As I begin to address the topic of families and intentional communities I realize how diverse and vast the experience is for individual families who have lived in intentional communities over the last few decades. Most families probably joined these communities with some thought of creating sustainability as part of their intentional design. I will address some of the generic issues for families living in intentional communities which include an array of interests and questions (spiritual practices, communication, ownership, housing, education, health care, employment etc.) that families and single people may pose. Hopefully this effort will throw further light on questions that families and designers of sustainable communities and ecovillages are interested in answering. This seems imminently important in that it is family life and its strong internal relationships and sense of community that contribute to sustaining community life.
Spiritual worldview is the first concern of most people considering living in an intentional community. Sustainability is most dependent on what is permanent and most people consider spirit, love and compassion to be the only permanent or absolute legacy for all generations. Everything else is subject to the relative world of change. P. R. Shrii suggest that to adjust to both this absolute and relative world that we take the “subjective approach to an objective adjustment”, by combining internal subjective spiritual guidance with the more external objectivity of rationality and science. The formulation which the Danish Association of Ecovillages adopted as the purpose of ecovillages ten year ago was “restoring whole circulatory systems in people and nature on all levels”(Hildur Jackson 2002). Hildur Jackson goes on to say that this holistic purpose represents a way of unifying cultural/spiritual, social and ecological movements in a new worldview, analogous to the integration of different levels of the chakra system in the human body, and the four elements of earth, water, air and fire. This analogy of the inner ecology of the human system and the outer ecology of the environment and culture is consistent with the ten thousand year old spiritual wisdom of the tantric system of kundalini yoga.
For most families having this spiritual worldview which integrates all aspects of community life, expressed in daily spiritual practices (meditation, prayer, chanting, dancing and service to all) shared with others is at the heart of the motivation for participating in intentional communities. The models for integration of spirituality into intentional sustainable communities are as diverse as can be imagined. What is important is that there be respect for everyone’s approach to growing nearer their inner most spirit or self. The collective spiritual practice of compassionately serving each other, plants, animals or the inanimate world help lead us to an understanding of the divine nature in ourselves and all of creation. Will Keepin, the director of Satyana Institute in Colorado , states in his guidelines for spiritual activism that, “service work is enlightened self-interest, because it cultivates an expanded sense of self that includes all others” (Keepin 2002). Keepin concludes that the purpose of an ecovillage is to help each other realize our divine nature. Shared spiritual practices that emphasize development of our highest potential and social responsibility are a solid foundation for families to raise their children and thrive as social units with other like minded families and individuals.
Planning for the development of an intentional community or ecovillage requires months of work involving all stakeholders (families and individuals interested in living in the community and all those relating to this community as well as those who may benefit from services provided by the community) in the planning process. There are many guides and resources for this process. It is helpful to visit many different intentional communities and call on experienced leaders of intentional communities to guide the process. Reading materials that have been helpful to many are “Ecovillage Living- Restoring the Earth and Her People” by Hildur Jackson and Karen Svensson (2002) and Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations” by John Bryson (1995).
Ownership and Administration
The first issue many families encounter is private property versus cooperative ownership. The ideal value on the part of many universally minded individuals is that all property is the patrimony of all. However, families without ownership can’t get a bank loan nor have their children inherit their home. Cooperatives which own the land and structures can take an individual family’s monetary contribution towards community development or home construction and return it with interest at a fair market value should the family circumstances require leaving the community. The cooperative, for tax purposes, may have the family pay rent that becomes a measure of their investment should this investment be returned when they leave the community. Long term communities have an investment in allowing families to maintain a home for their children and extended family over generations. Many communities, such as Celo in western North Carolina , give 99 year leases to families to attempt to provide continuity for a sense of “home” for families.
Where I live, families wanted to live near the 44 acre Ananda Marga master unit (MU). After much deliberation, the yoga society, Ananda Marga Inc., decided to give families individual ownership rather than use the lease approach. The principal reason for this decision, by all parties involved, was that the master unit is owned by a highly centralized Ananda Marga organization which requires that monks or nuns (whole time workers – WT’s) administer the MU property. The MU run by WT’s provides a model of an alternative sustainable community to the surrounding local community and relies on hierarchical governance that takes advice from a board that includes family people but reserves the right for final decision making to WT’s concerning all MU issues. Families agreed that decisions regarding the daily lives of their family members and the property they inhabited best remain with them and that final decisions regarding a WT run MU best remain with the WT’s. The families were deeded separate property adjacent to the master unit where they could choose to participate directly in the daily development and maintenance of the MU, in exchange for their monetary investment in the development of the infrastructure of the MU. The families set up a Landholders (LH) Association for their small development, registered with the county in which they lived. The MU was registered as a tax exempt educational organization. The MU committee included members of families from the LH and likewise the LH included members of the MU committee. Cooperative arrangements between the two groups included shared environmental covenants, well and reservoir and road maintenance agreements as well shared ownership and maintenance of construction equipment and a truck.
