Black, queer liberation & Tibetan Buddhism: Lama Rod Owens - part 1 (43 mins)

  
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Losar Tashi Delek and Happy Lunar New Year!

In this episode, a Good Refugee Podcast speaks with Buddhist teacher, activist and writer Lama Rod Owens on a wide spectrum of topics covering spirituality, silence and power (06:55); how class, race, wealth and justice intersect with Buddhism today (12:35); sexual abuse in dharma spaces (26:56); drawing boundaries between the teacher, student, sangha and social life (29:38); and mental health (40:00).

This is part one of the conversation. Listen/read part two here.

The full transcript of this interview is posted below, lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Bio

Lama Rod Owens is a Buddhist minister, author, activist, yoga instructor and authorized Lama, or Buddhist teacher, in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered one of the leaders of his generation of Buddhist teachers. He holds a Master of Divinity degree in Buddhist Studies from Harvard Divinity School and is a co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, and Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger.

Lama Rod will be hosting a seven-week online course and practice group based on his book “Love and Rage.” It starts on February 15. Sign up here.

lamarod.com

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Episode notes

  • Making sense of these times. [02:30]

  • How “Love and Rage” fits in this moment. [04:20]

  • Meditations on silence and power. [06:55]

  • The evolution of activism and dharma from when Lama Rod first began. [11:18]

  • How class, race, wealth and justice intersect with Buddhism today. [12:35]

  • Sexual abuse in dharma spaces. [26:56]

  • Drawing boundaries between the teacher, student, dharma and social life. [29:38]

  • Seeing the teacher as a mirror to your own wisdom. [32:58]

  • Understanding mental health from Buddhist, western and Indigenous perspectives. [40:00]

Interview transcript

Lama Rod thank you so much for joining us. Welcome. Tashi Delek!

Thank you so much.

Where are you speaking from?

I am speaking from Atlanta, where I just relocated to. This is traditionally, historically the land of the Muskogee people and the Cherokee people. But I am originally from Rome, Georgia, so this is like returning home.

And how are you doing at this moment?

I’m ok. I’m a little tired, but for the most part, mentally I’m feeling clear, open and fluid which is really wonderful.

Has it felt like lately there has been a much more ramped up conversation or discourse about existing and how to make sense of these times?

Yes, oh absolutely. I think last year the beginning of quarantine and the pandemic really forced people to do intense discernment about exactly what they were doing in their lives. 

The beginning of the quarantine reminded me of my years in my three-year retreat where everything just kind of shut down and I was just really holding space in one place for an extended period of time. That kind of holding space for me always triggers this deep kind of contemplation and discernment about what my work is. Last year, I think a lot of folks just started waking up and realizing that they had to start making different decisions and choices about how they were living their lives. And of course, on top of that, the world continues. We continue to live within systems and institutions that are creating violence for a lot of different people. So we were having to negotiate racial injustice, economic injustice, climate instability [while] at the same time negotiating a pandemic. A lot of folks started waking up to the reality of these harmful systems.

When you first started [Love and Rage], you wrote that there was this moment where you were giving a talk with your co-author of Radical Dharma [Rev. angel Kyodo williams], and there was this Black gentleman who spoke about anger, and that was kind of the genesis which started your writing of Love and Rage. When was this around?

2017. Before that I was really avoiding writing a book on anger. I wasn’t really interested. But at that event, where this young Black man was just like, “What do I do with anger? How do I choose happiness?” I really realized that this would be an important teaching to offer. 

When you locate yourself back to that time in 2017 and how things just unfolded from that point on—understanding of course that so many of the injustices and violent things that we’ve witnessed and experienced have already been happening for many decades—and then this year has been such a collision of all those injustices. And then of course we have the pandemic. As I was reading through the book now, so many of those things were almost prophetic in some ways. Was that a realization that you had to also reckon with?

I will say this: my experience as I was writing that book was an experience of feeling as if I—it’s hard to articulate. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I felt like I wasn’t talking about what was happening in the moment of writing the book. And this is why I didn’t really think the book was that interesting. When I wrote it, I was like who’s gonna actually resonate with this because I don’t think it’s actually talking about anything that’s happening now. On top of that, the book was supposed to be out much earlier than last summer [2020]. It was supposed to be out the fall of 2019 and I couldn’t meet the deadlines for getting the drafts in. I kept missing all these deadlines. 

Classic writer’s dilemma.

