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What is Sangha?


a graphical drawing of three people with their arms around each other to indicate a sense of community, or sangha

I was first introduced to the word sangha, pronounced SAHN-GAH, in the mindfulness studies program. Like some of the other Pali words I've learned, I'm not sure that it can truly be translated into English in a way that I can actually understand because it's countercultural to my Western/American rugged individualism conditioning. So what follows is, as I've indicated in earlier posts, my understanding of the term sangha.

two smiling women hugged together

I first learned the word sangha at the July 2019 week-long residency in the mindfulness studies program. The photo above was taken at the end of our time together, and that's Jennifer Carter, one of the compassionate and wise friends whose friendship deeply supports my practice. By then, I was one-and-a-half semesters into the program, which we participated in remotely from our homes all over the world. The program was academically rigorous, and I felt a sense of connection through the assignments we had to practice and share with each other in our electronic classroom. Most assignments were asynchronous, which made the program accessible to me since I was working full-time in Indianapolis and was also in the midst of co-parenting a teenager. Some assignments required us to work in pairs and meet synchronously, so I had the chance to talk and see my classmates in real time. The residency requirement meant we'd also have the chance to be physically together on-campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a few days.


The residency was a magical time for me because it was the first time I had the time, space, and support to dive into the practice and study of Buddhist psychology and mindfulness-based practices full-time, in-person, and with other students. I was also extremely fortunate that Mark came along with me, so I had the bonus of having the support of my spouse as well as getting to share stories of our adventures every evening when we both got back to the bed and breakfast where we stayed.


The group that we formed together-- students, teachers, and alumni of the program who joined us for some events-- was a sangha, a community of friends, practicing together.


By community, I mean that a group of people came together and formed. By friends, I mean that there was a quality of friendliness among us because we were all coming together around this shared interest-- learning in our mindfulness studies program. By practicing together, I mean that we had many periods throughout the day of practicing mindfulness, both formally and informally. We sat meditation together. We ate meals together. We attended classes together. We practiced qigong and yoga together. We practiced walking meditation together. We walked a labyrinth together (which was my first labyrinth practice facilitation). We listened to guest speakers together. We explored a little bit of Cambridge together.


Why Sangha is Supportive

Humans are social beings, so we are meant to be in community with each other. I have found that sangha supports my mindfulness practice just like the group of seven or eight law school classmates who became friends supported me in law school... or the many colleagues I've met in different jobs became friends and supported me at work... or the friends I made by participating in band in high school, or in children's choir when I was a kid... or the Season 3 Richmond Greyhounds.


Think about it-- you very likely have people in your life who you share (or shared) something in common with, and you began to care for each other. That care and support may be "lower key" like sending a text to check in from time to time, or it may be more robust like a deep friendship that includes spending lots of time together. Or maybe it's somewhere in between?


A sangha is supportive because it allows people to come together around mindfulness practices, which then provides a shared experience and other people to companion us on our journeys with the practices. I have daily questions and concerns that arise around the practices, and I depend on the sangha to be thought partners as well as friendly supporters. The members of the sangha reflect back things like, "Hey, Jill, I think you're experiencing a very human experience there... what's that you say about self-compassion?" or "Hey, it's ok to ask for help."


One of the intentions I have for Thought Kitchen is to create the conditions for sangha to form. We do this in very intentional ways, from Group Agreements to the Weekly Sangha Sit. Once the sangha's formed, I want it to feel like a supportive place for us to practice together, as well as a place where we can each come and be known-- really known-- to each other.


This is an audacious intention, especially in the culture I live in where people are concerned about titles and bona fides and what I can do for them. Maybe you feel this, too?


And maybe the friends part feels a little uncomfortable to you? "Hey, Jill, that seems a little unreasonable, like I have to be FRIENDS with all these people?"


What if I reframe the friends or friendliness to a posture or a way of being or a quality rather than a bunch of expectation of doing? What if the invitation is to approach practicing in our Thought Kitchen community from a place of curiosity about the other people who are gathered with you to practice and to just be you, rather than carrying the responsibilities of your job title or familial obligations?


As you know from previous posts, I often get asked, What is mindfulness? Why should I practice it? How do I practice it? What I didn't share in those earlier posts is that a consistent answer to these questions is because sangha.


Don't take my word for it-- come and try it on for yourself! One way is to stop by the comments section and say hello. Another is to join us for the Weekly Sangha Sit.


In whatever way feels most accessible to you, I hope you will make the commitment to try on practicing with friends in our Thought Kitchen community.


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2 Comments


You brought knowledge to me Jill by writing and sharing this article. Thank you. Darrin

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Jill Carnell
Jill Carnell
Nov 09, 2023
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Thanks for reading and letting me know you got something out of it, Darrin! I’m glad you’re here and part of the Thought Kitchen sangha. 💚

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