Saturday, 24 September 2016

Farming with the PHA

I've been silent for a while, as I have some ideas for new directions for this blog, but have presently not made a decision on where to go next.

I thought that in the mean time I'd share my experience volunteering with the Philippi Horticultural Association.

Philippi is a large area in Cape Town, zoned and repeatedly recommended for small garden, community-based horticulture, and it possesses the city's most reliable, voluminous discharge into an aquifer.

Essentially, it is an area that makes much more clean groundwater available in Cape Town than there would otherwise be - which is an essential ingredient for a food production area! Small farmers often cannot afford municipal rates for water, but water is abundant and cheap in Philippi, which is unique in the otherwise brittle, dry, drought-prone Western Cape!

This area not only provides plenty of food in Cape Town, it also localises the economy of urban food production, which uplifts people far more reliably than big agricultural business. Small agriculture is more intensive, and results in the upskilling of the local population.

However, Philippi is under threat from property developers. Read more about the campaign to preserve the community land  here.

Vegkop Farm

Last week Tuesday, I spent the day volunteering at one of the community farms in Philippi - Vegkop Farm.  I worked with and chatted to Nazeer, community activist and farmer, Brian, a local agronomist and volunteer, and James.  We planted tomatoes and marrows, weeded beds and carefully hand-mulched strawberries. A filmmaker from SABC2, Danie, came to chat with us as well and to interview Nazeer about the PHA campaign. This programme will be aired on SABC2 at 6pm tomorrow, the 25th of September.

The volunteers' day begins at 9am and ends at 3pm. We enjoyed lunch while sitting on straw bales in the PHA community event hall.

I enjoyed spending the day in the sun and with my hands in the soil again. I feel that the gardening communities of Philippi have an essential role to play in the upliftment of people in Cape Town, and I was glad to be of support to the community.

If anyone has their Tuesdays or Thursdays free, contact Nazeer Sonday at or on Facebook to help out with this venture.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Living in Community, Guest

From Sunday 20th March to Friday 15th April 2016, I participated in a programme called Living in Community Guest, at the Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland.

A requirement of participating in LCG is to have completed a previous Findhorn programme, called Experience Week, or one like it. I completed Applied Ecovillage Living on the 11th March, and took a few days for myself in Edinburgh, before returning north to Findhorn.

LCG can begin on any Saturday of simultaneous availability and a participant’s choosing, and end in multiples of four weeks hence.

The LCG programme is structured as follows:

2 work shifts on Monday, 08:30-12:10 and 14:10-16:50
2 work shifts on Tuesday, 09:00 – 12:10 and 14:10-16:50
1 LGC group sharing on Tuesday, 20:00-22:00
1 work shift on Wednesday, 09:00-12:10
1 attunement/workgroup sharing on Wednesday afternoon, 14:00 – 16:50
1 work shift on Thursday, 09:00-12:10
1 group meditation on Thursday, 13:55-14:30
1 education session on Thursday, 14:35-17:15
2 work shifts on Friday, 09:00 – 12:10 and 14:10 – 16:50
1 fortnightly Homecare session, Saturdays 09:00-10:15
1 weekly Kitchen Patrol or KP session, 18:40-19:30 (mine was scheduled for Sunday evenings)
-1 work session off – ‘Creative Shift’

‘Work’ time per week – 24 – 2.5 = 21 hours 30min in garden, 1h 30min in kitchen/homecare (total 23 hours)
‘Group’ time per week – 6 hours
Education time per week – 2h 40min

During this time I learned a lot about myself, and my inner world. You don’t get much time ‘off’, although slightly more than you might, from a ‘job’. 

Work or ‘Love In Action’ sessions

Before each work session, everyone present for the shift gets to say a sentence or two about how they are feeling. Then, each ‘senior’ person on the team gets to say what work they plan to do in the shift, and how many people’s help they need. After that, each ‘junior’ person is asked which senior person they wish to join. 

In the garden, work group sizes ranged from 4 to 14, depending on who was present and how many extra guests there were.

Each team has one or more ‘focaliser’, the leader of that team or, more rarely, leader of a specific task. The garden team had three focalisers who seemed to be in-and-out, while focused on other goals in their lives, and so more on a part-time basis – Luke, Martin and Britta.
Focalisers are often employees of the Foundation, or at least, participants in LEAP, their 6-month-or-longer apprenticeship programme, if no staff are available to fill the position.

Departments that take in volunteers and apprentices include Cullerne Garden, Park Garden, Park Maintenance, Park Kitchen, Park Homecare, Cluny Homecare, Cluny Garden, Cluny Kitchen and Cluny Maintenance. I have volunteered in Cullerne  (20 working days) and Park Garden (4 half-days).

In most or all work departments, there is a subtle hierarchy in place, which I felt OK with because it seemed reasonable and was more flexible and flat than it needed to be, because focalisers or task leaders often ask volunteers and LCGs how they think they should approach a project rather than simply instructing them. One unexpected, though retrospectively logical aspect of this hierarchy is that it is usually those lowest on the hierarchy that have the most choice or freedom about what they would like to participate in.

The  (unwritten) hierarchy presented to me as follows

1. Staff/Foundation Members
2. LEAP – Living Education Apprenticeship Programme (these people can be promoted to Staff upon completion of LEAP, which can take six months or more)
3. LCG – Living in Community Guest (these people can join LEAP after three months of LCG)
=4. Programme participant, - e.g. Experience Week, Spiritual Practice, A.E.L
=4. Registered, residential volunteer
5. Temporary, non-residential volunteer

While I was working in Cullerne Gardens, the activities I participated in included food waste collection, compost making, seedling transplanting, sowing seeds, measuring and folding netting, measuring, folding, cutting and repairing Mypex, trench digging, trench filling, compost/manure spreading, soil preparation and food harvesting.

