Friday, June 28, 2013

Communal Pathways to Sustainable Living

The three days of this conference on Communal Pathways to Sustainable Living has flashed by.  I have never been so inspired by the stories I heard and the people I met that during these 5 days.  I had wondered what it would be like to come to a conference where I knew no one and worse still, where no one knew me J!  I need not have worried.  By the time Day 1 of our Findhorn Taster had finished, we had already made friends with about a dozen people.  By the time the conference finished we had invitations to visit transition towns, eco-villages and co-houses across Europe. 

If all goes to plan, we hope to reconnect with Pam and Mark at the co-housing project in Lancaster, Kariin in the eco village of Sieben Lieden near Berlin, Jonathan, from Penzance in Cornwall where he is involved in the Transition Town movement, Freya in Vienna who is looking to inspire her fellow city dwellers, Nikos in Athens who has connections to the communitarian movement in Greece...the list goes on.  Yes, the connections we made were probably some of the most valuable outcomes of this week.  What is more, we have made friends with Karen, a professor from the US who will connect us with many involved in the eco-village movement in Sri Lanka where she spent two weeks conducting intensive research.  Lua may get us connected to the eco village movement in Senegal.  We are excited to have made these personal connections and friendships and looking forward to where the road will lead…

I have always believed that if you are on the path that leads to your destiny, things work out for you in ways that you might never have imagined.  There would have been close to 200 people at this conference and of course it was impossible to meet everyone, which makes this extra special.

The conference was very different to any other I have been too.  Perhaps that is particularly because of the spiritual energy, which also binds much of this group.  There is a strong belief in a collective consciousness that is imperative for change.  It is impossible for me to blog about everything I learnt and felt.  We’ve heard presentations on ‘Being the Change’ , the process of social change attributed to Gandhi.  I attended a workshop of Transition Towns where the 7 principles of transition to a life with dramatically reduced energy consumption was discussed.  We talked about the numerous ways in which local economies could be encouraged.  We watched a movie where a young couple from the US travelled for two years in search of their utopia.  I hope that as Steven and I travel to eco villages, transition towns and co-housing projects around Europe I can talk more about the detail as well as the challenges and wins of each of them. 

The conference concludes with a panel discussion.  The conference organiser is Graham Meltzer, a New Zealand born researcher who has spent most of his time in Australia.  Bill Metcalf, Steve’s supervisor was also Graham’s supervisor.  We had spent a bit of time with Graham during our Findhorn Taster experience as we volunteered to spend half a day helping him stuff conference satchels.  He has lived at Findhorn for 8 years now and his speech at the end of the conference was inspiring.  He has worked hard for 3 years to bring people from over 40 countries and speakers from about 30 countries to this place.  He puts up a picture of his newborn grandson and asks us to think about the future we will be leaving the generations to come.  I know everyone will leave Findhorn with a renewed pledge to continue working toward a more sustainable future.  

Lua's Story: A Global Ecovillage in the Democratic Republic of Congo

It isn’t everyday you get to meet and make friends with someone who has travelled to the UK from Congo.  Lua Secretary General of GEN (Global Ecovillage Network) Central and Southern Africa has travelled to Findhorn with her partner Lucky to share stories from her work in setting up GEN Congo.  I met Lua when I attended the workshop where she shared her story... 

I find myself connecting with Lua immediately.   She was born in Kinshasha to a wealthy family and grew up feeling disconnected to her culture.  The Congo was colonised by Belgium and just like in Sri Lanka the divide and rule culture of our colonial masters created parts of society who had special privileges and were removed from the masses.

Like myself, Lua has studied and lived abroad in far off places like California, South Africa and Canada.  Around 21 she started reading many topics that ranged from psychology to spirituality, which led her to start asking questions about the plight of her country.  She found herself depressed and distressed at what she found.  

