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Metaphors of Family -- Sarah Hautzinger

            In the film “The Sacred Land Trust,” ecologist and spiritual teacher John P. Milton credits sacred places with having the power to effect "a complete transformation of how our culture treats the earth and all species, all other forms of life." Milton's reasoning is metaphorical: "Because we’ll start seeing that as family."
            A kiva of apparent prehistoric origin rests on the land where Milton works north of Crestone. The kiva offers a place where he leads

vision quests where you would go into the womb of Mother Earth, and have a very powerful attunement with Mother Earth, and [are] basically reborn from the womb of Mother Earth. First we’re born from the human mother and later on we’re born from the Earth Mother.

On the same piece of land, Milton and friends rediscovered several "ancient meditation seats" and "dragon currents" of energy, which also form part of the prayer, vision quest and sacred passage work they do with pilgrims to the area.
            Milton's call to extend metaphors of Mother Earth to all forms of life, and specifically as kin, is perhaps the most inclusive image of family emerging from our conversations in Crestone. His was but one, however, of many references to “family” as a metaphor for both the enlightenment-seeking and community-building project in which area residents find themselves involved.
            Hanne Strong's vision of the area specifically foresaw it as a place where religious traditions based upon "unbroken lineages" would find refuge. Not surprisingly, then, the most immediate familial relationships we found were those of mutual devotees to a given practice. Though we directed our questions toward Crestone as a whole community and neglected to ask about “family life” within the temples, ashrams, monestaries and so on that dot the landscape in the Baca area, the theme of family arose on its own. Tamar Ellentuck, Buddhist practitioner and co-founder of Crestone Spiritual Alliance, tells us she came here because, "There was sort of a lineage connection. Since I was in a part of that lineage then it was, in a way, there was a certain logic to me coming here.”
In various traditions the notion of where one “takes shelter” was mentioned: one could practice with whomever one wished in the community, but shelter is taken with one's chosen teacher, lineage, way, and yes, family. Tamar continues,
I've been involved with a lot of different teachers, and every teacher has a group around him or her and everyone of those groups has its own culture, and everyone of those groups has its strong -- like a family has a particular flavor, characteristic, or neurosis, and they were just family groups and they each have their own neurosis, and they all have very strong opinions about other groups' neurosis. And it never changes.
John Winter of Crestone Sangha and Dharma Ocean shares being a newcomer and part of a newly arrived, small community.

We're kind of the new kids on the block and we’re feeling our way in, kind of getting to know the other communities. I personally don't know very well many people from the other communities and I think that's something that I'm hoping is just going to grow in time. It's hard moving into an area, to Crestone, when there are already people established and then we sort of come in, we’re subject to all kind of responses from people welcoming us to hating us, the whole range. My impression is that most of the communities just kind of stick to their own thing and do their own thing -- and we get together in the Crestone Spiritual Alliance. I hear that in the summer there's volleyball tournaments in the different communities which I think is way cool. I would like to be a part of that.

The renunciates and contemplators and monks and nuns playing volleyball or meeting for the CSA invokes a different scale of family, where the religious communities interact. Sister Connie Bielecki, a Carmelite, says,

I would describe it as …what's coming to my mind is a kind of brotherly sisterly thing and I think that's good. Well, partly because even in families most of us experience that you may be of the same blood, but you're very different and yet there's something that binds you because you are part of the same family.

As Connie goes on, she turns her attention to the cousin-like relationships between groups:

I think there's something here in Crestone that's similar to that where we are bound together by our... Even though our spiritualities are different it’s because that's the basis of all of our lives -- whatever our paths may be -- and so that's kind of the binding force. All the value systems are very similar, and that keeps us in a kind of communication even when we have differences, different approaches… I mean, not even all the groups would consider themselves a deist group; Buddhists are not really deists, Buddhism is not really a religion anyway, but the principles on which we base our lives are so similar that's what I think binds us together.

Ralph Abrams of White Jewel Mountain Zen Center shares his experience of Crestone’s multi-faith community as contained in specific place.

The interesting thing about this area, and Western spirituality in general, perhaps, is that there's a transcending of traditional fundamentalist approaches… Everybody is in harmony here together, whether you're a Christian, a Buddhist, a practitioner of the Japanese spiritual tradition, one of the Carmelites. We all share a container, what Crestone is as a spiritual place. It's not a merging, where it becomes this mish-mosh. There's a respect, almost a brotherhood of understanding. So this is also possibly the way that spirituality is going in the 21st century.”

