Philanthropist and IMS yogi and donor Caroline Gabel has made it her life’s work to support the causes and organizations she loves. And, boy, has she been busy. Caroline is the President and CEO of The Shared Earth Foundation, which she founded in 1999 to protect endangered species and their habitats, and to support biodiversity. She is a board member and former board Chair of Defenders of Wildlife and Rachel’s Network. She is also the former Chair of the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. Although she is scaling back after a lifetime of philanthropic work, Caroline continues to support some 40 organizations, including the Insight Meditation Society.
Here, Caroline talks with John Spalding, IMS’s Director of Partnerships and Communications, about her meditation practice, her passion for wildlife and the environment, and why she gives to IMS.
How did you come to meditation, and what was your first IMS retreat like?
I turned to meditation after my husband died in 2008. I had been doing yoga with a group that was part of the larger sangha where I live in Chestertown, Maryland. Eventually, I joined the meditation group, which doubled as a kind of book club. The teacher kept talking about this retreat center up in Barre, Massachusetts, where they held these amazing retreats, and I finally decided I had to experience one myself. I did my first IMS program in June of 2013. It was a seven-day retreat, and it was more difficult than I expected, certainly more challenging than sitting on a cushion in my living room next to a purring cat once a day. Because sitting periods while on retreat are longer and more numerous than what I do at home, and because the retreat lasted a full week, I experienced physical pain and discomfort I wasn’t used to. I also endured stretches of boredom. But I found that such challenges can be teaching moments, and the benefits are well worth the price. That sense of calm, the profound inner stillness amid the silence—that’s difficult to achieve in life unless you’re on a retreat. That’s why I keep coming back.
You’ve also done some IMS Online programs. Your thoughts?
I’ve found online programs to be very interesting and of great benefit, especially during the pandemic, when we didn’t have other retreat options. And I think their value will endure beyond the pandemic. Of course, it’s hard to beat a physical retreat, meditating in person with others and a teacher, but online is the next best thing. The teachings and instructions offered by the teachers are just as meaningful online as in-person, and the things I’ve learned from online programs have really stuck with me.
The teachers also do a great job of providing instructions for how to continue practicing during the retreat when you’re not online with them, but I find following those instructions harder. That’s partly me. At IMS, there isn’t that cat I mentioned before demanding to be mollified and other distractions [laughs]. Online programs have served me well for what I hope to get out of my meditation practice in general. I don’t necessarily want or expect to become a fully enlightened being. I just want to be a kinder, wiser, more compassionate person. I’m working on it!
As a philanthropist, you’re passionate about the environment and environmental causes, and you’ve been a generous donor to IMS, interested in projects that preserve and enhance the beauty of our property. How did these passions arise for you?
It started way back with my love for wildlife. As a child, I preferred to play with stuffed bears rather than dolls. And at home we always had pets. I guess you could say that I think people are okay, but they are not my top interest [laughs]. I believe that we neglect our fellow creatures and their environments terribly. As an adult, I got the opportunity to spend two weeks in Borneo with orangutans, which are endangered, and that was a very moving experience. I realized that I wanted to dedicate my time and resources to visiting, understanding, and saving the habitats of endangered species. When I retired in 1999, I created the Shared Earth Foundation, the name of which came to me while I was sitting at Starbucks one day, thinking about the responsibility we have to share the Earth with our fellow co-equal creatures.
I set up the foundation to work with indigenous communities to save endangered species and the habitats they depend on.
How do you view the relationship between your meditation practice and your love for the natural world?
What attracted me to Buddhism, in part at least, is the aim to benefit all sentient beings. And I think my love for the natural world meant I needed a practice to help me deal with getting upset when I’d see the harm we humans inflict on animals and the environment. Meditation helps me handle these difficult emotions and to be less reactive, which doesn’t solve anything. It helps me not to become overwhelmed, and to respond more thoughtfully.
I’m also grateful for my practice because it helps me to appreciate and enjoy the natural world even more! Just by slowing down and paying attention, I get more enjoyment out of the sound of birds, the sight of plants and animals, and the fragrance of flowers. And nature is a great teacher about impermanence. Yes, I know that daffodils will fade, so I don’t weep for them. But there are other losses in the natural world that I do weep for, as we all should. I grieve that people still hunt wildlife for no good reason, and I don’t mind feeling that kind of grief. You can’t not feel that. But you can’t let it destroy you or prevent you from doing anything about it because the situation seems hopeless.
And in some cases, the situation is hopeless. I was recently in Antarctic where the ice cap is vanishing—talk about impermanence—and there is nothing now that we can do about that. That’s a hard grief to hold. But there are still things we can do to lessen the suffering of animals and to help the planet. My meditation practice gives me the equanimity, strength, and courage to do my part.
It sounds like it’s a combination of your practice and passion for the work you do that keeps you going.
Yes! Much of the news about climate change and the future is grim, and when someone asks me, “Given how bleak things are, why do you still work so hard for the environment?” And I say, “Because that is what I love and that is what I do. I can’t stop helping and giving to a cause that is that important to me.” And the work is very rewarding. I have met some of the most amazing people—scientists and activists who are on the front lines actually doing the work. That’s really thrilling.
What made you decide to become an IMS donor?
Having been to IMS—that’s what made me want to be a donor! [Laughs] I am extremely grateful to IMS, and all its teachers and staff, for what it has done for me and countless others. As I say, my practice at IMS has helped me to deal with life’s harder realities, as well as to appreciate more fully the beauty and value of life. There are many ways to give to IMS. You can write larger checks for bigger organizational projects, and you can also support teachers and give to meal dana to provide food during retreats, both of which I do.
Since you specifically mentioned meal dana and teacher support, can you say more about them?
When it comes to meal dana, my thinking is, “I can afford to give, so that is something I should do. I should provide food for my fellow yogis.” Same with teacher support. Teachers give us so much, and teaching is a difficult way to make a living. I want to help support teachers in the work they do. Of course, not everyone can help the way that I can, and that is fine. In fact, that’s one more reason that I do give.
You also gave to our recent trails and grounds improvements. Would you care to comment on that?
The natural setting at IMS, particularly the trails behind the Retreat Center, are beautiful, especially when everything is green or full of fall colors. Access to those woodlands is a great benefit of being on a retreat at IMS. I always spend time outdoors there, whether it’s walking “the loop” and pausing to gaze at Gaston Pond, strolling the trails, or just sitting in the woods, listening to the birds, feeling the breeze, and smelling the earth and fresh air.
I wanted to ensure that future yogis—particularly those who live in cities or otherwise can’t get outdoors often—will continue to enjoy connecting deeply with nature at IMS as much as I do. Plus, taking care of the natural world and helping to enhance people’s experience of it and appreciation for it—that’s very much at the heart of my life’s mission.
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To learn about the new trail system IMS created in the wooded area across the street from the Retreat Center, read our interview with Director of Operations Pete Baker. Watch a video tour of the trail upgrades here.
Check out some of the creatures—small and large—that our wildlife camera at Gaston Pond captured enjoying the new trail updates, here.