Last month we were joined at the Bergerac Hub by Olivia Nater from Population Matters, who came to experience what it was like to be part of an intentional community. She was kind enough to share her reflections with us, which we publish below.
My short stay at the Life Itself Bergerac hub certainly gave me a lot to think about. While two weeks is hardly long enough to get a complete picture of the ups and downs of community living, the small taste I got left me with a full heart and mind.
I applied for the Bergerac hub call for new residents while at peak loneliness due to the pandemic-induced social isolation so many of us have had to sit through. I had long been interested in intentional communities and was drawn to Life Itself’s enthusiastic, interdisciplinary drive to create a “wiser, weller world”. As the hub was undergoing some unforeseen changes, I was offered a two-week visit which I gladly accepted.
The Bergerac Townhouse is absolutely beautiful – the grandiose rooms, creaky wooden floors, antique furniture and original paintings made me feel very underdressed. I felt I should be donning flouncy frocks and sipping tea from expensive porcelain cups. Whilst it would make a great film set for a haunted house flick, this home exudes a very friendly aura, undoubtedly because of its lovely occupants – I had no qualms about stumbling through dark corridors in the middle of the night when the need arose.
Torn between wanting to make new friends and my introvert tendencies, I had some reservations about living in the same house with many others but due to the hub being in a bit of a transition period, there were only a handful of residents while I was there. It was just the right amount of social interaction for me, but I can imagine that at full capacity over an extended period it would be quite difficult to get enough quiet time.
When I applied to stay at the hub, I was informed that residents are expected to take part in a mindful cleaning and vegetable chopping session at 8 am every morning – I am not a morning person, so didn’t feel particularly enthusiastic about this part but was amused to find out upon my arrival that the practice had been dropped “because nobody really liked it”. This made me question what sets an intentional community apart from a regular co-living situation. I can see how intentional communities require extensive planning and established codes to facilitate shared groceries and meals, maintenance of shared spaces, as well as minimisation of conflict and, when necessary, its resolution. Any form of cohabitation inevitably leads to conflict but in an intentional community everyone should feel like they are pulling equal weights. I can imagine that it doesn’t take much to tip this delicate balance – it seemed my time at the hub coincided with one such Jenga tower moment. A bit of a structural collapse, evidenced by the layer of dust and dirt in some areas, several things in need of repair, a slight air of exhaustion and despondency, and a shared recognition that something needs to change.
I am very grateful to Life Itself for welcoming me despite these uncertain times – in a way, they made me learn more about community living than if I had been thrown into a well-oiled machine. You can only understand how it works when you take it apart.
One hub member told me one of the best things about her time at Bergerac was that she got to meet so many “beautiful people” – I can only echo that. Being surrounded by people who care deeply, not just about each other but about all of humanity and our relationship with the natural world, is incredibly fulfilling. Everyone is so refreshingly open and honest and seemingly in tune with who they are. Even the resident toddler is incredibly laid back and friendly and joyfully doles out unsolicited yet gratefully received hugs and cuddles. Another member I spoke to before I arrived said he’s had some of the most profound and meaningful conversations of his life during his stay. I can back that up too – some evenings my mind was so overstimulated that I had a hard time falling asleep. Conversations strayed from philosophy to psychology to history to relationships to spirituality to social justice to environmental science, and everything in between. In a way, these topics sum up Life Itself’s overarching intention, as explained to me by one of its founding members: to facilitate “growing up as adults”. I like to think of it as becoming worthy of our species’ name, Homo sapiens. As someone who has spent her whole career working in the environmental sector, I share the recognition that in order to secure a bright future on this planet, we need a cognitive (r)evolution – a complete transformation of how we think and act. Now I also understand how community living can help with this. Being around like-minded people who share one’s values (but not necessarily one’s opinions) leads to self-reflection and personal betterment, while emotional support and sharing financial burdens allows for fewer every-day worries and more time for introspection and pursuit of one’s ‘dharma’ or true calling.
On one of my last days I offered to teach a yoga class as I wanted to contribute something. Inspired by my own life’s extended bout of uncertainty due to COVID-19 and the changes the hub was undergoing, I themed it around aparigraha, one of the five yamas (ancient Sanskrit moral codes popular among yogis). Aparigraha is often translated into ‘non-attachment’ or ‘letting go’. I think letting go of expectations is key to successful communities. In a way, each intentional community is a series of trials and errors, a constantly evolving experiment.
I do not yet know whether full-time community living is for me but I feel like I tapped into something truly special. I quite like the concept of short-term stays, e.g. a few months at a time. But I have so many questions! Can intentional communities remain functional with people frequently coming and going? What if it’s the intention, rather than specific individuals, that make it what it is? What if it’s ok that nobody enjoys cleaning and chopping vegetables at 8 am? What if I don’t want to spend my limited free time in ‘group therapy’ sessions? To be clear, I did not experience these in Bergerac but from what I’ve read about other communes, they often seem to be a part of the deal. Actually, shouldn’t community living be for everyone? Isn’t that kind of the point? Can intentional communities be malleable enough to suit all types of people but retain the aspects that set them apart from mere cohabitation?
Humans evolved in tight-knit social groups – community is what made us so successful. I think maybe we’re all subconsciously longing for what we lost somewhere along our journey to take over the world. I am excited to see where Life Itself goes next and hope to visit again soon. Like the old farmhouse renovation project at Petit-Bois Martin which I was lucky to visit, the glimpse I gained gave me a beautiful, hopeful vision of what it could be.