Evolving Intentional Communities

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been travelling through Australia and Asia jumping between ashrams, gatherings, communes, festivals and communities – sometimes I’ve been backpacking, other times studying, volunteering or teaching, and I’d like to share observations and thoughts from the conversations and experiences I’ve had.

All of the communities I have visited have either had spirituality or permaculture as the thread that binds the community together but never have I seen the two harmoniously combined; the most obvious observation is that permaculture projects tend to lack spirituality and intentional communities lack good permaculture. And this is ironic for both permaculture and spiritual communities as permaculture at its core has strong sound values and beliefs that extends beyond the material, and spiritual communities are dependent upon the abundance nature provides though often fail to realize their environmental footprint due to mindless consumption.

Integrating Permaculture with Spirituality

Combining mindful sustainable design with mindful-ness is the necessary key to bring harmony to any community regardless of its central values. Building or being a part of a community is challenging and for long-term success permaculture and spirituality need integration – both are interconnected, and both have similar goals in mind. Permaculture projects aim towards sustainability; harmony; care of the earth and its inhabitants; to share equally in the abundance of our gardens, all through clever, practical, efficient design. Spirituality, by deepening our own knowledge of ourselves, alleviates our pain and suffering to bring us into peace, harmony, and happiness. Both are so remarkably similar it is baffling that so often the two are seen as separate and distinct from one another.

This separation comes from a clear misunderstanding as to what a spiritual practice actually is. When I was staying on projects I repeatedly met resistance when mentioning my own spiritual practices – namely meditation – through misunderstanding exactly what that entails. The assumption I constantly met was spirituality is for far-out esoteric la-di-da daydreamers who have little concept of reality, science, and the governing laws of planet earth. Many practices are certainly imaginative and may seem bizarre from an outsider’s point of view, but this is far from the actuality of what a practice can be. Spiritual practices, in whatever form, simply bring happiness and peace to the practitioner. Spirituality itself is immensely vast and can be utilized in anyway – it doesn’t have to be rituals or routines; there doesn’t even have to be a specific regular practice – it merely serves as a practical tool for our own individual growth.

The Konohana Family situated southwest of Tokyo serves as a prime example of a completely sustainable (bar spices, oil, and salt) intentional community that has, at its core, spirituality binding it together. The direct translation of their philosophy from Japanese to English is ‘Polish the Heart,’ and that is what all of the members of Konohana are there to do for themselves. That being said, there is no collective religion or belief of the family; there are Buddhists and Christians, and others with their own faith – yet all look to nature as a source of inspiration and each individual is there to polish their own hearts.

Konohana started in 1994 with 20 members and has quadrupled in population in its 20 year life. The communities land is decentralized; its members live spread around multiple buildings within a few kilometer radius to one another and daily the group meet at the community building to for gatherings and meals. Konohana owns 16 hectares of land, producing an incredible amount of vegetables, grains, fruits, eggs, milk and honey, much of it is sold locally as a source of income for the community. Their environmental impact is extremely small, using half the amount of CO2 emissions and overall has an ecological footprint one-third of Japans national average. What the Konohana family has achieved environmentally is phenomenal and should be looked to as a model for building future communities, though their aim initially was not to be entirely sustainable but is a bi-product of sound core philosophies.

Each day at the community hall the family gathers to update one another about necessary farm matters, but more importantly they gather to share their feelings, emotions, troubles, or struggles of the day from their hearts. It is known as the ‘Meeting For Harmony’ and is the glue that holds everything in place; without it, the community would not have survived the length that it is. Here’s an excerpt from their profile on ecovillage.org describing the evening meeting:

‘…we always keep our eyes open to invite those who are not aware of their problematic points or who are unable to share them with others, to look within and communicate what they find. Family members are positive about problems and issues, because they are opportunities for spiritual growth once brought to the surface. This fundamental attitude of constant self-reflection through every aspect of daily life is key to the harmony that exists in the Family.’ (1)

Beyond and behind the farm, the family, each individual member and their own personal beliefs lies this practice of sharing, speaking and listening from the heart. Beyond and behind permaculture’s many facets lies the 3 core ethics; care of the earth, care of the people, and fair share. The 3 core ethics are immaterial by nature and approach spirituality; if spirituality is a quest for growth then at the heart of permaculture is spirituality – and it isn’t far-fetched obscure non-sense – it is practical and powerful, and the Konohana family is a solid example of the possibilities of valuing and using spirituality above and before everything.

The Next-Step For Spiritual Communities

Spiritual communities – or ‘Conscious’ communities, on the other hand, tend to have minimal environmental awareness. Communities labelling themselves ‘conscious’ who consume plastics, GMO’s, have luscious and bountiful material abundance are, indeed, not conscious – at least not entirely. People practice mindfulness in endless ways – eating, walking, speaking, and listening – but the mindfulness seldom moves past the self, and herein lies the problem. Being conscious of ones’ actions and thoughts is a good beginning; the next step is to look outside and become aware of the consequences of those actions and decisions. Consumption choices should be scrutinized regularly by asking questions like, where does this come from, how far has it travelled, what is it made from and where did the materials come from to make it, what is its packaging made out of and is the company that manufactured this product ethically sound? And is there, perhaps, a more sustainable solution?

Conscious communities provide the space for amazing personal transformations, however critical thinking in regards to the impact of individual consumption is a rare trait. Questions like the ones mentioned above are at the heart of anybody who is environmentally empathetic when purchasing goods, and mindless consumption in conscious communities needs to forever be eliminated for them to grow. If anything, consuming wisely by eating local organic produce and therefore not supporting the horrible use of herbicides/pesticides on the soil is, at the very least a big thank you to our planet who gives us so much – though the impact of a conscious choice of consumption ripples far. It is a statement that says caring for the planet is greater than over-indulgence. It is the diversion of a dollar away from a multi-national co-operation. It is so many wonderful things and for the evolution of spiritual communities environmental awareness is the missing link and can be achieved through the integration of good permaculture design. Nature has and always will provide for us with food, water, resources and through her sheer endless beauty; spirituality needs permaculture as both a means of giving back and to ensure our planet keeps on giving.

Permaculture and spirituality depend upon harmonious integration for long-term success; they are deeply interconnected to one another – and both aim for the same goal; to grow. And what exactly is it that we’re growing? In Masanobu Fukuokwa’s own words, ‘The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.’

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(1) Konohana Family, Japan :http://genoa.ecovillage.org/index.php/country-activities/japan/15-konohana-family-japan

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