Work in harmony

It is lunchtime at Lothlorien. The windows of the dining room,
where nine people sit at a long table, look out across fields. The
person cooking that day brings across a cauldron of soup
(“Ever had lettuce soup? We had a lot of it left over in the

Around the table are Lothlorien’s staff (“the core
group”), volunteers (“co-workers”) and community
members, who have mental health problems. But who is who is not
obvious. They talk and joke; they dress alike. After lunch two
people stand on the balcony drinking coffee. Two others sit at the
end of the room: one reads, one plays a guitar. Someone else has
joined the cook to do the washing up. Everyone else seems to have
gone elsewhere. Only the sound of the guitar breaks the

Lothlorien is a therapeutic community for people with mental health
problems, which seeks to break down the distinction between the
“well” and those seen as “unwell”. It is
set among 17 acres of woods and farmland near a small village and
is half an hour from the nearest rail station in the west of

Brendan Hickey, project leader and a social worker, arrived in
1992. He says: “Seeing people as ‘well’ and
‘unwell’ becomes part of the problem. When you have
been through hospital there’s an element of dependency.

“At Lothlorien we are here for personal and spiritual growth
and we, the core group, don’t see ourselves as having all the
answers or being experts. We see ourselves as being alongside
people. This goes with being a democratic community. The core group
does have a responsibility to make sure the values are upheld but
we find that, over time, they have become absorbed as part of the

Darren Capel-Jenkins echoes this from his own experience. He has
been at the community for two months and, at 37, has suffered from
depression since his early teens.

“It’s allowed me to realise how well I actually
am,” he says. “I think it’s very easy to get
caught up in self-analysis and try to push yourself too much.
Taking a break, being able to make that decision was a definite
sign to me that I was getting
better. Before I would say ‘If I try to do this or
that…’ but here you are allowed to be much more

He says the conventional approach, such as medication, therapy and
visits to the GP, treats the patient as either well or not well,
whereas depression is very much a journey. “While you can be
clinically depressed, the medical profession doesn’t notice
when you make huge leaps forward in getting better. For example, if
you’d been in a road accident and lost the use of your legs,
and then could move your foot everyone would say that was
fantastic. With depression, you are ill or not ill.”

Some of this is familiar from therapeutic communities generally but
Lothlorien is unique. It is the only one based on Buddhism. Since
1989 it has been run by international charity the Ropka

There is not much visual evidence of Buddhism in the large log
cabin that is the house. It was taken over from a liberal Catholic
family who built it in 1974 for their large family and others as an
experiment in community living. But curiously, given the current
philosophy, its design was based specifically “on the rhythms
of eastern temples”, according to the architect. It was the
family, too, who chose what turned out to be an appropriate name:
Lothlorien is a wooded area of peace and calm in JRR
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The nearest Hickey, a Buddhist, comes to being explicit about his
faith is when he says the therapeutic regime is based on the
routine of each day – the household chores, the meeting,
communal lunch and, importantly, the work on the land. The tasks
are linked to healing.

“When people chop wood or work in the garden it is about the
Buddhist notion of mindfulness: bringing body and mind together in
carrying out a task,” he says. “People with a mental
illness spend a lot of time inside their own minds. This work takes
us out of our minds into the present moment.”

The “grounding” of the routine and the physical work
“means getting a stronger physical presence in the world by
doing daily tasks so that mind and body are together”, he

Lothlorien does not use counselling or psychoanalysis, although
Hickey is also a qualified psychotherapist, as is Heather Dudley,
the assistant project manager, who is also an art therapist. Going
into people’s pasts to find the root of their problems is
eschewed; Lothlorien believes this takes them back into themselves.
And individual therapy is said to militate against the idea that
the community is therapy and makes the relationship with an
individual more important than the community.

“We try not to create an atmosphere of exclusive
relationships or dependency,” says Hickey. However, people
can be offered individual help.

This remote and beautiful situation suits those who “want
time out of ordinary life”, says Hickey. “It could be
institutionalising, which is why we have never wanted it to be a
long-term community. We have always promoted this as a place for
recovery to allow people to return to the community.” 

A concrete (or rather, wooden) result of this is the recently
opened new house for five people, which will help residents move
back into the community.

“This is to give people a real chance to take their place in
the world again. It’s a foundation for people to get on to a
training course or back into work.”

Community members are usually funded by Scottish and English
authorities to the tune of £320 a week and other money has
come from government, the EU and charitable trusts.

“The sense of community is what attracts people,” says
Hickey. “One of the classic things about people with mental
health problems is that they have isolated lives. They often
don’t work, they lose their friends and become estranged from
their families because of their illness. We are an accepting
community where people can make a positive contribution. In the
conventional services people are very much recipients of care,
whereas here they can be positive – they can cook, garden, do
practical work about the house. This is about mutual

There is also the wider community – the village, with its
pub, is a walk away, and there are frequent trips wider afield. The
core group lives locally and Lothlorien’s past, as a place
where local people would play as children or take their own
children, means that it is not a foreign place to locals.

But does it work? Hickey says the community remains in touch with
most residents and most of them have come through their crises.

Dudley adds: “Buddhism is about working in the present. The
Buddhist side of psychotherapy is the appreciation of a
person’s pure potential and innate goodness and well-being.
The approach is that they were whole in the first place and have
potential for a deep wisdom in themselves. I am not here as a
professional – though I may have skills that can help –
but as an individual learning and living the same as other
people.” CC

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