As summer has unfolded, my explorations of the many hues of community life have continued, with the van as my base. Sometimes, the distances I’ve travelled to have meant longer periods away from my son, which has been hard. But I’ve been discovering so much about myself and life, which enriches our time together when we do meet.
After Rainbow Gathering, which I shared about in my last blog post, my partner V and I moved on to holding a improvised music and shamanic ritual space in the woods at Colourfest, a small holistic- and arts-minded festival in Dorset. Our next adventure after that was totally impromptu …
I’m working in a kitchen, preparing food for about fifty people as part of a team of five. Chopping veg, making bread dough, washing up as we go along. Only, it doesn’t feel like work: for nearly 2 hours, I’ve been involved in fascinating discussions about astrology and Human Design while listening to good music. I have discovered that I and another woman are almost each other’s astrological twins. My brain is buzzing and my heart feels open and connected.
I come out into the garden on my tea break and sit there in the 6pm midsummer heat, inhaling the roses. It feels crazy that this should be heaven, but it is. When I get back, I’m asked by the chef, a plain-talking but kind Australian woman, to collect rose petals from the garden to adorn the salad. When preparing food for myself, this kind of delicate touch would not be something I’d “waste” time on. But I enjoy every moment of it, loving the feel of the smooth pink and purple petals, picking out the bruised ones with care.
At Osho Leela Personal Development Centre in Dorset, the Community Experience Program involves taking on an incredibly full schedule (especially to us freelancer vanomads!). There are 6 hours of rota’d work and 3 compulsory group meditations a day (totalling 2.5 hours), beginning at 7 am, ending between 7 and 8 pm each weekday and with only one day off per week. Tea breaks and lunch breaks are precisely timed and ordered. The centre is founded on the approach of the controversial, radical spiritual teacher Osho (formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) and incorporates many of his practices as well as those developed by Humaniversity. I’d visited it once before, years ago at a Kundalini Yoga festival with a three-year-old J., and loved the setting and atmosphere so much that I considered moving there.
On my first couple of days on this intense regime, especially when changing sheets and hoovering an entire flat, I honestly had no idea what people were talking about when they said “You can just feel the love here”. I felt grumpy, tired, resistant and socially shy. Yet, I was there, for reasons I couldn’t yet understand, having signed up to the programme impulsively after a weekend tantra workshop called ‘Being Total’ that V and I had attended together at the centre.
But after I settled into the work and started to bond with the women I shared a dorm with – yes, there are compulsory single-sex dorms, although a couple of book-able and highly competed-for private ‘dating rooms’ are also available; after a string of “morning meetings” involving joyful dancing and hugging; after experiencing how landed in my body I felt after being given complete permission to release sadness and anger in the safe, supportive format of the weekly AUM meditation; after the group hugs at the end of each dishwashing session, and standing together for long moments of meditative silence watching the sky awash with the most stunning sunset, I began to see what this ‘love’ was.
It was a tough love, in many ways, a no-holds-barred facing of your issues. But there was also a genuine meeting beyond the masks and a chance to feel part of something, to be held by this belonging as we stirred up the shit of our conditioning and our past, of everything that limited us – and attempted to break through it.
Rainbow Gathering, although on the surface of it so completely opposite because of its almost totaeol lack of structure, was a good preparation for Leela in surprising ways. This was partly because, at Rainbow, I so completely let go and surrendered to the flow of life that I was prime for an experience where I had virtually no conscious control over my schedule.
And it was also because at Rainbow I was invited by life to integrate the ‘working me’ with the ‘playful me’ by the necessity to attend to my freelance editing work even while living in a forest with the barest of amenities. This meant, for the first week of the camp, missing out on the sheer spontaneity that was going on, sometimes resentfully stalking off to the ‘signal spot’ while I could hear others in full musical swing or laughing around the fire.
But this forced me to learn how to drop in and out of these ‘selves’ with more fluidity: the professional and the carefree hippie. At Leela, this was very relevant, because throughout the day I had to move between deep, often emotionally intense spaces and physical, grounding work.
