An Enlightened Society is a Sustainable Society

By Miriam Thomas

“Ecology and economy are not two different things.”

This is what Jim Tolstrup (Director of the High Plains Environmental Center and former SMC Land Steward) told us in a recent discussion with Shambhala Mountain Center Staff.  As I reflected on Jim’s words, I realized that ecology and economy indeed evoke the same truth:  everything exists in relation to everything else.  The dictionary defines ecology as “the relationship between living things and their environment” and economy as “a system of interaction and exchange”.  Both terms, however, simply describe the dynamic exchanges that constitute our interconnected existence.

blog imagePhoto by Molly Stetson

As Buddhists, we like to talk about mandalas.  Essentially an organizational chart, a mandala provides another way of framing our relationship to our environment.  The center of a mandala represents our chief motivating principle while the layers that radiate outwards illustrate how this principle is reflected in every facet of our lives and in our every relationship.  We can look to our mandala to see how our attitudes and our interactions are impacting our ecology and economy.

But the thing is:  we are always relating to the world, always part of a mandala.  And, if we aren’t mindful, we might find that the values ruling our mandala are not quite the values we intended to cultivate.   As our community pauses to reflect on the state of our mandala, we can see clearly that sometimes our actions and our values are incongruent.  Rather than criticize our community, we can regard this as a rich opportunity to examine our mandala with fresh eyes and an inquisitive mind.

So, let us refresh our perspective.  Let us reclaim as our guiding principle the wisdom of interbeing, the wellspring of compassion.  Through this lens, we see that our daily habits have become untenable and that our mandala requires some recalibration if we want our community to reflect our view and to be sustainable.  As we reorganize to operate from the basis of interbeing and compassion, we will naturally make specific adjustments that change the nature of our mandala—and thereby change the ecology and economy that we are perpetuating.  Such a shift takes time, but our community is already changing its behavior.

What are we doing to become more sustainable?

First of all, we are committed to reducing our energy consumption by 10 percent within the next year.  To this end, our Director of Expansion, Dickie Swaback, has created the Energy Project to document, track and reduce our energy expenditures.  Most importantly, he is inspiring the entire community to get on board.


Step one is data collection—measuring how much electricity and propane we are using.  Throughout the summer, intern Stacy Smith has been meticulously compiling information on the energy efficiency of every single one of our buildings.  Step two is data analysis and strategic planning—devising an efficient, cost effective plan for reducing our energy consumption.

We do not, however, need to wait for a comprehensive plan to begin changing our culture.  Indeed, we are already actively cultivating an environmentally-conscious ethos here at SMC.  To encourage greater mindfulness in our daily habits, our staff is sharing energy-saving tips via email and word of mouth and has placed stickers beneath all light switches on the land, reminding ourselves and our guests to turn the lights off when we leave a room.  Furthermore, we are standardizing our light fixtures so that we can order energy efficient bulbs in bulk.  As the weather turns cold, we are also winterizing our homes and our facilities to ensure we are heating our spaces efficiently.

Meanwhile, a grassroots initiative to reevaluate our food system is emerging.  Community members have formed a committee to research, plan and build a greenhouse and develop a composting system.  Our kitchen is also consulting with a sangha member who is an expert in food waste reduction.  By streamlining our food system, reducing our waste and becoming more self-sufficient, we will become more financially and ecologically sustainable.  Moreover, we will feel greater gratitude and connection to our food and its origins—and to the universal mandala in which we take part.

An enlightened society is one that is grounded in the experience of interbeing.

Everything always boils down to relationships—our relationships with ourselves, with others and with our environment.  Call it ecology or call it economy but either way we still exist as part of a synergistic network.  We achieve sustainability when we nourish our relationships and are mindful of our interdependence and our impact on the network as a whole.

This cultural shift is also about empowerment.  We need to take responsibility for our environmental impact and our financial challenges, and recognize that the two are in fact intricately intertwined.  Acharya Fleet Maull has said, “Anytime you attribute the cause of your happiness or unhappiness, satisfaction or dissatisfaction to something outside yourself, you give away your power.”   Either we can point our fingers and blame others for the calamities we see in the world, or we can, as the Lojong slogan goes, drive all blames into one.  We can recognize that we ourselves are participating in the creation of culture and feel heartened that every moment and every interaction offers us the opportunity to change that culture.

So, let us celebrate our agency and lean into these challenges joyfully and with kindness, generosity and bravery.


IMG_0945Miriam Thomas–lover of mountains and ice, chocolate and avocados–lives and works at Shambhala Mountain Center. As the Development Associate, she has the great fortune to witness generosity in action every day. Her favorite color is yellow, her favorite flower is the sunflower and her current favorite book is Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector.

Big Sky, Big Mind: Discussing Contemplative Astronomy with Andrea Schweitzer, PhD


Shambhala Mountain Center hosts Big Sky, Big Mind: Contemplative Astronomy Workshop with Andrea Schweitzer and Jim Tolstrup, September 5–7, 2014.

Throughout history, we have looked to the skies to follow the rhythm of the seasons and to ponder life’s mysteries. Andrea Schweitzer is on a cosmic mission to reignite our passion for the stars by using interactive, kinesthetic astronomy to experience the movement of the celestial bodies. In this interview, she shares her inspiration and and guides our gazes skyward.

