by Alyson Hazlewood
It’s safe to say that I am somewhat of an anti-authoritarian. Perhaps one of the reasons I am so attracted to Buddhism is that it invites you to “see for yourself”, to test out this set of guidelines for living to see if they work for you, rather than buying into some ancient dogma. I have a tendency to question everything, and have organised my life in such a way to avoid rigid rules or structures, working for myself, setting my own daily schedule, answering to no-one.
This has worked pretty well for me in terms of my freelance career, because I’m reasonably hard working, conscientious and self motivated. However, other aspects of my life, such as committing to a spiritual practice or making health and wellbeing a priority were in definite need of an overhaul. Living solely for oneself has a limited appeal and can be a lonely path. I came to New Life to investigate the reality of living in conscious community, to see if this feisty, independent woman could put herself aside in order to be of service.
The great benefit of having a structured schedule each day:
The Buddhist teaching of ‘holding identity lightly’ as a path to inner peace and freedom has been very helpful to me during this process. When I identify as, or overvalue the label of ‘the independent one’ I set up a resistance to the reality of living in community where the needs of the whole outweigh the preferences of one. Not always ‘getting what I want’ can be the cause of significant disruption to my inner peace, which is an incredibly useful insight into all the ways my inner peace is dependent on external circumstances being ‘just right’.
When resistance arises in the form of a thought like ‘why should I have to stick to an 8.30 pm curfew at the ripe old age of 42?’, I gently remind myself that a curfew is in place to protect residents who are vulnerable and recovering from addictions, and to keep all the residents of New Life safe. Or if the thought arises “why do I have to get up at 6am every day to practice yoga?”, I remember that I’m forming habits that support my bodymind and keep me healthy and well.
For me, it’s long overdue warrior training in self discipline (which seems to be sorely lacking in the West, along with altruistic tendencies). I used to lament my lack of will power when it came to anything outside of my career. But I recently realised that by ‘just doing it’, by simply starting whatever it is that you are wanting to master – rather than waiting for the ‘right time’ or for that elusive will power to magically develop – is the key to success. That’s also where having a structured schedule each day can be of great benefit. Within this structure, there is spaciousness to develop more skilful ways of being in the world.
“All of these small units of activity add up to one very substantial whole…”
It’s important at times of resistance not to make an ‘enemy’ of myself with harsh judgements. It’s very common that people let their battles define them. In the past I’ve noticed a tendency to see failure as an indication of who I am. Conversely, resilient people let their perseverance define them. They see failure as an event, not a definition of who they are. Now, when resistance arises I note that I am choosing to become conscious of how my identity likes to assert itself, and make adjustments that benefit everyone, not just myself.
New Life runs smoothly because behind the scenes, there are many cogs in the wheel turning steadily. The kitchen is constantly replenished with food. Faulty shower units are repaired. Our much-loved cows get milked. Rubbish is disposed of. The gardens are kept clean and free of weeds. All of these small units of activity add up to one very substantial whole that provide the residents here with the space, peace and quiet to do the often intense psychological work that they came here for. Volunteers are the glue that holds a community together.
Furthermore, in this age of social instability and unrest, volunteers learn the increasingly important skill of working cooperatively. Close connections are formed which in turn boost self confidence and interbeing, and studies have shown that volunteering lessens the symptoms of chronic pain, heart disease and even lowers mortality rates. This is reflected in Buddhism with the third of the Three Jewels, the ‘Sangha’ or community, providing refuge and an optimal environment for liberation and wellbeing.
“New Life has provided me with a new appreciation for structure and to my surprise, comfort can be found therein”
Although certainly challenging, I have been glad to have the experience of working in intense heat in the fields, for the gratitude that it fosters for my daily meals. The simple act of giving thanks before a meal largely seems a thing of the past, yet so much sweat and hard labour goes into cultivating crops, and the earth responds with abundance. If this experience were mandatory for all people, respect for livestock, for food and for the people that toil to produce it would be perfectly ordinary.
If working on the farm wasn’t eye opening enough, working in the ‘green’ team is a sobering wake up call. This daily task involves sorting through the food waste bins and rubbish/recycling bins for the New Life community by hand, separating everything out into its relevant sections. Everyone in the community has a turn at this job in order to fully grasp the implications of our waste. And yet again, I’m struck by how much more mindful we’d all be if this was a compulsory experience.
Mother Theresa once said, “To show great love, we need not do great things. It is how much love we put into the doing that makes our offering something beautiful.” Of course, it would be inauthentic of me not to admit that I don’t always feel love for my allotted tasks, but an equally important part of my spiritual development is practicing self-compassion when I’m having an ‘off’ day.
Unquestionably, volunteering at New Life has given me the opportunity to experience first hand that it’s love that makes all the difference. Offering free haircuts to the community, or giving up my Christmas Day in order to help cook dinner for 60 is deeply satisfying – something that psychology professors call ‘secure self-satisfaction’, or in other words, egoless, healthy satisfaction. Building on these acts of generosity has the potential to have a far reaching impact back out in the real world, one small gesture at a time. So, for this lifelong rule-breaker, New Life has provided me with a new appreciation for structure and to my surprise, comfort can be found therein.
Aly Hazlewood is a Writer, Beauty Editor and Make Up Artist from London, currently exploring new ways of living and being. She blogs at http://www.