Jack and Mary Alexander lived in Auroville between 1972 and 1977 and have remained actively connected ever since. Mary is a teacher and Jack runs a business in California. On a recent visit he talked about the early years of Auroville, his motivations for being in business and the necessity for the community to embrace it as a valid path of yoga and prosperity.
I'd read the brochures and I'd met Navajata [then Secretary of the Sri Aurobindo Society, eds.] when he visited California. The impression we were given was that Auroville was already a full-fledged operation. When we arrived in 1972, however, and bumped up the rutted roads in an old van to find, well, almost nothing, I realized with a shock I was not so much joining Auroville as being expected to build it pretty much from scratch.
Initially I was uninspired. I'd come with a strong background in the yoga since 1968 I'd been connected with the Sri Aurobindo Center in Los Angeles and the folks I was meeting in Auroville seemed more like a bunch who had haphazardly arrived here. In fact, while Mary and I had been accepted by Mother for Auroville, both of us felt a much greater affinity with the Ashram and we were quite happy staying there.
But then my old guru, Circumstance, took a hand. We ran out of money and I wrote to Mother asking Her what we should do. Shyamsunder explained to Her that not only were we bringing tools for Auroville but I actually knew how to use them. This was when there were many artists in Auroville. Mother told him it was time we went to live in Auroville, adding, At least he's not another artist'!
The Wild West
As I was bringing machines and had a natural mechanical ability I was immediately a hot item in Auroville. I had plenty of offers but finally I decided that the machinery should go to Matrimandir which was closest to my heart, given my background where they became the basis of the workshop in which I worked for some years. So I was thrust into pioneering but I survived, even thrived, largely because I had skills that were needed and I felt I could effect positive change. It was a bit like the Wild West, but great fun. There was plenty to do and there was a lot of scope to make decisions, to learn and develop.
In the summer of 1977, however, both Mary and I felt it was time to return to the U.S. We didn't know why, we hadn't a clue what we were going to do there. We'd burned our bridges, sold up everything when we left in 1972, and we were returning to the States with a child, just $7 in our pockets and the clothes on our backs.
I managed to get a job as a cashier in a dump and later as a mechanic. Then an uncle who didn't have any children invited me to join him in business. I blew him off twice, but when he persisted I decided to take a look. I'd reached a dead-end in my job and felt I had nothing to lose.
It wasn't easy. In Auroville, service had come naturally to me: it felt good. I'd never in my life considered going into business. And then my uncle was an archetypal Conservative Republican. But I listened to his rhetoric and tried to figure out what was of value and what was simply a mask for greed. What I learned was that business, as it's usually done, is a very different way of thinking from service, that capitalism, taken on its own, is pretty shallow. So I realized that if I was going to participate in it, I'd need an overarching reason for doing so. For me, that was sadhana.
Another way of doing business
In other words, my experience of Auroville and the whole process of doing yoga gave me another motivation for being in business. The real value of business to me is that it's continually teaching me something: once it put the food on our table, it was all about education. I learned how to make money, but I also learned about my ego problems and about all the little stories I told myself to justify my decisions. I learned how to short-cut the greed aspect of business and to control the egoistic drive which can wreck the lives of all around you. I understood what constitutes sound business principles and that, while business can be practiced in many ways, if you do it in a way that respects others and that involves making ethical decisions it will eventually pay off.
What I also came to see is that the vital is one of the main and necessary powers at work here. Hopefully it is the higher vital, but that power, that buzz, is the key to the entrepreneurial spirit. The other side of the equation is what Mother said about winning back the money force for the Divine. I think these two poles the vital drive and the need to offer the fruits are the two poles of business as yoga. But how to keep the fires of the vital burning on the one hand while giving egolessly with the other? This is the crux, this is the challenge. This is the thrill.
The need to change attitudes in Auroville
I've learned something interesting in business: that 20% of my customers provide me with 80% of my income, and that this principle can be applied to many other areas of life. I feel that if Auroville had 20% of its talented entrepreneurial types empowered to do business, then the other 80% could be free to do other things needed for the City the Earth Needs.
That's where education comes in. Because I think that the role of money and the role of the vital in relationship to work are often misunderstood in Auroville. If you think that money is unclean you constantly sabotage your hopes of success (apart from being in denial: at present business supports many community activities). We need to see that business is not ignoble, that if it's done in the right way it's a fine vehicle for an idealistic young person wanting to support Auroville. So we need to create a situation in which, at an early age, young folks here can identify they have a propensity for doing business and then be given all the support they need. Business, for example, could be one of the many things students are exposed to at the High School. We could make a curriculum which explores not only traditional business administration etc. but also how Mother would run a business. And we could bring in people who've made a success of it, folks like Ulli, Paul Pinton, Alok, Angad and Michael Bonke, who can articulate, through anecdotes and personal experiences, what it's like to do business. I'd be interested to remain connected to such a project.
The main thing is to create an atmosphere in which it's OK to make money and OK to spend it, because this creates a flow. To put it another way, I see now it's alright to be rich if you have the right avenue to pour it into. As my friend Chandresh Patel put it recently when discussing business in Auroville, Once trees, now enterprises. Both need nurturing in a harsh climate. But the end goal is spiritual, not commercial'.