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Spirit and Politics: Negotiating Boundaries

Penelope Morgan


Someone once remarked to me how difficult it is to be introverted in a society that is inherently extroverted. For years that observation has remained with me, and I find myself returning to it now. The various religious communities of Crestone that are specifically designed for retreat and self-introspection can seem rather self-centred to those of us who gaze on them from without. We talk to people searching for something within that is intangible and difficult to articulate in language that our society takes seriously, who have chosen to leave the wild noise and colour of the culture we know, in order to look back upon it, and perhaps find some understanding. Ideally, one rejoins the wider culture, to negotiate all the bells and whistles with more wisdom than one left it with. In Crestone, however, wider culture has rejoined its remarkable array or religious institutes by force in the form of political activism, environmental awareness, and anthropology students, brought on by the pressing issue of the exploratory natural gas proposal. Thus, in a place where people come for retreat and solitude they now, paradoxically must renegotiate the boundaries they have constructed to maintain their solitude in order to preserve it.

Craig Hase, from the Crestone Mountain Zen Centre explained, “Every culture should have a place where people can go and be outside the culture for long enough to reflect on their lives. And long enough to reflect on their roles within the culture. And every culture should have a location where people can challenge the culture from.” Therefore distance from culture, from politics, is vital to this process. Monastic communities seek to establish a boundary between themselves and the broader world. Physical distance is an important part of this boundary. Crestone as an environment is naturally monastic, and many of the centres have periods of seclusion. Religious identity is also written onto the body. Members of the Humanity in Unity Temple of Consciousness Ashram wore white. The monks from the Crestone Mountain Zen Centre had shaved heads and wore an informal stand-in for their robes when they were interviewed. Each way of marking the body is deeply imbued with meaning, white, in Humanity in Unity symbolizes purity. It also marks the body as being part of that group, effectively delineating boundaries, thus differentiating between lay person and monk. ( Bowie, 2006)

However, several members of the Crestone Spiritual Alliance (CSA) frame the idea of boundaries within a larger context. Sister Connie from the Nada Carmelite Hermitage explains, “Our community is part of what’s called the CSA, which is kind of a banding together of the different religious and spiritual communities in the area so that we can work together and everybody has their own voice but if we speak together I think that has a stronger impact that if we tried to speak alone. So that’s what we’re trying to do is work together.” The Crestone Spiritual Alliance redefines individual community boundaries. Community, outside of individual communities functions as a sort of barrier against Lexam and the inset of “culture” and “politics” and the negative connotations that accompany them. Christian Dillo from the Crestone Mountain Zen Centre, explains, “People hate the world political and it came out at some point it came out in a discussion. I took the view, well really the Greek word Polis, the root of the word political, just means community. So being political just has the flavor of being engaged in divisive arguments, you know, negotiating interest, power games, but that is clearly something we weren’t interested in. But were we interested in being part of the community, I would say yes. That is how I see it.” Although individual communal identities have become permeable, their boundaries have, in a sense, been extended to form a larger community to protect the idea of solitude and community which, ironically, they lose to a degree by the very act of engagement. However, identity is fluid. It is something that can be negotiated constantly, and can be both a member of a small community and a larger community. Dagini Amba wore white robes, representing both the Crestone Spiritual Alliance and the Humanity in Unity Ashram at the Roundtable held by Colorado College. We do not leave one identity behind when we assume another. Thus, boundaries may, for a time become permeable, but they are never fixed. Identities may be flexible, but they are never wholly defined. It is a weakness and a strength, this shifting ability we have as humans, but it allows us to negotiate our way through difficulty, and in this case, it has allowed Crestone's wealth of religious communities to form the Crestone Spiritual Alliance.

For extended biographies of Craig Hase, Sister Connie, Christian Dillo, and Dagini Amba please see our Voices page.


Bowie, Fiona. The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction, 2 nd Ed. Malden, MA, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.