On Hermit Community and Gift Culture

Over the past few years I’ve been gradually learning more about monastic life in other religious traditions, and thinking about how monastic ways of life could work for those with Pagan, bioregional animist, or other ecologically focused spiritual practices.

Throughout the course of my research, I’ve been particularly attracted to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, for several reasons:Statue of Ganesha

  • I love their unabashedly opulent and beautiful interiors, and their elaborate shrines and temple rooms – not at all the ascetic, minimalist approach that is common to many Christian monasteries.
  • I love the fact that tea drinking is so central to Tibetan Buddhist monastic life, and that it is honoured as an aid to meditation.
  • Sacred ritual dance is a long-standing, respected Tibetan tradition.
  • White Tara came into my life, and I wanted to know more about Her.  (At first I mistook Her for Lakshmi, as I was in a state of near-total cluelessness about Tibetan Buddhism at the time.)
  • I became friends with someone on a Tantric path whose yidam (deity) is a female Buddha called Vajrayogini, and the intensity of this connection inspired me to investigate Tibetan Buddhism further.
  • Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are integrated into a larger group of peoples and cultures and lands, with all that implies.

I also spent time reading about several intentional communities and co-housing groups in the Portland area, and thinking about how their approaches might be modified or simplified in ways that would suit reclusive types like me whose spiritual paths are darker and who require lots of solitude for their Work.  Could I also incorporate some of the elements that inspired me in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries without mindlessly and disrespectfully ‘borrowing,’ yet do so in the context of my own solitude-focused religious life?

I have not yet answered that question, but my effort to do so has led me to investigate two local communities that have inspired me along the way: Kailash Ecovillage and Newberry House.

As someone who once bought land and actually started an intentional community that collapsed on the launching pad, I have been thoroughly disabused of the kind of idealistic notions that once drove my efforts.  However hard-won those lessons were, though, and as reluctant as I may be to admit it at times, I am nonetheless still driven by a vision of living in an interdependent community in which it is possible to live a simpler and richer life through cooperative efforts, yet which also allows for a high level of privacy – high enough that it would be sufficient to suit hermits like myself.

I like the way the folks at Newberry House describe their vision: “we’re committed to sustainable living, simpler living, and living interdependently enough that life is easier and richer through cooperation, without living so cooperatively that it is a constant project.”

Here are some things I like about the Kailash Ecovillage model as I understand it:

  • It’s operated on an affordable rental model, which allows people without capital for investment/ownership to join.
  • There is a screening process in place for new residents.
  • There is no consensus or collective decision making.  The owners make final decisions.
  • Their name means “abode of Shiva,” in reference to a mountain which is considered a sacred place in four religions: Bön, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.
  • They have recycling and composting systems, including  vermicomposting and humanure (composting toilets.)
  • Participation in collective activities is optional – invited and encouraged, but never coerced.  People are not penalised for opting out.
  • Individual garden plots are available to residents who want them.
  • Units are gradually being remodeled and retrofitted to improve energy efficiency and promote other ecologically friendly behaviour.
  • The swimming pool has been filled in and turned into garden space.
  • The parking lot was depaved and turned into garden space.
  • The emphasis is on making eco-friendly living irresistibly attractive and appealing, rather than guilt-tripping, policing, or berating people for non-compliance.
  • There are shared spaces as well as semi-private outdoor spaces.
  • There is a ‘free shelf’ where people can leave things they no longer need, and take things they do.
  • They chose an urban location, close to public transit and other necessities.
  • The emphasis is on low-car or car-free living and human-powered transport.
  • Residents seem to practice frugal living habits, including using salvaged materials, thrift store shopping, etc.
  • Various plans are in the works for passive solar use, rainwater harvesting, forest gardens, and other such projects.
  • The community is queer- and trans- friendly.

All of these things are immensely appealing to me.

Some additional things I would want if I were going to consider a co-housing situation:

  • No children.  I’m very committed to being child-free for life, and would only be interested in sharing space with others who are similarly committed.
  • Solitude and hermit friendly.
  • Interfaith in a way that allows room for polytheists, bioregional animists, Pagans, Heathens, radical Buddhists, occultists, Tantric practitioners and other forms of ecological or ‘dark green’ land-based spirituality.
  • Small building or plot of land with a small number of individual units or cottages (4 to 6 maximum.)
  • An interest in land trusts and conservation easements.
  • Tidy, uncluttered living habits.  (I’m allergic to house dust, so this is important for me.)
  • An urban location in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades.
  • An interest in having an on-site apothecary or herbal practitioner.
  • Residents with sufficient emotional maturity, responsibility, patience and self-awareness for productive conflict resolution.
  • Realistic expectations (I like to call this “optimistic, yet low on utopianism.”)
  • Omnivore-friendly, but no specific provisions about food, aside from interest in eating organic and locally sourced food as much as possible.
  • Proximity to forests and farmers’ markets such that it would be possible to walk, bike, or use public transit to get there.
  • A ‘dark’ aesthetic of décor in general, and an overall appreciation for the importance of aesthetics and arts of the home and hearth in religion.
  • A space appropriate for sacred dance, and sacred tea service.
  • A space appropriate for a labyrinth, stone circle, and small moss garden.
  • A desire to contribute to, build, and learn how to live within a gift culture as much as possible – encompassing a full range of gifting activities such as abundance swaps, free boxes, gift circles, and so on.  (There is even a wellness center that operates on this model.  I’d love to hear of others doing similar work.)

The last of those – learning to build, reclaim and live within a gift culture, and unlearning the habits that prevent us from doing so –  is one of the most critical to me.  I have taken a vow to live from the hands of the gods in all that I do, and part of that commitment is to remain open to all the mysterious ways They may offer Their support and guidance, as well as the ways I may be able to use my gifts to serve Them.  Some of these ways may involve taking actions that appear crazy to those outside the gift paradigm.  Living from the hands of the gods means stepping out into the unknown, guided by faith and trust.

To live in a gift culture means learning how to trust the flow of gifts so that we can give freely without defining in advance what we will receive, and it means learning how to receive gifts when they come to us in a similar spirit, without guilt or shame.  It is an essential process of de-commodifying our minds, hearts and communities.  It is a way to free ourselves from the artificial scarcity created by our money system and by consumer culture’s concept of the separate self, and it is a quiet but radical challenge to the underpinnings of market-based culture.  (See Charles Eisenstein’s brilliant book Sacred Economics for more on this.)

I must admit that I’m somewhat intimidated by the notion that it is me who seems to be called to make inroads in this direction…but so be it.  I suppose I’d better learn to get better at stepping out into the unknown.

I am reminded of something I wrote after my early attempt at intentional community failed, and I was trying to sort through the many difficult lessons I learned:

“A real community cannot be engineered.  It’s very much like romantic chemistry in that way – it’s a form of magic, and it arises of its own accord when the conditions are right.  A Taoist friend referred to it as a ‘wu wei’ sort of thing, involving the paradoxical notion of effort-without-effort.  You can create conditions that are conducive to it.  You can invite it.  You can diligently do your Work.  You can prepare yourself to recognise and appreciate it.  But you cannot make it happen, and the harder you try, the more it will probably seem out of reach.”

So…as always, I shall simply keep writing, and keep on doing my Work.  The rest is in the hands of the gods and spirits.

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