As a little experiment into understanding ways in which our lifestyle might be changed to more closely reflect personal values, I went with my wife on a house viewing last month. The interesting thing about this ‘viewing’ was that we only spent 15 minutes looking at the house, and spent three hours discovering the way the people lived there. We learned what can happen when ego indulgence is replaced with authentic lifestyle considerations as the main motivation.
We were looking around a cohousing development. So first of all, let me spring to the defensive. It was not a commune. There was no free love. Everyone lives in their own normal, private houses.
It was set up 15 years ago by a group of people (now 70 of them) who wanted an environment with a strong sense of community. There were shared facilities such as land (23 acres), separate indoor communal areas (what used to be a mental illness ward), wood chip heating system, bountiful veggie garden etc. There was much mixing of children and older generations. A wide variety of role models for children to draw from (rather than the restriction of just two parents), and lots of freedom to roam and discover. And an atmosphere where people look out for each other, and live collaboratively so as to be able to do things (keep chickens and pigs and horses, set up a radio station, produce a play) that would normally just not be financially or practically feasible in a single household. It is a deliberate, designed alternative to the ‘silo’ approach to living which is found anywhere that lacks a community in its authentic meaning.
We went back again just this weekend to join in one of their monthly Sunday ‘workdays’, where they all get together to do whatever work needs to be done (in this case, redecorating the communal building). I discovered I could put up plasterboard and my daughter found a new skill in peaceful spider disposal.
It was clear that these people were thriving from having an ancient element of human behaviour present in their lives, and were healthy, confident, happy individuals as a result (especially the kids).
It made me notice that a “holiday approach” is typically taken when househunting: the well-presentedness, the nearby amenities, the lovely view. You imagine lovely thoughts of places you might go, things you might do, how much you could enjoy watching telly in this room, how nice your sofa would look in that corner…the sort of novelties that are important for holidays but tend to wear off after a few weeks or months.
Houses are just containers, towns are just collections of containers. In themselves they aren’t active lifestyle choices, even though they are often taken to be. I suppose that is why it’s quite easy to be miserable in a lovely house.
It’s what animates an object, or a place, or a relationship, that makes the difference.
The “holiday approach” is the ego eagerly indulging; a strong force in terms of compulsion, while weak and distorting in terms of animation. The ego’s only answer to animation is to try to incorporate the object into your identity, and then believe that the object says something about you (“big house = successful” being an obvious example).
The cohousing development is animated by the more deeply-rooted and lasting force of community, helping them bring to life more meaningful values.
Containing the ego seems to set free something more lively.