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What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. T.S. Eliot
Almond blossom in January marks the beginning of Spring in Catalunya and today it shows itself, just as we come to the end of The Omen Days. Looking ahead to December, we see the cycle of the year laid out, beginning and ending catching the tail of one another in a cosmic spiral.
And so it is with our little sangha as we end this time-out-of-time together, but not exactly as we planned. Our nine-year old teacher is in bed with flu, so we set up an online meeting, some gathered in one place, some in another. This ending, successfully and joyfully executed, proves to be a way forward. A way to keep supporting each other during the coming year and a way to bring in other sangha friends, both near and far. Perhaps one day you will join us…
In December, may we look back on the year gone by and appreciate the cycle of life, the spiral of spiritual process and the strength of community.
Today is a free day, meaning that our little group chose not to meet on the beach together, but to have an unscheduled day. It’s a well-known phenomenon that too much discipline makes us rebel, so it’s wise to build in some free time before the pressure builds. In Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village, for instance, once a week they have a Lazy Day, where the community is encouraged to rest and focus on being, not doing. So how is it, after my ‘free’ day, that I feel less free?
The Buddha is clear that the only ‘freedom of mind’ is a worthwhile goal for our spiritual practice. Not ‘gain or honour or fame, nor the attainment of virtue, meditative concentration, knowledge or vision.’ (From the Discourse on the Simile of the Heartwood – thanks to Ulla Koenig)
At the end of the day, other members of our group report that they have had an ‘off’ day, that they have missed the gathering of sangha, that the day has been ‘ordinary.’ On this, at least, we are in sync!
What does it take, then, to make our days extraordinary? What does an ‘on’ day feel like? And what is so special about the gathering of sangha? This is a question I will take into #nature… A question I will discuss with the group when we meet tomorrow… And a question in which I invite you to take part…
In November, I may feel a little lost. Can I remember, then, to reach inside and outside of myself for understanding, to turn to my sangha for answers, and to open to the wisdom of my tribe?
(See previous posts for more info about this practice of The Omen Days.)
New year. Warm fire. Cold air. Cold sea. Warm sun. Elements balanced as we summit the midpoint of The Omen Days. It suddenly seems appropriate that New Year is the climax of the Twelve days of Christmas. That we begin on twenty-sixth of December and end on sixth of January. Today, this Celtic practice feels ancient.
Sustained practice brings results as insight emerges. The biologist experiencing oneness as he contemplates how the atoms and molecules of people and places are universally shared. How plant growth depends on both darkness and light – on soil and on sunshine.
Seeds planted now will likely be harvested in July, but we shouldn’t worry if they need a little more time. In my garden, I have chili peppers planted last January that are still fruiting!
Retreats are a wonderful time out of time, but daily meditation adds magic to ordinary life. Diving into wintry water, members of our community emerge joyful into bright sun. We are thankful for deep connection. To ourselves, to nature and to each other.
What stories are you telling yourself today? What are you reading, hearing, thinking about, and passing on? If you started your day with newspapers – whether print or online, it’s likely you were bombarded with bad things that have happened. For me, wildfire, murder and political chaos dominate my headlines today and while it’s possible that my social media feed offers some light-hearted relief, I might need to scroll past the shouting in order to find it. In this kind of environment, it’s no wonder our mental health is suffering. Hope is an emotion that lifts heart and mind, but in a world smothering in greed, hatred and mounting CO2, hope is fast disappearing.
So when I got a call to help edit a film for the Permaculture Association about a programme of theirs called Thriving Communities, I leapt at the chance to be part of a different story. The film brings together clips from projects around the UK using permaculture principles to address community needs. Though permaculture is often thought be only relevant for rural dwellers, many Thriving Community projects are urban- based, showing that the values of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share are relevant, practical and can make a difference just about anywhere.
