Cooperative Communities Revisited
By Robert Kelaghan

 

 

During the last years of his life, Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic, "Autobiography of A Yogi," spoke repeatedly of the need for people to form cooperative communities, or as he termed it at the time "World Brotherhood Colonies." In the decade after his passing (the 1960's) many people, especially the young, tapped into this same idea and new lifestyles were explored in hundreds of communities (and communes) across the U.S. and much of Europe. Many of those experiments ultimately failed. Still, some did succeed.

Examples of U.S. communities still standing some 40 years later include Mount Madonna Center near Watsonville, CA., Twin Oaks Community in central rural Virginia, Earth Haven near Asheville, North Carolina and Ananda Cooperative Village outside Nevada City, CA. An interesting thread that seems to be common to those that have lasted is they were founded around a strong spiritual tradition, or based upon a deep reverence for nature and stewarding land resources.

Now, here in 2009, as our world adjusts to potentially severe economic realities, the idea of cooperative communities is being seriously revisited. The greed that lays at the heart of Wall Street's troubles and our staggering American economy, plus the growing distrust (and disgust) that many harbor now for governments in general, have left many feeling the desire to have more control over their lives and their futures.

Yogananda's prescription was a simple one: band together with friends of like mind, and pool your resources to buy land out in the country. There, he said, one can grow food, raise children, start cottage businesses, and practice one's spiritual path while living in beautiful, natural settings far removed from the congested, noisy pavements of modern American cities and suburbs. He called it "plain living and high thinking."

For many who agree in principle with this sentiment, cooperative communities would seem to be a "no brainer." Who wouldn't want to live surrounded by friends while spending their days being creative and following their passions (and particular spiritual paths) in a setting that is beautiful and inspiring? Or, as someone expressed it: "Live, work, play & pray - all in one place."

Is The Future Now?
Many folks are trumpeting the dawn of new possibilities as we run up to the 2012 calendar mark. Whether or not this is indeed a time of a great shift, or a completely new paradigm for our planet, it does seem evident that the "old ways" appear to be just that - old, outmoded. Competition, and the pioneering, independent spirit that "made America what it is today" seem now to be hindering us, even hurting us.

Certainly it has led to considerable abuse of our environment at the very least. What is being birthed now seems to call for a more cooperative approach, a gentler approach, a collaboration among peoples, and governments, and all sectors, including the religious and spiritual.

Famous communities, such as Findhorn in Scotland or Auroville, near Puducherry in southern India, (listing 1700 members), and in Virginia, Yogaville, where Swami Satchidananda built the famous Light of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS), a stunning edifice dedicated to the Light of all Faiths and to world peace, are living and breathing examples that this way of living is not a pipe dream, but a concrete reality right now. Maybe the most unique example, is the futuristic Federation of Damanhur, in Italy. Here is their description:

Awarded by the United Nations as a model for a sustainable future, Damanhur is an  eco-society based upon ethical and spiritual values. Damanhur promotes a culture of peace and balanced development through solidarity, voluntary work, respect for the environment, art and social and political commitment.

Founded in 1975, the Federation numbers around 1,000 citizens and it extends across 1200+ acres in the foothills of the Piedmont Alps. Damanhur has a constitution, an alternative monetary system, a daily newspaper and magazines, artistic workshops, a research centre for medical and scientific applications, a free university and schools for the young ones up to the third year of middle school.

The Federation is renowned throughout the world, not the  least because its citizens have created the TEMPLES OF HUMANKIND, an extraordinary, UNDERGROUND, work of art dedicated to the Re-awakening of the divine part of every human being, and considered by many as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The "Bible Belt" of Cooperative Communities
Bringing things down to a simpler level, let's take a look at a locale that has of late become synonymous with this alternative lifestyle. In the last decade, on the Eastern side of the Big Island of Hawaii, cooperative communities have become more prevalent. In fact, one can stand at a point just a few miles south of the little town of Pahoa, and within a 15-minute driving radius, there are six distinct co-operative communities.

Three of them (La'akea, Pangaia, and Center Of Conscious Oneness) are primarily permaculture based, two are yoga-based (Polestar, Gaia Yoga) and one is newly established around raw foods and healing (Health Sanctuary).