A normal work-day consisted of working from 9:05 to 10:30, taking a tea break, working from 10:55 to 12:05, breaking for lunch, working from 14:05 to 15:30, taking a tea break, and working from 15:55 to 17:05.

Initial guidance

On the first week of a participant's LCG, they will have a session with the LCG focaliser, in which they will discuss their purpose and how it relates to the LCG programme.

I intially wrote the long, complicated sentence "I, David, intend to discover the way to improve the world/myself, and am presently investigating whether community is the way that 1) I and 2) others 'should' direct our efforts and energies of transformation, or whether our focus can and/or should be directed elsewhere." I challenged the focaliser to be able to distill this into a simpler sentence, and expected her to find it difficult. However, she surprised me pleasantly, by, through a process, coming to the sentence "I, David, intend to discover ways to improve myself in life - in community and as a sovereign entity". I was impressed! I decided that maybe there was some wisdom to the process after all.

With this intention, I drew Angel cards, that offered me guidance as follows:

Group sharings

During my month doing LCG there were four sharings, each of which happened in a two-and-a-half hour session on Tuesday nights, from 20:00 to 22:00.

Each meeting had as few as twelve or as many as twenty people sharing, which would usually take between two and eight minutes per participant. A few people allowed their sharings to go on overly long, but I found that on many more occasions, people recognized when a good time to finish would be by considering the needs of the group.

I did feel that 20:00 was too late to begin such a process as, within an hour I am feeling tired and burnt out (if I am waking at 7:30am)

Something that did annoy me was being censured for talking about the 'work' sessions as being 'work', for legal reasons. I felt it amounted to an erasure of the actual effort involved in participating in the programme. Naming what you do is important in order to feel valued, and in this particular instance, I did not feel as valued as I would have liked to be.


Meditating in groups often felt very relaxing and like a good bonding session, but doing it right after lunch made it very difficult to concentrate.

We would walk into the Chapel-like Cluny Sanctuary, with soft white carpets and massive East-facing windows. There was a smokeless candle burning in the centre of the room, with the chairs arranged in a circle around the candle.

Meditations had a nice personal touch to them, when people on the programme were leaving, we would honour them by saying what we appreciated about them, or maybe share a funny moment that we had with that person. For example, when my room mate Roland was being ‘tuned out’ or said goodbye to, I appreciated him both for our interesting philosophical talks, and also for the fact that he didn’t snore (this got a good laugh).

Apart from weekly sessions held on Thursdays and department attunements on Wednesdays, there are also multiple open meditation events throughout the day. A few times, I attended the morning meditation sessions at The Park, held from 8:30am to 8:55am. Sometimes I found it very easy to drift away, other times I obsessed, thought and my mind just wouldn’t be quiet. However, each meditation I attended turned out beneficial, and I often met a friend of mine after the session to have a brief chat, before I would run off to Cullerne to try and be there by 9:05.

Education sessions

Education sessions were fascinating and full of wonderful and intriguing insights.

Week 1 was based off Don Miguel Ruiz’s work The Four Agreements. In our group session, we were transported off to the farm house Logie Steading, and then given a brief introduction to the Four agreements – Be impeccable with your word, Don’t take anything personally, Don’t make assumptions, and Always do your best. For each Agreement, we all paired off with a different person in the group and given five minutes each to discuss where we were at with each Agreement in this stage of our life.

Week 2 was Spiral Dynamics, presented by Jonathan Dover, as taught both by Ken Wilber and Frederic Laloux. I had recently read Ken Wilber’s novel Boomeritis, and after this class I downloaded and began reading Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations. The introduction we had with Jonathan served to introduce the group to the very interesting concept, which puts human, biological, social and organisational evolution into eight distinct, progressive stages. My names for these stages are Survival (beige), Superstition (purple), Domination (red), Civilisation (blue), Progressiveness (orange), Pluralism (green), Autonomy  (teal) and Enlightenment (white). For a summary of the concept of Spiral Dynamics, try this article by Mark Lewis.

Week 3 was on the  Elusive Obvious, or Non-Dual Selfhood. In this session, the presenter, Roger Linden guided us through a session in which he encouraged us to relax all our muscles. When we did this, I felt myself rapidly becoming emotional, almost tearful. When I allowed myself to feel it, I gained the insight that, for the first time, I was missing home and missing Cape Town, after 56 days of being away.  I realised that, far from being a sad feeling, that I actually was happy that I had a home and family to return to.

Week 4 was on Tarot and Self-Discovery, with  Jörn Fiebig. Jörn presented his knowledge on Tarot in two ways: first, he had us engage in a process of self-discovery without any cards: he had us focus on a question, which we would then walk around nature for 15 minutes, noting our observations and seeing how they relate to our question. Using Jörn’s guidance, I asked the question, “What blocks me when planning travels, job options and careers?”. On my observations, I received the following insights:

-When parts of us get old or unusable we may discard them.
-When your field of view is narrow, more surprises you.
-So much variety meets the eye.
-Softness in a tight place brings about more comfort.
-Shape follows function.
-Too much orderliness grows stale, but fractal nature never ceases to captivate.
-How life bursts before my eyes, when two months prior, it lay dormant.

From this I processed the insight that planning itself may be what is causing my ‘tightness’ in a tight space, and that the softness involves trusting in the good of the world and ‘going with the flow’. I wrote “Don’t try to hard to plan, just enjoy [life], for it is yours to enjoy! You are a designer, so if you’re not enjoying designing your own life, it probably means you’re thinking at the wrong scale or trying to force something”.

