Dhanurdhara Swami January 30th, 2017
After the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon three years ago I was impressed by a poignant message from Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the city’s archbishop, that highlighted for me the value, even more than the value – the practical necessity – of community for spiritual life.
“The crowd is made up of self-absorbed individuals, each one focused on his or her own interests in competition with the conflicting projects of others. A community is where people come to value each other, and find their own identity in being part of something bigger than themselves, working together for the common good.”
I thought this really underscores the foundational spiritual need that community provides: a space where one can rise above the ego based “me first” consciousness that roots us in this world.
Of course, I am not negating the necessity of self-preservation or protecting oneself, but a “crowd” is not supposed to be our community. We need places where we can be openhearted without laboring to protect our interests.
My realization on this was especially reinforced by our recent Purī retreat. Our team worked particularly hard to create an environment that we felt would best foster community, a culture that we summed up as “welcomed, cared for, expertly done in the service of Śrīla Prabhupāda.” With this mindset, our crew was very attentive to serve the pilgrims by providing a clean and quiet setting with the highest quality talks, kīrtans, and prasādam and for no cost above the payment for their rooms.  And we felt the result.
When devotees no longer have to worry about protecting or serving their own interests they become eager to serve the community that does. Bhakti so easily flows when we find an identity of belonging to something greater than ourselves. We saw that so strongly at the retreat, which was confirmed by the feedback of the participants.
One former ballet dancer who tastefully enlivened the kīrtans with his graceful and blissful dancing remarked he hadn’t danced like this in kīrtan for years and related his spontaneity to the sense of community he was feeling. Aesthetic or rasa theory informs us that the full force of rasa, or heightened devotion, is only felt within a group when all the members experience it as if with one interest or mind. And that is certainly the case for kīrtan. 
Many years ago, I read The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm. I don’t remember much now, but one point struck me. He described narcissism as antithetical to love and defined it as seeing the world through one’s own desires. Although we need to be careful not to use membership in any group to fortify our ego by creating a mini world of individual or collective lordship, such alliances, do have an important redeeming purpose. When they are committed relationships in partnership, family or community they help us understand that the world is not just about us, which is a fundamental principle in bhakti, a principle that will not be learned by one who chooses to stay alone, even as a monk, unless he or she has the extraordinary realization to rise above narcissism and become the humble servant of everyone.
The pastimes of Kṛṣṇa demonstrate the perfect spiritual community. This is one of my favorite descriptions of community and Śrīla Prabhupāda’s relevant commentary:
“Like the whorl of a lotus flower surrounded by its petals and leaves, Kṛṣṇa sat in the center, encircled by lines of His friends, who all looked very beautiful. Every one of them was trying to look forward toward Kṛṣṇa, thinking that Kṛṣṇa might look toward Him. In this way they all enjoyed their lunch in the forest.” (Bhāg. 10.13.8)
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s commentary:
“The present Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is an attempt to keep Kṛṣṇa in the center, for if this is done all activities will automatically become beautiful and blissful.”
Let us pray to rise above the crowd and find our community.
 To facilitate the spirit of bhakti the retreat is maintained only by donations from the participants.
 In the Caitanya-caritāmṛta it is described that Śrī Caitanya stopped one of the nocturnal kīrtans at the house of Śrīvāsa Ṭhākura when He suddenly felt the relish of the kīrtan diminishing. When he inquired if someone unknown had entered it was revealed that a brahmacārī with an impersonal or monistic view had entered.