Intentional Community - Alternative, Microcosm or Oxymoron? by Tim McDevitt
I must begin with a disclaimer. I have lived in only one intentional community, the one at Breitenbush Hot Springs. I have no way of knowing, for sure, how representative it is of intentional communities in general. In fact, I don’t know if generalities can validly be drawn at all.
Yet there are people who have lived in quite a number of intentional commu-nities. There is a directory of Intentional Communities in the United States, there is an international directory for that matter, and apparently there are people who make the rounds, as it were, going from one community to another for reasons of their own. A number of these folks have come through Breitenbush, to stay for a couple of months or a couple of years, and in conversations with them there has been an amazingly high level of consistency regarding issues that arise in intentional communities. When I would cite some habitual challenges of life at Breitenbush, I heard repeatedly that it is the same in intentional communties everywhere.
Moreover, we at Breitenbush have brought in quite a number of professional group facilitators, consensus builders, communication and conflict resolution instructors and consultants, many with extensive intentional community experience themselves. Time and time again I have heard, “Ah, yes. We had the same problem in our community,” or “I encounter this in virtually every commu-nity.” I therefore take it at face value that Breitenbush is in many significant ways on a par with other intentional communities, and that regardless of the many differences in communities, there are certain challenges inherent in any group of human beings settling down in one spot in an attempt, intentional or otherwise, to live together.
I must add that the views expressed herein are entirely my own. I do not propose to represent the Breitenbush Community, or any group or individual other than myself. Nor am I an average or representative Breitenbush Community member. Such a creature, I am certain, does not exist.
Last but not least, the issues discussed and examples given span nearly ten years of life at Breitenbush and don’t necessarily reflect on the present community.
I dislike so much disclaiming—covering my tail—but it illustrates an important point: a community is a whole, and the whole is extremely particular regarding how an individual’s behavior reflects on the whole. One of the first things that became painfully clear to me shortly after my arrival at Breitenbush was that I could not “be myself.” I was raised in a large, boisterous, nay, tumul-tuous, Irish-American family. I tend to be direct to the point of bluntness and suffer no fools gladly. This economy of expression turned out to be a quality that was not appreciated. It was considered barbarous and unevolved. Once I learned to check my impulses and had conformed (to the extent I have been able) to what I consider to be a frequently euphemistic and artificial mode of expression, I was complimented on my “personal growth.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I said, there is a directory of intentional communities. The listings are in the hundreds. I believe this qualifies as an intentional community movement. My assumption is that the impetus for the movement was to make things better. Which means that things weren’t so hot the way they were. And so, the search for alternatives ensues, which begs the question: alternatives to what? Is there such a thing as a traditional community? If so, why is the alternative to same dubbed intentional? Is no intent at work in those more conventional communities?
Looking back on the neighborhood community of my childhood, it seems to me that things indeed worked by convention. There was a plethora of children. We all played together. Our parents knew each other on a first name basis and attended social events at each others’ homes. Lawnmowers, ladders, mechanical ability and sundry other resources were shared. And if I got into a fight with one of my young neighbors (a routine occurrence) my father would march me over to the neighbor’s house for a heart-to-heart talk, what at Breitenbush we would call a “clearing.” But I don’t think anyone thought that anything exceptional was transpiring. People acted out of mysterious phenomena called “common courtesy” and “common sense,” which seemed to be loosely based on the golden rule of treating others in a fashion that you would like to be treated.
I gather that this sort of thing eroded to some degree, although when I visit my old neighborhood it seems much the same. Still, something led thousands of people to form hundreds of communities with a shared vision of living together in an intentional way which would foster greater harmony and fulfillment.
Kahlil Gibran said that comfort is a stealthy thing that enters a house as a guest, then becomes a host, and then a master. One experience that pretty much everyone of my parents' generation had in common was World War II. This amounted to four continuous years of discomfort, severe for some, mild for others. But sacrifices were made across the board. Most young people today have no idea of the tremendous war effort that occurred in America: people growing food in their victory gardens, recycling of rubber and metal on a massive scale, housewives riveting warplanes together, which greatly accelerated the womens movement, and rationing of nearly everything.
