The 108-foot-tall Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at Shambhala Mountain Center, northwest of Fort Collins, was built as a memorial to the center’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Courtesy Barb Colombo

Area’s mindfulness ties go back decades

Northern Colorado has strong ties to meditation and mindfulness, thanks in large part to two men: Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who died in 1987, and R. Adam Engle, a Boulder County resident who co-founded the Mind and Life Institute.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

In the 1970s, Trungpa Rinpoche founded what is now known as Naropa University and what has become the Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Shambhala community. Shambhala is open to all faiths, has a strong presence in northern Colorado and has more than 200 meditation and arts centers and groups in more than 50 countries. Engle has spent roughly three decades, mostly in the Boulder area, arranging scientist-Dalai Lama dialogues and promoting brain-meditation research. He did so mainly through MLI, from its founding in 1990 to his retirement in 2012.

In addition, the efforts of the Boulder-based Tibetan Association of Colorado and the University of Colorado Boulder    which were co-sponsors of the Dalai Lama’s now-canceled visit to Boulder on Oct. 20-21    further spotlight northern Colorado as a center of mindfulness activity.

Jonathan Barbieri, a Fort-Collins-based mindfulness trainer, said mindfulness is “definitely percolating” on the Front Range, but added that he doesn’t think the area is quite at the level of other areas such as San Francisco or Boston as a mindfulness center.

Still, Julie Brewen, chief executive of the Fort Collins Housing Authority, said there is a “developing culture of mindfulness in Fort Collins” that may be related to the Shambhala Mountain Center northwest of Fort Collins.


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Michael Gayner, executive director of the Shambhala Mountain Center, is seeing that development.

“The Front Range area, and Boulder in particular, is certainly a hot spot” for mindfulness, he said. He noted that Naropa is one of the oldest contemplative universities in North America.

The school was founded as Naropa Institute in 1974 by Trungpa Rinpoche. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, he escaped by leading a group of monks on horseback and foot over the Himalayas to India. He studied religion and philosophy and became fluent in English at Oxford University starting in 1963, according to Naropa, and in 1970 he began teaching and founding meditation centers throughout North America and Europe. By founding Naropa in 1974, according to the Naropa website, he “realized his vision of creating a university that would combine contemplative studies with traditional Western scholastic and artistic disciplines.”

Naropa has had ties to the Dalai Lama for more than three decades. “As a Buddhist-inspired university, Naropa’s connection with His Holiness and his work goes back to his first visit to the    United States more than 30 years ago, when past and current Naropa staff and faculty were involved as organizers,” said Naropa University President Chuck Lief in a prepared statement in January. 

“The Dalai Lama’s participation in Naropa’s conference on Spirituality and Education (in Boulder in 1997) also catalyzed the global mindfulness movement in education and the workplace,” said Lief in the statement.

Susan Skjei, Authentic Leadership Center director at Naropa, said the Dalai Lama’s last visit to Boulder, for the 1997 conference, was a seminal event.

“The work that he did with scientists over the last 20 years has really allowed mindfulness and meditation to be understood,” she said.

Naropa regularly hosts a consortium for Front Range universities interested in mindfulness. The last one had 100 participants, including representatives from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, which has established a Center for Mindfulness.

“Because of Naropa’s influence on the Front Range in several different ways, it’s opened people’s minds to mindfulness,”said Skjei.

Adam Engle

Engle began work in 1983 on the idea of a meeting between the Dalai Lama and scientists. He talked with Tibetans who knew the Dalai Lama in hopes of getting an OK from him to go forward. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1967 and spending several years mixing law with travel sabbaticals and investigation of spirituality, Engle enrolled at Stanford University’s business school in 1984. That autumn, he attended a teaching event by the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles that was to change his life.

While waiting for the doors to open, Engle    who had worked in the free-Tibet movement    was introduced to the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, Tendzin Choegy. Engle took the opportunity to ask Choegy whether his brother would authorize Engle to set up a meeting with scientists. Two days later, Choegy informed him he had the go-ahead.

Engle’s first idea was to arrange a meeting with physicists, but in February 1985 he received a call from Francisco Varela, a Chilean neuroscientist living in Paris, who convinced him that biology and neuroscience were the way to go. The two, both Buddhists since 1974, decided to work together to create the first meeting, and after a proposed December 1986 meeting fell through, they arranged a private meeting at Dharamsala, India, in 1987.

That first meeting was to be a one-time gift to the Dalai Lama, but when he said he was interested in more meetings, a series of dialogues ensued. A dialogue that was to have been later this month in Massachusetts would have marked the 30th in the series. 

Mind and Life Institute

In 1990, Engle and Varela co-founded MLI with a legal address in Boulder, where Engle was renting a house. He had moved to Boulder from California in 1989, left in 1990 for two years to run his Nutrisystem franchise in Australia and New Zealand, and returned to Boulder in 1992. MLI was incorporated in California, where the lawyers were, but Engle ran it from the Boulder area from 1992 until his retirement in 2012.  For 17 years he was unpaid, but in 2001 he started receiving a modest salary, and when he left the nonprofit, it had $6 million on its balance sheet thanks to donations and revenue from events and books, he said.

In 1998, Engle and the MLI board of advisors, agreeing that MLI should expand its impact on society, broadened the MLI mission to include the promotion of scientific research on meditation. The Dalai Lama “approved of this direction, but did not initiate it,” said Engle in an email. “However, for me, as a social activist, the overriding purpose of the research was to shift the public perception of meditation from something that fringe elements of society did to a mental and emotional fitness practice that was critical for health and wellbeing.

“The strategy was based on what we saw happen with physical fitness. Research created data showing value; this stimulated demand and demand spawned a multibillion-dollar physical fitness industry such that physical fitness is now ubiquitous in modern society.  Our intention was to do the same with mental and emotional fitness, which has been labeled mindfulness.”

Northern Colorado has strong ties to meditation and mindfulness, thanks in large part to two men: Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who died in 1987, and R. Adam Engle, a Boulder County resident who co-founded the Mind and Life Institute.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

In the 1970s, Trungpa Rinpoche founded what is now known as Naropa University and what has become the Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Shambhala community. Shambhala is open to all faiths, has a strong presence in northern Colorado and has more than 200 meditation and arts centers and groups in more than 50 countries. Engle has spent roughly three decades, mostly in the Boulder area, arranging scientist-Dalai Lama dialogues and promoting brain-meditation research. He did so mainly through MLI, from its founding in 1990 to his retirement in 2012.

In addition, the efforts of the Boulder-based Tibetan Association of Colorado and the University of Colorado Boulder    which were co-sponsors of the Dalai Lama’s now-canceled visit to Boulder on Oct. 20-21    further spotlight northern Colorado as a center of mindfulness activity.

Jonathan Barbieri, a Fort-Collins-based mindfulness trainer, said mindfulness is “definitely percolating” on the Front Range, but added that he doesn’t think the area is quite at the level of other areas such as San Francisco or Boston as a mindfulness center.

Still, Julie Brewen, chief executive of the Fort Collins Housing Authority, said there is a “developing culture of mindfulness in Fort Collins” that…