Case Studies Living in Intentional Community

These case studies and any derivatives are intended as a chronicle of the communal and generational knowledge, awarenesses, and experience living in an intentional community. You can find plenty of community blogs detailing the new garden, the fruits of the harvest, the construction of the latest straw bale house. I want to go deeper than infrastructure. I want to get my hands into the nitty gritty, the meat, the marrow of community. We all know that communities fall apart more often than they come together. And there are logical, perfectly understandable reasons why. That's what I want to talk about.

It is impossible to be objective. I'm not going to try. I'm going to share my personal experience and perspective, my ugly moments and my big-picture clarity. These are intended to be concise vignettes of challenges, healing, and manifestation of intention when living in community. This is what we've learned, through trial and error, when we're at our worst, and when we're at our best. These are the cycles we see over and over again, and we learn more each time.

We're not perfect. We're human beings working our way through cultural conditioning and childhood woundedness. Sometimes our best intentions don't play out. Sometimes they do, and it's messy. Sometimes they do and it's blissful. Sometimes we take good ideas and fuel them with unhealthy energy. There is no black and white. It's a journey with no destination but ourselves.


These articles are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. If you use these articles for derivative or commercial purposes, please email me at dev DOT starcrasher AT neverbox DOT com. I would love to know what you're doing, and find like-minded projects and resources.

Case Studies

Sharing a Vision-- What Happens When We Don't

The past few months have been a turbulent time full of learning and growth for my community. We have reached a point where we are –superficially– divided into factions. Cliques. And the root of much of this is that as a community we currently do not share, or are not grounded in, a common vision.

The founder and long-term members of our circle feel grounded in the original vision of the community. Newer members, particularly those who have come to the community explicitly for a finite period of time –one or two years, a few months– often want to only fulfill the specific function they came to do (for instance, our publishing efforts), and remain peripherally involved in the community in a “You do your thing I'll do my thing” state. Often what I hear from short-term members is, “I'm interested in this one aspect, but not the others. I just want to do my own thing.”

We invited three people to become a part of our publishing team (of which I am also a member) who do not, to varying degrees, resonate with our vision and lifeway as a whole. We understood this when we invited them, and also understood the potential for fall out. We saw a lot of talent and passion that could complement our expanding efforts, and we wanted to honor and receive what they had to offer and give what our community had to offer in return. These people, though living in the same building, their shared interests, and other factors gelled into a unit.

Gradually, they stopped (or never started) participating in cooking or eating communal meals. Often these people don't help clean dishes, clean communal cars, participate in wood or food gathering, or take out the compost. Often they don't want to bring up feelings of anger or resentment to the people they're feeling them toward, and instead want to vent to their confidants about it when the person isn't around. Conversations started stopping when I came into the room, or they started when a particular person left. Foods and substances we had explicitly stated we did not have in our community in order to support personal healing work started showing up. We brought these issues to our weekly community meetings, spoke about them one on one, and we never found resolution. Many of the long-term members felt like our traditions and community processes were not being respected. Many of the newer members felt controlled and unheard.

This divisiveness has brought up a lot of fear for me, because there is small child inside me that is terrified of having to pull up the stakes and move again, lose everything I know again. My inner child feels like my home is threatened by new people rampaging about trying to have their way with no respect for the ways they've come into. When I'm in that state my reaction is to reject, judge, avoid, and play mediator. Part of the latter is my gift, what I bring to my circle, the ability to see both “sides”, to walk the edges. Part of it is just plain old trying to stop mom and dad fighting, controlling the situation to feel safe, externalized on my present situation.

We had a new family join our circle within a couple of months of two members of our publishing team. The parents wanted to find a safe-space to heal from addictions, and find community support to nurture their child. They began living in the same building as the three newer members of our publishing team. It was confusing for them, having begun their exploration of becoming a part of our circle when we were solid in our common vision, to enter a situation where we abruptly realized we didn't share one. What for long-term members was a new development looked to new people like a soup of contradiction and hypocrisy. We didn't have a stable foundation to offer them when they were already making a huge life change.

