Rebecca Bradshaw is a Guiding Teacher at IMS, Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and member of the IMS Diversity Committee. She has been practicing vipassana (insight) meditation since 1983 and serves as faculty for the IMS Three-Month Retreat. We recently connected with Rebecca to learn more about her background and what motivates and inspires her teaching. Here, we share an excerpt of that conversation.
Rebecca, how were you first introduced to the dharma?
My formal dharma journey began when I was 23 years old and teaching at an American school in Nicaragua. One of the other teachers told me about a three-month meditation retreat he had done and I decided within five minutes that I was going to try it the next year. But I feel like I started meditating when I was much younger. When I was 12-13-14-years old, my family used to go camping. And I would go off on my own to a meadow and sit under a tree and do this exercise I called “finding myself.” The idea was to be based in my senses; hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling the air. And I found that if I spent a lot of time in my thoughts, I would not be able to “find myself.”
Has “finding yourself” continued to be a theme in your life?
I’ve always been a seeker. My airline pilot father taught me that I could do anything — for example, he taught me to fly when I was 14. And when I was younger, I think I was just profoundly curious and independent. I had many adventures, lived in several countries around the world and spoke Spanish fluently. I loved learning.
Still, an independent spirit may or may not be sufficient preparation for a three-month silent meditation retreat. How did you make the leap from free spirit to meditator?
When I first tried to meditate, I gave up after five minutes. But determination and willpower are my strengths. So, when I signed up for the Three-Month Retreat at IMS in September, 1984, I ended up staying for five months. I was the youngest person to do the Three-Month Retreat at that time and I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know why I was there. But I was compelled to stay and stay and stay. And I was a good student. At that time, we were all doing the Mahasi style practice which is a very intensive form of retreat, and that style fit me well. I just listened to my teachers and did what they told me. All I did was meditate. I slept five hours a night. And I have a picture of me — I was just a little waif — and that person meditated 19 hours a day. Something was working.
Who were your early meditation teachers and influences?
My first teachers were Sharon (Salzberg) and Joseph (Goldstein). They had just done a two-month retreat with Sayadaw U Pandita and they gave me tons of support. During the last couple of months of my retreat, Sharon met with me every day, even though there was not a formal retreat at that time. During this period, I discovered I had a previously unknown trauma. So, at a certain point in my 30’s when I started meditating long retreats again, I specifically went back and looked for a teacher who deeply understood trauma and ended up meditating with Michele McDonald. She gave me the ability to trust my practice and to be flexible in how to deeply respond to what my system needed.
And what was it that your system needed at that time?
Michele taught me to be more feminine, less masculine, in my approach. I’ve had to learn over the years to soften. Because willpower will only take you so far in meditation practice. Michele also gave me confidence to keep going in terrain that was very unfamiliar and very deconstructed.
What were you doing in the years between your first long retreat and this return to trauma-aware practice?
After my first retreat, I turned down a few interesting opportunities. I was invited to go to Burma. I had an offer to teach Spanish in Thailand. But one day I was walking in the woods and a voice said to me, “Don’t take that job, you do not need to live in a big city right now.” That is the only time this type of experience has happened to me. So instead of going overseas, I joined the team at IMS as a volunteer. Then I was in the Front Office. Then I worked as a cook in the IMS kitchen. After that, I decided to go to the Mahasi Center in Rangoon and I traveled around India and Nepal — went to Varanasi. Bodh Gaya. Did a pilgrimage. And then I came back to the U.S. and rejoined the workforce. I ended up teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Northampton (Massachusetts). Eventually, I went to school to get a Masters in counseling psychology and worked as a therapist in the inner city for 16 years, mostly with Spanish-speaking clients. All the while I was meditating and doing short retreats.
How did you become an IMS teacher?
I am a teacher because Michele McDonald asked me to be a teacher. I had such dharma passion and wanted to teach ever since that first retreat. But I also had a certain amount of humility; I wasn’t going to set myself up and promote myself. Eventually, Michele took me on as a trainee. The very first thing I did as a teacher was work for Sharon and Joseph’s old correspondence course. Then Michele invited me to be the lead teacher for the Teen Retreat. And she started the Young Adult Retreat and gave that to me too. When I finished my training, they pulled me into the Three-Month Retreat and I’ve been teaching ever since.
