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 Spirituality: The Gathering Inn: Bed, Breakfast, and Beyond, Part Two

TravelBy Carolyn Baker

In Part Two, Sally Erickson and Tim Bennett share their vision for and current activities at the Gathering Inn, in Hancock, Vermont, not the least of which is creating a nurturing space for awake individuals or families who would like to join them in sharing conversation, food, and the glorious beauty of the Mad River Valley in autumn.--CB [Part One may be read here.]

CB: It seems like as you're talking, the Gathering Inn would be a wonderful place for couples or individuals or families to come for the weekend and rest and sort of have a vacation with people who are on the same page and therefore not feel so isolated as they do in the real world they live in day after day.

TB: A friend recently suggested that it would be a good place for people to come where they could let out that part of themselves that always has to keep their awareness to themselves.

CB: I notice that the sub-phrase on your logo is "a next-paradigm inn." Can you say more about that?

TB: I notice that everyone talks about the next paradigm, but nobody does anything about it. It became really clear on our screening tours that we have to move beyond talking about that different level of awareness that Einstein pointed to, taking some steps and kind of feeling our way into what that might be by planting some seeds. Future generations will certainly have more to say about it than we will, but we can plant those seeds and start some movement in that direction. So we're trying to do that. ...

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We're trying to ask: How does it feel to move beyond control and hierarchy and domination from a culture that is essentially a huge, dysfunctional ego structure to find some other way of being that isn't about domination and control? How do you get along with your partners? How do you make decisions? How do you conduct yourself in the world? How do you relate to the land and the larger community? We're feeling our way through that, and we stop and ask ourselves, for example: What would be a new way to think about money? What would be a new way to think about the energy exchange of a tribal member or how we're going to relate with other local folks.

SE: Tim mentioned that we might be a resource to individuals, couples, and families, and one of the things we've run across a lot is that often people who become aware of Peak Oil and other issues, often their spouse is hesitant to look deeply on the issues, and it's putting a lot of stress on couples. At the inn, we call ourselves the "inn-mates", and two of the "inn-mates" are psychotherapists, and we can see that the Inn is a place where we could do a couples' retreat or a couple could come for a weekend and do some intensive work around that.

One of the things that people who work with couples know is that it's very common for couples' to become polarized on issues, whether it's how clean or messy the house is going to be, how are we going to do money, or some other issue. One person in the couple will spend hours and hours diving into the information on the state of the world, glued to the computer screen to get alternative news, while the other member of the couple is completely blocking that out, and neither couple is living a very healthy life, and there may be a huge breach between them. So we may be in a unique position to offer some real compassion and a resting place for families and couples that are in that situation where both spouses could be deeply seen and heard, and the strength of each of those positions be seen and heard. Then they can stop polarizing and start to come back together again. It's another example of being of service to a rather unique group of people-people who are waking up to how incredibly serious and impending the current ecological, environmental, and economic situations are.

CB: I wanted to ask both of you if either of you has a spiritual practice and if so, how that's impacting your lives now.

TB: It feels like at this point, my whole life is a spiritual practice, and it's almost hard for me to think how it could be otherwise. My whole life is kind of revolving around getting clear about what is so-about myself, about my ego, about the world situation and relating to what's so as clearly as I can which feels like sanity to me. As I look at the world situation and how dire it is, I realize that if nothing else, I get to live as a sane human being in the face of this for as long as I get to be here.

Daniel Quinn said that the world is a sacred place and a sacred process and that we're part of that. It feels truer now than ever. The only game that's worth playing is the spiritual game where we face into the fatal diagnosis and burn away the stuff that doesn't matter and see what's left. We step fully into the questions of meaning and purpose and why we came here and what we came here to do-who we're working for and what our marching orders are-and living from those as powerfully as we can in every moment and cutting aside the crap.

SE: I used to say that I had three aspects to my spiritual practice: my psychotherapy practice which gave me the opportunity to come fully into the present in order to deeply hear my clients; the second being my morning journaling practice which allows me to come fully into the present of whatever is going on inside me and go deeper with that; and third, sitting in council or circle with other people in order to surface my assumptions on every level and question those and notice where my ego is identified with a position and let go of that and find something deeper.

Because I've just moved to Vermont I haven't had time to establish a private practice, so mostly my spiritual practice is the time I spend journaling or sitting in circle with the residents of the inn. The effect is tremendous. I feel like as hard as that work is, I'm watching all of us shedding layers of ego. I'm watching Tim, who has a large intellect and a large heart, hauling trash and doing rather mundane things, doing them with a great deal of peace. He's very much put himself into this new place of confronting ego. We've been listening to and reading Eckhart Tolle's material, and it's been extremely helpful. We've been engaging in the ongoing practice of noticing ego identification and bringing oneself back to the present moment that Tolle talks about.

Life, as dire as the daily news is, has become more simple and immediate and in that way, very fulfilling.

CB: I'm noticing that we're doing this interview on September 11, and I'm wondering how the current news is hitting both of you.

TB: I'm not hugely plugged into the current news because so much of it is re-runs, but there are new things too. What I mainly think about it is, this is what collapse looks like. It's exactly what we would expect collapse to look like and what it was predicted collapse would look like. I feel like I was born into a civilization that was in the beginning stages of collapse-it's been going on a long time and spiraling to the point now where it's huge and fast and noticeable to more and more people.

I get confused by the debate over "fast collapse" or "slow collapse". I don't understand the need to come to some sort of decision about what it's going to look like. It seems to me that we have the potential to have the collapse of civilization take place over a long time, and it also seems that there's huge potential for things to happen very quickly. For me, the task is to hold both at the same time, all the time. That's a hard thing to do, but to me it's the only thing that makes sense. So every day we have to live knowing that we live in the dominant culture, and we have to play the rules of that game-making plans, having dreams and visions for the inn, for our lives, for what we'd like to create, and we have to do that every day knowing that it could all change very quickly, and knowing that it may not. So I expect long periods of slow decline that are hardly noticeable punctuated with quick periods of very noticeable things on a smaller regional scale. Hurricanes may cause damage to major cities that doesn't ever get cleaned up because the money and energy that are needed to rebuild aren't there.

A couple of months ago we had a huge flood in Hancock. It washed out roads, and we don't know if they'll get repaired before winter. The continuing spiraling out of control of the banking system and all of that-the military and political bluster that's going on; the insanity which is the election in the mainstream culture-all of that is what collapse looks like.

SE: The current news hits me in really human ways. I get terrified sometimes; I get incredibly sad; the climate situation, by all accounts is a done deal. There's so much evidence that there's likely nothing that can be done at this point, which is a really unpopular thing to talk about. I get really sad because it looks like the extinction of much of the diversity of life, including the possibility of the extinction of all the large mammals, including humans, is in front of us and likely. That's where the spiritual practice comes into play because, as Tim said earlier, spiritual practice is about being with things exactly as they are and being in the present moment. Things exactly as they are means that because of technology I have access to knowing all over the planet as well as experiencing the daily moments of sweetness in my own life. To be only focused on one or the other, is not to be fully aware and awake.

And so the news of the day hits me as a deeper call to separate out ego from the essential life force that I happen to get to experience right now. Even my ego identification as the "special species" of human being, I get to let go of that and say, "Maybe human beings aren't so special after all. Maybe there's a much larger story that will unfold as a result of this." But to be fully human means to embrace the tragedy of what is happening right now. To feel it, and grieve it and at the same time, to enjoy the unbelievable feel of the fall air here in Vermont as the sun beats down on me here on your deck and to not miss that. So the news of the day hits me as another opportunity to wake up.

TB: Two weeks ago another report came out regarding new evidence for the frozen methane hydrates in the ocean and vast plumes of methane bubbling up as a result of ocean warming. My overall response to that is that it calmed me down and centered me which is why over and over I open my inbox in the first place and look at what's going on in the world. That's part of my spiritual practice-relating to that level of what's so in the world. And for me, it's like a really strong fan-it just blows the crap away. I could get really lost in the to-do list at the inn and the fact that guests are coming and what do we prepare? But when vast plumes of methane are bubbling up from the ocean, it becomes really clear, really quickly that most of that daily minutiae doesn't matter. What matters is that I'm alive and living right now with people who love me and whom I love. I'm on a beautiful piece of land that I'm learning to love. I have this moment, this time, and the honor of being able to do what work I can in the world for the planet and the community of life. That's one of the things that news of the world does for me. It makes me very clear what I'm here for and what's important.

CB: I really love something you said about your spiritual practice at that level-that it's your obligation in your spiritual practice to let in the realities of what is so. I think a lot of times, people have a different idea of what a spiritual practice is. They often assume that they can't have a satisfying spiritual practice unless they tune that stuff out.

TB: That's something I've been very confused about in my life. "Spiritual" is a bad word in scientific, materialist culture. It gets conflated with belief and religious systems. For years, I didn't know what it meant. I used to ask Sally what "spiritual" is, and she answered, "It's being related to what's so." When I thought about it and let that in, I realized, "Oh, well then I'm spiritual!" That seems to be my work in the world-to challenge taboos, to look at what's under the official story, and question assumptions. It's wonderful, and it's hugely important. Anything less than that, for me, feels insane.

SE: One of my favorite texts has been "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" by Chogyam Trungpa in which he says so clearly that how much of what is considered spirituality is just fancy materialism-a dressing up as if spirituality is sitting on a cushion thinking nice thoughts or trying to visualize what you really want. To me, so much of that is the trappings of ego. Rather than asking "What do I want?" or trying to attain some state of bliss, it seems to me, "What is being called for from me?" Sometimes that has moments of bliss to it; very often it's not blissful. It's mundane or simple or sad. That brand of spirituality that is trying to achieve something other than being related to the totality to me is just kind of a fancy dressing up of denial and ego identification.

TB: It's like the big three questions for me right now are: How do I take this huge, dysfunctional, insane, hyperindividualized ego that I have and fit it back into a tribe? How then do I take this tribe of egos and fit it back into the community of life? And then how do we all together face into the insoluble problem? Because there's no way in the dominant world view, there's no solution for this problem. Those, for me, are all deeply spiritual questions. It's the only work that I can see doing right now.

SE: And I think it's really important to point out that those are deeply spiritual questions, AND there aren't any definitive answers to them. What one person is called to do may look very different from what someone else is called to do. And I think that's a place where it's really easy to get judgmental. Some people want to start blowing up dams and taking down cell phone towers. Other people want to go sit on a mountain top and chant until things shift, and it may be that all of those heartfelt expressions of love and concern for the planet will be necessary. And it may be that all of those will be completely useless in the end. One thing I'm pretty convinced of is that if they're coming from ego, they won't be very useful. But if they're coming from a deeper place of connectedness to that which is greater than the human ego, they're more likely to be effective. For me, those actions that come from those deeper places are definitely more fulfilling.

TB: We can't know ultimately the usefulness or uselessness of it regardless of where this is heading. That's another thing the news of the day continually causes me to face: I have no idea what's going to happen or how it's going to play out. I can look at trends and make guesses, but ultimately, I don't know. It could be that there will be some mass consciousness change or some effective resistance or some way in which the earth itself steps in and stops this. Actually, it looks to me as if that's what the earth is doing right now.

Ultimately, even if it fails on the material plane and this mass extinction plays itself out the way it looks like it's going to, we can't really know what's going into the "morphic field" or the "mind of God" or the "quantum soup" or whatever metaphor you want to use to describe the reality of the universe which we barely comprehend. We don't know, and so that's really another question we are constantly in: How do you get up in the morning and do what you're called to do, knowing that it may not work on the material level?

SE: The ego really, really hates that. It hates not knowing, not being in control, the uncertainty of it all. The ego always wants things nailed down and defined so that it can be identified with it. So the challenge it seems to me is to simply do the best one can do and hold that we don't know. And there's a real liveliness that happens in my experience when I'm able to do that.

CB: I want to ask you one more question, and it's about an image you used frequently in the documentary. At the end of "What A Way To Go", you talk about building boats, and I'm just wondering, is the inn your lifeboat?

TB: I always squirm a little bit at the idea of a lifeboat, and even though I used the image at the end of the documentary, it also spoke of three kinds of boats: lifeboats, arks, and pirate ships. There's a way in which people grasp on to this idea of the lifeboat, and it's very humancentric. It's kind of like human beings jumping into the lifeboat to save themselves from a civilization that's sinking. It's the humancentricity that makes me squirm. I don't feel at this point that I'm really working for the human race except insofar as working for the human race is working for the whole community of life. It feels to me like the planet, the community of life is my boss. That's the highest good to be served here-the worlds of life and spirit and not just human needs. So I do have hesitancy about speaking about lifeboats because I think it fosters that kind of thinking-saving our own butts.

At the same time if this human experiment is going to be redeemed, if the choice is to evolve or die, if we are going to evolve, it's going to take some of us living into the future to do so. And so I find it worth my energy to do what I can in the world to create a place or sanctuary for myself, my tribe, my kids, my family to have a chance to navigate the collapse as well. So I don't want to take myself out of the community of life; I want to include myself as worthy of going forward, and we'll see what happens.

SE: I wish I could say that the inn and the 2.5 acres that we're fortunate enough to be situated on is an ark and that it's going to really preserve a large diversity of life. I don't know how much we'll be able to do that, but I do like the image of the ark better than the image of the lifeboat because as Tim said, it's not so humancentric-it's about a larger community of life.

I hadn't really thought about it until Tim said it, but it also could be seen as a pirate ship because what we're doing is trying to take as many of the resources that have been ripped out of the planet that are already there-the paint that's stored in the basement, for example, and utilize them for something greater. I like that image of being on the high seas in a great adventure and taking what we can out of the culture and putting it to a higher use. So while the grid is up, let's make the best use of it, and when it's gone, let's be done with it.

TB: One thing that's clear to me is that part of what I need to be doing right now is finding my place in an ecosystem. Moving to Vermont was instrumental in that-to get back north, to get to a place that looked and smelled like home and to land in a place that I have a real opportunity to fall in love with.

As Derrick Jensen points out, if the land was our beloved we would be protecting and guarding it and not allowing it to be destroyed in the way it is, so to me, our little 2.5 acres in Central Vermont is a place I've moved to in order to let it work on me, to become my beloved and a place where I can be a guardian.

CB: So my last question to you is: What is your vision for the inn?

TB: Our vision for the Gathering Inn is slowly clarifying. Beyond serving as a Bed and Breakfast for weary travelers, we see ourselves as being of particular service to people who are looking at the world situation and wanting some opportunity to reflect on that, or even just to have a place where they can hang out and not feel like they have to watch what they say, which is often the message we get from the mainstream world, we who are looking at and talking about peak oil and climate and economic meltdown and dying oceans. We can do that with more conscious conversations and locally grown foods at mealtimes, but also with workshops and trainings and circles and retreats--workshops on everything from alternative building and permaculture to community building and activism and the spiritual response to the present predicament. And we can do that by actually, as much as is possible, and more and more every day, stepping not only into a lifestyle that gives back more than it takes, but into a mind-set, a world-view, a way of being and thinking and feeling, that steps away from the dominant paradigm of control and domination and hierarchy, and into some next paradigm. We're feeling our way into something new, not only on the ground but in our hearts and minds, burning away our dysfunctional ego structures and our unquestioned assumptions and planting the seeds for what's next, not only in our greenhouses and gardens but in our human tribe.


Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is author of a forthcoming book, COMING OUT FROM CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM: Affirming Life, Love and The Sacred. Her recent book, U.S. HISTORY UNCENSORED: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You, is available at her website: http://www.carolynbaker.net
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[06 October 2008]

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