Congo is at the heart of Africa and is the second largest African country and the 11th largest country in the world.  The population is more than 75 million.  The war, which began in the late 90’s, devastated the country and killed approximately 6 million people.  The prevalence of rape and other sexual crime during this time was terrific and some of the worst of its kind in the world.  Congo is also extremely rich in biodiversity (second only to the Amazon) and minerals.  We hear that all the elements of the periodic table can be found here and learn about the mining of coltan a mineral used in many of the electronic devices we use today – laptops, phones, camera equipment etc.  Coltan mining helped finance and fuel the conflict in the Congo.   Someone is getting very rich from this mineral but it isn’t the villagers in the Congo.

The Congolese today are searching for a new reality…for healing from the horror they have been subject to and to rebuild their nation.  GEN Congo was formed as a result of the work done by Lua with much support from her partner, and her colleagues in the global GEN movement.   Today they are looking to connect with other eco village networks and permaculture projects to promote a more sustainable way of living in the Congo. 

They have set up the Mama Na Bana Ecovillage and Permaculture Living and Learning Center with donor support and are looking to facilitate and run the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) courses.  Street kids and adults from the local village attended the first course and they are also broadening their reach to the Indigenous Pygmees, a group marginalised in Africa.  Obviously the course will have to fit the special circumstances of this country.

I listen in amazement as Lua shares her stories, her sadness at the state of her country but also her joy to be involved in the work that she is now engaged in.  Having visited the gorillas in Uganda as well as the pygmies, I can imagine the countryside that she describes.  She is looking for volunteers but she also cautions anyone interested about the conditions they will find themselves in.  Malaria, typhoid, mosquitoes, snakebites are all part and parcel of living and working here.

Our time together has been all too brief but I have been truly inspired by the work that Lua and Lucky are doing in the Congo and wish them the best in their quest to transform a war ravaged country.   In a conference dominated by white Europeans and stories from the west it was so refreshing to hear Lua’s story. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Andrew's Story: A Life Dedicated to Camphill Communities

We met Andrew during our field trip to visit the birthplace of the Camphill Community in Aberdeen.   The visit included time spent exploring the Newton Dee Community as well as the Camphill School at Aberdeen.  Camphill offers homes for children, young people, and adults with intellectual disabilities and other special needs - to live, learn, and work with others in energetic reciprocal relationships.  It is a well-organised network of communities that give opportunities to a segment of society often overlooked, neglected or institutionalised in so many parts of the world.  Yet, it is the story of people like Andrew who have dedicated their lives to living and working here that inspires me the most…

Andrew completed his degree in history and politics around 1976, at the tail end of the Hippie era.  He grew up in Lancaster and knew instinctively that he did not want to spend his life stuck in a traditional job.  He decided to go visit a small Camphill community in the Lake District and saw something there that spoke to his heart.  He saw a group of people living and working with disabled children, without receiving a wage but having their needs met in exchange for the work they did.  He liked the idea of integrating his life with his work and not having long commutes into town.  He volunteered there for a while but the community closed down.

Armed with the hippie bible of the times, ‘A guide to Alternative England and Wales’, Andrew hitchhiked around England for 6 months, visiting various communities, searching for a place he could call home.  He recalls there were many others searching for an alternative lifestyle and admits it was very much a journey taken by white, educated, middle class folk.  Growing up in an educated middle class segment of society in Sri Lanka around the same time, I don’t recall any talk of an alternative lifestyle.  There were no hippies in Sri Lanka.  Was it a luxury we could not afford or were we far too conservative to even consider it?

Andrew visited numerous communities but he never quite found the same sense of home that he had felt when he was at Camphill.    Andrew and his wife decided that they would dedicate their lives to volunteering at Camphill Communities. 

 It was while they were volunteering in a rather large Camphill Community in Yorkshire that they were told by the wise (female) elder there that they were needed in Northern Ireland.  And so they took a boat to Ireland, planning to stay for a year.  They stayed there for 12 years!  Andrew remembers those years fondly.  He and his wife ran a house community, sharing their home with disabled kids as well as looking after their own children.  His face lights up as he recalls those ‘golden years’ in Ireland where three of his four children were born.
His children were free to grow up and run around.  He learnt farming skills and his wife learnt craftwork, pottery and weaving.  He had always known there was another world out there - one that was different to the traditional 9-5 routine that most of us end up in - and Andrew is very glad he found it. 

