Peter’s ill health forced him to give up work and shield during the pandemic, and he decided to seek refugee at Osho Leela, a spiritual commune in Dorset, UK. Writes Claudia Tanne in iNews on May 19, 2021.
What do you do once your alarm goes off? Chances are it is scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed, or checking the news. At Osho Leela, a spiritual commune in Dorset, the inhabitants do things a bit differently. At their morning gathering, there is group dancing and hugs for 20 minutes.
Even for those who initially feel this a bit too far out or hippie-like for them, it certainly can grow on them. “When I started coming to the commune a couple of years ago the hugging was very new to me,” says Peter, one of the residents. “I was like, ‘Oh my God’, you know’.”
The 55-year-old worked in mental health until a kidney transplant last year forced him to give up work and shield during the pandemic. The isolation made him reassess his life and he moved to the commune three months ago.
“Now I think the hugging and dancing is an incredible start to the day,” he says. “In what you might call normal society, you’re unlikely to start the day with that kind of nourishing connection with people.”
Communes across the UK are reportedly being inundated by new applicants, which may be driven by the isolation caused by Covid restrictions. It could also be attributed to green concerns, the housing affordability crisis and a desire for a simpler, less consumption-driven existence.
‘We’ve been able to meditate, party and have fun’
With ages ranging from seven to 76, there are 16 permanent members at Osho Leela who live in a big house among 18 acres of grounds, while others come and go for shorter periods and stay in the caravan and camping park.
Describing itself as a “personal development centre”, in non-Covid times the commune welcomed external guests for meditation events, personal growth workshops and festivals.
Lockdown for the residents of Osho Leela has been very different from many people’s experiences. It’s been much more sociable – everyone takes turns to cook for the group and they have weekly activities together including meditating, open mic and jam sessions, yoga, movie nights, theatre and games, and tarot reading.
“We’ve been able to meditate, party and have fun,” says Tarisha Seligman, a director at the commune, who has been a resident there for 24 years, since shortly after the community began. “Though we’ve been trying to stay safe too because we have some elderly residents here we need to protect. It’s been an absolute joy to be in this bubble during the pandemic.”
Peter, who had been coming to Osho Leela for festivals and workshops before he moved in, said he had a “very conventional life” before joining – having brought up three children (now adults) living in a house near Reading with a “nice car” that he worked hard to afford. Then Covid made him realise he was living without much real connection day-to-day.
“It’s truly amazing. We are cooking in the kitchen, playing music and dancing together. I rarely look at a screen. There’s so much rich interaction with people here of all different backgrounds and some from different countries and different ages.”
‘We feel more connected to people and emotionally nourished’
Tarisha had come to London to further her career, but, having made friends with the commune’s founders through meditation classes, was drawn to a more spiritual way of living.
She says there are no rules as such, but there is a general ethos – “of living through connection, meditation, and celebration.”
Nor is there an application process for new residents to join: the group tends to organically gain additions from regular visitors who seem a good mutual fit. There is an entry programme lasting a few months and, if the newbie feels ready, they take on more responsibilities in the small community.
Core group members take on job roles within the community – for instance, Tarisha runs the festivals and workshops as well as overseeing the grounds – and each person receives between £150 to £450 a month from the income the commune makes.
“It’s not part of our ethos to not be materialistic,” said Tarisha. “We don’t tell people to leave their possessions at the door. But it’s a very small wage so we just have to be not so materialistic. But when you are more emotionally nourished, generally there’s less reaching for those things, which most people use to fill the void that they feel.”
Tarisha says they are increasingly finding professionals coming to Osho Leela. “They are leading busy lives and, here, they can sort of let their hair down, dance, celebrate, hug, even get angry and shout and do things which they maybe can’t do in the outside world.”
Naturally, there can be personal issues or conflicts. Anger and hurt are feelings that shouldn’t be buried and allowed to fester further, she says. “We have a weekly meditation where everybody gets to scream and shout at each other,” she says.
She adds that while the food they cook is vegetarian, residents aren’t required to be one and people are welcome to supplement their meals.
“Some residents stay for a set period and move on to pastures new, while others come and go over time,” Tarisha explains.
“Here is a place where people can let go of who they are trying to be out in the world and discover who they truly are,” she said. “It’s a place where you can be natural, you can be open, you can be vulnerable, you can be yourself as a whole human being.”
‘Not a free-love commune – but we are open about sexuality’
Osho Leela’s way of life is based on the teachings of controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho. The free-love advocate was accused of running a sex cult in the US, but Tarisha stresses that the Dorset commune strives to take just the good elements of the movement.
“His goal was to introduce meditation to westerners in a therapeutic way,” she said. “It’s about releasing your feelings, shouting if you need to, before you can really relax and meditate. He had an approach of celebrating what we have in life which is the approach we take at Osho Leela.”
The commune holds popular festivals to “celebrate conscious sexuality”, featuring workshops, talks, parties, rituals, sauna, meditations, individual sessions and the ‘Love Lounge’ where people can connect sexually in a group setting.
But Tarisha says the commune is not about having orgies. “We are not a free-love commune. You don’t have to be polyamorous to be here. If you are poly or monogamous that’s fine. Being sexually repressed causes harm and we are open. It’s about exploring how you relate to others, and sexuality is just one aspect.”
Osho, aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: A controversial figure
Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who lived from 1931 to 1990, who was very popular and had thousands of followers – called sannyasins or ‘orange people’ – and had books translated into more than 60 languages.
The movement was controversial in the 1970s and 1980s, when many young westerners were abandoning traditional ideas of monogamy, and looking east for new ideas around sexuality and spirituality. It embraced ‘free love’ and unorthodox meditation techniques (lots of primal screaming followed by dancing).
As revealed in the Netflix hit docu-series Wild Wild Country, which aired three years ago, they tried to build utopia in the USA, but in Oregon some of his disciples were eventually found guilty of poisoning hundreds of people.
Furthermore, according to ex-disciples, sexual exploitation of women in the therapy groups was rampant.
Rajneesh’s personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, committed a string of horrifying crimes – from arson and attempted murder to a bio-terror attack that left 750 poisoned by salmonella.
She was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison (and paroled after 39 months) while Rajneesh, after being arrested over the poisonings, quit the US in a plea bargain over immigration charges and the commune fell apart.