“Verklaring: Ik heb de UvA regels ten aanzien van fraude en plagiaat gelezen en begrepen [http://student.uva.nl/binaries/content/assets/studentensites/uva- studentensite/nl/a-z/regelingen-en- reglementen/fraude-en-plagiaatregeling- 2010.pdf?1283201371000]. Ik verklaar dat dit geschreven werkstuk volledig
mijn eigen werk is, dat ik alle bronnen die ik heb gebruikt zorgvuldig en correct heb aangegeven, en dat ik volgens de regels heb geciteerd. Ik heb dit werkstuk, in deze of gewijzigde versie, niet eerder ingediend voor een ander
vak of als onderdeel van een ander werkstuk.”
Devotees of the Fire
Faith, Freedom and Subjectivity in a Spiritual Community
Master’s Thesis Cultural and Social Anthropology Graduate School of Social Sciences – University of Amsterdam
Academic year 2021-2022 Supervisor: Dr. Peter van Rooden Second reader: Dr. Francio Guadeloupe
A very big thanks to…
Cynthia and Jutta, for welcoming me (back) at their beautiful places and for having made the fieldwork for this ethnography initially possible.
Inês, Rui, Laura, Sasha, Antonia, Wunderbar, Julie, Marco, Lucia, Joel, Bernard, Julia, Liva, David and Jana for letting me “spy” on them. But above all for sharing their inspirational
stories with me.
My supervisor, Peter, for his wide availability, his critical eye, yet his always reassuring and humorous remarks.
Mom and dad, for never questioning the ‘use’ of what I’m doing with my life and for supporting me unconditionally—whatever I do, wherever I go.
The notion of ‘freedom’ has undoubtedly been significant in shaping modernity’s political, social, and cultural life, in which especially the freedom of the autonomous self is perpetually honored. Yet there have inarguably been diverse responses to this specific idealization of human freedom, as questions of global and local livability tend to get questioned: are individuals in their unfettered freedom truly happy as members of social and livable communities? Such contemplation may also be found on ‘local’ scales, for example in projects deliberately seeking for ‘alternatives’ to modernized ways of living. This is an ethnography of such two projects, namely of the spiritual communities the Awakened Life Project and Avidanja in Portugal. Although these communities can be considered as a ‘response’ to modern conceptualizations of freedom, the value of ‘freedom’ itself is still highly centralized here. This ethnography thus seeks to elaborate on the relationship between ‘their’ freedom and community-building. The story is told through experiences of both cultural and spiritual ontologies (of freedom) as well as through experiences of sociality and relationship within these places. It argues that a cohesive and functioning community comes into existence through renegotiations of cultural meaning, value and subjectivity that seem to be made possible through its residents’ lived experiences. Yet it also contemplates about the conditions of experience that seem implicit to this. The ethnography hereby seeks to contribute to (post- secular) scholarship within the anthropology of religion as well as theory on socio-cultural change.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgements ... 1
Abstract ... 2
Table of Contents ... 3
Introduction ... 4
Freedom and (a Spiritual) Community ... 6
The Communities and the Project ... 7
Researcher/Researched: Opportunities, Limitations, Ethics ... 10
The Story: A Short Overview ... 12
1: The Truth Will Set You Free ... 14
Heart Recognitions ... 15
Into the Unknown ... 19
Conclusion ... 22
2: Practice What You Preach... 24
Trees That Can’t Be Moved ... 25
Sharing is Caring ... 31
Conclusion ... 37
3: Faith, Trust, Surrender ... 39
T(w)o Trust(s) ... 40
In Service of and for Freedom ... 43
Down by the Sluicegate ... 49
Conclusion ... 51
Conclusion ... 53
Bibliography ... 56
It was yet another beautiful morning at the quinta; the sky clear blue, the birds singing loudly. After having done the clean-up in the big house I made my way down to the valley, where the grass tips as well as the little pond were still a little frozen from the frost the night before. As usual I started working with my winter jacket on, for although the weather was stunning, being surrounded by the mountain tops it always took a little while before we truly benefited from the sun’s heat, especially in winter. Today, however, I found myself working in my T-shirt sooner than usual as I joined Julie, Juri, Antonia and Sasha amidst the heat of the fire they had made in the valley—a fire to burn all the quinta’s cut branches from the season before, releasing the land from ‘that which no longer served it’. Soon the chore had turned into a festive burning ritual as the brooms, brambles and bamboo that were on the pile were offered with joy and here and there a song, followed by a communal moment of awe towards the smoke and sounds that erupted from the fire. “Let’s go for a dip!”, one of the residents suggested as soon as we were about to finish. I had not yet found the discipline to go myself during the especially cold mornings and afternoons of the winter. But after having been near the heat for so long as well as feeling an extra motivation due to going together, I decided that this was the right timing to do so. After the women came back, Juri and I made our way down to the waterfall. We quickly undressed ourselves and jumped in, breathing heavily and screaming loudly to cope with the shock of the water’s ice-cold temperature. And as I got out of the water—my body covered in tingling sensations—I was left with yet another feeling of awe; for being once more confirmed of a sense of freedom, a freedom so near to the heat of the fire.
There may not be as many concepts open to interpretation as ‘freedom’. When we think of the moments that we have felt most free in our lives, it might not even be possible to come up with a coherent definition of it ourselves. I, for sure, know that I can feel free as a bird in the most random and unexpected moments. There are, however, of course also broader patterns of external as well as internal influences that may come to determine our sense of freedom; culture, ontologies, socio-economic/political positions, psychological states. Patterns which may, Taylor (2004) argues, all shape our ‘social imaginaries’, or our
common “frameworks of reference that help us to make sense of our relations and actions towards other human beings” (Di Somma 2022, 164). Despite it potentially being
experienced as arbitrary at times, freedom might, hence, be fundamental to our social imaginary, too. It does most certainly seem to be an important aspect of sociality for the residents of the Awakened Life Project (henceforth ALP) and Avidanja in Portugal. ALP and Avidanja are two spiritual communities and sister projects in Portugal with their members connected in the Awakened Life Sangha1. These communities are founded on a spiritual understanding of freedom—a ‘prior’ freedom that is supposedly always already the case, no matter what (a vision I will shortly discuss further). But why, one could ask here, would an intentional, physical community be founded on a freedom that is assumed to be
transcendental of it as well as of its members being-in-the-world?
“You know, one of the things that amazed me here is that actually everything works.
It’s a very functional community and things are adequate; they are organized, they are structured, they are good quality. It’s not like a bunch of hippies coming together and trying to make it happen.” Sasha, one of ALP’s residents, gives voice to a broader sentiment at these places; that intentional communities are oftentimes in reality not the ‘utopias’ that we
imagine them to be. And although residents at these places continually destress the possibility of (common images of) such ‘utopias’, they are, like Sasha, overall impressed by how well everything seems to function here. What, then, would determine a community’s
functionality? Taylor suggests—very concisely—that “to have any kind of livable society some choices have to be restricted, some authorities have to be respected, and some individual responsibility has to be assumed” (2007, 479). For him, a well-functioning community thus already seems incompatible with certain understandings of ‘freedom’, such as the freedom commonly imagined when we think of a ‘utopia’. So, again, what is it to people’s communal sense of freedom here, or their communally ‘imagined’ freedom, in that sense, that does seem to make for a ‘livable society’? And how do individuals come to feel free as members of these communities? To find an answer to these matters, this ethnography is dedicated to the following research question: How do ALP and Avidanja’s residents’
desires and longings for, and experiences and understanding of, freedom contribute to the realization of ‘community’?
1 Sangha is a Sanskrit term meaning “association”, “assembly”, “company” or “community”, and is commonly used by spiritual associations to refer to a defined group of monks, nuns, laypersons, etcetera following a similar spiritual teaching.
Freedom and (a Spiritual) Community
Why study freedom in community? A very brief history of Western thought on freedom may be valuable here. Ever since the works of the ‘classical’ social-contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, modern political theory has been preoccupied with questions of the freedom of the self vis-à-vis society, or autonomy versus community. A key figure herein was Hobbes, who saw freedom as essentially a characteristic of atomistic, rights-bearing individuals. His perspective is considered to have been especially influential for the development of liberalism and “modern individualism” (Honneth 2014, 23). Yet Hobbes’ legacy in political theory has inarguably also been an important focus point of numerous critiques. Perhaps the most prominent counterarguments to modern liberalism have derived from critical theory. Critical theorists have continually pointed out that under our contemporary global political economy the opportunities for individuals to realize their freedom will always remain unequally dispersed. As Bholat points out, the implicit goal to such critique is thus to make “the rhetoric of freedom more of a reality in different spheres of social life” (2012, 235); i.e., to seek for a more equal ‘distribution of freedom’.
However, what Bholat notices to be largely lacking herein is a critique of the meaning of freedom implicit to liberal culture itself. It has for example moreover been questioned if the ideal of absolute autonomy is itself constructive of both a ‘meaningful’ and an ethical society; a stance in which Hegel is an important figure. In chapter three of this ethnography, I will further elaborate upon why and how Hegel sees this ‘utopian’ notion of freedom as unconstructive of ‘meaningful’ community. Important to point out here is that his aim is not to criticize the value of freedom itself, but to specify its meaning so as to consider how freedom may “more adequately realize itself than rights bearing persons do” (Lumsden 2012, 229). Yet as Bholat clarifies, Hegel does not so much seek such a realization in exogenous factors, such as critical theorists do. He rather seeks it in endogenous ones, for he
argues that the specific sites of semantic instability cannot be identified outside understanding a particular culture’s concrete content and the meaningful dilemmas thus generated. If cultural change is to be adequately understood, it must be traced from within the meaningful world of those embodying it – hence the need for a phenomenology and indeed anthropology (ibid., 237, my italics, MJ).
My aim in this ethnography is thus, first, to trace the lived experiences of those who have—to certain degrees—seem to have embodied ‘liberal culture’ yet who are deliberately seeking for alternatives to its ‘freedom’. Here I try to follow Hegel’s thought in order to determine how and why freedom could possibly “more adequately realize itself” through such experience.
But it is also important to point out that this ethnography is not just a study of freedom in community, but of freedom in a spiritual one. For as will become clear, new interpretations of self and society—i.e., freedom—are perceived as meaningful precisely due to the self’s spiritual experiences and recognitions in these specific contexts. Thus, besides seeking to engage with the abovementioned political theory on freedom, my aim is also to contribute to the anthropology of religion by studying religiosity in a communal setting. In order to so, I will, on the one hand, draw on secular scholarship so as to determine how religiosity is constructed through communal discourse, norms and values. On the other hand, I also try to move away from an anthropology of religion that only understands it as an
“offshoot of various social dynamic structures, power relations, hierarchy, and so on”
(Willerslev and Suhr 2018, 66); my aim being to show how spiritual experience is not just shaped by the ‘social’ but may, at times, shape it. It is here also necessary to explain why I occupy this epistemological stance in my study of religion. But before I do so, let me first further introduce the field of this ethnographic research.
The Communities and the Project
ALP (or ‘the quinta’) is situated in an ecological reserve in the mountains of Central Portugal, near the village of Benfeita. It was founded in 2007 by Peter Bampton (United Kingdom) and Cynthia Lea Rose (United States) who then bought the abandoned mountain farm ‘Quinta da Mizarela’. The community currently hosts a total of sixteen residents2, who are a mixture of both Portuguese and internationals (mostly European). ALP is also open for guests interested in their vision as they offer several workshops, volunteer
2 While I was there for fieldwork (which was outside of the season) a few of the residents had gone off to their home countries to earn some money, so we were with eleven.
(workaway) programs and men’s, women’s and meditation retreats. Avidanja is a smaller community and currently hosts five residents, who, similarly come from either Portugal or other European countries. It is situated between the cities Coimbra and Figueira da Foz, in a small village called Outeira da Moura, and is approximately one hundred kilometers away from ALP towards the Atlantic coast. It was founded around twenty years ago by Jutta Weiske from Germany. Like ALP, Avidanja is open for guests. Yet this community centers slightly more on events which are focused on health and the body and sustainability, such as yoga/detox retreats or cooking workshops. Both communities apply a permaculture approach to cultivate fruits and vegetables on as well as to take care of the communal land.
Outeira da Moura
As mentioned, ALP and Avidanja are part of the same overarching project, as their members are connected through the sangha, which is commonly referred to as “the project”.
Besides ALP and Avidanja’s residents, the sangha includes members who are living
throughout Portugal as well as some who are living abroad. The vision inherent to this project is based on a non-dual, integral spirituality. Non-duality points to the essential and indivisible oneness of existence, or that the ultimate reality is one “Consciousness” whose essence is love, freedom and happiness. Implicit to a non-dual spirituality is hence that our nature as humans, too, is this prior freedom and unity. Thus, in essence, we are always already free from any sense of either separation or limitation; i.e., from our ‘ego’ that is assumed to be the
root cause of all human suffering. An ‘integral’ vision moreover emphasizes that, although oneness is the ultimate reality, every individual is also a unique, creative, embodied expression hereof; a so-called “harmony between Consciousness and Creation”3. Accordingly, what could be said to be the main spiritual practice based on a non-dual, integral vision is to realize Consciousness’ prior freedom in embracing one’s individuality rather than interpreting individuality as a sign of separation or limitedness. In other words, this specific spirituality could be said to be about “waking up” to one’s ‘true nature’ as Consciousness in one’s being-in-the-world.
