I see that the door is slightly ajar as I approach Sue’s house. It’s 6:55 AM, and like every Tuesday, I start the day with small-group meditation. I enter the room quietly and take my place on a cushion beside two others already seated in the room. Sue lights a candle on the fireplace mantle and gently strikes a small gong. We begin our special time together by chanting “om” (A-U-M) for the duration of one prolonged exhalation. Already, with the utterance of the first syllable (A/awe), I’m aware of, not only a vibration in my chest, but also a quieting in my mind. After this simple chant, we meditate in silence for twenty minutes. Once again, Sue sounds the gong, and we close the session with another “om.” This time, elongating the third syllable (M) stretches my awareness of being connected to all other living beings, to the world of nature, and to the entire universe. With “namaste” to each of my fellow mediators and a “thank you” to Sue, I walk back to my car for the drive to work.
I could have saved time by meditating on my own at home, as I often do on the other six days of the week. But there’s something about meditating as a group that keeps me going back to Sue’s on Tuesday mornings. Other than greeting each other with a smile and bowing when we say “namaste” before we leave, our time together isn’t about socializing; yet it does deepen our friendship. It does so, however, at a spiritual level. The bond of friendship developed through group mediation seems to grow through the experience of walking a shared path toward inner peace.
Group mediation offers some other benefits, as well. Meditating together seems to spark a type of synergy, allowing each of us to draw from a reservoir of strength with depths beyond what anyone alone could generate. I found that my commitment to group mediation supported my individual meditation practice, as well. I compare it to being a part of a running group. To belong to a running group, you need to be a runner. To be a part of a meditation group, you need to be a meditator. Identifying with a group—whether as a meditator, runner, or something else—can also help us move beyond self-centeredness. The coming together, the chanting together, and the respect given to each other in group meditation shifts the focus from self to the group. This experience broadens our awareness and concern to a larger group—even to the whole of human society and to every living thing.
If you’re interested in starting a meditation group, here are several tips you might find helpful. One, stay focused on the shared experience of meditating. Keep in mind that the purpose of coming together is to meditate, not to socialize or even to talk about meditating. If you’ve ever belonged to a book club that didn’t stay focused on the book, you may know how frustrating this can be. So if you want to start a meditation group, find others who are sincerely interested in meditating and are willing to commit to a regular schedule. Just like yoga, if the practice is done only occasionally or without focus, the benefits are greatly diminished.
Second, establish a format for the group meditation. What we did at Sue’s house is just one example of a format you might use. There are other possible ways to structure a group meditation. Some groups, for example, may like to start with a prayer or short reading. Some may wish to add a brief sharing session after meditation. Others may like to vary the session by including a time for walking or standing meditation. Some groups may choose to meditate outdoors. If so, it’s best to choose a spot where you can be immersed in or surrounded by nature.
While the practice of group meditation isn’t as prominent in the literature as individual, or private, meditation, interest in the practice is growing. Several popular websites for spiritual seekers offer information and ideas for group mediation. The Chopra Center, for example, offers a discussion on the power of group meditation along with some ideas on how to host a group meditation. Yoga International also offers a discussion of the awesome benefits of meditating in a group. A recent posting by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley discusses research on the pro-social benefits of meditating together.
Many people who have participated in group meditation can speak to the personal benefits they gained from the experience. Today, research suggests that it’s not only individuals who can benefit from the practice; society as a whole may benefit as well.
This article was first published on Spirituality & Health here.