Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Damanhur: In Search of a Universal Spirituality

Ref: Damanhur, Temples of Humankind – Esperide Ananas

On a mountaintop outside of Turin, a spiritual leader known as Falco (who has now passed on) had a vision of creating sacred temples inside a mountain.  His search for this place led him to Damanhur, where he discussed the idea with a few other confidantes.  Together with a band of ‘true believers’, they started to dig into the ground to create the Temples of Damanhur, now a tourist drawcard for the area and perhaps the main reasons we have made our way to the rather deserted train station at Ivrea, in Northern Italy. 

We make our way in the pouring rain to the even smaller village of Vidraico.  The guest house we are staying at is deserted and a phone call reveals that the proprietor won’t be around till 5pm to let us in.  It’s Sunday today, and in this small village of Northern Italy, there are set times for everything.  We are busily working on our computers, sitting on the front steps of the guest house, when a John Cleese look alike saunters up to, completely apologetic.  He speaks minimum English but enough to make us feel welcome.  Our room is quite pleasant and we are glad to be out of the rain.  We decide to have a relaxed evening and explore Damanhur during the next 2 days. 

We’ve signed up for a Damanhur experience that will give us access to the temples as well as lots of information about its origins and present structure. 

I’m surprised to learn that the first 20 years of this project were kept a secret even from their closest neighbours as artists, artisans and builders constructed, and excavated to create a network of temples
equivalent to a 5 story subterranean building.  There were no pre-existing laws to deal with this type of underground construction and the original community were certain the local government would never have granted permission primarily because they would not have believed such a feat could be achieved.  The Damanhurians believed that it would be better to deal with the authorities after the fact rather than be embroiled in the legalities upfront, wasting time and resources entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare that would exhaust their spirits…and so, the temples were born in secret…!

A reservoir of mystical energies…
   The Space where silence has a voice…  Ananas

Eventually, in the early nineties these temples became known to the outside world.  The Catholic Church urged the local authorities to have them destroyed and eventually the long court battle they wanted to avoid became a reality.  A worldwide crusade was launched to save the temples and
journalist and TV crews invited to publicise them.  Finally in 1996, the Italian Government approved a change in the legislation to legalise the incredible structures that had been created.  Construction still continues…

The community of Damanhur that has grown around these temples has its own system of government, its own currency (with minted coins) its own schooling system and its own stores.  The word Damanhur means the ‘City of Light’ and is named after a city near Alexandria.  In ancient times it was both an underground city and a surface one.  It was a place where Egyptian magicians trained to perform their rites, in the underground city. 

Damanhur is a community of over 800 men, women and children who live in the region of Valchiusella, in the countryside of North-Western Italy.  They focus on 3 aspects of self-sustainability –
food, energy and culture, believing that this last is vital to create an identity as a people.  The broader Damanhur community is constructed of 40 small clan-size groups, each one with around approximately twenty people.  About 400 supporters also live nearby and participate regularly in its activities.  The setting seems idyllic, with the Alps as a backdrop and a river running through the valley below the village.

We were curious as to know how you chose a clan-community.  We learn that they are referred to as a ‘nucleo’, when you come to live in Damanhur.  Each nucleo has its own project depending on the interests of the members. The guide tells us that the nucleo is therefore bound not only by ‘sympathy’ for each other but also by the common interest or ‘activity’.  The activities are as diverse as looking after the maintenance of the park, researching renewable energy options, building the temples or organising special evenings around the fire for the community and guests.  These variable activities mean that it is possible for individuals to move between nucleos as, or if, their interests change, while staying within the broader Damanhur community. This diversity of activities means that the groups complement each other, allowing each group to focus on their interests while still having access to the
services and products of other groups. This structure has taken some time to develop but the guide believes that Damanhur’s diversity of activities and the freedom for individuals to change are its major strengths.

The principles of change and diversity are also important to the philosophy of this community.  They believe that stagnation is death and that everything in Damanhur including the social and political structure needs to grow and adapt as each person grows individually.  Damanhur draws people from all walks of life, which adds to this diversity.  We are told that if you surround yourself with a mono-cultural environment, that would just reaffirm your own belief system.  I still wonder how many in this community would be encouraged to actually question the beliefs that are practiced here.  In some ways it appears that their new religion is not that different to the rituals practiced in other religions.

