Thursday, November 27, 2008

A New Way of Living

The Problem: Materialism and a Lack of Meaning

Reflections by Mike Seymour

* “The average floor area in a newly built home last year reached an all-time high of 2,434 square feet - up from an average 2,349 square feet in 2004 and just 1,645 square feet in 1975.” Nat’l Assn of Home Builders
* “American consumers owed a grand total of $1.9773 trillion in October 2003, according to the latest statistics on consumer credit from the Federal Reserve. That’s about $18,654 per household, a figure that doesn’t include mortgage debt. The number is up more than 41% from the $1.3999 trillion consumers owed in 1998.” Bureau of Public Debt
* “As of March 16, 2006, the total US public debt is $8,271,005,203,336.67. Republican fiscal mismanagement is responsible for a large portion of this debt. When Reagan entered office, the total public debt was $1,028,729,000,000.00. Taking out Clinton's total increase in debt from the total ($1,263 trillion) leaves $5,980 trillion or 72% of total outstanding US debt resulting from Republican's economic policies.” Bureau of Public Debt
* “…a majority of Americans (56 percent) said that they experienced more stress in 2005 than they did in 2004, according to the "New Year, New You" Study, a national telephone survey of 1,000 U.S. adults sponsored by Brookstone.” International Communications Research (ICR)
* “In a telephone survey of 1,074 adults, 80 percent said that stress is a problem in their lives.” American society of Health system Pharmacists
* “Stress, anxiety and depression on the job affect as many as one in 10 workers worldwide, and costs employers in Europe and the United States more than dollars 120 billion a year, a study by the United Nations shows.” International Herald Tribune October 2006

*The rate of depression has almost doubled over the last 50 years. Nearly 15% of the US population now suffers from depression (which) represents 18 million Americans. 20 million more suffer from anxiety.” Apollo Health
· A *2004 World Health report showed that 27% of Americans had some kind of mental disorder (depression, anxiety, eating disorder, substance) , which was substantially higher than any other country.

A quote from Earth Communications Office (

In the past 46 years, the human race has consumed as many goods and services as all previous generations combined. Unsustainable consumption is quickly becoming the root cause of our planet’s most pressing problems, resulting in global deforestation, depletion of our oceans, loss of biodiversity, and increased pollution from a growing reliance on fossil fuels.

In the past five decades: almost half of the forests that once covered the earth have vanished, and deforestation is expanding and accelerating; 70 percent of the world’s fish stocks are at some stage of deterioration through overfishing and all 15 major fishing areas are close to reaching or have already exceeded their natural limits; and at least 1,000 species go extinct every year.

The industrialized countries, with only one-fourth of the planet’s population, consume an overwhelming proportion of the planet’s natural resources. The average resident of an industrial country consumes three times as much fresh water, 10 times as much energy, and 19 times as much aluminum as someone in a developing country. Industrialized countries also generate 75 percent of the pollutants and waste.

This “consumer class” counts among its members most North Americans, West Europeans, Japanese, Australians and citizens of Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Middle East. In addition, perhaps half of the people of Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States are in the consumer class as are about one fifth of the people in Latin America, South Africa, and the newly industrializing countries of Asia, such as South Korea.

The United States, with only 5 percent of the planet’s population, consumes nearly 30 percent of the planet’s natural resources. The average American consumes 150 gallons (681 liters) of water, 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg) of food and 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of fossil fuels a day, while producing 120 gallons (546 liters) of sewage, 3.4 pounds (1.5 kg) of garbage and 1.3 pounds (.6 kg) of pollutants.

This overconsumptive American lifestyle is quickly becoming the uncontested global model and consumption levels in developing nations are rising more quickly than those in the industrialized nations. If the level of consumption in the developing world should rise to that of the industrialized nations, we would require two additional earths to meet everyone’s food and timber needs under current technologies.

Does this mean we need to abandon our way of life? Not necessarily. Despite the constraints and tradeoffs we all face, it is possible to become more responsible consumers without giving up any of our quality of life. The following sections will highlight some of the steps we can all take to reduce our impact on the planet. It focuses on the three areas that account for the majority of environmental impacts: transportation, food, and the house. There is also information on changes businesses can make, and tips on what changes can be made by the government to reduce the impact of overconsumption and ease the barriers to responsible consumption.

In the early 1980s I began to notice mega homes popping up in neighborhoods all over Western Washington state where I live. At first they were isolated, and then started to come in whole projects glibly advertised in the Sunday Seattle Times under such titles as “Field of Dreams.”

