Roxanne Dault has been dedicated to this practice since 2006, sitting long silent retreats both in Asia and in the West. A teacher at True North Insight in Canada, she is also trained in Somatic Experiencing®, a body-mind approach aimed at relieving the symptoms of trauma. Roxanne serves on the Board of Directors of Insight World Aid. Currently, she is participating in the 2017-2021 IMS Teacher Training Program. We recently shared time with Roxanne to hear how she is practicing during this time of social isolation and to learn more about her background and history with the dharma. Here is our conversation…
As we sit for this interview, most people in the U.S. and Canada remain under social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines. How are you managing this experience right now?
Just asking myself that simple question, “How am I doing?” is really important. It reconnects me to this moment without judgement. I have been noticing the waves. There are moments of spaciousness, allowing and calm. And then sometimes I feel really contracted or agitated.
It’s also interesting just to notice how the mind can easily get lost in planning for the next thing I “should” be doing or worrying about what is going to happen — to see how the mind can really flip. It’s been an important time to make the practice really stable in my daily life. To ask, “What am I feeding right now? In what am I taking refuge in this moment? What stories am I believing?” — coming back to ways that I can relate to thoughts in a more useful way. Asking, “Are these thoughts wholesome or unwholesome? How can I find a sense of safety in all this instability? How can I take care of mind, heart and body?” So, I’ve been taking this time to reread some of the suttas and revisit some important teachings. There is also a responsibility to be able to hold others — to be of support for family, friends and the sangha.
Has your silent retreat practice prepared you for this moment and are there ways in which it has not prepared you for the level of stress and anxiety that are unique to this experience?
I have spent about two years altogether on and off retreats and I had a concussion last year and was in bed for three months. So, there is no fear of being alone with myself. I know what I can do with my time — I can practice. I can see the mind doing its thing so it is less destabilizing than it could be. There is much more gentleness and acceptance around it.
Still, right now, this “not knowing” is intense. On retreat, there is a certain familiarity; you know the landscape a bit more — when we are going to leave, when we will see family — and life is going to keep going on in ways you can expect. Here, there is a sense that we don’t know how this is going to unfold. Facing a global pandemic can bring up fear or even trauma. There can be a certain denial of what we are facing. This is something new for us to be with, and to allow and to give space.
This time is bringing forth many things that are always present but maybe less fully known or understood — not being in control, not having the answers we wish we would have, seeing people we love getting sick, seeing privilege and injustices brought forth even more, and again, this not knowing exactly what to do, how to help or how to be.
For those who may be uncomfortable with extended periods of “not knowing,” what tools would you offer to help manage the intensity?
Right now, what is bringing a lot of stability in my practice is coming back to the body — establishing presence in my body. For me there is a sacredness around touching the ground. It’s interesting — when we sit or stand for meditation, we are all touching the ground as living beings. It moves me deeply. This is our stability right now — having a sense of trust in the groundedness of the earth and allowing ourselves to feel that profound connection. This practice is essential to stabilize the heart.
One thing that is always there for us is the present moment. Feet on the ground. Touching the earth. This is what is happening. And this helps the mind. One moment at a time.
Many people have recently lost their jobs, their livelihood, including many dharma teachers. It can be scary. What advice would you offer a dharma student or teacher facing an uncertain future?
One word comes to mind: community.
First, I think we need to acknowledge fully that these our difficult times. It’s important to allow grief and fear to be seen. We don’t know what this crisis will bring but we know that this too will change. There can be profound sense of protection and trust in the Three Refuges.
I also feel it’s an important time for the sangha to show up and support each other. This crisis forces us to ask ourselves what we want to bring forward and what is important in life. Can we be bold enough to ask, “I need your help,” or to say without hesitation, “How can I help?” I’m seeing so much generosity for and from the communities. The face of this practice might be changing but the teachings are needed more than ever. One step at a time, with creativity, we can move through this together.
Where did you grow up and what led you to the dharma?
I grew up in Hull, near Ottawa, the capital of Canada. My mom is a Franco-Ontarian and my father is from Maniwaki, a small town up north in Québec. I was a really sensitive child with a strong sense of not wanting to harm any being. I had a connection with spirituality. For lunch at my catholic high school I would go and sit in silence in the chapel — I was drawn to silence and being by myself.
When I was 18, I was introduced to meditation after having my first heartbreak, and at 24, I did my first 10-day vipassana retreat in the Goenka style. It was difficult but transformative. Then I decided to go do a retreat at a monastery in northern Thailand. I was really moved by being in a Buddhist country. So, that was really the beginning of my journey. I came back and changed my life around to make sure I could go on retreats as frequently as possible. At the same time, [IMS teacher] Pascal Auclair, who is my mentor and teacher, started teaching in French in Montréal. So that was a wow moment — there was a French teacher teaching the dharma in my language and that was it. My path became clear.
How did you become a teacher?
I started volunteering at True North Insight which was just starting at the time. I managed retreats, helped with fundraising, joined the board, and did a two-year study program with the co-founder and teacher, Daryl Lynn Ross. Then a mentorship with her and Pascal. Pascal started asking me to teach when he was teaching elsewhere. I soon joined the prison project — I was teaching in prisons and it showed me even more the power of the practice.
