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The Spirit Moved Them

Sarah McLean meditates in the house she and her husband, Martin Birrittella, built in Sedona, Ariz., on a site selected for its spiritual qualities.

SERENITY Pritam Singh, right, and the tea house at his retreat in Vermont. 

December 28, 2007

The Spirit Moved Them

WHEN he was a sophomore at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., Martin Birrittella experienced something that changed how he would spend his free time for the rest of his life — and possibly longer.

“I was reading Swami Muktananda’s autobiography,” he said, “and suddenly I felt like I was being electrocuted by a million volts of energy. It was like getting a heroin injection of love right in the heart.” That extraordinary experience, known as kundalini, or higher consciousness, by Hindus, left him feeling as if he wanted to “meditate for the rest of my life.”

Seventeen years later, after he cashed out from taking two companies public, that possibility became a reality.

Four years ago, Mr. Birrittella and his wife, Sarah McLean, a yoga and meditation instructor, built their dream retreat in Sedona, 120 miles north of their home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Situated on a promontory at the end of an isolated road that twists into the desert away from Sedona’s sprawl, the house, which cost some $2 million to build, is a low-slung olive-green building centered on a templelike meditation room and overlooking the orange-colored buttes of the Munds Mountain Wilderness.

“When the Indians came up here and saw the rocks and the faces in them, they thought this was the center of the world,” said Mr. Birrittella one recent afternoon as the setting sun lent a crimson glare to the buttes framed in the meditation room’s enormous windows.

Along the walls were religious statues amid Mr. Birrittella’s three-dimensional, van Goghesque paintings on carved composite board — vivid visions that came to him during meditations. The 12-by-16-foot windows slide open to the stone patio, where, like the sanctuaries of Vedic epics, a gate leads straight into the forest wilderness. This is a place of solitude and worship. “There’s no social scene here for us,” he said. “It’s all about meditation. This is our church.”

Many people acquire second homes to seek out sun, surf or snow. But for those like the Birrittellas, a second home is for seeking out the soul. In a time in which people are increasingly retreating within their own walls to work, entertain and socialize, it seems inevitable that cocooning would also extend to matters of the spirit. Indeed, given that many of this country’s earliest European settlers came seeking religious sanctuary, creating a personal place of pilgrimage could be seen as an ultimate manifestation of the American dream. Many of us have a touch of Thoreau thinking and dreaming in his Walden Pond cabin in us. And sometimes that cabin takes fantastical forms.

Pritam Singh has spent the past 20 years transforming a hilltop farm near Woodstock, Vt., into a sprawling personal Sikh and Buddhist retreat with a temple, two meditation rooms, a Japanese Zen garden and some half-dozen houses built in a 19th-century New England farm style. “When you are apart from your normal life, you’re in a neutral place, a tuning fork trying to get tuned,” he said. “That’s why I find the farm so necessary for my own spiritual development.”

A successful real estate developer who created a string of resorts along the Florida Keys, Mr. Singh makes his home in Key West while commuting to his $6 million Vermont retreat for three months every year. “I was involved with all the antiwar and alternative lifestyles stuff in the late ’60s,” he said. “And eventually I decided that I wanted something I could really believe in.”

AFTER studying with various groups, Mr. Singh, who was born Paul LaBombard in Fitchburg, Mass., settled on Sikhism and changed his name. Later he also adopted the Zen Buddhist beliefs of his wife, Ann Johnston. “I take the Asian outlook that the two religions aren’t mutually exclusive,” he said.

Unlike the Birrittellas’ place, Mr. Singh’s compound was built for large gatherings of friends and family to come worship. “The whole idea is about friends getting together and exploring,” he said. “Mostly we do Buddhist meditation practices. We do walking meditation. We eat together. I think it’s important to explore spiritual dimensions with lots of different people.” Up to 30 Zen Buddhist monks have lived on the property as guests of Mr. Singh and his family.

