The No. 9 Bus To Utopia
By David Bramwell
One man's search for truth, beauty and some really funny stories as he visits Utopian communities
Tuesday, 25 September 2012
Chapter 3 - The Angel of Findhorn
An hour’s drive east from Inverness in Scotland lies the windy bay of Findhorn, a sleepy fishing village whose peace is shattered every twenty minutes or so by the jets from the local RAF base. A few miles south from here lies the town of Forres, home to the faded glory of a Gothic Victorian hotel, Cluny Hill, now the centre for the UK’s largest spiritual community. Mike Scott from the Waterboys is its archivist; Scottish comedian Phil Kay lived there for years.
It was here in 1958 that ex RAF man, Peter Caddy, his wife Eileen and friend Dorothy McClean were employed to reverse the ailing fortunes of the old hotel, the perfect setting for a ‘murder most horrid’. While knowledgeable in all things theosophical (the Edwardian equivalent of today’s new age) the trio had little experience in running a hotel, leading Peter to encourage his wife to seek guidance from God. It seemed to work. Pretty soon every problem the trio encountered – from how much to pay the staff to dealing with a Fawlty Towers-style alcoholic chef – was solved with God’s help. (In the case of the inebriated chef, God’s surprising advice was to ‘give him more whisky’.)
Through their endeavours, Peter, Eileen and Dorothy began to rebuild the popularity of Cluny, with the press dubbing it ‘the Heavenly Hotel’. The owners, became increasingly concerned with their unconventional methods and things came to a head one night when, allegedly, they were outside waiting for aliens to arrive instead of serving drinks to guests and were subsequently dismissed.
In the winter of 1962, together with Peter and Eileen’s three children, they moved into Findhorn’s caravan park with plans to move on as soon as they could afford it. Eileen, however, was receiving new instructions from God but unable to decipher His word because of the noise of the jets screaming overhead. She asked God if he could recommend anywhere quiet for her to ‘tune in’. God suggested the caravan site’s municipal toilets between the hours of four and six in the morning. Dutifully, Eileen went and sat on a cold loo each day awaiting instructions. God’s will was thus:
‘Build a magic garden’, He said, ‘and they will come. One day this will become a great community: a city of light.’They set to work with Peter toiling in the garden and Eileen sitting on the loo. Dorothy, not wanting to be left out of all the excitement, made contact with the spirit of a pea.
‘I can speak to you human,’ it said. ‘You have come to my awareness. Our life is for the good; but man is making mincemeat of all life forces. Humans seem to know not where they are going or why. If they were on the straight course of what is to be done, we could co-operate with them.’
(From The Magic of Findhorn by Paul Hawken)
With patience Dorothy gained the trust of these plant spirits and found that she could ask them directly for advice. She referred to them as devas (a Hindu word meaning ‘being of light’) and was soon having conversations with dwarf bean devas, rose devas, spinach devas and tomato devas, which went like this:
Dorothy: How are the tomatoes?
Tomato Deva: It is shivery for them, but we shall try to protect. You can give them liquid manure now.
Marrow Deva: We are glad of the direct contact! At the moment we do not need a lot of extra water. The plants are progressing well, and are happy and well adjusted.
(From The Magic of Findhorn by Paul Hawken)
In the late spring the gang had over a hundred types of vegetables, herbs and fruit growing in abundance. Amazed visitors started to drop by as stories spread of carrots the size of a labrador’s leg and tomatoes as big as a schoolboy’s head growing in this sandy infertile soil. The group had synergised the energies of god, devas and mankind. The magic garden was soon in full bloom.
By the late Sixties Findhorn’s reputation exploded amongst the burgeoning counterculture scene and Findhorn’s magic garden became another essential stopover on the hippie trail. But Peter Caddy was less than sympathetic with the frivolities, marijuana and free love that the hippies brought to Findhorn. Clashes between these two worlds meant that young visitors rarely stuck around for long, until the arrival of an American, David Spangler, who devised courses such as Experience Week offering newcomers a taste of Findhorn. Through the Seventies the community tripled in size and the caravan site, acres of nearby land and the Cluny Hill Hotel became its property.
The Eighties and Nineties were a time of real transition. Of the original creators only Eileen remained, squirrelled away in the depths of the park, curiously at odds with a community that was now keen to throw off the pre-war mores of its founders.
Talk of direct communion with devas, elves and pixies may have diminished over the years but Findhorn claims to have never lost its sense of purpose: to celebrate and respect the idea that God is within all of us and nature is to be honoured and worked with, not against.
