Connection, Community, Spirituality :: Easton Mountain

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday February 17, 2011

Nestled amidst the rolling hills and farmland of upstate New York, Easton Mountain has been an oasis of acceptance, peace, and community for gay men for the past decade.

The facility features a central building known as the Lodge, where groups meet in a large, well-lit room complete with picture windows that look out on well-kept grounds. Elsewhere in the Lodge is a large communal dining room; a "sun room," also used for workshops and meetings, as well as seating at mealtimes; a hot tub; a massage room, where resident therapist Tim Cooley plies his trade; and a gift shop, where small sundries are sold along with CDs by, among others, openly gay singer-songwriter Tom Goss.

A smaller building nearby houses the Temple, a sacred space where workshops also convene. In good weather, picnic tables are set out. A nearby pond is home to waterfowl, and acres of woods, complete with hiking trails, offer recreational walking and serene natural space for reflection. A "Garden Cabin" houses up to a couple dozen guests in a large communal space; nearby is a large garden that provides natural beauty and fresh produce for the communal table. A two-story motel-like structure boasts rooms that provide sleeping space for two to four guests. The site also offers two small cabins for massage exchanges, a sauna, a hammock, and space around the grounds for guests who wish to set up tents.

Service is part of the Easton Mountain community. Each guest has a chance to sign up for a shift in the kitchen, clearing plates and helping wash dishes--a service appreciated by the kitchen staff as well as by fellow workshop participants. "Work weekend" volunteers attend occasions, scheduled several times throughout the year, to do more extensive maintenance: painting, cleaning, small repair jobs, minor landscaping, and the like. The work weekends are less structured than the workshops, but the sense of community is much the same, offering a chance to go be oneself with others who will understand. There's a sense of relief at being in such placid surroundings, with other gay men who also just want a little peace and fellowship.

But there's something more about Easton Mountain, some tangible and hard to define quality that makes it singularly welcoming. Men say that the moment they set foot there, they feel at home. It's not just a matter of the friendly staff, or the GLBTQI-relevant workshops, which range from the youth-oriented Queer Spirit Camp to an assertion of mature identity called Living Full Out. It's a matter of the place itself: forest and sky, ancient and affirming. In short, it feels good--it feels healing--just to be there.

Given such placid surrounds, it's hardly surprising that Easton Mountain emphasizes "gay spirituality." But it's not a place where gay physicality is ignored--far from it; workshops at the retreat center include Body Electric offerings, workshops such as Authentic Eros, and retreats for singles and couples alike.

For young gay men, Easton Mountain provides a safe space to explore and discover--without pressure, judgment, or expectation. "It was more curiosity at first, so I don't know if I went there with any needs," said Stephen Schwanebeck, 33, "but I've found things that I didn't even know I wanted."

Added Schwanebeck, who found his way to Easton Mountain at the suggestion of his yoga instructor, "I found all these things that were so exciting and new and amazing that fulfilled me in ways that I didn't even know I wanted to be fulfilled in."

Among those things, said Schwanebeck, a resident of Tampa, Florida, was a sense of community--a refrain repeated again and again by others with whom this correspondent spoke.

"I found it very comforting, very desirable," Schwanebeck told EDGE. "You feel so alone sometimes when you leave there, because you are so surrounded by community up there. It makes you want to be part of community all the time." To that end, Schwanebeck has become a co-facilitator for a new chapter of Living Soulfully, a group that has ties to Easton Mountain and local chapters in a number of cities. "There were so many guys from Tampa coming up there, we were inspired to start our own [local chapter]," Schwanebeck said. "We'll probably have about 20 people show up for our next meeting; we have about 10 core people."

As for his experiences at Easton Mountain, "I've done a lot of work weekends, really, which has allowed me to semi-participate in some of the workshops that were going on while I was there." One workshop the young man entered as a full participant was Gay Spirit Camp, which Schwanebeck called "a sampling of every program they have, mushed together in one week" and called "the happiest time together." Added Schwanebeck, "There's a day of Body Electric during Gay Spirit Camp."

The Body Electric workshops involve hands-on contact with other men. The experience is not supposed to be sexual, though erotic energy is welcome and expected. Rather, the focus is on accepting, celebrating, and learning to live, with gratitude, within one's own body. "It was so liberating," Schwanebeck told EDGE. "Being naked in front of other people after that hour was just--oh, my gosh, it so doesn't matter. It helped me drop my guard, or drop my shyness about any body issues that I had, because we were all in it together, and there's really no shyness up there" at Easton anyway.

"One of the things that I really love about going up there is there's totally no judgment and everybody is equal."

What is this place that gay men love so well that they feel moved to maintain close connections with one another even after they return home?

Humble Beginnings

Just a few years ago, Easton Mountain was facing possible closure. Now, the retreat center not only hosts events that sell out--overflowing to nearby inns to accommodate the residential needs of participants, as happened at this year's New Year's retreat--but is also undertaking new construction, with a home for co-founder Harry Faddis going up on the property.

The new house is a dream come true for Faddis, who has dedicated much of his time and energy in the decade since Easton Mountain started helping the retreat center grow and flourish--right along with the men who go there.

"Easton Mountain was founded by a man called John Stasio from Boston," Faddis recounted, going on to explain that Stasio had created the retreat center as a response to the ravages of the AIDS crisis. "He realized that gay men needed healing--they needed some place to deal with all the grief. He began to create weekends in Boston, and people would come together. What he realized was that the AIDS episode was just bringing people together; as a community and as a culture, we are deeply wounded and we need some help."

Faddis went on to add that the impact of Easton Mountain's healing culture "goes well beyond HIV. I think people, in facing the reality of HIV, realize that gay culture as a whole is deeply wounded. The only way we are going to become a powerful force in our culture is to heal ourselves first."

But that healing is not meant to be confined to gay men. "We have several categories of work that we do," Faddis said. "First of all, we are open to the public; we are open to anyone who wants to come in and do a workshop here that is consistent with the values in our mission. We are open to women, and we are looking to include more events that would include women. We're coming at that first through a strategy of having workshops for gay men and lesbians or general GLBT people together.

"However, fifty percent of our work, if you look at our catalogue, is with gay men," Faddis added. "We are offering many kinds of modalities for healing, which could be included in the phrase mind/body/spirit."

The potentially sticky part of that is, of course, the word "spirit," which may be fittingly nebulous, but which is also often associated with the sort of alarming religiosity that has a tendency to excoriate the GLTB community.

That doesn't faze Faddis. "If you Google 'gay spirituality,' you'll probably come up with Easton Mountain," he told EDGE. "Generally speaking, it's my experience over the years that when you ask people this question, what is gay spirituality, the first thing they tell you is what it's not. We are still in a reaction to the abuse that was leveled upon us from various religious experiences--Catholicism, Jews, certain kinds of Protestants. After all that is said and done, we want to ask people, 'What are you?'

"It's hard for gay men to take a stand on this and say, 'This is what [spirituality] means to me,' " Faddis added. "At the core of Easton Mountain we are a residential community. There are about ten of us who live here all the time, and we are a mirror of who is coming [to the retreat center], because none of us really share a spiritual path or experience. There are a few people here who share a Christian view of life, and a few who share a vaguely Buddhist view of life, but there isn't anything that we could say we all practice together."

A Path to Empowerment

In the interests of full disclosure, I ought to state that I have attended several workshops at Easton Mountain over the last few years, and those experiences informed my early concept for this article. When I began to talk to people associated with Easton Mountain I had in mind a piece on how Easton Mountain fits into the larger trend of men's empowerment. From the start, however, it was clear that was only part of the picture.

Workshop facilitator Robert Bruillard, a bodyworker based in Boston's South End, told EDGE, "I would say the unconscious theme is empowerment, and then some specifically will come to, say, a coaching retreat, which is definitely working with gay men to empower them, or to seek healing: spiritual healing, sexual healing, healing of the body, healing shame, stuff like that. I think it's an unconscious umbrella, coming for empowerment at Easton."

