After a weekend of live music and old friends in Flagstaff, AZ, we decided to leave for Taos, NM in order to catch the last bit of Guru Purnima at the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram. A gathering of culture and connection, the Ashram holds beautiful celebrations for those interested in — or actively practicing — Hindu traditions. Driving into Taos, one can feel the change. Adobe structures line dust and sand covered streets, while tumbleweeds blow in the wind. There is a charm and air of magic to this place, a definitive change from the young, vibing town of Flagstaff, AZ. We arrived in the afternoon and immediately felt a bright, but calm presence.
With tents pitched in the back field, everyone dressed in vibrant colors, children playing and mass amounts of chai, it was surely a celebratory feel. We got settled in and joined in the festivities, hearing stories, watching dancers, eating delicious Indian food, singing and laughing. It was a beautiful celebration of life. The weekend brought many curious fellow travelers to discuss our journey and next steps; as we got to talking to some of the folks there, describing our purpose and mission, one name kept coming up: The Lama Foundation. None of us knew about this community previously, but with the urgency and excitement everyone exuded, we knew we had to go. Like our previous experience with word-of-mouth, this turned out to be one of our more magnificent stops.
The longest dirt roads have thus far lead us to the richest rewards. After many winding turns up “Lama Road” and then eventually “Upper Lama Road” with wooden signs to encourage us along the way, we found bountiful beauty. The Foundation owns about 40 acres of land, but being surrounded by National Forest on three sides makes the property seem like an endless playground. Adobe structures hugging the mountainside, The Lama Foundation boasts one of the most mind-blowing views we’ve seen thus far. But the physical beauty is far from its best quality.
Primarily a retreat center for everything from permaculture design courses to youth leadership programs, The Lama Foundation is also home to 6 individuals participating in a very intimate form of intentional community. Lama is a haven for those actively seeking a spiritual path. This nondenominational spiritual center strives to represent each facet of religion and spirituality.
The residents are there to “hold [spiritual] space,” and actively share prayers, practices, and meditations from religions around the world with the stewards and visitors of the Foundation. With countless alters adorning the property from Hindu to Native American, Christian to Sufi and everything in between, it is very apparent that the Lama Foundation is interested in spiritual fulfillment itself, not which path one may choose to get there.
We had the pleasure of being shown around by Kaitlin, who was the current “watch”. One of the many hats a resident may wear, the “watch” maintains phone and e-mail communication with visitors, as well as being the general coordinator of the morning spiritual practice from the full moon to the new moon, about a two-week shift that is rotated between residents. Kaitlin, who was in her first year of residency at Lama, was more than generous with her time, and absolutely glowing about her experience with this community.
Kaitlin explains the community has three types of occupants: full-time residents, stewards, and retreat attendees. Currently, the core resident circle is made up of 6 people, but is also host to 15 “stewards” or volunteers who work on the property, and a multitude of visitors floating in and out from week to week. Each person committed to becoming a long-term member of the Lama family is asked to pay a $2,700 tuition over their lifetime. “It’s less about the money, and more about a commitment to a lifetime relationship with the Foundation,” explains Kaitlin. All of the money is fed back into the cause with beautiful communal structures intended for worship and community gathering.
The first structure that was ever built on the land was dedicated to spiritual practice, rather than personal living quarters. This ensures the focus stays with the spirt and not with earthly comforts . Circles as a continuous theme, a beautiful kiva (a traditional Native worship structure) has been dug into the ground, and a connected “dome” room serves as the largest circular group space on the property. The building also holds a music room and a library for communal use.
So what makes this community really work? Ella, a long time steward, is convinced it’s the emotional openness towards communication brought on by the spiritual vein of the foundation. “Sitting in a cave and getting to some sort of spiritual enlightenment is one thing. But sitting across from someone who triggers you and getting to that same point? It really makes you think ‘How can I marry these ideals?’”
Ella and Kaitlin went on to describe “Morning Tuning,” a technique to get all the community members on the same page, both emotionally and schedule-wise, every day. Kaitlin really sees this as something different from other spiritual communities: “So often you go into a church or an ashram and are told, ‘Don’t be angry! Chant it [or pray it] out!’ But here people are allowed to be angry at each other. We just need to talk it out on the same level. Sometimes it gets intense,” she chuckles. The community also holds “Heart Club” every Wednesday, in which everyone is encouraged to share anything that is bothering them. “You really see people at their highs and their lows here. Maybe that’s why so many people fall in love at Lama,” Ella laughs, “[Emotional] vulnerability is attractive!”
Not only as farmers but also as individuals seeking truth and stability, we are reminded to “stand for what we stand on,” as Wendell Berry so eloquently encourages. Lama exemplifies this with even their name; ‘lama’ means dirt or soil in a language native to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The fundamentals of this place brought us back to our origins, our desire for spiritual and emotional fulfillment, and served as a grounding force representing the continuous reliance we have on the earth around us.