Yesterday I started writing the next post on an entirely different topic, Urban Scotland. I was intending rising early this morning to finish it. But something happened yesterday afternoon that’s caused me to change tack. A person close to me was deeply saddened over an incident related to our community meals. As a result, I am moved to write about that instead.

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I have resided in several intentional communities over the last forty years (indispersed with stints in the mainstream). And I have visited dozens more, either casually or for research purposes. On the basis of this experience and my reading of the literature on communal living, I believe that shared meals are the single most important ‘ritual’ in the daily life of almost all intentional communities. Certainly at Findhorn, our community meals are, and have always been, central to the culture and a critical component of the social glue.

We eat together twice a day – lunch and dinner. Not all of us partake, of course. We are a community of around 700 people and typically, our kitchens each cater for about 100 people, many of whom will be guests.* Nonetheless, it is clear to me that these meals are crucial to community life – they have a practical advantage and provide an important opportunity to engage socially. And, of course, there is something powerfully symbolic about sharing a meal, both with members of one’s ‘tribe’ and with guests. I am no anthropologist, but I would guess that ‘breaking bread’ together holds this value (and has forever done so) for almost every cultural group, anywhere in the world.

As a staff member of the Findhorn Foundation (FF), I receive a ‘salary package’ that comprises: sustenance (food and other essentials), accommodation and some cash. So for me and my fellow coworkers, there is additional meaning to our eating together – it has financial implications. And, at a symbolic level, it emblemises our common economy.** Personally, I deeply appreciate our shared meals for many, many reasons. I eat in the CC (Community Centre) at every opportunity, and have been doing so without change since I first arrived here 9 years ago (the exceptions being when I choose to eat at home with a friend or partner).

Having lunch and dinner provided (at 12:30 and 6:00 pm) has, for me, immense practical advantage. It saves me a lot of time: I don’t need to shop for ingredients; nor spend time preparing the meal; and, I don’t need to clean up afterwards or even wash my own dishes. So, our meal system creates tremendous spaciousness in my life, and so contributes significantly to the absence of stress. Common meals are an important opportunity to catch up socially with friends and colleagues – to share conversation and deepen our connection with each other. And, for better or worse, they are an important opportunity to discuss business.

The food we serve is vegetarian (although not always, and I’ll come back to that). The ingredients are, as much as we can make them, fresh, organic, local and seasonal. And the food is prepared with love – the kitchen crews demonstrate our key ethos, work is love in action, every single shift. In my opinion, food served in the CC is of a very high quality, especially given that it’s prepared for large numbers of diners. It is, I believe, truly delightful – it delights all of the five senses.

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It would be remiss of me if, in this homage to shared meals, I ignored the commercial dimension to all this. The FF is famous as a spiritual organisation, but it is also a business. We are an educational charity and our income is mostly derived from the fees our guests pay to attend our workshops, conferences and events. So, providing sustenance for our guests is an underlying and crucial value to the meal system. This factor affects the nature of the meals; it’s a key reason for maintaining the high quality. There is a tradition, and an ethos, of ensuring that guests delight in the food we serve. We know how important is food to most people and how much it can influence our visitors’ overall experience. I think it behoves the rest of us who partake of these meals, FF coworkers and other community members, to appreciate that common meals in most other communities are generally much less exotic – much simpler and with less variety and choice.

We serve ourselves, buffet style, from a long table laden with a magnificent selection of hot and cold dishes, enabling each person to take exactly what appeals to them and/or suits their dietary needs. The cooks almost always prepare special alternative dishes for those few people on refined diets: vegan, dairy free, sugar free, garlic free, gluten free etc. It fills me with pride in my community to be reminded at every meal, just how much trouble we take to cater for diversity, meet the needs of every individual, and in this way, demonstrate inclusivity and caring for each other. Before the meal, we queue. Sometimes the line can be very long. I am amongst those who have a certain resistance to queuing. So I tend to arrive about ten minutes early for meals in order to stand near the top of the queue. This also provides an opportunity to check in with particular friends and colleagues over personal and business related matters. It’s somewhat of a standing joke that several of the same people populate the top of the queue at every meal.

The kitchen crews are very skilled at ensuring the food is served on time. A typical cooking shift is three hours long, and yet 95% of the time, the food will be ready within 5 minutes of the designated meal time. And occasionally, it’s a bit late, which is also fine; we just chat amongst ourselves until it’s ready. Dining in our community is always preceded by a blessing. We link hands in a circle around the tables of food and the focaliser (coordinator) of the cooking shift will say a few words, including: a short welcome and description of the meal; followed by an invitation to close our eyes (or not, as we like); and, an expression of gratitude to “all those beings, seen and unseen, who have helped to bring this food to our table”. This is a reference to the worms and micro-life in the soil, the food growers and transporters, and the cooks themselves. And in the tradition of this place, the “unseen” is a reference to the devas, nature spirits and angelic forces with whom we co-create.