Contrary to popular understanding, permaculture is much more than gardening, though growing food is a good place to start. Planting and nurturing seeds brings us into relationship with the earth and if we do it in a group, with other people as well. What’s more, it’s hard to miss the parallels between our own well-being and that of the plant, so growing food is educational as well as nutritional. Somehow, in addition to looking after soil and seedlings, we end up looking after ourselves, too.
Living in the Future has always been about telling positive stories, but we need them more than ever now, as the clock counting down towards runaway climate change and species extinction ticks relentlessly towards ground zero. In the face of this, taking personal action can seem like an overwhelming task. Sorting the recycling, whilst important, seems too small a response.
Given the enormity of the task we face, you may be drawn to take part in some way in the growing protest movement that is Extinction Rebellion. Organised on a grass roots level by activists calling time on government apathy and inaction, XR invites contributions in all sorts of ways, from engagement in non-violent direct action and associated support roles, to writing, artwork, and more contemplative practices. The question for us personally might be – how can I express my own response to this devastating global situation, in a way that feels both possible and sustainable? For instance, as I write this, my email is pinging notices from companies advertising Black Friday deals – is there a way we can make seasonal giving more earth and people-friendly? Can we show our love without buying more unwanted and unnecessary stuff?
As our leaders charge headlong and blindfolded towards who knows what, my own experience of grief, anxiety and disempowerment has led me deeper into my own spiritual practice. Gardening is undoubtedly a part of this. Movements like the Permaculture Association and the Transition Network have long recognised that as well as positive actions, the alignment of our outer/inner worlds is an important and crucial part of the work and storytelling can really help with this. By bringing our expectations more in line with reality and suggesting new ways of dealing with challenges, stories help align our inner and outer worlds, helping us move more easefully through times of change.
So let me ask again, what stories are you telling yourself today?
“Nowhere to go and two weeks to get there.” Meditation teacher Denis Robberechts smiles as he addresses a group of a hundred or so people, remembering the slogan on the side of the vans they used for transporting equipment for one of the first Dharma Yatras. This pilgrimage through French countryside is in its eighteenth year and the duration now 10 days, but the idea is the same. To walk with intention, but without destination.
On the penultimate day of the 2018 Dharma Yatra, I take time to talk to a few of the people I’ve met, asking them to tell me something of their experience. Around the kitchen table, a wooden bench structure under a large tarp walled by neatly labelled plastic containers, I meet up with Marÿke Hovenier, Anke Birkner and Trina Dillon. After a moment’s reluctance, they can’t really contain their enthusiasm for the yatra.
Nature and Silence
“I’ve been 5 times now.” says Marÿke. “I like to dive into nature and it gives me some entrance to meditation. For me it’s easy when I’m in nature like this to open up and to see some other things. In normal life, it’s difficult to really make that mix. It reminds me that nature really is that important for me, so it would be good for me to go in nature more…in my head I know, but I tend to forget. And it’s lovely to spend time in silence with other people. You can be on your own in silence but that’s a whole different thing.”
The Dharma Yatra fills up soon after bookings open each April and is popular with people of all ages. The youngest is a toddler of less than a year and amongst the eldest is one of the teachers, who is over seventy. What is its appeal?
Community and Simplicity
Trina is part of the kitchen crew and as a British person amongst many particpiants from France, Germany and elsewhere, she’s been my go-to contact for the cups of hot tea we British seem to need more than most. She agrees about the nature and silence and adds that the simplicity of life on the yatra is a big aspect for her. “You have less need for things, because you’re more nourished inside by nature, by the teachings, by the community.”
Anke is one of the teaching team. She is nodding energetically “I agree! I also crave less things. At home I’m much more like “Oh I should buy some chocolate now, but here, it’s not available and I actually don’t think about it. Because I know ok, now this is the time to eat, this is the time to do this and the rest covers my other needs.” Trina adds “I think that helps with going inside as well, because you have less distractions and less things to think about practcally. So then you can just dive inwards, with more ease.”
If you’re used to traditional silent retreats, you may be surprised by the amount of conversation that happens on this retreat. It’s partly this way becuause there are many families – there are twenty-two children amongst the participants – but also because discussion and depth of inquiry is a key part of the Insight tradition of meditation of which the teachers are a part. Though there are group meditation sessions, walking is the main practice and takes place in silence. We walk in a long snaking line, slowest at the front to set the pace. “I just feel much more with myself.” says Anke. “And I see much more, absorbing what’s around and not so distracted. My presence increases because everbody else is really attentively present. There’s more energy in it. In the outside world, people go walking together but talking. It’s different. You don’t get to see anything. You are not really there. You spend hours in the dunes and then, “ah yeah. Actually where am I?”
Nature as teacher
Some discussion about “the outside world” takes place and it’s true that over these 10 days, it has felt as though we are in our own little bubble. Meals are prepared and served on site and all infrastucture such as toilets and showers are organised by the on site crew. The group walks up to 8 hours every day, but engages little with people outside of the group beyond a passing “bonjour”. The look on some of the faces of local residents and farmers as 100 or more people file past their property is precious! I wonder aloud how some of this, of all the things we’ve been talking about could be brought a little more into the outside world.
“When we went for the sunrise walk this morning,”” says Trina, I was thinking that you don’t need to do anything because nature is the teacher. All you have to do is bring people to that place. It’s such a simple thing, even just to take people out for a day or a few hours, and it’s so powerful. You feel like you are bigger than your small self. You are part of something bigger.”
Photoset from the walk available below. Participants please feel free to download.
For commercial use, please contact me regarding permissions. Thanks!
Circling in…re-tuning and re-attuning…this is a key foundation for sustainable living.
To keep growing and learning, we all need to find our edge…
Back in 2008, Living in the Future began as a project documenting ecovillages and low impact communities in the UK and beyond. It was hard not to be concerned about the way things were going but as well as saying ‘no’, I wanted something to which I could say ‘yes’! Our team set about recording positive alternatives to mainstream lifestyles and twelve years on, Living in the Future engages in all aspects of this question, from natural building and offgrid living to food, health and nature connection. As well as the physical impact of this way of living, the human context is becoming increasingly evident. Society is facing a collapse in emotional and mental well-being and we find ourselves embracing an eco-spiritual edge. In permaculture, the edge effect describes how there is a greater diversity of life in the region where two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water, or forest/grassland.
Where is the fertile ground between ecology and spirituality?
Sustainable Living is more than an eco-house, more then a veggie garden, more than planning laws and turf roofs, though all of this is relevant and necessary. Sustainable living has to encompass the whole of it. The soul of it. The way we live includes our humanity, our community and our relationships – with ourselves, with the land and with each other. Filmmaker, writer, environmentalist and human rights advocate, I am also a yoga teacher and a meditation guide and my lifestyle encompasses all of these aspects. Many years ago, I made a commitment to earning my living through Right Livelihood and with your support, the Living in the Future project has helped me do that. Part art, part activism, we endeavour to bring fresh conversations, fresh inspirations and a fresh perspective.
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I am sitting on the back step of my cabin. A shaft of warm sunlight filters through and splashes my foot. In my right hand, I hold a broad sprig of elderflower and with my left, I am plucking the dainty scented petals into a wooden bowl. The memory makes my heart swell, not just because I can feel the peace of that moment, but because behind it in my mind, are a queue of summer-flavoured images and sounds. My grandmother made this sweet, barely alcoholic drink every year and in my favourite scenes, we are sitting in her beloved garden on faded deckchairs, sipping until we are ever so slightly tipsy.
The recipe I am using is her recipe. It was given to me by my Auntie Joan, long after my grandmother had died, and every summer I kept the ritual of sitting and plucking, before stirring in sugar, lemons and a touch of cider vinegar. My friends were wary of my gifts of elderflower champagne. Too often the bottles, expanding through natural fermentation beyond the limits of their fragile glass confines, exploded. The moment of explosion was scary enough but the aftermath – that sticky mess on walls, ceiling and floor, was sometimes more than pleasure of the remaining, intact bottle was worth.