The majority of Findhorn’s community now live in the Foundation, the site of the old caravan park, enclosed on two sides by the bay and a coastline of sand dunes. Most of the caravans have been replaced by beautiful eco-houses, courses run all year round, and over 600 full-time residents live in the community.
Since Eileen’s death in 2006 her toilet has been kept for posterity (and is known as Eileen’s Throne) and visitors still make pilgrimages to Findhorn to see the original caravan the trio once lived in, which has been lovingly preserved with a plaque that reads: '’Original Caravan’.
If the Carry on team had done Carry On up the Commune, it couldn’t have been more quintessentially British than this: the tale of how a windswept caravan site allotment became a flourishing New Age commune thanks to a randy ex-RAF pilot and his spiritual wife, receiving messages from god in the site’s municipal toilets.
How could I resist such a place?
I had signed up for Findhorn’s long-running Experience Week in the former Cluny Hill Hotel. The décor was a fruity juxtaposition of ‘Cluny through the ages’ with original Victorian wood panelling, Art Deco mirrors, psychedelic carpets and chintzy avocado bathroom suites. Mixed with these were the Findhorn touches – the unicorn tapestry in the ballroom and paintings of ethereal bodies on the walls. Glass cabinets in the hallway showcased books on Astroshamanism alongside bizarre tableaux of toy bunnies sitting astride coloured eggs and squirrels clutching pine cones.
As a roommate I was expecting a gentle vegetarian called Cosmo, with a pony-tail and linen trousers. Instead I got Carl. He was the bassist of a Belgian metal band, carried his grandfather’s stick with him and a hip flask full of Jack Daniels. Carl was forty and having a mid-life crisis (these were his words, not mine) and on a weekend bender of dope and speed a dolphin had told him to come to Findhorn. Carl was lying on his bed in just a pair of pants and fondling a Zippo lighter when I first wandered in. His opening gambit:
‘Hey, roommate, do you mind if I smoke in bed?’
Our Experience Week group were brought together on the first morning by a ‘focaliser’, Georgette, who asked us all to take part in that time-honoured ritual: ‘Say a bit about yourself and why you’re here’. Among the collective was Shirley from Australia, a retired yoga teacher who dozed off after ten minutes; Ann, a sad-looking Danish woman who gently nodded as she spoke and Wim, a spirited Dutchman who, judging from his zeal, was the boy at school who always had his hand up first. Carl revealed his own open-hearted and honest nature in sharing with the group a few home truths about his relationship break-up and consequent breakdown, which put my rehearsed two-minute monologue to shame.
Afterwards we joined hands and performed a ‘circle dance’ around our chairs. It felt clumsy and awkward. Looking around at the fifteen or so unfamiliar faces around me I felt sure that, apart from Carl, I had absolutely nothing in common with these people.
Work, to the Findhornians was an exercise in anthropomorphism. In the kitchen the cooker was called Mount Vesuvius; the dishwasher, Leonardo and the wall heater, Sam. Carl and I had picked gardening as our job-of-choice for the week ahead and in the garden the smiley-faced wheelbarrows, Mr Magic and Willy, were our companions as we trundled back and forth weeding, cleaning and planting. Giving each tool a personality and name, we were told, offered a greater inclination to treat them with kindness. I thought of my hoover back home, who I’d occasionally pat on the head after a particularly satisfying spot of cleaning. And also my knackered old printer who’d get the finger at least twice a day.
Before beginning our first gardening activity we’d been asked to close our eyes, hold hands in a circle and ‘attune’. The idea behind attunement, so we were informed, was to meditate on the task ahead. After a minute of silence our gardening focaliser asked:
‘And how do we all feel today? Let’s use a weather metaphor. David?
Er, cloudy with outbreaks of sunshine?’
‘Good. Carl?’ Carl shook his head.
‘No, I don’t like this cheesy metaphor’, he said cheekily, 'let us do rock songs. I am Iron Maiden, Number of Beast. Hey, can we smoke when gardening?'
Findhorn was ablaze with sunshine and I found the gardening a pleasure but was disappointed to discover the plants in the magic garden to be of sobering proportions. Where were the giant kidney beans and enormous parsnips? When I mentioned this to our focaliser, he said:
‘We concentrate our energies elsewhere in Findhorn these days,’ to which Carl chipped in:
‘You all have huge cocks instead?’
By the second day I began to loosen up and enjoy the company of the group. A morning of dancing turned out to be enormous fun as we whirled around performing complex Scottish wedding reels and jigs, swapping partners and snaking in and around each other until our focaliser brought it to a close, we squeezed hands, ‘tuned out’ and I had that rare pleasure of feeling properly ravenous just before mealtime.
The afternoon of games on the Wednesday turned out to be, for many of us, the highlight of the week. In the ballroom, barefooted, we played blindfolded games of trust as different partners guided us around the room at varying speeds. Linked as a spiral we coiled together into one great breathing entity, great continents, landmasses coming together. Later we were planets reaching out to form clusters and galaxies. For one activity, eyes closed, we explored a stranger’s hands. My partner’s were delicate, sensual, confident and searching. They belonged to Masako; so different from the humble, shy Japanese girl who had barely spoken since she arrived.
Whilst cheeky, funny and forever sticking a beer bottle in my hand, Carl wasn’t always easy as a roommate. He did insist on smoking out the window, even though I’d asked him not to (plus it wasn’t really permitted). He even smoked the odd crafty one in the middle of the night which was a pretty unpleasant smell to wake up to. He could be a stubborn bugger at times too; when asked to join us for a group photo he walked off, saying it was too cheesy. It was a bit, but Carl’s unwillingness to participate at times seemed rather selfish; I was growing to like the people in our Experience Week and, to my surprise, rather enjoyed the idea of thinking of ourselves as a group.
At mealtimes I was re-discovering the simple pleasure of eating with others; enjoying random conversations at the dining table with people from all over the world. On the table next to ours a member of ‘Italian Shamanic Week’ entertained us daily with a spot of operatics before the main course while at our table the conversation had bounced around from Rudolph Steiner to the Fibonacci Sequence (named after Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa) to the documentaries of Herzog before we’d even finished our first course. Despite my previous laziness in the kitchen department with my ex, I even found myself looking forward to the cleaning up after each meal when half a dozen of us crowded into the kitchen and it rang with laughter as we shared our jokes and stories.
I was growing appreciative of attunement too, meditating on the task ahead and being reminded that sharing is a key element in any job. Being the kind of person who normally rushes from one task to another without stopping to think, it made sense to complete a task by saying thank you and begin a task by greeting my work colleagues, sharing the moment with them and thinking about how I could best help them in the hours that followed. In Findhorn attunement was a reminder that none of us are islands; we connect by our compassion for each other. This was keenly demonstrated during my travels by a new experience that would become an obsession: hot tubs.
I found Findhorn’s hot tubs on our third night, hidden behind the Universal Hall and overlooking the dunes. Some Experience Weekers were a bit coy about getting naked together but with a little cajoling most of us would meet there in the evenings, and mingle with the long-term residents who, without exception, seemed down to earth, pragmatic and inspiring souls. There was no talk of angels and elves. In fact it was through these hot tub encounters that a real tenderness for my companions grew, as our life stories began to unfold.
It was in the tubs that we learned about Robyn, an Aussie lady who had recently lost her 16 year old daughter in a climbing accident and had come to Findhorn to ‘find some joy in her life again’. It seemed to be working. Keefe had graduated from university in Ohio that summer and been awarded a bursary to travel the world for a year studying agriculture in communities. The bursary however, stipulated that he was not permitted to return home during that period and he was aching for his family. Each night the tears came flooding out and we all took it in turns to hug his skinny frame*. Wim was a Dutchman in his mid-fifties but still acted like a little kid at heart; he couldn’t resist butting in and was always getting into trouble for ‘inappropriate behaviour’ such as rugby tackling one of the focalisers when she was giving a talk. Wim lectured in Sacred Geometry and was always saying: ‘Numbers? Eeencredible. Squared numbers? Eeencredible. Fibonacci Sequence? Eeeencredible!’ On the last night, he revealed that he was dealing with cancer.
Shirley, the retired yoga teacher, always spoke with such passion ‘I’m finding this so beautiful, the care and attention with which the work is done here. I’m wondering how to take this into the real world. Attunement, this sharing and nurture for each other. I mean, will we just fall back into our patterns as before?’
Carolyn, a shy woman from London had a different experience.
‘I don’t know. I just got annoyed today. I’m in the kitchen with this guy. And everything he does is just so….slow. I guess I’m used to doing things quickly. I just…find it so annoying..’ The frustration was written all over her face. Carl put his arm around her and said:
‘People here don’t exactly get down to business; that’s the Findhorn way – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’
Over the week our stories grew; our lives enriched by sharing each other’s tales of hardship, heartbreak, love and passion. Through the simple acts of eating together, working, playing games and sharing our stories in the hot tubs, by the end of our time together the empathy amongst us was genuine. Only seven days before I’d looked at these fifteen or so people sat in a circle of chairs and imagined myself to have nothing in common with them. It was a sublime moment: in only seven days my heart had opened up.
