Katherine Barr was spiritually adrift for much of her life.
She was 48 years old when a friend gave her a book by Jack Kornfield, a best-selling author and Buddhist practitioner. It was then that Barr, now 70, found a connection with Buddhist spirituality.
“Bill Manning gave me ‘A Path with Heart’ and I couldn’t disagree with anything in it. ... It felt like this immediate fit that I didn’t have before,” Barr said.
Manning, a former Durango resident, was one of a handful of local early Buddhist practitioners who met in living rooms around Durango to meditate during the early 1990s. In 1995, Barr – with no background in meditation or Buddhist studies, – joined them.
Bill Ball, a long-time Durango resident, also came to practice Buddhism later in his life after feeling disconnected with the religion he was raised to follow.
“I had a Christian background, and the idea is more: ‘This is what you believe and if you don’t follow these tenets, you can’t belong,’” Ball said. He was attracted to the exploratory and invitational aspects of Buddhism.
“Buddhism is nontheistic. The Buddha said, ‘Come try it and see, and if it’s not for you, OK. But if you study it, I think you will find it is useful to you.’ I think that is why it touches a chord with people,” Ball said.
Ball practiced for a number of years alone before finding the Durango Sangha in 1999. The group began to meet regularly in rented space at the Rocky Mountain Retreat Center on East Third Avenue.
“When we began meeting there, it was a meditation group. After a while, someone suggested we start doing teachings. We started offering short dharma talks after our sit, and that became the tradition,” Ball said.
The group expanded significantly after the addition of dharma talks. Dharma is the collective teachings of the Buddha or the intrinsic nature of things. The Durango Dharma Center’s foundation is primarily Theravada Buddhism, a school of Buddhism that uses teachings preserved in the Pali language, a language native to India.
The group would eventually form the nonprofit Durango Sangha before the creation of the Durango Dharma Center in 2005. The group purchased a building in January 2015 to meet growing community participation, Ball said.
Now, after 17 years of volunteering as members of the original Dharma Council, Barr and Ball say 2017 will be a transition year for the center, and they have started to step back from their leadership positions. Council members are responsible for the teaching programming and spiritual leadership of the Durango Dharma Center.
“One of the things we both recognize is there is younger, newer energy in the organization that we want to support. We want to help bring that potential to fruition,” Ball said about the transition.
The leaders’ step back from the council may not be immediately apparent, although they have already started relinquishing some administrative duties. They will continue to do occasional teachings and talks.
Barr began her final beginning meditation class June 1. The five-week class will offer an experiential introduction to meditation and the Buddha’s teachings.
Barr and Ball expanded their leadership roles in the Durango Dharma Center after participating in Community Dharma Leaders programs offered by Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. The two-year program offers training and support for practitioners who want to be leaders.
“Spirit Rock has helped us a lot. ... They’ve been very valuable with giving us advice and supporting us,” Ball said.
Together, Barr and Ball have taught numerous meditation classes and retreats.
Despite years of dedicated practice, neither consider themselves Buddhists. They prefer the term Buddhist practitioner.
“The word Buddhist conjures up something different for everyone,” Ball said. “Some people might see a person in a robe walking around with a bowl, and it is not very descriptive of our everyday lives. We have homes and mortgages and cars. That is what labels do, they put you into a slot.”
Meditation retreats offer an opportunity for personal introspection for those suffering from stress and other internal ailments. Many retreat centers ask that visitors take a vow of silence during their stay.
“We encourage people to have a routine meditation practice, ... but because our world is so crazy, retreats can help keep your head above water. A retreat recharges your batteries,” Ball said.
They know that clearing your mind and setting aside worries is not easy in a busy world.
“It was no different 2,500 years ago when the Buddha was alive. The circumstances are different and what we use as distractions, but distraction is distraction,” Barr said.
An ongoing desire for spiritual grounding and inner peace, coupled with the center’s accepting environment, is leading to its popularity and continued growth, Ball said. The Durango Dharma Center welcomes all people, regardless of race, gender and sexuality.
“I think there is a real thirst for spiritual things in a world that is unstable and unpredictable right now. People want something that traditional churches sometimes do not provide,” Ball said. “There is a large population of people who cannot connect with churches but still have a spiritual need in their lives.”