This year, I’m sharing the recipe with the community at Can Masdeu, this anarchist community that has become my haven. The large eldest tree in their courtyard has more than enough flowers. The community likes to dry them for a medicinal tea – a vitamin C-filled curative for coughs and colds. We pick the full blossoms and sit together in the Barcelona spring sunshine, plucking, then stirring, and later tasting. If it’s not too late, head out into the woods, find some elderflower heads and brew your own. But be careful of the explosions!
To make Elderflower Champagne
4 litres hot water
Juice and zest of four lemons
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
About 15 elderflower heads, in full bloom, picked on a sunny day (if you pick them in the rain they smell like dog pee)
A pinch of dried yeast (you may not need this)
1. Sterilise all your equipment. I like to use a few drops of tea tree oil in plenty of water, but it needs a while to air ‘cos it can be a bit smelly. Pluck the flowers from your elderflowers.
2. Dissolve sugar in 1 litre of hot water in a fermenting bucket, then top up with 3 litres cold water. Allow to cool.
3. Add elderflower flowers, lemon juice and zest and vinegar. The elderflowers contain a natural yeast, so you shouldn’t need to add extra. (see below). Leave to ferment.
4. If you did not add yeast and fermentation has not started after 3 days, add a packet of Champagne yeast to get it going.
5. After 6 days of fermentation, strain through boiled muslin into a fresh fermenting bucket, leaving the lees behind. Cover the bucket and leave for a few hours for the dust to settle, then siphon into your bottles of choice. This time I used plastic bottles, for damage limitation, and it worked quite well. We were also able to release a little excess pressure by easing the lids off a little (careful!).
Your champagne is ready to drink after a week. Enjoy!
Place in a fridge or cool place to stop the yeast making any more carbon dioxide and drink. It should keep for up to 3 months, but you may not be able to leave it alone that long!
If the whole popping thing is too scary, try this instead! (Also my grandmother’s recipe).
21/2 il sugar
3 pts water
2oz citric acid
2 lemons chopped
2 oranges chopped
About 20 large elderflower heads
Make syrup by dissolving sugar in water. And simmer for 5 mins.
Pour into deep bowl add citric acid stir.
Putin remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Cover and leave 4 days stir night and morning.
Strain into sterile bottle and keep in cool dark cupboard.
Arjuna da Silva is someone I have never met, and yet I know we have a lot in common. Arjuna lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina and was one of the most enthusiastic (and generous) supporters of the crowd fund campaign for our latest film – Deep Listening. She is a veteran of intentional community and I thought it would be lovely to get some insight into her world…
When she appears in my Skype window, I see an older woman, framed by silvery hair befitting to her name. In the background, a beautiful archway hugs around a living flame. From my city apartment in Barcelona, I feel an ache for the countryside and for her cosy wood-burning fire. She tells me how her journey toward living in Earthhaven began…
“I have lived in several intentional communities. In the early 1990’s I was living in Florida and I had two close friends – we were friends and housemates – and we were all communitarians. We were a networked, small town extended community of people who didn’t live together but who were very connected through their meditations and social lives. We used to dream about ‘what would we do if we bought a piece of land?” In the 70’s, when everyone was looking at maps of the country and asking ‘where would you go if you wanted to avoid disaster?’ , it always came to western North Carolina or the southern Appalacian mountains. This was the place…
After a couple of years visiting other communities, gathering advice and information, one woman who just had lots of energy put out a message to say that one of the pieces of land they had seen was the best choice and if anyone wanted to do this then now was the time.”
