Op/ed: Spiritual centers provide refuge from a plugged-in world
By Tyler Suchman
A chorus of birds fills the canopy above with song and chatter. Stately oaks, eucalyptus and sycamores tower above the footpaths, stressed by drought, majestic in their resilience and beauty. It is winter, but spring nears as flowers begin to bloom and the thermometer reaches 80 degrees in the sun.
La Casa De Maria and the Center for Spiritual Renewal in Montecito, tucked just below the San Ysidro Ranch, offer a welcome respite of peace and reflection. Groups gather for education, yoga and activism, while personal retreat-goers soak in a soft silence punctuated by nature and the rhythms of the day.
It is here that my wife and I have been welcomed for a short stay. I have been formalizing an intention to provide on-site Web strategy for spiritual centers around the world, and like anything in which one chooses to put energy, invitations have been extended to do this work.
It borders on the absurd that our brief time here in Montecito is a retreat from our months-long stay at Meditation Mount, a renowned spiritual center in Ojai.
There, too, nature envelops a sacred space that opens to colossal sunsets cascading across the Ojai Valley, painting a bold, fleeting pink across the Topatopa Mountains in the minute that follows the sun setting to the west.
At the mount, I am engaging with the staff and the board of directors in a strategic process. Having worked with six spiritual centers now, including the venerable Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland, I see common threads emerge of communicating on the Web, of reaching a younger audience, of financial sustainability, of staff turnover and time demands and mismatched skill sets.
Why are we, as human beings, attracted to centers of spirituality and retreat? Is it the oasis of calm amidst a hectic, technology-fueled life? Is it to find answers to the challenges we face in health, relationships, family and career? Is it the connection with nature that brings us a welcome inner peace? It is from this well that we can draw our own personal strength, and too, it is the strength on which a spiritual center can base its outer work, communications and engagement.
Digital communications empower spiritual centers — and, indeed, most nonprofit organizations — to directly connect with and nurture their audience. Sharing a story through text, images and video allows for an emotional connection that can result in life-long affinity and sustained financial support.
Connecting the physical and the digital is a particularly intriguing challenge. The mind fills with ideas of virtual tours along walking paths, signs with social icons and hashtags for sharing that perfect photo to Facebook or Instagram and mounted iPads for easy email newsletter signup. And yet, the strongest bonds may be formed by those who put their smartphone away, find a secluded rock on which to perch or welcoming tree under which to sit and simply be.
Spiritual centers come in all shapes and sizes. They may be a reflection of a deeply held belief system or inclusively interfaith. They may house cloistered nuns or carry the laughter and play of children. They may be edifices built of stone or reveal only the lightest footprints of humanity. Each has its own personality and speaks to an audience in its own way. What is important is speaking and sharing with authenticity.
People have a remarkable ability to discern what is real and authentic, what resonates with them. They feel within themselves that the welcoming land upon which they stand has been tended with love and intention. It is this authenticity upon which a relationship between a spiritual center and their community is built. It is by nurturing this relationship that a spiritual center can engage, and where an energetic exchange can take place.
As I sit in the library of the Center of Spiritual Renewal, gazing out over the patio, the grassy field and the encircling trees, I reaffirm why I do this work. I help empower organizations that allow people to connect with the earth and connect with themselves. It is from this centered place of well-being that each of us can then return to our lives and our relationships with integrity and mindfulness, bringing much-needed light onto this earth and to humanity.
• Tyler Suchman was head of production for mobile developer Moviso before it was acquired by Vivendi Universal. He is the founder of Ojai-based Tribal Core and can be found at www.tribalcore.com