‘Waking up’, however, is assumed to require a certain effort (for most of us), since we are supposedly conditioned to understand ourselves as separate rather than one; perceiving the world in a separate body, being called by a unique name, developing a sense of an individuated identity—there are many biological, psychological and cultural patterns of conditioning that might keep the illusion of our ego up and running. The aim of the project is thus to create a conducive environment in which people may come to identify such patterns of ‘false’ self-identification. This is, first of all, done through a dedicated meditation practice.
The purpose of this practice could be said to be to ‘ground’ oneself in one’s prior freedom as well as to create a heightened awareness of the movement of ego, which is done by “simply resting as Consciousness itself” (Bampton 2019). In other words, the object of this specific meditation is to have no object—to sit, to observe and to let go; letting everything be as it is whilst not making a problem out of anything. In ALP and Avidanja, every morning starts with a one-hour communal meditation practice.
ALP’s meditation room Avidanja’s meditation room
Besides the meditation practice, another important aspect of the spirituality is related to relationship and ‘community’ itself, which seems to have two reasons. The first being the perceived valued of so-called ‘group inquiries’; (formal and informal) meetings of which the purpose is to inquire about and reflect upon one’s personal as well as one’s peers’ lives.
Through collectively contemplating about certain manners of acting, thoughts, feelings, personal problems, etcetera, individuals may become conscious of and determine the genealogy of certain egoic patterns. Group inquiry is, within the sangha, done in weekly online meetings in small groups, or ‘holons’; in monthly offline men’s and women’s groups which are led by Pete and Cynthia, respectively; and, finally, in annual women’s, men’s and complete sangha retreats—all in which sangha members are expected to participate in. The second reason why intersubjectivity is an important aspect of the spirituality is because the aim is not only to become conscious of one’s patterns, but to also implement this awareness into one’s daily life and relationships. This is assumedly easier done in a communal setting in which others who are engaged with a similar spirituality as you can hold you accountable to live up to your personal understanding. It could be said that, in the context of a physical community such as ALP or Avidanja, residents’ daily lives are a form of spiritual practice, too.
Finally, the communities’ residents work a fixed set of hours per day ‘in service’ of the community. Residents’ duties generally consist of gardening, maintenance jobs, land management, kitchen or cleaning; i.e., basically all that is needed to keep the communal
‘household’ as well as its surrounding area up and running. Although it was a bit more flexible during the time of my fieldwork, the daily meals are usually eaten together in the communal living spaces, except for during the weekends when residents are off. Both places moreover have regular community meetings which all residents are expected to participate in and which are specifically assigned to address any practicalities, issues of communal concern or personal matters.
Researcher/Researched: Opportunities, Limitations, Ethics
As mentioned, a short reflection on this research’s epistemology is needed. For before I became a ‘participant observant’ at these places, I was ‘just’ a participant as I visited ALP as a volunteer for two months in 2021 myself. It will therefore come as no surprise that the project’s vision is also my personal one. And this has inarguably shaped my behavior as a researcher and, hence, my findings; something which I believe may have two underlying
reasons. Firstly, my positionality has most likely given form to the questions that I asked (residents as well as myself) before, during and after conducting the research. For being engaged with the spirituality myself, I was not just interested in how the project’s vision is embedded in the social lives at the communities, but also in its lived experience as well as how these experiences possibly affect the sociality within these places. In other words, my personal faith has been influential for my choice to include a post-secular perspective in this research. Yet this positionality may not only have been constructive of the questions I asked, but, secondly, of the findings I came up with. And here I think it is possible to situate
epistemological opportunities as well as limitations. On the one hand, being familiar with the field and its religiosity could have contributed to a more ‘native’ experience of
intersubjectivity, which could be a result of my personal openness and/or willingness to implicate the spirituality in relationship as well as a certain trust that was already in place between me and my interlocutors before I became a researcher. On the other, however, it could have also hindered my ability to observe certain behaviors and manners of relationality as ‘findings’ themselves. In other words, my ‘insider’ position could have impaired my ability to “fight familiarity” (Delamont and Atkinson 1995). I thus present these potential strengths and weaknesses for the reader to keep in mind that this ethnography is no exception to the—at least within anthropology commonly agreed upon—proposition that “academic knowledge is situated and partial” (Rose 2007, 136).
Besides its epistemological matters, I believe it is also relevant to highlight what could have been a methodological limitation to this research. For although I was an insider to a certain degree through my personal acquaintance with the community-life and the
spirituality, I was not an ‘all-inclusive’ one as I was not a sangha member myself. Thus, I have not been able to partake in some of the scheduled sangha’s ‘group inquiries’, such as the weekly holons or the monthly groups. This means that in certain instances I was reliant on people’s narratives—which I received both through interviews and through daily
conversation—rather than direct observations hereof. Nevertheless, I never perceived this to be a genuine hinder for this research. The reason for this is that residents always seemed more than happy to share about their experiences and about what they had been discussing with one another; not just with me but also with their peers who were not participating in specific meetings either. And as I will further elaborate upon in chapter two, ‘sharing’ is itself part of the ‘community culture’ and something that is overall highly appreciated.
Finally, although it could be considered a methodological limitation, I believe this ‘in- between’ positionality to have been rather positive in terms of the research’s ethical concerns.
For, accordingly, residents got the chance to first reflect upon what they actually wanted to share with me as a researcher. Still, this ‘bridge’ did not seem to cover every single issue regarding ethicality, as there have—in addition to the sangha meetings—been many other moments in the communities in which residents shared personal concerns. Before conducting this research, I thus intended to anonymize my interlocutors. Yet during my first meeting at ALP, the community’s residents already let me know that they were more than happy with me using their real names. I also asked it in the Avidanja group chat and got the same response: real names. “Cause we’re real people”, Jutta then sent with a big ‘Duh!’ emoji. I had to laugh a little, but her remark also made me realize that it actually makes sense that they seem fine with me writing openly about them. After all, as will also become clearer in my empirical chapters, residents are convinced that ‘being real’—or not having ‘anything to hide’—is where their freedom lies (something which I believe also makes the
abovementioned ‘limitation’ not such a severe one). Since it is not a specifically ‘vulnerable’
group of people that I am writing about in terms of socio-political positions, I thus decided to indeed use their real names. And since I am not someone who ‘gathered data’ and then left the field forever, either, but instead will remain in close contact with my interlocutors (/friends), I believe this decision also enhances my responsibility and accountability as a researcher to represent their lives justly.
The Story: A Short Overview
This ethnography will, in chapter one, commence with a short reflection upon residents’
backgrounds, life histories and corresponding motivations to commit to becoming a resident at either of these places. Besides, in this chapter I will touch upon those experiences and recognitions in correspondence with the project’s spirituality that have seemingly made residents come to think of freedom in (new) distinctive ways. All in all, this chapter will be dedicated to exploring the relationship between residents’ spiritual devotion and their lived experience of freedom.