Unlike my experience of people at Rainbow, where anger often seemed to come out sideways, around the edges of calling each other “brother” and “sister”, at Leela there are socially sanctioned, organised, and structured ways of releasing anger and other negative emotions, through dynamic meditations taught by Osho and through the AUM meditation developed by one of his followers.
Rather than the well-intentioned anarchy of Rainbow, at Leela, responsibility is equally balanced with self-expression and permission to “be”. Instead of a non-hierarchical free-for-all, there is a very definite hierarchy, of “core members”, those who are in the Team Leader program and have committed to be there for 3 months continuously, and the volunteers on the CEP, like us. And yes, I noticed power dynamics around this, with, for example, the CEP’s certainly did the ‘dirtiest work’, but the support available to volunteers was great.
We had weekly sharing circles where anything could be expressed and if you had an issue with anyone you could call for a mediated Friendship Meeting to resolve your differences, something V and I actually made use of when we were stuck in a negative dynamic at one point. Each new CEP was also assigned a ‘buddy’, a more experienced long-term CEP who would check in with you regularly. Both V and I bonded well with our ‘buddies’.
One of the things about being at Leela that really worked for me was that my need to “do” was satisfied so that then when there was a gap – and some days I did find a surprising amount of gaps – I was able to make full use of it to relax, enjoy the moment and feel peaceful. I would make a point of breathing with one of the 8 yew trees in the wooded meditation area, or of relaxing in the hammock or grabbing a few minutes with V.
Living in the van, I often tried to just ‘be’ all the time, emulating V’s style, but being a person almost constantly buzzing with ideas and a strong motivation to engage fully in life, I’d soon find myself wrestling with an uncomfortable inner conflict. My energy simply needed to express; I needed to exert and exhaust myself.
At Leela, this was naturally built into the day so I didn’t have to even think about it or seek it out. At 7 am, I would be jumping up and down and running around the room with my arms in the air during Bioenergetics, aimed at getting you back into your body and releasing any unnecessary ‘armouring’ you’ve developed due to past trauma. Or I’d be thumping a pillow or shaking all the tension out of my body in a Dynamic meditation.
Don’t get me wrong: sometimes I absolutely HATED the thought of getting up at that time and wanted to roll back over in bed. But I always felt fantastic afterwards, tingling, fully alive, energised and spacious in my body and being. I also enjoyed the relief and ease of so rarely having to decide what to do at any given moment. Having been self-employed for over a decade, the necessity to make continual decisions about how to spend my time and what to prioritise could get a bit much, and having my day planned out for me let me feel held, somehow. While 2 hours in vanlife could pass with me barely noticing, on the CEP I’d squeeze the most out of the day and go to bed feeling satisfied – if a little exhausted.
My longing to work with people, to be part of a team that is creating something together, rather than always working alone, was also fulfilled. When it was time to leave Leela for 3 days to go and see J in Sussex, I felt so much grief at leaving the holding of the community there. In my short time of being there, I’d fallen in love with waking up to hear the sounds of people and music in the kitchen, somehow so touching and beautiful after years of living in various states of isolation.
There was something so valuable about a momentum already happening that I could simply step into and join in with – I had longed for this often during my single mom years. I’d also had a touching and powerful experience at a Biodanza workshop with V within a group of 4, where I felt such strong and healing inclusion and belonging, something I’d lacked in my family of origin and childhood school experiences.
V suggested we spend a longer period of time there after my return from Sussex and to my surprise, it was so hard to just say yes to it. Can I really allow myself to have this – this family, this home? Where, after only a few days, I feel I belong?
This feeling of belonging didn’t make sense, on a rational level, because living in a stately house working full-time didn’t seem to be on the path I was on: of nature connection, nomadism, and paganism. I was afraid of losing that, but I also knew that Leela was meeting my long-held needs for community and for spiritual growth that breaks through my patterns. I felt that real change was possible there.
But as I, inevitably, considered what it would be like to live at Leela permanently or for a long time, I wondered how meaningful it would feel to me. While I would be on board with supporting personal development workshops that enhance people’s lives, I know from experience that working on things that aren’t part of my own vision don’t feel as rewarding to me. Could there be room for my own ideas, if I stayed involved?
When I arrived in Lewes, I was still in a total “love space”. As I found myself in the familiar places I used to inhabit in my former life, when I lived there with J, I also sensed the shades of my emotional states back then, the habitual mindset I used to occupy.
Coming from the expanded, open space of an intense, embodied spiritual practice within the holding of community support, I felt the vividness of the contrast intensely: Wow, I just really didn’t enjoy life very much back then. So often, I was just in survival mode.
I wondered what it would have been like if I could have experienced motherhood in this state of love and openness. How come, I wondered, motherhood didn’t open me in this way, and in fact often seemed to cause further contraction? As I sat on the riverbank, stroking my own feet with a new sensuality in my body, I felt a rush of love and exuberance and gorgeousness. But it wasn’t like the ‘high’ I’d experienced after so many yoga and personal development workshops. It felt grounded and real.
That weekend, at the notoriously busy Level Park in Brighton with my son, J, watching others parent felt newly surreal. So much of the work we’d been doing at Leela was about unravelling the conditioning we’ve had so we can be who we originally were, free of the bullshit. But now that I was here, back in the situation of actively being a parent and being around other parents, I remembered the awkward contradiction of this personal development work. As a parent, if you want to give your child a chance of reasonably coping in the world, you have to condition them to some extent.
You can’t raise them to be a totally free self-expressive person, or you close off their chances of being able to camouflage and make it in this strange (some would say sick) society we have. It’s just so fucking difficult – how do you live that way, freely and free of conditioning and repression, while being a parent? Is it inevitable that we all have to end up at centres like Leela, working so hard to reclaim our essential selves, if there even is such a thing?
On a more personal level, my role as ‘parent’ had, of course, changed so drastically. This time, it had been 4 weeks since I last saw J, and I was struck by how much he had matured in that time. I felt both proud and moved when he initiated a conversation about impending adolescence.
At the end of the visit, I was in tears at leaving him after what felt like way too little time together. He seemed to be feeling a similar way – on the last night, as we massaged each other’s feet at his request, he told me, “Sometimes I miss living with you.”
In amongst my feelings of grief, I was starting to, slowly but surely, let go of my ideas of what my being an involved parent looks like. Of course, I wasn’t at the school plays or helping with homework. But I realised that I did have a role which was just as important as the holding-down-of-the-fort that I used to do. I could be there for J, emotionally holding space for him, showing him different aspects of life, and having fun with him.
When I expressed my guilt at doing so little actual ‘parenting’ to the friend J and I were staying with that weekend, she reminded me that I was the one who had done what she called ‘the hard graft’ – the broken sleep for 2.5 years and the early socialising. And I had done it alone, whereas J’s dad had, and always has had, family support.
My friend also reminded me of this key fact: After J came on the scene, his dad was in a position to continue his life exactly as he had pre-parenthood while I, of course, couldn’t. What would be the point of having my freedom, now, if I didn’t fully take it and live my life as I wanted to? Sometimes I would imagine moving closer to J, getting a job and a room in a town and letting go of the dream of living on the land for now, but everything in my body and soul said an unequivocal no. And I remembered what the tree said to me at the Iron Age Hill fort in Cadbury, Somerset, when I got right inside its hollow: You’re on the right path.
I returned after my weekend with J to do another 5 days of the Community Experience Program, having left V there in my absence during the tail end of the Biodanza festival Leela was hosting. I got closer to the women I shared spaces with, bonding with some new arrivals – the flux in the community is near-constant – and had some amazing breakthroughs in my relationship with V due to the work we were both doing there.
