The Vision of Cooperative Communities
It is not easy to take a step back and seriously look at the world around me and ask, “Why are things done this way?” There are so many things, big and small, that I take for granted in my daily life. It’s even more challenging to consider the circumstances of hundreds of millions of people around the world who realistically will never come close to having the opportunities that I’ve had in my life. I have been blessed with a loving family, caring community, and a healthy body; it’s my responsibility to use the gifts I’ve been given to serve others, so that they may have the potential to pursue their dreams and aspirations. One needn’t look very hard to see people are yearning for a new way to live, a happy way to live. From my own personal experience, I believe cooperative communities offer a fulfilling lifestyle based on spirituality, friendship, and simplicity that will quench the thirst people feel for a joyful, responsible, and truly productive life. I cannot claim to have all the answers, but I can choose whether to be a positive or negative force in the world. I choose to be a positive force.
I was born and raised in Ananda Village, California, a small cooperative spiritual community in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. It is difficult for me to accurately describe Ananda for several reasons, the first being the fact that I grew up in the same house in the community for my entire life. It’s even a stretch for me to adjust to living in a small college town like Berea. The community was the “norm” of society for me, my exposure of the world was limited to the experiences of travel (including India, Mexico, Peru, and Quebec), but not actually living in another environment for a substantial amount of time. During my first semester at Berea College I quickly learned that the ways of a spiritual community of 250 people 25 minutes from the closest town is vastly different from the conventional lifestyles in the U.S.
Ananda was founded by J. Donald Walters (now known as Swami Kriyananda) in 1968. Kriyananda is a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, an Indian Yogi who in the 1920s brought the teachings of meditation and yoga to the West.Yogananda often spoke of the importance of cooperative spiritual communities before he died in 1952, but it was only Kriyananda who took it to heart as his life mission to build and spread such communities around the world. Ananda’s intention is to utilize each member’s unique individuality for a higher consciousness, finding God through the teachings of Kriya Yoga (a practice primarily of meditation and yoga), to provide a joyful living environment with like-minded people dedicating their lives to spiritual growth.
A basic condition for cooperative intentional communities is respect for the individuals involved. The secret of developing such communities, on the other hand, is not to let the members ‘do their own thing.’ That would result in general confusion. The secret is to coordinate them with sensitive regard for their individuality. — Swami Kriyananda
The first adventurous members of Ananda endured hot summers and cold winters living in teepees, slowly working together to build the community. The community has undergone tremendous challenges, including a fire in the latter part of the 1970s that burnt a majority of the buildings in the community. In the ‘90s Self-Realization Fellowship, Paramhansa Yogananda’s original organization, didn’t agree with Kriyananda’s methods of spreading Yogananda’s teachings and launched a lawsuit against Ananda that crippled and nearly crushed the community with millions of dollars of debt. Kriyananda explains that the trials God sends individually and collectively are to build and test spiritual growth; the challenge is to remember everything is done for God. Thus, isn’t it sensible to spend your life with fellow devotees intent on serving and finding God?
In Australia many years ago, a man said to me, “I’m an atheist. If you believe in God, tell me: Can you define him in such a way as to have any meaning for me?” I thought for a moment, then answered, “Would it help you to think of God as the highest potential you can imagine for yourself?” He was taken aback. “Well, ye-e-es,” he replied slowly, “Yeah, sure, I can live with that!” — Swami Kriyananda
Ananda is not a rejection of society by any means; it is an attempt to integrate principles of cooperation within a society often focused exclusively on competition and material wealth. Kriyananda has often described Ananda as a combination of Eastern spirituality and Western efficiency; communities built on these principles in such a way as to offer a realistic living alternative to the spiritually-dead materialism, consumerism, and dogmatism that pervade modern culture. Any community or group that proposes outright rejection of the advances of modern industry and development likely won’t get a substantial amount of supporters. Similarly, it’s unrealistic to expect many people to jump on board with the idea of eliminating material wealth altogether. Ananda provides a balance of spirituality and material wealth that can be sensibly accepted and appreciated by more people; a cooperative community whose focal point is spiritual progress and using material wealth to further those goals.
I grew up in a house 1,400 square feet in size, nothing ridiculously small but also not the typical “American dream” house government and corporations encourage people to purchase. My father built the house approximately thirty years ago after moving with my mother from Arkansas to Ananda Village. The house was certainly a step up for them considering they had lived in a school bus while making the transition to living in Ananda. My sister was born in 1979, my brother in 1984, and myself in 1992. The house we all grew up in was simple, but I couldn’t ask for anything more. In a way I find it incredibly refreshing that I grew up in a household that didn’t find happiness in material accumulation or see material wealth as the ultimate achievement in life.
With all this said, it could be easy for someone to get the impression that monetary wealth is discouraged in the community, which certainly isn’t the case. Money is a driving force in this world, and blocking its accumulation isn’t going to appeal to a great deal of people. In Ananda, people are encouraged to earn money through creative outlets that help develop their spirituality and serve the goals of the community (namely, serving God). For instance, my father started out by building cabinets for people in and around the community. Before too long he began building Hammer Dulcimers, a stringed trapezoid-shaped musical instrument that is the forerunner of the piano, and started a musical duo, Joyfull Strings, with a friend of his closely connected to Ananda. I would later begin playing the Hammer Dulcimer when I was just six years old with a couple of my buddies at Christmas and Celtic fairs.
Material wealth in and of itself isn’t and doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. The trouble begins if we start to define ourselves according to the material things that we accumulate, which is an unfortunate yet real situation in Western culture. My true self, my higher self (God), doesn’t change if I buy another DVD or purchase a new T-shirt to add to my collection. Problems with money come when you begin to believe that money alone is the answer to life’s problems and all that defines you. Growing up in a family and a community intent on simple living, minimal or no consumerism, and searching for true joy and happiness by serving God, I can attest that this is something freeing both physically and mentally. Happiness is not measured according to how many fancy cars, computers, or toys one can accumulate. The ego may be satisfied for a short time, but the soul will not. True happiness (or wealth) comes inwardly, by recognizing and finding your true Self within.
What we see in the world around us is what we are capable of seeing. Everything reflects back to us who and what we are. If, with the economists, we limit our perception of wealth to its material aspects, those will be all that wealth is, for us. — Swami Kriyananda
People often ask me about the role of the individual versus the role of the group in such a community. There is no rulebook, constitution, or code of laws to which I can refer people. This is because a cooperative community is built from the ground up; it is only as strong as those who willingly join such a structure. The best example I can show of property’s role is this: my father built our house on the community’s private property, my family pays dues to live within the community (which supports services such as water management, overgrowth clearing, etc.), and my family obviously can choose how to manage our house and the small bit of property around it. It isn’t as if one day everyone can decide they want to paint our house yellow and pink, take my parents’ car out for a spin, and grab fruit out of our orchard. In this sense, the property relationship of the community is this: we own our house but we cannot sell it to whomever we like, nor can the community boot us out for no reason whatsoever. To live in the community one must follow the teachings of Kriya Yoga; it wouldn’t be in the interest of the community, or the individual for that matter, to have it otherwise.
A cooperative community will not succeed if it has rigid rules that try to conform people to live a certain way. People want to be free, both physically and mentally (thus the importance of spirituality). No human being is perfect, and you are bound to have errors and mistakes occur in any system or structure. In Ananda neither the collective nor the individual is idealized; both have their errors and benefits. The main “collective” aspect of the community is the fact that everyone has chosen to live in a community with other people following the same spiritual practices, but most other things are generally left to the individual to pursue. My father built and currently operates a small woodworking shop where he primarily makes meditation benches and other products for his website, MeditationBench.com. In the 1970s one member started a vegetarian market and deli, several years ago a member began raising goats for dairy products, and currently a group of college-age individuals are revamping an organic farm on the community’s property. Every project requires individual initiative; otherwise it likely won’t draw much energy or enthusiasm to become a lasting boon to the individual or the community. In a cooperative community structure such as Ananda, the provided setting encourages each individual to live, work, and think creatively.
Like life and all living things, everything worthwhile begins small. — Swami Kriyananda
Personally, I think the greatest human gift is creativity, and any structure that can successfully promote creativity is one that should be acknowledged and encouraged. Currently several members in Ananda are working to combat what many believe is a coming economic calamity. This is not done out of fear, but out of the growing movement to become increasingly self-sufficient on a local and community level. The primary project one member is undertaking is a “silver cooperative,” which encourages and helps people to purchase silver as a safeguard against the ongoing monetary inflation caused by the Federal Reserve and a fiat paper money currency. There’s a good chance Ananda will adopt a local silver currency of sorts to use within the community, so as to minimize the inflationary effects of the Federal Reserve. Within the community there is almost an “anything goes” (within reason) mentality which encourages individuals to think about different issues and opportunities in creative ways.
A ‘cooperative,’ in contrast to a cooperative community, is distinguished by the fact that every member has one vote regardless of the size of his investment. In cooperative communities on the other hand, decision-making requires no such defined system. Everyone automatically has the same status, and voting is not likely to become an issue. — Swami Kriyananda
Ananda and cooperative communities are not a political or economic movement; they do not require the mandate of a legislature or the approval of economists. Cooperative communities represent a lifestyle choice made by unique individual human beings. In Ananda the goal is not accumulation of large amounts of material wealth, the objective is to provide a structure for people intent on dedicating their lives to God and living in a creative, joyful, and happy manner. I do not expect nor would I intend for everyone to suddenly adopt a cooperative community lifestyle, because some people will place more value on a materially-driven life than a life focused on spirituality. Cooperative communities are strongest when people voluntarily and willingly decide to live with other like-minded folks. If forced upon society communities would appear desperate, impractical, and unappetizing to the majority of people. Communities will succeed when they present a viable alternative value system (such as spirituality over hard-set material riches and power) that people will begin to naturally see as a superior and satisfactory lifestyle.
Interestingly, Ananda has attributes that appeal to many different politically-driven ideologies. A conservative can appreciate that everyone in Ananda shares similar values and follows the same spiritual practices. An environmentalist will appreciate Ananda’s efforts to work in harmony with nature by eating a vegetarian diet, prohibiting hunting and fishing on community property, and preserving large areas of natural environment. A socialist will appreciate that both individually and collectively members ensure everyone in the community is well-fed, housed, and supported in difficult financial or mental times. A libertarian will appreciate that people voluntarily choose to live in and support the community, maintain high levels of individual freedom, where creative individual initiative is supported and encouraged. Ananda is not an either-or type of structure; it is a beautiful combination of various ideas and philosophies that actually work when applied to real life scenarios. It is not manipulating or attempting to change human nature, it’s simply providing an environment where people can work together toward a higher consciousness. Cooperative communities are similar to a living organism; they adapt based on the needs and goals of the members involved.
It is not necessary for masses of people to be converted to a new social philosophy. A few individuals only, if they give the concept a try, may spark a conflagration that can eventually destroy a whole forest of old ways. — Swami Kriyananda
If the economic situation in the U.S. continues to deteriorate, I expect that a new movement of localism will grow, particularly around the areas of banking (finance) and food. It is illogical to have far-off bankers and farmers performing tasks that can easily be done in a local setting with more transparency, accountability, and accessibility. When times get rough, people will naturally turn to the local economy to renew focus on self-sufficiency and sustainability, sparking an exploration of local living and involvement. As people experiment and see the benefits of increased localism, the creation and expansion of cooperative communities will appeal to a greater percentage of people.
At this point in time I cannot say what my life’s work will be, but I do know I want to use my energy in a way that positively impacts others. I believe that rough times are in store for the United States and the rest of the world economically, politically, and militarily. Can I give an accurate prediction when these negative events will occur? No, I cannot. One need only look at the records of history, with the continuing neglect of the U.S. to address its debt and monetary crisis, to understand that these things will not turn out fine and dandy. Despite the pessimistic feelings I carry with regards to the not-so-distant future, I see a great deal of hope in the time of rebuilding. My generation will have the unique opportunity to rebuild a new society out of the crumbled illusions of past generations.
One cannot talk about change without discussing education. In the U.S. and other Western countries, education has been ripped from local communities in an ongoing movement of bureaucratic nationalization. Swami Kriyananda has often spoken about his ideas for re-energized and meaningful education called “Education for Life.” Kriyananda explains that education should focus on the unique growth of each individual student, especially with regards to developing and expanding the soul. Education should focus on bringing joy to students and teachers alike rather than mindlessly attempting to churn out high test scores.
The “Education for Life” system proves its validity under the most adverse circumstances. It is practical. It is not a system for the few only — for the isolated, or the “spiritual”: It is for everybody. Whether one lives in the mountains or in city slums, its principles are practicable everywhere. — Swami Kriyananda
In 1972 Kriyananda asked Michael Deranja, one of the first members of Ananda, if he would be willing to start a school in the community based on the Education for Life ideals. Deranja started the private school in a refurbished chicken coop located in Ananda, primarily with elementary-age children in the community. Over time new classes and teachers came in to expand offerings to students, and today the Ananda Living Wisdom School offers education from preschool to college to students both within and outside of the community. The high school particularly focuses on the goals of “Service, Adventure, and Self-Discovery.”