I don't believe it ever occurred to my parents or their friends that life should be good, or fair, or pleasant. Life certainly could be all of those things, yet every gain was purchased with concentrated effort, and this was the way that life was: you worked hard. You disciplined yourself. And you got out of life some percentage of what you put in.
My generation, the baby boomers, grew up in comparable comfort and stability. Not many of us were overly concerned about our survival. Vaccinations and antibiotics severely decreased the chance of watching a sibling not survive childhood. We had the leisure time to be dissatisfied. We demanded satisfaction.
There was, to the bommers credit, a dissatisfaction, of some duration, with material wealth in general. Like Buddha, we had the opportunity to realize that material things alone did not bring happiness. Having our physical needs sated, we scooted up Maslow's hierarchy to emotional and spiritual needs. Through study, insight, luck or some combination of the three, it was concluded by many that these needs had a better chance of being met in a group than alone. And they were right. Indeed, the fate of the world rests on human relations.
With this realization began one of those epoch-making interstices in human evolution: a conscious attempt at social engineering. B.F. Skinner said, in defense of behavior modification, that our behavior is shaped haphazardly anyway. Might as well shape it systematically and produce results. To a certain extent, this is what has been attempted in intentional communities. All you had to do was follow the blueprint, right?
Breitenbush's blueprint for paradise is the Breitenbush Credo and it begins, like the U.S. Constitution, with a big fat, self-important We: We of the Breitenbush Community dedicate ourselves to living mindfully in the spirit of love, unity, honesty and service. It goes along in this vein, mining the language of such precious ore a holistic health, spiritual growth, respect, dignity, accountability, peacefulness and joy. The problem with all this is that any B-average college sophomore can take these abstractions and scamper off with them in a dozen directions at once. And has. And will continue to do so.
There are assumptions embodied in the Credo, hence in the general organization of the community, which it might profit us to scrutinize. Has Breitenbush Community achieved a positive, practical alternative to mainstream American society? Or is the Community more of a microcosm of the macrocosm, with all the perennial social ills (and strengths) intact? If you accept the premises, you must accept the conclusion.
The first assumption is that we all speak the same language, that the same words mean the same thing to everyone. Not so. We may all dedicate ourselves to living mindfully in the spirit of love, unity, honesty and service; however, love can be romantic love, filial love, sisterly or brotherly love, or it could also be tough love, perhaps brutally tough love, in which case can it still be called love? I witnessed a thirteen year old boy, caught stealing, seated before an assembly of the entire community with his face in his hands and thoroughly shamed for over an hour under the aegis of tough love. I am not a developmental psychologist. It could very well have been the truly compassionate and corrective response. But it turned my stomach, and I strongly suspect it did not help the boy with his problem.
In like manner, unity can come to mean the suppresion of diversity. Honesty can mean, “to thine own self be true,” but not necessarily to anyone else, and a life of service can be a life of self-service.
There are forty year-round residents of Breitenbush, give or take, and we read the Credo aloud at the beginning of most of our meetings. As the Credo is intoned, heads nod sagely, lips smile benevolently and eyelids lower reverently. But what is rattling around in our forty-odd nodding skulls is anybody’s guess. I suspect there is an absolute minimum of forty-odd interpretations of the Credo. I revise mine daily.
Closely associated with the above assumption is assumption #2: Common values translate into common behavior. Hah! In a tiny community with clearly stated values and explicit provisions for abiding by them, we’ve still had problems with theft, infidelity, dishonesty, jealousy, greed. Your basic seven deadly sins.
Another close relation, assumption #3: Common interests result in common goals. Maybe. Maybe not. At Breitenbush we share the strong common interest of operating a wilderness retreat center. Yet some of us would like to see it run along more monastic lines. Others would like to see it become more secular. We have had heated debates over whether we should serve coffee, or about how family-oriented we should be. I have found that the most unifying endeavor still leaves plenty of room for contention, if the spirit is willing.