On Whidbey Island where I live now the biggest and most expensive property to ever be built is listed for sale. It is typical of this trend which, when we think more deeply about what it’s saying, tells us a lot about the situation humanity is in today. So let’s look at what the Windermere Real Estate listing says about this $6,950,000 property on 26 acres:

Once in a lifetime opportunity, arrive to this private gated waterfront estate. Experience walks on the 26 acre arboretum-like grounds, 800 protected waterfront beach with magnificent western exposure, Puget Sound and Olympic views. Entertainers paradise complete with large spaces, 1,100 sq ft extravagant ballroom, and two guest cottages. Enjoy the tennis court, softball field, clam digging, rose garden, tranquil pond and newly constructed steel dock with 27,000 lbs boatlift for year round moorage.

Sounds wonderful, right? Well it’s supposed to. That’s the “great American dream” you and I have been sold. Like so many animals in a Pavlovian experiment, we have learned to salivate when presented with images like this. The many things the commercial world wants to get into our lives are nowhere near as fancy as that big property. But like this property, advertising and packaging for thousands of different products and services are sold similarly on other than just the facts. We buy for convenience, sex appeal, success, prestige, happiness and a range of other motivations that have relatively little to do with the actual material item itself.

It’s all in our perception. Show dream…open pocket book…spend money…be happy…make more money…see another dream….and the cycle continues. It’s about getting what we want—or think will make us happy and feel better.

But it doesn’t exactly work like that, does it? We all know at some level that money doesn’t buy happiness. But why do we keep spending, spending and spending as if it does?

Answering that gets right back to my article Living on Purpose. When people lack deep heart, purpose and meaning on the inside they try to compensate for it with outer things. Get another relationship, a higher paying job, bigger home, a fancier SUV, a bigger boat. Bigger and more is better—or so the saying goes.

To use an analogy, the first one or two Twinkies might taste great. But what if you ate ten? Ugh! You see the hunger from spiritual hollowness that drives us over the top beyond Twinkie number two is an awful and impossible vacuum to fill. Anything other than love and all the other virtues that love makes possible—like community, courage, peace, insight, wisdom and happiness—can’t truly satisfy our deepest yearnings.

There is a story being made here and it has an unhappy ending. At the personal level if we fall into the trap of being owned by stuff and the illusions stuff promises, we grow insensitive to our inner lives and the richness that can only come from within. After the tenth Twinkie, for example, you would probably be pretty bloated and start to fade out from the sugar overload.

Something similar happens when we get bloated on material things. Outer things attract our attention and exert a great pull on our appetites. We move away from being aware of and living from our insides and our hearts. But things don’t give lasting happiness. A cycle of constant buying and owning can lead to an addiction that causes deep unhappiness and—taken to the global level—planetary self-destruction as an exploding world population races toward the so-called good life portrayed in America.

Religions have much to say about this. The Bible (Timothy 6:10) reminds us that the love of money is the root of all evil, while Buddha said that attachment and grasping are the source of all suffering. It is people’s grasping, the urge to reach outward, that’s the problem—because outer things simply can’t meet the deeper needs in humans that make us ultimately content in life.

Can humans have material well-being without getting lost in things? Or are we doomed to becoming trapped into being owned by what we own? And how much, really, is enough?

Bill Mckibben muses on some of these reflections in his recent book Deep Economy. He cites evidence that the United States, despite its increasing wealth since the end of World War II, is no happier:

What’s odd is none of this stuff (our greater wealth) appears to have made us happier. All that material progress—and all the billions of barrels of oil and millions of acres of trees that it took to create it—seems not to have moved the satisfaction meter up an inch. In 1946 the United States was the happiest country in the world among four advanced economies; thirty years later, it was eighth among eleven advanced countries; a decade after that it ranked it ranked tenth among twenty-three nations, many of them third world. (P35)

McKibben says most industrialized countries—like the United Kingdom and Japan—show similar trends. This raises questions about how much is enough and why people have trouble stopping when they have more than enough. One quickly realizes this is a highly relative issue depending on one’s culture and expectations. The San people of the Kalahari desert I write about in The Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples are not even part of the consumer culture as we know it in the developed world. Their idea of the good life would seem like starvation to us. McKibben explores the “enough” question citing some of the recent sociological research on what makes people happy. Folks everywhere mention things like “quality of life,” “family and home life,” “equality and justice,” “health,” “being married.” When the answers are toted up, 71 percent of them were non-materialistic.

