The Art of Zen and E-commerce

Online business supports intentional living

Back Web Only Feb 27, 2015 By Lisa Renner

Tucked away in the Sierra foothills, just north of Nevada City, is the Ananda World Brotherhood Colony. And while many spiritual communities like Ananda often fail after a few years, this one has managed to last for nearly 50 — partly because the advent of online commerce has made it easier for people in rural areas to support themselves.

The community was founded by followers of Indian spiritual teacher Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the 1946 spiritual classic “Autobiography of a Yogi” and subject of the 2014 documentary “Awake: The Life of Yogananda.” All residents are members of the Ananda Sangha church. They meditate regularly, are vegetarians and don’t drink alcohol or use recreational drugs.

The community of about 250 residents has built a small grocery store, school, retreat center, gem shop, publishing house and farm. It has always been a challenge for community members to find jobs in such a remote area. But with the advent of the Internet, new opportunities became available.

Residents Lalaan and Timothy Hickey have run the online business Friends of Water for nine years, selling water filtration systems internationally.

Timothy, who previously worked in finance and software, says he came up with the idea after carefully researching which businesses could help him and his wife be self-sufficient. “We wanted something that would benefit our customers and our planet,” he says. “Something that could contribute and not just make money. We have nothing against making money, but we didn’t want that to be just what it was.”

Part of that is ensuring his products do what they say they will do and handling any customer problems quickly and responsibly.

“When we started the business one of our goals was not only to deliver the product but to demonstrate how you can succeed by being an earth-conscious and dharmic business,” he says.

Peter Kretzman was born at Ananda and also runs an online business, meditationbench.com, which his late father started. In addition to offering meditation benches, the site also sells cushions, shawls, candles and altars. The business supports Kretzman, one full-time employee and four part-time employees.

MeditationBench is one of several businesses Kretzman’s father ran from Ananda to support himself, his wife and three children. The elder Kretzman began by making custom cabinets. When that market dwindled, he started making hammered dulcimer, a stringed musical instrument. He switched again to meditation benches about 15 years ago.

“If one thing doesn’t work, another thing will,” Kretzman said. “You just keep trying. My dad was really good at that. He really wanted to have his family here at the community.”

Timothy says Ananda residents get inspiration from their faith. “The reason we’re here is about spiritual growth,” he says. “People of all levels of prosperity are here, including people who have made a lot of money in the world for one reason or another and others that are at the other end of the financial spectrum.”

Other residents work in a variety of jobs as doctors, lawyers, hospice workers, massage therapists, woodworkers or landscapers.  About 60 percent of the members also work in minimum wage jobs for the Ananda Sangha, doing everything from helping publish the group’s books to leading spiritual classes.

Lalaan Hickey, who also serves as Ananda’s public relations director, hesitated when asked how the community members been able to find financial success. She wouldn’t use that term, she says, adding, “The numbers have never worked. This community has always been about love and service.”

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