Chris Roberts is one of the initial members of Sunbow, a community of mostly business and professional people located in a suburb of Seattle.
THE IMPULSE toward community, particularly intentional community, is surfacing within more and more people in these times of change and reordering of our social, political, educational and economic systems. Somehow, the idea of gathering together with a group of like-minded folk and cooperatively manifesting a lifestyle and/or goal provides a sense of control of one’s destiny where all else seems in a state of flux and uncertainty. I think many seek security in such images of community, yet the security that these communities provide isn’t the traditional type. So far my experience of community has required much more spacious and unattached qualities of behavior in terms of traditional security than I would have expected. This may be because Sunbow is primarily a spiritual, non-residential community with ideals which require a lot of patience, faith, humor, and non-judgmentalness in our journey. We are Earth concerned, service oriented and actively promoting and practicing ecological “light living”. For most of us the image of community and the actual experience have been different and as we examine these differences between expectation and actuality, some important, challenging and wonderful aspects of community become evident.
When it seemed important for our 8 year old group to find at least a beginning point for a physical, intentional community to evolve, my idea or image of such a configuration was really very easy to identify. We would have a group of like-minded friends as neighbors. We would share resources, help each other out with work, play or personal matters when appropriate. We would respect one another’s privacy and value our diversity. Those who wished could participate in Sunbow’s emergence in whatever manner they chose. Seemed simple and clear enough for everyone to grasp!
In October, 1980, Wayne and I, after months of search and attunement and of course a miracle or two (!) moved out onto the Enumclaw Plateau on 6 1/2 acres in view of Mt. Tahoma (Rainier) and sowed the seed for the next step to take place! We were not particularly seeking a physical community as much as simply creating an open opportunity that might take whatever form (or non-form) was appropriate. We opened our home and lands as the place for the community to focus and gather, and met each Sunday morning for meditation, sharing and pot luck country breakfasts. Our gardens were used as a learning place. Classes in organic gardening methods were taught, attunement to the subtle energies of the garden were practiced and many hours of sharing, work and friendship occurred there. The gardens provided us with a daily life focus where our spiritual and ecological values could also be expressed. We shared in the harvest process and spent many days gathering and preserving the bounty.
Throughout 1982 our group process and commitment deepened markedly. New people were feeling the need to more intimately relate and participate in Sunbow, and our community meetings became more frequent. Our home was no longer adequate or appropriate as the sole physical focus and the group itself put up the money to purchase a lovely house on a shy acre near us for community use. In addition three couples, two of whom are members of Sunbow, purchased 38 acres to the south of us. Our community was hosting and sponsoring workshops frequently and becoming increasingly involved in the regional cultural emergence.
Three of our members moved into the newly acquired community house and began working with personal and community rhythms.
Most of this took place in a one year period of time. It was as if Sunbow expanded in a series of huge steps. So much had happened so fast that, along with the excitement and thanksgiving for all that had occurred, we felt we needed to catch our breath, turn inward and regain touch with each other as people and friends. After much deliberation we closed Sunbow to the public for a month-long period of retreat and deepening. During this time we met frequently to re-connect with each other, reaffirm our vision and build a stronger group identity for our central decision-making body of the community. To be a part of this deepening process required each of us to examine and sort out for ourselves our depth of commitment to Sunbow and our desire and willingness to participate in its unfolding. Up to this point we hadn’t required any degree of “commitment” other than attending and participating as one chose. This loose structure was nice and was also quite appropriate for a while. As our service extended and our numbers grew, however, it became essential to know who we were as a group and to be able to count on each other’s presence, support and energy. A few people didn’t like the idea of making a commitment one way or another and withdrew from the central group. This is to be expected and needs to be trusted. Any group goes through periods of sorting out as its focus and work become clearer. It is a little scary though to say “OK, sort it out and let us know”! Sometimes an effort ends right there! It’s a risk that must be taken in any group unless a few are willing to carry the vision for the rest. We were at a point where all aspects of our community needed to be shared – leadership, vision, finances, creativity. We were moving from the strong leadership of a few into a circle of mutual support. At this writing there are nineteen people in our central body who are deeply involved in all aspects of Sunbow’s life and work. There are also many important and dear friends who have chosen not to be involved in the decision-making group but contribute valuable skills and support to various projects and aspects of the community. We encourage each individual to participate in whatever manner they choose. So far everyone seems to be finding their best “fit” into our still spacious structure.
