Findhorn Foundation: A Scottish spiritual awakening
Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of this grand dining room I can see a few snowflakes drifting down. Inside its warm and cosy. Brunch is being served and it consists of poached organic fruit, muesli, yoghurt, homemade jam, eggs, sourdough toast, tea and coffee. Im still a bit bemused. Is this a spiritual retreat, gourmet organic health farm or world-famous eco-living centre?
I left Byron Bay on a balmy summers day and travelled across the world to northern Scotland in mid-winter for my first visit to Findhorn, that place known for its mystery, magic, giant cabbages, fairies and angels. Ive been here just 24 hours and the jetlag, long hours of darkness, icy-cold weather and being part of a group of strangers are all making me feel very nervous.
Im enrolled in Experience Week, which is the Findhorn Foundations most popular and important introductory program. In one week it gives participants a smorgasbord taste of living in a spiritual community. We will join a work department (garden, kitchen, homecare or maintenance), participate in community activities like singing, dancing, meditation and ritual and go through an emotional and spiritual journey with our fellow participants. Fifteen of us have travelled from the United States, Denmark, Germany, Australia and England to join in, guided by two focalisers who are residents of the Findhorn Foundation. Straight after the hallowed ritual of brunch, we file into a spacious room called The Sanctuary and sit in a circle on gold velvet chairs. In the centre, along with flowers and a candle, theres a whole set of small rectangular cards, face down, that will seal our fate for the week. We are invited to select our own personal angel, according to the local dialect.
I know which angel card I want, but there must be an invisible signal to get up and take one because theres a sudden polite scrum and someone else beats me to it. This happens three times until I finally swipe myself a card and turn it over to find my theme for the week. It is honesty, according to my card with its cute drawing of an angel looking into a mirror. Im sure the person who took my first preference got playfulness and the one who took my second preference got creativity. Doesnt seem fair, but at least I didnt get obedience. The woman who has that card is looking very disgruntled.
Our focaliser asks us to close our eyes again and for someone to take a card that will be our group angel for the week. After several minutes of silence someone gets up and takes forgiveness. Well, at this point I honestly dont know how Im going to get through a week of institutional food, sharing a room with three other people, the utter destruction of my sleep cycle from jetlag and the freezing-cold weather. So hopefully the group will forgive me for being cranky, nervous, cynical and unable to recall anyones name and for falling asleep at 7.30pm every night.
Forget any preconceptions you might have about the Findhorn Foundation (so called to differentiate it from ancient Findhorn village nearby). Surprise number one was being collected by a friendly Findhorn Foundation bus named Grace at the local train station on Saturday morning and driven up the hill to a veritable mansion. Cluny Hill College, it turns out, is the teaching campus for the Findhorn Foundation. A huge old hotel in the town of Forres, it can accommodate more than 100 guests in its stately rooms and turns out three organic vegetarian meals a day like clockwork. It has a gaggle of permanent residents and a weekly influx of guests and students for workshops.
As soon as we finish choosing our angels were off to visit The Park, which is located about 10 miles away near the village of Findhorn. This is the ecovillage of bountiful gardens, chatty nature spirits, alternative houses and the small farm known as Cullerne Gardens, which produces much of the fruit and vegetables that feed the residents.
Surprise number two: our bus pulls up at The Park and my heart sinks. How come nobody mentioned that it adjoins the Forres air base with its busy training program for Nimrod jet pilots? And Im sure there was nothing on the Findhorn website explaining that half the site still functions as a caravan park with a long row of rectangular boxes stretching across a bare paddock. Could this be the magical ecovillage Id been hearing about for so long?
Forty years of history
Findhorn recently celebrated its 40th birthday. It was 1962 when Eileen and Peter Caddy, their three young sons and their friend Dorothy Maclean towed their caravan into Findhorn Bay Caravan Park and found a bare spot where they hoped to find shelter from the cold coastal winds coming over the dunes. They planned to stay a few weeks, but weeks stretched into months and years. The caravan still sits on the original site (now renovated and used as office space) and Eileen lives just a few metres away in a wooden house called Cornerstone.
An entire folklore exists around the history of the Findhorn Foundation, to which a newcomer can’t possibly do justice. Suffice to say that word gradually spread about the combination of Eileen’s daily spiritual guidance (which she faithfully recorded and which forms the basis of her many books), Peter’s energy and determination for carrying out that guidance, and Dorothy’s unusual ability to communicate with nature spirits and devas, which resulted in extraordinary gardens growing from the sandy dunes. People came, first in a trickle and then in a flood. When Eileen received guidance to build a dining room with the capacity to feed 200 people, there were only 10 permanent residents. However, within a year of the community centre being built, they needed to enlarge it to feed the many guests that were arriving.
From a small and non-intentional beginning, the Findhorn Foundation has grown into a thriving intentional community of some 200 residents on the park site itself, plus a much wider community of people involved in the community businesses and activities, many of whom live in the local villages and at Cluny Hill College.
The Findhorn Foundation estimates that it receives more than 14,000 visitors every year from more than 70 countries. Almost 4000 of these participate in courses, conferences, workshops and events on everything from spirituality and creativity to sustainability and healing. Oh yes, and did I mention that there are some 40 small businesses, including an award-winning shop, bakery, printing press, pottery studio, weaving studio, sound recording facilities and Universal Hall, which is one of the best performance venues in north-east Scotland? Plus the community has its own currency, the colourful Eko. If you want to know more about Findhorns history there are some excellent books on the subject, including Flight into Freedom and Beyond by Eileen Caddy, and a good, brief outline on the Findhorn Foundation website.
