Want to Live on a Commune? Here’s What You Need to Know
Living communally may seem like a quarantine dream, but it’s harder than it looks.by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
After a few months of quarantine, my friends started talking about communes.
"If we lived on a commune, we'd be together instead of on our computers," one said on Zoom.
"Wouldn't it be fun to have a compound?" asked another friend at a socially distant hang.
"Let's split it!" a third friend texted.
As the time indoors and away from those we love continues, as we evolve more toward bubbling with friends, the idea of joining forces in an expansive living scenario is increasingly seductive.
But could we actually do that? What does communal living entail? Is this an expensive fantasy or something we could feasibly do? Is what we're fantasizing about, technically, #communelife?
And what exactly is a commune, anyway?
What my friends were calling "communes" are more accurately termed intentional communities, living arrangements where people agree to live together as a group.
There's co-housing (buildings clustered around a shared house or communal space), ecovillages (communities centered on environmentally conscious living), student co-ops (where resources are shared among students) communes (where everything from money to food is pooled) and religious and spiritual communities (communities built around a shared belief system).
"These communities are an alternative to a normal housing and market situation," said Cynthia Tina, community co-director of Foundation for Intentional Community and vice president of Global Ecovillage Network.
Intentional communities share a mission and echo living situations that have existed for millennia and that continue to thrive around the world. Community living often champions egalitarian systems and centers vulnerable and marginalized individuals, as a way to live a utopian ideal.
These communities often form organically as groups of people with shared interests start exploring the benefits of living together.
"Secular communes usually emerge from conversations among friends over time," said Professor Timothy Miller, professor of religious studies at University of Kansas, Lawrence.
"In some cases, there is a religious teacher who gathers a following, and together they decide to open an ashram or monastery or equivalent center."
Building a successful community
Successful communities, Tina and Miller agree, are led by guiding principles and a shared way of life. Paired with a diverse group of people who bring different skills and assets — from having land to financial support to legal understandings to group management — you have a potential recipe for success.
Still, conflict and difficulties are a part of the process and should be expected in an intentional community.
"It's a multi-faceted endeavor — and that can create roadblocks for people," Tina said.
"Oftentimes, the conflicts that come up are more rooted in communication and social skills. But then there are the hard barriers like zoning and building requirements or being priced out of your region."
If you're interested in starting an intentional community, Tina recommends forming relationships with existing communities who have experience working through common obstacles.
Views from the commune
Michael Brightwood, a member of Oregon's Trillium community since 1978, enjoys the freedom and the sense of family he gets from living communally.
Brightwood has participated as part of Trillium while also taking outside jobs to supplement his life in the community. Learning to navigate and balance the worlds of communal and non-communal living is a reality that faces many intentional community seekers.
"As long as there's a society and culture out there, we will have to have cash exchange. Any improvements (to a community) require cash," Brightwood says. "That's the balance — and it's harder now than it was in the 1970s and 1980s."
He's found a key to success is listening to the people in your community and learning to fold individual needs and desires into the goals of the group.
"There is always some degree of compromise," Glomus said. "More communes might succeed if they started with experienced people who realized that this was going to be a long-term process."
This is sage advice echoes a common statistical refrain that was mentioned: 90 percent of intentional communities fail.
Find a community that fits
If you think you have what it takes to make #communelife work, the best advice is to not start one. Instead, join one.
"Think of your journey with community like a relationship. You may go on dates with various communities, you might have a courtship phase with one community that's longer than another," Tina said. "But no community out there will accept you instantaneously. And, if they do, I would be cautious of that."
Tina recommends using a resource like this directory to identify a community that suits you. Try reaching out and get a conversation going. But note that if you, like my friends, are anxious to get into a group now, you'll have to wait.
"Most communities have suspended visitation because of the pandemic," Tina said.
This doesn't mean a relationship or conversation about communal life can't start digitally — just know that your chats may go on for a few months, if not longer, before your communal life can begin.
You will have a lot to figure out personally and as a group before participating — and much of this is closely related to how and why a commune can close.
"A leading (reason) is money," Miller said. "If you're inadequately capitalized, you'll have trouble making it. Land and buildings are usually quite expensive."
Miller also cites zoning laws that can restrict the number of people on a property and the length of time they can live there.
"In some cases, members not well-suited to the community cause dissent," Miller said.
Other issues include flaws in leadership or members aging out of the community without new member support.
Commune life isn't easy
The most important thing to consider is that none of this is easy.
Community living, while a sexy proposition for my friends and I to flirt with, doesn't actually seem like a feasible option for any of us right now.
Can we afford to buy land and have the means to literally build from the ground up? No. Are our lives flexible enough where we can pop in and out of our jobs while afar? No. Have we had meaningful, realistic conversations about living communally? No.
Does that mean we cannot accomplish any of this? Absolutely not. Community life is possible for anyone. It just takes a lot of work and searching, both for a literal place and within yourself.
"It's often one of the hardest and most rewarding things," Tina said.
"Community is the most intense personal growth process. Be prepared living in community — we're surrounded by mirrors of our self. That constant feedback can be really intense — and really beneficial."