Later, I went to India for six months and practiced there. After that I kept going to Asia almost every year — Burma, India, Thailand again, Nepal. I sat my first IMS Three-Month Retreat with Joseph [Goldstein] and Winnie [Nazarko] in 2013. Then I did another one and another one. I sat a lot of retreats! And I met [IMS Teacher] Bonnie Duran who is one of my mentors and she reconnected me in some way.
My father has European and Indigenous (Algonquin Anishinaabe) ancestry. My heritage has different colors and stories that are living through and in me and I’ve been reconnected more fully since I started the dharma. My first teacher in Thailand, without knowing much of me, said you have to go back to your Indigenous roots — you have to look at that part of you. The more I sat the more I felt that need. So, I’m doing my practice and also relearning the culture with a lot of respect — connecting with nature, connecting with elders, connecting with traditional ceremonies, learning the language a bit, allowing me to regain. I feel it is part of my dharma unfolding and a responsibility for generations to come.
I also did three years of somatic experiencing training. That was part of my path to understand how trauma moves through this body and getting more into unresolved and intergenerational trauma. I feel the dharma is giving me wings to reach for different things. It’s giving me opportunities to explore this life with much more depth.
What does reconnection mean to you now?
For me, dharma means seeing things as they are, and allowing us to be fully who we are. The dharma helps us hold ourselves fully. To discover what this being is, how it is being moved, and the nature of its origins. For some, it is reconnecting with ancestry, reconnecting with elders, family stories. For someone else, it is reconnecting with a language. Some are moved by the suttas. Some by poetry and art. We are all being moved by different things and we have to honor that in our ways.
[IMS teacher] DaRa Williams always tells me you have to be whole. You have to allow all of the parts of you. So, I know my actions and words are not only me but part of an orchestra that is quite bigger than I might think.
You mentioned a concussion. How has that experience influenced your practice and teaching?
It’s really important to talk about traumatic brain injury (TBI). I didn’t know concussion could have such an impact on your cognitive way of seeing things, even personality traits that change, thought patterns that appear, and I am so grateful for the dharma. Because when I had my accident a lot of things came up for me.
I was alone in my car coming back from assisting a retreat. I hit some black ice and couldn’t do anything — the car rolled and I landed upside down in the snow. Everything was really slow. I was present for that and was noting during my car accident — “Turning. Turning. Flipping.”
After a few days I started having difficult thought patterns. I was noticing how the mind was saying I should have died. I became really interested and curious. And sometimes I would cry. But just seeing the thought patterns coming up and seeing them as thoughts. Not believing in them. Wow — this mind is doing funky stuff because it’s been rolled around. So, I had a few months of just taking care of this mind.
It makes you humble. And makes you see that even this intelligence could disappear like that. It’s also interesting to see how we are creating ourselves every morning. We put this mask of personality on and you are not that. It was like “Roxanne” should be a certain way and I could see the reaction people would have when I was not my usual joyful self. So, it brings me back to the practice. Every morning waking up and not knowing. Now, I’m even more curious about who is Roxanne as a human being. I really want to train this mind. To make sure when there is a connection that is made it is as wholesome as it can be. So, learn to train when you are healthy — when you are not, it is harder.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I always make it personal. I have appreciated when teachers have shared how the practice is moving them. So, it’s been important to me to also do that — to teach from a place of what I have learned in the last few years or last month, even the last day. But to have a baseline in the texts. I go back and try to find a teaching around it; lessons from the suttas that move me. And I try to honor our wounds and traumas — what people might be feeling or knowing in themselves or others. In that way, I always try to connect the suttas to something in our reality now, asking, “how can these teachings move us forward?”
My instructions are most often based on the meditation instructions of Mahāsi Sayadaw. I have found over the years working with Sayadaw U Vivekānanda and [IMS teacher] Michele McDonald the importance of a more focused attention. Some say that they see Pascal (Auclair) in my voice. He is a big part of who I am as a teacher.
I am so in love with the dharma it kind of shines out in some way. It touches me deeply and brings a lot of joy. When I’m guiding, I’m guiding with my ancestors and their experiences.
What inspired you to join the four-year IMS Teacher Training in 2017?
Joseph asked me and I said “yes.” It was the next unfolding. I was teaching with the insight sangha in Montreal, teaching in prison, sitting on and off retreats, and I was really honored to be invited. I also wanted to meet amazing people in the dharma and to be able to practice and learn by their side. All of the trainees have so much wisdom. And learning from those amazing teachers — Joseph, DaRa, Bonnie, Guy [Armstrong], Carol [Wilson]…all of them. I don’t think anyone could say “no” to learning from them. I want to be a French voice; to teach in French and bring this practice home. When you see how essential this practice is, you have to share it. That is a big responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
Would you like to share any last thoughts for your students?
My favorite sutta is the Sedaka Sutta — the bamboo acrobat sutta — that includes the lines:
Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
I think it is our responsibility as human beings to train this mind and make it as wholesome and caring as we can. Practicing to know fully how things are — impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self — is a radical and essential act. Now because there is more space, less of a rush to go somewhere — if we can all be present a bit more we will be acting and speaking from a place of wise discernment, wholesomeness and kindness. We need to practice. Whichever form it takes. For ourselves and for all beings.