How can we hold life lightly? How can we approach our ‘self’ and challenges we encounter in a flexible, open manner? How can we see things how they really are and be of benefit to others? In this conversation Sandra Roscoe points out that a mind that knows its own nature is a compassionate mind.
One way to look at the life story of Sandra Roscoe is through the lens of leaping into the dharma through meeting and practicing with different teachers in different locations. Nowadays Sandra has a private psychotherapy practice, something she initially did not imagine doing. She always had an interest in psychology and literature. She thought she would teach literature at a university thinking there was more psychology in literature than in many psychology courses. But circumstances changed and she ended up getting her doctorate in psychology.
For a period of time, she lived in an ashram in Florida and then later moved to the mountains of North Carolina with her life-partner Stuart. Hearing that Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche was moving to Seattle where Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s main center (Nalanda West) is located, Sandra and Stuart decided to move to the West Coast of the United States for the opportunity to study and practice with them.
My conversation with Sandra touched on many topics, but we often returned to the intersection between dharma and psychology, walking the path of dharma and working with suffering and the roots of happiness.
Why (and when) did you take the leap into a buddhist path?
I was living in Manhattan, at a pretty young age, with a well-paying job. One day I took a week off and went skiing in Vermont. I broke my leg pretty seriously. It was not set properly and did not heal well. I was in a lot of pain. At that time, I kept saying to myself: “I need a teacher.” I have no idea why I was saying that. But I said it to myself over and over.
I ended up going to Florida. My leg had to be rebroken and reset. When I was coming out of the cast I needed to find some kind of physical activity that I could do. Someone told me about a yoga class that was being taught outside by a Russian woman who gave dharma-talks (teaching on a Buddhist topic) after each class. I went to that yoga class and thought: “This is what I should be doing.” Not the yoga so much (although that was great), but focusing my mind on something more meaningful and of greater benefit than what I was doing. I went back to New York, packed up everything and moved to Florida. I took a leap into an unknown world of studying and practicing Hinduism and Buddhism. This was the first of my several leaps.
My parents lived there and my father was a physician. He helped me with my broken leg, and it ended up being where I met my first teacher, and then later Stuart, my life-partner.
Who were the ‘we’ that were studying Hinduism and Buddhism?
There was a small group of people who gathered to study and practice with this teacher, a small sangha so to speak. Those were the ‘we’. It was the group that gathered around her.
It is exceptional for a yoga teacher to teach Dharma from a Buddhist lens, or would you refer to Dharma here as a Hindu teaching?
That is a good question. The Dharma she taught was a blend. Her background was the Hindu tradition. So we studied the Bhagavadgita (literally ‘Song of God’, an old religious Indian scripture, part of the Mahabharata, from the Hindu tradition), the Devi Mahatmyam, and a lot of different texts. But she also brought in Buddhism, nothing like the Buddhism that we have the good fortune to study now at the Nitartha Institute and with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Yet, it was the beginning. The beginning of opening up to teachings on the Four Noble Truths, and this world is suffering. It opened my mind and heart with a longing to know more.
What is it that attracted you to the Buddhist tradition rather than the Hindu tradition? You could have gone either way…
What happened was that the teacher we were studying with died. The community decided to do some kind of activity together. So we opened up a gourmet-vegetarian restaurant and did that for a couple of years. But after that, I wanted to study and practice teachings in my own language, with the images I was familiar with.
I began studying American Zen, Insight Meditation and doing meditations with American Buddhists. That was the bridge to what came next. Zen crossed my path because I was looking for American Buddhist teachers and went to the Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York. We had the good fortune to do some retreat time there.
Although the meditation practices were good, the Zen and the Insight Meditation teachers did not fully resonate with me. Yet, it was a wonderful bridge.
So, you were walking a Buddhist path but not one hundred percent yet?
You mentioned several times that there were teachers in your life. Yet, it seems the ones you came across were not the teachers you were asking for at the moment you broke your leg?
I found a teacher in Florida, who helped me at the time given where I was at that particular moment in time. It was very beneficial and helpful. But when I moved from Florida to the mountains of North Carolina with Stewart, I continued to have the recurring thought and feeling: “I need a teacher. I need a teacher.”