Bruillard, like everyone else I spoke with, was quick to touch on the theme of community. "What I've heard from men who have gone for the first time and gone from a place of fear was, 99% of the time, 'I was afraid, and yet I made friends easily, I connected easily; I felt so at home, I can't wait to go back,' " he told EDGE. "My role, I felt, is about creating community, and within that context it's about guiding gay men toward empowerment. Offering, 'Here, do the workshop. Here's something, if you are interested. You now have to take that next step, and come into the workshop.' So then we meet, fifty-fifty, to co-create this empowerment."

Bruillard has long been part of Living Soulfully, which started as an attempt to create an alternative to bars where gay men could gather. The experience roughly reflected that of Easton Mountain, with the spark nearly going out before surging to bright new life. "I was running it years ago in Watertown, and it was a struggle just to get ten or twelve men there," Bruillard recalled. "I was running it alone and I found it just exhausting trying to pull men in, so I gave it up for a while."

Then Bruillard, together with several others, decided to resuscitate the group. "We had a 'coming back' party at my apartment in Jamaica Plain three and a half years ago, and that jump started it," Bruillard said. It has continually grown since then. New York City revamped their dying Living Soulfully and that spark took off; Connecticut revamped theirs, and that spark took off; next thing you know, Tampa started one, and Philly restructured their Philly Gay Spirit community, which had many sub-communities. They unanimously renamed it Living Soulfully Philly.

"Now there's one starting in Toronto, one in Seattle, and maybe one in Western Massachusetts," added Bruillard. "It's been getting so big, Ben Siemens and I decided to create a website." The site, LivingSoulfully.org, is now online.

At some point, Living Soulfully and Easton Mountain made a connection, with Living Soulfully becoming, in one sense, a de facto extension of the retreat center, even though it's not necessary to have gone to Easton Mountain to participate in a Living Soulfully group. "We are men who have been to Easton, or friend of men who have been to Easton," Bruillard explained. "However, it is more to bring local community together, and then also as a thread to support Easton--either financially, or by letting men know about Easton as a sanctuary."

Outsiders Finding A Way In--to Acceptance

Bruillard posited that gay men carry deeply ingrained anxieties about personal connection that cause them to project hostility onto others, even their gay brethren, and that Easton Mountain helps them overcome a sensation of inevitable rejection. It's a theory that Don Shewey, a sometime co-facilitator with Bruillard and a leader of other Easton workshops on his own, shares. "A lot of us grew up with the feeling of being excluded," Shewey, a writer, therapist, and self-described "pleasure activist" who is based in New York, told EDGE. "Sometimes our families or social groups actively ostracized us. And sometimes we held back from participating because we didn't want anyone to know we were gay. Either way, we learned to be experts at excluding ourselves. As adults it's often very challenging to reverse that trend, to learn to do something other than to exclude yourself.

"I hear over and over again that gay men feel like they are not accepted by other gay men because we are so snobby or exclusive or whatever," Shewey added. "Well, some of it is just a template that we impose on any social situation. We're really ready to be rejected, and we're not so prepared to be included." Residential retreat centers like Easton Mountain can foster community by giving men who have been traumatized around the issue of social connection--and related issues, such as intimacy and trust--enough space, time, and support to find their way past those unconscious expectations: " 'Oh--nobody's giving lip service to this,' " Shewey imagined a theoretical gay man realizing after a few days. " 'I really am accepted here. Here is where I can get practice in being accepted, being included, and including myself.' "

Shewey added, "One thing about our lives as gay men is we don't grow up watching TV shows and movies about our relationships. If you're heterosexual, from day one you're watching stories about people falling in love and getting together--you're getting some sense of how that works. For us, we don't really see that. We do a lot of extrapolating [to make the heterosexual models we have place before us fit to our own lives].

Healthy messages about human relationships are hard enough to come by for the sexual majority, but for GLBTs it's especially challenging. "In urban life, sometimes you have a circle of friends," Shewey noted, "but sometimes you don't. Modern life can be very isolating, and you don't have a lot of people around to observe and ask. It's nice to have a mentor if one comes along in your life, but that's not always so easy to discover."