This is very difficult for me, for it means I need to let go of my need to control or even understand life, because this may well be detracting from my ability to enjoy and experience life to the fullest.

Expanding on this, I have recently read about Human Design and how I am a ‘projector’ type. A Projector needs to be invited to guide others – and guiding others is his or her true calling. If a Projector is not invited, he or she will often burn him/herself out trying to help. Projectors often fear that they will not be invited, but my research suggests that people often can’t help but notice Projectors’ unusual nature and highly focused, charged aura. People often do notice that there is something different or special about me, and this is how I can seek an invitation in order to guide. For Projectors tend to have great insights about how to guide others in the best use of their energy. Projectors also tire out easily when they are not around other ‘energy’ types of people, which explains why I experience narcolepsy in some boring classes, but hyper and continued energy when around fun/exciting people.  Projectors also have a hard time falling asleep, for they are frequently tired throughout the day, when it is inappropriate to sleep, and so they learn to ignore their bodies’ ‘tired’ signals.

This may mean, that as far as my future career aspirations go, that instead of burning out by trying to apply for lots of jobs, and eventually find one that’s a bad fit for me anyway but prepared to take me out of their own desperation for the post to be filled by someone, that I should instead put myself in situations where a job is offered to me. It is a similar wisdom to what I have learned about myself in relationships – I have had better relationships when I allow my partner to select me, rather than attempting to select a partner for myself. I never need worry that I am too boring or uninteresting to be selected for a relationship or a career. It is not my position to initiate directly, although I can certainly still be proactive by putting myself in a position where I am likely to be noticed and then ‘invited’.

After the observation session, we returned inside to meet Jörn again. He then introduced us to the Tarot, explained some of the Major Arcana cards and had us each ask a question, and then choose a card.

I asked the question, “What role does my new relationship with my
girlfriend play in my life?”

The answer was the Queen of Wands.


Saturday Morning Homecare, while initially seeming like it might be an annoying chore, actually turned out to be easy, and left me feeling productive and helpful when I was done. On both occasions I ended up vacuuming (or ‘Hoovering’ as the British call it) the passages, rooms and bathrooms. I was able to take seriously the invitation to bless the rooms with good energy as I cleaned them, and Homecare actually ended up cleaning my aura as much as I cleaned the rooms, for I felt good about my ability to help the place look better, and the Homecare teams I worked with contained positive and energetic people that I enjoyed working with.

Kitchen Patrol

Similarly to Saturday Morning Homecare, Kitchen Patrol seems like it might be an annoying chore. It involves washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen after a food-making shift. However, thanks to people’s good and positive energy, with the knowledge that it is almost always over within 45-60 minutes, makes it more enjoyable than it would otherwise be. People usually play music, and working as part of a team and contributing to the community feels good. So, while not one of the most exciting or interesting aspects of LCG, Kitchen Patrol was worth its while.

Time Off

During time off, I mostly lay in bed, or had philosophical discussions with my room mate Roland, or texted my girlfriend, or drank cider, or occasionally read books in the library at Cluny Hill.

On one Saturday, I went on a highly enjoyable excursion, a cycle track called the Dava Way from Forres, which terminates in Grantown, 22 mile South of Forres. With my two friends Karin and Martha to accompany me, we rode 9 mile, stopping along the river for a chat about conspiratorial topics.  By the middle afternoon we realised we needed to get back, and we had returned to Cluny by 18:35. In all, we rode about 20 mile (32 km).


Throughout all of these experiences, as well as experiences from the Sweat Lodge during the Applied Ecovillage Living course, I found that I still did not know who I was, and that now, writing in May, I still do not. The feeling of non-selfhood, and loss of personal identity, has persisted. It does not distress me or cause me to feel dismay, but it does cause me to feel a little confusion, in that I’m not quite sure what to make of future objectives, and that my ambition and motivation seems to be lower than it has been before.

 I think that this is a combination of the results of travelling, meeting my partner overseas and then living with her, living with a highly spiritual community, and not getting that much time by myself, along with all of the experiences as described above, that leads to me feeling this sense of confusion, and re-evaluation, about who I am and what I really want, if I even exist.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


As the course ‘Applied Ecovillage Living’ came to an end, we were warned that, as we journeyed out of Findhorn Ecovillage into the world at large, that we should beware the transition into a world we know only too well is less caring, compassionate and affectionate than the one we’d grown used to at the Findhorn village. For example, it is not likely that in the rest of the world that you can expect to receive no less than one hug per hour you are awake, or begin your work shifts with a calm meditation, hand-holding and ‘tuning-in’ – the process of becoming attuned to the intentions and wishes of those in your work-group.

How this process of attunement worked, in practice, was that for my service group, Park Garden, we would start a shift by sitting in a circle, holding hands for about a minute, and then the 3-5 experienced gardeners who felt most inspired, would declare what work they were planning to do, and how many people they wished to help them.  Then, the remaining 3-5 of us would choose one of the jobs mentioned. This way, we could all contribute whichever work we felt most ready for.

Various authors, interviewees and long-term guests have described the ‘magic’ of Findhorn as being , most commonly, love, acceptance and sincerity. People look you in the eyes, and say what they mean, most often in a kind way. Many new arrivals at Findhorn, myself included, find that within a few short days, that they ‘love everybody’.  I can report that this feels unusual. I have participated in many groups, and found myself liking, appreciating and empathising with the others in my group. Yet there was something different about this. I found, truly, that there was no separation between myself and the others, even those I am very different to, socially, culturally, physically and emotionally.

The end of the course brought about a certain sadness, the sadness of parting from the others that I had come to love, along with the tear-inducing knowledge that those you love, never truly leave you. Of course, nowadays with the level of Internet penetration, there is no excuse not to stay in contact.

