Bringing your heart to your communities large and small

Chapter 1       Developing heart centered communities

Communities come in many shapes and sizes.  You can form a community that gathers together around like-minded ideas, practices, interests and living arrangements as well as geographical locations.  I have been attending a weekly seminar in Washington, D.C. for close to twenty years.  Even though I do not know the last names of most of the members of that group I feel very close to them.  This last year circumstances prevented me from being able to attend.  The group had become an important anchor point in the middle of my week.  Because we focus on spirituality, energy and psychology, I missed the deeper meditations that come from group practice.  While I continued to meditate on my own, Swami Muktananda reminds us that two consciousnesses are better than one.  Coming back to the group I could feel my spiritual connection to the group strengthen and deepen.

I have friends who live nearby in an intentional community in the middle of Amish country.  Long ago they came together to raise their children with a simple stable life and living close to the land values.  They wanted a healthy environment to reflect the health and well-being of their lives.  The thread that originally brought families together has shifted and changed over the years as children have grown and moved on.  There is some new energy to create a demonstration and teaching facility for biodynamic gardening.  Over time some communities may shift their focus as the needs of the participants change.

There are a lot of communities coming together around the “buy it local” idea so that you know the source and support local economy.  There is a new word, “agritopia,” which describes communities developing around organic farms.  People can participate in the growing and caring for the food that they eat.  Usually once a year Mother Earth News picks the ten best cities to live in the United States.  These communities often combine organic farming, flower farming, raising chickens in order to live a life style that is healthy and coherent with the local ecology and the Earth.

People are finding out that life is easier when they join together to create a viable community where everyone pitches in.  A new model is DIO, “Do It Ourselves.”[1] People are drawn to partner with neighbors, friends, local governments and faith groups.  They are looking to learn the skills to become self-reliant in order to create new approaches to community living.  People are coming together to share resources and skills.  People are finding fellowship and connection in communities throughout the country.  This particular brand of experiments is being dubbed “Homestead Hamlets.”

In their April/May 2014 issue Mother Earth News tells the story of a couple, Tim and Kay, who changed the way they lived in a city neighborhood in Lincoln, Nebraska.[2]  Inspired by a book, Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy, they turned their yard into an organic garden.  They wanted their home to support an edible landscape with no lawn to mow.  They were hoping by networking with people in the neighborhood to inspire others to live more sustainably and securely so that they could cooperatively produce and share homegrown harvests.  Other ideas grew out of a workshop on Cohousing and Intentional Communities, which brought two families together.

One of them purchased an inexpensive property close by so that they could establish a larger garden.  When they began to share strawberries with neighbors, those neighbors, who had been helping, decided to turn their lawns and backyards into productive food producing gardens too.  Pretty soon another neighbor joined in at the suggestion that he keep chickens.  Later several of them took a course in beekeeping and added a hive or two.

As their group expanded, they also decided to turn their 108 year-old house into a green residence.   They watched their utility bills go way down when they installed a geothermal heating and cooling system to which they added solar panels on the rooftop.  Inspired by Elliot Coleman in Maine they decided to build an unheated greenhouse, which allowed them to grow food all year around.  More and more of the neighborhood came on board until they established a self-sustaining community right in the middle of the city.  Fresh organic food and green living was not the only benefit.  True friendships grew that deepened as they worked together for the common goal of healthy living.

Kevin Wolf suggests for anyone hoping to start a Homestead Hamlet.  Tear down the fence between two houses.  Start using that space together and encourage others to join. His group has grown to include 21 houses with common, connected yards.  A good balance between privacy and community time is important as well as the attitude that suggesting a good idea and suggest goes toward getting it done.  They have found that working together makes the task not only doable but also easier and fun.

A new model for communities called agrihoods[3] is being seen as a way to create a healthy involved cooperative community, increase resilience, boost sustainability, increase property values and most importantly make a healthier residence.  Before developers built neighborhoods around golf courses.  Now with the interest rising in locally grown food sources, neighborhoods are being built around orchards, vineyards, cow pastures, vegetable gardens and even local organic farms.  Urban agriculture is a way to grow healthy vegetables and strengthen community.  People can volunteer on the farm or have their own garden plots.  It is a way to have good food for the table and to get to know neighbors.

When I was a child, I wanted to learn how to grow vegetables.  My mother was good at flowers but not so knowledgeable about vegetables.  Because our neighborhood had World War II Victory Garden plots associated with it, my mother asked our neighbor Mr. Rock if he would teach me about vegetables.  That was the beginning of a long career of growing as much food of my own as I can.  Even when I lived in New York City I had some vegetables growing on the roof of our loft building.  This interest extended to northern Vermont  and growing food for my young family.  We had a root cellar, no electricity but a way to dig fresh root vegetables out of the ground all winter long.  I just had to remember to mark the rows high enough to identify where they were under lots of snow.  Perhaps the World War II victory gardens were an earlier version of agrihoods.  In the back to the land movement in the late 1960s there were experiments with living in communities or a loose network of friends that shared ideals as well as ideas about living, building and gardening.  This new wave of communities is creative and hopefully more sustainable.

Some communities throughout the world are experimenting with the concept of a time bank.  This is a system in which communities internally operate without normal currency.  The exchange is in the form of services.  There is a resource called hOurworld[4], which serves as a host for an exchange of ideas, questions and advice based on lived experience.  There are many communities that have been successfully working with this idea.

In Greenbelt, Maryland they are working on implementing such a system.  Right now they are working through the basic concept of what this “bank” will look like exactly.  They have been using hOurworld as their host and have been wrestling with questions like:  Is time a tit for tat?  How do we negotiate hours?  Should “professionals” who offer services take more time?  And, how do we “pay” for classes?  Is the teacher to receive an hour from each individual?   How does the bank accrue time so that it can give out time?
The time bank concept is neither new nor unique.  There are multiple successful time banks throughout the world.  What a nice way to feel like you have value to your community. Your skills can be used and a return is made when you are in need of a service offered by someone else.

The following are examples of different kinds of communities.[5]  In one community the dream is that every homestead would have enough land to establish a their own place while sharing recreation and working together for the common good. Work parties are formed to help maintain the roads, community center, swimming pool, soccer field, community garden and trails through the woods.  They share big tools like a log splitter and wood chipper. They hired a farmer to grow food that is shared and to teach gardening skills.  A health and welfare committee quietly pays attention, to which households has a member with serious illness or injury.  They help organize meals, rides to the doctor, and other support if the neighbor requests it. They share an ideal of living an Earth-centered life with plenty of time to be connected in community or be alone when needed.

Another community calls itself an Ecovillage.  People in a city neighborhood began to get together to rehab the area that had been hard hit by the recession and changes in demographics.  When the houses were refurbished they were sold to new owners who shared a similar spiritual orientation to the idea that the Earth is sacred and humanity’s success depends on honoring that reverence in their daily lives.  Residents are involved in sustainable living.  They take care of rain gardens, forest gardens, plant trees, build walking trails through the woods, create shared rituals, and offer educational programs focusing on sustainability. They get together several times a week at potlucks helps develop friendships and a sense of community.

In another area a man, who believed strongly in think globally, act locally, subdivided part of the family farm so that people could own their own land and build their own houses.  There is an organic farm at the center, which serves as a place to learn more about sustainable living and to teach it to others.

Several of these communities have used the idea of a community center at the hub being of primary importance.  One place was able to get together and purchase an abandoned school, while another used a big house and still another a yoga studio.  Senior activities, classes for a variety of ages, childcare, community potlucks or recreation, etc. were established to fit the needs of the people and provided a means to be connected with each other.

Another community that had a big house at the center used it to provide a communal kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining and laundry spaces for everyone while building small individual tiny houses as detached private bedrooms.  They enjoy sharing resources and feelings about the ups and downs of everyday life.  They don’t always socialize together.  Getting together happens as a part of life and sharing a common space.  There are ready-made connections as relationships have grown and spread to friends of friends. They like taking some time to get to know each other.

There are still other styles of communities.  Libraries have become local gathering places where activities, meetings and classes are held.  In some places, because people are thrown out of the homeless shelters during the day, they gather at the library.  Senior centers also provide a sense of community for elders with yoga, art, craft, etc. classes, activities and trips.

