2016-06-30

"Spa spirituality" is usually thought of as the natural consequence of taking a healthy break from daily routines and recharging mind, body, and soul, aided by the kind of classes most spas today provide in meditation and spiritual disciplines like t'ai-chi and yoga. Time for the nurture and nourishment of self and spirit is the legitimate lure of a spa vacation. Community is rarely thought of as one of the benefits of a spa, yet I think it's one of the most rewarding aspects of the experience.

Home Is Where
the Spa Is

Since 1985, I've been going to the destination spa Rancho La Puerta, just below the border in Tecate, Mexico. I've often joked that I love it because it reminds me of Camp Chank-tun-un-gi, a Boy Scout camp in Indiana where I spent many summers. In fact, there are many true parallels in both experiences--not just the hiking and physical exercise but also the sense of camaraderie, the community spirit that arises among people who haven't known one another before but have come to a particular place with similar agendas.

There are no creeds, chants, or liturgies; the text is in the rocks and flowers that border the hiking trails on Mt. Cuchama.

Most people don't go to spas to meet people. The gender ratio is overwhelmingly female. Women don't go looking for a mate but are more likely to see it as a place to relax from such concerns. The men who go understand--or soon learn--that the women are not there to impress or please them. If anything, they want to take a break from all that.

(Still, when men and women are in the same place, romantic connections sometimes occur. Digby Diehl, the writer and former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, met his wife at Rancho. And, on one of my trips there, I met a woman with whom I carried on a bicoastal romance for several years. I remain friends with her and her family, who are all Ranch returnees. But those cases are exceptions to the rule.)


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The common experience of Rancho is meeting people just as they are, without pretension, makeup, or starch, sweating in T-shirts and shorts, layered with dust from the mountain hike, sharing similar sensations of aching limbs, sore feet, and heavy breathing. You also see these same people transformed, emerging from showers, Jacuzzis, and saunas, smiling and fresh on the way to dinner.

Home Is Where
the Spa Is

Unless you "vant to be alone," Garbo-like, or choose to be only with whomever you came with, you are seated at a big round table for six or eight, maybe all strangers before the meal, or people you met on the morning's hike or in yoga class or circuit training.

Meeting in this informal way, eating and talking, hiking and exercising together in a beautiful place, away from business and domestic duties, creates a natural bond, possibly a quicker and deeper one than is likely to come in places where you have to always look your best, be on guard, wary, and protective.

True spirituality is in community.

There is also the underlying, unspoken bond of choosing to come here, a place that some of your friends and fellow workers and maybe even family find superfluous or silly or boring or beside the point. There are people here you surely disagree with about religion or politics or ethics or aesthetics, but simply by being here you all share a faith in the value of what the place offers.

None of that needs to be spoken, and I realize that much of what I find spiritual here is not on the verbal level. There are no creeds, chants, or liturgies; the text is in the rocks and flowers that border the hiking trails on Mt. Cuchama; in the stretch of limbs in the triangle pose; or the crossed legs of those who come at noon to sit in the meditation room.

None of this is done in isolation, not even the morning hike, for it's dangerous to go on the mountain by yourself because of the snakes. You are not alone as you reach for the sky in the sun salute that opens yoga class, or rush from stationery bike to treadmill in circuit training, for bodies of all shapes, sizes, genders, and hues are breathing and sweating around you, striving as you are, alone and together, under the same mountain, the same sun.

Communion is in the Silent Dinner held one night of each week, when anyone can sign up to go to a dining room where guests eat without speaking. You may smile or even laugh, make eye contact or simply concentrate on your food, but no words are spoken; you are alone to fully taste the food and be with your own thoughts, at the same time sharing this time and place and meal with others who are joined in a common enterprise, an exploration of sense and spirit.

Afterward, there is an opportunity to speak of what you experienced, and that too deepens the bond of those around the table. Just as prayer in community is different than praying alone, the silent dinner is a far different experience than eating alone; it provides an enriching sense of connection and support.

Home Is Where
the Spa Is

When I first became aware of the concept of "a spiritual path," I thought the highest, most desired form of spirituality was symbolized by the image of a lone monk on a mountaintop--the isolated holy man communing only with God. In the course of time and experience, I have turned 180 degrees to the belief that true spirituality is in community.

More than 50 years ago, I enjoyed the community of boys engaged in outdoor physical activities at scout camp, where friendships were forged and our spirits lifted by a common sense of adventure. Now I go to Rancho La Puerta and find similar rewards of spirit as well as physical health, all of it enhanced by the sense of community, of shared experience.

At dinner on the last night, addresses are exchanged with promises to meet on trips ("If you get to New York, you must...") or again at Rancho, some signing up to come same time, next year, to renew the newly made bonds. In seven days of shared activity, a community is created, a spirit is born, one that adds a rich new dimension to your life.

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