But I was getting tired, and knew, as I approached my inner Autumn (in other words, the pre-menstrual phase), that the need to slow down would be impossible to meet in the relentlessness of the schedule. I was also missing being in the wilder nature that is so often part of our vanlife. At Leela, there is a beautiful garden and a field but there is still traffic noise from nearby roads and one has to walk through an industrial estate to get to any ‘countryside’, which I discovered on our weekly Community Day walk. I longed for open space.
So we went away for a few days to take a break and see if we wanted to come back or not. We parked up in some woods nearby. We wondered whether we were just running away, being resistant to the process of change that had been unleashed for us both there as we started to excavate long-buried emotions.
Were we perhaps escaping getting closer to people, to forming relationships with people who were really emotionally open? Was the risk, without the commitment of an intimate relationship such as what we share, just too scary because of the transitory nature of the community?
It felt true to me that there was more potential to connect on a heart level with people at Leela. Every time I hugged a particular woman, also on the CEP and who had come several times before, all the way from Israel, my heart would almost explode with the love. It felt as if she was embodying love, and we became a sort of love field together. It was so beautiful. And our connection went beyond hugs – we worked together in a boundaries workshop and shared deeply on a verbal level too.
Yet, it was also true that I felt safer having my freedom.
I wondered if we were continuing to pursue external freedom – the freedom to move, to not to be told what to do, and to have our day be ours – over the internal freedom which I felt we could gain by being committed to the program at Leela for a period of time, doing the deep transformative work that is offered there.
In the end, we decided that we just couldn’t do it. Something was saying ‘no’ at this time. On a practical level, we needed the space to do our own work, anyway. But we agreed to not ‘waste’ the work we had done, to continue to support each other to keep coming back into our bodies when we leave them as we continue our travels.
We did spend a few days near Glastonbury, but V’s voice was so ragged from all the cathartic shouting during an empowerment workshop he’d done at Leela that singing at the kirtan festival wasn’t an option – and he had too much work to do, anyway. I found myself in a situation where I had plenty of rest and space but I was definitely not as happy as I had been in a community setting. The isolation was creeping in and I felt stuck in the middle of nowhere, unable to access a Red Tent (women’s gathering) because V was too busy working for me to even consider asking him to drive me there.
Even though on the surface of things my life as a nomad was drastically different from my former one of urban single mom living, I found this feeling oddly familiar. I remembered a single mom friend asking me to help her do a deep clean of her house and feeling unable to offer that support even though I really wanted to, and was totally on board with the principle of single mothers helping each other out. I was just too drained and stretched myself. Now, although I wasn’t tired and overwhelmed, I felt I was coming up against the isolation of fragmented living once again.
Being there for each other is important, but not enough. We need the holding of community. I felt the power of this when V and I had our ups and downs at Leela but were able to have the space from each other that we needed around that, as well as other sympathetic ears to confide in. We weren’t so reliant on each other for our emotional needs – and this felt way more healthy.
Yet, committing to any community involves allegiance to certain ideologies, even dogmas, whether explicit or unspoken – and this can involve compromise beyond what feels comfortable or in integrity. It gave me pause when I spoke to a friend and her partner who had both stayed at Leela before and encountered what sounded like some dubious power dynamics there.
I think I would also struggle with the lack of space for us as a couple, and balancing our relationship’s needs with our own individual needs in the very limited time available. V did book one of the dating rooms for us once, but unfortunately it coincided with me having a day when I really needed quiet and time to myself and was in no mood to connect – the pressure of limited time to do so did me no favours, either. An argument and a stand-off resulted, and I ended up sleeping alone in the beautiful red-themed room.
Still, we both intend to return to Leela at some point, probably in the autumn, as it just has so much to offer. We are navigating the questions of how to access the support of community in this nomadic lifestyle, while still having the space to follow our own paths and do our own work. And I hope our journey is one of living into the answers, too. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to explore this so fully.
Our experiments with community have continued with volunteering at Buddhafield for 3 weeks in July and spending time at Spirit Horse community in Wales, where I’m writing from currently. More to come!
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