In our publishing team, less and less was being accomplished. People rarely showed up for scheduled meetings, rarely worked in the same space so we could share ideas and ask questions. Projects that could have been fairly short dragged on and on. Any request for change or circle consciousness was perceived as an attack, hierarchy, or control. The rapidly solidifying clique began using any inconsistencies they saw in the manifestation of our community vision as an excuse to make communal decisions without the input of the whole community. And more and more, through behavior and stances at community meetings, it started to look like two sides butting heads. Several new people felt that their individuality was threatened, and reacted with defensiveness and judgment. A few long-term people felt that their hard work and progress was being threatened, and they reacted with defensiveness and attempts to control. New people saw this and then perceived all attempts to find a realignment of vision as expressions of control.

Thing is, we can't just blame it all on one “side” or the other. We all created this situation. I created by not speaking my truth. When the conversations stopped when I came into the room, I didn't ask, “Hey, did a conversation just stop? What's going on? What needs to be said to clear the air?” When I heard from new community members their desire to participate in the community, and then I saw that they sequestered themselves away and were never available for community projects I didn't say, “I remember how excited you were when you talked about participating in the community, and yet I never see you when we call a power hour. Are you not feeling passionate about being here? Is something going on?” One thing I have been fairly consistent on was when I see that people are talking about other people when they weren't around was saying, “Hey, this is gossip. We don't actually know what the facts are unless we ask. We need to go talk to the actual person.” I kept silent about other things because I was afraid, of being rejected, judged, of other people's defensiveness or externalized feelings. I just hoped it would get better. By enabling a dysfunctional situation, I contributed to it just as much as people who chose not to be a part of the community's functioning.

We finally had to have a sit down with everyone on our publishing team and lay it all out on the table, because something simply had to be done. These meetings were often intense for me, even though I wasn't the focus. The people who were the focus felt accused, blamed, shamed, judged, and I understand completely how it could look that way. But the intention was simply to say, “This isn't working. How can we change this situation so that everyone's needs are met and we're working as a cohesive unit?” What came out of one of the first meetings was that one of our editors felt no passion for being here, and didn't resonate with much of the community vision. Her choice was to leave, because she didn't see any of that changing for her, and she couldn't be a constructive member of the group without that passion. Which is real, and true. She needed to move on to a place where she could feel passion and resonance.

Another person has also chosen to leave. He had certain expectations of the community that were not fulfilled, and he feels angry and judgmental, and justified in his judgment. He interprets his experience of a uniquely turbulent time as a permanent dysfunction. I had a conversation with him the other day where he was pretty honest in his opinions and judgments, and I had an opportunity to just listen. Not defend, or justify, or debate (though all of those things leak in), but just state my truth, my perspective, and accept his. Near the end of the conversation, I realized I no longer felt like we were in opposition, even though what we were each saying seemed to be on opposite ends of the spectrum.

This entire situation, months in the making, has been an incredible learning experience for me personally and us as a community. Something I'm really taking away from it is the inspiration to speak my truth in the moment, to not suppress it because I'm afraid of people's reactions. I won't always be perfect, but I strive to simply say what's true for me, and what I see from my perspective, without judgment, or blame, or expectation. What I'm beginning to understand, not just in my head but in my body, is that this whole idea that we're on different “sides” is a myth of our own creation. Ultimately, we all want the same thing. We all have the same needs to be fulfilled and passionate, for shelter, sustenance, and companionship. Some people are going to find that here, and some people aren't. We just have to recognize it, acknowledge it, be open about it, and live it.

Has your community struggled with sharing a vision? What conflicts resulted? How did the conflicts escalate, how did they resolve? What did you learn?

