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I was feeling a little restless yesterday afternoon, a sunny Saturday in San Francisco, so I left our office on Market Street and went for a walk to see what was happening in our neighborhood called the Castro. There were two interesting things. The first occurred when I got to the busy, commercial intersection of 18th and Castro where there is always plenty of political activity with people in booths getting others to listen to their causes and to sign their petitions. True to form yesterday, there was a booth on the corner for Roberta Achtenburg who is running for the office of mayor here in San Francisco. I approached the booth to check out the scene and there was the mayoral candidate, Roberta, herself! I thought it was unusual to see her right there in the flesh. Ms. Achtenburg has considerable fame locally because she is an "out" lesbian (also a mother) who was in the national spotlight a couple of years ago when President Clinton appointed her to a prominent position at HUD (Housing and Urban Development, Assistant to the Secretary). Ms. Achtenburg also spoke on national television during Clinton's inauguration. Her appointment was controversial and opposed by the more conservative elements in Washington because of her "non-traditional" lifestyle and the threat to "family values" that thought it to be. (Jesse Helms called her a "damn lesbian.") Eventually the legislature ratified her appointment and Ms. Achtenburg served successfully until she recently decided to get more involved at the local, community level and run for mayor.

Public Toilet Market & Castro StreetYesterday, Ms. Achtenburg was on the street answering questions from anybody who was willing to wait their turn. There was a line of people doing just that and I joined them and listened to the questions and answers that ensued. On my turn I asked about the graffiti problem, because on my recent trip to New York City I saw how they had been successful at totally removing graffiti from their subways and buses. I saw this as an amazing accomplishment. Why couldn't San Francisco manage that? There were also very few panhandlers and visible homeless people in downtown Manhattan. I thought this too was a wonderful achievement. What was New York City doing "right" that San Francisco couldn't figure out and what would Ms. Achtenburg do if elected? These were my questions. What she answered is not the issue. I just thought it was very interesting to see this candidate, a prominent political figure, out there interacting in the streets, interacting in the community. It got me thinking about issues of community. What did it mean to be in community and active?

The second interesting community event occurred as I walked by the intersection of Market and Castro. A truly monumental manifestation had appeared. There's now a brand new public toilet, beautiful (if you can imagine a public toilet being beautiful) and very prominently placed right near the curb. This event has received much press in the local media and it too has garnered its own controversy. Who would think that a toilet could be controversial? Yet, it is and has been. Now, this is no ordinary toilet. It's in a very attractive structure of French design, quite high tech and there will be twenty of them in various downtown San Francisco locations. As I approached the toilet it was a surreal experience with people going up reverently to touch it as if it was the "monolith" in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. "This is interesting," I said to myself, "we're worshipping a toilet!" I also went close to pay my respects, trying not to look too conspicuous hanging around a public toilet. I figured it was okay since the toilet was not yet operational. I enjoyed listen to the comments. Was it going to work, could it be kept clean and pleasant or would it become a focal point for quick sexual encounters and maybe even prostitution? The "buzz" was that they were totally self-cleaning and thoroughly washed themselves, even their floors, between every use. It would also be illegal for two adults to enter at once and the doors would automatically open after twenty minutes thus diminishing the sexual possibilities.

The toilets will be serviced by the French company that designed them and were being installed "free" to San Francisco in exchange for the advertising income that would be generated by 70 similarly designed kiosks and newsstands that were also being erected. It seemed like a win/win for everybody and I sensed the Holy Spirit's work. These facts and considerations are all part of the community toilet discussion that I saw as quite healthy. Roberta Achtenburg meeting the common people and fielding uncensored questions, I also saw as a very healthy community dialogue. Rejuvenated by my community walk, I returned to the Community Miracles Center office joyful and inspired. Thinking about healthy community I remembered a quotation from A Course In Miracles which states, "Your brothers are everywhere. You do not have to seek far for salvation. Every minute and every second gives you a chance to save yourself. Do not lose these chances, not because they will not return, but because delay of joy is needless." (T 163/175)

This is what I truly felt yesterday. People were out in the community, brushing elbows with others, talking about the issues of the day, interacting, expressing views and opinions and this was really joyful salvation. I had the sense that it was truly healing


