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 garden”).
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 quiet.
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 Scotland.
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 yourself.”
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 Trust.
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
“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 says.
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
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 support.”
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.”