Where more money does seem to mean more happiness is among the very poor which represent about half the world’s population, if you take living on $2 per day or less to be poor. If you’re a rice farmer in China and working 14 hour days using hand tools and have no health insurance, a little more cash to automate your farming or store up reserve goods in case of illness really is a big deal. Taking this into consideration, McKibben cites that money consistently buys more happiness up to about the equivalent of $10,000US per person per year, and after that the correlation between money and happiness goes flat.

If you’ve been following the math, you might be tumbling the numbers wondering what’s going to happen to planet Earth when more of those three billion poor people start climbing up the economic ladder and get happier. Well, it’s already beginning to happen in the two most populous countries, China (1.3 billion) and India (1.1 billion), together a third of world population. In her recent book Planet India, Mira Kamdar says there is already a bigger Indian middle class (300 million) than the entire U.S. population, and they are going for the gusto like Americans, buying cars and moving into western-style subdivisions complete with swimming pools.

The prospect of even more exploding consumerism is a huge controversy in multi-national gatherings on the environment and development—especially regarding how to best balance economic opportunity for the developing nations with the need to preserve the environment. Typically the wealthier nations advocate for economic development heavily safeguarding the environment. But this is more expensive and will slow growth, the poorer nations argue. Then they complain the rich countries are playing the colonial game again, denying their poor southern neighbors a fair share of the pie that the north has already been eating from for centuries at the south’s expense.

These are complex issues, and cannot be fully addressed apart from matters of cultural identity, religion and the preservation of values and practices that have nurtured people’s hearts for generations. Beyond environmental issues, future development needs to address the all-important areas of culture, religion and our vision of what a good life is all about.

The danger today that all developing nations face is one America waged and, many would say, is losing. We got rich at the expense of our souls and at the expense of other people and other life forms on the planet. America doesn’t really have a deep culture of values and traditions that protects us from falling into materialism. Will India, China and the rest of the world go the same way and become disconnected from the land, cultural traditions and spiritual values, thus becoming a spiritual wasteland? Is there some way we in America and the industrialized world can recover a culture of heart and meaning in which possessions don’t become our gods?

Could we imagine America and the richer countries becoming significant world models of peace, restraint, justice, happiness and compassion to those in need, and living more simply so that others may simply live?

To explore this we’ll go back a bit in history to ponder how we got here in the first place.

The Axial Age: Medicine for a Disconnected Peoples

My article The Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples traces humanity’s disconnection from the Earth and peaceful, balanced living when humans went from hunter-gatherers to farmers living in villages. As we started growing our own foods and keeping animals enclosed about 8,000 years ago, we began to live in villages, storing up foods, tools and other goods.

This more stable life style gave way to numerous creative endeavors since humans no longer had the time to go wandering around in bands looking for their next meal. Learning how to make tools, crafts, grow and store food, keep livestock and build sturdy buildings was the stuff out of which civilizations ultimately grew. In short, the agricultural revolution unleashed a level of creativity and human technology not seen before.

The downside was that humans created something others could be envious or fearful of. What if people in the neighboring land had iron blades and you did not? Iron bands could be useful, so you might want to trade with them. Or, those same blades could also give an advantage in a potential conflict. Now there was something to be concerned about.

Not only did the build-up of goods introduce the possibilities for social instability, but the very act of inventing something out of nothing turned out to be a pretty heady thing. After all, inventing is a godlike activity. No longer were people dependent on nature for their sustenance.

Humans started to take over the role nature had played and history shows we became intrigued and prideful about our creative ideas and abilities.

This story is depicted in the Old Testament when Adam and Eve take a bite out of the fruit of knowledge, giving them powers God did not think they could handle. God was right. His punishment was to send them out of the Garden of Eden and toil for their living. Women now had to endure childbirth and men work the fields for food. In short, suffering was born as a punishment for and counterbalance to godlike knowledge.

Most other cultures tell similar narratives in their mythology, or accounts of how the world came into being. The most common symbol for this creative, godlike spark is fire which some mythical figure steals and gives to the humans so they can have better, easier lives. In the Greek myth Prometheus, out of compassion for humans steels fire and brings it to mankind against the orders of the head god, Jupiter. Jupiter’s punishment was to create and send to Prometheus the beautiful Pandora whose magic basket, once opened, unleashes horrible suffering and unhappiness on the world of humans. Jupiter also had Prometheus bound to a rock in chains where an eagle came and ate his liver. This went on forever because Prometheus was also a god and would re-grow his liver, only to have it eaten again—another picture of how suffering came into the world.

