FOLLOWING THE NORM
This is the story of the rise and fall of an intentional community. The community is called Sunburst and their intention is to seek self-realisation through meditation. It begins, poetically, in southern California in 1969 …
Norman Paulsen was one of the many young Americans charmed and enthralled by the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Kriya yoga and meditation guru from India, known as the ‘first yogi in the West’. Paulsen met Yogananda in the late 1940s in Los Angeles. He became a devoted follower, and expert meditator. After Yogananda’s death in 1952, Paulsen spent twenty years working in construction before he acquired his first follower in 1968. As the cultural revolution of the sixties took hold, Paulsen’s beliefs and lifestyle fast became attractive to questioning, anti-consumerist young adults. Drawn together under the desire to meditate, Paulsen’s followers grew in such number that it made sense for the group to live together. Paulsen bought a huge plot of land in the hills north of Santa Barbara and formed Sunburst. Within five years, the community swelled from 30 members to over 300.
The first point: Sunburst became an intentional community through a desire to share a lifestyle. The lifestyle – self-realisation through meditation -came first, the choice to live together second. One of Sunburst’s guiding tenets was that it was easier to live a righteous life by sharing a livelihood and daily schedule with others. If everyone gets up at 6am to meditate (and you’re sharing a dorm with them), it’s much easier to motivate yourself to join in. Community supports.
In the mid 1970s, the members of Sunburst lived under bonds of poverty and chastity, meditating together towards enlightenment, and living off the land. They grew vegetables, herded goats, sewed their own moccasins and lived without electricity and running water. Growing food led to a surplus, and with this surplus Sunburst opened their first organic produce store, Sunburst Farms. The economy was run communally: wherever they worked (in the field, the store, or handicraft) each individual got room and board and a $5-a-week allowance. All the members were celibate. Once again, action sprung out of circumstance; there was no initial desire to build a business. The resources for the business came out of the lifestyle (farming and handicraft), and only then did the community seek an income from the mainstream world. The central intention was still to meditate.
In the late 1970s Paulsen decided to move the community. They swapped their southern Californian farm lands for the wilds of the northeastern Nevada desert. In this new climate, the community was no longer able to live off the land, and they began gaining their living from running the food stores and managing truck stops. Many of the original members started to depart. Paulsen changed the rules, and those who stayed were allowed to couple off and have children. Attitudes changed. By living alongside ‘mainstreamers’ in the harsh climate of the high desert, Sunburst members shook off their self-righteousness and became more accepting of different lifestyles.
The second point: The community flourished when it was based in the rustic, pastoral Arcadia of Santa Barbara county, when all property was communal, and members were righteous enough to stick to their vows. It diminished when the climate became unforgiving, the lifestyle became more mainstream (working at truck stops) and children replaced chastity. If meditation was really what was keeping Sunburst together, why did so many people leave after the relocation?
The years in the desert took their toll and the community decided to urbanise in the 1980s. Sunburst bought houses in Salt Lake City, started some new health food stores, and bought a demolition business. The kids went to the local public school and the adults worked normal jobs. At some point in this adventure, Norman Paulsen decided to buy some derelict yachts. Thinking it would be a good way to teach children some practical skills, he anchored them near Santa Barbara and made voyages to the Channel Islands of California. Some community members lived on the yachts (I struggled to find a deeper explanation for this eccentricity).
Eventually, Paulsen decided to bring the community back to California and back to the land. He bought a farm near Solvang in Santa Barbara county and moved there with his wife. By 1996, Sunburst had acquired another 4000-acre plot of land ten miles south toward Lompoc, and this became the spiritual and physical home of Sunburst. And so Sunburst now stands, forty-five years from its inception and eight years since Paulsen’s death in 2006.
Sunburst is currently home to about 25 permanent residents, half of which live at the retreat centre near Lompoc, and the other half at Nojoqui Farms near Solvang. They want to expand and they want to attract young members. The problems are as follows.
Sunburst is currently locked in a battle with the local authorities over land zoning laws. The community were told they had to remove their series of wooden cabin trailers – used for accommodating guests – from the ranch property after a complaint from a nearby landowner. This has left the main meditation retreat without adequate accommodation for visiting guests, and has jeopardised the success of the retreats themselves. Sunburst want to build more accommodation but the law won’t let them. This is because Sunburst is situated on ‘agriculture preserve’ land and the local government don’t want their hills filled with new residential developments. The fact that Sunburst members have to live across two properties puts a strain on the community spirit. They still have morning meditation every day at sunrise, but some have to drive over to the Temple at the retreat centre to take part.
Besides the lack of guest accommodation, Sunburst suffers from another legal wound. Registered as a religious community, they are allowed to offer services for their congregation, in this case, group meditation. Anyone is welcome, but they are not officially ‘open to the public’ because being so would require a different permit or land zoning right. Therefore Sunburst will often forgo listing their retreats on their website, and will only reveal the retreats’ existence through direct inquiry. These complications make outreach a muddled affair.
And then there’s the age thing. 90% of Sunburst is over 60 years old. At the sunday meditation service I attended, I was one of three people under 40. When the community decided to host a retreat exclusively for people between 18 – 30, not one person signed up. The community members are fully aware of the reasons for this dearth of youth. In the past, the community lived in idealised poverty in back country goat camps: sleeping under the stars, weaving baskets, riding horses and singing together. Now, the community meets officially but once a week – on Sunday – and each couple or singleton lives in a private home with modern conveniences. For young people looking for new spirituality mixed with adventure and alternative living – it’s just not exciting enough.
The third point: The lifecycle of the community fits the lifecycle of a human being. In its youth it was committed, self-righteous, fundamentalist, inspiring – then the human instinctual desire of raising a family, and the fear of growing old without financial security kicked in. People wanted ownership and definite skills to support themselves with. After testing out a variety of lifestyles, they got older and moved into comfortable houses with air-conditioning; they ate lunch at the local organic food deli while wistfully ruminating on why their children had chosen a different path to them. All communities need new blood. The question is, do communities need to be flexible in their beliefs and lifestyle in order to keep the oxygen flowing – or is a strict commitment to the founding ideals the only way to keep focus? Would more young people have joined Sunburst over the years if they’d stayed self-sufficient and celibate?
The members of Sunburst who I met were overall more friendly and welcoming than any other community I’ve visited, and displayed a highly approachable calmness and openness. They’ve survived the death of their charismatic leader, and stay committed to their beliefs. But without new members to hold the baton, the end is plainly in sight.
The truth is, the Sunburst community will probably cease to exist within the next twenty years. With a population almost exclusively over 60 – and no fresh bodies to support them – there will come a point where they can no longer run the farm, or even the meditation circles. Unless a group of young meditation enthusiasts decide to make Sunburst their home (which isn’t actually a bad idea if any are reading), the land will eventually be sold once the final members of the community either die or can no longer look after themselves.
The final question: if they had done things differently, could they still be thriving? Or must all things originate, live, and die?
World Brotherhood Colonies: