This article was adapted from an interview at Angela Center in Santa Rosa, California, where vipassana teachers Christina Feldman and Anna Douglas were teaching their annual Women’s Retreat. Barbara Gates and Margery Cantor conducted the interview for Inquiring Mind.
Christina Feldman: I am grateful to all of the teachers and practices I have been honored to experience. The dharma is a rich tapestry. There is a value in deeply exploring what one practice can offer, but there is not one “right way.” All are rafts intended to help us awaken.
When I was seventeen, I started practicing in Dharamsala with Geshe Rapten, a teacher in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. I was dedicating myself to a variety of different teachings and trainings which I did not fully understand. But on a cellular level I was absorbing the incredible richness of their blessings.
After about four years I had a crisis of faith. I was at the tail end of doing my ngondro practice which involved a hundred thousand prostrations, a hundred thousand guru yogas, a hundred thousand mantras and a hundred thousand mandala offerings. I was quite far into my mandala offerings, which meant building up a mandala, offering it to the guru, throwing it away, and then starting all over again. You do this a hundred thousand times. After you have finished for the day, you have to clean your mandala offering plate with cow dung from a tan cow. Through the translator I questioned Geshe Rapten, “I’m going to live in Vancouver where we don’t have a lot of cows in the city. And it’s even harder to find tan cows. Couldn’t I use dishwashing liquid to cleanse my mandala plate?” Geshe Rapten replied and the translator said, “No.” And I felt, “I have a bit of a problem here!” I had reached a point where I was wanting to make more sense of what I was doing, where I needed a more accessible practice.
In the Gelugpa tradition, you do a tremendous amount of reflection. After I had spent many months of reflection on compassion and lovingkindness, one day on a bus to Delhi the driver pinched my bum. I found myself punching him. I thought, “That compassion didn’t go very far!” I saw the gap between what I was “reflecting on” and what I was applying and living. No matter how altruistically I thought about the world, my moment-to-moment actions were still guided by my conditioning. Clearly I needed more experiential insight and more understanding of my own inner dynamics. Along with my readiness for a more accessible practice, this recognition led me to vipassana and the Theravada tradition. Here I was introduced to a variety of samatha and vipassana practices. I felt awed and humbled by the openings and depths that seemed possible. The learning in all of its beauty came alive.
Anna Douglas: Before I found vipassana practice, I sat at a Zen center for three years. I struggled a lot with the form. Although I felt very connected to the Roshi and to the community, I had no idea what I was to do when I sat in the zendo. The one instruction I can remember was: “Die on the pillow!” I would sit there with considerable enthusiasm thinking, “Yes, I’m going do this,” but I hadn’t a clue how to proceed.
When I went to my first vipassana retreat with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, it was a relief to hear Westerners giving meditation instructions I could understand and to find a less rigid form. I was amazed at the freedom to go or not to go to the sittings. Out of that freedom I found an organic expansion of my capacity to sit longer and to sleep less. Finally when I was sitting the three-month course at Barre, I found myself on fire with energy for the practice and only needing three hours of sleep.
CF: Most often I teach a vipassana/samatha combination. Anna and I take this approach on the Women’s Retreat we are currently teaching. We start by emphasizing the breath as an anchor, cultivating one-pointedness and calmness of mind as a foundation for insight. By presenting the breath as a primary object, we offer students something tangible to tune into as a way of grounding themselves in the moment.
At the same time, the breath becomes a mirror for seeing into the rest of our experience. If we are clear with the breath, we are clear in those transitions when our attention is drawn away from the breath. We are clear and awake in our world. As the retreat progresses, we give increasing emphasis to all of the foundations of mindfulness—body, feelings, mind and mental dharmas.
Simplicity is one of the great gifts of this practice. As teachers, we can give the initial meditation instructions in a few minutes. For students, it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background is, or what you have done before, you can give attention to your moment to moment experience and foster the qualities of mindfulness.
Beginning vipassana students can quickly develop understanding of dharma and of themselves. I am often awed by the incredible changes and understanding people can come to in three or four days of being with themselves, of being still, of being silent.
As students continue, the simplicity of the technique allows them confidence. Because people often feel intuitively aligned with the practice, they do not fear that they will lose it or forget it if they go away from a teacher. So vipassana offers students an independence in their practice which is very precious.
AD: Christina and Michele McDonald started teaching some retreats exclusively for women about twelve years ago, in response to a plea from some senior women students. I was one of those women. I thought, “I understand what’s being discussed, but I’m not contributing to the discussions. Why not? Why aren’t any of the other women speaking?”
CF: I saw also that my image as a teacher was often restricted by my gender. When I was teaching with a man, he would often be regarded as the primary authority, whereas the little woman was there to help out with the emotional cases, rather than to teach the dharma.
AD: At the time that Christina and I started teaching the Women’s Retreat, it was unusual to see two women teaching the Dharma together. Seeing two women sitting in front of the hall expanded the vision of the women students and opened their sense of possibility.
CF: When I had begun to practice in Asia, I was shocked to find that Asian women hardly ever believed that they could be enlightened. After a number of years of teaching meditation in the West, I realized that this was not an issue in Asia alone. A diminished breadth of vision, it seems, is not geographical.
A common misunderstanding in the vipassana community is that mindfulness is the goal of practice. But according to the Satipatthana Sutta, from which vipassana practice is drawn, mindfulness—of body, of feelings, of mind, of dharmas—is the way. Liberation is the destination. Yet many Western women practitioners, conditioned to see themselves as spiritually second class, do not envision the possibility of their own liberation.
AD: We have noticed how women often have a natural connection with the practice, but because of the belief that spiritual realization is not in their repertoire of possibilities, or that they are not spiritually worthy, they hold back. So we have found it helpful to speak directly to women’s conditioning. We highlight issues of self-confidence in the context of the dharma. A lot of talks in spiritual circles are aimed at chipping away spiritual pride, but more often than not women suffer from the opposite self-image, a sense of inadequacy.
CF: Many find that being in the company of other women provides an unspoken yet very visible environment of safety, acceptance and support. There tends to be less body consciousness, less self-evaluation, less comparison with others. So while the practices we teach on women’s retreats are the same as those taught on other retreats, because the women feel trusting and listened to, some may have an enriched experience of the practice. The environments where we grow best are those where there is trust. Many women come to this retreat every year as a kind of pilgrimage to their spiritual home.