Another 15-minute drive will land one at Kalani Oceanside Retreat, which has been operarating more than 30+ years and is evolving into a very large, extended community itself. In fact, the whole area along the eastern side of the Big Island has become a sort of "Bible Belt" of Cooperative Communities.

There are others as well (estimates range up to 50 altogether on the Big Island), but a number of those appear to have just a few members and thus, are perhaps more accurately labeled extended families.

Lower land costs (as compared to the other Hawaiian islands) and a mild climate with a 365-day growing season are no doubt major factors in this preference for cooperative living. Still, there is little doubt that environmental concerns, food and fuel costs, sustainability, permaculture... these are all paramount issues right now, and even our new President is using the term "collaboration" in many of his talks. In fact, the question may no longer be "Should we encourage the formation of cooperative communities?" The question may well be "Why have we waited on this?"

Advantages vs. Disadvantages
It seems to this writer that the advantages of cooperative living are obvious: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that holds true in this case as well. From pooling resources to buy land, to sharing equipment and tools, to helping build each other's dwellings, as well as the blending of many different skill sets one finds among the members, the list can go on.

Detaching from the dependence on outside power sources, cleaner air and water supplies (generally speaking), growing food free from pesticides and additives and the freedom that all of the above can lead to in terms of dictating the pace and substance of one's life - these are all strong arguments for the advantage side.

On the downside, like any start-up the first few years can be very challenging.

Solid financial footing must be established as soon as possible or the stresses could be significant. A strong work ethic is an absolute necessity.

Then, there are the emotional factors. As with any business or family, communication is a key ingredient. Personalities and egos will flush out everyone's pet peeves and insecurities, so there will inevitably be conflicts and having a method in place to resolve negative energy is vital.

That and having a clear vision (or mission statement) as to exactly what your community stands for, what core values it aspires to, and how the governing body will be set up to support those values - these are critical for the success of any community.

Communities that are founded around a spiritual base, meditation, or prayer will likely be a strong, anchoring element. Michael Gornik, the principle founder of Polestar Community, (based on the concepts that Yogananda mentioned as far back as the 1930's). expressed it well: "A daily sadhana or spiritual practice acts like the "glue" that holds things together and smoothes over the rough spots."

Hope For the City Dweller
So, what about the millions of people living in our cities? Entrenched for one reason or another in the urban environment, must they all move to the country to enjoy this co-operative lifestyle? No, not at all. One of the fastest-growing real estate developments in America is the Co-Housing movement. This is a bridging of the community ideal with the urban or suburban setting.

In some cases, this involves the takeover of an entire neighborhood block (see TAKOMA VILLAGE in Washington, D.C.) or single, double or quadruple homes for 30 families on 113 acres outside town (see NUBANUSIT ECO-VILLAGE near Peterborough, New Hampshire).

Other approaches involve the acquisition and makeover of entire apartment complexes, such as ANANDA PALO ALTO, which has 72 units around a long, lovely courtyard. The particular form is not crucial; the one indispensable ingredient is the desire to live more in community and thus, finding a format that meets the basic needs of the group.

Since the majority of Earth's inhabitants do, in fact, live in our cities, it could be said that this Co-Housing movement is perhaps even more crucial than its rural counterpart.

Model For A New Paradigm?
We do indeed seem to be entering a new era. From the economy to the environment to the spiritual, many signs seem to indicate great shifts being birthed in our world. Increasingly, our planet is seen more and more as one single entity.

Our great "mothership" Earth is traveling through this galaxy of ours encountering more and more challenges to its survival, and change seems to be imperative lest together we crash and burn. Indeed, does anyone still doubt that our present course is not working?

Cooperative communities seem to be a natural extension of the energies being called on to usher us into this new period. They could fulfill many of the needs of this coming time, this emerging paradigm. As Yogananda aptly added:

"Brotherhood is an ideal better understood by example than precept... a colony exemplifying world brotherhood is empowered to send inspiring vibrations far beyond its (own) locale.*"

Indeed, this model for living may one day spread like wildfire, and in the not-so-distant future, become more the norm than the exception.

Robert Kelaghan has lived in cooperative communities or households his entire adult life. A yoga instructor and musician, he currently runs the Apprentice Program for Polestar Community near Pahoa, Hawaii (www.PolestarCommunity.org). He welcomes feedback and inquiries, and can be reached at (808) 430-8009 or email yogarobert2@gmail.com

* p.467-8 Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, original edition c. 1946

 


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