We use the word “promethean” today to refer to some person or initiative that is creative and boldly original, like Prometheus. Going back to our Windermere Real Estate ad, notice the language like “gated,” “magnificent,” “paradise,” “extravagant.” This is promethean language and accurately describes a promethean piece of real estate. Contrast that with the bulk of the housing built in Seattle right after the Second World War. Most of these homes were modest 900 square feet to 1,400 square feet properties, as people didn’t have the wealth then to afford “mega homes.” With the wealth increase in the last 60 years since the end of World War II, look at the titanic course humanity has taken as population, wealth, consumption and promethean energies have increased.

What’s the antidote to this god-reaching, towering and proud impulse in humans which, though often having good intentions, goes wrong because of the threads of greed and pride that can creep in? History shows us that the answer is to bring humans to their knees in suffering. Trailing in the wake of humanity’s most joyful and wonderful cultural accomplishments have come hunger, war, oppression and the deepest suffering.

But this cycle is not inevitable. Cures have been found, and they emerged all within one highly significant period in human history after the agricultural revolution blossomed into city states with all their attendant promethean energies and suffering.

Cultural historians call this period the Axial Age, a period from about 800 BC to 200 BC in which most of the greatest thinkers, philosophers and social revolutionaries came into being, and with them the start of the world’s religions. Separately and in all regions of the world there was a response to evils of the day. In China there was Confucianism and Taoism. In India there was the growth of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In the greater Mediterranean region we see the rise of Zoroastrian religion in what is now Iran, Judaism in Canaan and sophism as well as other classic philosophies in Greece.

One Greek term for the problem needing to be solved is hubris, meaning pride, and over-bearing confidence—our promethean energies at work. Don’t we see this in the current and many prior American administrations—this proud, “we’re going to solve the world’s problems” type of attitude that has been a disguise for the most tragic forms of colonialism our so-called democratic government has unleashed upon the world? Don’t we also have this in ourselves, in our sometimes childish stubbornness to defend our ideas, get what we want and push our agendas?

I heard it once said that the most dangerous people on Earth are those that are absolutely certain about what they believe, leaving no room to see from a different perspective.

This kind of blind hubris found a spiritual medicine in the Axial Age which looked the same all over the world in spite of the great differences of the religious and philosophical vehicles that brought it forth.

Don’t just suffer unconsciously like an animal. Be aware of and embrace your suffering. Jesus put it this way “Take up your cross and follow me.” The Buddha asks us to “cling to absolutely nothing at all,” his summary instruction to a follower who had a short attention span and just wanted the bottom line on his master’s teaching. Observe the illusion of all phenomena, including our desire and hate, arise and pass way. Nothing is permanent. The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu in his masterful work Tao Te Ching writes in verse three:

If you overesteem great men,

people become powerless.

If you overvalue possessions,

people begin to steal.

The Master leads

by emptying people’s minds

and filling their cores,

by weakening their ambition

and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything

they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion

in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.

The greatest teachers known to humanity all speak as if with one voice. Let go and be mindful, compassionate, humble and courageous in self-sacrifice and, above all, love one another.

A New Way of Living: Some Aspects & Solutions

The new way of living today that I want to talk about is actually not new at all. It is a spiritual revival of prior times where more people lived according to principles of simplicity, restraint, community, balance, and care for nature and one another. All of these values and more informed indigenous societies as well as, in varying degrees, the moral attitudes of the great religions and philosophies. It was the spiritual revival that accompanied and unleashed the 1960s revolution that gave new life to simpler, more meaningful forms of living.

Although the 1960s counter-culture movement has taken a lot of criticism for its self-indulgence, at the core I believe there is purity in the intention for a healthier, simpler and more honest kind of lifestyle. This was expressed most often through communal and modest living arrangements and changes in food habits, including vegetarian diets that did not involve the industrial cycle of meat production and the suffering to animals that production involves. Urban habitats in big cities, as well as communities in natural, mostly rural areas became the seed beds of cultural change as mostly young discontents dreamed of and experimented with a new way of being and living.

At its core, the 1960s revolution furthered a worldwide quest for meaning, recognizing the personal and planetary suffering of a humanity that had gone astray. Over time, scholars in ecology, science, religion and philosophy showed us just how far off base humanity and become, and how deep the transformation would need to be in order to leave behind the fear, greed, envy and violence underlying a civilization in decay.

As an antidote to the fragmentation and suffering in the world, we began to realize that we really are one people, one Earth with a common destiny. The view of Earth from space, the unified field theory of a new physics as well as learning how our cosmos all came from one source, reinforced in many ways the notion that we are all one. The more people began to absorb these truths into their lives, the more articulate and diverse became the language, literature and lifestyle forms of a new way of living.

I’ll spend the rest of this article looking at some of the expressions this new way of living and being takes.

Spiritual Renewal

Spiritual revivals are nothing new to America or the world but what happened in the 1960s was a more global, secular phenomenon than seen in prior times. First of all, it was a generational phenomena and driven almost entirely by young people disenchanted with the world and lifestyles of the older generation. There was the Jesus movement and the experimentation with Buddhism and Hinduism in both America and Europe but these also seeped out into the general collective consciousness to impact many in mainline churches as well as those outside of any formal religion.

Unlike the more formal religious revivals of the past that happened within established religious structures, the spiritual revival of the 1960s was just as much a cultural revolution as it was spiritual. It centered around distaste for the modern material life and its hypocrisy, as dramatized so well in the movie The Graduate starring Dustin Hoffman. At first the spiritual movement took an oppositional stance—it was about being against the “old” but had not, at first, clearly spelled out what it was for. Later on as the movement seeped into the culture at large, it provoked a great deal of thought by middle class people, academics, pastors, environmentalists, politicians, social activists and more mainstream elements, becoming an intelligible conversation that affected a large segment of modern society.

Personal Growth

A significant part of the modern spiritual revival since the 1960s came from the widespread movement in personal growth. This movement borrowed understanding from the interrelationship between psychological well-being and spiritual health. How could you move toward God and holiness if you had so much unprocessed personal baggage that kept on getting in the way of your attempts to live a pious life? But the personal-growth movement was essentially a secular one that borrowed spiritual and psychological concepts and techniques for the growing numbers of people all over the globe feeling more stress and discontent with their existence

One of the most famous early American centers for personal development was the Esalen Institute at Big Sur on the California coast about 100 miles south of San Francisco ( Esalen became the think tank and personal growth center for a new and emerging world culture, and it inspired many more similar centers around the world. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashrn Pune, India was one (, along with the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, (, and many smaller centers like Hollyhock in Canada (

Today there are hundreds of retreat and educational centers all over the world that provide education for the mind, body and soul, and an alternative vision of what a more relaxed, peaceful and meaningful life can be. This is supplemented by a gigantic number of books and videos on virtually every subject from controlling your emotions, getting the love you want, coming out of fear into prosperity, nurturing your soul and finding work that is aligned with your heart’s purpose.

Places like Esalen became laboratories for the development of personal growth programs that put personal change at people’s fingertips in day-long and other more intense programs. One I connected with in the early 1970s was the famous “encounter group” movement based on the Gestalt psychology of Fritz Perls. Probably even more important to Gestalt therapy and the prominence of Esalen was Will Schutz who lived at Esalen for about six years, and under whose leadership encounter groups spread around the United States and the world.

One of the most successful models was Erhard Seminars Training (EST) founded by Werner Erhard. While Gestalt gave people an opportunity to work on their “stuff,” Erhard is credited with introducing the idea that personal “transformation” is possible. EST aims to “transform your ability to experience living so that the problems or situations in life that you are trying to solve or are putting up with will clear up just in the process of life itself.”

Inspired by the tremendous success of EST, a myriad of other programs started that brought personal growth more and more into mainstream society. No longer were attendees at these events just the hip or alternative types, but the movement reached into corporate America and the suburbs. One of the most famous and long-lived of these programs is by Landmark Education ( and its event called The Forum. Benefits from the Forum: “The Landmark Forum is specifically designed to bring about positive and permanent shifts in the quality of your life. These shifts are the direct cause for a new and unique kind of freedom and power. The freedom to be absolutely at ease no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what the circumstance—the power to be in action effectively in those areas that are important to you.”

Voluntary Simplicity

It’s entirely possible, however, for personal and spiritual growth to occur without a change toward a simpler or more socially and environmentally engaged lifestyle. People working on themselves can shed unhappiness and relational conflicts but may still live in the same house and not do much for the needs of the people or nature around them. There has always been a strong current in American and world society that regards individual liberation or salvation as the highest goal, elevating spiritual aims over (and sometimes at the expense of) the needs of the world one is trying to leave behind.

Certainly, many since the 1960s onward began to realize the incompleteness of this vision, if not its outright hypocrisy. Being “so spiritual that you’re no earthly good” sums up the notion that one must walk one’s talk—living out peace and justice as had our greatest world leaders, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus and the Buddha himself.

More often than not, then, the personal growth people experienced in the last 40 years did involve significant lifestyle and attitude changes, which is probably no better captured and described that what is known as the voluntary simplicity movement. A key figure in that movement happens to be a friend and near neighbor, Vicki Robin, author with Joe Dominguez of the best-selling book Your Money or Your Life ( Vicki’s life and work give us some great insights into what voluntary simplicity is all about.

After a few years of college and disenchanted with society, Vicki and a few friends left Providence, Rhode Island for a rural village in Mexico where they lived communally on very little money, growing their own foods and experimenting with a new way of social relating. This community of four became the seed bed from where the ideas for Your Money or Your Life gave people solutions to their hectic, high consumption lifestyles and a way toward greater simplicity and meaning.

In time, Vicki helped found a number of highly successful organizations—the New Roadmap Foundation ( and The Center for a New American Dream ( The New Roadmap Foundation “seeks to foster a cooperative human community in a diverse yet interconnected world by creating and disseminating practical tools and innovative approaches to personal and cultural change. We promote love and service as routes to personal and social well-being.”

The New Roadmap Foundation promotes new ways of dialoguing with the Conversation Café, a structured group communication process that helps alter people’s social reality and understanding

The Center for the New American Dream has lots of tools for living consciously, wisely and making a difference, especially regarding what and how we purchase. This includes a “back to school” section to help kids and their parents make conscious choices for lots of purchases like backpacks, cell phones, batteries, clothing, computers and snacks. Great links from their site include the Conscious Consumer, Responsible Purchasing Network, Kids and Commercialism, Independence from Junk Mail, Simplify Your Holidays and much more.

I asked Vicki over coffee one morning what personal anecdote from her life might sum up the different strands of her personality: independence of spirit, strong leadership, commitment to the greater good and new ways of relating to one another. I find it interesting that she mentioned going to a camp in Maine starting at five years old. At Blueberry Cove Summer Camp in Tenants Harbor, she explained, she got to mix with a racially diverse group of kids for the first time. They had free access to the natural world around them and were overseen by a loving, visionary couple who really trusted and honored the children, which ultimately helps kids to trust and honor themselves.

Combined with the fact that Vicki comes from a long line of strong women, this mix of circumstances at Blueberry Cove helped shape Vicki into the kind of person who was able to become independent from the “American dream” and set her own course to do good for others and the society at large.

It’s worthwhile keeping portraits like Vicki’s in mind as we ask ourselves how we would educate for a just, sustainable and peaceful world. That schoolhouse would no doubt look a lot like the Blueberry Cove program.

Intentional Communities

As the word implies, the intentional community is different from a standard housing subdivision or an apartment building in that people come together with a specific purpose, as opposed to simply choosing an address to live. Many personal growth centers were also intentional living communities started by people tired of what they saw as the hectic, meaningless rat-race of modern life. Esalen, in fact, was always home to a community of people that lived and worked in Big Sur year around. Many more were primarily places to live that also occasionally gave workshops or open days for others to visit and learn from.

The reasons people formed intentional communities were as varied as the communities themselves. But most have an intention to live more communally, feeling that the growing impersonality of modern life in cities and suburbs was creating a sense of isolation and loss of closeness. Many groups moving into the country also seek an intimacy with nature and practice shared farming to gain more balance working with their hands—not just their minds—and to feel a communion with the trees, skies, rivers and meadows whose appreciation gets lost in a fast-paced modern life. Other communities were primarily spiritually based, or might have been eco-villages oriented on sustainable building materials, off-the-grid energy systems and organic food production. Lots of intentional communities combined many of these features.

The Directory of Intentional Communities ( numbers close to 2,000 communities around the world. This may be well under the actual number, as there likely are many smaller living ventures that spring up and live for a short period of time but are never registered. One of the oldest and best known in the world is Findhorn in Scotland ( and it echoes the description you’ll find in many communities: