The Art of Community Building

I’ve worked as a community leader and teacher since 2019, and it was born out of my work as a spiritual teacher. In that work, I watched for nearly a decade how lonely people are. One of the big things that people have sought on on the spiritual path is connection. It’s a reflection that many people in Western Society have so few meaningful and reliable relationships in their lives.

This isolation–often while living around hundreds, thousands, or millions of other people–is crushing humans under despair.

As a consequence, a lot of people come to the spiritual path and me seeking solace.

Sometimes that solace is a hope for a soulmate connection. Sometimes it is a hope for a friend. Sometimes it is a longing to know/feel God. Sometimes, it is for a spiritual experience that they want to repeat because it felt good.

Some of these things are pointed at me–they want me to be their soulmate. For others, they are trying to get a technique which will allow them to find those things.

But what do they really want?

They want to be seen.

They want to be heard.

They want to be held.

They want to know that they have support when they are tired, sick, confused, or weak.

They want community.

The interesting thing about spiritual surrender is that it just accepts what Is.

That’s it.

And human beings are built to have community.

Biologically Designed for Community

History, anthropology, and biology teach us that humans are designed to be communal. People have been living in close-knit groups of 30 to 50 individuals for most of human existence as far as history and anthropology tell us. Our bodies have all kinds of touch receptors and biochemical responses to engaging with other humans that support our mental, emotional, and physical health.

But now most of us are not living in the same tight-knight communities anymore.

Instead, modern life drives us towards individuality and isolation. In cities, people are constantly exposed to new people every day, but with no significant connection.

The remote working revolution is creating additional distance in our human relationships. It is the type of thing that will add so much more misery to people’s lives, leaving them in longings that they don’t full understand.

All the while society will point them towards more things that don’t fulfill them, such as more work, more substances, more sex, changes in romantic partnerships, changes in living situations, more ideas and information, more adventures and stimulation, more technology (like having an AI friend), and other things.

Sure, some of those things will feel good…for awhile. But when a fundamental experience such as being in daily support by a community is absent, those good feelings will evaporate fast.

In seeing all this, I have shifted more of my work to be a community leader and teacher.

I build communities, and I teach people to be community leaders builders.

But what is a community?

Learn about some of my successes in community building here.

It’s About Healthy Connection

A community is a dedicated group of people committed to the well-being of one another. They regularly communicate and interact with one another. They have a shared purpose, clear guidelines around interaction, regularity in connection, and other core principles. When the principles of healthy community are in place, people feel supported and connected.

They feel like they belong. More about this in a second.

Some of the results of healthy community include:

  • Ability to handle misunderstandings and conflicts
  • Ability to invite in and transition out community members
  • Adaptability in changing circumstances
  • Ability to uplift and encourage one another and deal with problems and weaknesses, and so many more abilities

The reality is that few people ever see a healthy community. They are, at best, living in groups and crowds.

Groups and Crowds

How do groups and crowds differ from community?

Groups of people come together around an activity like climbing, basketball, writing, shopping, gaming, yoga, meditation, pickleball, and so forth. When the activity is gone, people leave. They have no real purpose or connection to one another. They can’t count on each other for anything else other than doing the shared activity. Furthermore, a lot of groups are purely transactional where people are using one another very directly to get things. Jobs are ways that people come together in an activity, which they often don’t want to do, to get money, and often, nothing else.

Crowds are everywhere. Westerners are drowning in strangers. A crowd at a street fair does not have anything in common other than being in a similar location. A crowd at a store has a similar desire to buy something, but nothing else.

Both groups and crowds fragment easily because there is no commitment to one another. Any misunderstanding can bring conflict and an end of the gathering of people.

Through things like continuity (one of 11 Principles of a Healthy Community that I’ve observed) friends can happen in groups and crowds. When someone sees another regularly, a sense of familiarity helps to break down the barriers to connection. But these connections are random and unpredictable, and there are very actionable ways to facilitate connections so that people don’t have to go to 19 yoga classes before making one friend that they occasionally see for tea.

Unfortunately, these days, groups and crowds are what people think community is.

Broken Family Communities

Additionally, many family structures lack communal agreements. Some may be healthy communities; many are unhealthy communities (unable to handle change, adversity, rarely seeing one another, etc.). Plenty more families act like groups and crowds.

The people involved in many modern families have little more than shared DNA and a sense of obligation. When things go poorly, they often devolve into fight (blaming, physical violence, emotional violence), flight (avoiding situations, changing the subject of a challenging conversation), freeze (hiding from issues/pretending they don’t exist/sweeping it under the rug), and faint (checking out through drugs, alcohol, media, sleep, and so forth). Some even fragment entirely, and many families have broken down.

This makes a lot of people feel lonely from Day One of their lives.

Being Unwanted by Your Family

The Beauty of Belonging

When a community is healthy, there is a sense of belong.

What is belonging?

Belonging is knowing that your vital needs will be met.

Vital needs are different than basic needs. A lot of people’s basic needs are being met in modern society, but still, they feel disconnected, alienated, or unheard.

Vital needs include being heard and seen. They include situations where people can reciprocate kindness so that interactions aren’t one-way. Vital needs are the trip to the doctor, the advice on taxes, the countless different bits of information we need, and touch! We are built to be touched, and touched will say a thousand times over that, “You are safe and seen. You belong to us.”

My Community Building Experience

I’ve actively engaged in building communities since 2019. I have seen the need, and I see the power of it. When people feel supported on the spiritual path or any shared pursuit, they tend to go further. When they don’t have shared support, they often give up on their weight loss goals, meditation practices, start-up companies, romantic relationships, and so many other things where people need support from a larger community.

What are some of the things I’ve learned as a community builder?

To build a healthy community, people must do and feel a number of things. Some of the most critical are:

  • Feel safe
  • Be vulnerable
  • Share honestly
  • Show up and communicate regularly
  • Be willing to be messy and work through issues with other community members and be willing to be with the messiness of others.

How do we encourage this as community leaders and builders?

We create:

  • Clarity through communally agreed upon purposes
  • Trust through guidelines that communities take ownership of upholding and re-crafting
  • Stability through our regularity in showing up
  • Ways to reconcile through giving community members paths to atone if they make a mistake (and they will!)
  • Boundaries through upholding the purpose and guidelines to keep the space safe, and more

Community Leadership and Involvement

Building community is a lot of work. But it is also deeply rewarding for all involved. I’ve had people in my spiritual communities for years now, and it has been pivotal in so many people’s lives to date.

If you’re interested in joining one of my facilitated communities, check out this link for next steps.

Groups

If you’re interested in becoming a community leader/builder or improving your community leadership skills, feel free to reach out.

You can sign up for my newsletter and reply to the welcome letter that gets sent.

The Critical Importance of Community

We are in dire need of real connections with one another. Without them, people get more and more desperate and despairing. So please have the courage to reach out to me about joining a community if you want to be a part of one.

If you want to be a community leader/builder or improve upon the skills you already have, that is hugely important.

We need you.

I am here to support you. I look forward to hearing from you.

In kindness,

Jim Tolles