This Deserves a Closer Look

If delay of joy is needless then I want to examine closer this joy experience that we feel when we engage in community. Since it's so readily available I might want to indulge in this joy more often. I want to take a closer look. I know I always feel slightly uncomfortable eating in an empty restaurant. Whenever I go out to eat with someone I look to see if there's anyone in the establishment before I go in. If I'm going to be the only customer then I don't want to go. I used to think this was because if the restaurants were empty the food probably wasn't very good. Yet, I realize this isn't why at all. When I was in New York City recently I had an experience where I was taken out to dinner by the people who were hosting me. They were being very considerate and took me to the nicest restaurant they knew. It was a very classy Italian restaurant right off Broadway near Times Square. It was quite high priced (I'm sure glad I didn't have to pick up that check) and it was impeccable. The food and the service were precise and perfect. However, when we walked in we were the only people there. Before we finished a couple of other tables had joined us but it was a large restaurant on a Friday night and I again had the sense that something wasn't right. The food was great though, truly divine. I realized and appreciated the obvious fine quality and truly felt grateful for the gesture, but I still felt unsettled. I understand now. The reason I don't want to go into an empty restaurant has nothing to do with the quality of food or service. It's the quality of the community interaction that discourages me. In an empty restaurant here's nobody with whom to brush elbows, nobody with whom to interact. There's nobody to look at and size up (flirt with), or make comments about their clothes. I like those community interactions!

There's something that happens when we get together with groups in healthy community that we instinctively know is healing. In contrast to the above dining experience I went out to dinner last night with Rev. Larry from the Community Miracles Center. There were some things that had happened during the day that had not worked out very well and we wanted to have an uplifting experience. We wanted something to take our minds off the troubles of the day that hadn't left us peaceful. Larry asked me where I wanted to go and I remembered the pleasant community experience of the afternoon walking in the Castro. I said I wanted to go where there were some people to look at. I wanted to interact. So I asked myself, "What's the busiest restaurant I know?" I immediately thought of it: The Hard Rock Cafe. So, we went and it was incredibly busy and I had the experience that I was looking for – the experience of connecting with community, watching and interacting with people. I felt the healthy "vibe" of a tribe of people coming together and working as one for the common goal (to eat dinner). The Hard Rock Cafe is interesting to me because I worked in the restaurant industry for years before going full time into the Miracles profession. I'm very knowledgeable and thus critical of restaurants. The Hard Rock Cafe always works as a dining experience and I've been there probably seven or eight times. Even though it's incredible crowded and they're serving hundreds of people per day I've never seen it not work there. The hostess told us it would be a 45 minute wait for our table and it was just that exactly. Wonderful, plenty of time for people watching! Once we sat down the service was great and the food (for the price) was very good. Even though there was a mass of people there, and one might think that with all that crowd and activity individuals might get a little uptight, that has not been my dining experience. I think that since the environment is orderly and functioning well, everybody's usually having a good time at The Hard Rock Cafe. So there's something about a community that is functioning well, when the powers that be manage effectively (good authority values), that elicits the experience of joy within many others and myself. I feel good when I'm around healthy community.

This good feeling is not directly related to anything in the conversations I might be having or listening too (I confess, I'm an eavesdropper), it's just being there that makes me feel good. There's a quotation in the Teachers Manual that states, "The simple presence of a teacher of God is a reminder. His thoughts ask for the right to question what the patient has accepted as true." (M 18/19) While this quotation deals with how the Teacher of God interacts in the healing situation the prominent thought is pertinent in the context of community. Our mere presence is enough to feel the healthy connection. It doesn't matter what we say or even if we say anything at all. It doesn't matter what's happening on the surface, be it politicking, toilets or dinner – the healing and joy are in the coming together. We're all there. There's something going on at a much deeper level, at the level of mind where we are all connected. The surface chat can really be anything. I know, for me, this is what I feel when I'm in a healthy community environment. The well functioning tribe is felt and reacted to positively. There are certain qualities that it has to have for me to feel this because it can shift over into a fearful mob experience too. It's not just being around masses of people that's necessarily healing. It needs to be orderly, if it's meeting the needs as they are perceived and understood, if there's open, honest communication going on – then I feel that healing and joy are the experience.

This reminds me of one of my truly favorite passages from the Course that I quote often, "It is impossible to remember God in secret and alone. For remembering Him means you are not alone, and are willing to remember it. . The lonely journey fails because it has excluded what it would find." (T 274/295) There is something very important, very healing about joining with other people for whatever reason we may appear to do it. Healthy community, healthy tribal interaction is healing. These are community values.

A very healthy, tribal interaction thousands of people (millions?) have had has been the experience of a Grateful Dead concert – especially for the community of people that considered themselves fans of the group or "Dead Heads." This was an extremely strong bonding experience that many had for years. Recently one the band's main singers, writers and their lead guitar player, Jerry Garcia, died suddenly and the effect among the Dead Heads was: painful, confused and, for some, traumatic. Other people who didn't appreciate the Grateful Dead concert experience were bewildered by the intensity of the response. The uninitiated couldn't understand what the Dead Heads were going through. The Dead Heads felt a loss and a fear that their tribe was slipping away because their ability to connect in healthy community suddenly disappeared. A Grateful Dead concert was "church" for thousands. It was the Dead Heads healing, spiritual connection. It was their community


Keep It Simple

Part of the healing of any twelve step program isn't so much the twelve steps themselves, it's because those people come together in community in a healthy way and for healing purposes. They honestly communicate and interact. I think that some of the great healing that has gone on in A Course In Miracles circles isn't just because of the philosophy either. It's because we gather in groups, in community, in a healthy way to discuss these healing ideas. The physical joining of bodies in groups can symbolize the joining of mind that we all crave and that is hopefully going on underneath the surface perception.

Yet, I wonder why so many people are still hiding. The Course states, "Have you really considered how many opportunities you have had to gladden yourself, and how many of them you have refused?" (T 58/64) Frequently, we refuse opportunities to join with other people that are simply opportunities the Holy Spirit offers us to gladden ourselves. Sometimes, we think A Course In Miracles is about high, lofty, spiritual God attainment and enlightenment. While it is about those things, this quotation also shows that sometimes it's just about gladdening ourselves. It's about just feeling good! It operates on a surface level too. I think those words were chosen for an important reason, just "gladden yourself." We can't get too esoteric about that. We are given many opportunities every day, every minute, to join. Opportunities to feel one and connected, even if it's around simply going out to dinner. Those are the opportunities to gladden ourselves I think we should watch out for and we should notice when we say "no" to them. Why are we saying, "no"? Are we saying "no" to the glad tiding of the joy of life? Why? What fears are we buying into? Isn't it about time we decided that whatever the price, it's too high to pay?


To Bed, or Not to Bed? Is That the Question?

I went to see the movie Jeffrey recently. Again, the issue of community and community values was prominent. Jeffrey tells the story of a gay man named Jeffrey who mirs in New York City. Jeffrey (the man) is so freaked out about AIDS that he's decided he will simply give up sex. He can't handle it anymore. The movie is about Jeffrey's interactions with his friends, and his community around his decision not to be sexually active. It's actually a comedy about AIDS, which is quite a feat and they pull it off very well. An interesting little sidelight about the movie Jeffrey is that it absolutely trashes Marianne Williamson. They take all the things that you might consider negative about Marianne and magnify them to absurdity. Sigourney Weaver plays a totally ego maniac Marianne. The author is primarily criticizing Marianne because he feels her message of personal responsibility makes people with AIDS feel guilty. Responsibility implies they have caused their own disease and could easily heal themselves simply by loving more. Certainly, this is a common misperception that people get when they "dabble" in the teaching of A Course In Miracles and other New Age disciplines. Hopefully, we with a more thorough understanding of the entire thought system can gently guide people around this common stumbling block.