Hence the unique, and uniquely healing, aspect of a place to which to retreat for a weekend, or a week, or even longer. "One of the advantages of retreat centers and workshops is that it's an experience of temporary community," Shewey noted. "There are certain things about life and relationships and yourself that, really, you can only learn in community with other people, that you can't learn about in isolation. Easton Mountain is one of those places where if you're there for a day or a weekend or a week, you get the experience of living together with other people and just communing and seeing how other people do the very same things. It's an expansive experience."

Sexual Healing

That ties back to the sense of Easton as a kind of "second home" for many of the gay men who attend the workshops and retreats that the center offers. "One of the things that people say when they come here is, 'I feel home,' " noted Harry Faddis. "When I came down the hill, I felt at home. When I did whatever I did, I didn't have to be monitoring myself in any way. This was my tribe, this was my culture, and it's not like when we're in the real world and we always have some awareness [about regulating how we express ourselves] and we can't be ourselves.

"I think one of the fundamental things that people learn is, 'I can be myself here.' Okay, if I can learn to be myself here, then what's next? I'm not resisting anything. I don't have anybody to blame. So you are speaking about empowerment" at this point, Faddis continued.

"I believe that in our culture we are coming to a new phase, if we ever get our equal civil rights, we need to be poised to move into a new direction where we become culture leaders or movers." Faddis believes that gay spirituality is going to be an important part of that, "because the number of disaffected citizens from various religions is growing and growing and growing, and I often talk to people who don't have anything to do, and don't have any place to go, and are looking for a place. There's kind of a new word, which is religious secularism, or secular spirituality. How is it possible to be spiritual without a hook into any organized religion?

"People read our catalogue and sometimes they say, 'There's too much eroticism in there,' " Faddis added. "And then they read our catalogue and they say, 'There's not enough about spirituality.' And we have a workshop at Gay Spirit Camp that is about body painting, and somebody says, 'What's spiritual about body painting?' Well, for some people, having fun is part of their spiritual life!" Spirituality and eroticism can be two parts of the same integrated, healthy human person, Faddis noted, "and for a lot of people, they have to come here to discover that. They are coming here wounded, and the woundedness is a separation of the erotic and the spiritual."

Underneath that need for a home and a community--and reinforcing that woundedness--are hostile messages from the culture at large that gays all too often internalize. "I think we act out our oppression as a group," Faddis told EDGE. "We act out our oppression through sex. The oppressor doesn't need to oppress us any more, we just do it [to ourselves]. If you want to lose a group of [gay] people, give them a lecture about sex, and they'll all walk away. Gay men will not be told anything about sex. They won't follow any rules, they won't take rules.

"Workshops like Body Electric give people the opportunity to say, 'Let me take into account some theory, or some context, or some container for [healthy sexual balance], and let me examine what would it mean,' because obviously gay people are the ones who need to figure this out. Straight people aren't going to do it. They're going to learn from what we [discover], from what has been done over the years with Authentic Eros--that's my big picture."

For younger men like Stephen Schwanebeck, the wounds are perhaps not so deep as for earlier gay generations, who were excoriated and terrorized into hiding deep in the closet. "I've been pretty lucky in my life, where I haven't experienced too much negative response to being gay. I see it, and I am aware of it in our community in general, but I have been blessed in not having had to experience it myself," Schwanebeck told EDGE.

"I've had a supportive family--we don't talk about it much, but if it ever comes up, they're supportive about it. I've always worked for very gay-supportive companies in the entertainment business, like Busch Gardens Theme Park and Disney, and other very gay-friendly companies. I've been lucky in terms of having straight friends that supported me. The only thing I had to deal with was a few things in high school, but I was with the somewhat 'in' crowd--I wasn't out, but I wasn't not out either in high school."

As a result, Schwanebeck has not needed any radical shift in his personal dynamic, "but I see how Easton has benefited others who have experienced negativity for being homosexual. Even the little things I have experience, Easton has given me that much more confident in accepting myself for who I am, being a gay man, being proud. It's helped me be more openly gay, be more willing to share my gay self."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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