Findhorn is not a place of Buddhist practice per se, but it is a place of practice. The main campus of the organization is based in two locations around the quaint Highland town of Forres (about thirty miles from Inverness). One is Cluny, an old hotel that very obviously was an old hotel, a large building, it’s very architecture somehow casting the shadow onto one of the muted desperation of 1930s holiday-makers undergoing perfunctory periods of rest and relaxation. The other is a sprawling park within walking distance of the cold and pebbly but beautiful beach. The park is home to many interesting individuals complete with many Tibetan prayer flags, hobbit homes, strawberry fields and other creative hippy touches. However radical its past, there is an air of being a very established and safe organization now, with roads, safety signs, laminated signs with rules and regulations, a well-stocked convenience store and a pleasant cafe with a newspaper rack.
Several times a month, the organization runs ‘Experience Week’, which is a collection of activities selected to give a taste of what Findhorn is about. There are classes in Eurythmic Dancing, conversing with nature, gardening workshops and so on. At the center of all these activities are the group-sharing sessions. The group sits around a circle and go around saying how they feel, making sure to always to use ‘I statements’ – for example, you wouldn’t say ‘Joe is horrible’, you’d say ‘I think that Joe is horrible’. This is surprisingly powerful. Total strangers open up to one another, stoic men start crying, very got-it-together seeming people reveal painful aspects of themselves. The week becomes highly emotionally charged, perhaps a week-long microcosm of your own emotional opera, faster-moving but no less powerful but, because it is briefer, easier to understand.
The centre doesn’t do any one spiritual practice. There is a focus on these group sharing activities, on ‘tuning-in’ – which means holding hands with your group before a work sessions and ‘coming back’ to the place, time and oneself. An interest in angels runs around. Practically speaking, this means that a group or individual will pick a card from a pack that will say ‘Strength’ or ‘Love’ or ‘Creativity’ or something similar and they will be encouraged to contemplate or call on that angel as time goes on. A lot of people, including myself, found this angel stuff pretty cookie. But you’re not forced to believe in angels (and, after all, it’s always beneficial to reflect on, ‘what’s wrong with believing in angels?’) and there is no doubt that hearing about them provokes effective reflection in even cynical members of the group. It reminds me a little of theories about ritual which say that belief in the ritual or magical symbol is used to bring people together communally in a way they wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to.
The place is definitely a hippy place, though nobody seems to like that word being used. Then again, the people at Findhorn would certainly be less troubled about being called ‘hippies’ than bourgeois people would at being called ‘bourgeois’. Noticeboards are covered over with adverts about local healers, Yoga workshops, Reiki courses, Bach flower remedies and the like. There is an open-air hot tub where both sexes usually frequent naked and visitors to the center are procedurally reminded that, if they want to run naked into the sea at the beach, please to make sure that local residents of Forres are not too nearby. There is talk of free love which, interestingly enough, seems to get more support from the women than the men. One young man told me, ‘if you’re enjoying free love without getting attached and emotional, then you’re having crap sex.’
A whimsical wind of creativity circles touches every corner. There is a well-established art gallery which hosts talks by visiting academics and artists. Several highly-talented musicians frequently perform acoustic songs in a heart-felt way and there are often performances by professional musicians – mostly folk and folk-fusion – at the Universal Hall and films and documentaries are often screened with the film-makers present for Q and A sessions after.
The center has not been without its controversies. An odd website exists that contains long polemics against Findhorn written in a rather faux academic style. One can’t help but wonder if the bearded, disgruntled-looking man who decided to compile this unfalteringly negative website, including disturbing ‘letters to Tony Blair’, would benefit more than anybody else from an extended stay at Findhorn. However, he has a few interesting points. Tales of executive-level spirituals ganging up on underlings who are not totally passive, unfortunately, ring true to me. Also, the fecund variety of all the ‘spiritual’ workshops abounding about the place does make one question just how deep all this ‘spiritual’ stuff might be. Might it not just be another capitalism, but with chakras and gurus in place of coffee and cars? But what’s wrong, necessarily, with shallowness? More on that another time.
Minor reservations aside, I thought this was a lovely place in the lovely Scottish highlands, amidst wild flowers and well-meaning people. One can say about these workshops, experience weeks and so on is that they are certainly an experience. The whole place is an experience, something new – and surely that’s a start.