Exploring intentional communities and the people who live there



Quick warning for any of you waiting for an update on the next hot commune. This blogpost is not about an intentional community. Instead, it’s an exploration of a question that sits at the heart of the human condition and an attempt to link that question to the work I am currently doing as an anthropologist of education in India.

Anthropologist of education in India? Apparently so. It’s almost exactly three years since my last blogpost and since then I’ve made the transition back into academia: I’m now doing a PhD at the University of Sussex and conducting immersive fieldwork in schools set up by educational entrepreneurs in Delhi, India. One of the central questions of my research is: what motivates young graduates to launch their own social entreprises aimed at providing educational opportunities to India’s poorest children? More generally I continue to wonder: what motivates anyone to do anything?

One of the reasons I started this blog in 2014 was to help me process what I was learning from visiting intentional communities. One of the questions I had at the time was: what motivated people to step out of mainstream society and build a community devoted to a different set of principles? I am now working alongside and simultaneously studying people who are trying to change the world in a different way. They work within mainstream society to provide a global education system with the hope that such a project will help make a world that has no need for idealist, sequestered intentional communities. They believe that if everyone on the planet receives a decent school education we will soon live in a fairer and happier world.

This blogpost explores who these social entrepreneurs of education are and what motivates them to work on the expansive and utopic question of providing every child in India with an ‘excellent education’.


Who wants to be a social entrepreneur?

Social entrepreneurs in India mainly come from one of two places: they quit corporate jobs due to disillusionment and use their background to launch a social enterprise, or they join a third sector fellowship program fresh out of university, build skills, knowledge, and confidence, then start their own social project. What links the members of both groups is that they all have experienced continual improvement as regards their financial and/or social status throughout life and see no reason why this journey should halt. They gain motivation from the simple fact that up until now they have never failed. This history explains their confidence, but not why they chose to start NGOs.

Why leave a job at Citibank to start an NGO that offers, for example, new skills to principals as to how best run their government schools? According to Aditya Natraj, founder of Kaivalya, he left Citibank because he was held up at gunpoint and realised that if he stayed in the corporate sector he would regret it on his deathbed. His is a classic tale of the self-satisfied pragmatist who is shaken into social action by realising there is more important work to be done than ordering the right kind of milk with your coffee. He, like most social entrepreneurs when asked, says that he’s motivated by the fact that there is simply so much inequality in the world, and he couldn’t sit idly by …

But why choose education as your cause célèbre?


The myth of laziness


If you ask an urban middle-class Indian to describe government-school teachers in a word you’re likely to get this reply: lazy. Part of the reason why developing education in India is such a hot topic is because there is a pervasive folk consensus amongst the wealthier Indian population that teachers in government schools are spoilt, smug and uninspiring. The quality of teaching in government schools is assumed to be so bad that parents spend an inordinate part of their income on paying for private schooling. In fact, according to my research, many teachers in India love to hear of new ideas and practices for engaging the classroom, but they have lost motivation for generating such ideas themselves after years of minimal institutional support for their innovations: they were told to follow orders from the top, and any creative idea they proposed got lost in a sea of bureaucracy. But what does it mean to call someone ‘lazy’? Considering laziness can be understood as the opposite of motivation, let’s look at how the word ‘lazy’ functions today.

In my opinion, laziness is a socially constructed attribute arising from the ideology of meritocracy. Meritocracy is, of course, the political theory that hereditary bias should not affect one’s chances of financial or social success: we should all simply be judged on the talents we ‘naturally’ have, or on the skills we have perfected through hard work. Those who ‘have’ the motivation to work hard will be rewarded, those who lack motivation will fail. This theory appears most clearly in Thatcherite politics where determination and work-ethic are seen to spring from some mysterious inner source; where the only thing that divides people and their condition is whether they can be bothered to fight for a job or not. People are labelled ‘lazy’ when they lack the desire to earn wealth.

Meritocracy is our current excuse for social inequality. During our feudalistic past it was easy to see why some people had money and power and others didn’t: the rich directly inherited wealth and titles from their parents and that was that. Now, despite the fact that we all know how much a child’s social and economic background affects their future ‘success’, we are all happier to accept that someone is poor and suffering because they didn’t work hard enough than we are willing to accept that people suffer because they weren’t born into the right family. We call kids ‘lazy’ if they don’t pay attention in class even if we know they spent the whole night watching their baby sister while the council kicked their mum out her flat. In contemporary India, teachers appear lazy because they indeed have lost motivation: any attempt by them to innovate is hindered by lack of flexibility in school management and funding. The teachers exist in structural conditions in which they have little chance to gain praise from working hard.

And praise is a keyword when it comes to motivation.


The cult of leadership


The reason why we idolise the figure of the NGO founder is because we live in a global imagining in which things change due to an individual, courageous and visionary hero. Social entrepreneurs gain their motivation from the love and support that society gives them. They are our heroes of social change. For years feminists have lamented the fact that nurses, social workers, teachers and mothers are our true unsung local heroes; and that ‘leaders’, whether they be tyrannical Napoleons or messianic Gandhis, shouldn’t be idolised to anything more than the individual humans that they really are. Sadly, the development sector is the last place you’re likely to find a critique of the concept of ‘leadership’. We live in an age obsessed with the idea that we need more leaders, and that if there is one thing we should teach kids in school, it’s leadership. No wonder then that social entrepreneurs of education gain motivation from the adoration they receive as future leaders. In a country where the government is routinely criticised for it corruption and archaism, the young social entrepreneur is seen as the golden hero needed to lead India to its rightful place as a ‘global power’.

So is this how motivation works? We are motivated when we occupy a role that has been deemed valuable by the people around us? Possibly. I myself have gained motivation from the fact that I have been funded by the British government to conduct anthropological research on a topic of my choosing. As much as I like to whine about the Establishment, I feel more comfortable now that I am being paid for something that interests me, and I feel a sense of duty to learn deeply and contribute to the academic community of which I am a part. The external praise that I have received in the form of funding has bolstered my belief that I am someone capable of doing high-quality academic work. And yet, this sense of belief sits in direct contrast to my belief that the university system is corrupted by white male privilege and a structural hierarchy that makes it easier for me to win funding over other candidates.

The point is: I gain motivation through praise even when I am aware that the praise is not necessarily due. Social entrepreneurs gain motivation by occupying a role in society in which other members of the elite give them praise. It’s very easy to convince ourselves that we thoroughly deserve the praise we acquire, and especially easy with praise which is socially conferred onto us indirectly through payment or respect. There’s nothing wrong in being motivated by praise, but perhaps we should recognise that how praise is distributed is anything but meritocratic, and at the same time be careful when we call for leaders to tackle the problems of society rather than thinking more carefully about what it is we value and how we have come to value it.





Artist hangs sculptures

House prices in London are outrageous. YouGov predicts a braindrain, artists commandeer billboards to discuss an exodus, and one mad professional shows its cheaper to commute to the City from Barcelona than West Hampstead.

Two Pine Palace is an art commune in rural Bulgaria that shows how ambition can lead you elsewhere than the Big Smoke. It was set up by Tom, a 24-yr-old London artist who saved £10,000 from working in a restaurant and construction labour over the course of two years, then bought a house.

