My Three Months as a Temporary Citizen
By Deb Hansen
(This is a shortened version of Deb Hansen’s original article!!)
From September through November of 2011, I lived in Damanhur, a spiritual community located in the foothills of the Italian Alps north of Turin. The New Life or Temporary Citizen Program began about a year ago. I assumed its purpose was to give the participants an opportunity to get a taste of a different way of life. Later, it became clear that we also provided both a challenge and breath of fresh air to the residents with our perspectives, ideas, and cultures. While I was there, my fellow “new lifers”, as we called ourselves, came from Argentina, Australia, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Scotland, Switzerland, and the U.S.
About 400 people of all ages live inside the community in groups called nucleos. Another 600 people from many places in the world affiliate with the community in one of several formal ways. The nucleos function as independent families of choice. Each nucleo has at least one major project such as running the bakery, managing the guest houses, experimenting with the latest solar power technology, or elder care.
When I first heard about Damanhur, the idea of such a place resonated immediately. This was my second visit. Two years ago I spent a month there, exchanging work in three homes for room and board. With the language barrier and the lack of a group of English-speaking peers, I felt quite isolated much of the time. But that didn’t stop me from making friends and really wanting to know more about how these people were able to build a place of such beauty and substance, literally creating a unique culture in such a short period of time. I had to go back and wasn’t quite sure why. What I did know is that I longed to know what it might be like to live in a culture that was an integrated whole. I know what it’s like to live in one that’s deeply fractured. I wanted to experience a way of life based on spiritual principles, ethics, and individual choice – where no ideal or goal would be too outrageous to work towards. Damanhur is only one of many groups, large and small, who want to change the world and provide a model of sustainable living. But I suspect they are unique in the depth and breadth of their scope. They’ve been in existence longer than most. When I arrived, they were celebrating the founding of the community 37 years ago.
What is Damanhur? I still have difficulty describing to people the essence of this community, what it’s attempting to accomplish, what makes it different from other communities you might already be familiar with. Damanhur was founded in the 70’s by 12 people who had participated for some time in a meditation group led by Oberto Airaudi in Turin. The federation of communities now describes itself as a school of thought. It is also an experimental community wheremore than you could ever imagine is deeply thought through and re-imagined, then put into practice. There is a complementary currency, a detailed philosophy, a system of therapies and health maintenance used in conjunction with western medicine, a number of businesses and art studios, fine jewelers, a beauty shop, and a calendar of ritual which emphasizes the solstice, equinox, and Day of the Dead, a sacred language, an art and architectural style, and dance form. They produce fashion shows with their own hand-crafted clothing. They produce concerts, plays, dances, and publish a daily newspaper. There’s an order of monks – male and female. There are also schools for children from infancy to adolescence. At age fourteen, Damanhurian young people complete their education in the Italian system so they are prepared to make the choice of remaining in the community or living in the larger world. Damanhur invests a lot in these schools which emphasize travel, a sense of autonomy, and individual attention. Some people in the area pay to send their kids there, as did several of the temporary citizens. Damanhur’s constitution begins with these words: “The citizens are brothers and sisters who help one another through trust, respect, clarity, acceptance, solidarity and continuous inner transformation. Everyone is committed to always extending to others, the opportunity to reach higher. Each citizen makes a commitment to spread positive and harmonious thought, and to direct every thought and action towards spiritual growth, putting ideals before personal interest. Each person is socially and spiritually responsible for every action they take.” It is an artistic community where everyone is encouraged to get involved. People, including some who have had little to no training in their specialties, have produced what the community is best known for: the magnificent Temples of Humankind, excavated entirely by hand in secrecy inside a mountain. A building permit for such an effort would surely never have been allowed. Damanhur is a modern-day mystery school where research into ancient forms of communication with the Divine has created rituals such as the Oracle that takes place every month at the full moon. A variety of courses are offered to the public, ranging from how to build a successful community to learning about past lives as a means of deepening the understanding of the soul’s greater mission over lifetimes. Damanhur is also an eco-village, one of a growing number of communities around the world that are experimenting with ways to become self-sustaining in food and energy. There is a four-person laboratory that, in addition to testing products sold in the all-organic food store for chemical contamination and genetic modification, is focusing on two major research projects: growing meat from the muscle cells of animals — and producing propane from algae.
Before arriving, I had made a request to either live in a family on the beautiful grounds of Damjl or in the village of Vidracco, a 20-minute walk from the capital. Living close to our activities would mean I could easily check in on my canine companion, Mitzi, from time to time and not be so dependent on getting a ride from a more remote area. So I was delighted to learn that I would be living with one of three families in Damjl.
Life at Damanhur is not an easy one. Guests who arrive expecting to have a good part of the day spent in meditation are mistaken. “Here we pray with our hands,” people there are fond of remarking. It’s a spirituality centered on practical action, individual and group goals, shared ideals. People are active every day with a wide variety of responsibilities and interests. Days often last well into the evening. I was surprised at the diverse population who make their home there: doctors, a nurse, a dentist, therapists, a veterinarian, lawyers, mechanics, plumbers, builders, accountants, administrators, artists, teachers, business people, information technology specialists, solar heating specialists, etc. The economic hard times in Italy and beyond have definitely affected Damanhur. Nine people used to work at making cheeses; now there is only one. In the beginning, almost everyone worked outside the community. Today it’s the reverse. The level of creativity in every aspect of life impressed me. While medical people are required to have the credentials we’re familiar with, it was surprising to learn how many artists in stained glass and sculpture had no formal training in their field.
Some of you have asked me what I learned there and whether I would go back….
It was truly refreshing to have a break from being treated as a consumer. In the three months I lived there, no one attempted to sell me anything – ever. It made relationships with others feel “cleaner” and more authentic. I appreciated the emphasis on choosing and choosing again in all aspects of life. Even one’s marriage is re-evaluated formally on a regular basis. As one woman remarked with a smile, “Yes, I’ve been married many times, but always to the same man!” I learned to be open to ideas and experiences without giving up common sense or discernment. I learned a lot about initiative and responsibility. I gained humility in the face of the endless demands such a life entails: the need to pull your own weight and push through fatigue, the effort it takes from everyone to maintain grounds and buildings, the sweat equity and attention required to raise food. These people don’t hire anything out unless they don’t have the skills to do it themselves. That doesn’t mean everyone is paid the same though. Diversity in all forms, including income diversity, is respected. I learned how difficult it is for me and others to counter a lifetime of conditioning in individualism. Unlike our dynamic Spanish predecessors, my group of temporary citizens always had difficulties pulling together as a unit, myself included. But I did get a taste of both the sacrifice of prioritizing group goals to self interest and how much fun you could have doing all kinds of things together. I experienced how living in close proximity to others wears us down and eventually transforms us. Damanhurians really walk their talk when they say they put equal value on all forms of work — hard work. I saw healers mopping floors and artists tending the coffee bar. The founder and visionary of Damanhur regularly scheduled rides for one of us who lived a distance away. The political and social climate in this country is so divisive right now – and our culture so fragmented. In contrast, I learned how much is possible when people really pull together, aim high, and invest their energies and resources in creative endeavors rather than endless bickering. Don’t get me wrong, as in the larger Italian culture, debate is a lifestyle, and there’s no shortage of it at Damanhur. I sometimes grew weary of the long-windedness of the organized discussions. Relationships get tense at times and sometimes rupture. But a higher vision and common purpose seem to transcend and sustain people there for the most part – and evoke a level of inventiveness, can-do attitude, camaraderie, and productivity that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I don’t consider Damanhur a utopian community. I agreed with many who remarked that these people are running around all the time, engaged in endless activities related to their work, interests, creative endeavors, and spiritual paths. Many seemed tired. On the other hand, the people who live at Damanhur clearly feel a sense of urgency faced with the inability of business, government, and religion to address some of our most serious challenges: water, food, energy, population, etc. Do we have an unlimited amount of time to chart a different course?
The colder weather along with some health issues with Mitzi and the need to consult with our own vet, made it easier to say good-bye to the people and places I had grown to love. Visitors to Damanhur often do clay work and leave their shamanic figures to be placed somewhere on the grounds. But it was the spirits of nature that captured my attention on the day of our workshop. So I left a bit of myself behind in a little mushroom, an acorn, and a caterpillar. Already, they are calling me back to this unusual and astonishing place….