The Dharma of Spiritual Community

Published on: January 23, 2017

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Thank you for sharing your practice with me today is the phrase that my yoga teacher uses to conclude every yoga class, after we have of course chanted “Om” and said a prayer for loving kindness.

I love that. It makes me feel like I belong there, that wherever I am on my journey, wherever I am in my practice of yoga, it’s all okay. During those times when my mind wanders and I start comparing my practice to someone else’s practice, I come back to remembering that we’re all here “practicing” together and so there is no need for judgment about what my practice looks like compared to someone else’s. We’re all here in this room “practicing” together.

I was asked to write an article on the topic of the importance of aligning actions with mission, vision and values. I see this as an opportunity to share a bit about my current spiritual practice of organizational principles. What has come to me is that all the organizational processes we talk about, including developing mission/vision/core values, are forms of spiritual practice for our organizations.

In Unity, we place a great deal of emphasis on our individual spiritual practices—prayer, meditation, tithing, forgiveness, spiritual study and service, to name a few examples. But what about for our organizations? Ministries are a living, breathing organism as well, with their own life journey, a destiny they are meant to fulfill, a dharma that is their unique calling in the world. [Dharma is a right way of living that aligns with your purpose.] I believe our ministries as organizations also need to develop spiritual practices that support the unfoldment of their potential.

The most important concept for me is the idea we are reminded of in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you.” I think the most important thing we can do to help our ministries thrive is to learn to listen deeply to what is within them and to then help create the right conditions for that to come forth and be expressed. Indeed, this is a life or death matter for us as individuals and our ministries.

A book that has been helping me to understand this even more deeply is the book we used for our Fall series in 2016 at Unity of Buffalo, N.Y., The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling by Stephen Cope. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, Cope describes the four pillars for living our dharma:

  • Look to Your Dharma
  • Do It Full Out
  • Let Go of the Fruits
  • Turn It Over to God


First Pillar

This first pillar, “look to your dharma” is for me about clarity of purpose. Looking within to ask the question, what is our unique calling, our purpose now, in this place, in this time, with this group of people that are drawn to us? Our ministries have a dharma, a sense of higher purpose, a unique calling that needs to be discerned, nurtured and celebrated. In looking to our dharma, Cope describes how we need to learn to trust our gifts, think of the small as large, and listen for the call of our times. Those are good words of advice for all of us today.

An example of “thinking of the small as large” is Henry David Thoreau’s dharma story. When he returned to Concord, Massachusetts, after finding that he did not fit in with the literary society of the day in New York City, he discovered that it was in his small home town, beside Walden Pond, that he was really able to claim his voice in the world, and his writing flourished.


Second Pillar

The second pillar, “do it full out,” is about directing the resources of the organization to be in service of the greater purpose, aligning the people, energy and resources to support the organization’s dharma. Just like a great yoga posture, alignment of the mission, vision and core values is essential to a solid foundation.


Third and Fourth Pillars

Letting go of the fruits and turning it over to Infinite Potential is about trusting that each ministry has a life purpose to fulfill, and the timing, the expression, the out picturing of that dharma may or may not be what we think we want at any particular time.

I shared in our spiritual community recently the example of Harriet Tubman’s life. She learned to walk by faith. Between 1850-60, she completed at least 19 daring raids into slaveholding territory to free hundreds of enslaved people. She always travelled at night, in the winter months when the nights were especially dark and long, through incredibly perilous circumstances. She had this incredible sense of guidance, her so-called “second sight” that allowed her to evade capture every time. She knew to trust her inner guidance, moment-by-moment, staying close to the rivers flowing north, and following the North Star for guidance.

At Unity of Buffalo we have found our dharma by living into our mission of being “a diverse, loving spiritual community empowering growth, transformation and peaceful living.”

One of our “North Stars” are the words of our founding minister Rev Lillian Matthews that we often remind ourselves of: “Our one desire is that this ministry be a blessing to the whole community.” One of the ways we stay close to the rivers flowing north is to also describe ourselves as a “spiritual and cultural arts center for Western New York.” Through the many concerts, plays, art gallery shows, mindfulness retreats that we have at Unity of Buffalo, we are a blessing to the whole community.

Author Stephen Cope says in his book, “People feel happiest and most fulfilled when meeting the challenges of their dharma in the world, when bringing highly concentrated effort to some compelling activity for which they have a true calling.” That has been my experience here as well.

Be Open to What Comes Forth

It takes the form of what comes from within our congregation—that might be social justice work in the community, Christmas gifts for special populations in our community, an Advent Retreat that helps people prepare for Christmas from the inside, art shows, concerts, caring for each other in our community, or the practical business of taking care of our building and grounds to provide a safe and beautiful home for our ministry.

Reminding ourselves to consider the “small as large,” to stay close to the rivers flowing north, and follow our North Star for guidance, we keep finding the “next right thing” that engages us to keep growing—sometimes it is what we had planned for the year, sometimes it is an unexpected opportunity, sometimes it comes by trial and error.

As I am grateful for the opportunity to keep  “practicing” our dharma, I find our next steps continue to be revealed.

And so, this is the state of my current thinking regarding aligning our organizations around mission, vision and values. I look forward to hearing about your practice as well. Thank you for sharing your practice with me today.

Mary Masters
Senior Minister at Unity of Buffalo

Rev Mary Elita Masters, minister, Unity of Buffalo, NY, has served on the Eastern Region Board and as chair of the UWM Board. She shared in Appreciative Inquiry and the Transformation Experience. She has a master’s in managerial communications. She is a “Michigan Early Women Letterwinner” (see FB).

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  • Elizabeth Mora

    Beautifully said, Mary.