In chapter two, I will then present how such a freedom is aimed to be lived and realized in residents’ daily lives in the community. I will here focus on residents’ structural behaviors and discourse that seem to uphold the spiritual context—i.e., the communal discourse on freedom—in community. The chapter will moreover include a reflection upon the distinctiveness of a religiosity as lived and experienced as a collective and in a
community. Overall, in this chapter I aim to emphasize the perceived meaningfulness of a spirituality in community.
And, finally, in the last chapter of this ethnography I will analyze how faith is embedded in residents’ social imaginaries vis-à-vis their lives here. In order to do so, I will analyze how it comes forward in residents’ day-to-day manners of communication and relationality as well as in their understandings of ‘themselves’—of their freedom as well as their roles as community members. This final chapter thus specifically focuses on residents’
faith in the intertwinement of their freedom and the communities’ determinate sociality and functionality and, hence, on their experience of freedom in community itself.
1: The Truth Will Set You Free
It was a Tuesday, beginning of May 2021; the first official working day of ‘the season’ at ALP. The night before we, the volunteers, had just arrived and settled in our new home (our tent) for the upcoming month(s). I was overall quite nervous and still somewhat unsure about what I had signed myself up for. But I also felt a lot of excitement and, above all, ready to
‘get enlightened’. As soon as we had finished breakfast we met Alice—head of gardening—in the courtyard. She was about to show us our first job; “this is always a big project this time of the year, so it’s really good that you guys are here!” We went to the toolshed to pick up our gardening tools. “Do you know what brambles are?”, she asked me on our way there.
“No”, I replied. “Don’t worry, I’ll show you.” We walked to one of the hillsides, where it quite quickly became clear what brambles were. “All this has to be cut.” She briefly showed us the right technique to remove the brambles from the field, after which she left us to it,
“good luck!” And as I was standing there in the burning sun—already sweaty without having made a single effort yet—I felt my body tighten up and immediately noticed a huge resistance to that which I was assigned to do. “Well… if this is what it takes to become enlightened, I’m not so sure if I want it”, I thought to myself.
The above passage is a memoire of my time as a volunteer at ALP during the spring of 2021. I chose to put it in this introduction because I think it gives a good impression of what this chapter will be about: the freedom perceived by residents in their devotion (to the community). Although the passage is not really suggestive of it, soon after my first days I already knew that I wanted to stay longer, and I extended my volunteering period with one more month. But that did not mean that after this first experience my life here became a bed of roses. On the contrary, despite that I have grown quite fond of cutting brambles by now, I had many of those similar moments as I described above. I was thus also looking forward for it to end so that I could start my travels through Portugal—as surfing, drinking beer and eating as many pasteís de nata as I wanted had suddenly sounded like an unimaginable freedom. Nevertheless, even though I highly enjoyed my time travelling after volunteering here, ever since I left it had somehow felt as if the freedom I once considered as ‘absolute’
was not my reference point anymore.
To many people—including myself one year ago, looking at the jungle of brambles with quite the aversion—it may seem evident that freedom and devotion are two extremes on the ‘scale of autonomy’. In modern society we easily associate freedom with the ability to do what we want whenever we want, whereas ‘devotion’ would mean giving up our freedom to be in service to something beyond oneself. Living at ALP and Avidanja could be said to also require a certain devotion, for here residents essentially give up such an ability to do
whatever they want whenever they want. Still, they seem convinced that this is essentially where their freedom lies. In order to understand more about this devotion–freedom
relationship, this chapter will be concerned with the following question: how has for residents a devotion to the project/the community been established and how has their understanding of
‘freedom’ (accordingly) changed? Before I will go into my empirical findings, however, I will briefly conceptualize freedom in a way I reckon to be relevant for their analysis.
Honneth (2014) sketches out three different conceptualizations of ‘freedom’ which, according to him, have historically taken up a central place in Western political theory; two of which I will address in this chapter, whereas the third one will be discussed in chapter three. The first two of his categorization are in correspondence with Isaiah Berlin’s proposed distinction between so-called ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty. Negative freedom could be said to be in line with Hobbes’ liberalism as touched upon in the introduction, as it
principally refers to the individual’s ability to do whatever she desires without any externally imposed limitations. Honneth thus sees this particular notion as “part and parcel of the modern conceptual world” (ibid., 24), since it would especially speak to the ‘modern subject’
that likes to see its external reality as one filled with endless opportunities rather than
restrictions. On the other hand, ‘positive’ (or ‘reflexive’) freedom does not so much consider whether the external world is giving free way to the self’s realizing potencies, but whether this realization could be considered ‘authentic’ and in coherence with this self’s ‘true will’.
This chapter will include both, as it will include an analysis of how residents came to see their devotion (and thereby giving up their negative freedom) as their ‘positive freedom’.
For many residents, their devotion seems to have been strongly guided by their first
impressions and intuitions—or their “heart recognitions”—in their encounter with the project.
For some, this encounter occurred after already having had extensive spiritual journeys in which they were seeking for the right ‘match’. Others, on the other hand, had little affiliation
with or interest into anything regarding spirituality. Some even spoke of a slight antagonism towards it, such as Marco. Marco grew up in Italy, where he was raised as a Catholic. His
“scientific engineer mind” later developed a “very strong reaction” against Christianity as he
“felt something wasn’t right”, which eventually made him resentful of any kind of
religion/spirituality whatsoever. A few years ago, however, after having worked for years as a successful businessman, he became dissatisfied with his way of life as he felt himself to be on the verge of a severe burnout. He then made the decision to quit his career and buy a van with which he would travel through Southern Europe, his aim being to visit several intentional communities. Although he initially had the intention to start his journey in Spain, in the moment of leaving, “for whatever reason”, a community in Portugal got his attention, namely ALP. This is where he thus decided to start his journey (and where, to this day, his journey stranded). I asked him how it was for him to arrive in a community which had a clear spiritual context, to which he responded:
Well, I just felt… I can't, I can't really rationalize it. I just felt a group of people and, you know, especially Pete and Cynthia; I felt that there was something there and that they understood something about life deeper than I did. And I was struggling, I was unsatisfied. If I left everything behind, it’s because I wasn't satisfied. So, I was in a period of my life where I felt, ‘I don't know what I want and I don't really know what's the right thing.’ And I felt you know, as I said, I felt some people who got in touch with something that was deeper and that I never got in touch with that. And that was what gave me the openness and the willingness to understand more about that yeah.
Marco also emphasizes, however, that it was not specifically his ideas about the project nor the project’s vision that made him eventually a committed member, but rather his lived experience of being in relationship with others (men, in this case) within this specified context:
I joined the sangha after one and a half month of being here, I think it was after the men’s retreat. And the main reason was because it was not, again, it was not at all about the spirituality; it was because of the men's group. Because for the first time I felt I could be in a certain way with men that I never had the possibility in my life, and I felt it was a huge relief.