Thus we see a combination of private ownership and cooperative arrangements. This allowed families to get bank loans for building their homes and decide independently on the fate of their ownership and inheritance. This avoided the confusion of joint decision making by a hierarchical organization of WT’s and LH’s. The down side to this hybrid of cooperative and private ownership and decision making model is that the individuality of life styles of families make more cooperative, efficient and sustainable living designs more difficult to develop.
We have since bought 100 acres for both families and the MU and we are going to attempt to have more of an ecovillage design that has families invest in a cooperative life style that may include cohousing and cluster housing where there is a flexible design that meets the needs of shared life styles of all ages. We are considering cooperative ownership of the family and singles cluster homes and cohousing on a portion of the land. Another part of the new land may be divided into two portions- one managed by monks and another by nuns. This still strains the total commitment to one unified cooperative sustainable community by having three different managements of non WT’s (families and singles), WT monks and WT nuns even though they are all committed to the same ideology that espouses sustainable community. However, these complexities are similar to the real world divisions of public and private land; municipalities, counties and state government; rural and urban development. Perhaps such an arrangement puts us to the test to share the same goals for sustainable communities around different bioregional, cultural, social and political demands.
Spiritual and Religious Orders and Families
The scenario for the Ananda Marga example of developing a sustainable community is unique in that it attempts to integrate the concept of a monastic society with a society of single and married individuals. As in all monastic societies the life style and hierarchical order creates different demands of discipline and mobility that are not consistent with family life. Thus we have two distinctly different cultures even though they may have the same overall socio-economic and spiritual ideology. Thus it was concluded that separate ownership and administration is required. One of my fellow members of Ananda Marga once asked the Shrii P. R. Sarkar, the president of Ananda Marga, if he and his family could go and live and work on the central MU at Ananda Nagar in India for a year. Shrii Sarkar’s reply was “you and your family could go and live in a nearby village and work at Ananda Nagar”. Thus the separation of family life and the MU received impetus from the leader of the organization. However, it is important to note that Shrii Sarkar’s central tenet of morality and decision making was that all things change based on time, place and person and that we should invoke collective decision making at the present moment in our personal and social history to guide us in all endeavors. This position avoids dogma and stagnation, thereby allowing collective decisions to adjust appropriately to the present circumstances. Shrii Sarkar encouraged love of all of creation, intensive study, rational mentality, social equality and the welfare of all as guiding principles in this collective decision making.
Traditionally, all the MU’s around the globe have encouraged the model of families owning land or living near by the MU and contributing to the development of the MU. Some individuals have built homes and apartments on MU but they are owned by the MU and the families use them when they attend meetings, seminars and celebrations on the MU. Some individual family members and singles are given permission to live on the MU and work on special projects for limited periods of time. Traditionally only monks and nuns (WT’s) and local full time workers (LFT’s) live on the MU. The objectives of the MU are to create an environment conducive to spiritual self realization, self sufficiency and participatory management that lead to a fully integrated and ecologically balanced socio-economic unit that supports the welfare of all, including the surrounding community. These objectives seem compatible with the vision of most intentional sustainable communities. While there may be different legal entities within a sustainable intentional community they are united by a common purpose and ideological nucleus. The basis for a viable global movement of sustainable communities (ecovillages) is that their unity and organizational strength is dependent on common ideolology while their overall designs (physical, socially, culturally and spiritually) may vary. This ideological nucleus makes unity in diversity possible.
It seems infinitely more efficient to share organic food production within a sustainable community. This can be designed within the community or if the land is large enough include those from the surrounding community in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or Subscription Sales (SS) design. These models are natural matches for families’ food supply needs. Community canning, jarring and preserving of food as well as seed banks insure continuity of food supply. In communities that afford larger acreage families may want to be involved commercially for family income. Meeting this dual set of commercial and personal needs for a family further insures sustainability of food production for all. It also serves as a model of sustainability for the surrounding community.
Guidelines for some of the decision making for families is entailed in the community covenants that may be filed as a document in the county courthouse with the deed to the land. For the families belonging to the land holder’s association (LH) adjacent to the Ananda Marga MU there is an ecological covenant that encourages green building methods and life style, protecting people, plants and animals. We make decisions based on a majority vote with a quorum of the LH present. We avoided a consensus vote because of the experience of neighboring communities who warned us of the tyranny of one dissenting voter who obstructed their consensus approach for years. However, some communities avoid this problem by exercising a consensus minus one if one individual takes an unpopular position or obstructs without coming up with a compromise position. Decision making on the MU is also majority vote by the MU committee. Individuals are given specific offices (president, treasurer, secretary, etc) or committee duties decided upon by the larger committee of all members.