The socio-political structure is quite involved and complex but what was interesting was that no position was held for more than 6 months, although you could be re-elected.  Many from the
community have also been elected as Councillors to the surrounding local governments and they also volunteer in associations such as the Red Cross, fire brigade and civil protection activities.  This involvement in the community is a real plus for Damanhur and has helped quash the initial hostility felt by their neighbours.  It seems that Damanhur is better integrated with its surrounding communities than others we have visited and it appears to be a core element of their approach.

Damanhurians emphasise an integrated approach to managing their economy.  We visit the Damanhur ‘Crea’, their local retail, professional services and research centre, and I am surprised and pleased to find the range of economic activities that take place here.  There is a wide range of services, not just for Damanhurians but for other locals, and so their local currency would circulate quite a bit, making the community quite financially sustainable.   

The spirituality of this intentional community draws from all sacred traditions aim to unite all humanity rather than create another new religion. Their primary   emphasis is therefore on a global spirituality.  When they formed initially, it was important for them to create their own culture, including elements such as dress, music, art, and literature - the usual components of any culture, which differentiates them
from others.  To do this they set up a competition where a meeting was scheduled and each community (nucleo) had to present a representative attired in hand made products. This included, clothes, shoes and anything else they wished. The products became a starting point for potential future industries. Apparently the outcome was interesting in its diversity. While one culture wanted the extreme of dressing up in beautiful silk cloth and expensive jewellery another community wanted to emphasise simplicity. 

As we walk through the grounds we find ourselves outside the ‘Youngster House”.  The house is brightly decorated with various forms of flora and fauna.  The painting is larger than life, signifying the importance given to nature in this community.  Kids as young as 15 live here, having made the choice of leaving their parents’ house to live with their peers in a supervised environment.  They manage their own household affairs, which would include cooking and cleaning as well as their conflicts.  It is a great way to resolve the usual teenage angst and tensions created at home but also to teach kids valuable life skills.  This gives them a bit of space from their biological family and a chance to discover who they are and what they want for their own lives, independent of their parent’s direct influence. 

The entire system of bringing up kids is quite radical here.  Damanhur run their own school for kids up to the age of 14.  The school is a travelling school, based on principles that suggest that you retain much more information if you move to different places.  The guide tells us that Plato argued that memories are often linked to places and so you can recall a learnt experience by returning to the place where it was learnt. For example, when the kids talk about the forest, they will have a lesson in the forest while other lessons of political or social geography can involve travel to other countries.  I’m almost wishing I could go back to school here!  While there is a requirement to make sure the kids have the same curriculum as the rest of Italy, the small classes mean that there is more time for students and so they are exposed to a far more diverse curriculum that includes artistic pursuits as well as learning about the ‘science of self’, ensuring they have the tools to understand themselves early in life.     

Outside in the garden there are many coloured labyrinths where various forms of meditation are practiced.  We learn that the spirals are based on sacred geometry and have been calculated to stimulate and connect the synoptic parts of our brain.  Later in the afternoon we get a chance to try this ‘walking meditation’.  I have always struggled with meditation because my brain refuses to settle down.  But as I keep walking, my brain eventually becomes still and I begin to have a heightened sense of the wind in the trees and observe the world around me a little more.  I don’t feel any other sensations…nor do I have any vivid dreams that night!

We stop at the outdoor open-air temples to appreciate the architecture and learn a little about it.  The temples are decorated with Egyptian imagery, as well as sacred language and the statues of Egyptian gods such as Horus give it a bit of an exotic air.  The temples are also used for both marriage and death ceremonies both by the community and others in the area.  The temples are also popular for practices in yoga and tai chi and the summer and winter solstice celebration in the temple draws visitors from near and far.   