Another way to view communities is as simple as a local study group, or a farmer’s market, or a school to develop inquiring minds, or a course on voluntary simplicity.  Other possibilities are a socially responsible local business, a church congregation devoted to spiritual inquiry and community service, or a holistic health clinic.  No matter how small or isolated each creates a safe space in which diversity, experimentation, and learning can flourish.  These can be building blocks for a new mainstream economy, politics, and culture.[6]

Learning to live together from the heart promotes ways to create new models that support our lives, our families, our communities and the life of the planet.  The health of the individual and of the community is inseparable.  The whole depends on the health and integrity of the individual, and the health of the individual depends on the health and integrity of the whole.  Both can survive and prosper together.[7]

David Korten tells the story of the destructive workings of the current system of human governments. He encourages us to work together to build a new sense of community based on cooperation, not competition, so that success as relates to the health of the whole.  All people can have enough to eat, clean water to drink, safe shelter, access to good medical care, a meaningful vocation that contributes to the well-being of the larger community, a true democracy where everyone’s voice counts and everyone is motivated to participate in that process.  Happiness is a caring community is his motto.

Because he feels strongly that our very lives depend on creating a new way of living together, he lays out some very thoughtful suggestions about how we can begin to get from here to there.  Neighbors understand that it is far more powerful to connect around things they want to happen, than argue about past events.

Here is the summary of the criteria people used to rate their communities as great places to live[8] in the U.S.

  1. Support of the preservation of natural areas, wildlife habitat and historical and cultural sites.
  2. Having a good solid volunteer program that supports all aspects of the community.
  3. A place where people take pride in their homes and yards. They want a place where they can walk.  They want a sense of aliveness, which includes spaces for people to gather in the heart of downtown.
  4. A vibrant local food system that is central to the city/town. Working together to create a community food system that models how to incubate new farms and develop farm-related businesses, how to market agricultural products and care for the land, and how to develop farm-to-school and farm-to-table programs through protecting working landscapes.
  5. Organic gardening, self-sufficiency, an involved community, renewable energy and a commitment to health is important.
  6. Have a good mix of green spaces, active gardens, lawns converted to flowers and vegetables.
  7. Working together to support initiatives for renewable energy, energy efficiency, transportation, waste reduction and recycling, water conservation, and land use.
  8. Creating more public transportation and a pedestrian friendly city.
  9. Creating projects where people come together to work on something important for their community, e.g. taking a woodland area in the city/town limits and digging out all of the invasive species.
  10. Valuing and involving a mix of generations results in mutual respect and care.
  11. Integrating life with Nature involves the respect and care for all of life.
  12. “The quickest way for newcomers to become a part of the community is to volunteer and demonstrate that they’re willing to work for the betterment of life there. Protecting the land and water have been citizen priorities because everyone knows that the great local foods depend on good water and land that’s safe from pollutants.”

 These are a number of elements that make for a good vital community.  It is important to recognizing that the Heart of the Community literally exists and functions as a power to create positive coherence.  It can be a place of activities central to the community like the village green or a church/cathedral or community garden plots.  It could also be a symbolic heart like a medicine bundle or a community hall or gathering spot.  It needs to be something that is precious to all the community and its importance is recognized by all ages.  This Heart functions as an active element in which all members of the community can participate in, one way or another.

Stories weave into the community a sense of history, presence and importance.  They can be about how the community began or about special events that have occurred during the development and life of the community. They can be about the people who live there or about those elements that have created and maintained life.  They can to be told at community at gatherings or as bedtime stories to the children.  Old stories and new ones are added on as the community grows and changes.

A community benefits greatly from having a direct relationship with Nature.  The community can come to view itself as a cell in the body of Nature within which it lives, breathes and depends.  There is a sense of giving and receiving and an appreciation of the relationship between the community and Nature that supports the life of the community.

Communities need to have activities in which everyone participates.  The could be festivals, holiday celebrations and spiritual gatherings, events where people’s houses are repaired or where things are given away in support of those who do not have enough.  This is when stories can be told, friendships cemented, finished projects celebrated and new ones created.

Every member of the community has a job that contributes to the well being of the whole.  People are accepted for who they are and appreciated for what they bring to the table.  The hallmarks of good relationships are good guides for all interactions:  honesty, trust, respect, acceptance and good communication.  Holding each other in high regard from the heart is essential.  Wherever possible something like a time bank economy is practiced.  People trade time doing what their skills allow them to give for the services that they need.  Trades are made with other communities for goods or services in such a way that everyone benefits.

If there are problems, a process of consensus, non-violent communication or good negotiation skills as described in Getting to Yes: negotiating agreement without giving in by Fisher, Ury and Patton[9] can used to resolve them.  People are loved and are made to feel like a viable part of the whole.  Children are taught these skills in their families, in their schools and by participating in community events or projects.  Adults are good models because they practice what they preach.  Every member of the community practices being a coherent emotional presence. There is little competition and a lot of cooperation:  one for all and all for one.

There are those who are devoted to holding the spiritual center of the community.  There is no competition between belief systems.  People are free to believe what they believe.

Communities are like cells in the body of larger communities, which are cells in the community of Earth, which is a cell in the body of the Universe.  The community cell is small enough so that everyone knows everyone’s name and everyone’s voice counts.

The community participates in town meetings where their voices are honored and heard.  Those who help govern the community are truly there to serve the people:  by the people and for the people.

David Korten suggests that we need to shift our focus from the values of an inauthentic culture to one grounded in a love of life rather than a love of money.  By doing this we can bring our life energy into alignment with those institutions that promote a sense of well being for all.  He encourages us to change our personal stories so that we can love life and feel a positive connection our culture.[10]

I believe that the change has to begin with the story that we carry about ourselves from ones like, “I don’t deserve to be successful,” “I don’t deserve to have a good life,” “I am not pretty enough,” “smart enough,” “tough enough,” etc. to the story of truly loving ourselves from the inside out, from the heart.  We will need to change our ideas about what being successful and having a good life mean in order to benefit not only ourselves but all of life.  When we begin to believe in our own heart-centered living, then that love will flow naturally into the way in which we chose to live together and how we live in relationship to the Earth.  By having the wisdom to look carefully at ourselves and the way in which we live, we can create positive changes in our communities and our world.

[1] Mother Earth News: the original guide to living wisely. (October/November 2015) Community + Self-Reliance = The Good Life. Compton, K. p. 42-51

[2]Rinne, T. (April/May 2014) How we created a ‘Homestead Hamlet.’ Mother Earth News, p.42-45

[3] Neighborhoods with Local Food at the Hub. August/September 2014.  Mother Earth News: the original guide to living wisely, p. 15

[4] www.ourworld.org

[5] Compton, K. (October/November 2015) Community + Self-Reliance = The Good Life. Mother Earth News: The Original Guide to Living Wisely. P. 42-51

[6] Korten, D. (2006) The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.  Kumarian Press, Inc., CT. P. 317

[7] Korten, ibid. P.309

[8] Great Places to Live. (October/November 2014) Mother Earth News P.41

[9] Fisher, R., Ury, W. & Patton, B. (Third edition 2011) Getting to Yes: negotiating agreement without giving in. Penguin Books, NY.

[10] Korten, ibid. P.18

One model of community: the honeybee hive

These bees are creating a new hive by building their beautiful new white comb down from a series of bars at the top.DSCF0330

While harvesting honey I looked deep into the hive where 60 to 80 thousand bees were working. Some of them were of course flying around me the great intruder from outer space (I was suited up from head to toe in my bee gear to protect me from their stings). I had smoked them with desert sage, an herb used by the Native American people before ceremony to clear away any negative energy. I had also offered a pinch or two of tobacco with a prayer of gratitude for letting me take some of their precious stores. I am always careful not to take too much or none at all because they need a good supply to last them through the winter. Today they were amazingly calm and didn’t seem to mind my looking in at their activity.

I was reminded of their incredible ability to provide an intensely hard working, cooperative, loving community whose sole purpose was to sustain the life of the queen. Each of those 60 to 80 thousand bees knew its job whether it be a nurse bee feeding the drones, the developing larvae or most importantly the queen or be a housekeeper, keeping the hive clean from debris or a guard, protecting the hive against intruders like me, other insects or even a mouse that might want to move in or a water bearer, bringing in a constant supply of water to the hive or nectar and pollen gatherer.

The drones are the male bees and serve only to impregnate the local queens. Soon after birth the queen goes on her maiden flight at which point the neighboring drones come chasing after her. She gives them a good run for their money and flies as high as she can. Only the strongest and healthiest drones are able to reach her. On this one flight she gathers into her sperm sac all of the sperm that will fertilize her eggs for the rest of her five or so years. This may not seem so amazing except when you consider that in preparation for the honey flow season (the time when tree and plants are at their flowering peak) she is laying over a thousand eggs a day, which is more than her body weight. She will keep this up for several weeks to a month and then begin to slow down some.

Meanwhile the drones are an interesting lot. They are incapable of feeding themselves even if they are lying right beside a comb full of honey. They are beholden to the nurse bees who keep them nourished until the end of the season. The drones having fulfilled their mission are now asked to leave the hive. They are literately pushed out of the door to die. The sole function of the hive in the wintertime is to keep the queen warm and fed. The whole hive will go into hibernation during the cold months. They usually need to leave the hive one or two times in the winter in order to relieve themselves (defecate) outside of the hive. So they need a warm winter day that creeps above 45 degrees. If there are lots of warm winter days the hive will be active, flying this way and that looking for more nectar of which there is likely none. This can stress a hive which then has to rely on there own honey stores to feed the active troops.

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The workers who are females without reproductive capacity do everything else to maintain the healthy life of the hive. They make up 98.9% of the bees in the hive and do all of the work that I described above. They make their way up the ranks of the order of the honeybee from nurse, to housekeeper, to guard, to water carrier, to nectar gatherer. In the height of the honey flow season their life span is about six weeks. As nectar gatherers they may make hundreds of trips a day back and forth between the nectar and pollen source and the hive. They may fly up to three miles out to a source. You may have see pictures of these gathers doing their bee dances in order to share their discoveries of new nectar sources guiding others to these sites.

Before I started keeping bees I thought that because I lived in the woods that there would not be enough nectar for them to gather. It was not until I went to help another woman take honey that I learned in our area the bees depend primarily on the honey locust, the tulip poplar and the holly trees. There were plenty of tulip popular and holly trees in Hollywood, Maryland so beekeeping was very possible.

When they bring their nectar and pollen supplies back to the hive one of the workers takes it from them and deposits it into a honeycomb cell. Pollen is kept in special cells for the queen and made into royal jelly. Meanwhile the queen continues to lay eggs in each cell and the workers tend to the developing larvae. They will also decide if they need to make the cell a little larger to produce a drone or a little longer to produce a new queen. There is immense innate wisdom that helps the bees focus on their individual jobs and keep the health of the totality of the hive in mind at all times.

For instance if a hive is very successful and is getting too crowded the workers will begin to create elongated queen cells because there is a growing need to split the hive. The day comes when the old queen leaves the hive and many of her workers will follow, while enough others stay behind to care for the new queen in the old hive. In the meanwhile the swarm of bees that have left the hive pour out into a huge funnel of bees that sounds like a freight train. Each of these workers who have left first gorged themselves with honey. So ahead of time there are those who know they are going and those who know they are staying.

This swarm of honeybees will follow the queen to a tree branch usually high up not far from the hive. All of the workers will surround the queen, clinging to each other with their legs so that the end result looks like a football of living bees with the queen safe in the center. Some of the bees on the outside of the swarm begin to scout for a suitable place to set up a new hive. This process usually lasts three to four days. The swarm will then all fly off with the scouts leading the way to the new homestead where they immediately set to work creating comb into which the queen begins to drop one egg at a time. A new community is formed.

Even though the honeybees are very focused on the health and well being of the queen, they also serve an incredible function within the context of the whole. Without the pollination provided to fruit trees, other kinds of trees, garden flowers and vegetables we would not have food for our tables, nor would the squirrels or deer or birds, etc. who depend on nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables for survival of their species.

Every one of the 60 to 80 thousand honeybees know what job she or he is suppose to do, when they are suppose to do it and how they are suppose to do it. The most astounding thing about this very well organized efficient community of bees is that should for some reason the queen die and no new queen is ready to take her place the whole hive falls apart. The bees no longer know what they are to do. It is as if the center of their universe has disappeared and there is no longer a reason for being. They all disappear and die.

What an interesting vision for a style of community, one that is very well organized around its own survival and the love for the queen at the very center of it all. This community is not isolated but deeply woven into the fabric of the whole of life.