What Makes Community Work?
What follows is a summary of my observations about the structures and strategies that make a community survive and thrive over the long-term. Here is a video of me speaking about what is written below.
In this historic moment of global transition, I know a lot of people are feeling ready to make good on their long-standing intention to “find some land and start a community.”
As a millennial, this has been a common theme of discussion among my peers my whole life. Our parents generation tried it in the 60’s and 70’s, and most of these communities came crashing down due to a combination of factors including financial in-fighting, unstable power dynamics and immature sexual relationships.
The fact is that most intentional communities fold within three years, when noble intention hits the brick wall of practical application.
Nonetheless, there are some communities who have found a way to survive and thrive for decades. One of these is the Findhorn Foundation of Scotland, founded in the late 60’s and still growing and evolving today.
At the beginning of March I left Denver to live and study at Findhorn for a month. I planned to participate in week-long workshops at both of their northern Scotland locations — Cluny Hill and Forres — and spend a week (or two) on the associated Isle of Erraid, which has successfully hosted the Findhorn community and weekly guests for more than 40 years.
Four months later, I am still living on Erraid. As my time here comes to a close for now, I want to offer some of my personal experience and reflections about what makes this community function as well as it does. I see five categories of commitments and strategies that stabilize the community throughout the inevitably rolling waves of struggle and joy, limitation and freedom, fear and trust.
Before we dive into the five categories I’ve identified, the first thing to mention are the three pillars of life within the Findhorn Foundation community. These are:
Deep inner listening — connection to the inner compass; attunement
Work is Love in Action — karma yoga
Co-Creation with Nature — receptive observation of how natural intelligence operates
Now, the five categories that stand out in my personal experience and observation are:
The Daily Rhythms
The Practice of Council
Personal and Collective Purpose
NVC + Sociocracy
The Daily Rhythms
A steady daily schedule composed of community connection, love in action, relaxation, tea breaks and meals and optional extracurricular activities or free time.
A reliable weekly schedule consisting of four full days on, two full days off, and a transition day. It includes dedicated time for cleaning both personal and community spaces, for marking the beginning and end of the week, for welcoming and transitioning guests, and for special activities or projects.
Attunement to seasonal changes, marked with appropriate ceremonial recognition. This can take many forms but we abide by the Celtic, Druidic calendar which divides the year into 8ths — defined by the four midpoints between the four cardinal pillars of two solstices and two equinoxes.
The Practice of Council
Council is the practice of sharing the contents of one’s heart, of being silently witnessed in that sharing, with no fear of interruption or even feedback other than laughter or grunts of understanding.
Three days per week — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, the main work days — we do a brief check-in, first thing in the morning, where we go around the circle and each person gets to say how they’re feeling, where they’re at, how they slept, what’s on their mind, whatever they want, really, in a summary way, usually no more than a paragraph’s worth of content.
Once per week — on Fridays, as the weekly transition begins — we invite a longer sharing, going more deeply into what has been most present or potent for the past week, or what is really truly alive in one’s heart. These shares tend to be more like the length of an essay.
The resident members of the community get together every Monday night for an even more in-depth sharing session, and there are frequent sessions specifically dedicated to building communication skills and developing mutual understanding — such as NVC and Sociocracy.
NVC + Sociocracy
These are practical strategies that facilitate a sense of shared responsibility, allow everyone an equal voice in decision-making processes all while learning how to use that voice skillfully, diplomatically, as an expression of love, even (especially) in difficult conversations.
Non-Violent Communication is a foundational practice, a sophisticated philosophy of life aligned with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr as encoded into a specific set of linguistic structures.
Sociocracy is a horizontally-oriented mode of decision-making. It describes a distinct style of organizing meetings, making proposals and working towards consensus. It fundamentally rejects the concept of “majority rule,” and focuses on the principle that for a community to thrive, its way of life must be acceptable and basically satisfying for everyone involved.
Sociocracy includes systems for dissent, and strategies for committee-based information-gathering. It is a system of governance very much worthy of further inquiry for anyone involved in an organization that aspires to demonstrate equitable access to power and to serve their community with transparent integrity.
Personal and Collective Purpose
Consciously cultivated and updated at regular intervals. There must be an overarching purpose for the community to exist — a sense of mission to which community members can refer as a reference point to guide decision-making.
Within that firmly established structure, there will be specific purposes and intentions that shift with the seasons and years. This requires regular check-ins and updates based on of whom the community consists, what are their unique skills and interests, and what are the particular needs of the time.
