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Reflections on an Experiment in Communal Living

What does it mean to live in community? And, more crucially, what’s the point? While I had a vague sense that a more collectivist existence would benefit both me and the society around me, I had until recently little justified answer to these more concrete questions. A national lockdown spent at the Life Itself Bergerac Hub provided an opportunity to change that.

The nature of the experiment

The experiment in collective living we have run over the last month has been unlike any other experience in my life so far, and while we still have much to learn in our pursuit of a better way to live, it has provided valuable insight into the realities of communal living.

Our daily practice begins at 8am with morning meditation, followed by collective cleaning of the house and then chopping of vegetables for the day’s meals. While the purpose of these practices has been as much to intentionally develop our interconnectedness as to ensure a clean house and prompt meals, this has not meant that all these activities have had to be carried out in mindful silence. Blasting music, from drum and bass to disco, has brought a shared joy and energy to our cleaning such that it has become one of the highlights of my day. Similarly while we sometimes choose to chop in silence we are just as likely to spend our time joking and laughing as we go. It is this balance, of the meditative with the exuberant, of the introspective with the social, that has made the experience so intriguing.

The functioning of the house is supported by a variety of roles, from the Tenzo who coordinates food shopping and nominates a chef for each day of the week, to our so-called ‘Emotional Support Fairy’, tasked with ensuring collective emotional harmony and facilitating our weekly sharing and reflection circle. In rotating the roles on a weekly basis, each of us has had to undertake duties calling on a variety of skills, and we have all had to learn to communicate and align our activities to operate as an effective whole. Even the more practical matters of running a shared house, I realised, can become opportunities to explore personal interconnectedness if leveraged correctly.

Lockdown provided the perfect background for our experiment because in an instant it rendered the outside world almost nonexistent. The distractions and other activities which would otherwise permeate our daily lives were removed. As a result, the community became almost the totality of each of our individual existences. In addition to our shared practices, we also enjoyed presentations and discussions, poetry readings, picnics, games and even martial arts. While some solitary moments are of course important for even the most extroverted among us, at a time so isolating for so many this connection felt a blessing, and helped extend our feeling of community solidarity beyond just a shared commitment to intentional practice.

This is not to say that things were always easy. The other side to intertwinement is, of course, that seemingly innocuous acts can take on a new significance if they affect the expectations or designs of others. We have all during our time had to grapple not only with our own attachments to individualism, but also what we can reasonably demand of those around us. The non-occurrence of a weekend exercise session due to lack of attendance, for example, became a flashpoint of upset and conflict within our house, taking significance beyond that which would usually be afforded to people missing voluntary weekend activities. The incident threw into light a number of questions around consideration, obligation and what it really means to be ‘off the clock’ while still living in community.

Reflections on the month

Given all of this, then, how would I reflect on the past month’s enterprise? I can group my reflections into two broad categories. The first are those more personal experiences, and the second general learnings about the experiment itself.

In the sphere of the personal, particularly as I have returned back into the outside world over winter, I have been struck by the sense of calm, and of wellness, that I have felt running to the very core of my being. Even during periods of more ‘normal’ existence where I have felt quite happy and content, I have come away from this experience feeling a serenity quite unlike anything I have noticed before. While I’m sure there have been other factors making additional contributions to this state, I have been profoundly struck by its correlation with my time in community.

That my lifestyle has had such a marked effect is, on reflection, no surprise. While all of us are aware at the rational level that humans are social creatures, this reality is rarely embodied by our day to day existence. Sharing not only space, but life, with a group of others has provided me with an opportunity to touch this social hardwiring in the truest sense.

Beyond this, though, the experiment has also provided space for me to reflect on some of the more perverse aspects of my regular existence. I realised one evening as I sipped a glass of beer just how rare an occurrence it was for me to drink without the specific intention of getting drunk. Similarly spending each non-working evening watching hours on end of television would not even register as abnormal, let alone problematic, before I experienced what the alternative could look like. While I have always been aware that consumptive hedonism is no foundation on which to build a meaningful existence, I was still trapped in the habitual association of intoxication with fun, and of relaxation with activities designed to numb the mind into submission. Experiencing first hand what the alternatives to my past habits could look like has sparked in me deep reflection on how I wish to live my life.

Reflecting on our practices themselves, I am now a firm believer that blending intentional practice with a non-monastic existence is not only possible, but can prove extremely valuable in creating an atmosphere suited to both wellness and personal growth. Getting the balance right is hard, and we are certainly not there yet; even among our initial experimental cohort I would hazard opinions of where on the scale between monastic sangha and shared house we should situate ourselves will differ somewhat. Nonetheless, in my view proof of concept has been achieved and then some, and I am excited to see what we can achieve in our pursuit.

This said, just as in combat sports the adage goes that styles make fights, so it is that people make communities. While of course the entire point of our experiment in communal living was to find ways of developing personally through interconnectedness, it is also true that at the outset the natures of those comprising communities can cause them to live or die. Our practices may provide a framework for a culture to develop, but the nature of this culture is dictated in no small part by who it is that undertakes them. In our case, I believe our fortuitous compatibility of character was an essential component of our success.

In parting, I wish to close by offering a comment on an aspect of experiments such as ours that is often easy to overlook. When holding lofty aspirations such as exploring radically new and better ways to live, our lightness can be lost, and we can without realising fall into an approach of solemnity and over-sincerity. Minor, everyday occurrences can take on the status of shared existential crises, and communal practice can stray into the realm of austere obligation rather than genuine enjoyment.

Community must be designed in a way that can foster as much joy as it does wisdom, and that it remains resistant to the collapse of practical challenges into a vortex of catastrophe under the weight of its philosophy. What we’re trying to do is truly amazing, arguably unheard of in modern Western society, and replete with profound spiritual and intellectual questions. At the same time we should hold our endeavor lightly, a most difficult practice unto itself! When every day is designed to be an exploration of new ways of being, it can prove instructive to keep in mind one of my favourite pieces of British slang: sometimes, stuff’s really not that deep.