Working Towards a Sacred Society

Robina McCurdy
Thursday, 1st June 2000

Many of us dream of forming effective permaculture groups, communities and even eco-villages. Tui is a very special permaculture village in New Zealand, established in the early 1980s. Here in Part Two, Robina McCurdy describes the 'invisible structures' that underpin the community and how members have created key ways of resolving conflicts.

Tui has a steady stream of visitors, coming to experience community life for a short period of time. Most people are primarily interested in the social aspects of community living. Of all the questions asked, by far the most common are around issues of human relationships within a close living context. As a reflection of 'Western' society today, people are most concerned about individual versus communal rights, freedoms and responsibilities, also communication, conflict resolution, decision-making and leadership. Behind these concerns is the fear of losing one's individuality within the group, coupled with the realisation that group interaction and involve-ment is important for personal wellbeing.

These issues are at the forefront of our lives at Tui. We have worked continually on them over the years, both philosophically and in experimenting with appropriate structures and guidelines to facilitate quality relating. I believe this area of endeavour to be Tui's greatest strength. The Tui Community Mission Statement, written in 1991, captures the essence of why we choose to live in community: "As a community living together, we are seeking wholeness through fulfilling relationships with ourselves, others and our planet."


In order to assume full rights and responsibilities for living at Tui, one needs to become a member of the Tui Land Trust, requiring a trial period as a resident in the Tui Community. Membership occurs in stages: short term visitor (up to 1 month); long term visitor (6 months); prospective member (up to 18 months); full member (after official election, for the duration of living on the land). Each applicant requires individual consideration. The procedure is common for all, but the conditions are flexible in order to meet individual needs. When a person applies to become a prospective member, he or she chooses a 'facilitator' who guides them through the more formal aspects of living at Tui, whilst providing personal support where needed. The staged membership process provides a way whereby members and non-members have time to find out if living together works for them. Non-members have the opportunity to discover if the culture, customs and philosophy of Tui are sufficiently aligned with their own, in order to invest their future with that group of people.


Tui's leadership is non-hierarchical and there is no specific leader, either political or spiritual. Overall there is a respect for each other's skills and personal qualities, as we entrust each other with guiding the group in particular arenas of decision-making and action plans. As we encourage development of the whole person and mobility of roles, each person takes a turn at meeting facilitation, and people are encouraged to change roles of responsibility at least once a year. There is an overlap period for training of skills and learning of systems as one person phases out and another phases in.


In the early days there was more informal labour pooling for communal tasks. We were at an excited, idealist, pioneering stage and the economic support system gave many of us the time to put our energies into building up Tui. We were living in temporary accommodations and the children were still very young. Input was based on trust and collective dedication of 'the pioneers', with individual choice as to how much time you put in. The style was fairly anarchistic. In the longer term, this approach led to a wide difference in labour input. This became a contentious community issue, which gave rise to a 'Tuki' on the theme of labour input and community organisation (please see PM22 for details on 'Tukis'.). As a result of this, we established a fairly efficiently organised system of specific roles and tasks needed to keep the place running smoothly, with teams or individuals for all areas of community and land maintenance. Now, each person gives a similar amount of time input per week, a minimum of one day. Each area has a job description put together by those workers and endorsed by the community.
All teams are empowered by the rest of the community to make decisions, act, and run their finances as they see fit in the interests of us all. Freedom with responsibility and accountability is the keynote.


I believe that the greatest test of a community's spiritual alignment is how it deals with the financial realm. In my experiences of community work and life, this is where the most energy gets stuck, and the atmosphere in which a discussion takes place can easily become 'leaden'. Already Tui had come far along the track to consensus around financial matters by deciding to purchase land under a Trust rather than Company structure, and declaring that the amount a person pledges to the Trust for land purchase be voluntary. This later changed to a guideline amount and proportion of an incoming member's assets. Individual circumstances are taken into account when the incoming member meets with the finance group to discuss his or her contribution.

On a daily level, income earning is an individual's responsibility. Each month we all contribute a small amount to community and land management overheads and development, as well as for bulk food such as grains, which we do not grow on the land. Members earn their income in a diversity of ways, including outside wage-working, small businesses, government benefits, consultancies and products.
By lifestyle choice, most Tui people devote only half of the week to income earning. This allows time for family, community work and other pursuits. This is made possible by Tui members having lower financial overheads than individual property owners, primarily because the cost of land is shared, as well as facilities, machinery, rates, county services, and bulk food. Labour is voluntarily provided by community residents, and food is primarily home grown. It is my opinion that for a community to function holistically on all levels, an essential ingredient is to have a form of income earning that ties people together. Of necessity this keeps people having to move forward as a group, as their 'food source' is bound in with evolving sustainable relationships.

Management and Meeting

Each week we hold a two hour business and sharing meeting. It has rotating facilitation (generally one person will facilitate four to six meetings), and decision-making is by consensus. Diverse and creative methods are used as appropriate, to arrive at decisions efficiently and yet sensitively. If a block to decision-making happens, the facilitator may call a time of silent reflection, or challenge the person or people who are holding on the agreement to share in depth what is behind their decision. After that there may be further discussion as new information is brought to light, or the person may be asked if they are prepared to stand aside so that the matter can be actioned, although they may not agree with the decision.

We have small working groups. Before a group needs to work on an issue, broad policy has already been formed and endorsed by the community as a body. If it is an entirely new area, the group will bring it forward to the community for a policy decision, often with a proposal already formulated for discussion. Since we have adopted the small group and empowerment system, our community meetings are less unwieldy, less frustrating, not overloaded, more efficient, lighter and more fun.
Once a month a part of the meeting is devoted to issues which concern Tui children, and all children, from the youngest to the oldest, are present. This is an opportunity for children or adults to bring forward proposals or problems which need total community input, or to report on particular progress or events. Typical items would be outings, funding for a children's item, serious behavioural difficulties, or community sports events. At times it can be overwhelming for children to speak out in a big group. In these instances one or two adults of the children's choice would meet separately with the group of children, and report back to the meeting.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution per se is a process needed 'at the end of the line'. Conflict does and will happen in any group, so learning ways to deal with it is vital to the life of a group. It arises because of a lack of honesty, differences in habits, lifestyle and values, projections and reflections, and inappropriate structures to meet the needs of a particular group. Providing ways to deal with these areas significantly minimises conflict. If the group does not have agreed mechanisms to deal with conflict, the tension that builds up, spoken or unspoken, inevitably brings about distancing. The imploded energy created by denial is likely to destroy the group eventually.

In my observations and experience, groups which have not upheld personal growth as a pre-requisite for group growth and prosperity, have ultimately destroyed themselves. Conversely, if the group's members have a self-centred approach to personal growth, the group's growth will be seriously stunted, although it may have the illusion of appearing healthy upon initial contact.

There is a strong caution here for the New Age movement, where the right jargon can make it look as if people are being accepting, understanding, adaptable and responsible, whereas underneath another personal agenda is going on, e.g. making 'I' own/accept statements when the underlying tone is 'you' are to blame.The privileged society has become so sophisticated at using the communication styles learned through higher education and trans-personal workshops, that these 'underground streams' are often unconscious.

At Tui we are not absolved from this tendency. Our collective commitment to giving feedback and 'speaking our truth', helps to minimise the exercising of this somersault psychology. Personal growth is an important aim of all of us at Tui, and because of this, the approaches outlined here work for us. If personal growth is not one of your group's common aims, you may need quite different approaches.

All prospective members and members of Tui make a commitment not to walk away from conflict. If requested, a member, small group, or, if necessary, the whole community, can be supportive in conflict resolution. We have learnt, and continue to learn, useful communication skills to help us move and grow through these times. We expect children, as well as adults, to deal with conflict constructively. The following is our agreement around conflict:

"If a major conflict arises between two members, or between one member and the rest of the community, and they are unwilling or unable to resolve it, the situation is unacceptable to Tui. A community meeting shall be called by any resident member in order to work towards resolution. It is required that both members attend. More than one meeting may be necessary. If no satisfactory progress is made, an outside facilitator, acceptable to the members in conflict, will be invited, and a further attempt made."

Common Agreements for Daily Living

At the beginning of our time on Tui land, after a year of our experiences of living together, the Common Agreements document was drawn up. Although it is useful as a reference, as a community we generally felt that the discussion and decision-making about the issues raised is more vital than the document itself. However, I would strongly recommend any group coming together to get clear on boundaries around behaviours which affect their daily lives. It is surprising how different seemingly insignificant personal attitudes and behaviours can have a major impact on people who share territory. It is useful to have these things out in the open early on, to avoid 'battles' or imploded resentments. It is also a useful guideline as to whether or not you can live together.