After his stint in Ireland, Andrew moved to a community in Beannachar, Scotland.  It is a training centre for young adults with disabilities.  The role was more challenging, as the adults he was working with needed more care.  His wife trained to be a nurse and they adapted to the new conditions.   Organisations were also changing.  Everything became more regulated and occupational health and safety became the new buzzwords.

Today, the volunteers at Camphill are also different…perhaps more individualistic than those in the 70’s.  Camphill was once all about the individual serving the community.  Today, the emphasis is more about the community catering to individual needs.  People want well-defined work hours, time off, pension schemes and holiday periods.

After a period of 16 years at Beannachar, Andrew and his wife moved to Milltown – a small, quiet community near Stonehaven, Scotland with just two houses and a workshop.  This is where they now live. 

The Camphill way of life honours the natural kingdom and the spiritual world and was founded on Christian values by a Austrian Jewish refugee who came to Scotland to escape the Nazis.  A simple non-denominational church is one of the buildings we visit at Newton Dee.  However, with the emphasis on regulation and their reliance on state funding this commitment to spiritual life is also changing.  Some of the volunteers are here because of their commitment to community development rather than to a spiritual way of life.  Andrew is now researching theories of community development, to demonstrate to his peers that the future will look different.  He believes it is important to transition smoothly to this new future rather than resist it.

We have really enjoyed our visit to the Camphill communities of Aberdeen.  It has been a wonderful visit that has included visiting the bakery, the craft centre, and the farm where bio-dynamic techniques are practiced.  We’ve enjoyed a delicious meal at the café, the place that allows the outside community to interact with Camphill.  The grounds are immaculately kept and the rose garden also provides a space where the ashes of the deceased rest in peace.  It is a wonderful model that has allowed people like Andrew to live a life dedicated to service while having his needs and that of his family met. 

Andrew tells me that he is incredibly grateful he found his purpose early in life. 
This story reminds me of a favourite quote from the book the Alchemist by Paolo Coelho:  “To realize one's destiny is a person's only obligation.”  After 35 years of living and working at Camphill Andrew has nothing but undying gratitude for the community that gave him a reason for being.   Surely, here is a man who has found his destiny and his story inspires us all. 

Andrew, thank you for sharing your story.  I wish you and your family and the community you serve all the very best for what ever lies ahead…!  In a future where the peak oil crisis might transform life for all of us, surely you are better prepared than most! 

Findhorn Taster Day 2: Communal Living at Findhorn

Tuning in…tuning out…focalising….attunement….the words swirl around me and I am slowly getting accustomed to relating to this place and the people around me.  I know from my exposure to travel that words are a unique component of culture.  So, why am I so surprised to find that the Findhorn Community is no different?   

It’s not just the words that define this community; it is also practices such as the observance of silence and the practice of meditation.   A moment of silence precedes the start of meetings or even day-to-day chores where everyone stands together in a circle holding hands while one person might help ‘ground’ the group to the activity that is about to commence.  It enables people like me, who would usually have a million things buzzing around our heads to let go of the chaos and become present.  I like the silence but I’m not so sure about holding hands.  Sometimes a piece of music will be played.  In the mood that is created we begin to feel our connections to each other, to think about our reason for being here and to feel grounded.

Many of the Findhorn communards will start their day at places like the nature sanctuary where they meditate before starting the day.  It is a practice used in decision-making as well as in resolving conflict.   In the silence that is created, people are more able to find common ground rather than disagreement.  I also like the practice of passing a talking stick in meetings.  The tradition of using a talking stick stems from indigenous culture and allows the person speaking to be heard without interruption.  It also ensures that people who are less assertive are given a chance to speak and to be heard. 

