Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, beloved by many, said:
“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community—a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth.”
The idea of co-housing communities originated in Denmark in the early 1980s. The concept spread rapidly. There are now hundreds of co-housing communities worldwide. The majority of these communities are found in the U.S, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, there are three, thriving co-housing communities. I live in one of them, called The Commons on the Alameda.
Let me give you a taste of what it’s like living in co-housing.
Imagine coming home from work exhausted, too tired to cook. But the idea of leftovers is not very appealing. Then you catch a whiff of red chile baking in the Common House and in that moment you remember—you signed up for the community dinner tonight. Since it’s not your turn to cook or clean up, all you have to do is sit down with your neighbors and enjoy a delicious, organic meal. No dishes to wash afterwards.
Imagine you’re left helpless after a serious accident or illness. That’s what happened to me. A snowboarder slammed into me, leaving me with multiple injuries and bedridden for three months. Fortunately, I was not alone. I live in a co-housing community called The Commons. Co-housing is community at its best. During my recovery, neighbors took turns delivering home-cooked meals every single day; they showered me with comforting words, massaged my feet, and drove me to my appointments.
So, what is co-housing? It’s not a commune. It’s not a cult. Co-housing is like an old-fashioned neighborhood where everyone owns their own home and jointly owns the community house and community land. There’s plenty of privacy, while at the same time there’s a sense of belonging and mutual support. Just last week I was making breakfast and discovered I had no eggs. I sent a quick email to the community and within five minutes a neighbor appeared at my door with the eggs in hand.
Back in 1991, I had never heard of “co-housing.” I was living with my two-year-old son outside of Santa Fe in a spacious house with beautiful views of the mountains. But something was missing. I felt lonely and disconnected.
Later that year, I heard about a group forming a co-housing community on the edge of Santa Fe called The Commons. I read up on co-housing and sensed this might be the perfect place for my son and me. I took the scary leap and bought one of the 28 lots to build my new home. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
The Commons provided a safe and happy place to raise my son. He could run around freely with his friends without having to worry about cars. And it’s been the perfect place for me to practice family medicine. To reach the clinic—in my home—patients walk along pathways lined with little flower gardens and through placitas with big shade trees and tall grasses. When they walk in, I often hear them say, “Dr. Elliott! It’s so peaceful here!”
Right now, there are seventy-five of us at the Commons. We range in age from six to ninety-six. Some of our many children were born in their homes and a few of our elders chose to die in their homes, surrounded by family and neighbors.
My friend, Yvonne, was a proud and feisty English woman who lived life on her own terms. And she intended to die on her own terms. Last year, at ninety-four, Yvonne began a rapid decline from advanced cancer. She insisted on dying in her own home at The Commons. On days I stopped by to visit in the last few weeks of her life, there were often children sitting on her couch doing their homework after school or reading her stories. Sometimes I climbed onto her bed and lay alongside her, holding her hand in mine.
We asked Yvonne if she had any special wishes for her memorial service after she died. She replied, “I want the memorial service before I die. I want to be there!” After several days of preparation, we gathered around Yvonne in the Common House to celebrate her life with stories, poems, songs, skits, and a flood of love—and laughter too. A few days later, she said to me in a weak, raspy voice, “I’m dying, yet this is the happiest time of my life.”
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Actually, that’s how it feels most of the time living at The Commons. But it’s not Utopia. Living in co-housing has its challenges.
In the early days at The Commons, we had to learn how to live together in community. We each had our own strong views of how things ought to be.
We struggled to reach agreement over issues both big and small. One of the big issues we struggled with in the early days was whether or not to allow the use of pesticides within the Commons. Our disagreements became so contentious we had to hire facilitators and mediators to teach us the skills we needed to navigate conflict and reach consensus. The eventual outcome was a collective agreement not to use toxic chemicals on the property. Thankfully.
More recently, we had difficulty with a seemingly small issue—whether or not to install a community clothesline. That might sound like a simple decision to you, but a few people had serious concerns about aesthetics and potential loss of property value. The pro-clothesline group lobbied in creative and friendly ways, like sending postcards from Europe with pictures of castles and neighborhoods with colorful clotheslines in the yards. We found a way to compromise and agreed to install the clothesline in a discrete location out of view.
Even disagreements and conflicts are part of what builds a rich and vital community. Because of our initial struggles, we’ve learned valuable interpersonal skills. We’ve learned how to really listen to each other and respectfully take each person’s opinion into account when building consensus. We even learned how to accept our neighbors’ quirks—while appreciating their strengths.
I know I’ve become a better person from living at The Commons. I don’t have to get my way with every decision. I’m less judgmental, less dogmatic, and more trusting in the collective wisdom of the group.
Imagine living in a place where you’re surrounded by a supportive network of neighbors who share with you the joys and sorrows of life, like what happened with Yvonne before she died and what happened to me after the accident.
Imagine living in a place where you have the opportunity to really grow as a human being, a place where you can learn skills to help you get along better with others, and skills to help you wisely navigate conflict. No matter where you go, these skills will serve you well—and help make the world a better place.
I personally can say, after living at The Commons for almost 25 years, that communities make the world a better place. And co-housing is community at its best.
If you’d like to learn more about co-housing, the national co-housing association has an excellent website, full of useful information. http://www.cohousing.org
On Saturday, September 12th, I will be giving a TED talk about co-housing at Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque, in front of 2,000 people. The thought is daunting, but the speakers for TEDxABQ are given generous amounts of coaching to offset potential performance anxiety.
“Why are you giving a TED talk on co-housing and not on medicine?” I’m frequently asked. Last year when I was in the audience listening to my next-door neighbor, Jamey Stillings, give a TED talk about environmental photography, a group of people verbally pinned me down during the lunch break and asked me a steady stream of questions about what it was like living in co-housing. At that time I was asked if I would consider giving a TED talk about co-housing. I agreed, wanting to share with the world how wonderful it is to live in a community surrounded by a supportive network of neighbors.
Updated entry: Here is the link to the TEDx YouTube video. It’s 10 minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef9azOeuCPY