Another feeling, slightly more surprising, yet on some reflection far from unexpected, was the feeling of anticlimax at the end of the course. I suppose it is hard to top the spiritual experience of the Sweat Lodge, even with Pete’s, Christopher’s and my 30-minute presentation Hemp Ecovillage Portugal to graduate the course with. 

We had spent two nights up until very late doing research and preparing our presentation, this being all the time afforded to us on our very busy course. So by Thursday, our presentation date, I was feeling thoroughly burnt out, and even a little depressed, a feeling belied by our cheery group photograph.

We spent Friday saying goodbye to one another, by which time I had recovered some composure (and sleep), and Saturday was departure day… for some.

For the rest of us, Findhorn hadn’t released its grip on us yet. I stayed with friends in the Park until today, Tuesday, catching up on rest, and by Monday morning, I was feeling quite directionless, which was even leading to feelings of apathy and tiredness. I know I have until Saturday 19th before my planned 28-day Living in Community Guest programme at Cluny is due to begin, and with the whole of Scotland potentially open for me to explore, I was starting to feel a little spoilt for choice.

Dillon provided the impetus to make a decision, suggesting Edinburgh as the place to go. I mentioned Edinburgh to a few people, and
got very positive feedback, in that it’s a pretty city, with many parks and tourist attractions, not to mention interesting people to meet!

So now Dillon and I sit on a train, bound for Edinburgh and arrival at 22:19, and I intend to stay there for a couple of days at least, quite possibly until Saturday itself!

At 23:00 we arrived  at our hotel, safe, tired and happy.

Here's to a new adventure!

Monday, 7 March 2016

The Sweat!

On Saturday morning I woke feeling particularly pensive, not quite as reflective as I might have liked.  

Somehow I’m not at all preoccupied, nor trepid. Indeed, when prompted, I described myself as ‘calm’, not an adjective I usually associate with my feelings.

I have elected to participate in a Sweat Lodge ceremony. The plan is to crawl into a tent, with burning hot rocks and water vapour inside, outlast the desire to leave when the tent is hottest, and somehow, in the end, emerge a changed man.

Something has been different about today. We participated in a short sharing. Everyone is more taciturn than usual. Their auras are different. Perhaps smoother, but also colder.

Perhaps not having breakfast was an unusual experience for everyone? I also noticed a change in my own aura, though I am struggling to find the words for it. It is fairly common for me to not have breakfast.

Another thought is that everyone is still feeling a little burnt out by the previous two days, which felt more like one continuous day of 36 hours. We walked in the Scottish Highlands, danced on the table, sat together on the couch, planted minuscule seedlings, and sat on the bus for many hours.  I was definitely burnt out by the evening. Too much information and plenty of inspiration. Where are we now?

At 14:30 we will regroup and dismantle the existing sweat lodge in order to build a new, bigger one.

Perhaps we were all feeling spiritual overload. If that is indeed what that was, then for me I can describe it as a pensiveness just short of active sadness.

All in all we spent about 48 hours mentally and physically preparing to do the sweat lodge, which at times felt very drawn out, and certainly served to, at times, heighten my fear, and at other times, allow me to find space, peace and calmness. It was like jumping between the two emotions relatively quickly.

 One of the other directives was to fast, or at least to eat as little as possible. I, already a light eater, elected to eat half what I normally do, on the Saturday, and then eat almost nothing on Sunday. This apparently reduces feelings of nausea during the sweat, and also has an apparent spiritual purpose. Personally I've not seen much value in fasting, as it usually has the consequence of making me feel weak and ill. 
 We built the new sweat lodge, slowly and mindfully. I felt a bit torn between accepting the mindful silence gracefully, and thinking it all a little ridiculous and frustrating, and wanting to ‘get on with it’.

 I went to sleep feeling less pensive than I had felt that day. When the next morning rolled around, I didn’t feel pensive and spiritually overloaded anymore. Instead, I felt collected, focused and ready.

Christopher and I went on a long, silent, contemplative morning walk....

Findhorn Bay

 and then we went back to the bunk house for a short preparation, and then walked to the sweat lodge area. I felt as if I was going to my execution, but was determined not to falter in step nor stance.

We spent hours preparing wood and stones, and eventually lit a giant bonfire, whose flames shot up over four metres high. This was to cook the stones to a temperature of 500 degrees Celsius.

So, some of the uninitiated might now be wondering exactly what a sweat lodge is.
It is a round structure, in this case built on flat earth, from bendy sticks, in the shape of a womb (more or less).  In a way this makes it more primal (and creepier). 

Over the sticks, we draped sixteen fur blankets, and then covered the blankets with two large tarpaulins, leaving the inside completely dark. 

We sat around the bonfire we had made, made a dedication to each of the Four Elements, and played with musical instruments until the sun went down, and the rocks were glowing red.The wait was over.

And then the sweat lodge began.

The first round was held for women, and lasted just under half an hour.

On the second round, after the women had exited, I pulled off all my clothes and joined the men and entered by the Southern side of the entrance due East of the lodge. (Directionality is very important to sweat lodge rituals.) I went to the ground, whispered “For all my relations” to the earth around me, and crawled inside, clockwise.

It wasn’t too hot… just yet. That is because air does not conduct heat very well. Even with six red-hot rocks inside, it was just pleasantly warm.

Then the entrance was closed, and the room sheathed in complete darkness. The only visible light was from the glow of the rocks.

Splash! Craig threw some water on the rocks. Within a few short seconds I could suddenly feel all my pores opening at once.  Before much longer, my body was covered in sweat. Behold, the ability of water to conduct heat much better than air.