If all of this sounds decidedly not post-religious (Cooper 1997; Paine 2007), consider the cremation project: a highly ceremonialized, yet relatively secular and/or interfaith, community endeavor. SLVCA activist Julie Quinn explains,

We have begun cremation ceremonies here. They have no affiliation with any specific spiritual groups. One man had a ceremony in his driveway. He felt connected to all of the groups. The Muslim prayer was the most beautiful. One man took a photo of the cremation ceremony. When it was developed, the smoke had a white light floating above it. Can you imagine something so special occurring with the noise of the drilling going on?

Knowing where one wants to be when departing this life is explicit for Robert Demko of Subud, a spiritual training that originated with Subuh, an Indonesian Muslim teacher.

In the end it's a matter of intuition. I will live no matter where I go, until I die, but you choose where you want to make your stay and that's another thing about what brings the community together. When a whole bunch of people choose to make a statement in a particular place together, it's very powerful.

Naomi Mattis of Mangala Shri Bhuti and CSA compares the community’s focus to elsewhere she’s lived.

I've lived in so many different places and I've never seen this much awareness about what would really benefit humanity and the world. There is a lot of care in this community; when something happens to somebody, immediately people get what they need.

The prospect of Lexam’s exploratory gas wells has set off an unprecedented round of pan-community co-ritualizing. Michael Firsow, of Hindu-based Humanity and Unity, remembered,

We did a big medicine wheel at the start of all this and brought in Arvol Looking Horse to conduct the ceremony and the Carmelites, the Hindus, the Jyorei [Shumei], the Buddhists, and it was the whole community so we were calling in all the energy not just from our own lineages and our own groups but calling it in from the earth. From the sun, the moon, the earth, the mountains of Crestone, the animal kingdoms, there is a lot of energy that is pushing up against this material (the drilling), so I don't think it will happen.

Despite the degree to which our interviews were saturated with the words “harmony,” “unity,” and “peacefulness,” we also learned of multiple cleavages and and divides. Some described the difference between people investing in Crestone as their full-time homes –“trying to save whatever we can save of the earth for generations to come,” as firefighter Joy Kells put it, contrasted with “Boulder Yuppies” who invest in “spec houses” intending only to sell for profit. For Joy, these sometime-neighbors are decidedly not family:

There is a whole different set of guiding philosophies and goals behind these two different groups. And I don't know how this cultural chasm is going to resolve itself.

Finally, our interviews gathered religious voices of quite varied ilk all citing shared, gut-level feelings that the Crestone area possesses sacred qualities. Far from metaphysical or supernatural, residents experienced these qualities as possessing a palpable physicality. Currents of Mother Earth and brotherly and sisterly love infused these discussions of place, landscape, geology, meteorology and typography with familial intimacy as well.
Consciousness, sentience, interdependence – these are the themes that infuse Crestonians’ invocations of “family” to capture the force of their feelings and commitments. Whatever else the significance of extending metaphors of kinship may be, at very least it is a radical move against thinking anthropocentrically or ethnocentrically about the world. If animal, plant or earth spirits are thought of as “peoples,” to be accorded respect, and inalienable rights, then humans have to fall into more reciprocal relationships in ecosystemic senses overall. If people believe in lineages and soul groups that have nothing to do with blood-and-marriage kinship, then ethnocentricity’s claims on we-ness and cultural belonging are weakened. When Dagini Amba says that Sai Maa is her mother, she means it in a very different way, but for her equally real and true, than what she means when talking about the mother who raised her.
In the semanticist classic Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson make the point that,

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language… We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. (1980: 3)

Crestonians elect metaphors of family, I have suggested, in order to 1) decenter humans as the only significant form of life, and 2) multiply the ways that humans think of their intimate relatedness to one another. In so doing, Crestone offers an beguiling experiment in community governance and the potential of mutual, familial benefit.


Cooper, David. 1997. God is a Verb. Riverhead Books: N.Y. New York.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago University Press: Chicago.

Paine, Jefferry. 2007. “A Spiritual Community Takes Root -- Crestone, Colorado. U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 16.

Hosted by John P. Milton. Produced by: The Way of Nature Productions
Directed by: Sarah Sher.

“The Sacred Land Trust.”

Interview by Nick Chambers.

Interview by Vanessa Richardson.

San Luis Valley Citizen's Alliance; see “Learn More.”

Intereview by Arlo Furst.

Interviewed by Sarah Oliphant.

Interviewed by Jordan Romero.

In addition to her work as a Volunteer Firefighter, Joy Kells is member of Cottonhood sustainable co-op. Interviewed by Anna Jackson.

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