Spiritual Community of Many Faiths: The Challenge Is to Love
Lama Foundation? What, like in Dalai Lama?” “New Mexico? Do they only speak Spanish there?” “A whole year? What will you do there anyway?” “What will your kids (ages 20 and 22) do?” “Isn’t this just opting out of life?” Questions, questions, questions! I carried on packing. I couldn’t answer them anyway. A lone Aussie woman, I was about to set off half-way round the world to find the answers. I spent a year at the Lama foundation—a spiritual community perched high in the mountains of New Mexico where all faiths are honored and the main language is love. Its arms reach out and gently enfold you, until your heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh. The Lama Foundation is one of a family of spiritual communities where many faiths are followed and honored. Lama has friendly interchanges with these other communities, including Findhorn community in Scotland, Ojai Foundation in California, and Sirius Community in Massachusetts. Lama also has relations with single-path spiritual communities and spiritual retreats. Lama gives pilgrims of any faith a space to explore their own spiritual faith, and the chance to learn about that of others. It is not a school in the accredited sense of the word, but it is a place of learning. Being there was the most intensive course of study that I had ever enrolled for. Despite years in the tertiary sector of education, my learning curve at Lama was the steepest it’s ever been. The potential for personal and spiritual growth is tremendous. At 50, I suppose one would be tempted to call my sojourn there a midlife crisis. I prefer to think of it as starting out on the second half of my life. After many years of single parenting, working full-time as a high-school teacher and counselor and simultaneously completing a Masters and writing four books, I was very ready to start over and give myself an easier run this time. As an enthusiastic prison visitor, I felt that using my skills behind bars might be the next direction for me, but I needed to get off the carousel for long enough to consider if I was well enough equipped to do this—both professionally, but, more importantly, within myself. The problem was that I never had the time to consider anything in depth. Life was running me instead of the other way around. I’m sure you recognize the row of hats slipped on and off throughout the week with the speed and alacrity normally only accredited to jugglers. At that moment of finale when all the hats sit neatly back on their pegs, thoughts of one’s life path, of one’s soul journey, one’s self-actualization become very hazy and “following one’s bliss” usually means taking a hot bath and a cup of tea in bed! So, I gave my career hat away, hung a “for sale” sign on the nest and took a flight to New Mexico. Did I opt out of life? Was it escapesville? Yes. And then again, no. At first I thought I had left challenges behind. At Lama, the plumber did not turn up late and then charge me an outrageous fee. There, I never ran the gauntlet of the local supermarket and wondered if I’d be able to cover the check. There, I never had to decide what to have for dinner, buy the ingredients, and then cook it. There, my laundry disappeared each week and then magically reappeared clean and dry on the same day. There, I was not a taxi service, a bank loan service, the emotionally starved owner of a house where people drop in to change their socks. There, I never saw TV or got bills or did ironing or worked to a frantic deadline. I didn’t even buy clothes—I changed them every couple of weeks in the free second-hand store known as the “Gypsy.” Now don’t get the wrong idea. We certainly worked hard, sometimes 16 hours a day, but every day was different and I could choose to make it so. On a Monday I may have worked in the garden, digging and weeding or best of all picking the homegrown produce. Tuesday I may have prepared the new and exquisite hermitage for a grateful visitor and Wednesday maybe I’d have helped create a path in delicate mosaic. I may have been welcoming and serving retreatants and their teachers on Thursday and on Friday I may have gotten the chance to participate in part of that retreat. Saturday might have been my free day and on Sunday I might have been writing an article like this. Evenings had a variety of practices—Sufi dancing, Dhikr (Zikr), Kirtan, prayer and meditation, Hakomi, Heart Club, Temple worship, Native American ceremonies, yoga, herb walks, hikes, Reiki, Buddhist dharma talks, clowning, trust circles, Shabbat celebrations, juggling, Feldenkreis. It made my former Australian schedule look dull to say the least. Who would guess that an isolated small community would give me more of a social life than a big city? So, how did I do without all those former challenges? I mean isn’t life all about challenges and aims and goals? Did I turn into a mental jellyfish, sloshed about by the daily tide? Well no, absolutely not! There, I met daily challenges that made the supermarket look like Disneyland. There, I met myself. At home, if I don’t like the “look” of myself, I can take in a movie, catch a concert, turn on the TV, check in with my long-term support group of friends who know all my “stuff” and graciously refrain from pushing any of my buttons. At home I can go and buy myself a treat, have a meal out, down a couple of glasses of wine, take the edge off my pain so that I can push it back down and not have to look at it. At Lama there was nowhere to go to get away from me. Like a constantly playing video, my pain was being viewed and reviewed with love and compassion for the one who is myself, who has been buffeted about by life’s storms. Like the jogger who must break through the pain barrier to reach a new level of victory, the only way forward was through it. I am a Christian, and another challenge for me was that for the year I was there, there were no other Christian members. The time I spent at Lama confirmed that I was following the appropriate faith for me, the one I just happened to have been born into and brought up in. I could see that being in an eclectic community could result in a change of faith, and that some people might see that as a “risk” one would have to take. I found myself more deeply committed and confirmed in my faith, and chastened—I was very impressed by the time and commitment invested by community members in their faiths and realized to my shame how little time I actually gave to God in the course of my daily life. I adopted many practices into my own faith, to consciously and purposefully make time for God every day, instead of once a week: lighting of incense; making an altar in my house; lighting candles; singing chants; dancing; bowing; prostrating; meditating; reading. I also made a point of learning about other faiths so that I had more than a vague idea of what they were about, and I discovered that in their purest form, all faiths are about love, mercy, and compassion and all are paths to God. Now I revere and honor other faiths and any fear I might have had has gone. Lama is a place of learning, with an unusual and challenging curriculum. Class one is surrender. The ego has no place there. Can you live for a bigger cause than just little you? Can you stop talking and start listening? Class two is honesty. There they try to relate on a level that is honest and that is not always pretty. The class assignment is to be real with each other. Class three is humility. There is a book called Being Nobody, Going Nowhere. That’s pretty much the role you will be called upon to play there. No-one is interested in your past or your future, for that matter. Your status, experience, qualifications don’t count for much. The only matter of interest is did you graduate from the class of love? Class four is vulnerability. At Lama they relate through the heart. This means you have to open yours. For those who have long ago closed the doors to their heart, this can feel like walking naked down main street. And once your heart is open, be prepared to feel other people’s pain too. Sounds hard, but this will lead you to success in class five. Class five is tolerance. Look for the similarities, stay away from the differences and you will see that we are all the same at the core. We all want love, acceptance, praise, nurturing, encouragement. People’s faults are just an expression of their wounds. How big a challenge can you take? Can you open your arms to everyone—old and young, male and female, rich and poor, of all ethnicities—and hug them warmly with love? Can you share with 40-plus brothers and sisters your kitchen, your dining table, your relaxation space, your bathroom? Can you share their sadnesses, their moods, their celebrations, their commiserations? Can you listen from your heartspace when people talk about the path of Allah, Sufism, Judaism, Christianity, Bhakti Yoga, and just accept that these are all paths to God? Can you hold your own particular spiritual space without wanting to impose it on anyone else? Can you let the nationalities, backgrounds, appearances, behaviors, and ages go and just relate to the God within all with unconditional love and acceptance? Can you “Let go and let God”? These are the challenges of a multi-faith spiritual community. If you think you could even try to meet them, the community at Lama will meet you more than halfway. It’s all very simple. The Lama challenge is to love. Reprinted (with some changes) with permission from the Lama Foundation newsletter, Fall 1998 issue, “Lama Alive.”
Ms. Stevie Abbott-Richards is a teacher, counselor, and writer. She emigrated to the Adelaide Hills in Australia 17 years ago from Yorkshire in England. Since her return from Lama she has begun studies which will lead to ordination as a prison chaplain. She is also writing her fifth book, entitled One Flew Over the Empty Nest, which deals with the problems encountered by parents when their children leave home. She has two grown children and is a committed Christian who honors all faiths as paths to God.
“The purpose of Lama Foundation is to be a sustainable spiritual community and educational center dedicated to the awakening of consciousness, spiritual practice in all traditions, service, and stewardship of the land.”
—Statement of purpose, adopted June 1998