Each of the men took a turn to honour the other men in his life. I myself stated how, while I have no hangups about being a ‘man’, I have always found the concept of gender quite divisive, and far more often unnecessary than necessary.  Yet I also found in myself no opposition to holding a women’s and a men’s space separately initially, for the plan was to bring us together in the third round, which I do appreciate. If my life could be in the service of more gender equality and gender unity, then this should make me happy.

I don’t feel that too much time passed before every man had spoken, and we were allowed out again. It had taken perhaps just over twenty minutes, by my reckoning. Craig asked us who was ready to go again for round 3. I eagerly accepted, and crawled out, clockwise, of the Northern side of the entrance. 

Dizzily, head spinning, I brought myself to the ground, lay in silence for about a minute, and then made my way to the ‘plunge barrel’, filled with cold water.  I jumped in, splashed myself, breathed audibly, got out, almost fell over from dizziness, and then lay down and looked up at the stars.

Not long after, everyone was ready for their second round. The women and men came together this time, repeated the entrance ritual, and soon we were all inside.  In our discussion, we honoured the present (remember to breathe), and also made some very loud noises as a group. I said that I was feeling very happy to be where I was, and felt that my whole life had led me to coming to Findhorn. In my expression I yelled “YAAAAAAAY!” at the top of my voice, and the rest of my group joined me. It felt so good!

But, after each and every speech given by a person, the focalisers would throw water on the rocks again, and again, and again. By the half hour mark, I was lying down in the sand (cold air falls, cold air falls, cold air falls… eeeeeek! Remember to breathe!) edging as far away from the rock, and covering my body with about as much moist sand as I could, feeling more and more faint.

Eventually we managed to make it through the second round of speeches, and when given the chance to do so, I made my way to the exit as quickly as possible. I knew I was close to passing out.

* * *

We sat around the fire in near-complete silence, holding each other for warmth, affection, and yes, I dare say it, love.

The healing power of Nature

We spent Thursday and Friday visiting Glen Affric, and I am once again reminded of the incredibly capacity of Nature to restore us to health and wholeness once more.

First, we stopped by the reflective Loch Ness, the largest body of water in the UK.

Loch Ness

After that, we made our way West through the Highlands, soon arriving at a cold mountain at Glen Affric:

Deer fence, cold mountain

We learned about how the deer, bred for generations by landowners with hunting ambitions, are too populous and interfering with the growth of young trees. Then we climbed up some more...

Squelch, squelch, squelch

and found ourselves climbing higher and higher

 to find ourselves atop the land.


After we made our way down and slept the night, I awoke, prepared and visited the river

spent the morning and afternoon exploring, working, and collecting rocks at Dundreggan (the Dragon's Fort!) - a massive estate lodge with polytunnels, a waterfall, and three wild boar!

On our way back we stopped at the most forlorn, melancholy place I've yet been to - a 3,000-year-old gravesite.

Clava Cairns

On the whole, it was an amazing two days, and even though the information was a little on the excessive side, I felt remarkably re-inspired for the days to come.  Which turned out to be really necessary, as you'll find out in the next blog... The Sweat.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The meaning of Spirituality

This has been one of the hardest posts I've tried to write yet, but the inner voice compelling me to write it is strong enough that I have persisted in my efforts to find inspiration about how to  write about this topic.

Perhaps the first difficulty with writing about spirituality is that ultimately I don't see it as a concept, nor an idea, but rather a personal experience with... something. Something subtle, intangible, immaterial, but far from inert. Words do not flow easily when thinking about this topic, but I will attempt to explain it as well as I can.

I would start by saying that spirituality is a mosaic of several different experiences, and yet somehow more than the 'sum of its parts'. Thus far I can identify spiritual belief, spiritual practice, spiritual insight, and most elusively of all, spiritual experience. I shall try to explain these one by one and see where it gets me.

Spiritual belief

I would start by explaining that spiritual belief, for me, means revering the Earth, and Nature, as profoundly powerful, living beings or entities, and then turning my attention outward, to the Moon, the Sun, the planets and indeed the Universe, in cherishing the great creation that we find ourselves living in, and wishing to protect the health and vitality of the planet I was born on and live on, despairing at its destruction and ill-treatment by profit interests, while also acknowledging that I too am part of the problem of the Earth's ill-treatment.

I can differentiate spiritual belief from religious belief in that I feel spiritual belief does not require an organised set of beliefs, and does not need to be handed down through any authority (though it certainly can be, in the experience of another). Most religions do prescribe or encourage spirituality as a method for followers to adopt.

At the age of sixteen, I found myself growing rapidly disenchanted with the rule-bound, authoritarian approach of the way the Christian religion was taught to me, having never much followed it to begin with and certainly not from the age of twelve, I began to see the destructive side of religion, or rather, the less than peaceful ways in which many people practice their religion.

My mistake, however, was to throw spirituality out along with religion, believing the two to be too intimately intertwined. Perhaps one of the biggest indignities thrust upon people is the notion that religion can have a monopoly on spirituality. I was not yet free of this assumption at seventeen, and it took me another six years, until the late stage of my 23rd year of life, to find my innate spirituality once again.

During this period I also found myself taking on an anti-spiritualist, 'rationalist', objective, overly scientific and logical, and arguably even cynical, view of the world. It was like my world had lost its magic, and I could no longer believe in miracles, astrology, the occult, supernormal abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance, or indeed, the impossible. I believed that only possible things could happen. This led to a less enchanted, less special, less personal view of the world and why I was alive, and an estrangement from my purpose.

Towards the age of 23 I began to rediscover the joy of spirituality. I don't believe that I was 'converted' at any specific moment, or through the efforts of any specific person, but rather that it was a slow rediscovery, in which I woke up one day and began to see the magic of the world again. I definitely attribute some of the rediscovery to my decision to permanently cease taking any antidepressive, antianxiety or antipsychotic medication.

Studying permaculture in September 2013  helped me deepen my spiritual belief, and it was here that I saw the undeniable truth, that a deep love for Nature and a belief that all things are connected, would be an essential part of my journey in helping to make the world a better place.

Spiritual practice

I would define spiritual practice as the act of deliberately setting aside time to look inwards, connect with oneself, others and the Earth, in a mindful or sensitive way, while focusing to avoid distraction from the intention of connection.

In this way, spiritual practice can be organised, or disorganised. It can be through praying, meditation, yoga, or just enjoying a hobby that one has a passion for. It can be looking at a candle flame, humming, singing, chanting or having sex.. or through sitting in complete silence for  minutes, hours or days at a time.

Another way to practice spirituality

Basically, for me, there is no one right way to practice spirituality. It is your wish or intention to connect, and your decision to take time to do it, that makes it spiritual.

Since spirituality can be practiced, that also means that one can become more skillful or fit at it. It means that the more time is spent, the more frequently, it means that the benefits of spirituality can be achieved more strongly or thoroughly!

While I had what can be described as a slow ascent into spirituality, others have experienced much more sudden transitions, which can lead to the phenomenon of feeling 'new' to spiritual practice. Sometimes this can lead to quite a sudden fright, of feeling spiritual overload. While I haven't experienced this overload myself yet, I have seen it manifest in others. The way I would suggest managing it is to take some time to do physical exercise, e.g. running, swimming, yoga, and mental exercise, such as reading and writing, while pausing to reflect about the influence of spirituality on life.

Spiritual insight

I would delineate spiritual insight from cognitive insight, in that cognitive insight would tend to come from reading, thinking, planning or using logic. However, spiritual insight is similar to creativity in that it seldom comes from focused thinking about something, but rather seems to take you by surprise, when you're least expecting it. That is, don't practice meditation for the purpose of gaining insight - for the very nature of meditation is that it is done for its own sake, and the benefits are then seen as extras - extras that are reasonably certain to occur, but not with any predictability, regularity or pattern of depth.

This can be transcended somewhat through the use of spiritual practice.

I would feel spiritual insight relates to a kind of 'inner knowing', in which you look inwards, to the instinctual knowledge innate in your body's ancient, inherited wisdom, courtesy of four billion years of evolution, and to the embodied knowledge of the Earth, the moon, sun and the stars. Spiritual insight, I feel, is when I feel encouraged to write a blog about something. Indeed, I feel that spiritual insight is a kind of engine that drives creativity. Its two main sources that I can presently identify, are curiosity and intent. I felt the curiosity of the ecovillage Findhorn, wondering how they manage to run and enjoy their ecovillage while simultaneously benefiting the planet. And my intent, thus, is to learn from the experience of being here.

Spiritual experience

I would say that spiritual experience is thus the overall feeling of being spiritual, gaining the wisdom and insight, with the attitudes and beliefs involved in the intention to create a better world, of not allowing ourselves to become disconnected. It thus has a profound connection to our lives and their purposes! My own life's purpose, in general, is to make the world a better place by being here, especially on three fronts: social justice, ecological connection and spiritual fulfillment.
Thus far, I have seen that ecovillages and permaculture provide one of the best canvases on which to learn and create, in the words of Charles Eisenstein, the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

Findhorn is a deeply spiritual place. It was founded by Eileen and Peter Caddy, and Dorothy Maclean. They all had strong links to the spiritual world, in their personal lives, much through the Christian religion. Yet Findhorn is in no way a Christian, nor indeed a religious ecovillage. All faiths are welcome here, and I would dare say, so is no faith at all.

* * *

In the preceding paragraphs, I have attempted to describe spirituality as best I know how. Yet somehow, and I knew all along that this was coming, the description is not enough. It is definitely something else, something more. Something that can't be put into words.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Coming to terms with our emotions

I have had a very full, and emotionally intense, last few days.

On Wednesday morning we had two extra facilitators join us, to take us through the first part of the Awakening the Dreamer symposium, which consists of four steps:

Step 1: Where are we now? 
- Coming to terms with the state of our world, its environmental destruction, species extinction, social injustice and spiritual emptiness.

Honouring our pain - being brave enough to express what we really feel, and to know that the Earth's pain is our pain - what we do unto the Earth we do unto ourselves!

This was a highly emotional process, and I and others cried litres of tears over this, following the direction not to think about the state of the world at the moment, but to feel about it.

For an hour, we sat in a circle in the ball room (pictured in a previous post) and had each of us that wanted to, come to the centre of the circle to express which emotion best symbolised the way we were feeling - fear, grief, anger, emptiness or something else - to talk, sing, shout or cry about how we felt. This is also known as the Truth Mandala exercise.

I expressed confusion over what we can possibly do? and fear over whether we'll be able to do enough in time, to reverse the damaging trends and bring about a more regenerative way of life.

By the end of this process, I needed to spend half an hour alone in the forest to recover my composure. I can however say that it felt incredibly clearing to go through this. Even right after expressing how I felt and then going to sit down, I felt a new lightness in myself, a weight lifted.

I later reflected how natural the emotional sharing process should feel vs. how it does feel, especially when you chat privately with a therapist. I have definitely experienced benefits from participating in therapy, but it often feels isolating, just you and the therapist, and ultimately I found the group sharing process to be less alienating and isolating than one with a therapist (I do think you need to have very close trust with your group, but bear in mind we all only met each other on Saturday).

 Even typing this, and remembering how I felt when I and the others went through this, is bringing a few tears to my eyes.

Step 2: How did we get here?

In this part of the process, we examined how, through a culture of unexamined assumptions, that we have arrived at this juncture in our human history, where we have lost 50% of our forests, 90% of our fish and 90% of our large predators in 300 years, how factories, mines and landfills pollute the air, ground and water, and how people need to take antidepressants, antianxiety, antipsychotics, and other substances just to cope with their daily lives.

Step 3: What is possible now?

We learned about all the different organisations in the world that are encouraging a change in the way things are (Paul Hawken explains that there are over 2 million such groups) and discussed among ourselves which activism groups we are involved in - for example, local exchange trading systems (LETs), animal rights groups, climate activism groups, food security activism groups. I myself am a member of the Cape Town Talent Exchange, the largest LETs group in the Western Cape of South Africa, but presently do not use it as much as I could...

One thing that I did share in this group, is that it can be quite hard to be an activist and try to help your community when you are labelled 'privileged', which is certainly a struggle I face back home in South Africa. While I do acknowledge that I was born with several privileges and have also accumulated several more as I have lived, I also think it is quite insulting to refer to someone else as privileged (or unprivileged), especially in the context of rejecting their well-meaning offer of assistance outright, before really hearing what they are trying to say. It's actually far more complicated than that, there are many grey areas and nuances when it comes to this issue, and there are times when I have felt silenced on account of privilege I may be assumed to possess (and am therefore supposedly unqualified to comment). I can actually say that the thing I currently miss least  about South Africa is hearing the world privilege every single day, unthinkingly and unconsciously applied to people.

Step 4: What do we do now?

Our group then participated in an extremely life-affirming task, in which we wrote and drew our visions for a better world on paper, then also wrote down what we felt were the biggest obstacles to our visions. Then we symbolically associated the barriers and obstructions with arrows, and participated in a ritual in which several of us broke arrows with our throats!

My vision for a better world

A broken arrow

I definitely felt a renewed sense of purpose behind my objectives and the objectives of others.

We tore up our 'obstacle' pieces of paper and then put them in a hugelkultur bed that we constructed as a team, leaving them there to rot and feed the new seeds that we planted in the bed.

Our hugelkultur bed up close

The same, from afar

* * *

That evening (last night) I felt a small amount of depression and considered spending the evening alone, but I was due for kitchen duty, and was once again amazed at how quickly my depression evaporated when I had the chance to do something useful for others (and myself too). I helped to clean the stove surfaces and the counters.

I ended up chatting until late in the night with another friend over two warm cups of tea, and slept peacefully.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Gardening in the snow

Last night, I learned about a good method for getting to know people in your community, or classroom, or space: the Survey method, in which you have people arrange themselves spatially according to a given scale, such as

level of education
introversion and extroversion
experience in gardening

I found I learned a lot about people very quickly, and would definitely use this in a classroom space.

We ended off the evening  by associating the four Elements with a compass direction and listening to Craig's didgeridoo music.  It was very relaxing, although when I went to bed last night, I couldn't sleep. I think the excitement of being here is finally starting to sink in, which is leading to a very active mind. It reminds me to make enough time to meditate and be calm through the excitement - for there is much to be done and much to be learned.

This morning, our group went off to The Park, Findhorn's other campus.

We learned about the local climate of the Findhorn village and Forres area, which is very cold, yet still has a surprisingly high amount of sunlight, and also has plenty of water. The soil is very sandy,  which means that you must add extra fibre to it and use lots of mulch.

Despite the fact of the snow covering the soil, we managed to harvest two baskets and two sacks of potatoes and artichokes, because of the way they had been planted and looked after by chickens over the winter.

Midwinter Harvest? Snow Problem...

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Dancing the cynicism away

 This morning, the course group took part in a dance session! It was one of the things I have been most skeptical about in my life, since I’ve always been quite a self-conscious dancer (when not under cover of darkness at least). 

The Ballroom

My favoured form of dancing has tended to be trance music, often well over 120bpm, in which the tempo of the music lends itself to quick movements, and I’ve generally stayed away from dancing with partners, as I certainly don’t want anyone seeing if I get it wrong. Also, I’ve never favoured anything called ‘folk’ dancing, most likely because I had the idea that if I did it wrong, I would not only embarrass myself but also be insulting the culture that the dance is from?

Trust Findhorn to put me in a situation where I need to do exactly this  - although the session was actually so well-structured, that I didn’t once feel self-conscious or embarrassed (though I certainly did make a fair few ‘mistakes’, what worked well was that the dances were new for everyone except the teacher, so we were all in equal footing and step, so to speak).

After the session I felt wonderfully cleared, and I’m seeing even that small bit of cynicism inside of myself evaporate. I have no doubt that there will be difficult times ahead, in the course and thereafter, but If I can manage to dance for 90 minutes without feeling bad about it, I’m already learning that nothing makes us suffer more, than fear of suffering itself.

Later, we went on a tour of the property, however, I do confess that I was not able to pay as much attention as I would have liked, as today was the coldest experience of my adult life. I was wearing almost as many layers as I would have liked, but perhaps I should have worn two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants and a scarf as well… 

In the afternoon we sat in the meditative Sanctuary and chose Angel cards to represent our journey. As a group we chose the Creativity card, which I think is appropriate as we need to be very creative to solve the problems of the world.
For myself I chose the Respect card, which means that I recognise that I can be very abrasive and critical of others, and their methods. I’d like to learn how to respect, without giving up my ability to be analytical and scientific – in that the word ‘science’ has ‘sci’ in it, which is the Latin word for cut – sometimes being hit with cold, hard facts at the wrong time, can feel very cutting.

I’m not sure how to get there yet, but I’m sure if I apply creativity to the process,  I’ll be well on my way…

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Cynicism and Faith

I arrived at the Findhorn Foundation's Cluny Hill Hotel today at around 11am.. and what a place it is!

Cluny Hill College

 But first, a little history, and self-examination.

I have long considered myself an introspective, introverted, sometimes shy person. I do not make friends easily (although when I do, I will stay loyal to them no matter what). I tend to find small talk awkward, and have some not inconsiderable resistance to some social rituals, especially those connected to spirituality and eating, when I'm not yet sure I want to participate, and am encouraged perhaps a little too readily by others - I need to pick up such things at my own pace.

One could be forgiven for wondering how this is connected to ecovillage creation.

At the New Year's festival called the Learning Man that I participated in over 2015/2016 at the Riviersonderend, Western Cape campsite 'Circle of Dreams',  there was a request for all people to participate in community events and community volunteering. The atmosphere was wonderful and inviting and the people were super friendly.

However, at this time in my life I was feeling particularly cynical over any sort of personal relationships, owing to a separation from my romantic partner around two weeks before then. I did not feel ready to give myself fully, nor to receive fully, what this event had to offer. For this I am sorry  - I know I broke the event guidelines by keeping to myself for a fair majority of the time I was there.

And it was at this point that I began to see what some of the problems present in any kind of group activity or  community. It is related to people's inherent 'animal' selfishness, and I, in possession of an unusually large load of avarice, am least inclined to give of myself, and receive, when I feel a sense of loss or disappointment in life.

Perhaps this is one reason why we can't just 'jump' into community, but have to transition into it. This is why we can't give up money, all at once, and rely entirely on word-of-mouth and trust for exchange of value. Because there will be times when I, and others, feel that our natural altruism is overshadowed by our avarice, our disappointment, our anxiety.

When you pay for something that you've bought, in money, and in full, you are ending your obligation to the other party.  There are times when I feel I need to be entirely free of any obligation to anyone else. Sometimes even for days or weeks on end. This is a reason I can say I'm not willing to give up using money entirely (although I would jump at the opportunity to rewrite every last inequitable 'law' of commerce currently applicable today - and most of the laws of commerce are indeed inequitable, designed to empower the already powerful and further disempower the downtrodden).

Towards the end of the Learning Man festival, I began to take notice of the unhelpful attitudes that I possess, regarding communality.
I had begun asking the question: Can this work? Is it possible for us to adopt a tribal, fully equitable model of community, value exchange, law and society? In which we are accountable to one another and to the Earth, yet still able to reserve participation at times when we do not feel ready?

I was far from willing to give up hope, but I had certainly hit upon one of the largest stumbling blocks. Most communities that are started (90%) fail and fall apart (as do roughly 90% of businesses, which are also communal ventures). And almost all of those 90% that fail, fail because of human reasons, not because of crop failure or building or technology. For an explanation of why this is so, and a method for doing better than those 90%, see Diana Leafe Christian's book 'Creating a Life Together'.

I mentioned some of these thoughts at the festival, and mentioned to a permaculture teacher, Buzz, that I was thinking about travelling to New Zealand for a permaculture course that I had applied for (and been accepted into).

He told me that New Zealand sounded great and very interesting, but that the Findhorn foundation was also hosting a course around this time, that was to last four weeks.

Knowing that Findhorn was in northern Scotland, during February and March, I knew it would be too cold to be asked to camp for accommodation there. And after the festival, which was a burning 43 degrees Celsisus on the hottest day there, and 38 degrees every other day, I was just about over camping for a lifetime.

And then, of course, Findhorn's reputation as one of the most respected ecological centres in the world, was no small attraction to wanting to attend.

So I registered for the Findhorn course, full of excitement, and spent the next month getting ready to travel.

Last night in Forres, I stayed in a very charming B&B full of fairy lights, owned by a sound healer, Jill who patiently listened to all my misgivings and reservations about community, and anger over my delayed payment at the corporation I was working for back in Cape Town,  and reaffirmed for me that I had come to the right place. This is about a journey.

This morning, as I listened to the resonant hum of the crystal bowls and walked through the beautiful Sanquhar forest in Forres, I began to find the full measure of my faith again.

Now I am in Cluny, and my course starts at 14:00...

Our first meeting room

As the day came to a close, snow fell

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The journey to Findhorn begins!

I first heard about the Findhorn Foundation in early 2014, when I met their (South African) PR Manager, Geoff, in our Cape Town ecovillage group.

We were beginning our process of Visioning, in which we would eventually come together to write our 3-page-long Vision Document, that the group could stand by to say that this is why we have come together - to form an Ecovillage.

In our Visioning process, we looked to Findhorn and its Common Ground agreements as a good basis to build our thoughts on Visioning, and importantly, to build a Vision that resonated for us in South Africa. By July, we had our Vision, but thoughts of Findhorn remained...

How did they do it?
And are they really a slice of paradise unto themselves, or are they overrated?

I'm off to Findhorn to find out for myself.

This morning at 06:00 I arrived in London, feeling like a starry-eyed tourist - the airport is so huge! And the city, from the air, seemed to go on forever... although I noted the conspicuous absence of a mountain in the centre of the city :P

While the visa application (R5,000 later) process and travel preparation processes were fraught with difficulty, I can also say that everything seems to be proceeding as it should. Everyone I've spoken to about my plans is excited and encouraging!

It reminds me about The Alchemist, a short story by Paulo Coehlo, in which the central character learns about Personal Legends, or Destiny: you know you are on the right journey in life, when it seems that the entire universe is conspiring to help you reach your goal. Random good luck, kindness from strangers, unyielding support from family and close friends....

Watch this space, more content is on the way...