We had a sangha in a nearby town, a small meditation group we were part of. One of the members had us over for dinner and showed us a pecha (traditionally a Tibetan loose-leaf book used in Tibetan-Buddhist tradition, nowadays often used to refer to Tibetan-Buddhist scripture in general) of a Mahamudra text. We had no idea what it was about. Our friend said that there was a Rinpoche in Maryland we could met, Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen. At our friend’s suggestions, we wrote a letter to him introducing ourselves. Rinpoche kindly invited us to his center, and introduced us to the Drikung Kagyu Ngöndro (a series of practices belonging to the Tibetan-Buddhist tradition, often referred to as ‘preliminary practices’). From that point on we were hooked. We studied and practiced with him until he got sick and went back to India. Around that same time we met Khenpo (Tsültrim Gyamtso) Rinpoche and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Nitartha Institute and our lives were changed..
What was about Ngöndro and Mahamudra at that point that gave this feeling of a click?
It was odd, because being Tibetan it seemed to be full of a lot of cultural images and things we did not want. But then I saw a film of the Dalai Lama in which he was teaching the Kalachakra (referring to both a meditation practice and a series of Buddhist texts belonging to Tibetan-Buddhism) and I got a visceral feeling of coming home. “This feels like I am home.”
When Ngöndro was first introduced I had no idea what it was. When wwere given the first empowerment to practice the prostrations, I just did it… and continued to do it… and do it… and do it… and it started to feel like: “This is where I belong”.
So, was this the full answer to “I need a teacher”?
Yes. Although, when we were three quarters of the way into the Ngöndro, Khenchen Rinpoche returned to India. One day shortly after that, I went to a local co-op and saw a magazine title: Bodhi Magazine. This was the dharma magazine with the teachings of Khenpo Rinpoche and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. We bought the magazine, went home and said: “Who is this? Who is Khenpo Rinpoche?! Who is Ponlop Rinpoche?! Where are they?! Who are they?!”
I will tell you a short story. We lived in a beautiful house in the mountains and our buddhist friends liked using our house for their own personal retreats. We would go somewhere for teachings, and our friends would stay with our german shepherd and do their practices. One day, a friend called us and asked: when are you guys going away on your next retreat? I researched online and saw that Khenpo Rinpoche was going to be teaching on Sakya Pandita for a week at a center less than a day’s drive from us.
Stuart and I applied for it and we were accepted. Rinpoche was living in a big house for the seven-day teaching and we were allowed to stay with a small group of students in the same house and share meals with him. When I first walked into the house, Khenpo was right in the foyer and he loudly said: “Sarva Mangalam!” I was like: “Oh my…” It was during that retreat we heard about Nitartha Institute. After that, we flew to Seattle for whenever Khenpo Rinpoche was teaching. We began going to the month long program at Nitartha Institute that summer, and eighteen years later have not stopped doing so. That is how we got hooked.
It is often said the historical Buddha can also be seen as a great healer or physician. To what extent are the historical Buddha, and teachers like Khenpo Rinpoche and Ponlop Rinpoche, a therapist or someone that is able to provide medicine for a particular problem?
What came to mind when you were saying that was the translator for the Dalai Lama. One time I heard an interview with him where he said: “You know, I hear the Dalai Lama say at the beginning of all his talks, and I have translated a lot of his talks – everybody is suffering, no one wants to suffer, and everyone wants to be happy. He would say it over and over again. Sometimes I would think, ‘Okay, we get the message.’ But I never got the message till I did.”
That is the profound teaching: everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to suffer. In that sense I think the teachings of the Buddha, Khenpo Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche, are medicine. I think every Buddhist teaching comes back to that – there is suffering and how is it that we can be liberated from suffering?
If we look at it as a physician providing medicine, in that way, yes, definitely. The Buddha, Khenpo Rinpoche, Dzoghcen Ponlop Rinpoche, while not specifically trained in medicine or psycho-therapy, are the greatest healers because they get to the root cause of suffering.
Exploring ‘modern psychology’ or specifically ‘psycho-therapy’ and Buddhism a bit further, can you say a little bit about to what extent there are similarities and clear differences?
I think it depends on what model of psycho-therapy you are talking about. If you are talking about a model of psychotherapy which has ‘self’ at the center, and an orientation that tries to help people strengthen the sense of self, then I think there is a difference between psychotherapy and Buddhism. From my perspective, this is a completely separate road from a Buddhist path.
A different model of therapy, a different theoretical orientation, like a systems-perspective, looks at things (including the perception of self) interdependently, not in terms of an individual, permanent, autonomous self. I think this theory of psychotherapy is more in line with Buddhist thinking, at least it is for me.
How does this notion of ‘interdependence’ play a role in therapy and how in Buddhism? Why can they easily be connected?
