April 24, 2020

In the Midst of This: An Interview with IMS Teacher Christina Feldman

Christina Feldman is one of the people responsible for introducing Buddhism to the West. In the 1970’s, she, along with other dharma leaders including IMS co-founders Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield, returned from study in Asia and determined that the teachings should become more accessible. She co-founded Gaia House, an insight meditation retreat center in the U.K., and began a long relationship as a teacher at IMS, launching the Family Retreat in 1982 and the Women’s Retreat in 1984. She continues to lead retreats today, and teaches Buddhist psychology in university settings. She is also the author of Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology and Boundless Heart: The Buddha’s Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity.

After almost 50 years of dharma service, Christina was scheduled to teach her last retreat at IMS this spring. The great pandemic of 2020 interfered with those plans and the Women’s Retreat was transformed into an online experience. Her flexibility and enthusiasm inspired many, so we decided to check in with Christina to see how she was doing during this time of social distancing, to learn more about her quick entry into the world of online retreats, and to reflect on a long career of leadership in the dharma.

Christina, thank you for connecting with us. How are you today, given everything happening in the world with COVID-19?

Like many people my life is turned upside down. I have seven people in my household including two young children. So, everything like quietude or solitude is completely out the window. But we’re doing fine. I think we’ve all made some sort of commitment without even talking about it toward tolerance and good humor. I’m also very aware of how different my life is to many people who are more constrained, who are lonely, who are suffering.

How has your practice prepared you for this moment?

I’ve been learning about renunciation my whole life. I’ve been learning about dukkha. Learning about non-self. And when your life gets dismantled in the way that all of our lives have — and we are thrown out of our comfort zones, thrown out of our habits, thrown out of our somewhat illusory refuges —this is the time when those teachings really land most deeply. And the time that we understand that insight is not something we “have;” it is something we practice.

So, how are you choosing to practice at this time?

You know I think this virus — as terrible as it is in the losses that it will bring — is also a wake-up call about what we value, what we aspire to, and what we want to embody. It’s almost as if there are two potential viruses happening; one is the pandemic and the other virus is one that can grip the heart — a virus of anxiety, fear, and despair. So, I practice “in the midst of this.” In the midst of this, kindness. In the midst of this, compassion. In the midst of this, equanimity.

Are you able to maintain a formal practice while you are sheltering in place with your family?

This is not a time when I have the luxury or even the possibility of thinking I have a formal practice. I don’t, and that’s the reality. That is one of the renunciations. And it’s actually okay.
I almost always have a babe in my arms. Or a young child that I’m playing with. My day begins by being woken up at 6:00 in the morning by a five year old. My day ends at midnight. I have not the luxury of finding a cushion. But every evening when the children have gone to bed, I can walk up the road and sit by the river for 45 minutes. And that is really a refuge. It’s my one time of solitude in the day. Also, my grandson has a mindfulness in schools program – we’re homeschooling for now of course — and yesterday he led me in a mindfulness session which was incredibly sweet and quite lovely. And today we did a little bit of walking meditation together.

You were scheduled to teach at IMS in late March and early April for the enormously popular Women’s Retreat. How were you impacted by the travel restrictions and the cancellation of the residential retreat?

This wasn’t a decision I was going to make. The decision was going to be made for me by events and it required a kind of yielding. But the creation of the online retreat happened very quickly. IMS was quite remarkable in their capacity to get on top of what was possible, to organize it, and to contact the yogis. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that almost everyone (more than 90 women) signed up for the online course and they stayed with it through to the end. The community of women who have sat this retreat for so long is a very committed group of practitioners. And I think we did five days of online retreat and offered three sessions a day.

You had previously shared that this was going to be your last time teaching the Women’s Retreat at IMS. After so many years of leading the Women’s Retreat on campus, what was it like for you to teach this program online?

Before, I was slightly allergic to online offerings. But I realized this was pretty successful. People remarked that it truly felt like a community; it felt like dedicated teaching space. And it was very helpful that we had a question and answer period every day. That brought the real human tone to it and made a huge difference. I felt quite easeful with it all. But this was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to all of these yogis who had been sitting with us for decades. And this wasn’t the way I wanted to say goodbye to IMS. So, Narayan (Liebenson, co-teacher of the IMS Women’s Retreat) and I agreed very quickly that I would come again next year and do this face to face with our students.

You first brought the Women’s Retreat to IMS in 1984. What inspired you to create this retreat?

I initiated the proposal quite soon after starting to teach at IMS when I wasn’t that long out of Asia. In teaching mixed retreats, I noticed there were emerging questions around women’s confidence, role, identity, and place in the dharma. This was actually very similar to some of the negative impressions that I had in Asia — in a lot of places women were really treated as second class citizens. Their aspirations were very stifled. Their possibilities were very restricted. And teaching in the West I realized this wasn’t just an Asian phenomenon. This is a phenomenon that’s been woven through all religious traditions to some extent. And we absorb these messages on a cellular level. This also coincided with the feminist movement where women were really questioning a lot around status and identity and roles and inequality and injustice. I noticed in teaching these retreats that women were a lot quieter than the guys. So, the Women’s Retreat seemed like an avenue very much worth exploring.

Has the IMS Women’s Retreat changed over the years?

The first years were interesting. They had a lot of political content. A lot of social justice content. There was a lot of somatic emphasis. It was a very needed space for women to talk about issues like power and sexuality. And that lasted about five years. Then, the retreat began to change quite organically without direction from the teachers. Women were really finding their seat and their home in the dharma and their confidence as practitioners. So, within a very short period of time the dialogue changed. Although it continued to address what it means to be a practitioner in a women’s body, a women’s psyche, a women’s heart — the climate of the retreats began to change.

Compared to other retreats, what is particularly unique or different about the Women’s Retreat?

I think one thing that really distinguishes a women’s retreat is the sense of community and safety. When people feel safe, they tend to deepen. It’s quite extraordinary. Women would flower in terms of their insight, understanding, and confidence. What is also different is the very tangible sense of ease within the community. Within the meditation hall. The tangible sense of respect for each other. And dignity. But the content of the dharma is the same. For me, it’s such a delight to see this program organically evolve and change over many years to where it is now. And of course, we would see many women yogis return year after year. It was almost as if this was their pilgrimage. It was like a homecoming. It’s also been wonderful for new people to come into this community. Older women are learning from the younger women. Younger women are learning form the older women. It’s a cross generational event. And of course, it will continue. Narayan will continue leading even after I don’t travel to IMS anymore.

You mentioned that safety leads to deepening. What do you mean by safety?

The dharma is our meeting place. And layered on top of that are many of the concerns that have created suffering in people’s lives in terms of prejudice around sexuality, ethnicity, class — there is a lot of suffering. But there needs to be a foundation of confidence in the dharma. And then, we can have safety rather than a feeling of defensiveness. One of the primary lessons of the Women’s Retreat is knowing the difference between safety and defensiveness. Our safety does not depend on highlighting the “other.” The safety of each woman relies upon their flourishing and their confidence, their groundedness, their capacity to find refuge, and their capacity to support each other.

What else would you like to share about the Women’s Retreat?

It’s a lot about listening. And learning. And having the humility to know that in our culture today people are having to meet issues that were not present, never recorded, or not talked about in the time of the Buddha. It’s hard to tell from reading the suttas just how much sexual prejudice there was 2500 years ago. How much racism there was. We don’t actually know. We don’t have enough sources. But we do know that — culturally — it’s different for us today and we need to find ways that the dharma can speak to these issues. To acknowledge how it is for people now. Not just how it was for people 2500 years ago. There are certain values and truths within the teachings that are quite timeless but the suttas don’t quite cover everything. So, I think Narayan and I have both done a lot of listening to what the women are bringing in. About what other women have had to bear. And it’s so different. It’s totally different.

You are known as a pioneer of Western Dharma. What sparked your interest in Buddhism and meditation?

I know people would love for me to say I had some profound teenage passion for the dharma but it’s not true. On one level, I ended up in the dharma by accident. I grew up in Canada and graduated (high school) at 16. At that time, you weren’t allowed to go to university until age 18, so I decided to go to England for a year, because it was where I was born. There, I met people who were going to India and decided to go. So, I was 17 and accidentally ended up in India. It wasn’t part of a plan.

I was in a state of shock ending up in India. I couldn’t bear the noise, the intensity, the number of people, the harassment that western women faced at the time. But I heard about McLeod Ganj and the Tibetan community there. And within two weeks of landing in India I was in McLeod Ganj and within two months I was studying. I felt enormously touched by the Tibetan community. It was very clear they knew things I didn’t know — about life, joy, compassion, understanding. There were probably only ten westerners in Dharamsala at the time. We were a tiny community. The Dalai Lama asked two of his tutors to teach us ‑ almost as an experiment to see whether Westerners could learn anything. Our teachers invested an enormous amount of time and energy and patience with our small group. So, I stayed there. It was where I wanted to be. Where I felt at home. Despite having to fall in love with my amoebas, hepatitis, parasites — despite being almost always ill, it was home. It was a precious place to be.

So, your introduction to Buddhism was through Mahayana? How and when were you introduced to Theravada and early Buddhism?

My introduction was wholly in Mahayana for the first three years. And then I began to spread. There was a gap between my altruism and my reality so it seemed important for me to find a way to have a grounded practice that was in the midst of my life — this body, this mind, being human. So, I began doing more insight meditation retreats in Dharamsala and then in Bodh Gaya. I bumped into Joseph Goldstein (co-founder of IMS) in Bodh Gaya but we were both on retreat and never really met.

What brought you back to the West?

By that point I was almost dead and was done with what this body could take. I weighed 70 pounds. So, I left. I met a group of people who were practicing and came back to England where we lived in community for a while. Even in Asia people would turn to me with questions about practice and that grew and grew and I ended up in a more formal role of teaching. At that time there was a lot of hunger for the dharma. It was the hippie era and there was interest for a different way of seeing and being. And there were very few teachers and places to go for that. So, people started asking me to teach and it kind of flourished from there.

You now have almost 50 years of experience studying and teaching the dharma. When you reflect back on your career, what stands out as most important?

The one thing I feel very pleased about in my role as a teacher in the dharma community is that I have also been able to have a family. That was a step out of the monastic model. And it’s been quite a challenge to do both. But it has been lovely. And I think it has helped other women see that they don’t have to make this stark choice of leaving the world and relationship in order to have this very deep practice and understanding. It’s been a privilege to have this opportunity and I think all of us in the dharma can be trailblazers of this kind of positive change.