IMS Teacher Annie Nugent has been practicing meditation since 1979 and attended her first retreat with Joseph Goldstein when he visited South Africa in the early 1980’s. Annie served as an IMS Resident Teacher from 1999 to 2003, began teaching at the Forest Refuge in 2004, and has been a long-term teacher for the annual Three-Month-Retreat.
On June 9, Annie will launch her very first IMS Online Retreat with Deborah Helzer and Devin Berry. The retreat, titled “Living the Buddha’s Teachings,” will invite meditators to explore the core teaching of mindfulness and how it supports the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. We recently caught up with Annie to learn more about her history with the dharma and to reflect on the current events that will shape experience for decades to come.
Annie, thank you for joining us today. Our conversation takes place in the early aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the news of over 100,000 U.S. residents killed by COVID-19. What does your practice look like as you wake up this morning?
My heart is very tender. When I hear about George Floyd the mind wants to know, “What can I do? How can I help?” The overriding quality is one of compassion and looking to address the pain that people of color feel due to oppression. I am turning to the dharma, seeing that this is what life has offered, and asking how I can meet these moments with the greatest wholesomeness, wisdom and compassion. That doesn’t mean accepting the status quo. It means really checking my own heart and mind to see that I’m meeting the moment with the best wisdom and compassion that I can.
In these extraordinary times, daily events may be more than a lot of people can hold. How can we more easily digest the enormity of these complex events that are potentially overwhelming?
The first thing is to be truthful and honest about the pain you are feeling. And just with that tender recognition, a little window — you could say a window into the heart space — may open up to some other experience. The top layer is to be truthful about what we don’t want to see — the unbearable pain — and acknowledge it. We can then bring a tone of kind recognition, kind holding, and kind awareness to the truth of the situation. I don’t want to paint a picture of everything being perfect. There’s a time when I stamp my feet, and feel the pain, and begin again.
What if the pain is too much to bear?
We frequently hear the instructions to “hold it all.” But there is a truth in recognizing when it is enough and we need to take the mind to something else. Maybe have a cup of tea or go for a walk — just to get a response where we may regroup. You might not find those words in a text but this is a way to defuse and take the pressure off so we can regroup and come back. Also, meeting the “now” is always an invitation. It is never a “must” or “should.” It’s an invitation to explore limits — again and again — and discover what I can hold now. These tiny moments begin to strengthen and expand our capacity and become more confident. We can hold a little bit more and a little bit more.
Do you personally lean into formal practice in times of increased difficulty?
My day unfolds with a sit every morning — half an hour to 45 minutes — reflecting on the energy in my body, and drinking in the truth of life in these moments. I also have a great love of bringing the dharma into everyday experiences. For example, I may notice something while walking down the road. In that moment I might pay attention to what I am seeing and feel a sense of joy in small events, like noticing that my neighbors are outside and healthy. So, I look to find the good, even in the midst of very difficult and painful times.
Is there a specific technique you use when you look for the good?
I must first tell you a little about myself —historically, I was a not a person who would look for the good. But with the dharma in my life, over years of practice, and very naturally now, the good is what the eye of my heart sees. As more of the dharma has come to the forefront of consciousness, I see those things that help bring a sense of joy and beauty and openheartedness. It includes and does not discard the difficult and the painful things. But the dharma helps bring balance. For example, when I see a “sold” sign outside a home, I feel happy that the owners have managed to sell their home in times that are very difficult. It becomes a natural inclination of mind to look for the good and to ask, “What else is there? What else is there to remember?”
Do you remember how and when your lifelong connection to the dharma began?
Just over 40 years ago, I was 20 years old and it seemed to come out of the blue. I met my future husband and he introduced me to the dharma. Shortly after that, Joseph [Goldstein] came to South Africa, where I am from, and I sat my first retreat with him there. What a great blessing. Then he came back two years later and I never looked back. Of course, in the initial years it can be “stop and start” but then you pick it up again and the momentum begins.
Was there a moment on that first retreat with Joseph when you connected deeply and realized that your life had changed?
Amazingly enough, yes. Joseph gave this profoundly simple instruction at that first retreat — he said “be with the breath, from the beginning of the breath all the way through the duration of the breath to the end of that breath. And then the next one.” And I must be good at listening to instruction because it worked. The mind began to settle and quiet down. And this profound experience of love and kindness overcame me. Tears of joy flowed and it was absolutely wonderful. But then what happened? I thought “it will be like this forever,” but it became difficult. Very, very difficult. Joseph came back with Sharon [Salzberg] two years later. And I went for this group interview with Sharon and told her I didn’t know how to practice anymore because I had these early beautiful feelings and then lost them. Sharon said “It’s not about a pleasant feeling. It’s about being with what is. Being with what is brings about a pleasantness in the mind — a pleasantness of a mind at ease.” Her teaching was profoundly helpful and supportive.
How and when did you transition from dharma student to teacher?
Around 1995 my husband and I were about to fly over to do a Three-Month-Retreat at IMS. We were living in England at the time and I received a letter telling me that a close friend in South Africa had committed suicide. I remember weeping. But I wasn’t just weeping because of the loss of a friend — I was weeping because she had not come in touch with the dharma. We had a similar upbringing and the dharma could have been a great support for her during difficult times as it had been for me. I came to IMS for the retreat and during an interview with Joseph I told him that story. He said, “Annie, who knows, maybe you will be sharing the dharma with others at some time in your life.” And, life unfolds. I did a few more long term retreats and volunteered and answered phones at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. One day Joseph was on the other end of the phone line and he offered me the job of Resident Teacher at IMS. This is how it happened for me and now I find myself offering the dharma with great appreciation and gratitude to be able to share the teachings and support people in their practice.
You have an upcoming online retreat that begins on June 9th. Is this your first time teaching an online retreat?
It is absolutely my first online course ever. It will be a learning but suitable for these current times. The course is titled “Living the Buddha’s Teachings.” My colleagues Devin Berry and Deb Helzer will offer teachings on mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths with some lovingkindness at the end. But personally, I’m going to be talking about the defilements and how to identify which ones are present and how to navigate them. And then we’ll practice with the opposites of greed, hatred and delusion — the loving heart, the generous heart and the wise heart.
What brings you the most joy as a teacher nowadays?
Seeing that if we have a sincerity of heart, if we have an interest to keep going a little bit at a time — slowly, transformation does come. We can live life from a place of greater wisdom, greater happiness, greater kindness, greater understanding. We can develop a compassionate heart that truly connects with humanity.