So far, so familiar, right? A networked group of people, a wish to live on some land together, a search for the “right place” and a forward thinking, dynamic individual…It’s a story I must have heard a hundred times whilst making the Living in the Future series! Arjuna tells me that the story told in our Lammas film was the one which resonated most with her, and I can see why…
“There are people here whose homes are totally according to the outside codes. There are some who have very nice homes but didn’t bother with the codes. And then there are lots of buildings here that technically people are not supposed to live in. They don’t have a toilet, for instance. These people are pushing the edge of “what will they let me alone to do?” They see that we’re making no trouble…this is a good thing, not a bad thing…. The plus side of the economic downturn in this county is that officials don’t have the budgets to spend time investigating every nook and cranny of development. The truth is that we who started Earthaven were willing to push the envelope. We could have gone down to the local authority and said “this is what we intend to do and let’s work together.” One day we might just do that, but in the beginning we were following advice Peter Caddy from Findhorn gave us early on when he told us about how Findhorn first developed, and how they decided they would be best off if they would ‘ask forgiveness, not permission.’ We decided we would do that too.”
Deep Listening talks much ore about the way we communicate with each other and how we deal with conflict. What was it about this that spoke to you?
Everyone who comes to Earthaven, comes with a different picture of what they’re coming to and what they want it to be like. We do our best to be clear about what’s going on here, but we could do better atmaking sure people learn what to expect, otherwise they’re going to think whatever they want to think. That’s what I’ve discovered. People with very different values from the foundershave come. They might share the idea that they want to live close to the land or be healthy or this or that or the other. But their feelings, their protectiveness about their investments, especially those who had a much more mainstream lifestyle than many of us…. So in the last few years we have had some very serious twists in the community guts over these issues. I think it’s looking like we’re going to come out of it and people on both sides will still be here and have something to say about what was learned. One beacon or shining light that continues at Earthaven that we started with was relationships and communication. There are a core of people interested in this who learn and then teach, learn and then teach, learn and then teach. We have worked our way through Radical Honesty and Process Work, all kinds of things. It’s maybe 10 years now since people started getting serious about NVC. I’d say it’s had more of an effect on individuals – people who are working on their own needs, but it ripples. When people areaware of what’s going on for themselves inside, the languaging starts to shift in the whole community. Empathy and all the kinds of things in your movie that people are talking about, are part of the conversation.”
I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.
On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.
Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.
When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.
“I’d never built anything before I came here. I was Mr Bean with a power tool.”
This was John, speaking to me on my visit to Steward Wood, many years ago. He had just given me a tour of their project – a co-operatively owned woodland in the Dartmoor National Park in Devon. It was green and lush, and very quiet. They had communal gardens where they were growing vegetables and a tumble of shacks and chalets which clung to the side of a steep hill.
This kind of settlement was not new to me. As part of the Living in the Future series, I was used to visiting people who lived in fields or in the woods, in homes they had built themselves from found materials. I was familiar with compost toilets, solar panels and 12 volt inverters that turned sunlight and running water into energy for lights and small electrical appliances. I was used to a warm welcome, too. A lot of the time, the attention such people receive is negative, even hostile. But I was trying to document the importance of low impact projects. I was trying to show that on a personal level, there is an alternative to a large mortgage and a lifelong nine-to-five; and that on a planetary level, something other than fossil fuel guzzling mansions is not only possible, but viable and yes, even enjoyable!
After my tour, we gathered in their small community shelter and used some of their solar-made electricity to power a tiny projector and show one of my documentaries – Ecovillage Pioneers. People were inspired to see others like them, carving out an alternative, which was entirely the point of me making the film.
Now I hear that Steward Woodland is under threat of eviction. That the National Park has decided, in their wisdom, that their project is not longer something they want on their patch of land. In Wales, the planning laws have moved on a little, and projects such as this can apply under a ground-breaking policy known as One Planet Development. In England, the planners have no such document to guide their decisions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t allow the project to remain. They just need a little more help to see the advantages and to figure out the reasons why projects like this are important. Steward Wood have a great lawyer who is helping to take their case to court, but they do need your help. This is what you can do: