Experience Week

Experience Week – Day One (Excerpt from Dressed for Dancing)
On a cool Saturday in July I got out of the taxi at Cluny Hill College, the Forres campus of the Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland. I stood still for a moment, looking about. Cluny was a large, dignified gray building set into a tree lined hill, facing south. Gardens stretched down the hill to a hedge. Beyond that lay a narrow lane and a golf course.

I’d visited the Findhorn Foundation once before, a year ago, when I came to see my cousin and her new husband. That had been at the original location in The Park, five miles away. But the workshop I’d signed up to take on this visit, Experience Week, was held here at Cluny Hill.

I’d booked this week because I’d felt a flicker of interest a year ago in a program called ‘The Game of Transformation’ and hoped to reconnect with my cousin and her husband. But Kate and Evan had left the Foundation to return to Canada a month before I got there, so I was on my own. Experience Week seemed to be a pre-requisite for everything else, so I’d reluctantly postponed The Game of Transformation workshop.

People were coming and going from the front door, singly and in groups, many hugging each other. I felt myself contract. The truth was I was still struggling with the grief and despair of widowhood. Paul had been dead four years and I felt completely disconnected from life. Work, friends and family meant almost nothing now. At the same time, widowhood had turned me into an emotional minefield. I longed to return to the logical, intelligent, pragmatic person I’d once been. It was harder, when I was face to face with people who were emotionally open and demonstrative.

I had researched the Findhorn Foundation before booking this workshop and learned that one of the three founders, Dorothy Maclean, was Canadian, that she, along with Eileen and Peter Caddy had ended up out of work and living in a trailer park near Findhorn Village with the Caddys’ three young sons in the early 1960s. They established a vegetable garden to supplement their diet and used ‘guidance’, obtained through daily meditation, to grow unusually large vegetables in spite of the sandy soil. They called it ‘co-creation with Nature’. Skeptics and scientists tried and failed to find a logical explanation for the success of the vegetables. Over time, a small, diverse community grew. In the mid-1970s, the Experience Week program was developed as a way to introduce guests to the community and its principles. By 1992, the Findhorn Foundation, as it was called, had become one of the oldest and most respected New Age communities in the world, and hosted thousands of visitors a year.

Big vegetables. This seemed utterly bizarre to me but less and less in my life was making sense at this point anyway. Kate had said the Findhorn Foundation was a place of transformation. God knows, my life needed transforming. I picked up my suitcase and walked to the front door.

Two people greeted me in the Registration area, a forty-something auburn-haired woman named Jeanette and Tony, a beautiful man with black hair and golden hazel eyes, young enough to be one of my students.

“So you’re doing Experience Week?” he said, smiling.

“Well, what I really wanted was the Game of Transformation, but I understand Experience Week has to come first.”

“No, the Game stands on its own. There’s no prerequisite.”

I stared. “Really? Well, I guess – I’ve made a mistake. Can I do the Game instead?”

“Sorry, no. It doesn’t run every week. The next one is in August.”

How could I have misread the brochure? Been so stupid? Frustration flared inside me. Other people were waiting to register. I bit my lip. “Okay, Experience Week. Give me the form.”

After I’d finished the paperwork, Jeanette gave me a quick tour. I saw the lounge, the dining room, the shop and the sanctuary before she showed me the room I’d been assigned. My two roommates hadn’t arrived yet.

“We meet in the Beechtree Room at two this afternoon,” she said.

I dropped my suitcase on a bed and moved to the six foot high bay window that overlooked the garden and the golf course. Clouds dotted the sky and the sun shone.

At five minutes to two, I came into the Beechtree Room. It, too, had a massive bay window looking south. A circle of chairs stood in the middle of the room, with a pillar candle in a dish of lavender and sweet peas in the centre. There were flowers everywhere at Cluny, obviously from the garden. I sat close to the window. By this time I’d met my roommates, Katherine from France and Edith from Germany. Lunch in the large, sunlit dining room had been soup and salads, depressingly healthy.

Slowly other people filed in and sat, mostly in silence. Jeanette and Tony looked around the group and smiled in welcome.

“Turn your right palm up and your left down,” said Jeanette, demonstrating, “and extend them to the people on either side. That way you receive the group energy with your right and pass it on with the left. Hold hands and close your eyes while we attune to the group.”

This was so New Age that I bit my lip to keep from growling.

“Experience Week is meant to introduce you to the Foundation and its principles, show you how community develops within the group and give you a chance to explore your own spirituality,” Tony said.

 I stared down at the floor. I hadn’t liked God since my mother’s death. I hadn’t crossed the threshold of the church since Paul’s funeral and I didn’t want to explore my spirituality. I shifted in my chair, trying to relax my shoulders.

“You’ll have opportunities most evenings to share in the group. That’s a part of developing community. We encourage openness and transparency. Whatever you feel is fine, as long as you own it, take responsibility for yourself and don’t take your moods out on others. We work on unconditional love. That’s a path, a discipline, and it’s hard, but it’s a goal.”

Share. Christ. What did I have to share? I couldn’t talk about Paul or my loneliness as a widow without crying, which I was not going to do. What else was there? This was a nightmare.

The group was big, twenty-four with Jeanette and Tony, and varied. We ranged in age from eighteen to mid-fifties. There were five men and nineteen women, from a huge range of countries, Japan, Brazil, the United States, South Africa and nearly every European country. I was the only Canadian. Jeanette was Scottish and Tony Italian.

It was a long afternoon. After we’d heard a lot of general information about the place, we introduced ourselves.

“I came to meet my cousin and her husband, who were living here, but they’ve gone. I wanted to do the Game of Transformation but made a mistake and I can’t. So I’m here, in this group.” I looked around the circle. “But I’m sure it will be an interesting week.”

There was no program that night so I joined Katherine and Edith for a sauna. Tony had told us that bathing suits weren’t needed and we’d find sauna towels in the changing room. Clad in orange towels, we stepped into the small, dim, wood lined sauna. A woman was just leaving as we entered. A stark naked woman. Three men sat on the higher bench, not wrapped discreetly in their towels, but sprawled carelessly, nakedly, on top of them. I felt my jaw drop. Katherine and Edith scrambled up, sat down cross-legged on their towels and greeted the men cheerfully. For a moment I clutched my towel to me, paralyzed with shock. Then I crept into the shadowy corner of the lower bench, where the temperature was only moderate, drew my knees up to my chin and closed my eyes.

Was this what they meant by transparency?

After fifteen, lukewarm moments alone on my lower shelf, I was considering a hot shower, when one of the men dropped down to my level. He was gleaming with sweat and he was circumcised. I knew just how little Miss Muffet must have felt.

“You are also in Experience Week, ja?” he said. “I am Klaus.”

“Umm – Leslie,” I said weakly. He smiled.

“I think it will be a goot workshop.”

“Umm humm.” Nakedness in the context of relationship was one thing; nakedness among strangers was something completely different. I went for the shower.

 Day Two

On Sunday morning we assembled in the Sanctuary for an “Angel Meditation.”

Tony laid a circle of small cards face down around the candle in the centre of the sanctuary.

“The angel cards represent qualities we all have,” he said. “The one you choose will be one to focus on this week.”

After a short meditation, I drew one of the cards. Purification. The tiny picture on the card showed an angel either sweating profusely or standing under a waterfall, I wasn’t sure which. It reminded me of the sauna except the Angel was clothed. What on earth was I supposed to purify?

Later we took a bus over to the Park, the original location of the Foundation. This was where my cousin and her husband had lived. We had a tour and assembled in the Park Sanctuary for what Jeanette said would be a Work Department attunement.

“We ask all Experience Week guests to work in a department for four shifts during the week, as a way of contributing while they are here but also to understand how we connect with Spirit on an everyday basis. Peter Caddy, one of our founders, said that work is love in action, and that’s the philosophy we follow.”

She looked around the circle. No one spoke.

“We choose our department by ‘attunement’, that is by closing our eyes, going into a meditative space, listening to what is available and allowing a yes to form in our hearts or minds. What department do you feel called to join? It may not be what you want or expect; you may be guided into one for the work but it may also be in order to meet a particular person or have a very specific experience. You can’t really know in advance. So feel into the choices and let the answer emerge.”

Feel into the choices? I clenched my jaw. Jeanette listed the departments, with the number of people needed in each one. The number of work spaces equaled the number of people in the program. The departments included garden, kitchen, dining room, homecare in both the Park and Cluny. I knew what I wanted. Cluny Garden. I didn’t want to have to commute to and from the Park every day and I wanted to be outside. Easy.

We were supposed to keep our eyes shut and raise our hands for the department we felt “called to join”. Even before we were told to open our eyes at the end, I knew that more people had been called to Cluny Garden than there were spaces. Many more, as it turned out. Jeanette reminded us to keep an open mind as she took us back into meditation. Ten minutes later, nothing had changed. Perhaps we would like to talk about it? We looked at each other but no one seemed inclined to speak. I felt a growing impatience to be out of the sanctuary but Jeanette behaved as if there were all the time in the world. Yet another meditation. Fuck it; what does it matter, I thought. I put my hand up for Homecare. I didn’t like housework; who does? But I wanted this ‘attunement’ to end. And I did have the Angel of Purification. By the end of this meditation there had been some change but not enough. Jeanette invited the garden ‘callees’ to share what they’d experienced in their meditation. I relaxed and stopped listening. A couple of minutes later the problem was resolved. Other people must have been impatient too. No one looked particularly happy, except Jeanette and Tony.

At dinner that night, the people who’d got into the gardens glanced up when I said I’d make sure the bathroom sinks were good and clean when they came in to wash after their work shifts.

“Pity the bathrooms here aren’t quite as famous as the Findhorn Garden,” I added.

One woman shifted uncomfortably on her chair and sighed. “You know, I have a garden at home. I thought gardening here might teach me how to improve it but maybe I’m being selfish. I could switch with you if you really want to garden.”

I wasn’t used to having someone call my bluff.

“Ignore me. I’m being bloody minded. You go to the garden and enjoy it.”

She laughed.

The sauna had only been the first shock. That night a member of the community visited our group for an “Inner Life Sharing”. She told us that Eileen Caddy, one of the founders, had heard God talking to her. I stared. When she added that she, too, had heard God’s voice, I nearly put my head into my hands. Psychotic. The woman looked sane but she must be delusional. I glanced around at the rest of my group. Everyone appeared to be taking her seriously except for one man who was nodding off. I stayed silent, didn’t join in the question session. Only five more days.

Day Three

It was raining when I woke up Monday morning so I felt quite pleased to be working inside after all. At 9 a.m. I sat in the Homecare office along with Mark and Greta from my Experience Week group and three Homecare members. Mark looked as if he disliked housework as much as I did. Greta, on the other hand, apparently lived to clean. She was Dutch, blond and twenty-six. Maybe this enthusiasm for cleaning was cultural?

“Work is love in action and an opportunity to serve God,” said the woman in charge. Greta beamed. Mark snorted. He taught computer studies in a college in the English midlands and had been dragged to the Foundation by his girlfriend. I wondered if he, too, was counting the days. When he set off to vacuum the east and west stairs, he slapped headphones over his ears. Hard rock throbbed as he walked away. The focaliser looked after him thoughtfully. I smiled.

I could have chosen to clean the lounge but the bathrooms loomed large and I gave in, figuring if I did them Monday morning I could dodge them with a clear conscience for the rest of the week. Someone gave me a blue box of cleaning materials and pointed me to the second floor. I stood in the middle of a large bathroom, staring at the toilet. One floor below me, Greta was also cleaning bathrooms, probably with love. I picked up the toilet brush.

By the end of the morning I had cleaned five bathrooms on the second floor, feeling more like a martyr than anything else. Cluny seemed to be nothing but bathrooms. God required a lot of service.

That afternoon we met in the ballroom for ‘Community Building Games’. I arrived early and sat in one of the window seats to wait for the others. Like the dining room, the ballroom had massive windows on three sides and a high ceiling. The rain from the morning had stopped and sunshine poured through the stained glass panels at the top of the windows, leaving splotches of green, rose and lilac on the wooden floor. A grand piano and a sound system stood in the corner but otherwise the huge room was empty of furniture. The group drifted in, in twos and threes, talking about their work departments. Two Findhorn members, Niels and Heather, called us into the familiar, hand-holding circle to “attune” to the new activity.

I was tired and I’m not really a games player. Cautiously neutral at best. But it started with learning names, twenty-six now, which was okay. After that there was a series of games that ranged from the simple to the silly. We danced until the music stopped, formed groups of three and gave one word or one sentence answers to personal questions such as, what do you most like about yourself, or, what’s something no one here knows about you. We played “hug tag”, in which the safe place was in a hug with another person.

“No more than five seconds per hug to be fair to the person who is It,” Heather said. “The purpose is to hug as many different people as you can.”

I might have balked at that, I’m not one for promiscuous hugging, but it’s hard when the whole group starts running and hugging. I got caught up in it before I could help myself.

There were a couple of trust games. My favourite was one in which everyone was blindfolded and assigned an animal. We had to move around making the sound of that animal until we’d found our ‘family’. I was a cow. The ballroom rang with the sounds of mooing, barking, baaing, and oinking as we fumbled about blindly with our hands outstretched. I giggled so much that my moos were inaudible. It was a miracle the other cows found me.

After tea break the games became non-verbal and more serious. We were blindfolded again to explore the hands of a silent, blindfolded, anonymous other, following Niels’ directions. In the final game we moved around the room to music, our eyes shut, imagining we were planets circling through a vast universe. Slowly we began to connect with each other until we ended up close together in one big group, swaying like a large, pulsating jellyfish.

By the end of the afternoon, I had had physical contact with every other person in the group. The organizers pulled us into a circle on the floor and gave us a chance to “share”. Back to the New Age. I cringed. But the youngest one in the group beamed around the circle.

“That was fun, I feel much closer to everyone now.”

“It is good to know the names,” said Klaus, the circumcised man from the sauna.

Edith’s eyes were liquid. “I am divorced for three years now. No physical contact. This hug tag game is so good. I like it.”

“The afternoon was fun but I had trouble with the blindfolds in the hand exploration game,” said Helen, an older American. “I was sexually abused as a child and, well, I was really glad I was put with a woman for that game. I could tell it was a woman because Katherine’s hands are so small.”

There was an extended silence, broken at last by Rick, a gorgeous, blue-eyed blond in his twenties. “Yeah, thanks for saying that, Helen. I’m bi-sexual. I always wonder if it’s safe to tell people but in this group, it feels okay.”

I sat like a stone, shocked silent. How could people speak so intimately about themselves?

My modus operandi usually involves watching a group until I feel I’ve got the measure of it before I speak. But this was way out of my usual league. I couldn’t get the measure of anyone. That night after dinner, another community member joined the group for a Nature Sharing. I’d read about the Foundation principle of “co-creation with Nature”, in which Dorothy Maclean meditated and got advice on growing large vegetables. But somehow that hadn’t prepared me for this man saying he’d seen a Nature Spirit in the garden. Hearing voices and seeing things! If I hadn’t been so tired after Homecare and the Community Building Games, I might have felt panicky. As it was, I looked around the circle searching for skepticism that matched my own and didn’t see it. Did no one but me have a grasp of consensus reality?

I didn’t share that night either.

Day Four

As I worked in Homecare Tuesday morning, scrubbing the sauna bench with hot water and soap, I thought about the week so far. It was nearly half way through and I hadn’t spoken much at all. Jeanette and Tony didn’t pressure anyone but I could feel the eyes of the others in the group, wondering what was wrong with me.

Somewhere between cleaning the first and second sauna bench, I remembered the Pine River Multicultural Leadership week when I’d met Paul. Paul and I had led one of the student groups during this five day residential workshop. On Day One, I realized I couldn’t hide behind my role of teacher. Out of role I was nervous and vulnerable. But that week changed my life, and not just because I met Paul. I had to stand my ground in a group as a real person. Only the courage of the students had enabled me to get through it.

The program involved speaking from the heart, not a lesson plan. There were no experts. The students were nearly all immigrants and knew a lot more about survival than I did. I had no desk between me and them. I’d been in tears frequently – me, logical, analytical, unemotional and pragmatic me. I remembered Jackie, the student who’d stayed most vividly in my mind.

“I’m fat,” she’d said, looking around the group. “I know that’s not a strength but in my school, if you’re fat you’ve only got two choices: go under, give up and drop out, or get stronger and survive. I’m a survivor. All the women in my family are like me: big, fat and strong. I’m strong because I’m fat. I was scared starting high school but my mom said straight out – you gotta face it. You’re bright, you’ve got terrific ideas and you work hard. If those kids can’t see that – and they may not, it’s a weird age – you have to keep going forward until people around you do see it. Your body is big, okay – but your mind and your soul are way bigger.

“I was scared coming here. My teacher recommended me because I am a leader, even though she knows and I know, no one in my class wants a fat leader. They’d rather have somebody skinny and pretty whether she’s got brains or not. But I’m here and you’ve all made me feel like I’m worth it.”

I’d never admired anyone as much as Jackie that day.

I scrubbed the second wooden bench, soaking my jeans in the process. Had I learned nothing from that Leadership Week? From Jackie? I had committed to Experience Week; I had to get something out of it. If sharing was what it took, I’d share. Time to test the waters of openness and transparency. I filled the bucket again and flung clean hot water over the benches, washing away the soap.

That night in the group I cleared my throat after someone else had finished a rhapsody about the garden.

“This -” I waved my hand around to indicate the group and all of Cluny – “isn’t what I’m used to. It’s a big learning curve. Jeanette told me earlier today that the British love eccentrics. Canadians aren’t so comfortable with them. I think we’re more inhibited. Well, I am. The first shock was the sauna, Saturday night. In Canada, we – well, I’ve never been in a sauna naked with strangers of both sexes. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else so I guess my assumptions about men and nakedness are maybe – just my assumptions. Not necessarily true.” I glanced around the group. The Americans smiled understandingly at me, the British looked poker-faced and everyone else seemed puzzled.

“Anyway, today in Homecare I volunteered to clean the sauna. I attuned to my angel of Purification and imagined all of you in there with me. Naked. I think it helped.”

Startled laughter bubbled up in the circle.

“The next sauna night is tomorrow and it’s our free evening. I’ll be there about 7:30, naked, and I hope you’ll all come and join me. The sauna is beautifully clean.”

About half of them did come. I climbed up to the second level, having practised several times on Tuesday, sat nude and cross-legged on my towel in the heat and beamed. I could see their teeth gleam as they grinned back. My first step into the New Age at last.

Day Five

Mark, one of my group in Home Care, had not joined us in the sauna the night before. Like me, he was struggling with the place. During the Wednesday afternoon sharing, he exploded.

“This place is fucking unreal. Nobody is this accepting all the time. I don’t believe it.” His face was red and the veins in his neck bulged. No one spoke. Jeanette and Tony looked interested but neither alarmed nor upset. For a few minutes Mark glared around the circle. People looked steadily back at him. I noticed a few grins. Only his girlfriend, Bel, seemed angry. Mark deflated like a burst balloon.

“Sorry, I’m bringing you all down, I know I’m too negative, I just… I can’t…”

“Don’t bleat, Mark,” said one of the women. “There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve said if it’s what you feel.”

“Be cool, man,” said an American. “I’ve struggled with that too. Maybe some people are trying too hard but I actually think there is a lot of acceptance here. Maybe we’re just not used to it.”

We broke for tea then. To my own surprise, I hugged Mark on my way out of the room. He leaned into me gratefully. I felt so much better after listening to him, though I couldn’t think why.

The End of the Week

During the Friday morning Homecare shift I felt the unmistakable symptoms of migraine. Awful timing. I couldn’t miss the Completion session Friday afternoon. At lunch I took double the usual medication. But when we met at two p.m., I had to sit with my back to the bay window and the others looked blurred around the edges.

Tony pulled out a stone he’d picked up during our trip to the beach last Sunday to use as a ‘talking stone’ for the completion sharing.

“This is your opportunity to say whatever you need to say before we complete our time together as a group. During the meditation, I’ll remind us what we’ve done this week. Afterwards I’ll open the space for sharing. Use the stone and then pass it on to someone else when you’re done.”  He glanced around, then invited us to close our eyes.

I sent up a silent prayer for the bloody headache to let go. By the time the meditation had finished, however, I felt the familiar queasiness and knew that I had better speak now. I picked up the stone, cool and heavy in my hand.

“I want to go first because I have a bad headache and might not last the afternoon.” I drew a deep breath. “When Mark said that not everyone was as accepting as we seemed to be, he could have been talking about me. I’ve found this week hard, because of the level of honesty… no, it’s really intimacy – that seems to be a norm here. Intimacy in a relationship I can cope with; intimacy with a bunch of strangers is – has not been what I’m used to or comfortable with. I’m grateful you said what you did, Mark; it helped me to know someone else questioned it here. It’s easier for me to – well, to take my clothes off than to show how vulnerable I am. I have this need to be seen as strong and in control but I’m not a lot of the time and it’s hard for me to accept that, never mind let it show.

“Thank you all for being so patient with my silence, while I found my voice. It helped. I hope I can take some of the acceptance home with me.”

I forced myself to focus as I looked around at them. They were smiling. I handed the stone to Mark, then closed my eyes and listened as the others shared. After a few minutes, I found, to my astonishment, that the headache was receding.

“This week was nothing like I thought it would be. I don’t feel as sure about home now or myself. I think I might have changed. I didn’t expect that.”

“The place is great and you all were a good time too. I loved being in the Park Kitchen. I’ve never seen a group of guys ‘cooking with love’ before.”

“I’ll take more of a Findhorn approach to my children now, I think, after having the Angel of Love for the week. More accepting, less critical. Maybe I’ll even send them for an Experience Week.”

“I take home Eileen Caddy book on guidance. Use. Thank you for patient with my bad English. You all beautiful peoples.”

You all beautiful peoples. My eyes were wet.

I still wasn’t sure about sharing or the Foundation, but I said goodbye with real affection to my roommates and to Mark and Greta and the focalisers before I left for a retreat on the island of Iona on the west coast. The Foundation had a house there, called Traigh Bhan.

It was a small one and a half story building set in a sloping, east-facing field in the middle of a farm. A stone wall separated the house and its wild, luxuriant garden from the sheep and cows. The glassed-in front porch faced the Iona Strait and the island of Mull. The sea was blue, or gray or silver, depending on the weather. The clouds changed from moment to moment, the tides shifted and seals and sea birds appeared and disappeared, as did the rainbows. A host and five other guests stayed there as well. Because it was a retreat, we were mostly on our own. I wrote about Experience Week in my journal, meditated in the sanctuary with its views in three directions, walked the hills, fascinated by the ever changing light, and every night I climbed Dun I, the highest point of the island, to watch the sun set far out in the Atlantic. I felt peaceful and centered, almost happy.

By the end of the week, I thought I might return to the Foundation next year after all, and play the Game of Transformation.