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Findhorn's Nature Sanctuary and a Circle of Songs

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Flickr: Dreaming in the deep south
Flickr: Dreaming in the deep south

Findhorn Foundation is a spiritual community, eco village and an international center for holistic learning, based in northeast Scotland, 26 miles east of Inverness. Founded 50 years ago by Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean, today Findhorn Foundation offers a continual series of workshops and events that attract thousands of people from around the world annually.

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One such soul was my companion on this early morning walk in the dampness. Ian Rippon, 56, of Norfolk, England, first came to Findhorn Foundation at the end of 2000 to participate in one of the community's "Experience Weeks," a seven-day program that includes meditation, sacred dance, nature outings as well as working alongside community members in areas such as the gardens, kitchen and dining room.

"One of the options during the week was to go each morning to Taize, which was vaguely explained as a singing meditation," Ian told me. "As a keen singer, I decided to try it out and was completely blown away by the experience. There are usually about 20-25 people present each morning. In the winter we may have as few as six people, but together we can create a beautiful sound and have a wonderful experience."

"Although we call it Taize, after a form of meditation developed by a spiritual community in France, the practice at Findhorn is much broader and includes sacred songs from many different traditions," he explained. "From the first day I was entranced and eager to experience and learn as many of the songs as I could. It became for me a connection with the divine and a time of peace and reflection, even when singing on my own."

With the time it took for this brief introduction to the Findhorn community and Taize, we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with what looked like a magical hobbit hole built into the hillside in front of us. The low stone structure had arts-and-crafts style squiggly lines, with windows that had an amusement park fun house feel to them and a green roof alive with tufts of heather, mosses and grasses. My delight must have been visible on my face; Ian smiled and said, "This is the Nature Sanctuary," as he opened the rounded wooden door.

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Inside, there was a vestibule where slickers were hung on pegs, and the floor was piled with footwear. Ian quickly slipped off his shoes and I did the same, following him to the adjoining chamber. The small round room was packed, with people seated at the bench built into its circumference as well below them on cushions on the floor. He made a beeline for a seat across the room and I scooted into the one remaining spot on the bench to the left of the door.

It seemed like I felt the sound before I heard it. My senses have a distinct pecking order and it's always the visual stimulation that gets processed first. I scanned the room, noticing the rosy cheeks and soft, comfortable clothing in bright colors of the mostly middle-aged or gray-haired people gathered together. Many of them had their eyes closed or focused on a faraway spot in their mind's eye.

A young woman across the room seemed engaged in the same exercise as me, and I watched her assessing her surroundings, seeing in her eyes a cautious curiosity about these people absorbed in sounds of their devotion. I had an odd sensation of seeing a younger version of myself and wondered if her experience here would foster an openness to the unknown that I didn't have at her age. Our eyes met and we smiled at each other; I imagined we recognized in one another the conflicted emotions conjured by these serene people tuning into themselves, each other and beyond. For me, those colliding instincts included both fear and hope.

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As the first song came to a conclusion, I absorbed the smells of patchouli oil and pine and felt the warmth of the humidity created by our collective breath and body heat in the small contained space. A man announced the next piece, and people raised their voices. Even with no musical aptitude, I was very aware of each person's individual pitch and tone and the fact that some were stronger singers. But as the song progressed, their voices blended and coalesced, with the result being that the overall sound, as well as each distinctive voice, resonated more richly.

The leader named the next song, and the group dove into a joyful German piece that Ian later jokingly referred to as a "jolly drinking song." The selection seemed to bring the singers to another level, and the sound of their voices came together even more vibrantly to the upbeat tempo; I observed people emerging from their reveries to exchange smiles as they sang. The young woman and I grinned at one another, and while I didn't dare to join in the singing, the reverberations of the group's energy had begun to gently wash away my tension and apartness.

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When the song finished, the leader invited people to offer an intention. There was silence for a few minutes, save for the chirping of birds outside. A lanky man with tousled red hair spoke, saying, "Let greed recede and fear disappear." Someone else said, "I am grateful to know that prayer works."

The leader began the last song, which he introduced as a Polish piece that would be sung in English. The simple lyrics repeated the refrain, "God is forgiveness," and as those words resounded over and over in a sweet melody, I knew with great certainty that I was not the only one in the room who had sought and found that truth. With the very last line of the song, I was able to open my mouth and join the chorus, self-consciously but happily croaking out the words. Like a recent act of forgiveness of my own, it was too long in the making but when it came, it was a comforting relief.

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