July 7, 2020

Meet the Teacher: Jeanne Corrigal

“When I was invited into the IMS Teacher Training, I felt that our whole sangha had been invited in. We all lead this community, together, through the gift of our presence…” With these words, Jeanne Corrigal, Guiding Teacher of the Saskatoon Insight Meditation Community, demonstrated her generous and loving nature which is felt in every thoughtful word she shares. Throughout her life, Jeanne has focused on giving back to her local community in Saskatchewan — as a coach for women in need, teacher of Indigenous culture, filmmaker, and student of the dharma. During an interview with IMS, Jeanne reflected on her experiences while embodying the loving presence she has developed in over 20 years of dharma study. Here is our conversation.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the murder of George Floyd and contains no commentary on the protests. However, Jeanne’s teaching offers pathways and insights that may resonate in relation to current events.]

Thank you for joining us today, Jeanne. As we connect, we are experiencing the ongoing global presence of COVID-19. What does this pandemic mean for practitioners of the dharma?

It means calling forth our greatest compassion. Even in the face of this, what is our wisest response? In the midst of this, what can we pull from all of the paths and practices to meet this moment?

“In the midst of this” seems to be a popular phrase among dharma teachers recently. What does it mean to you personally?

How can we start being in the midst of this whole mix of emotions? Can we hold steady? Can we hold it with compassion? In the midst of this breath; In the midst of this body sensation; In the midst of this heart, experiencing joy and nourishment at the center. In the midst of anxiety and concern for people who are in very difficult circumstances. Right here in the midst of this experience, can we call on wise response, groundedness, compassion — to settle in the body, to settle the practice, held in awareness.

And then there’s the world community. We’re in the midst of these mini circles but connected to the whole. How do we respond to this fact that we are so clearly connected?

Have you sensed that your role as a dharma teacher has shifted in recent weeks and months?

I think it’s gotten clear. I feel the spiritual urgency of our situation has deepened the love. Although I always felt it, the capacity to love has changed because we need it now so deeply. The Buddha invited us to look at death and impermanence every day and one of the reasons he invited us to do that is so that we could understand the truth of things. So, there’s a spiritual urgency now to train — to just deepen as much as possible. In that sense, something has shifted.

What does your formal practice look like during this moment of deepening?

I gravitate towards resting in the larger nature of heart-mind, our true nature. One of the easy doorways to true nature is when we are in the natural world outside. Being influenced by Indigenous teaching and by the Thai forest tradition, [spending time] in nature is a huge practice for me — I like to go for a walk and just let my mind rest. And sometimes when I do my formal meditation on the cushion, I begin with a memory of a time in nature, and then rest in the heart and the mind — I abide there a little bit and let everything unfold within this experience.

Throughout the day, I love the whole body awareness moving practice. Venerable Anālayo is the one who named it for me in this tradition. We often do the walking practice or movement practice with mindfulness in the feet or in the legs — but whole body practice lets you know there’s a whole heart involved there too. It’s a practice of the whole heart-mind moving through the day. This connects me to everything.

One of the reasons this resonates so much for me is that it connects me to the Indigenous practice that’s part of my dharma practice. As a Métis woman, my first teachers in loving presence were my dad and my mom, both Métis, and Jim Settee — the elder I worked with and still work with even though he’s not in this physical plane anymore. I cannot read the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta without feeling my body go back to those times when we would sit in the bush forest with a full bodied knowing. It was the body, the heart, all the senses, all together knowing.

So those are two practices and then I have another I want to offer. And that is the practice of really allowing the mind to rest in beauty. Just let your eyes roam around the room and find something — wherever they want to go, let them be drawn to whatever they want to want to look at. Then let them rest where they want to rest. Notice what you see and then notice what’s happening in the body. It doesn’t matter what room you’re in — it doesn’t have to be full of beautiful things. Just look around and see something that you like and notice if there is a settling in the body and a little gladdening in the heart. This is training the mind and heart more deeply to see beauty and those things which can uplift. This simple practice can support the liberative process in the mind and heart. Sometimes I just wander around like that and it’s amazing.

What advice would you offer for those who have a hard time finding that everyday beauty?

We know the story — on the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha was sitting. Mara came to represent the difficult states of mind but the Buddha didn’t engage. He didn’t fight or struggle. He turned to something uplifting. In Somatic Experiencing language, we might say he touched a resource, he touched the earth — something that uplifted and strengthened and nourished and supported his mind and heart. When we see a difficult state, we can turn to a resource, a nourishment, a beauty. That’s very strong mindfulness.

Sometimes we have a hard time finding beauty because we think it has to be grand…but this beauty can be very simple. Another way I describe it is as a quiet joy, quiet because it can be very subtle. We can turn to the quiet joy, the beauty, the nourishment internally, in the steadiness of the body, the support of the breath, the quiet joy of being present, or externally to a color in the room we like, or the texture of the sweater we are wearing, or the image of a tree outside, or the memory of walking the dog.

And if we’re taking in something intense, turning intentionally to the quiet joy is a really helpful way to help integrate difficulty or trauma that the system cannot integrate all in one chunk. In Somatic Experiencing language, we direct the attention to a resource in order to uplift and strengthen the system. And, in Buddhist language, directing the attention toward joy is an integral part of the Buddha’s liberative process, which moves from joy, to calm, and onwards to release and liberating insight.

You’ve mentioned several practices that connect us to the earth or natural beauty. Have you always had an affinity for the natural world?

It is something from way back. I grew up in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada. My folks were really close to the land — even though we didn’t live in a traditional Métis community, their life was the land — that’s how we grew up. The Métis are a mix of First Nation and European ancestry, and in our case, Swampy Cree and Scottish. I remember one time we were sitting in the bush. My dad was just sitting there and I had him in my peripheral vision. At one point, he just kind of looked over there in another direction. And I paid attention over there. I could hear, then, what was going on in the bush. And another time he looked toward another direction. And I “felt” into that direction. I could sense what was happening over there in the bush. He could listen like that and tell you what was in the bush, how far away it was. And one time he said “Listen. Listen until you can’t hear that anymore.” I just listened until I couldn’t hear it anymore. And that was one of the ways I learned how to listen. Inside, as well as outside. In those days, I kind of wished my dad would talk to me more. But I now recognize he was communicating in very different ways. Yeah, I was really lucky to grow up in the bush.

At what stage of your life were you first introduced to the Buddhadharma?

When I was in my 30s, a weekend retreat came to our city and I sat. I had this sense of, “This is helpful. This is home.” I started to sit more, sat a week-long, and then came to IMS for a two week metta and insight retreat in 2004. And then I came back the next fall and I sat six weeks of metta. During that first two week retreat with Sharon [Salzberg] and Joseph [Goldstein], Joseph helped me sit with fear and find such a deep acceptance with it that I had a huge opening in my heart. And that night I dreamed about my elder, Jim Settee. When I got back home, the script for a film started writing itself in my head. And this film was a film about Jim giving me a teaching about finding my way through fear. [Editor’s Note: The film became Jim Settee, The Way Home]. And that’s when Indigenous wisdom and the dharma came together for me as the very same teaching.

Was that your first film?

I had made one film before. After high school, I went to university and finished a degree in Women’s Studies. I started working immediately in a nonprofit for women in Saskatchewan, doing programming, and I became a life skills coach and worked in that area for about 15 years. During that time, I started to meditate. And I found these meditation skills really good for the women’s groups. At the same time, I made a film about Métis, First Nations, and Canadian women in my hometown.

After that, I quit my job to become a filmmaker and settle into the dharma. At the end of five years when that film finished, the cultural organization in Saskatchewan invited me to tour with the film. I toured every school division in Saskatchewan for 10 years, about a month a year, and saw about 35,000 students in about 325 schools, sharing Jim Settee’s teaching. And part of his teaching was how to be a loving presence. He died as I was making the film. But I felt like I was teaching with his spirit that whole time. The film included indigenous history, Métis history, and this sense of presence of heart all wrapped up in a message of reconciliation. Here in Canada reconciliation is how we, as indigenous Canadians and non-indigenous Canadians, work together. During that time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission traveled across Canada and I was able to be part of that wave. At that time, I was also in the DPP [Dedicated Practitioners Program] and CDL [Community Dharma Leader program] at Spirit Rock, and I certified in MBSR [Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction]. I started teaching dharma when I graduated from CDL in 2012.

It sounds like you have been able to merge your personal history and work experience into your dharma study.

What spoke to me about the dharma was this concrete instruction about how to cultivate loving presence. So that was a natural marriage. When I met Joseph Goldstein, and other teachers, they joined Jim Settee in my mind. I was just meeting teachers on the same path of loving presence and how to liberate the heart.

The words “loving presence” may have different meanings to different people. How do you describe loving presence?

It’s a palpable felt sense that isn’t cognitive. Just by the way Jim Settee would look at you, you felt special — he always had time [and] his actions were always to alleviate suffering in the world. So, you can experience loving presence just by how someone is with you, as well as by their actions in the wider community and social and political arenas. Loving presence is what I felt around Jim Settee and what I feel around those who have developed great compassion and kindness. What I love about the Buddha’s teachings are the concrete instructions in cultivating this boundless heart and mind.

Nature is also a great teacher of loving presence. When I ask people, “Do you have a moment in your life when you have felt connection in nature?” just about everybody has a moment. When we touch that feeling there is a natural response of compassion and care.

How can we reconcile the essence of these compassionate and open teachings with the practical reality of exclusion in Buddhist spaces today?

Our major meditation spaces have grown out of European middle or upper class contexts. So maybe “our” space isn’t “the” space. Maybe our space isn’t the space where the major transformation will occur. Maybe we also need to go to other spaces, so the transformation may occur in our hearts. The shift right now to online spaces might be a step in this direction – more accessible.

In Saskatchewan, we are largely a white sangha and we [invite] treaty recognition at the beginning of our sits. I try to speak as much as I can about being Métis and Indigenous world view so people can feel comfortable. And, we are beginning to partner with Indigenous communities so that we can connect in spaces which feel right for everyone.

Could you tell us more about the Saskatoon Insight Meditation Community? How did you get involved?

I got involved when I came to my first retreat in 1999 and I’ve been involved ever since — in retreats, and then managing retreats as a CDL, or as a teacher, and now as a teacher in the IMS Teacher Training. We have a beautiful community. We’re relatively small with about 800 on our email list and between 25 and 40 people coming to a sit each week. Now, we have a teacher led sitting group, and two or three weekend retreats a year with teachers invited from IMS or Spirit Rock. We also have sangha walks three or four times a year where we go walking together, potlucks, classes, day-longs, and we have a two year dedicated practitioner program called “Living the Dharma” with 15 people. And those people I’m sure will become leaders in our community.

What inspired you to join the four year IMS Teacher Training Program?

I was happy being a community dharma leader, and happy with the sangha here. But Susie Harrington was one of our guiding teachers and she and our other guiding teacher, Adrian Ross, and Guy Armstrong, invited me into the teacher training. It was a big surprise for me to be invited, but I was very, very grateful. And every time I come on retreat, every time I have the honor of coming to IMS for training, every time I connect with IMS, I feel this great gratitude. My heart is like a river of gratitude for IMS. I feel tears in my eyes as I say this because when I was invited into the training, I just felt my whole practice drop into a deeper level. I’m so grateful.