As we leave the wooden community centre and start the ecovillage walk, one of the first sights is a group of wooden buildings with grass growing on the roofs. Wooden houses were almost unheard of in this part of the world until the Findhorn Foundation started experimenting with ecological housing. The Bag End buildings were the first wooden eco-houses at the community. Using breathable but highly insulated wooden walls and innovative designs (for example shared kitchen/living spaces and private bedrooms that allow large groups of people to share a single dwelling), the cluster has been a living experiment in alternative housing. Just around the corner are the famous whisky barrel houses, which are literally built from old wooden whisky barrels decommissioned from the distillery when stainless-steel barrels were introduced. Continuing around The Park, theres a pine forest at the edge of the village, Moya the windmill (which generates about 25 per cent of The Parks power), the ocean roaring nearby and the Living Machine, a greenhouse full of plants in tanks processing all the waste water and sewage from the village.
Theres lots more to see, but my favourite building in The Park is the hobbit-like Nature Sanctuary. This simple structure was made by hand from local rock. Its quirky shape, grass and wildflower roof and slanting windows probably make it one of the most photographed buildings in The Park. Like the other three meditation sanctuaries, it is open to anyone for personal meditation and is used for community events.
In the main sanctuary, where the community gathers to meditate three times a day, we sit again in a circle and attune to the work department we will join for the rest of the week. In spite of the icy conditions, the one that calls me is the garden, which means getting up and on the bus each morning in the dark to make the trip from the College to The Park to begin work at 9am.
Fun and games
After a cold Monday morning in the garden, cutting back dead stalks and finding, to my surprise, a whole host of snowdrops starting to come up beneath them, I’m ready to face the afternoon program of group games. I can feel that I’m warming up to my 14 companions now. Weve been eating, sleeping, meditating and even circle dancing together and I feel I know them much better than I would have expected after just 48 hours.
The games start out innocuously enough with us introducing ourselves to the two Findhorn Foundation residents who have arrived to run the games afternoon. Under the guise of introducing ourselves to them, we can all check our memory of each others names. We move onto something called car-car where we take a partner, get them to shut their eyes and then drive them around the room with speed and manoeuvring that feels appropriate. Some people are doing race driver stunts but thankfully my partner is Sandy, a soft-spoken woman who told us she’d waited 25 years to visit Findhorn and is now here for Experience Week with her two daughters. Sandy is incredibly gentle with me as all my resistance comes to the fore and underneath it, not a small degree of fear.
Next up is hug tag where the person who is it tries to tag someone else; the only way you’re safe is if you’re hugging someone. This game gets everyone very relaxed with lots of squealing, running, hugging and loosening up. When I end up hugging one of the focalisers taking the session, I’m struck by how solid and reassuring his energy feels. Did you hear that? Only 48 hours into Experience Week and I’m already talking about feeling energy.
One of the final games in this thoughtfully structured afternoon is where we close our eyes, find a partner without knowing who they are and communicate only by touching hands. The focaliser guides us: Let your hands express anger. Now let them express loneliness. Let them show love. This is an extraordinary experience where you are freed from knowing who youre talking to, freed from making eye contact and freed from language. I feel a pair of strong, expressive hands in mine; I feel fingers speaking eloquently and the warm brush of skin on skin; I feel sadness that makes me want to weep and love that makes me want to dance. I wonder if we are going to find out who our partner is or if the focaliser will move us on without us opening our eyes. At the end the focaliser says, Now open your eyes and look at the person opposite you. Its a complete surprise when I do open them; Im standing opposite Barbara, one of my three room-mates, a tall, strong woman from California. We look at each other for a long moment and smile.
Darkness starts to fall outside and in the big old ballroom of the hotel you can almost hear the barriers within and between each of us breaking down. We put on another layer of clothing as the room cools, turn on the lights and draw into a circle for the last game of the day. Eyes closed again, music playing, we experiment with changing our perspective on the world: going down to being as small as a stone and then getting bigger until each of us is the size of a planet; moving through space, eyes closed, making contact with each other, beginning with just brushing past, then touching, then holding, then embracing. This would have been unthinkable for me two days ago. Yet I end the exercise wet-eyed, in the centre of this group of amazing individuals, arms wrapped around two or three people, completely encircled and safe.
The games afternoon is a breakthrough time for many of the people in the group. I walk out of the ballroom at 5pm feeling as though every part of my armour has been gently peeled back and my heart is fully exposed.
I feel intensely alive
From that moment I start to experience the Findhorn Foundation as a place where there are still fairies, where in the woodlands you can meet deer or rabbits or angels, where devas hide between the rows of vegetables surrounding the old caravan and where cats know how to read minds. There are buildings made by hand and sacred geometry. There is grass growing on roofs and buildings growing out of hillsides. There are stones as white as marble on the beach, dreams caught in dream catchers and the tinkling of wind chimes in the night.
For the rest of Experience Week I feel intensely alive. Im pruning the apple trees in the old garden with the gardener saying, Go very slowly, tune in, get the feeling of the tree, wait before you cut anything. Im visiting one of Scotlands wild places called Randolphs Leap and spending time alone tucked into the crook of a tree that has stood there covered in moss for generations. Im joining in for kitchen clean-up duty, which starts with the team holding hands in a circle and making a wish for the energy of the clean-up. A shamanic meditation leads me into places Ive never been before. At the end Im sitting around a table with this glorious group of people who have shared my deepest feelings, fears, hopes and dreams and who now feel like my family.
In the final sharing on Friday afternoon, our Experience Week focalisers play us a song by Mike Scott of UK band The Waterboys. Mike wrote the song after he participated in Experience Week in 1992 and we laughed out loud as the song took us back through the journey. Who are these people? What are they on? was the question Mike asked himself on his first night. He may well have concluded, Who are these people and how did I come to love them this way?
Experience Week runs most weeks of the year and there are also foreign language and special interest Experience Weeks. For more information about the Findhorn Foundation visit www.findhorn.org