Then, we enjoy! At lunch there will always be a soup and a range of hot dishes and salads. At dinner there is no soup, but occasionally there’ll be a desert – certainly on Friday nights, but also on other occasions, such as last night when cake was served in honour of the birthday of our revered late founder, Eileen Caddy. The only variation to the daily regime occurs on Sunday when brunch is served at 11am. This too, will include a desert. We love our deserts! The dining area offers a range of options for dining with one or more people. There are several tables for two or three diners but mostly we eat at tables for between 6 and 12. For larger numbers, we combine tables. On birthdays, for example, 20 or 30 people will sit at a single long table. And for such occasions, the kitchen crew will bake a cake. In summer, diners spill out onto the outdoor terrace and the grass beyond.

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At the end of the meal, we deposit used plates and cutlery in a corner of the CC where they are taken care of by a KP crew. (KP stands variously for Kitchen Patrol, Kitchen Party and Karma Points!) These are the four to six people who wash dishes for everyone else. All those who eat regularly in the CC are assigned to a KP rota. In my case, I wash dishes every Thursday night. And because it’s the only time during the week when I do so, I really enjoy it. It’s an opportunity to serve and to feel part of a team working collectively on a crucial aspect of the day-to-day logistics of community life. The shift usually takes about an hour.

So what was the incident to which I referred at the beginning of this post? Why was my friend so upset, given that I have painted such a rosy picture of our community meals? I cite the event here simply as an example of the kinds of issues that can arise in a community as diverse as ours. I mentioned that our meals are vegetarian but for a few exceptions. We serve meat on at least two occasions every year. These are long-standing traditions established by our founders in the very early days of the first community celebrations. We serve turkey at Xmas and also haggis on Burns night (January 25th). I suspect that some of the more committed vegetarians find these occasions challenging. And perhaps the most steadfast opt to eat at home instead. There are also occasions on which fish is served at community meals. In fact, in Cluny this is a regular occurrence. In the Park, it’s rare. But such an occasion has just occurred. A few days ago, we were served with a superb Japanese meal that included sushi, some of which contained salmon. Of course there was a vegan (fish free) alternative.

My friend, Nalinii, is a new member of the regular Park kitchen cooking crew and an aspiring member of this community. She is a strongly committed vegan. Actually she has been following an even more strict, Ayurvedic, dietary regime for some years; she doesn’t eat onions, garlic or mushrooms. As her contribution to the making of the meal, Nalinii created the alternative, fish free, sushi; she was not involved in preparing the fish. After the meal she was feeling pain and anger but didn’t really know why. The cause surfaced a day or two afterwards, and it was about values – hers and those of the community. Nalinii believes that humans have no right to take the life of other sentient beings for our own purposes or pleasure. She felt that including fish in the meal was incongruent with the community’s values of co creation with nature. And particularly because she is new in the community, and hoping to make Findhorn her home, this incident really rocked her.

Nalinii was able to process her upset with the aid of a sharing circle of her peer group. This is one of our principle social technologies at Findhorn. Almost all of our programmes provide opportunities for participants to share what’s going on for them emotionally. For many, perhaps most of our guests, this becomes the highlight of their visit – simply having the full, undivided, compassionate and non-judgemental attention of a circle of their peers. I’ve heard some say that this was the first time in their life that they’ve felt heard. But this is a topic for another post. Suffice to say that Nalinii was able to shift at least some of the resistance, frustration and disappointment she was feeling via this process and, as we say, by doing some ‘inner work’.

The episode reminded me of the challenges we face as a fully open and diverse community. At Findhorn, we accept anyone and everyone into the community, no matter what their religion or their belief system (assuming, of course, that their views and practices are not anti-social). This is both our greatest advantage (because it brings variety) and our biggest challenge, (it can cause disharmony). But, if I may speak for the community, we would not have it any other way. In my opinion, it’s what makes being in our community such a joy on a minute-to-minute and day-to-day, basis. It delivers a much cherished richness to our social and cultural life.

As the focaliser might say, “Blessings on the food, on our community, and on all beings!”

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* We have two kitchen/dining rooms, one in each campus. The Community Centre in the Park, Findhorn, has a maximum capacity of about 180. In Cluny (our campus in Forres, five miles away) the dining room can seat about 120 people.
** In economic terms, the Findhorn Foundation is an income sharing, or egalitarian, subset of the community as a whole. In the Foundation, staff receive exactly the same financial remuneration irrespective of their contribution (job). It’s a demonstration of the essential socialist principle, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! I cherish the principle and the practice; it’s one of the reasons I came to Findhorn and joined the Foundation.

 

 

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