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Misleading Insights into Sustainable Community

Comments on Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation; towards a sociology of a New Age community (by Stephen Castro, New Media Books, 1996) and on a review of it (by Simon Kidd, Scientific and Medical Network, Newsletter, August 1996).

This book is indeed a valuable source of factual information deriving from a particular way of perceiving experimental communities. It is however of more value as an indication of the limitations of such a methodology than as a source of insight into how to cultivate community life. It does not help in any way to understand what has made the Findhorn Foundation a success in the eyes of many around the world, and within the community. It reflects no understanding of what makes Findhorn meaningful and sustainable as a community. It is of little use as a guideline to designing better communities.

There is widespread concern throughout society about the breakdown of community. It is extremely regrettable that the social science disciplines, to which the book purports to be a contribution, have failed almost completely to demonstrate any capacity to design and implement qualitatively superior community. Whatever the methodology, the insights that emerge have not empowered people to design better community. Sociologists have furthered their careers by analyzing experiments by others, but have been unable to demonstrate the relevance of their own insights through any form of long-term experiment. Sad to say, greater use of their skills and insights has been made to destabilize and undermine existing communities in the interests of political, ideological or commercial agendas.

In commenting on the book and the review, I write with a certain degree of familiarity with the Findhorn Foundation, the people and the place -- which I have visited some 10 times for short periods since 1976. I have attended a number of conferences as a non-speaker, but have not participated in any experiential workshops. Over that time I have learnt to be extremely wary of conventional ways of perceiving such experiments, whether in terms of the euphoria of the committed or the criticisms of the disaffected. Although I have maintained companionable relations with some of the figures named in the book, I would tend to be seen as a very distant, if not suspect, sympathizer -- and as such only recently coopted into what is known as the Findhorn Fellows group. What follows is therefore not a defence of the Foundation but rather an attempt to reframe the challenges to understanding such experiments and their failures.

With this background, I can fully understand many of the highly critical points made in the book -- I have made many myself, whether verbally to people there, or in writing to the Foundation, or to myself. There would be few facts which I would seek to dispute, and indeed I doubt that many within the Foundation would seek to do so either. I would however argue that Stephen Castro has nevertheless completely missed what is to be learnt from the Findhorn experiment. His book is highly misleading as a guide to more fruitful exploration by sociologists and others. The reviewer is caught in the same trap. Both reinforce collective inability to learn from social experiments and their failures. Neither indicates ways to undertake such experiments more successfully and to avoid over-identification with failures or their misrepresentation. Neither explains the successful features of the Foundation experiment.

Both Castro and the reviewer fail to address the question of the status and objectivity of the complainants, although the very legitimate complaints are described in the greatest of detail, and the book is valuable for that. They fail to explain why most of the cases documented concern people who were in different ways associated before they encountered Findhorn. Specifically they fail to describe the Cambridge Research Centre for Metaphysical and Evolutionary Studies and its intentions. They fail to explain why, despite repeated refusal of 'membership', they continued to seek some status as 'members' of the Findhorn Foundation, or its Open Community, and have continued to reside in that area. What attracts them and why -- especially after the detailed criticism they have taken such pains to formulate?

I would argue that what Castro and his fellow complainants failed to appreciate could be described as a difference in style. The book effectively describes the problems encountered by a few individuals refused entry to what, for brevity's sake, could be metaphorically described as a great happening or party. Why their presence was not wanted remains unclear, but quite obviously the more they insisted on ringing the doorbell, the greater the resistance to their entry. Was it that their style tended to freeze the dynamics of the party - as some people can easily do, however admirable they may otherwise be? Seemingly unsavoury individuals can be much more fun at a party than a paragon of virtue.

