Spirit Lives, Spirit Free: A week in Findhorn
And so, I arrived at Heathrow Airport with only a very vague idea of what awaited me at Findhorn. It’s probably fair to say I was a bit cynical going - Findhorn has a reputation for being quite New Agey, into its guardian angels, fairies, and communing with trees. Not really my scene. At the airport, I bumped into Sarah Tinker (the minister of Kensington) and Jim Corrigall (the minister of Padiham). No matter how cringe-worthy the week got, at least there would be plenty of opportunity to have some good chats with my fellow ministers, and Jim and I didn’t waste any time, talking about last year’s Theology Conference that was held in Manchester, and how it could be improved upon for this year. After a flight, and a short car journey, we arrived at the main entrance. We were all shown to our accommodation, and then finally all met together in a circle for the first time. There were 16 of us in total, Unitarians from around the country, and our token American, who was part of the Paris Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Strengthening the bond of fellowship within the group was going to be a big theme for the week. And so, we started with our first exercise – Angel cards. Each card had a positive word or quality on it; Balance, Creativity, Openness, Integrity, and so on. We were encouraged to take a card at random, and this would act as our angel for the week, to give the week direction, and encourage self-reflection. This initial exercise was introduced very well; we were encouraged to think of the process in our own way, to understand it in metaphorical terms if that helped. This alleviated some of my initial apprehension. There was going to be no expectation that we buy into their particular spiritual perspective.
The Findhorn Community came into existence in 1962, on what was essentially a rubbish dump at one end of a caravan site near Forres. It was founded by three individuals: Peter Caddy, Dorothy Maclean, and Eileen Caddy. The community was a melting pot for many strange and esoteric ideas: Rosicrucianism, UFO interest, spiritualism, alternative therapies, channelling spirits and devas, and it was greatly influenced by the 1976 American book ‘A Course in Miracles’, a book which fuses Christian thought with New Age ideas. Alongside all of this were the vegetables. Right from the beginning the community helped sustain itself by growing award winning vegetables, most notably a 40-pound cabbage. And thus ecology, healthy living, vegetarianism, and sustainability issues all become front and centre. The sandy, barren peninsula the founders established themselves on in the 1960s could not be more unlike the green, lush, eco-community which stands there today. What is clear, after spending a short time in Findhorn, is the extent to which the community has matured, and softened its approach and image, emphasising the positive aspects of the community and its history, and down-playing some of the more embarrassing aspects. It’s this very conscious shaping and moulding of their public image that I felt (a bit) uncomfortable with. It struck me as being, at times, a bit false. As if we were being offered a façade, a whitewashed history, a rosy exterior. Take, for example, the issue of ecology and their carbon footprint; the community emphasised how much they take this issue seriously, and their website boasts that their community of 450 people has the lowest ecological footprint of any community in the developed world. What that impressive claim leaves out is the dozens of people who fly there each week from all over the world, which surely results in an overall carbon footprint that is not good, but truly awful. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that the environmental damage caused outweighs the personal, spiritual, developmental benefits of being present in a place like Findhorn - that is surely incalculable. It’s just a bit odd for a community to hold themselves up as a paragon of environmentalism, when the facts clearly don’t bear that out… Today then, the Findhorn Foundation have distilled what they stand for down to three core principles. Deep inner listening, Co-creating with nature, and Love in Action. But beyond that, they, like we Unitarians, emphasise people’s own spiritual journeys. They want to affirm the unique personhood of everyone, their divine selves, and this is really where the community shines. Throughout the week, everyone’s contributions and presence was made to feel welcome, and valued. Given these similarities, many in the group commented on the synchronicity between the Findhorn Foundation and Unitarianism.
As part of the week we were all given work to do in the community, a few hours each afternoon, in whichever department we were assigned. I was assigned the main kitchens, and so had many a tear-filled afternoon as I cut through hundreds of onions. The working in the community relates to the third principle: Love in Action. You don’t go to Findhorn to be served, but to serve one another, to find joy and love for one another in service and being attentive to one another. So, the idea is, you’re not just hearing about the Findhorn way, you are actively participating in it. And it is surprisingly effective. You do feel yourself to be a part of everything, part of the Findhorn community, past and present. Returning to Aberdeenshire was also oddly like returning home for me. Before moving to the States, when I was younger I grew up in Alford, which is only about an hour’s drive from Findhorn. Aberdeenshire, in my mind, is also strongly linked to a particular band – The Waterboys. And that’s because at the time, my dad listened to The Waterboys all the time. That and Neil Young of course. In particular, The Waterboys’ most famous song comes to mind, The Whole of the Moon. And also on the same album, the song I started with this morning - ‘Spirit’. So, it was an odd bit of synchronicity for me to learn that much of The Waterboys’ work was inspired by living in the Findhorn community. The lead singer, Mike Scott, stayed there for a period in the early 90s, where he had a spiritual awakening. Findhorn is definitely a place which has that effect on people.
Throughout the week there were several long-term members of the community who came to speak to us. One in particular stands out. Not because what he said was new to me, just the combination of it being said with those people, at that time, in that place, gave it a weight. He described how each person we meet is like a mirror. We see something of ourselves reflected back. We like what we see, we love what we see. Or, do we dislike it? Does it irritate us, and what does that say about us? What does the other have to show us? How can the other help us know ourselves better, that we might learn to grow?
There is a lot more that could be said… It was a very good, and interesting week, and it was good just to spend the time having some of those deeper conversations.