Emotional Management

Tui's mode tended towards crisis management before we faced the fact that, as individuals and as a community, we needed to do something major about taking responsibility for our own realities. This has meant learning to own our mental attitudes and emotional states of being rather than attributing cause or blame to others. Ultimately it amounts to taking 100% responsibility for our inner and outer worlds - creations and reflections, responses and reactions. There is a lot to say on this, and I would refer anyone wanting to investigate deeper, to search in personal growth and healing literature.

When, through various teachers and workshops, we increasingly began to take full responsibility for our belief systems and strengthened commitment to actively bring about change, the way we related to each other and dealt with differences shifted remarkably. Instead of arguing, backbiting, repressing, 'putting each other down', or 'dumping' on each other, we listened, considered and valued each other's perspective. This was not and is not always so. Taking full responsibility requires vigilance and constant practise and behoves feedback to keep on track. The more support and positive feedback from life itself there is, the less effort it takes, and this way of seeing the world and relating to others becomes natural. The learning never stops.


To me, growing up in an extended family is the biggest plus of all aspects of community life. The children are surrounded by many role models and styles of parenting. At Tui a child is ultimately under the care of his or her blood parents in all respects, and yet every single adult in the community develops their own form of relationship with each child, including discipline and guidance. They form natural affinities with different adults besides their parents, to whom they go to for nurturing and support. The importance of this is evident at Tui as our children enter teenage years. Children grow up with others of all ages, who become like brothers and sisters, just as in a bloodline extended family.

Community life is extremely supportive of parents. They are not isolated in the home; the environment is safe for small children to roam and explore without supervision; there is the emotional and physical support of other parents. There is the opportunity to work co-operatively with other adults, pursue your interests, and still be in close contact with your children. As is the case at Tui, community living provides scope for parents whose relationships change and who choose to part ways, to live separately on the same property and co-parent - with a minimum impact on the child emotionally or physically.

Spiritual Basis

It is difficult to define our spiritual basis because it is so interwoven in how we live our lives, our relationships with each other, the land we are guardians for and our planet generally. The closest names may be Deep Ecology or Earth-Centred Spirituality. We do not adhere to any dogma or religion. We embody New Age, but could not be defined as that, as we acknowledge all chakras as sacred and valid, not just the 'higher' ones. We bring spirituality into physicality in a tangible way through our relationship with each other, the earth, and our work. We encourage humour, passion for life and dropping addictions, both substance and behavioural. As a community we encourage a vegetarian diet, and strongly discourage drugs.

A vital part of our spiritual growth is that we commit to clear, honest communication and feedback, and taking responsibility for our emotional energy (e.g. anger) rather than 'dumping' on each other. We are by no means holier than those who have not made conscious choices to do these things in their lives. It is just that by choice we are willing to heal our wounds and become more whole.
Collectively, we believe that this is fundamental to the creation of a sustainable society, and we want no less. Community life accelerates this opportunity many-fold. Be honest with yourself about whether you are ready for this challenge before you embark on any community venture! Well known author, Scott Peck, has defined that to get in touch with true community we go through the stages of pseudo-community and then chaos. We at Tui have surely done that - and we are richly rewarded. I encourage you to hang in there should you take the plunge!

Philosophical Reflection

Personally, I find living in community fulfilling, stimulating and sustaining. I have sometimes heard intentional community referred to as 'a social experiment'. Yet for me it is 'the norm', with the current Western-lifestyle norm of the socially isolated nuclear family being the social experiment! Through life at Tui I am rediscovering what I believe to be a natural social pattern encoded within the genes, as basic as an animal's instinct. I believe that in us this pattern is overlaid by conditioning generated from fear of intimacy, and separation from our Earth Mother. I am fascinated that as I discover about other land-based intentional communities around the planet that have been operating for some time, I find that they have developed similar customs to ourselves, even down to some fine details. There are essential patterns in leaves and water-flow, so it is feasible there are God-given blueprints for human settlement, regardless of how sophisticated we think we have become. It is simply a matter of uncovering the clutter

Extracted from 'Towards Sacred Society' by Robina McCurdy in the book Creating Harmony - Conflict Resolution in Community edited by Hildur Jackson.

Robina McCurdy is a community development worker, teacher, permaculture designer, landworker, innovator and pioneer. As well as living and working at Tui Community, she works as a consultant for 'Village Development' in South Africa based at the Tholego Development Project, a permaculture education and demonstration centre for rural and regional self reliance. Email: [email protected]