It is with considerable trepidation that I begin writing a post about relationships in community. I feel it’s one of those topics that really must be spoken and written about; relationships are fundamentally what community is all about. And yet, I know that some of what will come up in the writing process will be very personal…and indeed edgy…unless I was to ignore sexual relationships altogether in order to stay within safe boundaries. Am I about to do that? Not likely!

But let’s begin more broadly, with a quick look at the etymology of the word, community. The word is derived, in part, from the Latin, communitas, meaning ‘fellowship’. So community is, by definition, about the bonds and ties between members of a given communal group. It’s about their relationships. This is the nub of community life whether it be within an intentional community (e.g. ecovillage, commune, kibbutz, monastery, cohousing etc) or in society at large. Additional etymological roots come from French (comunité, meaing ‘commonness’) and again, from Latin (communis, meaing ‘shared by all or many’). So, holding in common or sharing, whether it be of land and infrastructure or values and agreements, is also fundamental to community. Indeed, I would argue that these two fundamentals of community, relationship and sharing are intertwined and cannot be discussed separately. So here goes …

To share on the physical plane, means to hold, possess, use or occupy jointly with other members. Sharing involves explicit or implicit arrangements and agreements made by the community as a whole or subgroups within it, which enable efficiencies to be developed and/or mutual benefits to be derived. Sharing builds social relationships but is dependent upon them, in that the degree to which residents are willing to share depends upon the trust and goodwill they have established. Shared facilities (land, buildings and infrastructure) take considerable coordinated effort to operate, keep clean and maintain. Within the Findhorn Foundation the 100+ coworkers generally share these tasks, either as part of their daily work or as a periodic rota commitment in their own time. (A topic for another post perhaps.)

Willingness to share and cooperate is pervasive in a viable community. It represents the commitment of a group to the ideal of cooperation and is critical to social development and group cohesion. It enables some folk, me for example, to live in much smaller dwellings as a direct consequence of being able to share a communal laundry, guest rooms, office and workshop space etc (For more on this see my first post titled, Home) The sharing of personal possessions, to take another example, is a strong feature of community life at Findhorn. The sharing of goods reduces each household’s need to own and to purchase consumerist items. That I can borrow a juicer for a fast, or a tent to go camping, means I don’t need to buy these items and own them outright.

In the seminal book Habbits of the Heart, Robert Bellah characterise ‘classic’ social relationships as those with three principal dimensions; practical, social, and moral. The authors suggest that in contemporary Western society, the practical and moral aspects have largely been suppressed. Practical and moral support, they argue, “made sense more readily in the small face-to-face communities that characterised early American society”. Yet, it is exactly Bellah’s tripartite social relationships that pervade here at Findhorn. Practical support occurs in countless ways. There’s willingness to care for a neighbours garden or feed their cat whilst they’re away. Ready advice is given, and time spent, helping others to install new software or move heavy furniture. Such mutual aid can save money, alleviate stress and imbue relationships with substance. It is an essential ingredient of the ‘social glue’ of our community.

Social support, another essential constituent of Bellah’s ‘classic’ relationships, is also pervasive here. Whilst most community members have intimate relationships with one or a few unrelated others with whom they can share personal problems, we recognise that not all members are so connected. ‘Sharing’ as we call it, of what is going for one personally, is quintessential to Findhorn’s culture. We begin most of our meetings with a quick ‘check in’, where we share how we’re feeling in order that others may understand and perhaps respond with what’s needed. ‘Sharing’ builds empathy and an awareness of, and concern for, the needs of others. For deeper levels of sharing, men’s and women’s support groups are common, as are all kinds of other special interest groups. Social support can be critically important in times of challenge (loss, trauma or dire need). Radically changed circumstance and emergency situations are often the catalyst for community wide support: financial challenge may enable loans to be made from an emergency support fund; a cooking roster may be developed to provide meals for a family in need; a rota may be established to care for an elderly or dying community member.

Finally, moral support is also well in evidence here in Findhorn. I see it as support for difference, or that which is offered to minorities within the community. Gay and lesbian singles and couples, for example, are genuinely welcomed and seamlessly integrated into the community. For decades, we have held courses designed especially for the LGBT community. We also provide courses for folk with special needs. And we are cognisant of the challenges of those members with little financial security. In recent years we have been able to build or purchase a limited number of flats for members without capital and on low income. Moral support for minority and marginalised groups is a hallmark of a civilised society, it seems to me, and I think we do that pretty well here in Findhorn. And, we could do more.

I want to move now to interpersonal relationships…those between individual members of the community who have, lets say, been here for a period of time. I have always said, informally and in presentations, that I believe our relationships to be of a very high quality. Indeed I would say, they are the single biggest reason for my being so contented here and the main reason for my staying on (as it is, on the opposite side of the world from my much loved family, which includes: an aging mother, two daughters and their partners, young grandchildren and several siblings).