If you’d like to download the audio file, CLICK HERE and find the “Download” button. Otherwise, you can stream the audio below.


Andrea Schweitzer

Andrea Schweitzer, PhD, is an astronomer with the Little Thompson Observatory in Berthoud, Colorado. Having collaborated with NASA on programs such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Voyager missions, she balances her work with her personal practices of stargazing, yoga, and meditation.

Floral Notes and Bardo: Truly… Hug Trees

By Travis Newbill

Floral Notes and Bardo: The Creative Chronicles of a Shambhala Mountain Resident is a daily feature on the SMC blog in which a member of our staff/community shares his experience of existing as part of Shambhala Mountain Center.

(Notes from the Four Seasons Program: Exploring Trees and Wildflowers)

I hung out with plants all weekend.

10517504_759949517404968_5577312332589050759_nPhoto by Jim Tolstrup

And Jim

In the meadows and wetlands
On the northern and southern slopes
Beneath my feet
around my house

Dating back ages…

A whole world of vibrant, fluid life in the form of plants:
ancient trees
wildflowers, brief

I met a lot
learned their names, and a bit about them
New friends!
All over the place!

There is one version of the world on the TV news
There is another version of the world in the forest, meadows, wetlands
on the southern and northern slopes

This experience is always available:
Lay on my back, face towards the sun
pretend to be a flower

The wood laying around on the ground is old:
Maybe several hundred years

The oldest living tree on the land is over 700 years old
It is vibrating with wisdom

The world of human drama is one world


I live with humans, plants, rocks, animals, wind, water…

— July 21, 2014


PortraitTravis Newbill is a curious dude on the path of artistry, meditation, and social engagement who is very glad to be residing at Shambhala Mountain Center.  His roles within the organization include Marketing Associate and Head Dekyong–a position of leadership within the community.  Follow Travis on twitter: @travisnewbill

Floral Notes and Bardo: Earth!


Floral Notes and Bardo: The Creative Chronicles of a Shambhala Mountain Resident is a daily feature on the SMC blog in which a member of our staff/community shares his experience of existing as part of Shambhala Mountain Center.

Earth, I know you’re alive. People, I know you’re alive. Plants and people equally alive. It’s a stretch for conceptual mind to accommodate that.

We’re not living in harmony with the earth, okay?

But… We are aspiring to.


The other evening, President Reoch held another fireside gathering for the staff. In Shambhala we call these sorts of things “salons,” yet no one seems to be very clear about what a “salon” is. Seems like:

A salon is a gathering, not a party. A salon is celebratory and yet, sincere. A salon is neither business nor recreation. A salon is authentic and social.

So, Jared the Land Steward started a fire. Zane the Rusung (a protector role) attempted to do so but it went out, at which point he said:

“I don’t start fires, I put them out.” Which is true.

Folks asked the President any questions that they wanted to. The ice breaker was about the financial situation of Shambhala and Shambhala Mountain Center. It’s a hot topic. His answer was as short as possible (long) and satisfying. There seem to be skillful changes occurring.

One point: we all need to be less embarrassed about money.

Next question: Jared asked about our relationship to the earth. In Shambhala, the teachings are incredibly clear regarding how we ought to relate to the natural world:

It is sacred, and it is alive along with us.

President Reoch admitted: “We are not walking the talk.”

Yesterday, I sat with Jared for an hour and absorbed his wisdom. He’s in touch. He spends most of his time outdoors, relating to the nature. The living quality of the natural world is apparent to him–clearly apparent. A lot of the time, I feel like I am staring right at something that I am not seeing.

I wish for the boundaries between myself and the living earth to shatter, more and more as I live here. I want to be friends with the flowers and rocks and trees. I want to know them by name and love them like I love my human friends, and my cat. I want to sense their living presence at all times. I do to some extent, but I still feel sort of removed.

I think that many of us are dealing with a dualistic, Newtonian hangover. Our vision is blurry and so we’re still acting clumsily. But, I also feel like we’re coming-to. We’re shaking our heads to clear the fog and asking for help. That’s what I’m doing.

I’m saying: “Jared, I want to walk in the woods with you. I want to shake this unhelpful conceptual fog and connect emotionally to the wind and snow and trees. I want to feel the urgency.”

I feel it more now than ever before. I live with the earth here. And there are lots of opportunities coming up to deepen my connection.

This evening I’m participating in the third staff Ikebana class. Through this art-form, we contemplate and celebrate our connection with the natural world, with unseen inspiration, and with our own human ability. We join “heaven, earth, and humanity.”

This Sunday, Jim Tolstrup will be leading a sweat lodge for the community. This happens every month or so. Jim is connected to Shambhala as well as the Lakota tradition. I don’t know anyone who is more tangibly connected to our earth than he. Being around him always inspires me.

Throughout the coming months there are going to be other teachers and opportunities to explore: weekend programs in which we’ll spend time getting to know wildflowers, the stars, the seasons. Ahh… I live on this mountain, immersed in nature. I’m spending time with you, Earth!

Right now, as I write, snow is melting from the roof, it’s sunny outside, pine trees are waving at me. I say “hello” out-loud. It’s really real.

–February 13, 2014


PortraitTravis Newbill is a curious dude on the path of artistry, meditation, and social engagement who is very glad to be residing at Shambhala Mountain Center. His roles within the organization include Marketing Associate and Head Dekyong–a position of leadership within the community.