Upon reaching 7th grade, students pay a yearly tuition (starting with $450, eventually working up to $900 in 9th grade) which funds annual 2-3 week “Service Adventure” trips. These Service Adventure trips gave me the chance to canoe down 100 miles of the Missouri River, stay in a remote village on the Mexican coast hours from any town or city, and see the incredible remains of Machu Picchu in Peru. Service Adventure trips bring students outside of their bubbles at an early age, providing an opportunity to explore and serve in new environments and cultures.
I spent all but one year of my school days with Living Wisdom School, and I can say with assurance that it has greatly contributed to my growth and maturity. The school has a guideline to have no more than twelve students per teacher to guarantee individual attention and bondage to the students. The school is supported by community members (who may contribute funding or even teach a class for the school) and consistently tests in the top 5% in nationwide proficiency exams. I was fortunate enough to have Michael Deranja (who today is co-principal with Diane Atwell) as a close teacher and advisor in my final year of high school, and I am indebted to him for his generosity, advice, and friendship which helped bring me to where I am today. Deranja and his efforts with Ananda Living Wisdom School has made a substantial impact in the development of Ananda, demonstrating that education can successfully promote joy, service, and cooperation to children as early as preschool. Such ideas for education are an important component and contribution to the expansion of cooperative communities.
If even a few communities in America succeed in adopting these principles, a notable start will have been made toward solving some of the deepest problems facing us in American society today. — Swami Kriyananda
Today, cooperative communities are relatively rare and most people don’t have a clue they exist. Ananda presently maintains several colonies around the world (with roughly 1,000 members) in areas rural and urban (including Portland, Seattle, Italy, and India). Ananda is not the only cooperative community in existence, but it is the oldest and largest intentional cooperative community of which I know. Another such community is Cite Ecologique, a cooperative community and ecovillage founded in Ham-Nord, Quebec, by Michel Deunov Cornellier in the 1980s. Cite Ecologique members are especially knowledgeable in the fields of sustainable farming, alternative energy, and the larger retail market of spiritual goods. Within the past year and a half, Ananda and Cite Ecologique members began to connect and share ideas on how the two communities can help each other. Currently both participate in student exchange programs, support each other’s businesses, and continue to search for new methods to integrate the communities.
My passion is to bring other communities together in the same way that Ananda and Cite Ecologique are currently pursuing. During my senior year in high school I was part of the first group of Ananda Living Wisdom School students to visit Cite Ecologique’s community. I was immediately struck by the creativity, happiness, and joy emanating from the community’s members; it felt like I had known these people my entire life. The powerful experiences I had in that brief one week stay in Cite Ecologique convinced me that cooperative communities can indeed change the world. There is more to life than getting good grades in school, graduating from college, getting a lucrative salary, buying a house with a white picket fence, and dying with fame and fortune. Ananda and Cite Ecologique are two examples of cooperative communities that have offered a heartfelt alternative to the material core of Western society.
My spoken words are registered in the ether… and they shall move the West… (T)housands of youths must go North, South, East and West to cover the earth with little colonies, demonstrating that simplicity of living and high thinking lead to the greatest happiness! – Paramhansa Yogananda
I anticipate becoming an “ambassador” of sorts for Ananda, Cite Ecologique, and other communities interested in working with one another to demonstrate that cooperative communities are a valuable and crucial instrument to bring about a shift to higher consciousness in the world. It is my ambition to help existing and future cooperative communities network and support each other in similar fashion of the ongoing efforts between Ananda and Cite Ecologique. Cooperative communities are more than a theory embedded in the mind of a philosopher; they have actually been purposefully initiated and proven to be a viable structure of human action and interest. I intend to use the full extent of my energy and abilities to expand cooperative communities to wherever they will be willingly supported, because I have seen firsthand the changes such communities bring through inward spirituality and true outward wealth of cooperation, friendship, and joyful living for God.
Kriyananda, Swami. “Chapter 10: Conscious Evolution and the Small Communities Solution – Hope for a Better World!”. Ananda Sangha Worldwide. n.d. Web.
http://www.ananda.org/inspiration/books/hope/10.html (6 December 2010)
Kriyananda, Swami. “Chapter 22: Making It Happen – Education for Life”. Ananda Sangha Worldwide. n.d. Web.
http://www.ananda.org/inspiration/books/efl/22.html (6 December 2010)
“Spiritual Communities”. Ananda Sangha. Ananda Sangha Worldwide. n.d. Web.
http://www.ananda.org/ananda/spiritual-communities/ (6 December 2010)