When I moved to Rochester, New York in 1999 I was determined to continue my cycling life. I had ridden my bike everywhere in Paris in the 1980s and in Philadelphia in the 1990s when neither city had bike paths or more than the odd Sunday street closure for cyclists. So I went to join the Rochester Critical Mass that first fall. It was already bitter cold and getting dark early, both deterrents for many cyclists, but the snow hadn’t yet started. I love Critical Mass. I have had transcendent experiences with blocks and blocks of cyclists in Chicago or San Francisco.
When I arrived at the Rochester Critical Mass I met one person: the editor of the independent weekly paper. We rode around for a while through the windy darkening streets but two did not a critical mass make. He told me that most months no one showed up but sometimes a few more. And then winter came. The City of Rochester advises that cyclists not hug the snow bank. Ha! Visibility is terrible and cars slide around so I found other ways to get to work.
In Toulouse I live right next to the bike highway along the Canal du Midi and they even have bike traffic jams.
So how much do we need our collectives? Do we need to see other people doing what we are doing? I was a classroom teacher for the last 12 years and although we spend our days surrounded by people it is a very lonely job. As a single parent and teacher I could go three or four days in a row without having one real conversation with another adult. When we do meet to chat we are constantly interrupted, trying to pee and eat before the bell rings, or given an agenda which guides our conversations. We work in tandem in our rooms but rarely together. Many teachers come home drained from all of the talking in class and have impoverished social lives because they are sapped at the end of the day. The social and emotional energy goes out all day but there is very little time for it to get replenished.
This weekend I had an extraordinary experience. I think that Toulouse, this year, is gifting me sangha, a word that is relatively new to me and seems to have an odd history.
In my living room this weekend, I sat down and wrote and read for over 5 hours with about 50 some people from around the world with whom I have been steadily writing for about six months. Online sangha is real and works. These people are not my friends, or my colleagues, but together we are all striving to deepen our meditation practice and writing. It feels a little like parallel play which seemed so rich to my son when he was a toddler. I am inspired by their energy and commitment and I feel seen and held in my endeavors.
I have felt this simultaneous independence and deep connection a few times in my life. When dancing tango at Thanksgiving in Ashland, with a group of kind people who care very much about floorcraft, every now and then there has been a moment, a sublime moment, when we are all dancing with each other, as one moving entity even as we each breathe and move with a singular partner. In Buenos Aires where the dance floors were very crowded, I experienced this many times. Humanity as a multi-unit organism. We don’t know much about each other but we are flowing in parallel strands with the same goal: to be utterly present in this moment with this music.
One of the reasons I chose Toulouse was because of the Iyengar yoga community here. In these large classes full of extremely dedicated students, I find myself completely in my own practice, not even seeing the others, but nonetheless buoyed up, gently supported by so much devotion in one room. We all have different bodies and different struggles but we are also united in a common goal to be fully in our bodies and in our practice.
So I have landed upon a virtual writing sangha, have found a yoga sangha and all of this has become clear to me because I have been going to a literal sangha, a bunch of Plum Village meditators who sit and walk together once a week.
These experiences are not like having a cohort in graduate school, we just don’t talk all that much, nor are they literally supportive, they aren’t going to feed me or help me find a bus to take, but these experiences give me immense hope for humanity.
I have not been part of a team for most of my career and for almost all of my parenting. These solo ventures have sometimes made me unbalanced, angry, sad, lonely or extremely questioning. In my fantasies, I would work collaboratively with a creative group of people and some other adults would help me raise my child and make all of the decisions about nutrition, homework, discipline, etc.
These three deeply spiritual collective practices that I have the privilege to participate in during this year are inspiring me and teaching me new things. When a group of people move toward something with good intention, firm footing, and joy, I think miracles might just happen.