Which brings us to assumpton #4: The values we set forth attract a certain kind of person. Perhaps. One of the requirements of residency at Breitenbush is expressing alignment with the Credo, so in some sense we utilize it as a screen. But as I’ve already stated, the values expressed therein are extremely broad and subject to myriad interpretations. I am happy to see regions, socio-economic strata, and levels of education broadly represented at Breitenbush. I have been delighted to meet self-educated people who are remarkably well educated.
I am less happy to see that our community is predominantly white (“Whitenbush” as one black applicant said), predominantly middle-class, predominantly single people in their twenties and thirties.
I do not believe that Breitenbush has ever discriminated on the basis of race. Based on my thirty plus years experience in the backcountry, I would say that the wilderness experience, at least in America, is principally a white, middle-class experience. I think that Breitenbush is generally looking for easy-going personalities (which leaves me out), someone you can reason with (which lets me back in), or, if reason fails, someone who will excuse your behavior on the basis of the state of your childhood, chakras, aura, karma or natal chart. Which leaves me back out again. All things being relative, I think it’s safe to say that as a community, we are moderately diverse, which is to say, moderately homogenous, and I would add that how a person expresses alignment with our credo is probably more significant than the fact that they say they do.
One way in which we are extremely diverse is in the matter of personal style. Some of us have short hair while others have enough to stuff a mattress. Some of us are clad in L.L. Bean while others apparently pick through the Berkeley Goodwill bin. Some indulge in a variety of footwear while others wear Birkenstocks in any and all conditions. This is hardly revelatory, and so what anyway. But I mention it because it does have a significant impact on me. You see, there is also great diversity in levels of personal hygiene. I tend to hover near the Felix Unger end of the spectrum while others, under the guise of returning to the Earth, have simply returned to the dirt. That’s fine, so far as it goes, but I must confess that it is difficult for me to share facilities like kitchens and bathrooms with them.
It is a good lesson in tolerance for me, as I am in other ways a lesson in tolerance for them. I’ve given up trying to change such things (though it wasn’t easy and I can and do backslide). People have different standards, and in most cases I’ve found that trying to impose your own is not only arrogant but, more to the point, futile.
Which brings us at long last to the point, assumption #5, our final assumption and the piece de resistance: style imposed on substance will transform substance.
If I understand cognitive dissonance theory correctly, it essentially states that if a person engages in a behavior that is inconsistent with his attitude, he will experience cognitive dissonance, a form of psychological distress. To relieve the distress, most people will alter their attitude. In other words, behavior dictates attitude, although I think most of us like to think that it’s the other way around. And I think that that is how most intentional communities proceed. We’ll all adopt an attitude, the right attitude—love, unity, etc.—and this will result in the right behavior. I believe it is adherence to this cherished myth which results in a veneer of alternativism belying the underlying microcosmic reality. For toilet training will out. Our basic personality, our modus operandi, is usually formed while we’re still in the single digits. Our strategems for getting what we want have been devised, tested and confirmed. We may incorporate modifications later, but they tend to be only variations on the central theme.
At Breitenbush, some staff houses are two or four bedroom affairs with bathrooms and kitchens. Others are tiny spartan cabins with heat and electricity and little else. Go to a housing meeting when one of the nicer houses is on the block. Watch love and unity dropped like bad habits. Hear them hit the floor with a thud. When resources are limited, humans (all animals for that matter) historically compete for them. Competition for limited resources. In a word: war. Yet battlefield tactics may vary greatly in subtlety and efficacy, and I must now say that the most inane non-arguments I have ever heard, I have heard at our housing meetings. Bar none.
For instance, needing your own private kitchen so that you will eat better and be healthier. Walking the twenty feet to the community kitchen just won’t cut it. Hey, my health is at stake here. How can you deny me the house that is the key to my health? Now there have been people with legitimate health concerns which of course were taken seriously and could appropriately result in preferential treatment, but that you’re going to suddenly switch from Lucky Charms to tofu because you have your own kitchen is pushing credibility. I mean really putting your back into it. It would be so refreshing to hear someone say, “I want that house. I really want it a lot. I want space and creature comforts. I am more interested in my own comfort than in anyone else’s and I’m not ashamed to admit it.” Now that would be alternative. That would be revolutionary.
The Breitenbush Credo is almost exclusively sunshine. The single veiled reference to the possible existence of shadow is, “correcting what is clearly not working for the community or for us as individuals.” This, however, is preceded by “directing our energies to the positive.” Again, I see this as a style over substance error. The negative exists for a reason, and not just to be negated. It is truly wonderful to see at Breitenbush the many broad smiles, the warm greetings, the genuine regard and affection that people have for and freely express to one another. But human nature is more complex than that.
Healthy humans get angry from time to time, and there is no place for anger at Breitenbush. When anger is expressed, no one really knows what to do about it. And this makes us incomplete, as individuals and as a community. Anger and anguish have the same etymological root. An angry person is a person in pain. We should be able to do something for someone suffering thus. We like to think of anger, fear, and hatred as alien to us, tumors to be removed. But they are part of us, part of our passion for life, and sources of great energy. These so-called “negative” emotions need to be integrated, not ignored. They need to be exposed to the light, not swept under the rug. Only then can they be transcended. Only then can we be whole. In its insistance on resolutely focusing on the positive, Breitenbush is genuinely alternative. And it’s a shame.
Now that I’ve ripped my community up one side and down the other, what constructive purpose may be derived from all this noise? I’m sure some readers are asking, “Why does this guy choose to live in an intentional community, anyway?” Well I’ll tell you. Yes, I have concluded that the intentional, conspicuously alternative segment of our program tends to stay around skin deep. And when it does sink in, it can be counterproductive. We periodically engage in what are called community-building or community renewal activities. I sometimes think of these things as “institutionalized intimacy.” We will all do the exercise, and afterward we will all be intimate with one another. Not this guy. Not the way I define intimacy. It just doesn’t happen that way for me, or that fast.
It’s taking the right approach: address the behavior, and the attitude may follow and become self-perpetuating. But we’re talking about creating a culture, remaking a society. And that takes time. Generations. After twenty years, Breitenbush is still in the embryonic stage of experimentation and mutation. I don’t know what the period of gestation is for a society, but, to my mind, we are still clearly in the first trimester. The high turnover rate at Breitenbush probably is prolonging the early phase of development. In the meantime, we will continue to be a hybrid of basic American culture with some slightly modified social institutions.
These modifications, however, have not been entirely unsuccessful. Perhaps the most significant feature of Breitenbush is that we all work and live together. You can’t be on your best behavior at work and then go home and drop the facade. You have a social relationship with all of your coworkers, and this makes social relations paramount. As I said at the beginning of this polemic, when I first came to Breitenbush, I was told in no uncertain terms that my ebullient extemporizations left a lot to be desired. How fortunate for me that these people, who had not known me that long, cared enough about me and about their community to consistently and unflinchingly provide me with such feedback. If they hadn’t, I might never have realized what a colossal asshole I am; that checking your impulses, adapting to your environment, is not repression, but discretion.
As for the microcosmic aspects of the Community, I have found great value in being in a position to apprehend the microcosm. I have learned that when people do nasty, icky, hateful things, it is far more often out of fear, weakness or confusion than out of malice or spite. I can respond to such things with compassion and generosity, at least some of the time. And being generous with others, I can be more generous with myself, and realize that in the grand scheme of things I am really only a relatively minor asshole after all.
Tim McDevitt is an aspiring writer who lives at Breitenbush Hot Springs where he coordinates security, first aid, search & rescue and other emergency services. A former martial arts instructor and alpine guide, he is happiest when running for his life from one of his sparring partners, or shivering in his bivy bag on the side of a mountain reading Thoreau’s “Maine Woods” with a headlamp and a box of fig newtons.