My friend Anna, an anthropologist here to ‘study’ us as a fully immersed participant observer, writes, at Findhorn there is “a radical focus on making direct, voluntary and collaborative relationships the basis for social order. …these relationships are intentionally established and carefully managed with the aim to make them trusting, inclusive, equal and transparent”. I would go even further in my effusiveness. I experience the relationships we enjoy here as authentic, open-hearted and kind. And yes, they are trusting, such that we are not reticent or shy when direct and blunt feedback is warranted. This too is a well established cultural norm. I’m not sure if Anna would agree but I would argue that all these qualities have come to the culture as a direct consequence of the sustained application over five decades of our two core spiritual principles: open-heartedness and consciousness. If we humans interrelate thoughtfully and with an open heart, then magic happens: defences are dropped, aggression melts away and space opens for compassion, empathy and love to flow. This is the ‘magic of Findhorn’ as far as I’m concerned.

So finally, what of romantic or sexual relationships? And why is it such an edgy topic? I wish it were otherwise. I wonder why we struggle to make transparent something that is so important to our wellbeing. I would speculate that this has something to do with our insecurity around our relationships – that we feel that if we were to expose and reveal our true selves – our deepest desires, wants and needs – that this would jeopardise our hard won but illusionary sense of security, our belief that our relationships are forever. Perhaps the fears go even deeper than that, to our sense of who we are and our survival instinct.

I’m not cynical about love. On the contrary, I’m essentially a romantic at heart. And I realise that there are couples in perfectly happy, stable and enduring relationships. But this is not the norm here, nor elsewhere, nowadays. It seems that most of us struggle with our relationships. They come and go, not lasting very long and not fulfilling our imagined needs and wants. More and more of us, whether it be in community or in wider society, live as singles. And here in Findhorn, things are no different. Paradoxically, loneliness can be acute even in a community like ours.

Like most people (I guess), my love life is central to my emotional wellbeing. And I’ve had an abiding ‘academic’ interest in this topic for many years. Since my divorce some 15 years ago, I’ve done quite some ‘research’ into alternatives to the serial monogamy that seems to be the norm in our society and in most intentional communities I know. The two communities from which I’ve taken most inspiration are ZEGG and Tamera (in Germany and Portugal respectively). I visited them both several times between 2001 and 2006. Indeed, at the time, I was considering living in one or the other in preference to coming to Findhorn. These are both communities that apply the theory and live the practice of what they call ‘liberated love’ i.e. non-exclusive sexual relationships or polyamoury.

At both of these communities, there is a similar emphasis placed on the consciousness and open-heartedness of relationships. But the difference there is what follows as a consequence. For example, at Findhorn heart-felt hugging is a norm. It’s a ubiquitous form of greeting and means of expressing affection. Yet the boundary between a friendly, even sensuous, hug and one with sexual implication is very clearly held. At ZEGG and Tamera, however, any two people who feel sexual attraction, irrespective of their other relationships, are given permission (indeed, encouraged) to act on that impulse. So long as the attraction is mutual and there is no coercion, then there is community and cultural support for those two people, who could be complete strangers, to engage sexually.

I have put this rather simplistically, even crudely. Of course there is much, much more to tell. These communities have been running this research experiment into a new way of relating for some forty years. There is a mountain of thinking, writing and testing that lies behind their lifestyle which I don’t have time or space to enter into here. All I know is that what they do, they do with considerable wisdom, grace and style. And they see it as world work – contributing to healing the ages-old rift between the masculine and the feminine. It’s my experience that they have what we have by way of authentic, trusting and loving relationships … and then some. The quality of their relating is very, very impressive.

Anyway, I have been greatly influenced by my positive experience of these two communities and their culture. I have enjoyed several ZEGG style polyamourous relationships over the last 13 years. I use the word “enjoyed” with purpose. These relationships have been very successful, affirming and healing. And in recent years, I’ve privately continued the practice here at Findhorn, even though it’s far from the norm here. However the time now seems right for a ‘coming out’ of sorts. There are a number of us here now with similar experiences and interests in alternative ways of expressing and embodying love, sex and intimacy. Many of our community have visited our sister communities, ZEGG and/or Tamera, and been influenced as I have. Some of us are currently dreaming into a new support group for those people who want to explore these issues. We have recently held the New Story Summit here and transformative ripple effects are being felt across a wide range of aspects of our culture. It seems that intimate relationships will be amongst those elements being reconsidered, discussed and researched. It’s already happening. The prospects are good.

I have progressed in writing this post from the broad to the specific; from the generic to the personal. So let me complete that trajectory with a wee note about my current relationship. Six months ago I fell deeply in love with a woman who has truly rocked my world. My love for her seems boundless. And such is its depth and fullness that, for the first time in 15 years, my preference would be for a committed, exclusive relationship. Hers, however, is not. She is clear that she wants to be able to freely explore sexual relations with others. Because of my positive experience of ‘liberated love’, intellectually I want to support her to do so. The trouble is, my heart has really struggled with the situation; there have been a few occasions when I’ve greatly suffered. And yet, I’ve never doubted her love for me or her commitment to our relationship. So it’s a dance. And in the process I’m learning a huge amount about my emotional underworld and some unhealthy long-standing patterns of behaviour. I am extremely grateful to my beloved…and to the Beloved…for delivering the opportunity for personal growth and learning. It has helped me become a much more aware and integrated human being.

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UPDATE (January 2015) I have just published a book about the relationship to which I refer above. It’s a true story (in every detail) of an unusual, post-modern love affair. If you’re interested, and enjoy what you’ve read of my writing on this blog, you might like to check it out here (US Amazon) or here (UK Amazon).