Although this ‘relief’ from a certain experienced intersubjective constriction came especially forward in many of my conversations with the men of the communities, it is also felt by women who similarly experienced a certain limitation in their being vis-à-vis
‘society’. Jana, for example, is one of the ‘juniors’ at ALP and has been living there for over two years now. A few years before she came here, she started experimenting with a lot of different things, “I was being very hedonistic and indulging, in the sense like; taking drugs, partying, being out all night long and these kinds of things”. As she explains, doing this matched her idea of what freedom was, which was doing what she wanted to whenever she wanted; “just because I liked it”. Nevertheless, looking back on it now she realizes how this was actually limiting rather than empowering her freedom: “When I look very deep, I didn’t actually feel free. I felt so constricted and I felt so much that I needed to be somebody and that I need to be this cool party person or whatever. And it was very stressful actually, very bound”.
There are, as mentioned, also people who found the project to be a right match for their personal devotion already in place. Jutta, for example, already had had a profound spiritual journey before becoming part of this project. Jutta was born and raised in Germany.
When she was a student, she started travelling and soon discovered that by doing so she had
“much more interesting experiences” than while studying. This is how she came in touch with spirituality in a rather unintentional way, as she describes it: “life guided me to India and guided me directly into an ashram and after this ashram into a Vipassana meditation”4.
During her Vipassana—which was guided by S.N. Goenka, its founder—Jutta felt to
suddenly have gotten in touch with ‘truth’ without ever really having engaged in a process of
‘seeking’ for it: “it was immediately a very strong meeting of the truth. And I had no idea about anything of this, zero idea, I had no background, no desire, no nothing. And these ten days touched me incredibly deeply”. For, as she mentions, in India she “came in touch with the concept of enlightenment” and she knew right away that this was what she would devote her life to ever since: “It was clear that that's the only purpose to live for. That there is nothing else to live for”. She then joined an international sangha where she for a long time had been the devotee of a guru. After a while, however, the “conventional” structure and rules did not resonate so much anymore with her, and she eventually decided to leave. She nevertheless prayed to her guru to “show her the way” and bring her to the right place.
Although there was no ‘project’/sangha back then yet, when she met Pete she immediately
knew she had found what she was looking (and had been praying) for: “in the moment we met, in the exact precise moment, I knew it”. Jutta mentions that she soon felt that being part of the project was indeed the right way for her to realize her freedom: “With a guru, you are with somebody who is realized. Pete and Cynthia are not realized masters. They are teachers who do their best to walk their talk. And I found that very inspiring, because they were closer to me and I developed, I evolved with them.”
Finally, before Bernard became a part of the project he had been engaged in a process of “seeking freedom outside of himself”, which for example consisted of searching for “peak experiences” with the help of certain psychedelics and plant medicines. As he mentions, through this period of experimentation he was already convinced that “reality was not limited to matter”. Nevertheless, he also noticed how it solely remained an experience and how he was not fundamentally changing, which caused a divergence between what he knew was possible and what had been his day-to-day experience: “the way I was behaving, acting, being in the world was exactly the same. So there was a discrepancy and I was dissatisfied, cause I could see that I wasn’t fundamentally changing; I wasn’t more happy”. When he encountered the project, however, he notes how he immediately fell in love with “the direct path”—or the recognition that freedom is ‘here and now’—that was being advocated; it instantaneously put him “in touch with the heart”. He thus decided to apply as a volunteer at ALP and when he first came there, he knew very soon that it indeed was in accordance with what was being described on the website: “I think when I got here, after a few hours I understood that this was the ‘real deal’, as I called it. Back then, for some reason, I felt like there was something very genuine being displayed by the people here, there was something authentic and deep that wasn’t ‘pretending to be spiritual’”. This thus provided him with the conviction that it was a place for him to live the realizations he already had: “I was realizing that it was actually the perfect conducive environment to unfold whatever I got in touch with by doing drugs and psychedelics and meditation and all that. So I felt it was kind of
embodying it; it was kind of the ‘descent’”.
In residents’ stories, we thus see how their freedom is both experienced and
‘imagined’ as community/sangha members. On the one hand, it is experienced as a freedom from certain ‘limitations’ perceived to exist outside of the community, for example through their lived experience of intersubjectivity in the community and the project. And on the other, there are people who recognize how their spiritual devotion and recognitions may be lived and embodied—and, hence, their freedom realized—by being part of this particular project.
Into the Unknown
What becomes moreover apparent, however, is that for many residents who seemed to be seeking a freedom ‘from’ society—or a freedom “outside of themselves”—their notion of freedom itself seemed to have changed through their engagement with the spirituality.
Despite that Marco did not join the sangha specifically out of his personal devotion, he for example mentions how over time his perception of freedom has drastically changed. As he mentions, he always put freedom as his main value, yet explains that it used to mean a freedom “from a certain sense of luck”; a “financial freedom” that would provide him with the ability to do whatever he wants. And although he mentions that he still has certain dreams and passions he would like to achieve, he notes how nowadays these things are more of a
‘second priority’ and, hence, more undetermined than before: “I want to be free to love, and I want to be an expression of God. (...) And in that freedom being open to whatever that might mean, in terms of where I live and making money, you know”. We could say that his notion of freedom changed from a freedom ‘from’ society towards a freedom ‘in’ it. Yet Marco also emphasizes that, for him, it was only after his recognition of how such a spiritual freedom may be lived and realized in his own embodied being-in-the-world that this devotion started to make more sense:
It’s just this beautiful sense of just being here. And you know, being in front of somebody, or whatever, and just not knowing anything about what's going to happen and just being completely fully present in responding to whatever wants to happen.
And really, you have… you have this sense of ‘it’s not you doing it’. It took me ages to understand, you know, when people said ‘oh it's not you, there's not a you that is…’, I said, ‘come on guys we all fucking do something, what do you say?’ It’s because these are things that you need to go deep, to have a grasp of, to have a glimpse of what that really means. And it’s true that in those moments there is just a response in which there is not a ‘mind’ involved. And it’s just so free.
Additionally, Rui talks about how life-changing his recognition during the ten-day- retreat at ALP had been for him. As he clarifies, after four days of meditation he felt to have gotten in touch with a freedom yet unknown to him: “I just felt myself, like, totally free, you know. Like free from my mind, free from my body”. Moreover, he felt to have gotten a sense of what his ‘true nature’ is: “I could recognize fundamentally that’s what I am. I'm that
nothing, Consciousness, God. It's just like, ‘I am that’. (...) And I think that changed
everything.” As he notes in the following passage, what accordingly changed for him is that from that moment on he, like Jutta, knew that he would commit himself to his self-
realization. Yet he also emphasizes how he feels such a devotion makes his future—and his life in general—a rather unknown proceeding:
You cannot really make plans if you are committed to a life like this. Of course, you can just think ‘oh, I would love to do this’, but it cannot be a very fixed position because you never know. It's like you are always available to the mystery to come through your life and to show you something, because the most important thing is that:
you are always inquiring yourself about the limitations. So, it's not like you are making life happening; it's more like you are available for life to happen through you so you can be shown to yourself who you are. It’s like, you don't know who you are, but you want to know who you are. So it's always kind of a mystery.
Comparably, Jutta mentions that when she started Avidanja, the main thing she
envisioned for it was to be a place of “staying in the unknown and embracing the unknown”.
In her experience she has also observed that this may not be an easy position for everyone, for it requires a certain ability to ‘let go’: “David is struggling with it because he’s also new to the context, but so what? That will come. I mean, Liva is so behind it. She did struggle a lot with living in the unknown, but now she sees: wow, the magic is really... that’s the magic!” Liva explains that she indeed feels she was not always as ‘trustful’ towards life as she is now. Nevertheless, she also emphasizes that this transformation happened rather unexpectedly through a moment of ‘letting go’ of her ideas about herself, like Rui also mentioned:
I had a very strong recognition about this in the ten-day-retreat. I sort of always thought that I was a trusting person. And in that retreat I actually faced, or realized, that I don't trust. You know, I was just like ‘oh my God, I actually most of the time don't trust… I don't trust people, I don't trust life’. And in that moment of this recognition, simultaneously there was so much trust, you know. And I think it's just like, the truth will set you free, you know. That being honest with myself, saying ‘I actually don't trust anybody’, and from there it just came, by grace, this dropping of mistrust.
Thus, through embracing the position of not knowing who they are—and thereby embracing ‘the unknown’—residents feel to come in touch with a greater sense of freedom and self-realization. Because of this recognition, they also seem to find meaning in giving up their negative freedom to live in community, which for example comes forward in Joel’s narrative. Before Joel moved to Avidanja, he had been a nomad for many years of his life, during which he highly valued his freedom to go wherever whenever he wanted. This
abruptly and unexpectedly changed when he arrived at Avidanja and had the feeling that this was a place he wanted to commit himself to. It is also where he met his wife, Sandra, and after a while they bought a house next to Avidanja to start their own household in a “more traditional way”, without being in the context of a community. Despite that he would have never imagined himself settling, Joel soon fell in love with having his own house—which felt as an “extension of himself”—as well as with all the luxuries and comfort that came with it.
However, at some point he and Sandra realized that something was not right. Even though they enjoyed having their own place, they felt that they were “settling for less” than what they “knew was possible” and that living in community was what at this point in their lives seemed as the right thing for them instead. This is how they came up with the idea to move to ALP. Having grown so fond of having his own house, however, this was something easier said than done. Yet as he describes, Joel feels something he was in touch with ultimately supported him in his ableness to let go of his ‘attachments’:
We were letting go of that householder life and that was the fire burning, because that was going against our tendency—our impulse to live more for ourselves—that we had to let go of and live for something greater. Let go of our comfort, let go of our
autonomy, let go of... having it all on our term, let go of having our own home, let go of our agenda... We had to let go of the comfort of having our own home. This was a huge step. And we were overwhelmed by it, because everything in us was screaming ‘no’.
But we decided to go with the ‘yes’ despite of it. And the ‘yes’ has something very firey about it, it has something very... beyond everything. You know this is a different kind of yes. If we would go with our ego and with our limitation—with our mind—
there was only a ‘no’ there. But truly there was a yes. So that was when we realized we wanted to live in community, and we were like ‘what about the quinta?’. We were shocked of the idea of going to the quinta; this is the last thing we would have wanted.
But this is what we wanted. You know what I’m trying to convey is that this wanting
was coming from a deeper place, and we followed that. But to follow that we had to let go of everything. (...) And it felt very firey in the sense that we felt we were burning, but that burning is a positive aspect of a true spiritual process. It's a purifying burning where we were willing participants. And it was not easy.
In the interpretations presented above, we thus notice how residents perceive their freedom is realized through a certain relationship; a relationship between their consciously acting self—or their mind—and something that is experienced to be beyond it (“the mystery”,
“grace”, “the fire”). In her ethnography on a Sufi community in Egypt, Mittermaier (2012) shows how specific interpretations of dreams may question secular notions of subjectivity. As she shows, within this community certain dreams are valued precisely because they are thought of not to derive from the dreamer but from a “metaphysical Elsewhere” (ibid., 260).
According to Mittermaier, notwithstanding their ontological realness, what such stories offer us is insight into believers’ “particular articulation of subjectivity, one that emphasizes openness and the dreamer’s relationship to an Elsewhere and to multiple invisible Others”
(ibid., 260). Similarly, in their narratives presented above, residents perceive their freedom is realized through a relational (or devotional) subjectivity by which they, too, open themselves up to an “Elsewhere” beyond their mind. For through their recognitions, they start to
understand themselves as not always fully aware of what is right for them, which makes the only ‘truly’ right thing to do to embrace the position of ‘not knowing’. In relation to such an articulation of subjectivity, Mittermaier argues that the dream stories of her interlocutors may be “profound reminders not only of the unpredictability of divine intervention but also of the contingency of life itself” (ibid., 248). Likewise, through their submission to the ‘contingency of life’, residents, too, seem to get in touch with elements of surprise—such as Liva who discovered about her own mistrust, or Joel and Sandra who found out they needed to move to ALP. Yet, although unexpected, these moments are above all appreciated for the freedom they allegedly catalyse—granting their lives in “the unknown” with meaning and purpose.
“You know, sometime in one of the retreats we talked about ‘having our eyes on the prize’.
There is an attraction to something greater and beautiful. And I think there is an attraction because it’s very liberating because then I don’t have to carry my own weight anymore and I'm free”. In line with Joel’s remark, in this chapter it became apparent that ALP and
Avidanja’s residents experience freedom as a form of self-liberation. And in this chapter, I showed that this ‘freedom’ is either experienced to be a liberation from certain internalized social demands as well as an imagined liberation of self by the spiritual ‘seeker’. This thus became a critical motive for their initial interest in living at either of these places as well as their devotion to the project and its vision. We could, accordingly, state that residents found a faith that their positive freedom is realized through their devotion and, hence, through letting go of their ability to do whatever they want whenever. Giving up one’s negative freedom by living in community could, in that sense, in itself be considered an act of self-interest—an act by a self who has a desire for, as well as its “eyes on the prize” of, freedom.
Nevertheless, what several residents moreover emphasized is how the act of giving up one’s self-interest—with the faith that one’s freedom is accordingly realized—itself creates different experiences and understandings of freedom. Thus, the findings presented in this chapter also seem to problematize the notion of subjectivity that is inherent to both negative and positive freedom. For central to them is a preconceived desire for autonomy of the self, where freedom is either realized through a certain autonomous relationship of the subject vis- à-vis its objectivity (as in the case of negative freedom) or through an autonomous
relationship of the subject vis-à-vis itself (as in positive freedom). Yet as several anthropologists have highlighted, in certain religiosities freedom is experienced and
understood to be something different. In his study of the Jain practice of fasting, Laidlaw for example argues that from a secular point of view, fasting may be considered as means to a certain desire; that it is “‘aimed at achieving’ spiritual purification or enlightenment” (2005, 191). And whilst there could be said to be a certain truth to this, Laidlaw problematizes this by explaining that “if the Jain fast is to be thought of as an exercise of ‘agency’, which in some respects surely it must, this is a circumstance where being an agent equates with an absence of desire, and is possible in what seems from the outside to be a state of extreme passivity” (ibid., 193). Similarly, what became clear is that through residents’ engagement with and experiences of the project’s spirituality, freedom became understood and
experienced as ‘being available’ to something beyond themselves, as ‘letting go’ of their attachments, and as ‘not knowing’ oneself (or one’s freedom, in that sense). Freedom, in other words, could be said to be related not so much to a consciously perceived and/or sought-after self-interest, but to a “non-secular, relational [devotional] mode of subjectivity”
(Mittermaier 2012, 260).
2: Practice What You Preach
It was Sunday morning. 8 AM, I could tell from the church bells of the village of Ereira on the other side of the hill. The first week of my stay at Avidanja had just passed. As I got out of my room into the courtyard of the community it seemed as if everyone else was enjoying their morning to sleep in, to take some extra rest after our full-on weekend filled with salsa dancing and the annual Carnaval in the city of Figueira da Foz. After I made myself ready, I went into the meditation room where I was accompanied by only the local Sunday-morning- choir of birds. As I grabbed a cushion and a blanket, I became aware of a paper laying near the entrance. I immediately knew what it was, for Antonia and Liva had been reading it every morning right before our communal meditation practice. It was the text The Wound of Love by the spiritual teacher Adi Da Samraj. I then realized I had never read it, whilst it was such an important and often-referred-to text within the project. I thus decided to postpone my morning meditation for a little while, picked up the paper and started reading:
Love Does Not Fail For You When You Are Rejected or Betrayed or Apparently Not Loved. Love Fails For You When You Reject, Betray, and Do Not Love. Therefore, If You Listen To Me, and (Also) If You Hear Me, and (Also) If You See Me — Do Not Stand Off From Relationship. Be Vulnerable. Be Wounded, When Necessary — and Endure That Wound (or Hurt). Do Not Punish the other In Love. Communicate To one another, Even Discipline one another — but Do Not Dissociate From one another or Fail To Grant one another The Knowledge Of Love. Realize That each one Wants To Love and To Be Loved By the other In Love. Therefore, Love. Do This Rather Than Make Any Effort To Get Rid Of The Feeling Of Being Rejected. To Feel Rejected Is To Feel The Hurt Of Not Being Loved. Allow That Hurt, but Do Not Let It Become The Feeling Of Lovelessness. Be Vulnerable, and (Thus) Not Insulted.
I think this passage from Adi Da’s text gives a good impression of the cultural discourse present in the communities of my research. For, as will become clear in this chapter, the project’s vision of prior freedom and happiness—or its ontology of one
Consciousness that is always already free and happy—fundamentally implies what Adi Da is
suggesting here: that there is no reason for community members to consider themselves as not being loved, nor for them to not be ‘love’ themselves. Yet, as will also become clear in this chapter, there are—perhaps unsurprisingly—enough situations amidst the intensity of a community life in which this does not come as ‘natural’ for residents. As Liva for example suggests: “The ground is that we want to love, and that’s not what we are trained for in the outside world. We are not trained to love each other.” Thus, there are many moments in which ‘loving’—or realizing their prior freedom—essentially requires residents’ discipline.
And this is where ‘community’ and its inherent social nature seems to become relevant. After all, there must have been good reasons for why those on a devoted spiritual path have
historically sought to gather themselves to live in communal structures—such as monasteries or ashrams. But as will also become apparent in this chapter, apart from giving a structure to residents’ discipline, the fact that the spirituality is lived and practiced in community and as a collective may itself bring about different kinds of experiences hereof. In order to inquire further into this, this chapter will center around the following question: How does the structure of ‘community’ shape residents’ engagement with and experiences of the project’s vision?
Trees That Can’t Be Moved
Through the project’s and communities’ discourse, the residents of ALP and Avidanja seem to be made aware that it is ultimately their own choice and responsibility if they suffer as a
‘victim’ of life or abide to that whichever arises in their awareness. After all, one cannot be a
‘true victim’ when one’s true nature is supposed to be prior freedom and happiness. This makes life in these communities overall sincerely appreciated for its inherent simplicity, whilst at the same time experienced as highly demanding. Rui for example talks about his first experience when he arrived at Avidanja, where he first got in touch with this particular vision. As he mentions, his experiences were “happy, amazing and terrible” at the same time:
I was very happy that finally I was having a different life; the life I wanted, you know?
Living in community, in nature, building stuff. I loved having profound talks. And at the same time, I was totally terrified of changing. I was very addicted to certain kinds of behaviors, especially to being depressed and to make problems out of everything. So there was a lot of addiction to unhappiness, addiction to being a victim of the world.
Coming to Avidanja therefore really confronted him with that it was his ‘own responsibility’
if he would make a problem out of things, and, thus, that his unhappiness and victimization was eventually his choice. This was what ultimately gave him this dual experience: “In a way I was fascinated and in the other way I was very challenged, because I had to choose what I wanted all the time.”
Laura seems to confirm Rui’s proposition as she feels that living here similarly taught her this attitude. She arrived at ALP eleven years ago and is, nowadays, one of the longest residing members of this community. When she first arrived here, however, she was actually not looking for ‘community’ at all but more for a quiet and peaceful place in nature where she could establish a regular meditation practice. For back then she had felt herself to be
“completely neurotic and insecure” around other people. Yet over time and with the help of the meditation practice, she felt like she could bear the intensity of community more and more. And although she mentions that she has also oftentimes felt “victimized” by how much there is to do and how many people there are to respond to, she now considers ‘community’
to have been her ultimate training in her capability to take responsibility for her relationship to her own state of being and, thus, her suffering: “being in community over these years has really been a school in understanding that movement [of victimization] and being able to own and take responsibility for my own stress and my own levels of stress”.
One afternoon during my stay at Avidanja it became clear to me how this norm is indeed implemented in the sociality of the communities’ residents. As we were having lunch together, Jutta confronted David, who had seemed to have been a little down and distanced from the group for a couple of days. “What is up with you?”, Jutta asked him. “Nothing, I just need some time to process certain things,” he said. Jutta assured him that that was okay, but reminded him that it can also be helpful to talk about it and to not hold certain things to himself. Most importantly, however, she reminded him to not “feel like a victim” or believe that his “suffering was special”. For the ego supposedly “loves to suffer”, as this is “the easy way”. Later that day she came to me and asked me if I had found it shocking to hear her say something like this. “Not really”, I said, as I had already gotten used to something from my time at ALP by then. “Good”, she said, “cause it might be a little shocking for newcomers, since in our [‘mainstream’] culture we tend to think that this would not be coming from a place of love, whereas it actually is”. Similarly, Rui talks about living in a spiritual
community such as ALP or Avidanja inherently comes with a certain demand: “There is a healthy pressure to be happy, you know? Because everybody knows that you know, and you
know that everybody knows that happiness and freedom is already the case, and that's our true nature. And that's just our choice if we live it or not.” Thus, as the above vignette as well as Rui makes clear, the vision is made into a social norm through living closely together with likeminded peers. In other words, through a shared ontological recognition as well as one’s awareness of its shared character, a ‘disciplinary’ social environment seems to be created and uphold through which individuals are held accountable to live up to this recognition.
This demand, however, is oftentimes considered to be extra challenging due to the perceived intensities implicit to living in the context of an intentional community, such as ALP or Avidanja. For, although there are of course moments in which residents can enjoy some privacy and quiet time, living in such a context essentially means being in close relationship with one’s co-dwellers most time of the day. But this also means being continuously exposed to the socialized spiritual demand and the abovementioned ‘gaze’ of one’s peers. As Inês suggests: “I think living in community itself is quite intense. But I feel the spiritual
component brings another level of intensity to be honest. And when I mean intensity, I mean there is no place to run, you know. There is no escape. There is no distraction.” In other words, this ‘gaze’ is moreover experienced to be intensified by the (socio-material) structure of ‘community’.
But what residents above all seem to agree upon is that a significant part of the
intensity of such close and continuous intersubjectivity is that one, through this way of living, truly becomes aware of one’s ‘patterns’. “There’s a lot of buttons being pushed in
relationship”, as Liva remarks. Rui for example talks about how he has personally felt this the most since he has been living both in Avidanja and ALP. As he explains, there have been many occurrences that he has felt a certain resistance whenever someone has been pointing something out to him, correcting him or telling him what to do: “there is a tendency in me to fight and wanting to do it my way”. However, he also talks about what he believes to be his only appropriate response in such instances: “In that moment all I can do is feel, you know? I need to feel what's happening. Because most of the times I just believe I'm not loved and I believe I'm being rejected”. Here Rui touches upon the social demand to not be “reactive”. In her study of New Religious Movements Altglas sees being reactive is considered as giving in to “unrestrained and undesirable attitudes that require no discipline or effort and will
engender suffering” (2018, 91). On the contrary, being “proactive” supposedly means to
“‘resist’ impulses, to pause and to think about what to do in a given situation; it is to willingly
and actively control attitudes to bring happiness” (ibid., 92).This distinction between being reactive and proactive seems an important reason for why living in community is a ‘training ground’ for residents to realize their ‘true’ freedom and happiness, such as narrated by Laura:
You know, living in community isn't about peace and not having your buttons pushed.
It's everything about having your buttons pushed. Because that's how you go beyond your buttons. Cause we think that our buttons are ourselves and they're not. (…) And I think it's just an amazing training to be able to be okay in them. It's like trying to be in the center of the hurricane.
Yet as Laura also made suggestive in her earlier story about moving to ALP, for many residents this is not an attitude that is suddenly just ‘there’ but essentially grows over time.
And it specifically seems to be cultivated through one’s engagement with a (spiritual) practice, which, indeed, seems to refer to realizing one’s prior freedom and happiness in the ups and downs of community-life, as Juri also explains:
Meditation is necessary to be rooted in this, yeah, in this state of prior freedom let's say. Where it doesn't matter how I feel, you know. If I feel happy or if I feel sad; I'm just rooted in something. (…) I told you our ground is very easy or simple: freedom here and now, right? But it's nothing that I can grasp with my mind. And that's the devotion, right? I mean, this is like practice. Cause sometimes I feel like I completely lost it, that it’s gone or whatsoever. But it’s not, cause it’s actually always the case. So it’s just really about being humble and being devoted to living the truth.
For Juri, being devoted to ‘prior freedom’ essentially means that he realizes his deepest understanding of ‘truth’ in whatever he does. Even if his state of being is itself not reminiscent of this truth or if he feels he is not ‘in touch’ with it as deeply as he has been before (such as during a retreat). He also suggests that in order to be able to do this, meditation is a necessary discipline. Liva also mentions how a meditation practice has ultimately made her “welcome the challenges” of her life at Avidanja and within the project.
For as she implies, meditation is ultimately a practice of “resting in the midst of a storm”, which she feels supports her in her ability to recognize challenges, yet to not “dramatize” or make problems out of them; “it’s just like a muscle that you train”. But there are other ways
through which residents find ways to deal with their challenging or intense moments and to remain ‘awake’ and aware of their ‘true nature’, as described by Lucia:
Sometimes I'm like ‘oh come on, give me a break. Can I not deal with this now?’
Yeah, but for me it's like the touch of what it means, or better, what it implies to be awake. It's not to be awake when I want, it’s to be awake. And I can feel how
demanding that is and how that takes everything. And then there are moments where I just feel like ‘ugh, give me a break…’
M: And what do you do in those moments?
Uhm… really now, like more recently my experience is to not collapse. To really not being pulled into this, uhm, kind of victimization. And for me in my personal
experience, it’s like not wanting to go out, like to go up and out. Because my path was really wanting to be here, and by ‘here’ I mean really here—as a human being rooted in myself. And not escape, you know. So, for me, what I do now more is like, ‘No, I'm here and this is what is happening.’ And to recognize that as a gift, as something that is being given to me, that I can learn from, or see things in different perspective, or be in a better relationship. (…) Sometimes it's really physical. It's really straightening my back, for example, or going for a walk, being in nature. Put my feet in the ground, breathing.
And I never forget to be in relationship. And I think is that yeah, it's what pull me back on track.
I became aware how residents’ devotional practice of being ‘awake’ is also ‘socialized’
during one of Avidanja’s communal evenings. This is a fixed weekly night set for its
residents to have some fun together and to just enjoy each other’s company. On this night we decided to dance salsa in the meditation room together. Just the day before, Russia had invaded Ukraine, so we thought it would be a good idea to keep our spirits up in times like these. Nevertheless, after our salsa session the conversation inevitably eventually focused on what was going on in the world. While everyone was discussing, I could feel a certain fear arise in my body and—slightly unconsciously—went ‘out and up’, as Lucia described it, so as to not feel this fear. The others seemed to have been noticing this and confronted me with it. Jutta said she noticed that I had this tendency more often and inquired where it was coming from. After we had a discussion about it, Antonia advised me to “see the darkness from a perspective of non-duality” and gave me the tip to listen to one of Cynthia’s podcasts called
‘What is overwhelm?’. I decided to do so the following day and, as I was listening, got