I am intrigued by their ideas around marriage, which are far more radical and interesting than the mainstream idea of signing a contract to stay together for the rest of your life.  A Damanhurian marriage takes into account that people change.  In fact, I have described how change is central to their
philosophy and adapting to change is a fundamental aspect of life here.  Most people who get married at Damanhur make a commitment for a year and are required to renew that commitment on an on-going basis, having evaluated their past year and made new vows for the year to come.  A stable couple might renew their vows every 3-5 years.  These couples would also help the community by being mentors to others in the community by assisting in supervising young kids, guiding older ones who could come to them for advice, perhaps instead of their own parents, The concept that it takes a village to raise a child is alive and well here!  Sometimes these stable couples also act as tantric teachers to others in the community.  There is no formal divorce required but you can choose to not renew your vows when the time comes.  It is a practice that asks you to evaluate your relationship on an on-going basis and makes sure you don’t take each other for granted.  The practice helps you to break out of monotonous habits that are usually to blame for killing the essence of why you got together initially. 

Later in the day we visit the temples. 

The Blue Temple, Secret Doors, the Hall of Water, the Hall of the Earth, the Hall of Metals, the Hall of Spheres, the Hall of Mirrors, and a Labyrinth are some of the spaces used by the community for meditation and discovering a collective consciousness.  The temples symbolically represent the inner rooms of every human being.  Around every bend there are hidden chambers and unseen spaces like the unknown spaces we discover within ourselves.  The hidden doors symbolise to the pilgrim on a spiritual journey that there is much more inner beauty to be discovered if only we open the right door!  Each person who enters is considered an artist and creator, bringing with them their own, passions, reactions, emotions and interpretations that enliven and transform the Temples!

The practices are a convergence of ancient wisdom and mystical practices with contemporary concerns and thinking to create a community that is self-sustaining.  I read that the Damunhurians dug deep into the mountain to create the temples to offer a model of personal transformation. It is symbol that here are people who want to dig deep within themselves and discover their connection to the universe and their spirituality. 

We are given time to explore and to meditate a little as our guide rings cymbols and other musical instruments that reverberate through the spaces. 

The temples are beautifully painted with murals, stained glass windows and domes, and mosaic floors.  I love that they embody both the masculine and feminie energies.  We learn they have been constructed inside the ‘Synchronic Lines’ of the earth.  The community of Damanhur believe that ‘Synchronic
Lines’ are great rivers of energy that surround our planet and link it to the universe, transporting ideas, thoughts and dreams.  Ancient cultures used these lines to find locations to build temples and cathedrals.  We are told there are 18 such lines on our planet but only 3 crossings of 4 of these lines.  One of these locations is apparently here in Damanhur. 

Living in Australia, I have come across the tensions created by the melting pot or multi cultural debate.  Should we be one culture or should we preserve the immigrant cultures we have come from.  In Damanhur, this intentional community have successfully created their own identity, a culture that emphasises that we must all contribute to taking care of the planet and of each other.  Ultimately, we are all citizens of this planet and it matters not where we came from as long as we are responsible citizens, living in such a manner that we do not deplete our limited resources thus leaving it for the generations who will find it in a state that is better than the one we found it in. 

In Damanhur, the community emphasise that we are all members of a planet wide family.  Their community structure helps each individual concentrate on a project that most interests them.  This common purpose is also a strong glue that holds a nucleo together.  However, if you feel that you have outgrown a particular community, there are another 19 to choose from.  Also, if you have a new project and can convince a group of others to assist you to pursue this new dream, then that is possible also. Perhaps, this chance to keep growing as an individual and the acceptance of change is one of the strengths of Damanhur.  While I was not particularly drawn to the spiritual practices of this international community, it has certainly taught us a lot about how a community with a very idealistic vision can work together to achieve it. 

On our last night we have pizza and pasta in the restaurant.  Our Italian host who seems quite intrigued by me invites us for a glass of Sambuca after dinner.  Over a very sweet liqueur with our limited communication skills we hear his story.  Eventually, he asks where I’m from and we find out that he and his wife have just been holidaying in Sri Lanka.  We talk about the temples of Dambulla and our experiences here in Damanhur and we say goodbye…

The Damanhur Temples are a masterwork of human invention, inspiration and dedication.  They are a monument testifying to the power of vision in a community of people dedicated to the search for higher consciousness and true spirituality.  Ervin Laszlo

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