We clearly had to become more organized to continue at the pace we were experiencing, and an “organic” organizational structure was created during this time of retreat to help focus and simplify our activities and needs. It is now serving us very well. We also worked faithfully with the consensus model of decision-making even when the meetings reached marathon lengths! In our form of consensus, all must agree with a proposal. Each participant is considered to hold a part of the larger truth. This is easy to talk about and very challenging to practice! After many months of meetings, and some real [earnings, we are just beginning to feel like we know what consensus is about! None of us were used to working with it, and it was (and still often is) difficult to hear everyone out with patience and genuine attention. Often several of us would need to have our own say even though someone else had “covered” our concern or spoken our truth, so repetition was common. Many of us have life work which requires some efficiency in decision making, and many others of us are our own boss and don’t need to include others’ opinions in our considerations.
You can imagine how much learning was and still is required for us to operate on a consensus basis. We are getting more familiar with and trusting of this tool, and as we get better at it we can see how valuable it is to us and how it helps teach us the ways to realize a more cooperative world. In fact the most satisfying and rewarding experiences I’ve had personally have been when a particularly tough issue has been raised and the group is very far apart in their individual responses. After much discussion, and occasionally some high energy exchanges, there emerges a proposal which is inclusive of the clearest truths expressed and it is upheld by all. These decisions, I might add, are of excellent quality and very much worth the time and “stretching” required. If small groups such as ours are a microcosm of the world, we are learning together the behaviors necessary for our Earth to be healed. Perhaps if we can be inclusive of our own diversity, then it’s possible for nations to achieve the same results.
This past year has been the most intense of our community life so far. The listing of events is easy and even somewhat impressive. What needs to be known, however, is that the elation of accomplishment is necessarily accompanied by tremendous amounts of commitment and faith in the process. There are challenges to be recognized along the way which need to be both accepted as “normal” in any group’s evolution and appreciated for what they teach us.
As I reflect on the benefits of community life, they often relate directly to these areas of challenge. We are intensely aware of the need for peace, understanding and healing of our world, and know it can only happen if each of us realize that state within ourselves. Our main areas of commonality are our spiritual focus, Earth awareness, and the sharing of a common vision of wholeness and service to the larger pattern through the entity of Sunbow and through our daily lives. In all other areas we are richly diverse, having quite a wide variety of backgrounds, professions, experiences and perspectives. This diversity is a great gift for it has required each of us to become more inclusive and to honor one another’s truths as well as our own.
Probably the greatest benefit for our particular group is the affirmation of our spirituality. We are a nondenominational bunch with a variety of spiritual backgrounds and paths among us – Sufis, esoteric Christians, folks influenced by various teachers, masters, mystics, and belief systems, yet we easily share together each Sunday morning. We all believe that the Spirit, however we might describe it, resides within each of us and is yearning to awaken and express itself through the motions of our daily lives. Sundays are very special, tender times where we let ourselves get in touch with that deep place within us which can so easily be lost in the business of our lives. I have received incredible inspiration, healing and support at these times, as I know all of us have. It is the foundation of our community vision, and continues to sustain and nurture us through any challenges that may present themselves. Without it I doubt we would continue.
