Since its inception in 2003, the Garrison Institute has flourished under the influence of its unique geography and storied history.
Throughout human history, people have created sacred places—whether they’re called monasteries, ashrams or vihars—where the spiritually inclined can withdraw from the world or society. These are places designed for profound thinking and deep reflection, where rich inner lives and wisdom are pursued over status and wealth.
These sacred places have also been centers for intellectual exploration. The first university in the world was originally a Buddhist vihara in India. The oldest existing, continually operating university in the world is the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez, established in 859 A.D. In Europe, the monasteries were used as models for the university system. And so many spiritual traditions have recognized the need for places of retreat, deep study, reflection and action as sources of societal resilience.
The Garrison Institute’s founders believed that the ancient wisdom cultivated inside these sacred places should not belong to the select few ready to renounce the world. Many monasteries had an outward role in the past—they were the places that preserved knowledge in their libraries, they healed the sick, and provided hospice—and they typically cultivated wisdom and taught compassion to the communites that they were part of. So monasteries were part of the world, too. In light of urgent environmental and social issues—from underperforming schools to climate change to humanitarian crises—the Institute’s founders reimagined the monastery as an incubator for ideas that would spread into the wider world.
Perched above the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City—on the east bank of the river across from West Point—the Garrison Institute is nestled in the hills of a landscape made famous in 19th century Hudson River School paintings.
The 93-acre area surrounding the Institute still looks like a Hudson River School painting today, but it might have been otherwise. Supporting the call of local conservationists, the Institute’s founders rescued what was then a run-down Capuchin monastery from destruction to make way for a proposed large-scale real estate development.
This would have been a tragic end for the site—formerly known as Glenclyffe, when it was the 19th century estate of New York Governor and U. S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish—that has changed little since it was solely inhabited by the Wappinger Nation of Native Americans.
In 2001, the property was acquired by the Open Space Institute, which generously donated it to the newly formed not-for-profit, The Garrison Institute, which renovated the building, and opened its doors to the world in 2003.
Our current building is a renovated version of the 77,000 square foot stone and brick monastery and seminary built by the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Mary in 1923. Much of the architectural restoration is notable for what wasn’t changed. They tried to keep the essential character of the building—the light and the acoustics—the same.
To consecrate the revival of the building and grounds, extraordinary people were invited to bear witness. The Institute celebrated an auspicious beginning with newly appointed spiritual advisors—Gelek Rimpoche, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Father Thomas Keating. The opening ceremonies included music by Pete Seeger, Philip Glass and Christine McCall. His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited the Institute in the fall of 2003 and blessed it, saying that its work was to serve all people and to connect the insights of wisdom traditions with the challenges of
civil society and the environment.
Since 2003, over 60,000 people have participated in our retreats and programs. They come together to engage in deep reflection, cultivate wisdom and compassion, connect more deeply with others, and seek answers for today’s most pressing questions.
At the heart of the Garrison Institute’s work are our Signature Programs that focus on the practical application of contemplative methods for solving problems in education, the
environment, and trauma experienced by those in the helping professions.
In 2004, the Institute began the conversation on mindfulness in education by launching the Initiative on Contemplation and Education (ICE), later renamed the Contemplative Teaching and Learning Initiative and now named CARE for Teachers.
Later in 2004, the Hudson River Project was launched in an effort to bring social science and the humanities to the table in discussions about environmental issues. The Hudson River Project became the Initiative on Transformation Ecology (ITE), now Climate, Mind and Behavior (CMB).
2005 marked the beginning of the Women’s Wellness Project, a five-year pilot program conducting contemplative-based trainings for women working to end domestic violence. This was the basis of what became the Initiative on Transforming Trauma (ITT), which is now the Institute’s Signature Program on Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR).
These Signature Programs illustrate the ways in which the deep reflection and contemplative work that happen inside the building spill out into the wider world and society.
As we look forward to how our thinking and approach to global problems might evolve, we envision more events outside of the Institute to broaden our reach, deepening the work of Signature Programs and developing new ones, and creating meaningful and authentic digital content that can help us build a wider and more vibrant community.