The overall message of Jeffrey was a very positive one though, and it spoke strongly of the need to stay in community, to stay interacting. In order for Jeffrey to heal his fears he needed to realize that he couldn't just check out. First it's sex that he wants to check out of but later it's the whole New York City scene itself. He decides to move back home to Wisconsin where he feels he can hide his head and wait for the horror to pass. In the end, he doesn't check out at all. He stays in community, he stays sexual and he finally heals his fears. The thing about this message that I really resonated with (even though they trashed Marianne) was that we need to see the goodness in life, we need to interact and not close down. We need to stay in community to heal. Even if we don't understand it, something in the community interaction will heal us. Jeffrey keeps asking different peoples' advice trying to understand what to do. Eventually he lets all his questions go and decides just to do the best he can to stay involved and in community. That's when he heals. There are no easy answers for Jeffrey's difficult questions


Once Again, To Webster

I looked up the word community in the dictionary and it said, "An organized aggregate of persons who are responsible for a prevailing social order." (Webster's Collegiate) Community is any organized group that gets together and somehow, just through their interaction, manifests a social order. I think the thing that we lose when we don't get involved in community is our participation in creating this social order. If you are not involved in community the social order seems to be imposed upon us. We then seem to be victims. If we are involved in community, brushing elbows and rubbing shoulders, no matter how we do it (even if it's just walking the streets, watching people and just picking up the "vibes") we're participating. Our mere presence is somehow influencing the whole cultural mind set. It doesn't matter what we say. The reason some feel victimized is that they're not participating in community. I think that this involvement with our community brothers and sisters is what the study of A Course In Miracles is about at its core level.


Isn't It About TIME?

Another thing that related to this that I came across a month ago was the cover story of a recent TIME magazine entitled, "The Evolution of Despair" (August 28, 1995). The story explores why we, as a society, are we so full of depression and anxiety. What's wrong with us? What is the "20th Century Blues?" TIME wrote about a new branch of science called evolutionary psychology. I don't agree with all the premises and beliefs of this new science that traces our psychological evolution and draws a number of postulates. It starts with a basic axiom that man's evolution is based on the survival of the species. (I can't argue with that.) Those people with physical and psychological characteristics that helped them survive better, of course, were the ones that did manage to survive and have children. The characteristics they had, including their psychological attributes, were favored by the evolutionary process. Subsequently, we all inherited these qualities. Evolutionary psychologists try to go back (mentally not literally) and see why particular psychological characteristics favored survival. Positive community boding seems to figure high on their lists.

They pose that up to a certain point man was still evolving, however as culture progressed the survival of the species became no longer dependent on survival of the fittest. In a more modern society even people who aren't necessarily the fittest can still breed and thus posit their genetic traits to future generations. This is as true with psychological fitness as it is with physical fitness. It is no longer true that those who aren't part of the fittest line will die out. Evolutionary psychologists go back into history to see when the last culture was where survival of the fittest still seemed to prevail. What were the last cultures where you still needed to be fit to survive? They look at these cultures and their societal structures because they feel these were the societies and cultures where we humans were optimized psychologically. These cultures contained our most natural environments, environments where we would have the most psychological well being. I don't know if you followed all that (I don't know if I followed all that) and I certainly don't know if I agree with all that, but this is the premise of evolutionary psychology. When projected back to these last cultures/societies that they still believe had survival of the fittest qualities, they find themselves in the hunter/gatherer societies. The American Indian's were a hunter/gatherer culture. The men usually went out and hunted and the women and children went into the forests and fields and gathered the nuts and berries. In some parts of the world, cultures like these still exist (Australian aborigines as in *The Gods Must Be Crazy*). While life isn't necessarily easy in these societies, depression and anxiety as prolonged psychological conditions do not exist. Everyone feels "down" and worries at times, but the prolonged disease state is what we're looking at here.

