I want to share a few thoughts about challenges and rewards of serving as a contemplative group leader. Even you, who do not believe you can be a leader, can develop these skills. For in a contemplative group, every single person is a leader/teacher of the group, and each participant helps to create the sacred space we need for transformational sharing. We are truly co-creators. And yet, there are specific attitudes and practices which help us lead.
Holding sacred space in community also includes setting boundaries and limits on the type of sharing in our groups. We know that behaviors like judging, giving advice, and playing the expert kill any sense of real community. So, we admit we are not comfortable with the sharing of pat formulas that are one-dimensional and that keep the sharing at the surface. Contemplative leaders step up within the community to help guard the safe space for the whole group. Here is an example.
A young adult in a contemplative class admitted that she had a hard time managing the flood of thoughts and feelings during her first weeks of practicing centering prayer. She found the courage to reveal some of her discouragement in trying this new prayer form. She did not yet know that everyone has the same struggle, so she was in that challenging place where we think: “I just can’t meditate.”
A senior adult with more experience in that prayer-form wanted to comfort her. But what came out accidentally sounded more like a condescending remark: “You’re young honey. It will get better through the years.” She thought she was helping, but ouch!
Another veteran of centering prayer spoke up to identify with the young woman and said she often feels the same way, that it’s a journey of ups and downs and sometimes of dark nights of the soul. I affirmed the same truth with a story about losing all sense of God’s presence during my wife’s first kidney transplant, just when I needed the presence most. All of us were trying to normalize the young woman’s experience of struggle and to support her. But the first remark accidentally focused on the woman’s age and implied struggle goes away in time. We didn’t want that false belief to disturb her commitment to simply keep practicing without expecting any guaranteed results.
Our leaders seek to hold the sacred space in such a way as to keep people’s reactivity and judgment of themselves or others out of the circle as best we can. However, first words can pop out of any of our mouths without sufficient wisdom. We do not seek perfection in our sharing, but we do not adopt an “anything goes” mentality either.
Once I was kidding a member of the group during a class. I learned afterwards from a peer that I had hurt her feelings without knowing it. I needed to apologize for speaking in a way that had caused hurt, without slipping into defending myself. (I wish I could remember that with my own wife more often!) Contemplative leaders seek to find the space in the middle between being overly serious and being too loose with our words, between setting limits on the insensitive comments of others and stifling the group so that no one feels comfortable with their sharing.
We seek to make it clear in example and boundary-setting that members are not welcome to pass hatred or judgment around the circle. If I need to be forceful about this, I will, though that has barely ever happened in a decade. If I need to speak firmly, I will. The message is simple: “Judging women, people of color, gay/lesbian people, the poor, immigrants, etc. is not welcome in contemplative community.” And this is especially true because all those people make up our groups. White males are in the minority in most of our gatherings. On the other hand, anyone is welcome to share how they struggle with their own prejudices. Such sharing is more likely to be an expression of the vulnerability we seek.
We hold the space open for the sharing of all our humanity so that true communion can arise. Gradually, participants find a safe place to bring their own brokenness and sense of inadequacy, as well as moments of sincere joy. This honest sharing is one of those places where transformation can happen, much like a healthy 12-Step group. And personal transformation is what most contemplatives seek, (in our better moments).
Group practice of God’s presence also supports our individual experiences of those moments when we find the deeper wholeness beneath all brokenness. Looking directly at personal brokenness in a compassionate community can reveal the inner diamond, the shining in the darkness, when we find the courage to reveal such broken places. These are some of the ways we begin to see the Divine Spark shining among us.
Gatherers of contemplative community who hope to see that diamond, must also admit that we need the support of the community. We can’t hide behind a false image of leading, as though we are there just for the other’s sake. Part of the calling to form contemplative community is seeing that our own needs for support do matter and deserve our attention. We leaders have a need for belonging as much as anyone.
In our hearts, we are all seeking a “tribe of beings,” as the Jewish poet and philosopher Mark Nepo says. We need a place where we can belong, and feel safe, and be accepted to be ourselves. We need a place where the people “get us.” We need the shelter of each other.
To be more specific, I need that shelter. I can really grow in such a community and become the True Self I was made to be. In a true community, I just might see the invisible light of heaven shining like a diamond in myself. And I am likely to see it in the faces and lives of the others as they are seeking to become their true selves. Seeing this mutual shining, this radiance glowing from the inner presence of God, is a great gift waiting for those who decide to serve as contemplative leaders.
 Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, 59.