“I hate the White Brotherhood Team!” I could barely believe that I had let these words leave my lips—I was usually much more diplomatic, not given to outbursts—but I could contain my frustration no longer.
Fellow community members looked at me in shock. Gasps and nervous laughter filled the awkward space. It was a breakthrough moment, and it needed to happen—both for my own and, I believe, the group’s sense of spiritual integrity—but that didn’t make it any more comfortable.
Smells Like Team Dispirit
My uncharacteristic outburst had occurred just as we closed our weekly community business meeting. According to tradition, several members had expressed thanks for the help of the White Brotherhood Team, a term referring to spiritual beings that at one point had been very important to a community member who was not present at that circle. Most newcomers to our meetings were puzzled at best, and often disturbed, to hear this term—was this some kind of patriarchal, white supremacist group? Ku Klux Klan? Neo-Nazis? No, apparently the White Brotherhood Team were just spiritual beings who happened to have that name—and they needed to be called by that name in order to be effective.
Inviting them into our circles and thanking them for their presence had become part of our meeting ritual, although not everyone could stomach uttering the words, even after hearing the explanation (which had to be repeated with virtually every new person, as the term provoked a consistent reaction of confusion or revulsion). Some of us were unhappy with this community tradition, but our usually politely phrased expressions of displeasure had not resulted in any change—nor had a thinly-veiled but good-natured written parody circulated in the community. Most who didn’t like the tradition had finally resigned ourselves to it, finding an uneasy peace by simply not saying the words ourselves.
But the look on the face of a new African American visitor to our circle when she heard those words—the alarm, the fear, the hurt, the sense of betrayal—pushed me over the edge. I didn’t care about being polite anymore, and I couldn’t find it humorous anymore either. I could no longer tolerate the fact that in our quest to include spirituality in our bonds as a community, we were using what to many of us was a meaningless, denigrating term—one that seemed to exclude rather than include others by instantly invoking millennia of racism and sexism, even if that was not its intent. In this case, our group’s choice to consciously incorporate a non-shared spiritual belief system into its culture had come at too great a cost. Most of us, in fact, valued spirituality in some form—but our tastes were eclectic, and to us, these words seemed forced, rather than freely chosen, and offensive, not harmless.
This episode did not result in an immediate group decision to ban the utterance of “White Brotherhood Team” at our meetings, but those who liked this terminology finally understood that some of us found it deeply distressing, especially when we witnessed its power to hurt others. Within several months, its use had faded out entirely. To me, its absence did not make us any less connected spiritually as a community—in fact, we seemed more connected, because sensitivity to personal feelings and differences had won out over doctrinaire adherence to a particular approach that separated rather than united us.
A Tale of Three Communities
I’ve lived for extended periods (ranging from over a year to close to a decade-and-a-half) in three different land-based intentional communities, including the one just described (which we’ll return to later). Each had its own approach to spirituality, which I can now see as a progression through a continuum of practices and attitudes—a spectrum which included concerted irreverence, sometimes-disconcerting reverence, and everything in between.
Each situation also manifested that paradoxical truth that, in our individual spiritual journeys, community can be both an impediment (when we devalue our own sensibilities and surrender excessive power to the group) and an essential aid (when we stay true to ourselves while opening up to our unity with others).
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In my first long-term intentional community, most residents experienced a strong connection to the land and ecology, which were the focus of most of our activities and shared interests. If we had a spirituality—and the power of our day-to-day relationship with the land tells me that we did—it was rooted in the soil, plants, and animals, in ecology, ecological living, and the cycle of the seasons.
Yet because many group members came from religious traditions that they’d experienced as confining and nature-averse, they tended to reject formalized spirituality. Aside from a yearly Samhain bonfire, residents regarded most rituals of any kind with suspicion, and deemed most spiritual approaches too “woo-woo.” In response to a visiting Biodynamicist who blessed the seeds he sowed, the land manager cursed his own seeds. I was not present to witness the results of this side-by-side trial, but legend has it that the cursed seeds outperformed the blessed seeds. On another occasion, seeds deliberately planted on a “black” day on the Biodynamic calendar (one not recommended for any type of gardening activity) outgrew seeds planted on an ideal day.
Our rebellious non-spiritual spirituality invigorated us—but tellingly, the group did experience consistent internal discord, frequent fallings-out, and eventually major conflicts that spawned lawsuits, depositions, and a climactic “day in court.” Had we found comfortable ways to celebrate together our connection to something outside of ourselves, beyond our egos, we might have created a more mutually supportive environment and had better luck with interpersonal and group dynamics. We might have felt more “together” and less embroiled in conflict. But on the other hand, a significant number of the people attracted to that group might not have tolerated this imposition of group ritual, and our conflicts might then have erupted over spirituality even before they erupted over power issues and legal matters.
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In my next truly land-based intentional community, spirituality found more welcome. We incorporated seasonal rituals, mostly of the pagan variety, and occasional sweat lodges, but most members still shunned conventional religion, along with its trappings and ideologies, seeing it as a usually oppressive force. And in fact conventional religions do hold a large share of the responsibility for stomping out the nature-based spiritualities that preceded them, so rejection of those religions made sense in a community rooted in its relationship with nature.
