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In Virginia's mountains, a hub of enlightenment

The Synchronicity Foundation and many other groups settled amid the solitude.

FABER, Va. - As the story goes, Sri Swami Satchidananda was flying over Buckingham when he saw the land below and picked it as the site of Yogaville. The founder of the Gathering, another spiritual community along Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, was in New York when, it's said, he dreamed of the abandoned hospital in Schuyler that would take his group a year to find and a decade to rebuild.

Others speak of an indescribable energy that might have drawn them here.

"There's something about the mountains," said Bill McRae of Sevenoaks Pathwork Center in Madison. "The world's most spiritual people are in the mountains."

Whatever the reason, a spectrum of spiritual communities has settled and expanded over the years in rural counties near Charlottesville, creating in many ways an enlightenment hub. It is a place where Tibetan monks can be found minutes from New Age mystics, and jewelry stores sell such items as Om necklaces.

People travel from other countries just to spend weekends here, and suburbanites have been known to abandon their lifestyles to stay.

That's what Alan Scherr, 58, did before he and his daughter, Naomi, 13, were killed in the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November. The Scherrs, along with wife and mother Kia, lived at the Synchronicity Foundation in Faber for 11 years, practicing high-tech meditation in the relative solitude afforded by being three hours from Washington.

Neighbors say that before the deaths turned an international spotlight on Synchronicity, they knew that the group existed but could describe little about it.

Just as they knew there were others - many others.

"It's just a really diverse grouping, with everybody being accepting of pretty much everything as long as you're good and kind," said Julie Bendle, a Nelson County real estate agent who has found property for those who came for retreats and decided to remain.

"These people feel comfortable being here and are totally accepted, which is not to say a lot of people, myself included, don't know what they're all about."

Within a short distance from Synchronicity, one can find groups rooted in the most traditional Eastern practices and others pushing the boundaries of modern beliefs. In less than a half-hour drive, one can meditate with Tibetan monks at Ligmincha Institute, ponder the role of extraterrestrials with members of the Gathering and explore human consciousness through sound at the Monroe Institute.

A little farther northeast lies the Sevenoaks Pathwork Center. The center serves as a school for psychological and spiritual healing and a retreat for any group that needs one. On some days, one can find a class of mostly Catholic and Jewish middle-age suburbanites talking about their "wounded child," and on others, one can stumble upon Buddhists retreating in silence or shamans beating on drums.

More than an hour away, off a windy road that crosses the James River, the Yogaville compound in Buckingham County houses about 250 residents. The community is large enough that it has its own phone book, credit union and elementary school. "We live in a village, which I think is the natural, healthy way that people are meant to live in the world," the Rev. Paraman Barsel said.

A shrine built in the likeness of a giant lotus flower has altars featuring each major religion, leaving space for lesser-known ones and those yet to be discovered.

Similarly, people at the Gathering speak of different religions as pieces of a whole. They wear yarmulkes and pray the rosary. Members also wear rings depicting the Star of David around a cross.

"Everyone knew their church wasn't giving them the whole story," said Esther Kern, 55, who was raised in Oxon Hill, Md.

At the Monroe Institute in Faber, it doesn't matter what a person believes, executive director Paul Rademacher said. It is about experiences. Participants use the group's "Hemi-Synch" technology. The group says that by receiving different tones through headphones, the two hemispheres of the brain start to work together, altering the states of consciousness.