The community sits snugly at the head of a bay on a stretch of coastline that was once called the Scottish Riviera – I kid you not!
Sheltered to the south and east by Cairngorm and the mighty Highlands, the Moray coast has significantly lower rainfall and a greater number of sunlight hours than anywhere to the south and west of here. Throw in the UK’s most northerly school of bottlenose dolphins and seals aplenty – especially during this period when the salmon start the run up to their spawning grounds on the Findhorn and Spey rivers – and you begin to see why this was the holiday destination of choice for Scots from the southern industrial belt.
Grand hotels sprang up all along this coast in the Victorian and Edwardian eras – especially in the area between Nairn and Forres. And, in a blessed period squeezed between the advent of cheap flights and dramatically rising property values, a good number of them came on the market at more or less affordable prices. Thankfully, this window coincided with a boom in the development of the community and three of these grand establishments are now owned by or associated with the Findhorn community ecovillage.
Let me take you inside one of these, the Cluny Hill Hotel, about a kilometre south of Forres, our neighbouring town. This is today one of the two main community campuses and especially geared towards receiving guests coming to the community to participate in courses. The building retains all of its Victorian grandeur – there is a large ballroom, a magnificent dining room and many large and elegant rooms, a good number of which have been converted to workshop space.
So, let’s walk into the dining room, a large, wooden-floored room that overlooks the splendid gardens and the golf course beyond. 80 or so community members form a circle – or rather a long, rounded oblong – leaving a large space in the middle. This is one of our twice-annual ‘internal conferences’, winter-time gatherings where the community comes together to consider the key issues that face us and to make decisions on how to move forward. On the agenda today is the question of climate change.
The space in the middle of the circle has been marked into four quadrants. In each has been placed a specific object: in one, a stone, representing fear; in a second a stout branch represents anger; in a third, some dried leaves for sadness; in the fourth, an empty bowl, representing emptiness or the element of surprise, being open to the new.
In the morning, we had all gathered to hear presentations on climate change. Our minds engaged with the challenges facing humanity, and more specifically our own community, and with the ethical dilemmas over our own lifestyle choices. Now, in the ballroom, the aim is to allow the emotions their voice. People take turns to come into the middle of the circle – perhaps 15 enter the space during the one hour session we spend in this ritual – moving between different emotions as they cradle the leaves, brandish the branch, or hold the stone or bowl in the palm of their hands – and giving voice to the various (and often conflicting) emotions they hold. All listen respectfully and as each person ends their time in the middle, the watchers say ‘We hear you’. By the end of the hour, so many emotions and voices have been expressed – and we are once again ready to move on to engage with the issues in a more rational and linear way.
The type of emotional literacy that this form of ritual seeks to nurture in us seems rich and necessary. It is so easy to lose sight of the complexity of our reactions and to demonise those who disagree with us – creating external enemies to take the place of those parts of ourselves that we most struggle with. This kind of ritual enables us to explore, to own and to verbalise the complex matrix of emotions that we each wrestle with. Far from being a distraction for clear, rational thinking, it is a necessary foundation and complement to it.
And as I sit watching, it reminds me of many similar meetings I have taken part in in rural Africa. The clan gathers to consider its challenges, invariably in a circle. All are invited to speak. The perspectives of those without voices – the ancestors, generations to come and other non-human species – are also considered. This feels like an engaged participatory democracy, so different from the simplistic, emotionally illiterate slanging matches in our national parliaments. Re-learning how to govern ourselves with respect and tolerance is surely as key a tool in our journey towards sustainability as any other.