Work Ethic When No One's Hovering Over Your Shoulder

We don't have a work schedule. We don't have x number of community hours that each person needs to fulfill to be a part of the community. We don't have sign up sheets for who cooks dinner or who cleans dishes. We make our own work schedules, which might change from day to day. I decide my hours. Our modus operendi is self-motivation and circle consciousness. Some aspects of our workflow are more structured than others. For instance we generally make an effort to get volunteers to vacuum the communal cars at our weekly meetings. In the publishing team we set deadlines, looser or stricter depending on the situation (for instance, if the deadline is with a publisher).

This has been very challenging for a number of short-term members of our circle, and even long-term members. We're not used to not having some punishment or rule hanging over our heads that says we have to do something by a certain time. And when there isn't, a lot of times what happens is that people fall into apathy, don't do much for the community, and only focus on their personal past times and projects. This particularly seems to happen when people are already feeling challenged or unsatisfied by something else in their lives.

This is something I've personally experienced from multiple angles. When I have personal struggles going on, I tend not to get a lot of work done. I feel unmotivated to cook dinner, clean the cars, offer to pick someone up, go pick up roadkill. When I'm feeling centered and living my passion, I'm there to do what's needed and I'm also putting the energy I need to into my personal projects.

In our recent situation, this has been quite an issue. For a long time many of us didn't say anything when we saw things not getting done, or only said what would be received well, because we didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and didn't want to be on the receiving end of anger or defensiveness. It might keep the peace on the surface, but it really only allows the situation to deteriorate more. What I did was start picking up other people's slack, because the projects just needed to get done. I was overextending myself, building resentments and judgments, and making a martyr/victim of myself. On the surface it might look like I'm helping my community, but underneath I'm undermining it because I'm not coming from an empowered place.

Inevitably someone has to point out that things aren't getting done.

“I've noticed you don't really do much around the community, and none of your projects are getting done. Is there something that's not working for you? What needs to change to make it work? How can I support you?”

Generally, bandaid fixes are applied. “We'll have more coordination meetings. We'll come get you if you're not there for the meeting you helped schedule. We'll reschedule if you're not at the meeting you helped schedule.” People want to sweep it under the rug, seem in alignment during the interaction to avoid awkwardness, discomfort, or conflict and whatever personal reactions those things may trigger.

But things still don't change, because no one is addressing the root of the problem.

And someone points it out.

“I've noticed you still aren't doing much in community projects, and your projects are still dragging on. What's going on? What needs to change to make it work? This isn't to judge you, it's just to point out what's happening on a practical level.” There are times when I've been able to say this without judgment, with empathy. Other times my judgment comes through despite my best intentions because I've built up resentment by not saying it sooner, by continuing to let things slide and just hoping they get better. Other times my resentment comes from my built-up expectations that people will contribute to the community the way I do or expect.

People on the receiving end of this are often defensive. They feel accused, judged, and shamed. They come up with excuses. They rationalize, finding seemingly logical reasons why they cannot participate in community projects or get their work done.

“I need to focus on my main work here.”

“It was just a really weird week.”

“I can't believe this is happening. I feel like I can't trust anyone.”

In turn they often accuse whoever is broaching the topic, or the community as a whole, of really having rules and mandates but pretending not to. They feel lied to. They see hypocrisy.

This is understandable. We come from a culture where accusation, shame, and guilt are pervasive. It's ingrained in the way we interact with children. “Look what you've done! You broke it! Now look what I have to clean up! Don't ever do that again!” It's the foundation for how we interact in all of our relationships. “When you do/don't do _, it makes me mad. Stop doing that, or _.” So it's crystal clear to me how any request for change in a person's behavior could be perceived this way.

In one of the meetings we had amongst the publishing team, we were addressing how little was getting done, and how people were treating it as a part-time position when they had signed up for a full-time position.

Someone said, “I wish people would just admit that they want us to be here from nine to five, and stop pretending they don't.”

One of the first bandaid fixes people want is set hours, a concrete schedule, a sign-up sheet. That way they have the safety of knowing exactly what is expected. In my experience, even when there are sign-up sheets and schedules, people still don't put their names down. The reason we've kept away from this approach is because it really is just another bandaid. What's really going on inside if we only do things in the community because of something on a piece of paper? We want to foster an environment where we're all aware of what the needs of the circle are. If I see something that needs to be done or that my skills or energy to contribute to, I can do it. If someone sees that something needs to get done and I'm already juggling a lot of projects, but their schedule is free, they can do it.

In the meeting I responded, “What if that's not what's being asked? The way we're talking about it right now the only options are to only honor your own flow, or only honor the circle's flow. They're both extremes, and neither one is going to work. We want to find a balance between meeting our recognizing and meeting our individual needs, and recognizing and meeting the needs of the group.”

It's an incredible challenge, and it's been one of the most important learning experiences I've had. Sometimes taking care of the circle means taking care of ourselves. And sometimes taking care of ourselves means taking care of the circle.

Shared Property

Communal Car Use

We have three communal vehicles. We pay for our own gas when taking personal trips. Our ideal is to have the cars vacuumed and have their fluids checked once a week. There have been periods where we were on the ball, and others where we've let it slide.

I'm a homebody. I rarely go in to town or use the cars to go somewhere. My social needs and personal passions can by and large be fulfilled here. So for quite a while I didn't feel very much obligation to vacuum the community vehicles. “I'm not using them, so why should I?”

Last fall I was feeling particularly stressed because I was filling the roles of two or three other people while they were gone, and whenever I asked for help it wasn't there. We had the people. But they felt no obligation to help because it “wasn't their job.” It was a really powerful mirror for me about my attitude about cleaning the cars. I realized that even if I wasn't using the cars directly, the cars were serving me indirectly. They bring us the organic food that supplements what we gather. They take us to gathering spots. They support the projects that give us the monetary backing to interface with the industrialized, capitalist world. When I began looking at my relationship with the cars not as an individual, but as a part of a community, it suddenly became obvious that I had a personal stake in keeping them clean and in good working order.

Lately I hear from people with personal vehicles, “I don't see why I should clean the car because I don't use them. I have my own. I don't ask other people to vacuum my car.” Once again I see a mirror of myself and my attitude around the cars. Someone else said in an argument for why they didn't help clean the cars, “Well sometimes I pick up the food in my personal car, but I don't ask anyone to clean my car.” What I see is that it would be perfectly understandable if they did ask for help cleaning their car. “Hey, there's a bunch of dirt and wilted leaves in my trunk from picking up community food. Can I get some help cleaning it up?”

When I feel resistance to helping with something because it's “not my job,” I'm only considering myself as an individual. Hypothetical situation based in reality: My main occupation in the community might be through our publishing efforts, so maybe I don't see cooking as part of “my job.” Maybe I start to feel resentful because I sense that people expect me to cook, but there are certain people who never cook, so I stop cooking. What I'm not recognizing is that the people who never cook might be performing some other essential function in the community that I can't accomplish and they need to put all their energy into it. If I look at myself as a part of something greater in myself, I see that they're taking care of me through their function, and I'm taking care of them through cooking.

This is a fairly black and white example. There are, naturally, further complications, such as when there's a person who is performing an essential function in the community who feels they have no time to do anything else, when they really do have the time. They create a personal reality of “too-busy” that might not be real. As in the hypothetical situation above, someone will inevitably use this an excuse to not do their part either, or start gossiping behind someone's back, or grow resentments. I'm still learning, growing, and struggling in how to speak my truth in these situations while taking responsibility for my own feelings (resentment and anger, for instance), and offering an awareness that might help someone else.


This is a glossary of terms that may be used in the case studies.

Assuming: Accepting something as true without verification or proof. Assumptions prevent us from being as a question, and close us to possibilities or options we might not have considered yet. An example might be assuming that fishing regulations are the same as last year without checking because they have been the same for the past five years.

Attachment: A rigid insistence on a particular person, idea, place, situation, or way of doing things that prevents us from being open to options and possibilities. An example might be on having an attachment to make a particular meal, and when you find out the ingredients for that meal are not available, feeling unhappy and reluctant to adapt and flow into new possibilities.

Enabling: Enabling is when we allow, support, or encourage dysfunctional behavior that does not enrich us as a survival strategy to get love, acceptance, or praise, or to avoid anger, conflict, or disappointment. An example could be listening to someone gossip about someone else and not saying anything because we don't want to hurt the other person's feelings, incur anger, or speak up.

Externalizing: Blaming or attributing responsibility for our feelings or circumstances on an individual, group, or situation. An example could be saying, “Jane makes me really mad,” or “If you hadn't done that, I wouldn't feel so hurt.”

Flagging: An awareness tool that can be used in a trusting relationship where there is mutual consent to point out in the moment when a person is enacting a dysfunctional pattern. An example could be a person recognizes that they have a pattern of withdrawing in uncomfortable situations rather than speaking their truth. When someone sees them enacting this, they give a verbal or physical signal to call attention to the behavior. The person doing the flagging might not always be accurate, but the practice gives the person being flagged an opportunity to examine what was going on for them.

Pattern: A habit or ingrained way of doing things, the status-quo. Patterns can range from always using a computer mouse with one's right hand, to strategies developed in childhood to meet survival needs that no longer serve us adults. Examples of the latter could be a pattern of capitulating to authority, or finding ways to control or manipulate a situation to feel safe.

Pattern Breaking: The practice of deconstructing the psycho-emotional, physical, and neurochemical patterns we have developed since childhood that no longer serve to enrich our lives. This can be something as spontaneous as taking a different trail than the one you always take to encourage spontaneity and adaptability. Another example could be stepping back and choosing to respond differently when we want to snap back at a perceived judgment or criticism.

Projecting: Assuming that our experiences, expectations, ideals, values, or beliefs belong to another person. An example could be, “I always feel jealous when my partner talks to another person of the opposite sex, so you must too even if you say you don't. It's natural.”

Rationalizing: Finding seemingly logical reasons to justify a reaction, dysfunctional pattern, or other behavior that is not enriching our lives. An example might be saying when someone points out that you haven't participated in any community projects, “Well I'm really busy, and I don't see why I should have to help with that because it's not my job. That's not why I came here.” Another example could be, after eating everyone's share of communal fruit, “I just felt like I really needed it.”

Trigger: A catalyst or stimulus from outside of ourselves that reminds us on a deep level of past traumatic experiences, especially in childhood, and often results in associating the present event as the cause of our feelings, when in reality they might have nothing to do with each other. An example could be Person A asking Person B if they have completed a task. Growing up Person B was constantly criticized for not completing chores, and even though Person A's intent might have been simple curiosity, Person B is experiencing the feelings of judgment and shame from childhood, and might think that Person A is accusing them.

Truthspeaking and Truthlistening: A form of communication which shares many basic principals with Non-Violent Communication (also known as Compassionate Communication) and radical honesty. Truthspeaking is sharing our personal truth spontaneously in the moment, taking personal responsibility for our feelings and perspectives, and listening compassionately.

We strive for these simple guidelines:

How to Truthspeak - Get in touch with your truth. - Express your truth clearly and consicely. - Do it spontaneously.

How to Truthlisten - Be open and accepting. - Give acknowledgment. - Give encouragement.

Victimization: Consciously or unconsciously putting ourselves into the role of a victim in a situation because we developed a pattern in childhood when our needs were not met as children, or to meet our needs. An example might be feeling that I have to cook dinner even though I have something else I want to work on because no one else will, and seeing myself as used and put-upon, when I really have a choice. Another might be perceiving that when someone asks me to do something that they have power or control over me because of their age, sex, or status.

See Also


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