For conflicts that can’t be settled by discussion in community meetings held monthly the covenants for the LH offers a protocol for conflict resolution between families or between families and the LH association. Two representatives from other families and one individual from outside the community agreed upon by the conflicted parties will hear the parties’ complaint and give a decision for the solution of the conflict that parties must abide by. If conflicts are not settled amicably by this method then legal or counseling outside the community may be pursued. Regarding conflict resolution within families the community will provide support but not become involved as an organizational entity in mediation or counseling. Individuals in the community not officially representing the community may provide a mediation or counseling service for distressed families. External mediation and counseling for individual families is encouraged if the conflicts exceed the capability of the family and community support for resolving the issues. As cooperative communities develop it is hoped that a wide array of multipathic therapies for physical, emotional and social issues are made available in the community so that external resources for health care are not needed as much as the community becomes more self sufficient.
It is the desirable that many jobs, cooperatives and entrepreneurial businesses may be created in the community. Types of businesses related to self-sufficiency involve alternative health care as mentioned above, alternative energy, cooperatives creating natural products such as medicines, clothing, pottery, animal husbandry, and commercial agriculture. On the MU in Asheville , NC we are creating a seminar business to teach a wide variety of courses and workshops that include yoga, meditation, and sustainable approaches to community. We also rent space in our seminar center to like minded groups. All of these possibilities make it possible for those living in the community to work at home. This is particularly important for parents who wish to be near their children and conduct home schooling.
Having cohousing or cluster housing makes it possible for families to assist each other in raising one another’s children. Children have many positive models to emulate in this situation. Social support and sharing of many duties is possible while still preserving the needed privacy for individual families. Celebrations, birthdays and many special occasions and holidays can be shared in a vibrant manner. Rituals for rites of passage become community events. Child care and elder care are rendered much more lovingly in the hands of multiple caretakers who share the duties, preventing the burn out of single care takers. Home schooling can also draw on the talents of many in the community. Another advantage of cohousing is that as the space requirements change during the family life cycle (children are born and leave home) the design of most cohousing offers different configurations of rooms and space that can be reconfigured to accommodate smaller or larger spaces. This has economic and maximum utilization implications for families and the community.
No matter what the intentional community’s architectural plans, it is possible to share child care with others. This can be a barter, volunteer or paid arrangement. The fact is that heterogeneous communities with diverse populations provide the needed support for child care for families. Diverse communities also give the opportunity for senior citizens and children to interact in child care and school settings.
Developing multipathic health care alternatives in the community decreases costly doctors’ visits. The production of herbal remedies in the community serves as a business and modality of health care. The focus becomes preventive health care for all members of the community emphasizing healthy life styles that include yoga, meditation, organic food, appropriate exercise programs and social support. Children are brought up in community that emphasizes healthy lifestyles and preventive medicine for everyone and this becomes second nature as they grow up and transfer this model to the next generation.
Education for all ages emphasizes the existential value and interconnectedness of all entities. Love and respect of all people, plants, animals and inanimate beings is modeled in communities composed of families who work in a practical and joyful manner for the welfare of all. Adult members of families are committed to a life of continued learning about how to improve themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually- achieving a balance. Multigenerational education and programs involve all ages in learning to express compassion and caring for all ages, emphasizing the equal value of everyone in the community. Contact with all ages prepares us for coping successfully with the entire family life cycle, embracing birth, all developmental stages and death. Home schooling and the development of educational activities can become a service and/or a business for families in some instances. We need to differentiate charitable service where scholarships and free educational activities are provided versus education as a business. We may decide to provide a nursery, preschool, secondary education or even advanced adult education and university activity on campus and/or as a distance learning program. These schools could combine “service” and paid tuition to maintain the non-profit status and viability of its educational institutions.
Connectivity should be assured through newsletters, phone trees, easy access to one another, knowing who to call for what and alternative communication systems in times of loss of normal services as in disasters or storm conditions. One of the great things for families about living in community is the accessibility of others you can depend on when you need them. The isolation and desperation that can occur in urban settings and single homes in rural settings is greatly reduced. Ease of contact and communication with other families returns us to the feeling of “extended family” that some us grew up with in the 50’s. The price of our mobility in the modern world has been isolation from this extended family. The new extended family is based on shared community and encourages the sense of relationship which is at the heart of sustainability of community. Communication systems are designed in sustainable communities to meet many different needs regarding shared task and transportation, as well as addressing individual and collective needs on a daily basis. Bulletin boards on line as well as in select shared spaces are useful. E-mail groups are created but the distinction is made between sharing information via e-mail versus the needed face to face communication needed for creative problem solving. Publication of flyers, brochures, magazines, newsletters, books and slide shows provides in-depth communication in the community as well as generating more interest and involvement of the general public. These publications could provide a business opportunity within the community as well as helpful tools for fund raising.