*A challenging experience for those of us brought up in the north where hugging is still considered a ladies only activity and tears are reserved for football matches
I decided to stay on, I was feeling connected to the place; Findhorn had more to teach me. I moved in for a time with Jonathan, a yoga teacher who lived in a small cottage in Findhorn village with rocking chair, massage table, Tarot cards stuck to the walls and red heart-shaped fairy lights around the window. I quizzed him about the ‘No P. No D’ written on a sticky label on his computer.
‘No porn and no Debbie Harry,’ he replied, ‘I spend far too much time looking at both,’ and then proceeded to show me his favourite Blondie clips from Youtube.‘
Realising he was breaking his own rules, he smiled, saying, ‘Hey, fuck it; we can’t be perfect all the time.’ When I asked him why he’d moved to Findhorn, Jonathan said, ‘There’s just something about the place.’ I could honestly say that I now knew what he meant.
One afternoon I opted to take part in an experiment. A focaliser called Daniel had just completed his teaching qualification in ‘The Transformation Game’ and, together with my Experience Weekers Jonas and Ann, I had zealously volunteered to play. As integral to the Foundation’s ideology as attunement, this was a board game that had been dreamed up by two former Findhornians in the late Seventies and had caught on, selling by the bucketload to New Agers around the world. It used dice, counters and cards like Monopoly but instead of teaching players how to be fatcats, it involved the evolution of each player from different layers, moving with the physical, to emotional, mental and finally spiritual. The rules were immensely complicated. We listened for two hours as the basics were explained before we even threw a dice. I got off to a bad start, almost failing to get born. With my last chance throw, out I popped into the physical realm, already a few goes behind the others. I had to reign in the niggling impatience that I was already behind.
‘It’s the game of life. Why rush it?’ said the focaliser, reading my body language.
The game involved accumulating awareness, dealing with pain, resolving conflict and helping other players deal with their problems as we moved around the board. Sometimes one go could take up to 45 minutes, as prolonged decision-making took place and pages of rules were read out. Each turn offered us the chance to talk about problems, relationships, blocks and feelings, which we did, at times discussing family issues or difficulties from the past. It was important that we felt comfortable together as great wounds were being opened up and gently sealed again. I talking about my selfishness in my last relationship, my tendency to react from the head rather than the heart, how I often fail to do things properly because of impatience. As Jonas and Ann progressed to the next level of the game, the Emotional Level, I felt a pang of frustration at being left behind. By mid-afternoon, Ann had progressed to the Mental Level; Jonas was ready to transcend to the Spiritual Level. I remained stuck in the physical. Several times the dice had prevented me from moving up. All I needed was to serve, to give or do a charitable deed. And each time I was denied. By six o’clock we’d run out of time. Our focaliser, sensing my frustration, kindly said,
‘I think we could just have time for one more go if you’d like David?’
I did. I really didn’t want to be left on the physical plane. I felt weighed down by the number of cards I had amassed. True, I now had great quantities of awareness cards. I was overflowing with the stuff. And insight too. But something beyond the impatient child wanted to move on from here. The dice had other plans. For the fifth time I was denied, my cold nose pressed against the sweetie shop window of emotional intelligence.
‘You know what was holding you back don’t you?’ said the focaliser afterwards.
‘You still desire with your head, not your heart. You want to perform an act of service out of desire not out of love. The universe recognised that. It was your impatience again, getting in the way.’
It was true. I even felt it whilst I was playing.
‘You need to find a service in the physical world that is done with love. That will take you to the higher realm your spirit craves.’
‘In your case you need to find something that you enjoy and can do with love for others. Anything from making music to sex.’
‘Everything we do can be love in action if done with the right intent. It’s curious about your block cards don’t you think, though?’
The cards I’d been dealt as ‘blocks’ on the physical plane had been impatience and selfishness: the two things my ex had often accused me of.
