A History of Belief

A journey through New Mexico offers glimpses of old creeds and insights into modern spiritual quests

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A meditation site established by the Lama Foundation.

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In more recent times, spiritual seekers of all kinds have intentionally sought to blend elements of the great Axial sacred traditions with the ancient approaches to the sacred. Whether searching for intense mystical experience or universal principles or insights into the human psyche, they have launched movements, founded communities, and written thousands of books. Sometimes dismissing it as New Age fadism, critics ignore the serious ambitions of such eclectic spirituality, including its attempts to recover the lost sense of an enchanted world.

Among the many alternative communities founded in New Mexico over the years, none more enduringly embodies this open approach to the sacred than the Lama Foundation. Located some 25 miles north of Taos on the side of Mount Lama, the community occupies a compact cluster of central buildings—including a large dome used for classes and other gatherings—and a few small outlying residences for the core group of some 15 year-round members.

Founded in 1967, Lama has been home to a number of prominent spiritual luminaries, including the American Sufi teacher Samuel Lewis and Hindu convert and former Harvard psychologist Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert), who wrote the bestselling Be Here Now. A serious commitment to spiritual pursuits is perhaps the greatest reason this community has endured. Its collective life adheres to a set of guidelines, from a rigorous spiritual curriculum (prayers, dances, song, and meditation techniques drawn from various sacred traditions) to work duties, including the running of large summer retreats that bring in much of the community's income.

Among local people who have helped the community—notably after it nearly burned down during a large forest fire in 1996—have been various members from the Taos Pueblo. They have taught practical building and gardening skills as well as local lore. Austin Babcock, who has been doing a lot of the recent construction of energy-efficient permaculture buildings, takes me up to the spring that provides the community's water, a site that the Pueblo consider particularly sacred. "When the Pueblo come to visit," Babcock says, "they always ask, 'How is the mountain? How is the spring?' " Babcock and his wife, Kathy Lyons, tell me how the Pueblo sense of place has influenced the way they came to feel about the land. "The place," she says, "becomes the meaning."

Is it merely the romantic conceit of a few postmodern religious seekers that they can recover an older religious sense of an enchanted world? Perhaps. But their quest may resonate for others. After all, how people understand place—including its sacred dimension—influences what they seek in places, whether in natural settings or the human-built environment. The search for the Middle Place might be understood as something more than a lost ideal of the Ancient Puebloan People. Unless some sense of sacred purpose and presence inspires people's relationship with place, the places they inhabit may end up being just as lifeless as they think they are.

Senior Writer Jay Tolson's blog on religion and spirituality, Faith Matters, is here.