The complainants came from a 'research' style. They always asked questions. In fact they always questioned. This is appropriate under many circumstances. It may be completely inappropriate under others. If every joke has to be explained, the dynamics and point of telling a joke are undermined. If every step of a dance has to be justified to one's partner, the meaning of dancing is lost. If someone wants to join an ongoing ball-game but persists in querying how it is being played, how would the players be expected to respond? This is true of many situations where the emphasis is on the art of doing things rather than the science of the why and wherefore. The Foundation participants have long rejected the 'head' in favour of the 'heart' -- as is their right, however they then proceed to misrepresent their 'universality' and spiritual integration. Different efforts to introduce a scientific dimension to the Foundation, including Castro's own, have not taken. The book may simply document a phase of the struggle between the 'headless hearts' and the 'heartless heads'.

Crudely labelling the complainants as people endeavouring to gatecrash a party where they were not wanted is unfair. There is obviously much more to the situation, but where do the learnings lie? Many 'communities' -- whether, scientific, religious, ideological, artistic, or ethnic -- have dubious ways of excluding people who do not 'play ball' according to a preferred style based on often unwritten rules. The consequences are often inexcusable. This is typical of any clash of organizational cultures and styles. It is especially true of particular scientific communities. It could be argued that every scientific innovation has similar dubious behavioural phenomena associated with it -- as in the case of the development of the polio vaccine, detection of the AIDS virus, recognition of the role of heliobacter, or the cold fusion issue. These are never a credit to the community concerned and the scientific enterprise is currently being challenged partly for that reason. It is seldom possible to get any 'objective discussion of the matter from those with vested interests, who often behave in ways quite contrary to the ideals behind which they hide. Every community provides a context for self-seeking incompatible with its declared ideals.

In this light the useful questions relating to future community design are probably associated with the nature of the communication within the Findhorn Foundation. How do their communications sustain them? Why have their communication processes proved so meaningful to those involved? Unlike the complainants, the participants make very little use of the written mode on site. Many probably do not even make much use of books. Their library is extremely limited. Written records are seldom made of their many meetings -although very extensive audio-visual records may be available. It is questionable whether they maintain historical records to any degree -- or whether anyone is interested in Iconsulting files. The outcome of the encounter with the document-oriented complainants is therefore somewhat predictable. Why would they want to read the complainants' books or to respond to 'objective' assessments -- or even to read this commentary?

Continuing evaluation by the complainants against Foundation written aims may be completely missing the point. Given their dependence on the 'positive' for sustainable communication, why should they meet the criteria of a different style dependent on skilled use of the 'negative'? Sustained by skills in saying 'yes' to each other, they tend to be unskilled and underhand in their method of saying 'no' to individuals. However it is less any specific failures which call for comment rather than their skill in collectiveowever it is less any specific failures which call for comment rather than their skill in collectively sustaining a pattern of communication. To return to the ball-game metaphor, how they keep the ball in play is surely what merits attention.

The Findhorn Foundation has however successfully engaged in book publishing programmes worldwide, whether as a source of revenue, to cultivate an image, or to spread a message that attracts people to the community. It is of course possible to seek inconsistencies between image and reality -- the declared objective of the book. They certainly exist and raise many questions about what is being said, by whom and with what justification. In a cynical world, the image is however attractive to many. People do indeed identify with the image in different ways. It sustains them for a period -- however much narcissism is involved. For it to do so, many may well deny the inconsistencies and respond with hostility when questioned. This is to be regretted but this nevertheless provides them with a meaningful way of being in their community?

The key question is whether it is possible to address the inconsistencies within any sustainable community without undermining the sustaining dynamics. Does Castro's document help to indicate how this might be done? Or is his contribution to be judged like that of a skilled food or art critic who is unable to produce anything edible or worth experiencing? Unfortunately, the many explorations of alternative communities and movements tend to be completely useless in endeavouring to describe the nature of the sustaining dynamics. Critics tend to be least able to replicate them and to improve upon them -- and most capable of undermining them. Those seeking to design new community experiments can only draw upon insights in the form of sterile criticism or uncritical euphoria -- neither of which is helpful in cultivating a new style of community dynamics. It is noteworthy that management consultants of various persuasions tend to be similarly incompetent in actually creating community. How is it that such experiments tend to be initially so dependent on charismatic leadership to cultivate the dynamics?

