I first heard about Crestone, Colorado a few months ago in a magazine article. It was an intriguing story about Danish-born Hanne Strong and her international diplomat husband Maurice who gained control of a 200,000-acre ranch and then set up a foundation to give land grants and money to religious orders who wanted to set up centers in the area. Unbeknownst to her, it was the fulfilment of a prophecy made decades earlier by local mystic Glenn Anderson who had predicted that a foreigner would set up an international religious center there.
Now there are two dozen religious centers there representing Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Native American and Catholic groups. I knew I had to go there and I convinced my husband to fit a visit into our travel plans even though it would be several hours out of the way of the rest of our Colorado trips.
I was not disappointed. This is a special place. When arriving in this small town of 127, I was immediately struck with the hippie vibe. There’s the colorful Bliss Café, the people with dreadlocks and Indian-print clothes and the wonderful free store, where people can give and take anything from clothes to toys to dishes. It was immediately clear that this is not a community driven by the usual commercial motives.
I had previously read on the Internet about the different spiritual centers and determined four that I would visit – the Shumei International Institute, the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram, the Nada Hermitage Retreat Center (a Carmelite monastery) and the Sri Aurobindo Learning Center. A note to anyone who may want to visit- it is not obvious where these places are. They are not highlighted with big signs and brochures like tourist attractions. A good start to get information is the local newspaper- the Crestone Eagle.
I had never heard of Shumei before but chose to visit it because I was inspired by its philosophy of promoting beauty, art and natural pesticide-free farming. It reminded me a lot of the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who inspired Waldorf education and biodynamic farming. I had to drive far out on a dirt road to get to Shumei’s lovely hilltop site.
My 3-year-old son Theo and I watched a 10-minute video about the group and then were taken on a tour of the grounds by a sweet Japanese young woman who barely spoke English. I got the gist of what she was saying however and I enjoyed seeing the fountains and stone landscaping on the property. At the end, she led us in some chants in the sanctuary. Theo and I returned later for the group’s daily half-hour morning service. I was so proud how well-behaved Theo was through the whole ceremony.
I decided to visit Haidakhandi Universal Ashram because they venerated the avatar Babaji, mentioned in the classic “Autobiography of a Yogi.” I had just reread that book and I have always been attracted to the spiritual traditions of India (I visited some ashrams there in 2007). I was greeted on my visit by Deborah, who showed me the temple and told me about the “enlivened statue” of a goddess who devotees feed and care for as if it was a living being. She also showed me around the nearby shop that sold books, candles, icons, Indian clothes and other items. Everybody I met there was friendly and welcoming. I returned to attend their daily 7 a.m. service. I was joined by five other people, all of them white, who sang chants to the accompaniment of drums and a harmonium. Afterward, I attended the beautiful outdoor fire ceremony. They let me take some of the flowers home to Lee and my boys.
I didn’t see anyone on my visit to Nada Hermitage Retreat Center (the Carmelite Monastery) but I didn’t seek anyone out either. I knew the small chapel was always open and I went in there to meditate for about 20 minutes. I thought about my brother Brantly who converted to Catholicism a few years ago. The silence was just what I needed for my soul. I am so grateful for all these organizations for providing a peaceful place for the public. As I left, I thumbed through the religious magazines they had left in the lobby and noted the snow boots that were stored under the benches. It must be very snowy here in the winter.
I visited the Sri Aurobindo Learning Center because I have long been interested in Sri Aurobindo’s world brotherhood community Auroville in India. The center doesn’t have a sign and I would have missed it entirely if I hadn’t seen its distinctive meditation dome. Lee thought it was someone’s private home and was reluctant to drop me off. I was greeted warmly by Jenny and two of her friends, who immediately invited me to meditate in the dome and check out the nearby home housing a reading room. I did meditate in the dome and I did feel a tingly feeling all over my body- maybe it was from the design of the building. On a later date, I came back and read some of a book about the beginnings of Auroville. I saw a book about the Findhorn community in Scotland. Jenny told me the two communities plus Acrosanti in Arizona had exchange relationships at one time. Because I have two children, I also looked at the book “Education for a New Life” by Narayan Prasad. The book recommended a child-directed approach to learning with no tests or forced education. Maybe some day, I will get copies of the books and finish them.
Lee and I and the kids also fit in one last stop at the Stupa of Enlightenment built by one of the Tibetan Buddhist communities. It is a symbol of Buddha’s enlightened mind and was built and designed by people from Asia, Europe and the U.S.
I came away from my visit so inspired by this community. It is good to know that there are some places in the world not totally based on making money, watching TV and playing sports – not that there’s anything wrong with those activities. It’s also inspiring to see world brotherhood on a concrete level. I would like to come back and go on a retreat here someday maybe when my kids are older.