In a space miles way from the hustle and bustle of daily living, miles from the nearest major highway, a onetime Colorado gold-mining town seems like an unexpected space to find a growing spiritual community. Yet Crestone today boasts a higher number of high Tibetan lamas than would normally be found in Tibet, and that’s just the beginning. Roman Catholic Carmelites, Islamic Sufis, Mystical Jews, Hindus, Zen Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, and American Indians have all infiltrated Crestone.
The story behind the formation of this eclectic Spiritual community began in the late 1970s, when a wealthy visionary named Hanne Strong, who along with her husband, Maurice, owned 200,000 acres around Crestone, donated most of the land with the intention of creating a spiritual sanctuary for the world’s religious.
The result has been remarkable, with diverse spiritual groups living in close proximity and intermingling. At a Christmas mass held at the Roman Catholic monastery, whole rows were taken by Buddhist monks in flowing robes. Hindu nuns in saris umpire local baseball games. When American Indians held a medicine wheel ceremony one summer, the offerings to the four directions were made by a Shinto priest, Catholic and Buddhist nuns, and a Hindu yogi.
This exotic blending of spiritual traditions exists amid an American western landscape straight out of the Old West. When the first Tibetans arrived in Crestone in 1980, the mayor at the time was asked what he thought about them. “Better than a those squatting New Yorkers,” he replied. Now, 30+ years later, the area embraces two distinct variations of the spiritual life—one traditional, the other free-form.
Buddhist scholar, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche finds that having so many masters living in residence makes the area one of the world’s best places to practice and meditate. As one Crestone visitor puts it, “Why go to India and get dysentery? No where else in the world you would ever find such a large concentration of world renowned teachers, less have direct access to them.”
One of the many Carmelite nuns living in the valley at the NADA Hermitage , finds it validating to live in the midst of so many faiths. When she wakes before dawn to pray, she sees a fire already lit at the Hindu ashram along the hillside and knows she is not alone: Others are devout; others have made selfless vows and aspire to the same sanctity she has chosen for herself.
Lorraine Fox Davis, an Native American tribal spokeswoman, observed that people change when they reside for a time in a wintry, isolated setting. She says, The people here need to become more self-reliant to survive and, since no one can survive here alone, they eventually become an integral part of the community. Free of the hassles and stresses of urban life—those living in Crestone leave house doors unlocked, car keys in the ignition—people invariably “soften.” Most importantly, Davis says, everyone who visits here has a deep sense of connection to ‘Mother Earth’.
This sense of connection between the inner and outer landscapes. Self-reliance. Community. This softening of the heart. All are hallmarks of the religious life. In Crestone, this sense of interconnectedness is achieved predominantly without benefit of clergy. With 19 major religious groups represented, even the air people breathe—brings with it a feeling that you are living in a larger universe.
Rabbi David Cooper, author of the bestselling God Is a Verb, notes that Crestone is the next great step in cooperative spirituality: “postreligion,” in which one can benefit from a given faith without being a believer/congregant. Fifty years ago, the eastern traditions that now reside in the valley were all but unknown in America; today, their insights about compassion and mindfulness inform even the secular mindset in Crestone (and elsewhere).
Crestonians tend to treat one another well, recognizing not only the individual person, but the goal they are here to achieve. That energy brings together believers and nonbelievers alike, an ideal of seeking enlightenment. “People who visit ‘spiritual’ places behave differently; actually better than they seem to elsewhere,” many visitors observe. “In Crestone, life truly does become that place where Heart, Mind and Soul connect to bring a sense of Peace and Harmony to those who walk her hallowed pathways.
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