Finally, it is vital that each individual community member feel they are participating and present in that place for a personally vital purpose. To have people just going through the motions, doing the minimum to get by represents a drag on the system. Of course every person will ebb and flow in their energy and enthusiasm, and should ideally be supported by the community until they bounce back. But their bouncing back very much depends on their personal why.
Living in community offers many beautiful features that are not commonly accessible in modern industrial culture. However, it also represents a certain amount of sacrifice. There is a communitarian ethic that invites people away from the fiercely independent qualities so exalted by competitive capitalism, and instead encourages the daily awareness that one’s actions inexorably influence everyone and everything.
This suggests an expanded sense of responsibility for self, other and world which requires some significant retraining and can feel burdensome if it becomes disconnected from a profound sense of inner purpose and personal passion.
Here on Erraid, personal purpose work is part of the ongoing structure of membership. It is facilitated by the Membership focalizer here on the island, as well as by skilled members of the larger Findhorn community. I have seen members gain great clarity and refreshment of energy from their purpose work sessions, and it is clear that they serve as a revitalizing force for the community as a whole.
Close connection to the land, hands in the dirt, daily direct awareness of the fact that we “live off the land” and consistent honoring of all the beings, seen and unseen, that support our continued existence. The power of nature therapy is felt here in full effect.
We are intimately exposed to the natural world here through both our work and our play. There is no avoiding our interconnection and interdependence upon the rhythms of the natural world. This beautiful island is mostly wild, the human settlements confined to one strip on the front side of the island. There are cliffs and caves, dolphins and seals playing in the bay, more different birdsongs than I’ve ever heard, sheep grazing all over the place and of course the ever-present, ever-changing ocean, the ebb and flow of tides that wash in and out like the slow breathing of a great creature.
The opportunity to receive personal feedback from the land and sea is endless. The natural world serves as a potent reflection of our internal world, and each day offers a fresh lesson if one can slow down enough to notice.
One practical example of our reliance upon the land, here on Erraid all of our water comes from rain catchment, filtered down off the roof and stored a system of large tanks. Therefore, early this Spring when we enjoyed several consecutive weeks of non-stop sunshine, we adopted strategies to significantly reduce our water usage. We were never in danger, but the tanks got quite low and we celebrated when the rains came.
Another example is that one of the major activities here is gardening. Arran, our garden focaliser, estimates that 80% of the vegetables consume by the community come from the garden, and about 50% of the fruit. Produce is canned or frozen as appropriate so that there is always food available. We make jam from the plums and rhubarb. We season our food and tea with selections from the herb garden.
One of the remarkable experiences of my time here was that of slaughtering a chicken. I have eaten a great deal of chicken in my life, but never actually participated in the complete process of transforming a live bird into an Easter feast. We keep chickens on the island, and we had too many cockerels relative to our population of hens, so we slaughtered three of them. I held a bird as the axe came down, feeling its life force spasm and drain. I then took my turn as the axe man, decapitating the bird before helping to pluck its feathers and disembowel it as the final preparation before taking it to the kitchen to be roasted and eaten the next day. I saved the liver and consumed it with reverence myself.
It is a mistake to imagine that any human does anything but “live off the land.” The artifice of our modern, technological society tends to occlude the inexorable fact that the essential stuff of life — food, water, air — arises from a living planet with whom we are intimately interrelated. Active awareness of this reality provides the most stable possible reference point for the human community. We are wise to organize our lives around the rhythms of the natural world, for we are the natural world, an inseparable and beloved part of a life-giving whole. I pray that we may learn to live according to this simple fact.
Okay, so that’s what I came to say. Quick recap of the three pillars, the Founding Principles of the Findhorn community, which are
Deep Inner Listening,
Work as Love in Action and
Co-Creation with Nature.
Then we talked about
the value of stable Daily, Weekly and Seasonal rhythms,
the therapeutic power of council,
the skillful strategic structures that are NVC and Sociocracy,
the vital importance of identifying a personal and collective sense of purpose,
and finally, the all-encompassing, life-giving grace of a loving relationship with the living Earth.
Thanks for tuning in. I hope this is of interest and of benefit.
This is really just a surface level survey of these vastly deep topics and I would invite you to follow your nose for what interests you most, or what will be of most immediate impact in your particular circumstances.
I am happy to chat further if you please, and to connect you with resources more-expert-than-me as appropriate.