At the same time, this spiritual approach did at times lend itself to “us/them” thinking, which, while perhaps an accurate assessment on many levels, also distanced us from segments of the population who’d been on different spiritual or religious journeys. Surrounded by religiously conservative neighbors, we were likely stereotyped by them just as we stereotyped the churches they attended. We found many things in common with some of them as well—including a commitment to local place and a willingness to help others in the neighborhood whenever needed—but religious issues may have played a larger role than we imagined in also keeping us separate in fundamental ways.
For better or worse, even in its membership recruitment, our community enjoyed less diversity than it might have. Our spirituality—our life on the land—was one we shared mostly just with one another.
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In the third community (where the scenario which opened this article played out), an eclectic spirituality featured much more intentionally and deliberately in our culture. While the words “White Brotherhood Team” represented for some of us the nadir of this aspect of our lives together, we experienced many positive dimensions to this spiritual intentionality—so many that most of us had decided that it was worth some tradeoffs.
We held at least two two-hour-long meetings every week, opening them by calling in not only ourselves but the spirits of the land and other spiritual helpers of our individual choosing (hence the aforementioned Team), and thanked those same beings at the end of every meeting. We celebrated most solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days, though we also welcomed spiritual celebrations from all traditions. In this sense we differed from my previous communities—we actively welcomed every spiritual approach and even religion. Religious fundamentalists didn’t usually apply to live at our community, nor would everyone have embraced their joining, but being open to diversity and inclusive of many different ways of revering “the One” (or “the Many”) were core community values.
In addition to our conscious connection to the land and welcoming of diverse spiritual traditions, we practiced a spirituality rooted in a desire for deep, honest relationships with one another. We produced and all participated in personal growth workshops that explored the inner human being and our relationships with one another, and for many people this became a spiritual practice. Those ways of relating extended beyond our monthly workshops and even our weekly well-being meetings, affecting our daily interactions in myriad ways.
We didn’t experience continuous spiritual enlightenment, and at times, for some of us, the focus on personal and interpersonal issues may have interfered with a deeper relationship with the land—but in our best moments, we saw no division or conflict between these different dimensions. When our group functioned well, we embodied a kind of ongoing daily spirituality. This spirituality brought many challenges—honesty and vulnerability are generally not easy for those raised in modern culture, and living more simply and sharing can involve unfamiliar discomforts too—but also many rewards, including witnessing its effects on those who visited us. We served as a source of energy and inspiration for many who came to our workshops, who took part in our other programs, or who were touched in some way by our life as a community.
All things must pass, and each of the experiences described above has ceased to exist in the form I once knew, passing from living reality into memory. These shared community efforts at embodying spirituality (even when cloaked in rebellious non-spirituality) take on a different hue once the fragility of our individual and group experiences in life becomes more real. Several years of profound change and newly-experienced physical challenges can make anyone (in this case, me) take a lot fewer things for granted. They can also make it more difficult to ignore one’s own inner experience, or to set it aside entirely for words and ideas collectively explored in a group. In this state, transcending one’s personal world can seem both more desirable—the true path to enlightenment—and more difficult.
My belief in the spirit embodied in the natural world here on earth, and my direct experience of it, has kept me going for nearly five decades, speaking to me when no human words could affect me as powerfully. It has also merged and worked in synchrony with the organic spirit of natural human beings in community with one another, as I’ve experienced that in various manifestations. When I feel in harmony with it, “Love,” “Gratitude,” and “God/Goddess” all seem like different ways of saying the same thing—something that is very real, infusing our lives—something that will last forever.
But confrontations with decline, disappointment, and loss can suggest a different perspective. Physical health, well-being of any kind, communication, even existence itself, are not givens. Though we may at times feel immortal, this current experience on earth will not last for any of us. It could be over in an instant, and once it is, “we” might never experience anything like it again, or even be “ourselves” anymore. Each of us is part of a thin film of living matter on a tiny speck of dust in an unimaginably huge universe, part of a dream that may flow only one direction, into oblivion, rather than in an endless repeat loop or ever-evolving spiral. We do know that every organic form manifests and then fades. What we don’t know is whether we’ll feel just as alive when we become compost. What will consciousness seem like to us then? In what form will our “spirits” reside? If our DNA persists, do we?
In any case, once awareness of life’s apparently transitory nature sets in, words like White Brotherhood Team may evoke nostalgia rather than distaste, even for their formerly staunchest opponents.
Each of us sharing these words is still part of a teeming “party of life” on planet Earth. The miracle of existence is as miraculous as it ever has been. But the particular party our species is holding can appear to be occurring on the deck of the Titanic. Our own individual mortality aside, current social and ecological conditions can give even the most optimistic among us a “sinking feeling.”
We may not be able to save this ship in its current model—nor may we want to—but we can work for the day when our descendants can enjoy the “party of life” on a more seaworthy one. Intentional communities offer clues about how that could happen. They may even help breed the generations that lead humanity to a new age—one in which, perhaps, “spirituality” will not be a distinct word, because instead of being a separate realm, it is daily reality. Wholly integrated lives may be the only ones with survival value over the long haul.
The seeds of that future are already sprouting today, and, like all seeds, they contain many reasons for hope.