How would you describe your teaching style?
Michele always said to me, “I chose to train you because you have suffered. You understand how to deal with suffering. You will be useful because of that.” Somebody else said the way I teach is “down to earth dharma.” I’m not so much into idealism. When you get down to earth it’s usually messy and challenging. I’m not trying to paint an ideal of what a spiritual person would look like and then fit that ideal. If we do that, we tend to miss what is happening. I do tend to share the ways that I struggle, so people think, “maybe I can also do this.”
What advice can you share with people who are struggling with their practice today?
For a long time, I was meditating daily and doing retreats. But I was still suffering and my practice wasn’t moving. So, I went to Joseph and he recommended I do an intensive metta (lovingkindness) retreat. Up to that point I had assiduously avoided metta practice. I hated it. I felt it was corny and unrealistic. I trusted him though, and I was desperate. So, in 1992, I did a two-month metta retreat. And it was totally what I needed. I started to soften. Most of us have too many sharp corners, too much aggression — especially toward ourselves. So, I dedicated my practice to strengthening the gentleness of my heart. To kindness. And ever since then my practice is to soften, soften, soften. And my teaching is to encourage students to soften, soften, soften.
In addition to all of your training and teaching at IMS, you have also spent quite a bit of time practicing in Burma. What can you share about those experiences?
After my first retreat and early work at IMS, my adventuresome streak emerged again. I decided to go to the Mahasi center in Rangoon (Kyaswa Monastery, Upper Burma). But I only stayed three weeks. I did not feel held. I needed more support than the center offered to a female practitioner at the time. Then, I waited and waited to go back. And when things started to get too easy in the United States, I felt I needed to challenge my practice. So, I decided to go back to Burma in 2000 when I was 40 years old. This time, there were also Western teachers available who knew the psychological trauma work that needed to be held. And there was such a great energy at the monastery. The sweetness of the Burmese people and the depth of tradition is all so lovely. And I went back every other year. Also, in Burma, you can ordain temporarily. So, I became a nun for a period. It was hard at first but so sweet. I felt like a daughter of the Buddha.
Did your difficult early experience in Burma, and the sweetness of the later visits, affect the way you teach today?
I am teaching from a more feminine paradigm. I’m interested in how the teachings of the Buddha have been preserved in a primarily masculine paradigm. The teachings were held by male monastics for a long time. And there is a lot of embedded sexism and embedded masculine in that. So how do we bring forth the feminine? Ultimately what we are going for is the balance of masculine and feminine energy (which is not binary in terms of sexual identity). The male energy can be a line energy — we’re going to accomplish something…we are going to figure it out. The feminine energy can be a circle energy — we’re just going to be here, now, together. And we need both. We need to know how to combine the two. Related, there has to be some willingness to worship compassion as much as we worship wisdom.
You mentioned the IMS Teen Retreat and the Young Adult Retreat. What do those programs mean to you?
To me, there is a way that young people seem more traumatized than in the past. Modern life is so aggressive and many of the young people who come to IMS feel so much pressure. To perform. To excel. To get it right. To produce something. And then there is the anxiety that comes from that pressure. They are losing the smell of the wind. The sight of sunlight on the snow. Losing the vibrancy of life that can be found in a simple touch. I’m trying to teach young people — and all students, honestly — to come out of their heads and their thoughts and into their actual lived and embodied experience. When we are caught in our minds there is a way that we are not fully alive, but when we come into our hearts and bodies, we start to feel connected. So, I’m trying to teach them to be alive. I try to help young people learn to give up the dependence on the thinking mind as a way to really know. And many people are scared to death to let go of their thoughts. They don’t yet know there is a different world we can live in.
Reflecting on over 35 years of dharma practice, what thoughts would you like to share with our readers at this time?
Sometimes, we have to deconstruct reality if we want to free our hearts and minds. We have so many illusions about the way things are. And these illusions cause us to act in ways that increase the bondage of heart and mind. We have to see that things are not as we construct them to be. And those are tough truths to take in. So, we need protection to dive into the real truth of the way things are. One such protection is love. We need love, lots of it, in our meditation practice.