While Mr. Singh’s and Mr. Birrittella’s Eastern philosophies tend to be inward looking and geographically flexible, New Age pilgrims often seek psychic connections to specific locations. Just south of Sedona, in the Village of Oak Creek, Allyson and Dan Schutte established their retreat in the shadow of the red, lighthouselike Horse Mesa and nearby Bell Mesa, one of the many renowned vortex areas — New Age “hot spots” thought to hold psychic energy — in the region.

The Schuttes’ two-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot house with whitewashed brick and wood-beam interiors, overlooks an open backyard where wildcats and javelina come to frolic amid the juniper and yucca trees. It’s a lovely rustic haven unto itself. But for the Schuttes, their second home, which they bought last year for $485,000, offers something more.

“I have experienced some very interesting phenomena out there thanks to the vortexes,” said Mrs. Schutte, who runs a trucking company with her husband in Columbus, Ohio. “I can touch a tree or plant and feel the energy from it. It’s a place we go to meditate, take courses and to feel the love and protection that emanates from the mountains.”

At sunset, Mrs. Schutte often goes to Cathedral Rock, a prominent local butte that is one of her favorite vortex sites. “I think I even lose weight when I’m there,” she said.

Mrs. Schutte travels from her home in Ohio every other month to meditate, and her husband sometimes joins her. “I think Sedona is more a feminine site,” she said. “Women seem to react more to the energy. Last February I brought my mother, who was very skeptical, but she ended up feeling the aura as well.”

Fending off ridicule sometimes comes with the territory — even Thoreau had to deal with the scorn of his Concord neighbors when he walked into town. “When we come back to Ohio, some of our friends look at us as if we have worms growing out of our head,” Mrs. Schutte said. “But every time I go out there I feel like I’m resuming a positive journey, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Mr. Singh knows the feeling. “A lot of people think I’m nuts,” he said, referring to his hilltop retreat. “But I love it up there.”

Ridicule aside, second homes for worship needn’t cost you your soul. Some highly charged spiritual destinations offer relatively low-cost personal havens. Claudia Wolfe, an acupuncturist and devotee of Tibetan Buddhism from San Jose, Calif., discovered her Shangri-La in tiny Crestone, which is nestled in a remote valley in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado. With current house offerings ranging from $94,900 for a three-bedroom bungalow in the plains to $650,000 for a modernistic hillside straw-bale house with adjoining studio, the Crestone area is still priced well below Sedona levels, even though Crestone is considered rich in spirituality.

A town of some 1,500, Crestone is the focal point of a region said to have been an ancient pilgrimage site for Hopis and Navajos. It sits atop an aquifer that feeds local hot springs. And it has been a magnet for religious organizations since the 1970s. Some two dozen religious groups have sanctuaries there, from a Carmelite monastery on the valley floor to Hindu, Buddhist and American Indian retreats on the lower slopes of the 14,000-foot peaks above town.

MS. WOLFE fell in love with Crestone during annual retreats with local Tibetan lamas. “I thought it the most beautiful place in the galaxy,” she said. “There’s a vastness of space that is crucial for meditation.” This summer she decided to buy a serene two-story cottage nestled in hillside juniper and pine trees a mile outside town.

“I paid $235,000 for my house, which came with half an acre,” she said. “It’s 1,850 square feet, and it’s just furnished with pillows, mats and a small altar.” She has downstairs tenants to help defray her costs, and solar heat, and a wood-burning stove also help keep expenses down.

From the two strikingly spired Buddhist stupas and billowing prayer flags in the mountains above Ms. Wolfe’s home to the vast dry plains of the San Luis Valley below, it’s easy to imagine that you are in Tibet. But it’s only a four-hour drive from Denver and its airport. Ms. Wolfe visits four or five times every year to get instruction from the lamas, take dips in the hot springs, and meditate and chant toward enlightenment.

“Not even urban drag queens have the drama of the sky out there,” Ms. Wolfe said, joking. “I intend to one day live there full time. This is one of the few places in the country where you can get a Buddhist cremation in the open. I’ll probably be there forever

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