Findhorn is a smorgasbord of religious practices.  While the majority of people are in more ‘new age’ practices, the community may draw from and be inspired by Buddhist, Christian, Hindu teachings as well as various Indian Gurus.  Meditation and silence is a big part of their spiritual practice.  Meditation helps people to be connected to each other as well as within themselves.  It helps to diffuse conflict and assists with decision-making.

The Findhorn community also feel a special connection to the natural world.  Many of us in our group have also felt a connection to the natural world, so we can relate to this in our own way.  Many have often wondered about the habits of Prince Charles and his communication with plants.  Well, he went to school not far from Findhorn, which is probably where this connection stems from! 

Day Two starts with us attending their ‘morning worship’.  Taizé singing is an integral part of the worship of the majority of residents here.  This style of singing originated with a small monastery in a small village in Eastern France.  It is a meditative form of prayer, now practiced around the world, in which singing and silence play a major part to focus attention on the meditation and release the conflicts in your life.   

The singing is beautiful and I can understand why people feel drawn to start their day with such a practice.  After the communal singing, the community come together in dance.  Three dances from around the world are taught and danced with different partners, ensuring that you meet and greet the majority of people gathered here. 

On Day Two we also have a question and answer session where we get an insight into what it means to be part of the Findhorn Foundation as a staff worker.  Most workers don’t own their house but are provided with a place to stay, have access to meals at the community sessions for a Pound per meal and are paid a modest wage of 200 pounds per month.  They work about 35 hours a week and the attraction for most people who have given up their careers to be here is that there is no tension in constantly trying to find a balance between their work and life.  Work is considered to be love in action and people are here for personal and spiritual growth.

Decision-making is also an interesting process.  While they don’t practice consensus decision-making because that would give one person the power to derail a project, they will amend a project to try and accommodate those who might be opposed to it.  A negative outcome of this process appears to be endless meetings not unlike our mainstream work places. 

During the afternoon of Day Two, Ineke (one of our ‘focalisers’) shows us around the park and her home.  She lives in a mobile timber home, built according to sustainable principles and designed so two people can share it.  There is a bedroom with an en-suite at either end with a shared kitchen and living space in the centre.  As a staff member, she had to formally apply for housing.  If more than two people applied for the same house, then the community would decide who would live there.  As it turned out, other applicants pulled out of the process when they realised that the applicants were Ineke and her friend. 

She tells us it is a powerful thing to not have a sense of ownership over the place you live in but to be able to consider yourself as being the caretaker of the house and surrounding land.  While the people who live may not have access to loads of money they have made deep connections with the community that lives around them.  They have also found a way of life that is appealing and in sync with their values and beliefs.    There are other benefits.  A boutique allows residents to donate and exchange clothing.  There are many different type of houses from caravans to much bigger structures that are shared by single residents.  A café and shop also provide variety from the meals in the community centre.  There is a car pool service that serves a group of 35 people with a pool of 8 cars. 

This is just a glimpse into life here.  The park has evolved quite organically in the 50 years it has been in existence and while there were many detractors of the spiritual practices that were advocated here the community gained acceptance in the wider community when Eileen Caddy, one of the co-founders was awarded an MBE for her services to spiritual enquiry!

I have been welcomed into the Findhorn Community and been given a chance to experience communal during our stay here.   There are seven people in the house we are at.  I find it hard to relax completely when there are others living in the same house as me.  It was a good option during our stay here as we got to know some of the participants on a deeper level.  However, having to be quiet everyday as I make my breakfast so as not to wake anyone who might be asleep would be one of those factors that could be stressful over a longer period. 

While Steve and I wish to make changes in the way we live, I don’t think that communal living is the option that will work for us, at this stage of our lives.  We are 2 people who don’t feel particularly inspired by rituals and the repetition of spiritual practices.  I feel most connected to the Universe when I am alone in the bush, perhaps lying on a rock listening to the wind in the leaves of the gum trees above me.  

But this is just the start of our journey…there will be many more options to discover and experience and I am looking forward to what the future unravels…