I really believe that the primary reason many communities fail is because the participants don’t have a common vision that is somehow larger than themselves personally. There are many ways this can express besides a spiritual focus, of course. The value of the “larger” vision cannot be overemphasized for it seems to have a life of its own – it draws us to it even though it often seems vague and undefined. It’s more of a sense of something out there wanting to be manifested than a set of specific blueprints and concrete plans. A highly creative relationship develops between ourselves and this vision in which we discover what Sunbow is to be as we muddle along toward it! This state of discovery is exciting to be sure and also has its challenges! It’s hard to let go of the traditional “handles” of security and learn to trust what we can’t yet see and touch. Repeatedly we have been shown that if we just “trust the process” and keep moving ahead in faith, that Sunbow will unfold in ways far better than we could have imagined. Yet it’s still difficult to remain comfortable and patient as we continue.
I feel we have been given a valuable opportunity to learn new patterns of behavior which are intensely needed for the human species to continue in a right relationship with the rest of the Earth. We are choosing to be in a situation in our community which both supports and challenges us to stretch and grow in our actual behavior. It’s pretty easy to take in ideals of love, trust and wholeness mentally. To practice these qualities and still remain honest and real about our humanness as we integrate such qualities is quite another matter! This “stretch” has helped us learn to laugh along the way and wear the awareness of our ideals lightly – to value the integrity of being who we really are in the midst of a sincere desire to be larger than our personal selves in relation to our community and our world.
One of the greatest areas of illusion in a spiritual community such as ours is that we will somehow become so attuned to the love and radiance of the Spirit that our personalities will somehow just recede in importance and won’t have to be dealt with! Maybe that’s possible and it may exist in groups somewhere – I don’t know. I do know that we stuffed, ignored and suppressed personal differences for the sake of an ideal and finally had to lift up the rug and clean house! Lo and behold, we are still so human – it’s kind of a relief to be able to be more real in our relationships! We are beginning to share these parts of ourselves more openly and freely, and have found the trust level of the entire group has deepened considerably as a result. It’s really important not to let a spiritual focus impose a set of standards that become oppressive. They’re good to have as inspirational and visionary sources as long as we don’t misuse them in forms of judgmentalness and criticism of ourselves and others. I had great reluctance at sharing some of my more “grungy” feelings on some issues but found that until I cleared them, I couldn’t get past them. I highly recommend that groups create some way for personal clearing. What goes underground will come up in some other form – usually in meetings – and create blocks in the flow.
Another area of illusion about the experience of community for me at least was that if we just got this wonderful thing going life would be simpler and more peaceful. We’d all share time, energy, work and play, and stress would become less and less a part of our life. What actually has happened is that my entire growth process intensified, sped-up. Yes, we were gardening and harvesting and listening to the Spirit. Along with that there were land purchases to be agreed upon and closed, workshops to be hosted, guests to be attended to, internal community relationships to be worked out, newsletters to be written and mailed – on and on the list can go! All this activity is in addition to our careers and family life. The additional dimension of community life has required deep commitment and a high priority for us to stay with it. By being this way, it has enriched and transformed our relationship with all parts of our lives, and I cannot at this moment imagine preferring any other way of being except in the context of a community process. People considering community will need to want that experience and growth intensely enough to give it priority, time, energy – and lots of love.
There have been times, after a particularly challenging incident that I’ve thrown up my hands and asked myself earnestly “Why am I doing this?!”, and just then something especially beautiful or tender or silly or uplifting will happen and I’m back completely for more! I sense this impulse toward the community experience is an evolutionary phenomenon. It is as though creation is releasing us into our next phase of consciousness and we’re irresistibly drawn together into experiences and situations which are essential for us to learn how to behave and relate from a perspective of wholeness that we can’t even adequately define, so new is it to us. There’s a real mixture of emotions, resistances, pulls and responses to this impulse, and at times I feel that I’m a bit out of control with it – it’s frustrating, elating, deeply fulfilling, painful, expanding and sometimes scary. It’s a delicious bag of goodies for those of us who have rightly chosen to become involved with the journey, and clearly inappropriate for many others. That discernment can only come from each of us in our place of truth and knowing.