Where's the Dharma? Collapse Comes to Shambhala Mountain Center

Photo: mikegi via Pixabay

A month ago, my husband and I left our more-or-less comfortable, middle-class, suburban lives to live at a Shambhala Mountain Center.

It seemed like a perfect situation: exchanging our skills and expertise for partial room and board instead of an ever-less-valuable dollar; taking a step away from our dependence on fossil fuels; living in community with other meditation practitioners.

Now, we are in Vermont (a topic for a future post).

Whoa, wait a minute — what happened?

Well, here's the story.

The first night we arrived, hurricane-force winds knocked out power and nearly tore our window off its hinges (why would someone install swing-out windows in an area prone to high winds?) Turns out, the company that built the windows had been driven out of business by lawsuits for their shoddy workmanship.

The next day the staff retreat started. We had been expecting a dathün-style retreat, with chanting, several 2-3 hour sitting sessions, functional talking at mealtime, and R.O.T.A. (Rare Opportunities for Transcendent Action — basically, chores.) In other words, a chance to practice meditation and participate in the day-to-day activities needed to keep things clean and people fed.

Instead, opening chants were followed by an hour of sitting, after which there were "activities": arts and crafts, chess, line dancing, yoga...

...and oh, yes, one afternoon mindfulness meditation "activity."

My husband and I were the only ones who participated.

This is interesting, because, as new employees, we signed a pledge to sit in group meditation for at least half an hour a day, in addition to whatever meditation we did on our own. There were three daily group sessions; one at eight in the morning, one at noon, and one at 5:15 in the evening.

For the first week, we joyfully sat in one or more of the group sessions every day.  On average, per day, we saw maybe 10 out of 50 core staff members doing the same.

Then we noticed the programs: "Beginner's Yoga", "Women, Food, and Forgiveness", "Wired for Love Relationship Workshop", "Radical Self-Healing"...

We started asking ourselves, "Where's the dharma?"

Is a meditation center at which nobody practices meditation still a meditation center?

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Shambhala Mountain Center is failing, fast.. A series of large debts and bad business decisions has left this once-beautiful retreat center hemorrhaging money, and in spite of raising the price of programs to a level that alienates most dharma practitioners, its 40-year-old infrastructure trembles on its last legs, the finance department is unable to issue refunds, and the kitchen struggles to buy food.

I understand that even spiritually oriented businesses have to make money, and that, just like individuals, in a collapsing economy everyone feels like they must whore themselves out to worse and worse situations just to keep ahead of the compounding interest. But I believe there comes a point at which diluting the original focus of a spiritual retreat center becomes counterproductive.

You see, any spiritual practice — prayer, prostrations, meditation, whatever — does more than simply quiet the mind or instill a sense of peace and well-being in the individual practitioner. Spiritual practice also works with the energy of the non-physical world. It realigns us with the nonphysical world — the  spirits — around us. After all, the word "spiritual" contains the word "spirit," right? And when we make friends with the spirits, they conspire with us to work things out for the benefit of all.

So when places like Shambhala Mountain Center, whose original intent was to help reconnect practitioners with the spirit-world, lose focus and sell out to any audience that might pull in some bucks, they lose the magnetism of the spirits, because the energy — the prayers, if you like — become diluted with the energy of desperation. It's like they're saying to the spirits, "Sure, you're okay, but we don't really trust you to take care of us, so we're going to take matters into our own hands."

And we all know how well that usually works out.

So our brief stay at Shambhala Mountain Center was, to say the least, disappointing. (It didn't help that the altitude was affecting our health. Getting old stinks; try to avoid it if you can.) But it was also a tremendous reminder that practice must come first. We've seen first-hand what happens when it takes a back seat to the material world, and folks, it ain't pretty.

Here's to cultivating those butt-callouses and befriending the spirits.

See you in Vermont.


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