Confused about how to make art in a city where he couldn’t afford a home, let alone a studio to work in, Tom went to the cheapest corner of the EU in the hope of finding the head space to finally get some art done.

In a village of around 700 people, with a house of five bedrooms, two stables and an outdoor toilet, Tom is creating an international art refuge for wandering creatives looking for a space to work.

He expected his new village to give him a few strange looks and make a couple attempts to rip him off, what he didn’t expect was daily advice on how to grow his vegetables, nightly offers to drink home-made Rakia with gypsies, and to earn a reputation for being the local bad boy that ended up getting one of his guests arrested.

And all this after living there for just one month.

This is the story of how a poor British art graduate is sticking two fingers to the work-life balance paradigm, trying to make his art his life and his life his art, and hoping he can instigate some valuable cross-cultural exchange in the process. But what he’s realising is that if he wants to prosper in his vision, he’s got to shake the image of being an arrogant Western outsider who makes up his own rules.

View from the bedroom


Two Pine Palace, so-called for the two towering pines that shade his half-acre plot, is Tom’s imagined art community come to life.  After purchasing the property for just under £10,000 in February this year, Tom spent a cold winter week in the farmhouse planning what he’d need to do to get it ready for full-time residence this summer. At the start of May he returned with two friends and got to work ripping up damp floorboards and dismantling rat-piss-stained ceilings.

Brits buying cheap houses in Bulgaria is no new feat. All through the last decade local British media has spread tales of the easy life waiting at the end of a £50 EasyJet flight. Usually, these expats are looking for a sleepy haven where they can wave goodbye to £4 pints and parking tickets, and pretend they’re no longer part of the Big Bad System.

Tom’s is a different story. He wants to use his expat paradise to bring an international community of artists into contact with each other and the local Bulgarian gypsy community who populate the village. At first, it was just about the artists and the art – but Tom could never have expected the interest the locals would take in him, and how tricky it might be to keep them on his side.

On his first morning in May, both his neighbours came round to introduce themselves, but before he could get his name out, they were thrusting their hands into the earth and scolding him for not watering his tomato plants. Days and days went by with more impromptu visits and more advice given in hand gestures, the odd English word and the help of a Bulgarian phrase book. Tom wasn’t sure if he should pay them, and being a classic Brit decided it’d be awkward to offer them money. In fact, he was wrong, and they had expected to be paid.

The well that gives the house its water

One day he woke up to find rain and a thousand giant snails crawling over his crops. Feeling more surprised than concerned, Tom ignored them. He only realised his error when he heard a weird shaking sound coming from next door, like someone playing a tambourine with a pneumatic drill.

As one does in the village he invited himself round only to find his neighbour covered in cracked snail shells, and standing in front of an industrial sized, home-made sieve that was sorting the big snails from the little ones. It turned out that today was Snail Day, a lucrative opportunity in the village where all home owners brought their snail harvest to Tom’s neighbour, who paid them, counted the gross domestic snail haul, and sold the molluscs on to expensive restaurants in the city. Once again, Tom had missed a trick.

During his first month Tom was conscientiously practicing the Cyrillic alphabet and learning the local ways, but things changed when he invited his first set of artist guests. I arrived with five other curious creative types in June and turned Tom’s calm household of three into a Brits Abroad party of eight. Feeling the desire to entertain, Tom made sure we had plenty of booze each evening, and we didn’t make a secret of having a good time.

Three or four days into the trip, the guests and I were in love with Two Pine Palace. The deal was that we had to spend three or four hours each day working on the house and garden in lieu of rent. Because much of the grunt work had been done, we were tasked with decorating, and because we were allowed to choose our own colours and designs, these handful of hours never felt like a chore.

But something was amiss. Tom couldn’t understand why his normally friendly-cum-imposing neighbours hadn’t come round to say hello. Usually a big part of his day was spent drinking coffee and failing to speak Bulgarian. He began to feel that his being left alone this week was something of an omen.

Sunday at the bar

The intimacy of the house was starting to get to all of us. Despite its beauty, cabin-fever set in, and led to the spontaneous decision from four of us to ditch the rest of the group and spend Sunday afternoon sat outside the local shop drinking £1 bottles of 2-litre beer. We didn’t feel wrong doing this, as it seemed like the local custom was to while away the day in the shade of this one communal meeting place. But apparently Sundays are different. By 4pm we’d already sung Champagne Supernova, and Wonderwall was but another swig away. A small heard of cows crept its way up the sun-blasted street, and no other human stirred.

The next day three of us were out for a stroll when a police car stopped beside us and asked us for our passports. We didn’t have them, and after acting important and grumpy, the cops told us to meet us at Tom’s house. We didn’t need to tell them where he lived.

We entered the house and felt the tension immediately. One of Tom’s guests had freaked out when he saw police at the front door and had ran to hide to his weed. The police smelt a rat, quickly discovered the stash, and arrested the man. Five hours, two translators, one narcotics expert and a paperwork guru later, the guy was told he’d have to pay a £400 fine, and was escorted to the police station.

The next day, on our way back from another hike, the local barman pulled over and offered Tom and I a lift home. In the car he asked who’d been smoking ‘bad cigarettes’ at Two Pine Palace, and made it clear that he’d defended Tom when the police questioned him on Tom’s ‘character’. It turns out our Sunday drinking session had been more than uncouth, and what with the cannabis arrest Tom was starting to get quite a reputation.

Two Pine Palace from the back

Tom is on the edge of two worlds, in one he could become another indifferent expat who makes no effort to exchange ideas and friendship with the local community; in the other he can learn to respect the local customs and allow them to encourage his art work. If he wants to continue to invite international creatives to enrich his art residence, he’ll need to learn what’s acceptable, and what he’ll be demonised for. This task might sound futile considering there’s rarely a community of artists who don’t like to dance around and get smashed, but it’s essential to the health and longevity of a beautiful project such as Two Pine Palace.

By stepping away from the stress and protocol of the modern Western city, Tom has the potential to create an easier space for artists to realise their longer, more detailed projects. But just because you want to break-down the corrupted paradigm of ‘work-life balance’ doesn’t mean you can avoid some hard labour, and only time will tell whether risking it all in the wilds of Bulgaria will bear the fruit this young artist can be proud of.

Late night in one of the half decorated rooms



This is the story of why intentional communities and universities should get married. It investigates how such a partnership would amplify the lessons of community living, diversify learning avenues at universities, and most importantly, allow students to gain a deeper understanding of their chosen discipline.


The biggest problem with university is that students don’t read enough books. If you really want to understand how Napoleon conquered Europe you can’t just read a couple of biographies and Sun Tzu’s Art of War – you need to understand psychology, the inferiority complex, Clausewitz, feudalism, Foucault, neuroscience and the South Sea Bubble. Impossible, for an undergraduate at least, but true.

The reason that students don’t read enough books is because doing too much of anything is eye-wateringly boring. Reading Oscar Wilde for two hours a day is bliss; flicking to the footnotes of The Wealth of Nations for eight hours straight makes watching Gogglebox feel invigorating.

It is shamefully philistine to demand a nineteen-year-old to spend her life in books. And of course we all know this, which is why our collective caricature of Mr John Student is a half-shaven (unshaven would suggest a beard could be grown), guitar-screeching, Carlsberg-lapping smelly who somehow manages to have a reasonable amount of sex.

I love learning: a big chunk of the reason I began visiting intentional communities was simply to find out what they’re like. If there was a pill that allowed me to enjoy books for eighteen hours a day and sleep the other six, perhaps I’d swallow it – but that’s not life. In life we need diversity. In life we need to use our body as well as our mind.


Students are right, institutions are wrong. Universities are run by scholars who spend most of their time reading books. As much as they appreciate open-mindedness, by nature of their focus, they will subconsciously put books on a pedestal and degrade other forms of learning. They can’t help it, despite their varying disciplines, they’re homogenous in their world of words.

The true student needs something more than books.

Right now, living in cities teeming with consumable leisure, they find that something in bars, clubs, clothes, drugs and Call of Duty. If they were to step outside this over-stimulating space, and into the holistic learning centres of intentional communities, they could escape their books without escaping their studies.

The single most valuable attribute intentional communities have to offer is emptiness. We live in a world where every minute of everyday is being eaten by the Schedule. Our phones command us to wake up at a programmed hour, and Vodafone impels us to Make the Most of Now. Despite the fact that many arts students only have seven or eight hours of lectures and seminars per week, the speed of the world infects them, and true space is harder to find than a fourteen-year-old without Twitter.

Most intentional communities are located far from the roar of 2015. Hidden amongst redwoods or perched on the crest of a Dorset hillside, there is air and there is vista. But there is also a deep commitment to learning, to questioning, and to finding out more about how and what humans are.

Economically, many intentional communities are already very similar to universities: their primary source of income is selling education. They run one- or two-week courses on permaculture, ecological building, meditation or bread-making, and they charge the participants a course fee as well as room and board.

More importantly in regards to university students, they run courses on human communication and self-awareness.

Non-Violent Communication and Process Work are two communication processes which help participants understand their own power as an individual, their own fears and prejudices about other people, and the effects of the ways in which they communicate their feelings about themselves and others. I participated in one such course last February at Sieben Linden, and wrote about it on this blog.


I believe that any serious student of psychology, literature, sociology, media studies, cultural analysis, philosophy, history or any other humanities subject can deeply enhance their understanding of their discipline by taking part in such a course.

But what would really make a difference would be if these students could immerse themselves in an environment that gives them the time and focus to concentrate on their personal and emotional relationship with both themselves and the subject they have chosen to study.

Here’s the idea:

Intentional communities could become satellite university campuses where students go for three months to practice the disciplines they are filling their minds with.

Instead of reading about how Stalin maintained power, history students can learn how they use their own power and influence to dominate others. Instead of analysing how the news uses shock tactics to attract viewers, media students can experience what it feels like when someone uses their body language to intimidate them. Disciplines need to be enacted as well as theorised, they need to be felt as well as seen.

But it is not enough for universities to offer Process Work within their institutionalised walls, students need space from their peer group, space from the city, space from modern life.

My proposal is that students are offered the chance to take a three-month break from their books and go live in an intentional community. Perhaps they could work three days a week in the garden, in the fields, in the kitchen, on the farm; spend two days in communication workshops and forum discussion; and have two days rest.

anime eye contact

At present many students do an Erasmus exchange and spend three months to a year at a university in a foreign city – they learn the language and read the culture. Spending three months living and working in an intentional community could be the Erasmus exchange for humanities students.

Of course, we also have to ask what the intentional communities get out of hosting these students. This depends on what they want. Some communities want to raise money to further their ecological or political projects, so students could pay their university fees to the intentional community during their visit, rather than to the university.

Another benefit to the intentional community is the credibility achieved from such an exchange. Communities that are interested in enhancing their public profile – and widening the scope of their message – will be linked to the established respectability of universities. Professors in the university may begin to take the work of eco-academics more seriously, and new doors will be opened between traditional education institutions and these more experimental centres of learning.

Students returning to the university after time in an intentional community are likely to share their experience with their course-mates. Those students who didn’t visit the community can hear of the benefits – or the drawbacks – of learning about their subject in a different way.

batman cartoon

Tutors may ask students to write essays on their experience. This task may seem ironic, as it pushes the physical learning back into words, but from my experience writing this blog, I know that theorising your own practical and emotional revelations can be more enlightening than deciphering other people’s impressions in books.

Humanities are called humanities for a reason, and human beings deserve a wider arena for learning about themselves that what universities currently have to offer. Of course the world outside of universities has opportunity aplenty for such learning, but with the competitive economic system that we live under, many graduates quickly scurry into careers ‘to get ahead of the game’, and miss out on a more diverse exploration of their interests.

People in intentional communities may not be any better at understanding themselves than the rest of us, but their environment and the conscious choice they made to live in it, contains fascinating lessons.

Books teach you lots about people, but people teach you more.




This is a story about diversity, and the price we pay for it. It is an exploration of how a small autonomous enclave of Copenhagen is providing the city with services it didn’t know it needed, but that are essential to both the national and international collective imagination.


Christiana is a ‘self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood’ of the Danish capital that was founded in 1971 when locals decided to use an abandoned military barracks as a makeshift public park.

The action was immediately read by the creative left-wing community of Copenhagen as a political act, and three weeks after the initial break-in Christiana was proclaimed a free-town. Considering the site had all the necessary facilities to sustain a human community – living quarters, entertainment halls, bathhouses etc (as all military barracks do) – Christiana quickly attracted all the characters expected of the open-source hippy movement of the 1970s – yoga gurus, stoners, political journalists, musicians et al.

Today, around 1500 residents live in the community – including dogs and children – and each adult must pay around £200 a month for the privilege. This money is used to pay for rubbish disposal, communal bathroom cleaning and general maintenance. The quality of the houses vary immensely, with some families currently extending their multi-roomed brick houses with smart timber balconies, while other singletons live in hovels without heating or water. Despite the fact that all the buildings are communally owned, there’s still a sense of haves and have-nots that smells a bit like Animal Farm.

But this is not a post about the inner workings of Christiana, it is not a dissection of its social rules and inequalities.  This piece is about how the wider community relates to this ‘free-town’ and what price it is expected to pay to the city to ensure its continued existence.


Unsurprisingly, Christiana has been at dispute with the local and national authorities since its foundation – not least because residents pay no council tax and don’t officially own or rent the land they live on. What’s more, the community is famous for being the centre of the city’s marijuana trade; the first thing you approach upon entering Christiana is the ‘Green Light District’ (also known as Pusher St), a parade of covered kiosks where young and old queue up, rather openly, to buy weed.

Politicians and social thinkers have mixed feelings about Pusher St – some see it as a black mark on the shine of the city, others as a safe(ish) concentration of the marijuana trade which limits the influence of gangs and the violence they bring.

Importantly, Christiana encourages the wider public to interact with their community in other ways than this drug market. There are a number of cafes and bars in the free-town, as well as bicycle shops, clothes shops, a home furnishings warehouse and music and theatre venues. Citizens of Copenhagen proper eat in Christiana’s restaurants, enjoy their theatre, listen to their live music and meditate on the leafy walk atop the old battlements that circle the lake.

In this way, the community offers a service to its hosting city. Like a Camden Town of London, or Mission District of San Francisco, Christiana offers the city’s more conservative residents a place to experiment with ‘counter culture’ – a place to live out teenage fantasies of living in your treehouse and spending the whole day skateboarding.

The problem is, Camden and the Mission are no longer the real deal. More money is probably spent in Camden Lock Market than Harrods, and house prices in the Mission District are now only affordable to Google executives. Christiana, however, is still rolling in the freedom it quietly stole.

So how has Christiana defied gentrification?


First, all the buildings in Christiana are ‘owned’ by the Christiana Fund, a collective body which is run by the residents of the community. If my description sounds vague, that’s because it is – the issue of ownership in Christiana is peppered with laws and theoretical debate, none of which seem conclusive. But one key factor is this: no-one individually owns property in Christiana, so no-one can sell it.

Camden’s gentrific demise is the offspring of urban flux and the private-land market economy. If you own something someone wants, it’s your right to sell it. In cities things move fast and change value quickly – what’s cool today is expensive tomorrow – and in a world ruled by money traders don’t twiddle thumbs.

Because no-one can sell their property in Christiana, things move slow. It took one current resident 20 years to finally get accepted as a member of the community – a decision that can only happen through absolute consensus at the general meeting – and that was only after someone died and the new resident could take on his house (and job).

In our modern world, speed is thrust upon us. But places like Christiana allow both residents and visitors the space to see what happens when things move at the pace of humans instead of computers. If the market is left to reign free over all things, speed will become endemic. One reason that Christiana is valuable to the surrounding community is that it shows that sometimes good things take time.

One positive result of this dedication to the slow is seen in the aesthetics of the free-town. Every architect would agree that Christiana is an inspirational sweet shop, both the personality of the ‘alternative’ builders and the time it takes these independents to work means that the design of the buildings is like nothing we see sprouting up from our modern system. You can’t tell a billionaire Sheikh that his mansion’s not ready because ‘it’ll look nicer if it develops organically over the next five or ten years’. The ‘home-made’ aesthetic is a healthy antidote to architectural monotony.


The richest people in the world live in gated communities, walled estates where passers-by are denied even the chance to gaze upon the houses they can’t possibly afford. Christiana is a tourist attraction, thousands of visitors stroll its winding paths each year for a glimpse at how these ‘weirdoes’ live.

Many intentional communities fear that too many visitors will make them feel like they’re living in a human zoo – but Christiana is the first I visited where they could probably charge a €5 entry fare and still have a hundred guests a day. By living in such an accessible location, they allow their ‘normal’ siblings to ogle at their ‘primitive’ lifestyle.

Interestingly, such a fare would probably be welcomed by the local authorities. It would mean that Christiana itself could be classified as a business and therefore be eligible to pay corporation tex.


The point is that Christiana is providing a cultural service to the world. Get UNESCO in the picture, slap some kind of plaque on the entrance gate and let the community continue.

But the final question is: do the residents of Christiana want this? Recently there’s been a proposal to build a city bike path through the free-town. On the surface this seems like a perfect way to integrate Christiana into the wider community, but the residents fear it is just the first step in the city ‘taking back the land’. It is just this level of paranoia that may bloom into bulldozers.

Slow is a lifestyle choice, stationary is death. Christiana have to learn to make some compromises with the local authorities if they want to continue their dream – so perhaps allowing the bicycle path is one of them. But the authorities must realise the true value of Christiana, both as an international tourist attraction, and – as one Copenhagen resident, who lives 100 metres from the edge of the community, said – as a beneficial bacteria that may live off the support of the surrounding city, but provides essential ingredients for the urban cultural immune system.

Christiana is the irreverent, scruffy, unpredictable younger sister who may offend your great aunt with her gaudy clothes, but entertains the cousins by teaching them karate. She may sometimes embarrass the family, but disowning her because she’s different would be absurdly inhumane.




It all began in an olive grove in Lebanon. I was pacing furiously, sipping pineapple juice from a carton, and trying to work out what to do with my life. My friend was pretty clear on the matter. Start a festival, she said. Start your own music festival where you get to be the person who helps everyone else have an impossibly good time. This suggestion was very un-out-of-the-blue. I’d been talking for the previous hour about how festivals brought people together. How people at festivals forget about make-up and protein shakes. How the atmosphere builds day on day until the competition and fear that grips the mainstream world melts into the mud and people are blissfully exhausted by the beauty of each other.

But I didn’t want to start a festival, I wanted to start a revolution.

In the heat between the olives I’d had a vision. A plan to create something glittering and pure. I wanted to create a two-month long living project where people live in the buzz of festival-land, but where they have to cook for themselves, build their own shelters, fetch their own water from the stream – oh, and make lots of art and lots of music.

The dream was that by working together, making together, living together and simply being out of the structures of mainstream world would help each participant build resourcefulness, self-confidence, empowering frugality and the ability to nurture more meaning from life.

Do they pay to be there? Where does the food come from? How can you apply? Whose land will it happen on? Can you leave if you don’t like it? Will there be free Wi-Fi?


These questions had no answers.

So came my realisation – I know nothing about how to live off the land. How can I plan such a wildly ambitious happening if I can’t tell a rosemary bush from a lavender plant? My answer: I’ll go visit people who are in the know.


When I began my Year of the Commune (aka 2014), I’d never heard the term intentional community. I guessed that there would still be some radical hippies living out in the woods somewhere, but I had no idea how to find them, or if they’d let me visit. But I had a desire – I wanted to know how they lived the life they lived, and what I could learn from them about how to run my dreamy festival-project.

It was only after my first visits to communities in February and March that I began to understand my deeper motivations for spending a year of my life researching alternative living.

As much as I believe in the idea that we can all live with less, and that neo-liberal capitalism manufactures desire for things we don’t need, I realised that I wasn’t that interested in learning about how to grow food, or dispose of the poo it ends up as.


What I’m really interested in is people. Who are these people who go off and live out their beliefs in straw-bale houses? Do they get on better than the rest of us, or are they weirdos who couldn’t handle the big bad world and now drive each other insane?

I am of course repeating myself, my entire blog has been dedicated to answering the above questions. But at the time, in April, this realisation left me in a pickle: If I wasn’t using intentional communities to help me garner practical skills about how to run my festival-project, what was I visiting for?

Suddenly I had no practical reason for my quest. Such a revelation would probably be music to the ears of many communards who believe that the West’s cultural obsession with progress and output is damaging the spirit of humanity – but I still needed a ‘This Is What I’m Doing With My Life’ sign to hold on to. Which is probably the deeper reason why I started this blog.

But beginning the blog threw up a new dilemma (and revealed another motivation for my project). All my life I’d learnt about the world through books. Yes, I’ve travelled and worked and felt, but my beliefs seem to rise up through the written word. One desire of visiting communities was to learn about the world in a different way. Instead of reading about people standing in a circle singing songs and holding hands, I wanted to stand in a circle and sing songs and hold hands – and feel what it feels like.


Rituals matter. But the closest I’d ever come to enacting one was going every Thursday to an indie nightclub in Leeds and dancing till I’d filled my empty beer  glass with hair-sweat. If I started writing about intentional communities, instead of just ‘being’ in them, I was worried that I’d be too busy trying to remember what colour the candles were instead of losing myself saying namaste.