Exactly. Finally, my publisher was like, you have to get it in at this date or we have to push it back like a year. And so I made that deadline and when the book finally was published a year later, then it kind of landed within this current… well, apocalypse.

June 2020.

Yeah, I had no idea. Absolutely no idea that 2020 was gonna be the way that it was.

Silence, which I know has been an important piece in your practice, is a recurring theme in the book. It also coheres with how many of us have lived in isolation throughout this pandemic. Is that something you’ve meditated on length and spoken to others about?

Yeah absolutely. For me, quarantine was something that I knew how to do because of retreat. And quarantine was something the majority of folks didn’t know anything about so I just felt like I was coming home to an old practice. For me, silence is also about stillness. A lot of folks didn’t have the privilege of being in the space that felt still and quiet. Many folks were kind of bound together in family units and other roommates and other kinds of living arrangements where it felt very crowded and intense and stressful. But even in that kind of stress and crowdedness there’s still this incredible way we can touch into this stillness within all that movement and constriction. So I’ve spent a lot of time meditating on silence itself and trying to understand what silence is. I’m really influenced by the work of Audre Lorde; she talks about silence and the transformation of language. For me what I began to understand is that silence helps me to understand language and all the different ways we communicate.

If I may quote a passage from [Love and Rage], you say, “The transformation of silence into language is the migration from captivity into freedom or even the migration from invisibility into visibility. However, freedom and visibility come with the burden of confronting all those who don’t want you to be free or seen.”

What I read from that, and understand from you, is you also wrestling with the complexity of silence and how that can also be weaponized on those who are oppressed into being silenced. Can you please expand on that?

I think about another quote from Zora Neale Hurston who, among many things, also wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and she has this quote where she says, and I paraphrase, if you don’t speak, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it. So that weaponization of silence is really about how silence is used to erase people and then to replace that erasure with a narrative that’s much more comfortable than the true reality of things. And so, I was doing two things: I was trying to figure out how to move into language as an act of liberation. And secondly, I was trying to figure out in my practice how to use silence to communicate as well. That’s where we talk about the weaponizing of silence. It’s like, yeah we silence people but in my practice I wanted to be empowered in both silence and language. I wanted agency to choose the best way to be in the moment. I think silence, when we’re conscious, intelligent and aware about it, can speak even louder than words or language.

I think that’s a very keen insight, especially when you pair silence with power and the notion of agency as well. You cite specific examples in your book of how silence can just be another form of abuse. You also make it a point to mention your root guru Norlha Rinpoche and how all that episode played out. How even in those instances silence is another one of the ways that people not only perpetuate violence but also delusion. Was that a piece that was intentional for you when you speak of silence? 

Yeah absolutely. I think that also silence is something that when we get to a certain agency, we choose because that silence—in a really complicated, complex situation, particularly in the case with my teacher—was the best choice to make for me personally.

Have you noticed changes both in the spaces of activism and the dharma communities from when you were first starting out? Have you noticed any tangible differences, just even in terms of discourse?

I think one of the shifts that I’ve noticed is that there are more resources that tend to expand the discourse. More of us are writing and speaking out, which is actually deepening the subject matter of what we’re talking about. So I think this idea of justice and the practice of justice has expanded quite a bit for a lot of sanghas, particularly around inclusivity and sexual misconduct. I think there have been, over the past five years, such intense—I hate to use the word scandal but—real situations in sanghas that have created a lot of harm. From Shambhala to Rigpa to Against the Stream (these are the major ones), my monastery, Palpung Thubten Choling, people are aware of the potentiality of certain kinds of violence and injustices happening in their communities.

I grew up in a Buddhist surrounding; both of my parents are very devout Buddhists. It’s a tradition that is deeply instilled in me and I feel like it’s almost part of my being. I can’t quite extricate myself from it even though lately I’ve grown quite disillusioned with it. Disillusioned in the sense that I feel Buddhism is kind of devolving into this very individualistic pursuit of just finding a way to be a little bit more at ease with your existence and minimizing suffering—which is completely valid. But I find that people get too engaged in that and they lose the larger justice based framework of Buddha dharma, which I find to be much more compelling and also authentic. You speak on that quite often in your book. Is there an evolution in that discourse that you’ve witnessed?

Absolutely. I think what’s happening is that there are teachers like me who have decided to step outside of lineages and institutions to create the communities and sanghas that we most want to see. I’m no longer a reformist. I used to be a reformist.

Can you explain what that is?

I believed at one point in my teaching life, practice life, I can just change the sangha that I was in. That I could bring these issues of justice, inclusivity, ethics and so forth and try to transform the community to be based on these values. Over time I realized how difficult that was. And so I kind of transitioned into this space of being much more of a visionary and innovator. I just really started practising creating the communities that I want to see instead of super investing in communities to transform them. This is a better use of my time and energy.

I had to make some really hard decisions about leaving a lot of sanghas to do this work of creating communities that are justice informed and ethically based. A lot of our communities, specifically here in the west and United States for instance... the convert, white western communities weren't really thinking about justice and ethics. They were just thinking about practising and feeling better and I think that has created a foundational sangha culture [in the west] which people are really attached to; [people] who will fight really hard to keep a foundational culture which is just really a culture of comfort and avoiding conflict. A culture that lacks transparency. 

And so when we bring up the idea of justice—it’s not that people are opposed to justice; they’re opposed to being uncomfortable. People can get with justice, people want accountability, people want to be safe, people don’t want to be victims of violence. I think that’s a universal desire. But when we talk about disrupting comfort in a culture people specifically created to be comfortable in, that’s the issue. That’s when justice becomes a problem. 

Whenever Buddhist teachers say stuff like in western societies, there’s an excess of materialism… and I’m like, you can be more specific and say rich white people. That kind of specificity I think has been lacking, and for me, my contention is that it continues to lack. There is this invisibilizing of people, even in western spaces, who don’t conform to that identity. There’s obviously a breadth of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, but also in terms of class, ability, sexuality...we’re losing that granular aspect of it and I think that speaks to a great loss of how Buddha’s teachings are then transmitted.

The idea of a practitioner early on, particularly in the west, was of a white, educated, resourced person. That’s still the stereotype of a practitioner now. Even a Buddhist is like a white person, not an Asian person, or anyone of any other racial background even though we have like the Dalai Lama, who’s like an icon—everyone knows who the Dalai Lama is. Many people have never met an Asian Buddhist practitioner, quite honestly, but a lot of folks know white folks [laughs] who walk around chanting with dharma names and wearing whatever. So when I came along, it was obvious that to be a practitioner was to somehow assimilate into a culture that actually erased much of my identity: my queerness, my Blackness. Back then, my economic class was erased. 

Class was actually one of the harder things for me to deal with. I just didn’t have endless resources to do retreats, to do teachings and to always offer money for everything. I felt super alienated and resentful to be in a path where money was always the thing that people operated from. And of course I heard all kinds of excuses and reasons why we have to charge [people] and to an extent I get that. But it’s still really restrictive for many of us. So now as a teacher I’ve made a commitment to try to make everything as accessible as possible. Economically, ability-wise… just trying to invite as many people as possible into the work that I’m doing and then challenging myself to make it even more accessible. 

But basically, I make it accessible by just being visible. People look at me and say, oh you’re a Buddhist. Not only are you a Buddhist, you’re a lama. Which I don’t even [understand]—how did I make it through this system to get this title? And knowing that there have been many lamas before me, even a couple of Black lamas, who haven’t had the level of visibility that I’ve had. I am a majority of people’s first Black lama that they’ve ever met. I’m the first one to have pushed through in this kind of public space and I mostly did that by stepping around lineage because quite frankly a lot of teachers are encapsulated within the lineage. The lineage can be quite competitive, it can be hierarchical, and I just never felt a part of that so I stepped out and created this whole other kind of, I don’t know, path into teaching.

You were being a punk.

Yeah. Well, my teacher Lama Norlha Rinpoche, that was one of the things he told me to do. This older Tibetan master was like, “I’m not Black. There are people that will not listen to me but they’ll listen to you. So you should go and try to do that.” That was one of the wisest things he ever told me. I have friends with Tibetan teachers who would never have heard that from their teachers. My teacher was like go out into the world and do what you feel is most skillful. 

I would go back to Rinpoche and tell him what I was teaching—justice, sex and all kinds of stuff—and he would be like, fine, whatever. 

Going back to your point about some of the different teachers who, for reasons that are sometimes beyond their control, don’t quite include the concept of class in how they build their sangha—I think that partly informs some of my resentment towards rinpoches and tulkus. They’ll speak grandiloquent things about how people are just too obsessed about work and earning money and that they should be less materialistic. Well that’s easy for you to say because you don’t have to worry about paying bills. A single mom who’s working in a factory shift or is a healthcare provider… they don’t have time to think about these things. 

So that’s kind of situating Buddha dharma squarely within the confines of course of a capitalistic society. I think this also speaks to your persistent theme of earth, of grounding yourself.

Right. Wealth has always been a factor in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism has been a feudal system. A lama is like a lord [laughs]. When I talk to teachers in other traditions, I have to communicate that when I say I am a lama, I have this incredible agency and autonomy. You get the title and you can do whatever you want. There is no accountability. Traditionally, if I were in a feudal system in medieval Tibet, I would be in a monastery or go off, claim territory, build a monastery, collect wealth from the local village and then maybe I’ll be recognized as a tulku. Wealth just begins to accumulate life after life and it keeps getting transferred into my reincarnation so it becomes this system of wealth transfer.

Isn’t that so bizarre?

It’s so bizarre! I mean there are all kinds of sophisticated ways that have been created to make sure wealth stays within a particular line of succession. There are present rinpoches who are incredibly wealthy—millions, billions of dollars, but we don’t talk about that at all. I have such animosity towards the accumulation of wealth in that way.

I remember in my early days of going off to retreat, I would have to get financial aid. A week-long retreat may be $1,500. That was impossible for me to afford. That’s what I made in a month. So I would always have to get these hugely reduced retreat fees and in those days, [in order to get that discount] I had to work during the retreat. So it creates this class of people who are actually beginning to serve those who are more resourced. I resented that. I resented having to clean during retreat because I didn’t have the financial resources. It wasn’t ever framed in a way of like, “oh this just a service that we’re offering.” Only the poor people had to do this. It would have been much more intuitive if everyone had to do it.

A lot of teachers now in retreat centres are structuring work in a way that everyone has to do work to help run a retreat. But back in those days, it was just the poor people, who were usually the young folks or the people of colour. 

Whenever I see large gatherings of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and the lama is seated high on a throne, usually very ornate and with a slate of attendants around… mostly him, it’s always a him—there’s not a lot of Tibetan women Buddhist teachers—and I would think it would be so revolutionary if that rinpoche who was doing the teaching made it a point to be level on the ground. To be level with the people seeking his teaching or wisdom, and to actually serve the people. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that.

Sometimes my teacher would cook and serve. But I think also the other part of that is the communities also really intensely force this kind of…

Veneration. That’s true.

Yeah, veneration. I know that early on—of course I experienced this on a very very small level—at the beginning of my teaching in my sanghas, I felt that pressure to be a certain way. To wear certain things and accept certain kinds of devotion, which I eventually resisted. It really, over time, influenced me to leave these intense communities altogether. 

I just think that people find a lot of comfort in that kind of veneration and I think there are teachers—doesn't matter their background, Tibetan or westerner—who actually don’t have the capacity to hold that level of devotion that people are expressing towards them. As I often say there are a lot of teachers, and this is extremely the case for Tibetan tulkus, where they’ve actually never had a chance to figure out who they were outside of a monastic institution. So they get recognized, get swept up into a system where they are actually being abused—emotionally, physically and sexually. And then they mature into adulthood and they have this incredible shadow side which is all this stuff, this material, that they’ve never processed and developed because they bypassed all of that. 

One of the reasons why we have these intense scandals with all these teachers is because they’re trying to get their needs fulfilled within a community where it’s inappropriate for those needs to be fulfilled. 

And also the notions of boundaries, things like agency and where someone is coming to you with authentic needs versus projections—that’s a skill, like you’ve said. A lot of it is the skill of discernment that you develop through the course of living and when that part of your life has been excised, swept up in this tradition of tulku and the teachings and the abuses, that all gets very distorted.

Everyone’s a victim in the way this system has been conceived. I would say that it’s important for me in my teaching that I resist these forms of veneration because I want to live a life, and to have a teaching life and to be a teacher where I’m just really honest about my life. As a teacher, you have to know that I’m also queer and that I have these beliefs about sex positivity and relationship and dating and sex… I want that to be transparent. I don’t want you to ever assume that I’m like a monk. 

I actually get really offended, and a little scared when people from other spiritual paths relate to me like a monk. I’m like, you can’t do that. You can’t do that because I don’t want you to assume something that isn’t true. It’s important for me to be truthful about how I show up in the world as a teacher. 

It’s also a form of fragmentation in a way, right? Which is again something that you’re quite persistent in your book about it being a delusion that we need to remove and liberate ourselves from.

Yeah, well it’s the distinction that we make between the public life and the private life. The private life becomes the shadow life. So you have these people who have these intense, devout and sacred public lives where they’re really wonderful and great. They’re saints. And then in their private life they begin to engage in certain desires and appetites that are not in line with their public self. I think that that’s what creates the struggle and the tension within sanghas. It’s that tension where teachers aren’t allowed to bring their personal and public lives together and it’s not accepted by the sangha. 

It’s also different though from how you explicate in the book about your need to differentiate your sangha and the people who look up to you versus your own community of friends and sexual partners. You make it a point to keep those groups discrete, right?

Absolutely. Even when I’m on a hookup app and people recognize me [there] that becomes a really important space for me to set boundaries, to say this is who I am, this is what I believe in. Depending on how this relationship goes, it’s going to be a different relationship. Are you going to see me as a teacher? If you do then this other stuff isn’t going to happen. And that happens. If you’re more interested in me as a teacher then I can show up as that. But it can’t be this mixed thing because you have to keep those roles really separate and different.

If there is any binary that you subscribe to, I guess that would be one of the few ones.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s just getting clear about what you want. And it’s not to say that I haven’t had partners who’ve also seen me as a teacher. But they’ve seen me more as a partner and a lover than as a teacher, and that’s been really important for me to differentiate in that way. It’s just about being clear. I think it’s easy to kind of get addicted to the power that being a teacher offers you. That’s really where it gets messy in romantic situations. Are you into me because I’m a teacher or are you into me because you’re attracted to me?

Oh that’s such an incredible tension or struggle. Because I can easily imagine so many times someone coming to you for guidance and that need and that projection and love and everything gets wrapped up and then that can easily become sexual. So it’s important for you to make it very clear from the outset that that’s a hard line that you want to maintain.

I also have a very natural, built-in safeguard—which I think is just a result of very good, virtuous karma from past lives—this intuition that I have which is that I know what people are like, why people are approaching me, or why they want to be in a relationship with me. If people just see me as a teacher or a guide, I get completely turned off, sexually. It just naturally happens. I get really resentful, actually. That’s part of the safeguard that people would rather see me as a teacher than as this person that they want to get intimate with. And that’s a very different feeling than someone coming to me who wants to be with me romantically or as just a friend. It’s a whole different energy and I’ve just learned how to identify that. 

I’ve been in many spaces, casual and informal, where people recognize me and I can tell which way they’re gonna go. Sometimes [someone] will go, “oh it’s Lama Rod. That’s cool. I’m not interested in what you do but you’re cool.” On the other hand, it’s like “oh you’re Lama Rod. Can you teach me on the spot about something?” And I usually say no. [laughs] That’s not why I’m there.

You write in your book that when you first met Norlha Rinpoche, there was this very incredible energy that you sensed within you and that intuitively told you that this is your teacher, in one form or another. I wonder for someone who’s perhaps seeking a teacher and who has that same kind of emanation of energy, what is your guidance on how to make sense of that energy and secondly, making sure that you then don’t project it in a way that becomes unhealthy and makes you prone to being manipulated or abused.

Well, it’s different ways I want to answer that. Beginning with: how do we make sense of the feelings that we experience around certain teachers? For me, when a teacher opens up something inside of me, I see them as my teacher or one of my teachers. Because they have this incredible capacity to do something. To create this opening for me to do work and to understand dharma deeper. And so I take that person as a teacher. When we have those experiences I encourage people to see them as these invitations to move deeper into their own experience. I think all a teacher is doing is reflecting your wisdom back to you. They’re just mirrors and they’re pointing us back to these parts of ourselves that we’re discovering for the first time. I think the misconception is that somehow the teacher is doing something really extraordinary and special. That somehow the magic is with the teacher. I mean yeah there are incredibly powerfully realized teachers, but really, particularly in Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism, the teacher is a mirror that points us back to our own wisdom, clarity and mind.

So that’s what you’re experiencing, it’s just your self for the first time. I’ve had that [experience] so many times. Of course I’ve had to learn what that was. At the beginning, I was like, oh this teacher is powerful and they’re doing something. No, they’re actually just pointing back towards me and saying, look! You’re just like me, if you can just realize that. And if you trust that to take those people as a teacher in whatever way feels appropriate.

Another way to think about this, from the perspective of students, is I think it’s really easy to lose agency within relationships with very realized folks because we feel as if we don’t know anything. It’s a very [infantilizing] relationship, where we become children. At my monastery, it was like we were all the kids and Rinpoche was like the dad. No decision could ever be made without consulting Rinpoche, but that was the culture. That’s Tibetan Buddhist culture because again the rinpoche, the abbot, is like the head of the manor, the king, the lord. And of course as someone who naturally distrusts authority I came into that really resentful. I was like, yeah of course I wanna ask Rinpoche about my personal practice but I don’t think Rinpoche needs to be consulted about the colour of curtains you’re going to put in the library. [laughs] I mean I just don’t think that’s necessary and I just got turned off over time by that kind of deference, that kind of, oh we can’t do anything without his consent. And so I was interested in agency; I wanted to make my own decisions. 

Again, my relationship with Rinpoche was him always reminding me that I have agency. I think partially he did that to get me out of the way. [laughs] To get me out of the community after I was authorized, to get me into the world. It’s hard and complex because I needed to be in the world. I wouldn’t be here, if he didn’t send me away. 

He dissuaded you from taking a second three-year retreat.

Right. He was like, no. [laughs] He was like, “just go out into the world. Do something. If you still want to do the [retreat] after a bit, come back and do it.” Once I got into the world, I realized that this phase of my life was over, this retreat phase. 

But yeah, agency. I think this is a part of how we’re going to cut through abuse between teachers and students. For us, as students, to remember our agency, to remember that we can make choices. If something doesn’t feel comfortable, we have a right to say no. And then as a teacher—because I’m both a student and a teacher so I’m always flipping back and forth—my job is to make sure my needs are fulfilled outside of spiritual communities, and teacher student relationships. That I have other spaces that I have created in order to express different parts of who and what I am. 

I tell teachers all the time, you need to have friends who aren’t Buddhists. [laughs] Like you need really messy friends. I’m gay, queer… so I have really messy queer friends who are really catty, and really superficial and some of them are really selfish, but all really loving. So I take refuge in those communities. I’m not Lama Rod there; I’m like one of the girls. In that space, among my friends they’re like, “yeah, whatever. We see what you do. We see how you’re doing it but we’re here just to have fun and spend time with each other. You’re not here to teach us.” And I have friends who were very clear about those boundaries, and those were very hard to hear initially because it sounds like they don’t give a shit about what I do. But instead, they’re saying “we respect what you do, but you’re not the teacher here. You can be the teacher somewhere else, but here you’re a friend.” 

So we have to find those spaces and create them. That will make us a better teacher. So I can go into spiritual communities, sanghas, whatever and I’m not forcing that community to meet all of my needs, which is how traditional monastic communities are established. All the needs, even sexual needs, are being met in ways that are not articulated but are known and experienced by almost everyone within an institution.

The other thing I thought about when you spoke about the need for setting boundaries, having agency and all that, is also about being true about your state of mental health. In many ways the Buddhist tradition has means of addressing those. But in other ways I also feel like there’s this externalizing of it, where it feels like if you just pray on it, chant on it, meditate on it… that will hopefully find you some measure of relief. You were very deliberate in your book—you’ve actually outlined various different practices to deal with anger, contentment etc.—but you also state that if you need medication, therapy... you have to take that. 

It’s about skillful means. It’s about understanding the best way to reduce harm and violence. We also have to understand, as you know, within Tibetan psychology mental health is conceived of being very different. Mental health is externalized in Tibetan culture, whereas in western culture it’s internalized. So we [westerners] may experience depression, traditionally Tibetans experience demons. I’m not depressed; I’m just being tormented by this demon that I can actually direct practice towards. Like the practice of chöd. What’s really interesting for us right now is that we’re moving through this synthesis where we’re bringing together western psychology, Tibetan psychology and trying to synthesize something that I think is really quite powerful. 

And I’m kind of back and forth with that because for me that kind of externalization of mental health is also in a way very Indigenous. There’s an indigeneity there that I’m really interested in. I think it’s maybe both. I think sometimes, growing up in the west, there are energetic forces that the best way for us to name it is to name mental illness, depression, or anxiety. But maybe it’s actually an energetic being that’s affecting us somehow. So I’m interested in discerning those nuances as well.

Part 2