One obvious thing about these cultures is that they are all very tribal in nature. They are all very community focused. Their highest values are community values, not family values. Everybody in the community has their own special function. Child rearing is a shared community task. They are not homogenous communities. They are not communities where everyone does all the same work. There is intense specialization. The roles are very clearly defined. Women do particular tasks; men do particular tasks. However, none of these tasks are seen as more important than others. Everybody is seen as equal in their importance to the tribe/community. Their particular job, tasks, roles are different and clearly defined and everyone's jobs, tasks, roles are intensely important to the healthy functioning of the tribe. "To each He gives a special function in salvation he alone can fill; a part for only him. Nor is the plan complete until he finds his special function, and fulfills the part assigned to him." (T 493/530)

There is always a strong emphasis on the need to bond with the community. The tribe only worked as well as the individuals felt bonded to each other and to the greater whole. What the TIME article proposed was that the reason we are so depressed and full of anxiety is because we're not bonding tribally in community anymore. We're trying to all adapt to an "unnatural" way of being where we're all similarly skilled. We can take care of ourselves, after all. Maybe this isn't the truth and we can't take care of ourselves. Maybe we do need to have our particular, individual roles and thus depend heavily on others to complement us. We are not talking about dependence, but rather interdependence. When we think we can do it all ourselves we don't recognize how interdependent we are. We need to be in much more interaction and not just in our little family unit, but true interdependence on a larger scale. The interdependence of the intensely bonded and identified community, or tribe, is what we are optimally designed for psychologically. The healthiness of the tribe rests on its ability to accept and integrate vast individual differences into its communities. Everyone needs to feel valuable and needed. The TIME article said that this is what we've lost and this in one of the reasons why we have so much depression and anxiety. Our psychological evolution is optimized for a vastly different cultural matrix.

As I said, I may not agree with all this theory but I sure do agree with the conclusion. I think that we are suffering from much anxiety and depression because so many are trying to be self contained units. We don't interact enough with the communities we find ourselves in. Either we try to be the self contained unit of one individual or we try to be the self contained unit of a couple or a family. I think we need to open all that up. A Course In Miracles supports this theory with its focus away from the special relationship. It talks about how the special relationship, two or a little family group, is a walling up against the world outside perceived as dangerous and full of guilt. This hiding is not going to save us and is leading to the epidemic depression that the TIME article is talking about. How many people do you know taking Prozac or some other antidepressant? Think about it? What the article wanted to explain was that there's a prevailing myth that it's the decay of the family that we're all suffering from. The conservative elements (and some liberals too) talk about the return to family values as the answer, but it's not family values that are the problem. It's the decay of the community that we're suffering over and it's the return of community values that's really going to heal us.

The TIME article states the most unhealthy of all modern societal structures is the traditional suburban existence. Here a person works in a place that is quite distant from where he mirs. This segmentation of life is intensified further because it is very common to drive home from work, use a garage door opener to enter your home (thus totally eliminating even a chance encounter with your neighbor) and spend the rest of the night eating or watching television with only those who mir in the same dwelling place – which may be no one! It is estimated that 25% of all the people in the United States mir alone! Television is totally passive. No interaction is being had at all. The images of people shown to the viewers tend to be ones that we really don't identify with and, in fact, compare to quite badly. Few of us look like the actresses or actors on the screen. Hence our isolation and separation only grows stronger. Interaction in the community would give us real people with whom to talk. We would no doubt feel more normal next to them than to the television's screen manicured counterparts and the movie stars brought to us in endless VHS tapes. Not to mention few of our lovers can perform the tricks that the actors and actresses on the "Spice" channel seem so proficient at. Is it any wonder that the world seems an alien place? We get most of our education about it from television instead of from life!


Isn't That Special?

The Course reminds us that traditional couple relationships with their usual special interactions are not healing at all. They only increase our deep seated beliefs in guilt and separation. The family carving out an existence for themselves in a harsh world is co-dependent at best and downright abusive and self-destructive at worst. "The special love relationship is an attempt to limit the destructive effects of hate by finding a haven in the storm of guilt. It makes no attempt to rise above the storm, into the sunlight. On the contrary, it emphasizes the guilt outside the haven by attempting to build barricades against it, and keep within them." (T 314/337) While people will still tend to couple, it's important to turn this process over to the Holy Spirit and allow a new goal and perception to come into the relationship. Traditional family values often focus on attempting to protect the family against the savage and fearful outside world. Community values allow for an expansion of the world view. A perception gradually takes hold that sees the world as an interesting partner in our life experience. The world has mysteries to unravel and lessons to teach. Look at how successfully the American Indians interacted with Mother Earth and how they respected their environment and learned from it. Look at how alienated the traditional 20th century family is, to the point of having no real connection with the earth and its lessons of interdependence, diversity and life. Milk is a beverage we buy at a remote grocery store, not a mother cow's life giving nourishment produced for her baby calf.

The modern family tries to build a little protective fortress where the dirty, evil city won't intrude. We're so cautious and careful. An Australian aborigine mother would commonly breast feed the infant of her neighbor mother while the neighbor went out to gather food for the tribe. In today's society, we feel self-conscious knocking on our neighbor's door asking to borrow an egg! Surely, says the ego, it would be better to get into our car again, drive miles away to an isolated grocery store and purchase the eggs from other "safe" people with whom we have extremely limited interactions


Come-to-Unity in Community

Before we move into a true merging with God and a turning away from the physical/perceptual realm we're going to have to join with all our sisters and brothers in community. We need to see how much we need each other. This means accepting us with all the vast individual difference that we have. "You cannot enter God's Presence with the dark companions beside you, but you also cannot enter alone. All your brothers must enter with you, for until you have accepted them you cannot enter. For you cannot understand Wholeness unless you are whole, and no part of the Son can be excluded if he would know the Wholeness of his Father." (T 185/200). This will mean pushing through the fears of intimacy and communication that our isolation has fostered. One of the reasons I've grown to love the city environment is because of it's "in your face" way of forcing me to deal with the world and my many sisters and brothers. There's no place to hide here. My fears and judgments confront me constantly. I mir just a few blocks from the Community Miracles Center and walk to and from work every day. I step over numerous homeless people in doorways and deal with the same panhandlers who have been asking for the same spare change for months (years?) on the same stretch of sidewalk. I shop at all the little local stores, eat sandwiches from the Iranian and Chinese "mom and pop" markets and buy coffee at the coffee shop next door. I make it a point of knowing all my business neighbors on a first name basis and believe me, if I need help I ask for it! I also offer it. I take part in the local issues, voice an opinion when appropriate and don't alienate non-Course people with abstract spiritual theories that they neither ask for nor appreciate. I feel if they want to know about the Course they'll come to Sunday Service, otherwise I just try to be a normal person, whatever that means. I'm just me, living, eating, sleeping and working in my community and it feels right. It feels right to accept all my sisters and brother, regardless of their spiritual beliefs, as my fellow travelers. They're my environment and, like the native American Indians, I hold them reverently and learn the lessons that they teach me. I may be a devoted student of A Course In Miracles but many are not. That doesn't mean that I am less bonded to them. The Community Miracles Center is an A Course In Miracles community/church that exists within the larger context of the Castro neighborhood community. The Castro fits into the San Francisco community, then the California community, then the USA community and finally the world community. The boundaries of community don't have the rigidity of nuclear family boundaries and easily blend and flow into one another. Communities overlap in ever widening circles. One community bonding will ultimately bond you with the global community. Can we say the same for the nuclear family?

Do we smile at the check out counter, make a joke with the neighbor down the street, talk local politics with the woman behind the espresso machine and give an honest sincere answer to the "How are you?" question asked us scores of times every day? These are community values. The Course has been trying to train us to see our connection with everyone we encounter. "When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him you will see yourself. As you treat him you will treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself. Never forget this, for in him you will find yourself or lose yourself." (T 132/142) This is surely to be the motto of the community minded. Would we trade this for a few special relationships? "And you would bargain with them for a few special relationships, in which you think you see some scraps of safety." (T 304/327) I believe it's time to move into a new, practical, application phase of what we're learning from this Course. Sometimes this means putting the book down and engaging ourselves in the interactions of life and relationships. Are we finally ready to save the world? Are we finally ready to save ourselves? Are we ready to awake and be glad? Our community is everywhere and our healthy interactions with it will heal us all.  

© 1995 Rev. Tony Ponticello, San Francisco, CA – All rights reserved.

Rev. Tony Ponticello
c/o Community Miracles Center
2269 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

This article appeared in the October 1995 (Vol. 9 No. 8) issue of Miracles MonthlyMiracles Monthly is published by Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA. CMC is supported solely by people just like you who: become CMC Supporting Members, Give Donations and Purchase Books and Products through us.