Then came another twist of fate. Starting the blog actually boosted my motivation for visiting communes. It became my structure and my space to air my feelings. It became my training ground, my psychotherapy couch and my mental garden. The stony ground of the white page, where all manner of ideas attempt to germinate, and the strongest wrap their shoots around my oscillating mind and bloom into fully flowered blogposts.

Once I’d admitted that writing the blog ‘was a good thing’, it became deliciously expedient. I wanted to make something, and pieces of writing are something I know how to make. They cost nothing; they can be done from anywhere. And as they’re self-published they are the perfect response to that hurtfully insipid question: so, what do you do?

Guess what? Motivations change. The only important thing is not to lose them. This year has taught me somewhat about intentional communities, but it’s taught me much more about my own fascination with psychology, anthropology and the art of learning. I may or may not start my own utopian two-month long festival-project, but I’ll always have been to the places I’ve been, and I’ll always have written this blog.

Onwards …




Deloitte. JP Morgan. The World Bank

Yep, this is still ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A NEW WORLD, but today we’re brainstorming the top places for Economics graduates to further their career.

What’s that I hear? An intentional community! Don’t be daft, those hippies hate making money.

Not about money, you say? What the lucifer?! Money is our most expedient tool for exchanging goods and services. It’s so flexible and useful and easy to count. How can you learn about economics if you’re not dealing with money?!

How indeed.


Emerald Earth is a small intentional community in northern California. It consists of six adults, three children, two cows and a smattering of chickens and deer.

Every three months, the community members open their doors and invite the public to stay for a weekend. They provide food and accommodation, and visitors donate their sweat. A leisurely nine to five of wood-stacking and weed-clearing gets you two nights sleeping amongst the redwoods and a steam in the sauna.

Instead of the visitors paying to visit, or the host paying employees to work, labour is swapped for experience. This is not unique. Work exchange programmes are common amongst rural businesses, and the deal is simple: escape the city for a few days, and give your labour instead of your money.


But Emerald Earth have a different approach. This community is looking for something subtler than muscle. It’s not about the labour they extract from their visitors, it’s about servicing their own need for an audience, and revealing their true selves in return.

When people visit intentional communities there is one thing they want to see more than anything else: the people.

Sure, permaculture is fun, communal cooking hearty, and mediation groovy – but visitors are already sold on that. What they really want to know is whether living in an intentional community would make them go insane. Sartre famously dramatised that ‘hell is other people’, so forget all the cold showers and goat shit – the question on the visitor’s lips is: will this place turn me into a murderer?

Emerald Earth understand this desire and have created a space where interaction occurs more freely.

Work party guests spend the whole day in close contact with the residents. Lubricated by the soft rhythm of monotonous work, the visitors are warmed and ripe to ask more honest, probing questions – and in doing so build a deeper understanding of how these residents feel in the community. In fact, most of the time questions are unnecessary. You don’t need to be Freud to diagnose if someone is welcoming, irritable, defensive or arrogant – but you do need some immediate contact so you can collect your evidence.


All good workshop practitioners know the value of an ice-breaker. And the best ice-breakers get everyone moving their bodies before they move their mouths.

Emerald Earth start each work-shift with a group game, then when the visitors are asked to choose which resident they’d like to work with (the only socially awkward part of the day), they feel more confident in their selection. They are less afraid of judgement and invisible social energy shifts.

Once at work, they feel little pressure to break their backs and more freedom to question the lives and methods of the residents.

The result of this laissez-faire work ethic is that everyone’s happier, but less work gets done. But this is just the key: the work parties are less about the work and more about the party – but less dance party, more party of souls.

So if Emerald Earth don’t want their visitors’ labour, what do they want them for?


Emerald Earth is a 15-minute drive from its nearest village – Boonville, population 1,086 – and over an hour’s drive from its nearest proper town, Santa Rosa. Although the community’s been around for over twenty years, it lacks consistency – none of the founders live there, and one of the three couples who do have only just arrived. The community isn’t bound to one specific religion or code of practice. Yes they eat natural, but there’s no overarching ideological vision – or at least nothing explicit.


Luckily, some of the residents of Emerald Earth are experienced communards. They know that the best way to sustain community is to have a shared goal and embed that goal through ritual. The work party is a ritual which gives an unimposing evangelism to the lives of the Emerald Earthlings. Through inviting newbies into their fold, they demonstrate the working and social patterns of living in community.

Outsiders join in day-to-day practices of life on the land, and the residents enjoy the attention and look back into the mirror of time. Veterans of any pursuit can look to freshmen for hints on how they themselves started out – what did they fear, what did they hope for? Every three months, Emerald Earth is nourished with a collage of enquiring hearts and heads that help put the residents’ lives into focus and help punctuate their projects. If the new chicken coop STILL isn’t built after six different work parties, perhaps the community is missing a trick.

I was born into a society which told me to produce and progress, and to seek reward for my achievements. The residents of Emerald Earth were born into the same society. Despite their choice to shake off this latent pressure to achieve (by practicing a slower way of life), I believe they are still motivated by a praising audience. If you hide away in the woods and do novel things, it still feels good when someone comes along and congratulates you.

Emerald Earth, subconsciously or otherwise, are aware that they need some outside eyes and voices to nourish their egos and keep them moving. I know I would struggle to write this blog if I thought no-one was reading it.

Under the guise of a labour-for-experience work-exchange programme, the community practice something even less capitalistic and utilitarian: they create a space for human interaction that enriches both parties with no finite output. And yet, both parties gain more than a traditional work-exchange: the visitors get a deeper understanding of the community (the real reason they’re there), and the residents are fired up for the next three months to come.

By using their understanding of the HOW instead of the WHAT, Emerald Earth balance an equation no economist could calculate.


Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad WWOOF?

monk in beds

If you had to live in an intentional community for the next ten years, what would you be most afraid of?

Perhaps you’d worry that you’d have to give away your savings? Would you fear being thought a fool by your children or parents? Are you afraid that chopping firewood would get terribly boring? Or maybe you’re scared that they’ll be no way to hide your grey hair and wrinkles?

But this blogpost is not like my others. It is not a story in which I demystify intentional communities. It is not another criticism of the ‘mainstream’ world via a comparison to a virtuous eco-village. The aim of this piece is to create a discussion. Right here, right now.

I would like everyone who reads this blog to write in the comment box below. I would like everyone to answer this question:

If you had to live in an intentional community for the next ten years, what would you be most afraid of?


This is not about finding out who’s good and who’s bad. This is about creating a dinner party discussion about intentional communities, with the added protection of online anonymity.

I hope that people will be honest about their insecurities and prejudices. This is a chance to voice any nagging question related to intentional living, be it, ‘Ooh I’m not sure about this, Rich – would I be allowed to drink Diet Coke?’ or ‘What happens if I get pneumonia and I’m living too far from the nearest hospital?’

ugly food

I admit this is a selfish request, but sometimes writing this blog is very lonely, and I love it when people comment on my pieces. But don’t worry, just because I want attention doesn’t mean you have to suffer it too. I know that it can be embarrassing to reveal your weaknesses and doubts in the cold clear world of the internet. So here’s what you do …

It is very easy to comment below without revealing your identity. The comment box will ask you for your name and email address: both can be totally fictional. You can write …

Name – Mr Sweet Tooth / Email –

… and it will be fine. The email address does not need to really exist.


