Part of the Findhorn community in northern Scotland. Credit: Findhorn Foundation. All rights reserved.
In the slanting sunlight of autumn in the north of Scotland, a group of people in gardening clothes sit on a circle of tree stumps, eyes closed. “Tune into which area you would like to work this afternoon,” says Iris, a middle aged woman wearing bright orange garden gloves. The rest of the group stay still for a few moments as she names the different areas of the garden, then Iris says “thank you” and they open their eyes. The shift leaders get up and stand at different sides, and the participants move to join them. Then they move to different areas of the gardens to start their work.
This simple process of ‘attunement’ is a key to understanding the Findhorn Foundation, a community that Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has called the ‘Alternative Davos.’ The center’s programmes now regularly draw thousands of people each year from all walks of life, many of whom return several years in a row and participate in work shifts alongside members of the community. Part of what attracts them is how Findhorn makes a direct connection between listening within and acting outwardly in everything it does.
“I see how attunement works for participants and for myself all the time,” notes Iris, a former hotel and real estate company manager in Israel. Her dream is to bring the skills she has learned at Findhorn back to her native country to build peace gardens. “People really come into contact with what is meaningful for them, sometimes for the first time in a long time.”
But taking time to be still and look within for direction is not our cultures’ predominant way of living.
Most of society’s structures—government, schools, religious institutions and even families—operate on the unspoken assumption that there must be external rules. The government makes laws that everyone should obey; religions set rigid definitions of what is good and bad; and schools rank students according to their grades.
In many cases, the cost of choosing to pay attention to outer rules rather than the inner life is high.
On a personal level, when people choose what the dominant culture tells them they should value instead of what they sense is their calling—money over relationships and power over fulfillment—stress, burnout and depression are frequent results. And on the collective level, when enough people stop acting on their sense of meaning and purpose, the end result is a dysfunctional system that runs on addictions, distractions, short-term gratification and a sense of separation.
What complicates the situation is that when messages from outside ourselves have colonized people’s hearts and minds, we inevitably find it more difficult to sense what is truly meaningful for us.
The Findhorn community takes a very different approach. It is an imperfect experiment in organizing groups around each person’s inner life. In small ways—like deciding which part of the garden to work in—as well as larger ones, it offers people different paths to attune to what is actually meaningful to them, and then to do it alone and with others.
“Most people have layers of conditioning from family, culture, religion and so on,” explains Iris, “when I work with people, I usually do something to help people quiet down, like hold a meditation or ask them to take some deep breaths. Then the mental chatter from all the conditioning can lessen and they can begin to sense into deeper levels.”
In our experience, doing this inevitably brings with it a greater awareness of each person’s higher purpose; and acting from this sense of higher purpose lies at the heart of constructing a different world.
Findhorn’s story began with three ordinary people who gave their lives in service to this ideal. Feeling drawn by a sense of deep calling to serve the world, they took the rare step of pledging themselves to act on that calling come what may. Years later, after meditating daily and putting what they heard into practice, they ended up penniless and out of jobs in a desolate caravan park in the remote north of the Scottish Highlands. Their families didn’t understand their ‘crazy’ obsession, and they attracted negative press for being part of a counter-cultural spiritual group.
When the garden they started in the arid sand began to flourish unexpectedly, they drew more positive media attention and more visitors. They purchased caravans for guests, and within weeks, people had arrived to purchase and occupy them. With 20 community members, they built a kitchen for hundreds more, and they came too.
Over the years the community grew and developed, becoming a founding member of the Global Ecovillage Network which links Findhorn with other similar centres like Tamera in Portugal and Dartington Hall/Schumacher College in Devon. We have gained recognition from the United Nations as a center for sustainability education, and developed a wide range of college-level programmes in ecovillage design, alternative energy, Spirituality and Wellness and permaculture.
Something that began on the farthest margins of society has started to grow into a center of influence.
The pattern is the same for many individuals. The feelings, intuitions and fleeting impressions that may get marginalized in everyday life hold clues about our deeper calling. When people pay attention to and act on their inner lives instead of condemning their experiences and impressions to internal ghettos, those parts of themselves that have been marginalized begin to gain more influence. If we continue to pay attention and act on them, we begin to sense the larger social and spiritual wholes to which we belong.
Meditation and other inner life awareness practices have gained much ground in recent years, in part thanks to Findhorn and other innovative centers that have helped to popularize them. Still, talking about inner experiences, especially ones that people regard as spiritual, tends to be categorized as anything from flaky to clinically insane.
Nevertheless, the community’s experience is that paying attention to the inner life and acting on its insights is what helps people to regain a sense of identity, sovereignty and joy. NGO workers at Findhorn often remark that they come away feeling rejuvenated and reconnected, full of fresh ideas. Participants from corporate jobs find it transformational to work in the garden and experience warm, human contact.
Often, however, reconnecting with the inner life produces things that seem unexpected, strange or extreme. New information can come in the form of a dream, a sudden knowing or a visionary spiritual experience. This makes sense, given that most of us are used to interpreting life according to the definitions of others.
In many ways, our current economic, political and religious systems seem headed towards destructive ends and are telling us destructive stories. But traditionally they have also been the wielders of authority and respectability that shape the overarching narrative of most of our lives. And if we have become convinced that a crazy way of being is respectable and authoritative, then the way out might indeed seem disreputable and strange.
What the community has discovered over 55 years of spiritual and practical action is that the decision to trust our sense of meaning, regardless of how strange it seems at first, is the road to freedom. The metaphysics of what people are doing when they meditate and listen within are open to debate. Findhorn itself avoids any kind of religious statements in order to focus attention on people’s lived experiences, not any particular theory of them.
However, one of the most common experiences among members and participants is that once we do turn within, we find life far kinder than it seemed before, and the possibilities far more open.