1.Community Management- Large meetings with the entire community can be arranged quarterly for collective decision-making that affects the entire community. Organizational structure which has evolved out of a strategic planning process can guide the community on a daily basis. Smaller task-oriented groups (communications, newsletters, work parties etc.) can be standing or long-term depending on their objectives.
2.Celebrations- Families and individuals can evolve meaningful rituals for birthdays, coming of age, marriages, house-warming, baby naming, tree planting, laying corner stones for structures etc. Entertainment- Musical events, dances, drama, story telling and a variety of art and literature events that involve the members of the community can enliven community life.
Working on shared task whether it involves maintenance or creating something functional and aesthetically pleasing in the community generates the coordinated cooperation that brings joy and sustainability to communities.
For individuals and families who have experienced some degree of alienation from self, others and the earth in an excessively materialistic society, sharing and creating a holistic and sustainable culture in community is the core of the healing process. It is not new medicine for what ails us but rather a reclaiming of the gifts of our venerable ancestors combined with our proper utilization of our present physical, mental and spiritual potentialities. The alchemy that guides this transformational process is being quiet, listening and becoming an instrument of this individual and collective spirit. The greatest challenge in this process is developing the humility to be vulnerable with others and finding the collective truth you share. The plains Indians of America use to say, regarding the council ring that guided their daily activity, “the truth lies at the center of the circle”. Shrii P. R. Sarkar states:
“Society must ensure the maximum development of the collective body, collective mind and collective spirit. One must not forget that collective welfare lies in individuals and individual welfare lies in collectivity. The development of the collective mind is impossible without developing proper social awareness, encouraging the spirit of social service and awakening knowledge in every individual. So, inspired with the thought of the welfare of the collective mind, one has to promote the well-being of the individual mind. The absence of spiritual morality and spirituality in individuals will break the backbone of the collectivity. So, for the sake of collective welfare one will have to awaken spirituality in individuals. The potential for infinite physical, mental and spiritual development is inherent in every human being. This potentiality has to be harnessed and brought to fruition.” (Sarkar, 1992)
As Shrii Sarkar entreats us, we must strive for a culture that balances caring for the individual and collective interest at all levels- physical, mental and spiritual.
We are witnessing an evolving global culture of ecovillages that integrate spiritual practice, science, decentralized economies, bioregionalism (Andruss 1990), universal education and supraesthetic art forms. As we stand on the precipice of a new era of light these bold experiments in sustainable communities help to show us what is possible for humanity’s next psychic and social evolutionary leap- learning to live together for the benefit of all.
Ac. Vishvamitra, family acarya in Ananda Marga and author this article, has lived on the Ananda Marga master unit (MU) for the last 11 years and served as one of its founders and developers along with other members of Ananda Marga. The original 44 acres of land was bought in 1990 and now is expanded to approximately 150 acres. He has lived there with his 94 year mother for the last 4 years in a newly built home as part of a 17 acres Raven Ridge Landholders Assn. which contains 5 families living on private land next to the MU. His house has served as the “ Inn ” for his extended family (3 children; 6 grandchildren), the international margii community and others interested in the MU. There are two homes on the MU proper, one housing monks and the other a rental home. There is a geodesic dome which serves as a meditation and seminar hall where we have regional retreats and workshops. Currently a second three story dome (4,000 square feet) is being built to provide kitchen, dinning room, meeting rooms, office and dormitory space for 50 people. This addition will greatly enhance the developing seminar center (Center for Neohumanist Studies) and retreat capacity. The next step is the development of a 150 acre sustainable MU community that integrates the MU, families and individuals living and working together in a cooperative community. We are in the early planning stages at this point and encourage interested individuals and families who want to live in a cooperative intentional community to contact us at:
Sid Jordan (Ac. Vishvamitra) Hm-828 649 2425; Cell-712-1225 196 Raven Rock Lane , Marshall , NC 28753
Cakranemii (Master Units), Ac. Chitsvarupananda Avt., Cyber Creations, New Delhi , 2005.
Ecovillage Living: Restoring the Earth and Her People, Hildur Jackson and Karen Svensson, Green Books, Foxhole UK , in association with Giaia Trust 2002.
Satyana’s Principles of Spiritual Activism, Will Keepin, in Ecovillage Living: Restoring the Earth and Her People, Jackson and Svensson, Green Books, Foxhole Uk , in association with Giaia Trust 2002.
Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, John Bryson. Jossey-Bass Pub, San Francisco , 1995.
Prout Economics: Discourses on Economic Liberation, P. R. Sarkar,Ananda Marga Pracaraka Samgha, Calcutta , 1992.
Home! A Bioregional Reader, Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1990