So! Let’s get to it. Not enough chocolate? Missing the Chelsea games? Being accused of having a mid-life crisis? Scared that your girlfriend would leave you?


If you had to live in an intentional community for the next ten years, what would you be most afraid of?

This is your chance to share your thoughts with the other readers of All I Want For Christmas Is A New World. Please be brave and honest.


ant mobius

This is one for the politics nerds, the gender buffs, the psychoanalysts and the dreamers. If you think the world is fine as it is, please stop reading.

On my adventure into intentional communities I hoped to find new models of human interaction. I hoped to discover how these pioneering splinter cells were collapsing the ordinary, shaking the box, and rearranging the pieces into a more peaceful pattern. I have seen some inspirational and revolutionary practices, details of which I’ve scattered throughout this blog – but disappointment lingers. I am the first to admit that this disappointment stems from my radically naive, saccharine optimism, from my believe that human beings are capable of finding a way to live together with less violence and less suffering.

This is the first part of a many-part blog within a blog. It is called [STRUCTURES]. It is concerned with investigating the structures which persist within intentional communities despite the unique possibilities that they have in deconstructing them. This is about the HOW and not about the WHAT.

* * *

Here in modern culture, we have a common belief that there are knowers and not-knowers. Children are not-knowers and therefore go to school to be taught skills and facts that will make them knowers. In the realm of adults, knowers are spilt into camps in which they ‘know’ something others don’t. Doctors ‘know’ how to heal patients, engineers ‘know’ how to build bridges, judges ‘know’ how to give a fair sentence. In my opinion, this view of knowledge is flawed, and my opinion is largely shaped by Paulo Freire’s insights into how the structure of knowers and not-knowers causes a circular process of oppression.


Tamera eco-village is perhaps the most radical and forward-thinking of all the communities I have visited so far. They frown upon monogamy, encourage group emotion-sharing, talk to snakes to stop them from eating cabbages and use their pagan stone circle to communicate with kindred souls in Palestine. Whether or not these practices seem positive or negative, it is surprising to note that when it comes to education they seem content to use the most traditional of methods. Each day of the ten-day introduction course I attended began with a lecture. One person shared their wisdom with four hundred. The lecture took place in a church-like building, and everyone had to sit still and be quiet.  Most of the speakers talked about their compassion for the humans who are suffering all around the globe, about how they were moved to join a peace march in Israel, or why they couldn’t bear to see their neighbours’ dogs chained up to posts. The lectures were emotionally evocative, they were honest and they were eloquent – I very much enjoyed most of them. But I was confused.

I was confused that a community of radical egalitarianism couldn’t see the irony in using a patriarchal, ‘listen-to-me-as-I-know-best’ communication structure where the not-knowers look up to the stage to hear how the knower experiences the world. I, for one, enjoy lectures. I like listening to inspirational stories, or specialists talk about their speciality – but the format is not for everyone. I have friends who glaze over and count the tiles on the ceiling, friends who are intelligent, motivated and creative but who can’t engage with words. (They’re probably not reading this blog.)

Oddly, Tamera use a very Freire-ian method to educate their children. The on-site school is a mix between Montessori-style open classes where kids choose what to learn, and a practical interaction with the physical world where they pick fruit in the garden and discover how rainwater is retained through permacultural policy. There is very little hierarchy and therefore very little knower/not-knower interplay.


Perhaps Tamera doesn’t trust its adults like it trusts its children, or perhaps it’s just playing the game. When two hundred outsiders take ten days out of their ‘busy schedules’ to ‘learn about Tamera’, Tamera has to choose how to best service their needs. Most of these newcomers are laced with the desire for efficiency; they want to ‘get the most out of the experience’ and want to be charmed. We are all suckers for leaders and guides. Despite Freire, we’ve grown up in a world of choice in which it is much simpler to submit to someone else’s vision than to create your own – in which we’re comfortable with hierarchy and with someone else taking responsibility. When we are confronted with a mysterious and unconventional environment like Tamera, we’re grateful for the familiar structure of lectures, we indulge in the chance for someone to explain what is going on.

In my opinion, Tamera was right to offer lectures delivered by the founders of the community, just like it was right to offer guided tours of the landscape where their gardening practices and solar energy generators could be explained. Freire may not be pleased, but you can’t jump from one world to another without using a bridge: some hierarchical ‘I-will-talk-if-you-will-listen’ transfer of information is clearly still helpful. The problem was that they didn’t see that this process was a necessary evil. It is impossible to understand a community and their practices unless you actually live there, and there is a strict limit to what you can absorb in a burst of ten days. But the key is not that Tamera eliminate all knower/not-knower exchange of facts, but that they recognise the limitations of the process, minimise its use, and maximise more horizontal ideas sharing.

Ideally, visitors would come to Tamera for no shorter than three months. These visitors would be told nothing about the practices of the community, but would absorb the structures and ways through working and living them on a daily basis. At the end of their time, Tamera would ask for feedback from these visitors – ask them to openly criticise how the community runs in the hope that this fresh pair of eyes would illuminate some of the creases in their project. Despite the economic difficulties for both Tamera and the visitor in such an arrangement (Tamera needs to provide food and shelter, the visitor forfeits three-months of earning no income), it isn’t money or resources that’s halting the idea. The problem is that Tamera isn’t interested in hearing criticisms from the outside world, an attitude that can be inferred from the way they structure their ten-day Summer University.


During this introduction programme, the knowers of Tamera treated their visitors as not-knowers. They overfed these potential allies with dogma and mantra, and made little space for them to offer what tentative feedback they felt confident enough to give. Any community is right to be scrupulous in accepting the criticism of an outsider who has only experienced their home for a mere week or so, but if they started playing the game, they should keep on playing it. If it was a conscious decision to use conventional learning structures like lectures in order to make newcomers more comfortable, then it would make sense to offer the newcomers some time to offer their feedback, even if it comes loaded with the cynical intention of making these not-knowers feel more important, more wanted, and therefore more committed to the Tamera cause.

The problem is that Tamerians are not aware of what they are doing. The teachers in the children’s school may have an advanced view of education, but the community at large seems steeped in the patriarchal structure of using one person’s words to convince others to do things and feel things. Like priests, like politicians, like football managers – the leaders of Tamera think they know best. Those who ‘think deepest’ and ‘feel deepest’ (a.k.a. those with the confidence and eloquence to stand up in front of devotees) are entitled to act as guides to the others, they are the shining lights in the dark and we must follow them to oblivion.

Fuck that balls.

If you’re going to save the world you’ve got to do it with everyone. Yes it’s difficult to find a process for engaging with the speed of the mainstream world when you’re trying to create a whole different approach to living. How do you create a holistic, non-hierarchical, immersive, inspiring, informative, interactive environment in which visitors feel they have ‘learnt’ some practical knowledge of the community and yet feel welcomed enough to add in their own opinions – all in under two weeks? In the case of Tamera’s ten-day Summer University it’s simple. Plan lectures for the first six days and leave the last four for visitor feedback. This feedback can take the form of lectures, theatre, dance, visual art, music, algebra, whatever – but must be given airtime. This shift of power won’t break Freire’s circle of oppression, it will merely take the stick of dominance from the Tamerians and give it to the outsiders to hit with. But in the short space of ten days, with a group of diverse adults who are programmed in the code of knowers and not-knowers, it may be the best they can do.

montessori kid learning

It is disappointing that the wildly revolutionary community of Tamera still use staid and oppressive forms of learning and communication, but Eden wasn’t built in a day. It may not be reasonable to dismantle every structure of the world we were born into, but the first step is to recognise what they are and admit our submission to them. If you want to re-think how humans can live in peace with themselves and the earth, you have to re-think everything … and that’s often more about the how than the what.

‘Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.’ Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of Freedom



Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 8.56.53 AM

Hands up who wants to live in a commune? You sir, your hand is clearly down – can I ask why you don’t want to live in peace amongst your fellow humans?

That’s just it. I don’t think it would be peaceful. Squashed together in a freezing cold shack, smelling to high heaven in recycled clothes, and bickering over whether bread is vegan because of the yeast.

What if I told you there was a place where you didn’t have to share your wife? Where you could take a shower twice a day, eat meat, own your own car and not have to hold hands and sing before every meal?

That ain’t no commune, that’s just normal life.



Just Do It is a community of six adults who live on a piece of communally owned land near Santa Cruz, California. In the mid 1980s they decided they wanted to find a home, and instead of scrambling to buy individual bedsits in some grey cube of city-land, they pooled their money and bought a couple of acres with a view of the ocean. The intention was to have no intention: they just wanted to live somewhere nice and couldn’t afford to unless they worked together.

The first thing they did was build a house – a house no one was going to live in. The plan was to build a communal living space with a spacious living room, industrially equipped kitchen and a bathroom suite. The house would act as a temporary sleeping space until the other private homes were built. Using 50ft crossbeams salvaged from an old Santa Cruz restaurant, the team drew up a blueprint and got their hands dirty. In fact, all the electrical and plumbing fixtures were also salvaged, and considering they weren’t paying for labour, they estimate the 2600 sq. ft. house cost a mere $20,800 in total. They had to learn how to mix cement, fit windows and raise a tin roof – but they were all young, committed and hungry for a home (and only one of them had a full-time, 40-hour a week job). Once the Big House was liveable, the community helped each couple build themselves a small private home of 435 square feet, which could be extended in the future with funds taken from the couple’s personal income. The private houses had no kitchens and no showers or baths – and they still haven’t.


Thirty years later and the community is going strong. Kids have come and gone. The private homes have been extended and personalised, and the couples still eat dinner together every night. In fact, this was the one ‘rule’ they made as a community – to always eat dinner together. Their belief is that no one likes meetings. Instead, any interpersonal issues or collective property decisions can be brought up nightly over lamb shanks and a glass of Californian red.

At this point, I want to reiterate that Just Do It isn’t an intentional community, and therefore I’d like to defend why I included it in this blog. The community has no aspirations to confront the problems of how the system coerces us to live. That is not to say the individual residents of Just Do It aren’t politically, artistically or morally active, but that the community itself is not. The important thing is that living projects like Just Do It are an easy step away from the trap of individualism which the current mainstream model promotes. Most people would like to live in a beautiful house, eat delicious food, and have money to go on holiday – this form of communal living denies you none of that. But of course there are pros and cons.

One of the emotional benefits of this kind of community became evident when some of the couples decided to have children. While two of the couples decided they wanted kids, one couple did not. Speaking to the childless man of the six, he  revealed how honoured and touched he felt that he could play a central role in the lives of his co-residents’ daughters. It gave him the chance to be a father figure without the responsibility of being an actual father. In name he is no official relation to his co-residents’ daughters, but he is emotionally invested in them. The children themselves benefited from having closer contact with a wider range of adults, and the parents were given more flexibility in work and travel, knowing that their live-in friends were around to watch the kids.


The obvious difficulty with the arrangement is the inflexibility of group ownership. As the residents have all put their time and money into building their home, it would surely be problematic if one couple decided they needed a change and wanted to move. All members of Just Do It have paid occupations in the mainstream world. As is the nature of the market-focussed capitalist system, employment opportunities move in response to where employers can find the cheapest labour. It may be a hassle to relocate from London to Manchester to follow a job with the BBC, but it’s much more tricky if you’re tied into a communal living setting such as Just Do It.

In fact, the project didn’t start with three neat couples. One of the original members was bought out of his share in the early 1990s, for around $25,000. Three other singletons also helped to build the house, but didn’t invest any money for materials. Two of these individuals have stayed closed to Just Do It, and their ‘labour shares’ allow them permanent ‘right to return’ to the property; the third seems to have had a dispute with the couples and is no longer in contact.

The current members are also not without conflict. Recently the community decided to cut down a fir tree which was becoming a fire risk due to its proximity to the Big House. The decision was made while one member was away on business, and when he returned he was not only upset that his favourite tree was gone, but upset he hadn’t been consulted.


Another thing to note is that all the buildings at Just Do It are officially illegal. The community never applied for planning permission, and as far as Santa Cruz county are concerned, the land still holds nothing more than one small Redwood shack. The fact that the site can only be accessed by a private dirt road, and that they’re very friendly with the neighbours, all helps to keep the community go unnoticed. Nevertheless, the residents are all aware that their dream could perish if they made an enemy who decided to turn them in to the authorities, or some unscrupulous blogger wrote about them on the internet … don’t worry, they’re not really called Just Do It.

It may be unsurprising that Just Do It is one of the most successful ‘communities’ that I’ve visited – they’re wealthy, they’re intelligent and their project hasn’t put their own security at risk in the name of a higher cause. Nevertheless, as an avid believer in the mantra that you can’t make other people happy unless you’re happy yourself, I recommend projects like Just Do It as a non-radical step towards a richer life.

In the words of Greg, founding member of Just Do It: ‘The couple is the refuge from the commune and the commune is the refuge from the couple.’


To see a short video on Just Do It, made by the residents, click here



Fluffy white towels – check. Manicured lawn – check. Hot spring jacuzzi – check. The Californian waves crash onto the soothing shore and butterflies nest in marigolds. Your conversation about Microsoft comes to a close as your partner is due for his massage. Perhaps it’s time for another green tea. This is Esalen. The alternative retreat centre modelled on a 5-star resort. It’s got the scenery, it’s got the staff, and it’s got the price tag … but apparently it’s still an intentional community.

Esalen was founded in 1962 in order to explore and research ‘humanistic alternative education’. Inspired by the writings of Aldous Huxley, Indian spiritualism of the body and the limitations of status quo psychology, the centre began offering lectures by prominent thinkers. Eastern philosopher Alan Watts, psychologist Abraham Maslow and Huxley’s wife, Laura, were some of the first. In 1964 Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, began a residency at Esalen and used the centre to offer workshops and research how awareness of sensation, perception and expression via the body can improve communication and understanding between human beings. As a community, Esalen’s intention is to help individuals ‘realise their human potential’ by being a ‘community of seekers and change agents’.

I arrived at Esalen in good spirits. I’d driven up the beautiful Big Sur coast with a friend, and I was ready to embrace the community. These spirits were promptly dashed. As the gate guard informed me where to check-in, I asked where we could park while we both looked around. This question was greeted with a frown and a grimace, oh no, she said, your friend cannot stay on the property once you’ve been dropped off, she must leave at once. I smiled and said of course, but this would just be a twenty minute stroll around the grounds. No, no, no and no. Her whole body reeked with no and the essence of unwelcome. We drove on, checked in, and then had a walk around anyway. When she caught us she was not best pleased. We’re just walking back to the car, we said – which we were, because my friend felt so uncomfortable that she couldn’t relax and enjoy the scenery. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, the woman said. She actually said that. I felt like a schoolboy who was late for his French class – not a guest who’d paid over $400 for my two-night stay, and certainly not a guest in someone else’s home.


So here begins the saddening irony of Esalen. For a place that is all about challenging the HOW, it distinctly fails to master it. Esalen offers workshops which seek unconventional ways to express and understand your emotions and desires, yet my first emotional experience – my interaction with the guard/host  had been full of tension and distrust. This was not because the Esalen host had refused to comply with our desire to look around, but the way in which she refused. Surely if she’d been to multiple Gestalt workshops, self-awareness meditation sessions and mindfulness meetings she would be better trained in making a new guest at ease, even if she had to deliver unpopular information?

Things became clearer at the welcome meeting. It was chaired by the same woman who had met us at the gate, and the first thing I heard her say was: there are 135 staff at Esalen. Staff?  Isn’t this an intentional community – surely she means community members? I ruminated on this jolt as I waited for the tour to begin – if she’s just a staff member, no wonder she acted rudely. The meeting ended without a tour, so I strolled down to investigate Esalen’s star attraction – the natural hot spring baths.

Upon arriving I was met by a grumpy troll. Actually, it was a confused and dejected guest who’d shirked the welcome meeting after she had felt very unwelcomed. She’d been embarrassed at the check-in desk when the attendant accused her of ‘not filling in the online form properly’. There was a problem with her booking; there were no free rooms and no space on any of the workshops. Unlike the 5-star hotel Esalen mimicked, the resort made no attempt to follow the market-focussed mantra – the customer is always right. The ‘community’ made her feel awkward for messing up the booking, and told her she’d have to pay extra for a more luxurious room – the only one available. It seemed like my first impression was not a fluke.


Unlike the troll – who was actually quite pretty and called Julia – I had opted for the cheapest form of accommodation at Esalen, a ‘sleeping bag space’ in one of the seminar rooms. I could roll my sleeping bag on the floor at 11pm, and had to be packed up with all my belongings in a closet by 9am. Esalen don’t allow camping as it ‘damages the land’. No one had explained how many people would be sleeping in the room, which didn’t seem a problem until I crept in to get my sleeping bag and was barked at by a woman for waking her, and for disturbing ‘the girls’. She claimed she was ‘protecting’ two other guests from the weirdo sleeping by the window. The ‘weirdo’ was a perfectly normal middle-aged man who had shared my writing workshop. After half-an-hour of the woman intermittently flicking the light on, then off, another man’s tether broke and he began shouting at her and everyone to be quiet. Such a scenario could have happened in any form of shared accommodation, but at least with hostels you can count the beds to know how many people are meant to be there, and they don’t normally cost $150 per night.

The next day brought no tour of Esalen. It turns out they just don’t do them. For me the first rule of feeling comfortable in a space is knowing how it works: where are the bathrooms, where is off-limits, who gets to drive around in a golf cart and who does not. This feeling of displacement is common to many of the communities I’ve visited; it’s natural to take some time to settle in to someone else’s home. But this was the dilemma of Esalen: it wasn’t a home and it wasn’t a hotel. If it had been a home, you would have had a host. If a hotel, highly trained – albeit obsequious – staff. I joked about this difficulty with my workshop buddies after Saturday evening dinner. Everyone admitted that they had sat around the dining hall on the first night, pretending to be absorbed in a book but desperately wanting someone to talk to. They wanted direction, a bit like how everyone at Tamera just wanted someone to inform them about the love spaces. I suggested there should be a table with a massive sign on it saying ‘Lonely New People’, so that all the lonely new people could find each other and connect – everyone agreed, and suggested I put my suggestion in the suggestion box.


To clarify, I was not surprised that Esalen do not offer a fully guided tour of the property every week and weekend, but to not offer one at all is irresponsible. If you’re going to forbid passers-by and droppers-off from exploring the property, you’ve got to give them a chance to do so in the future: oh, I’m sorry, we’re not doing tours today, but here’s a list of upcoming tour dates, we hope you can make it back (smile). And I’m not surprised they charged $150 a night for my ‘sleeping space’, the cost also included access to the baths, three (exquisite) meals a day and Big Sur itself is known for being exorbitantly expensive. The problem is that there is no way for the non-wealthy to visit Esalen.

If Esalen is a place for the wealthy to explore their inner self, the website should say so. Instead of market-speak bullshit like, ‘the first sensation you have after arriving is that you’ve passed through some kind of veil into a parallel universe of human belonging’, they should just say: ‘this is lovely place to take interesting courses on human development if you have the money’. The fact that Esalen oversells itself is the most unnerving aspect. Businesses oversell themselves, they seek investors and hope to beat the competition. If the community of Esalen is honest about seeking human development and harmony, it needs to lose the deceitful advertising.


I have to take a minute out of the flow of this post to appreciate the writing course I took at Esalen. In contrast to the lack of interpersonal skills displayed by the staff, the poorly designed social atmosphere and elitism that was cultivated, our course leader was warm, intelligent, intuitive and highly skilled in creating safe spaces. The course was designed to make its participants comfortable enough to write and then share their most intimate and delicate feelings and experiences. Despite the short time period, everyone trusted the group and its leader enough to open themselves and write deeply.

The writing-course leader was an experienced writer with a true talent for workshop facilitation, and an honest love of people telling their story. Esalen felt like a fledgling business run by the feckless son of an inspiring father, passed down to him with shoddy finances, demoralised staff and no vision for the future.

Like many intentional communities, Esalen has a work exchange program. Usually, people who want to absorb themselves in a community can offer physical labour in exchange for room and board. This is a great way of allowing people with less money and more time to experience how a community works. At Esalen you must work 32 hours a week and pay $1100 per month for this privilege. This is understandable considering the business model under which Esalen operates, but it eliminates the possibility of visiting Esalen without a salary-job or an inheritance.


It appears to me that like other intentional communities, at some point since its birth Esalen ran into financial difficulties. Perhaps because it is so close to Silicon Valley, it believed the best way to ensure its survival was to go capitalist. Unfortunately, one of the results of capitalism is that workers have no investment in the organisation they work for; the woman at the gate was paid by Esalen, but she didn’t feel as if she owned Esalen. Or alternatively Esalen itself has succumbed to another pitfall of capitalism – the paranoia of private ownership; the community is so afraid of losing what they have that they can’t risk ‘outsiders’ ruining their harmonious atmosphere by taking a tour of the grounds.

How Esalen developed and how it will continue is a story for another time, all I can conclude for now is that the organisation may have many good intentions, but it’s failing to be a community.