It’s a standing joke between me and my daughters that when relationships or marriages fall apart, at least one of the former partners discovers Buddhism and goes to live on a houseboat. I run almost true to form: I found Buddhism life-saving when my marriage disintegrated. Actually – and this would be hilarious, were it not so grim – I lost in quick succession my partner, my job, my home, my mothering role (my daughters left home) and my geographical freedom (my parents are incurably sick and need me to live near them). But instead of going to live on a houseboat, I went to live as a volunteer with a group of Tibetan Buddhists in a former library.

My identity collapsed: something to be valued – maybe – as ontological crisis, existential chic and all that, but, well, at 50-something, it wasn’t quite what I thought I’d signed up for in life… However, I became a volunteer – and I now live an empowering and endearing paradox: namely, that when one is truly and fully on the ropes, maybe only giving up and accepting that one is a complete and utter mess can restore some perspective.

In a practical sense an interesting aspect of this arrangement is that the long-since-closed-down library is being renovated by volunteers with virtually no cash input apart from for materials. Out of a damp and dingy shell in south-east London has emerged a bright, functional, spacious centre with a small library and a café; a shrine room; living quarters for volunteers, other residents with jobs, monks and nuns; health treatment and yoga rooms; and a flat for the lama who is the director, as well as for visiting teachers. Part of my role has been to plant a garden that has been created in the basement using old railway sleepers to build raised beds – it has been a challenge to find plants that can cope with shade and benign neglect! Planning permission is being sought (this is a listed building, so it needs formal agreement) to put solar panels on the roof, so this is an unusual eco-renovation.

How can all this happen with just unpaid workers and very little money? Visionary and shared ideals (in this case Buddhist beliefs) play a huge part. Colin, the builder-manager who has overseen the whole transformation, is unbelievably modest: “This isn’t really like a building site; it’s more like a Buddhist centre where some building work happens occasionally.” His gentle humour and strong cockney accent belie the skill and determination of him and his team. For two years they worked, often six days a week, changing the position of walls, repairing the roof, installing better insulation, putting three 2-metre-high Buddha statues (made on-site by a Tibetan lama) on plinths, and altering the basement from a damp, dark area with bricked-up windows and a floor covered with tracking for bookshelves into a kitchen and sitting room with huge windows.

Volunteers come (and go), many through adverts on the Gumtree website, some through local agencies for unemployed people, and some who are Buddhists or just vaguely interested and hear about us through word of mouth. Some have day jobs and volunteer in their spare time. Others have retired, or have enough money to live on. Some rent out their former homes and live here frugally, making ends meet. The volunteers are from all ethnic backgrounds – Afro-Caribbean, Argentinian, American, British, Chinese, Hungarian, Indian, Irish, Korean, Lebanese, Romanian, Serbian and Zimbabwean, to name but a few. Some volunteers come to learn new skills. Rowan, the lead manager for electricity and renewable energy, says: “At college one can learn to wire a circuit on a demonstration rig, but here we can throw a real building at the trainees and show all the snags and pitfalls awaiting the unwary. We also pull the trainees into the design process. All our former volunteers are now working full-time in the electrical industry.”

Some volunteers arrive with much-valued skills – they may be qualified in painting and decorating, cooking, plastering, boat-building, engineering, computing, journalism, plumbing, office work, and so on. A good proportion are in transition: some are changing direction, recovering, like me, from broken relationships, or rebuilding their lives in other ways.

Each day an imaginative cooked vegetarian lunch is prepared for the workers. This is an incentive of sorts, but the real motivation is probably the deeper spiritual one of being able to give to something bigger than oneself. The atmosphere is unique – the mixture of social classes, rich and poor, ethnic groups and beliefs is awesome, tolerant and good-humoured. Many volunteers are grateful in some way to Buddhism and this is their way of attempting to return the gift, but some are just curious, perching for a while, or maybe needing a refuge of sorts: many live here whilst volunteering. It feels good to be able to be part of something that is bigger than oneself and one’s needs, or greater, funnier and a bit more varied and resilient than a single family. Value is about so much more than cash, and it is wonderful to be able to be reminded of that in everyday work.

The leadership here is also very skilful – the director, Lama Zangmo, and others seemingly effortlessly watch and nurture volunteers and place them in roles that suit their current needs, skills and personalities. Perhaps this is helped by the fact that Lama Zangmo has spent nearly 12 years in retreat – I get the feeling that she has dealt with many of her own issues and now is devoting her energies to helping others. This is real leading by example. And, of course, things do not always go smoothly: I remember the long faces when some plumbing trainees were welding – they used five times as much copper as the experienced plumbers and still the pipes leaked! But most of the time all goes well, and we can usually laugh when it doesn’t. (One of the founding leaders of this lineage in the West nearly killed himself in a car accident by driving into a joke shop, so humour is in our spiritual blood, so to speak...) In socially divided, post-riot Britain, it is a useful lesson seeing people with no conventional educational qualifications work more skilfully in teams and have better intuition and empathy than many (including myself) who are more formally qualified.

There are downsides. There are the minor irritations of collective life: the cleaning standards that differ, the people who forget to wash up... There’s little private space here for my daughters to ‘chill’ when they visit and I’ve had to shed lots of possessions (and for someone who loves clutter, that is hard). But there are compensations, one of which is sharing my fridge and washing machine with about 30 others, which lowers my carbon footprint.

We are all probably looking for similar freedoms: from knee-jerk thinking, needless guilt, blame, other destructive emotions and the rest of that ‘dark night of the soul’ stuff that happens, particularly after divorces. As a volunteer, I think I’ve learnt to be more open to the impermanence of the seemingly permanent – something that Buddhists understand very well. I also hope that my bruised heart has learnt to be slightly more generous, and tolerant of my own and others’ mistakes. Last but not least, it’s good to be returning this building to its former public role, offering welcoming spaces for learning, reflection, healing and growing.

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Amanda Root was an academic at Oxford University and now lives and works at Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Centre, Bermondsey, London.