It is proving strategically convenient to a number of constituencies with vested interests to lump any experiments in alternative community into a common bag labelled 'dangerous cult'. From a research perspective this is quite irresponsible and is as manipulative and suspect as those worthy of most criticism. Such experiments are in most cases highly complex exercises in image building, learning, motivation, participation, projection and leadership. They may fail, or be considered inadequate like any experiment. This should not prevent further experiment as tends to be the case. Many valuable scientific experiments involve risk and danger.

The behaviour of all participants in such community experiments is necessarily questionable to some degree as they encounter, explore and respond to their various illusions within the experiment - overstating their own achievements quite unreasonably at the expense of nonparticipants. Which meaningful community fails to consider itself to be the 'greatest'? But what is the methodology that enables the quality and sustainability to be improved -- and to distinguish those features to be designed out? And how to achieve this without undermining the dynamics? Unfortunately, in response to community breakdown in society, those most critical of any experiments tend to fall back on advocacy of structures and dynamics which many question with good reason.

The Findhorn Foundation has been especially useful as an experiment in which participants can test their own illusions and projections -- which may vary over time. The Foundation could indeed be described as a New Age monastery, or a spiritual Club Mediterranee, or an alternative therapy centre, or a New Age business, or an eco-village, or a great transformation game, etc. It is not necessarily experienced as a 'nice' place -- a haven from the world. There are indeed many traps for the unwary - often unwittingly designed by themselves. At best they develop skills in avoiding traps set by others without inhibiting ability to interact fruitfully. Most participants tend to move on to other settings once they have exhausted the Foundation's learning potential for themselves. But in a period when so many species and eco-systems are being destroyed, should not such experiments in psychosocial diversity be welcomed -- even if they are seen as a form of cultural 'nature reserve' characterized by rapid mutation rates.

The apparent success and visibility of the Foundation has attracted the attention of many seeking to purvey philosophies, teachings, skills and techniques of every kind and quality. Naturally their proponents (and supporters within the Foundation) also include those with highly questionable motives, whether conscious or unconscious. It is to be expected that some groups and individuals have sought to influence, take over, or highjack, the Foundation at different times -- whether to control its dynamics or resources, to manipulate those attracted by its image, or simply to gain more legitimacy for their own agenda. I have seen symptoms of this myself. Clearly groups such as the Foundation are vulnerable to a variety of 'diseases', and may succumb to them, if only for a period -- a classification of "community diseases" would be helpful. The case of the trade-marked breathing technique, exhaustively described by Castro, may well have been one such disease and not the panacea it was claimed to be. In the autumn of 1996, the Foundation may even have succumbed to a new disease, imported by a group of management consultants who may fully justify Castro in his analysis of management incompetence at the Foundation.

Unfortunately those with the skills to diagnose, and act on, these conditions are often possessed of motives which make such analyses suspect. A community experiment cannot be effectively 'observed'. As anthropologists have discovered, successful observers become participants who contribute as much to any problems as to any solutions. In fact, if they do not understand how they are part of the problem, they cannot discover and understand the nature of the appropriate solution. Castro indicates little insight into his own position or that of his co-complainants. Do they not suffer from blind-spots also? Could they hear why their presence at the party was not desired?

In conclusion, the Findhorn Foundation experiment merits the appreciative attention it receives -- despite its often unwarranted image-building claims. It also merits the severe criticism Castro provides, whatever his motives and limitations. Ideally it should indeed have the strength to deal in a less underhand manner with such feedback. What is lacking is any greater clarity on how participants, not outsiders, can engage in helping an experiment to evolve in situations in which their own individual limitations (and those of any imported experts of whatever discipline or tradition) are unacknowledged factors in the dynamics. As a living community, the Foundation has long been addressing this challenge to some degree. Whether there are better ways, remains to be discovered. How questionable insights are to be communicated to a living community is also a challenge.

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