Over the next few weeks I befriended a lady called Julia who’d been living in Findhorn since the early seventies. Julia was a sixty-two year old chain-smoking, wheezing Londoner with a penchant for colourful language and full of wisdom and love. She was like the Oracle in the Matrix. Her invitation for a cuppa turned into countless all-night sessions, fuelled by strong coffee, cigarette fumes and our mutual affliction with insomnia. We would sit around the kitchen together almost until dawn, Julia cutting vegetables for her voluminous homemade soups, busying herself by the sink or licking her fingers and rolling great tubes of tobacco, all the while talking with great passion and scolding me for my outbursts of cynicism. While a tenderness had grown within me for the people at Findhorn, it had done little to transform my scepticism towards certain aspects of the place. I’d rolled my eyes at an advert for ‘Spiritual counselling for pets’ and cursed the people who drove around with car stickers that read: ‘Miracles happen!’ or ‘Never drive faster than your angels can fly!’ In fact there were angels galore at Findhorn, they appeared on everything from stationary to doors and signposts.
I said to Julia: ‘I find all this Angel of Findhorn stuff really tacky.’ Julia eyeballed me and said:
‘It’s just a fucking metaphor. Get over it.’ She lit another fag and filled the room with blue smoke and continued:
‘Look, some of our guests come to Findhorn to talk with devas, cavort with angels and hug trees. I take that with a large pinch of salt. The point of Findhorn is to bring more compassion and awareness to people. My former job was in politics. There was no possibility of working with people’s souls. Here I can. All that I have is the present moment. I have to be happy with that.’
‘And are you?’
I ended up staying at Findhorn for almost a month but the honeymoon period was coming to an end; I couldn’t stay on Jonathan’s floor indefinitely and my thirst for Blondie anecdotes had been well and truly slaked. To be considered for residency at Findhorn however, I’d have to do another course. And another. There was Exploring Community Life, a twelve-week Foundation Programme; Living as a Community Guest for another four weeks and the six-month Living Educational Survival programme. Packing all these in could take up to two years and leave me a few grand lighter in the pocket. If I’d turned up in the late ‘60s Findhorn’s founders would have given me a spade and a place to sleep. Now I’d pay for the pleasure. For the majority who came to live as residents, savings were essential. Findhorn had earned itself a reputation as a middle-class utopia. Julia had said:
‘So what? Aren’t the middle classes entitled to be spiritual?’ But it clearly was an issue to some in the community. One resident quietly confided in me one night in the hot tub:
‘What this place needs is a damned good crisis.’
I’d made an incredible connection with people here, but could I welcome the Angel of Findhorn into my heart? Could I endure the wind, the miserable weather and the jets? Could I deal with the sexlessness of the place? I wasn’t sure that I could. Even Julia had expressed doubts on this issue:
‘I’ve had enough fucks to last a lifetime,’ she wheezed, ‘but I do feel for some of the people here. Their idea of dressing sexy is putting on their best gardening clothes.’
To be fair, sexuality was a subject Findhorn was attempting to address. On my final night a couple from a German free-love community called Zegg had been invited to do a talk; it drew quite a crowd.
The speaker was a little dry (‘No David, just German,’ Julia corrected me) but spoke with clarity about how Zegg was not a ‘knocking shop’ but a safe place to explore sex and love. I did worry about it being run with humourless German zeal though. Especially after our poodle-haired speaker said, ‘in an effort to free some couples of their jealousy and possessiveness, we offer you the opportunity to watch your partner having sex with a stranger. A therapist will be at hand to talk you through any issues of jealousy and anger that may arise.’
After the talk a record-breaking number of us squeezed into the hot tub. I ended up squashed next to an attractive German lady called Sabrine who I’d met earlier in the week at a dance class. It wasn’t long before the conversation moved on to love and sexuality.
‘Are you going to visit Zegg?’ she asked.
Can you speak German?’
‘Good. Then you need a translator. I trust you welcome sharing the intimacy of the experience with me also? Perhaps we could get to know each other a little better tonight?’
If you want the truth, straight after Findhorn I’d booked myself in for three weeks at Pluscarden Abbey, a 15th century Benedictine Monastery. I think it was part of some noble gesture to myself that I would explore all aspects of communal life, no matter how unappealing. The abbey was only an hour’s drive from Findhorn which meant I had the chance to visit for an afternoon to give it the once over in case I decided to chicken out. I did. I lasted ten minutes in there. After buying a pack of biscuits from a silent man in the gift shop and witnessing the solemn robed monks tiptoeing around the place I fled. Three weeks of silence and Christian prayer...what the hell was I thinking? I’d been single for a few months and just had an erotic encounter with a German. My head was full of libidinous thoughts. I’d never be able to concentrate. It brought to mind a line from the great sex guru, Bagran Shree Rajneesh: ‘If you can’t meditate because your mind is on sex then go and have sex’. Clearly, I was ready for a spell in a free love community. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t done my homework.
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