Inspiration from a new generation

Jonathan's second report from Thailand and the story of a young woman who devotes herself to that co

Still at the Wongsanit ashram, just outside Bangkok. The two meetings that I have come here to attend, along with around 25 other ecovillagers from around the world – a mid-term review of the Gaia Education project (www.gaiaeducation.org) and a Board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) – have just come to a close.

Now, most of the meeting participants have scheduled in a few days of sight-seeing and travels. A small group of us leave in the morning for a two-day tour of several of the villages with which the ashram is working. The ashram really is a remarkable centre of spiritual exploration and social activism. It plays home to a community of around 30 mostly young people who are devoting their lives to spiritual practice and to empowering poor and marginalised communities throughout the sub-region – including Burma, Lao and Cambodia as well as Thailand.

The entire community is rarely on site at the same time – generally, a number of the members are always out in the villages working on community development initiatives or in formal training programmes. At present, a group of grassroots leaders from Burma is being trained by ashram members in leadership skills in a training centre in Bangkok.

Let me introduce you to one of the community members, a young woman by the name of Om. Om is 27 and has lived here in the ashram for around four years. Previously, she worked as a research assistant with Japanese academics in the villages of north-east Thailand, the region where she was born.

Growing dissatisfied with the sterility of academic research, she spread her wings and began working as a volunteer for various organisations, looking for a deeper sense of meaning. When she came to work as a volunteer here at the ashram for six months in 2003, she was introduced to Buddhist meditation and became progressively happier and clearer about what she wanted to do in her life.

Now, she travels between ‘alternative’ communities in Thailand, helping them to identify and satisfy their needs and to network with each other. The alternative communities scene in Thailand covers a fascinating mix of types. There are middle-class urban folk who have left the hassle of the city to reconnect with the land and a simpler, more land-based lifestyle.

There are also traditional communities that are seeking to resist the incursions of the ‘modern’ world that dismantle their local economies and cultures and that lure their young people away. A good number of these are ‘tribal’ communities, peopled by indigenous people who have lived in forest communities for centuries. Finally, there are Buddhist monastic and other alternative education centres that are also seeking to retain what is best in traditional Thai culture.

Om spends up to a month at a time, living in these communities, building relations of trust with their inhabitants and helping empower them to resist the steam-roller of modern, urban culture. She is especially devoted to helping young people create lives for themselves that are meaningful and satisfying.

Most recently, Om has also been active in international youth networking with NextGEN, the Youth Council of GEN. She was one of 20 young people who met in mid-2006 in an ecovillage in Mexico to build global networks of solidarity and exchange among young people devoted to a shared vision of sustainability.

Om is one of a new generation that is devoting itself to a life of service in the cause of social and ecological healing. Within the ecovillage movement, a new generation of leaders is emerging, under the umbrella of NextGEN, answering the call of the tumultuous and startling times we are moving into.

All these words, of course, represent only the menu. The meal will be served over the next two days as we move among the people and the projects in the villages with which the ashram is working. How many rich and inspiring stories wait to unfold for our delight and inspiration?! More next week – watch this space.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage