are plenty of studies that report that despite our increasing connectedness online, we are becoming further and further disconnected from meaningful relationships. That may or may not have anything to do with important relationships shifting to primarily exist within the digital space.
A landmark study that came out of The University of California Irvine in 2017 posited that for young people, online friendships could be just as socially important and satisfying as face-to-face relationships. There’s no reason that this science could not extend to online yoga communities as well. To boot, according to Heather Mason writing for Thrive Global, yoga communities may actually be more equipped than others to address issues of loneliness, because of the practice itself:
Yoga helps to reestablish that connection between our minds, our bodies and the present moment through mindfulness. Mindfulness offers us a way to accept our feelings and observe feelings of loneliness in a non-judgemental fashion, which helps us to process them and move on.
To say — if you don’t have a community of human beings, digitally or in-person, to turn to, that your fate is shrouded in loneliness. One of the most important tenets of yoga is the principle of non-attachment, and of interconnectivity. If we can see ourselves as part of the connected whole, we can quell feelings of loneliness, even when alone. As Jane McLaughlin-Dobisz writes in Lion’s Roar:
We’re all in this together. We’re part of each other, for each other, and all made from the same cosmic cookie dough. The moon and stars, all animals, flowers, and trees are the sangha. The ground, air, sun, and water are the sangha. All beings and all things are included.
Thich Nhat Hanh, spoke about our interconnectedness in this way: “In the paper, there is a cloud.” At first, one may wonder what in the world that means. There’s no cloud in the paper! But with this profound teaching, Thich Nhat Hahn is inviting us to see the whole picture: the paper is made up of many non-paper elements. Without the cloud, there’s no rain. Without the rain, there’s no tree. Without the tree, there’s no paper. Everything in this world is interdependent.”
In this way, Thich Nhat Hanh proposes that our need for community may be satisfied with a profound understanding of our interconnectedness — which we learn in our practice. Sangha is nice, but we are never alone. Regardless of whether or not a pandemic rages around us.
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