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Meanings of Retreat, Mastery and Enlightenment

Ben Copp


Most notions of retreat involve a sense of separation, silence, and thought. Retreats are often temporary, in fact if a retreat becomes permanent then it is not a retreat at all, but rather a new existence, a permanent escape from many of the challenges the ‘real world’ presents. In the religious or spiritual sense, a retreat is used as a time of separation from the distractions that pull us away from the ability to be mindful of our spirituality. “The time of retreat, of leaving the world, is temporary to allow a space, to have a different experience,” explains Christian Dillo, an ordained monk in the Zen Buddhist tradition. However, “if spiritual practices turn into escapism, it is limited. But if you look at how it actually works, you need a quiet place.”

In order to cultivate this calmness of mind that many spiritual seekers aspire to, it helps to remove one’s self from often hurried and frenzied surroundings.

“Many of the spiritual traditions are drawn to create retreat centers here because the geographical environment, the physical environment, the elemental environment, is the environment that’s described from time immemorial in their sacred wisdom traditions about being the kind of place where meditative, mostly quiet meditative practices, can best flourish.” (Tamar Ellentuck, Buddhist practitioner and co-founder of the CSA.)

Many people have difficulty finding quietude in their day-to-day lives. Children, work, school, money, errands, all rush our lives and allow little time for deep thought. John Winter of the Crestone Sangha notes that, “Because we always have so many overlays going on we have so many thoughts…that really keep us from being able to settle and gain more insight into who we are and what’s going on.”

“Out in the world, I feel too much. I am extremely sensitive, and more so as I go along my spiritual path…. It becomes hard for me to be in a place – at this point – that isn’t a sort of container. And that ‘container’ means a daily schedule of ritual, meditation, an environment that is clean and pure and open… Because the energy is just clear, it’s just nature, which is pure.” (Dagini Amba.)

If one is determined to attain some higher level of spirituality, or a more simple and calmer state of being, he or she must retreat to a place to cultivate these qualities. To calm one’s self when the surroundings are not calm takes great discipline and practice. Retreat is that practice; it is a time when calming is made easier because everything around you is calm as well. “I think there is a need to protect a quiet, contemplative place, so as beginner you begin to develop the mind that supports the cultivation of the practices… if day one you are asked to meditate next to a chain saw I don’t just think that is probable. An experienced practitioner should be able to deal with anything, and is expected too,” says Dillo, but to attain that level takes time and practice. “Even just living here, it transforms you,” says Michael Firsow who belongs to the Humanity and Unity Ashram.

Simply visiting Crestone can feel like a retreat to people who aren’t accustomed to the silence, energy and contemplativeness that is associated with the Baca, but the spiritual centers go on retreats of their own as John Winter points out. “Really what’s emphasized above all else is these retreats-intensive times of meditating all day long, and we do really tap into our fundamental human experience.” Tamar Ellentuck explains, “if I’m in retreat in a Buddhist center and knowing that two acres away or two miles away there are people in retreat in a Christian center doing the same kind of solitary practice. There is a solidarity, there is sort of an energy that develops in the community among practitioners, even if they are not doing the same practices, or not practicing in the same tradition.” Because so many centers are located so near one another, each religious center is able to benefit from the others’ presences and energies that are emitted.

“There are about 20,000 people coming every year on retreat,” say Hanne Strong, the founder and president of the Manitou Foundation. They come to Crestone because it is a powerful and energizing environment that provides “an ideal place for retreat,” observes Dillo. Julie Quinn, a Crestone resident says she “find[s] peace through loneliness.” The quietness and darkness is essential to her Sound and Light meditation. Diane from White Jewel Mountain says the lack of pollution, noise, disturbances, is “why we live in such a remote place, that’s why I drive an hour to the grocery store.” Though Crestone might be considered out of the way, its location emphasizes the practice of retreat.

Tamar noted that “because there were a lot of centers, a lot of teachers came [to Crestone].” The presence of many spiritual centers and the great teachers that either founded them or visit them often is another lure of Crestone. Darlene Yarbrough, a real estate broker in Crestone notices, “some people come here to connect with a particular teacher.” Michael shares, “I came here to study with Sai Maa, and the way I look at this place, have you ever seen the movie Top Gun, where they send all the best of the best…This place is kinda like that.” He went on, “its really about mastery, not just becoming enlightened…it take more to become a master.” By far there is “no other place with such a concentration of these teachers,” proclaims Seltong, a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

Many of these traditions, religions and practices found in Crestone have remarkable lineages. Being an established practice give credibility and to some extent is ‘proven’. Hanne Strong of the Manitou Foundation, which gives the land grants to the centers, explains how, “This place was about having unbroken lineage, not a hodge podge, you have to choose a lineage that will take you step by step to the point you need to go to.” Following a lineage, a proven spiritual path that has existed for centuries or often millennia, brings with it integrity and clout.

It is clear that the people of Crestone appreciate their calmer surroundings that seem removed from the rest of the world. It is a place of clarity, silence and deliberateness; a place where spiritual leaders of the world convene to share wisdom and teachings; a place where one can go to establish a mindful state and return to his or her home to spread the joy and benefits they have gained. It is a source of wellbeing for not just those who visit to go on retreat and practice, but for all beings to whom those benefits are dedicated to.


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