We have a pandemic happening right now. You can see very clearly in just about every single news article and every single conversation with friends & family that there is a profound interdependence on display. There is no country or person isolated and separate from anyone else. We are all dependent on each other. Just in a sociological look at things.
In my profession, I look at a person who comes into my office, that person does not stand alone. Although ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘they’ may feel that the problem is their problem alone, there is a system they are interacting with at all times. Rather than blaming others on themselves, if they look at their problem from a systems point of view, it can be beneficial in introducing change, rather than reifying their problems and what they think are the causes of their suffering. To look at things from different perspectives lessens the reification of problems and their perceived causes. How is their problem interdependent with many other causes & conditions? And how does this view change the perception of the problem, and, moreso, their perception of self? Does that make sense?
Yes. Buddhism teaches there is no singular, independent, permanent self. Which is tied in to the idea of interdependence. Yet, I still wonder, if we take this teaching on the self, how do I help that person?
I think of it not as a singular, independent, permanent self. I think of it as a ‘mere self’ who moves through the world, experiencing the world. If there was a permanent self, there would be no chance for change to happen. Right? It would be very difficult or impossible to bring about change.
If I hold with a light touch the idea of a ‘mere self’ – and I am not suggesting “you don’t have a problem, you don’t have a self, so what is the big deal? I would never do that. But I can think of it as we are co-creating the description of the problem and how they are approaching it. They reify the problem and the people in relationship to themselves. If I know they are reifications, imputations that don’t necessarily exist in the way they are imputing it, it creates a lot more freedom and flexibility.
A person could come in and say: “I want my partner to change.” Right? “If my partner changes in this way, then I will be happy and I will not suffer.” In fact, in my work with people, I try to point out, you have tried that, and you can not make that person different. But you can change how you relate to him or her or they. You have a bad job, you have difficulties at work, you can not necessarily make the job environment different, but you can change how you relate to it. What appears to us is already the fruition of karmic appearances, and we can not change karmic appearances. But we can change how we relate to them. And as Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says: “We change how we relate to them with compassion” – toward yourself, the problem and others.
Earlier you spoke about being on a Buddhist path and wondered how you could benefit others. This made you decide to go into the path of being a therapist instead of literature. Is it Buddhism that is informing your practice as a therapist, ‘western psychotherapy’, or is psychotherapy also informing your Buddhist practice? Does it go in both directions? If so, how?
That is a great systematic question. One cannot help influencing the other, it goes both ways. Buddhism informs how I move through the world. Systems theory influences how I understand Buddhism and how I move through the world. I view psychotherapy similar to Gregory Bateson (a system therapist, anthropologist) who studied all kinds of objects from a systems point of view, how they work interdependently, how change happens and this informs my view on Buddhism as well. They are not two silos separate from each other.
You described that all people don’t want to suffer and seek happiness. If you live in the eastern parts of this world you might seek out Buddhist teachers, monasteries and all kinds of such places. If you live in the United States or grow up, as in my case, in Europe in the Netherlands, and I deal with suffering, I could go to a therapist. Would I still be in need of Buddhist teachers as well or could a therapist suffice to get rid of my suffering and find happiness?
It depends, I think, on what a person is longing for and needs. Some people go to a psychotherapist and want tools (depending on their goals the psychotherapist’s orientation), that will help them navigate their lives. That is the goal for some people, to receive a set of tools they can apply to different instances in their life. Tools that can be of benefit for working with their thoughts, feelings, relationships and life situations. That is sufficient in terms of what they are looking for in a therapeutic relationship.
Somebody else might come to a psychotherapists’ office and pick up a magazine in the reception area that has a buddhist flavour and they can say: “Wow, this is amazing.” Because they are open to finding an additional way of working with their problems.
Buddhism influences how I speak and what I say. Sometimes I talk to people and they come back to my office and say, “You know, I read this article on Buddhism and I read this thing by so and so, and it sounds like what we talk about.”
So, I think, some people respond to therapy as sufficient to what they want and need. Other people respond to therapy and say they need something more.
Does Buddhism take us further toward happiness than psychotherapy can take us, or would they both be able to get us to the same point? Underlying is perhaps also what we mean with happiness?
There is no question that psychotherapy can address certain kinds of issues and can go only so far. The practice and study of Buddhism is not comparable. It goes so much further in explaining the core, the roots of suffering and the methods for overcoming suffering. It does that, and it teaches people, not only tools and methods to work with their mind, it also teaches how to recognize the nature of mind. Psychotherapy does not do that.
What does Buddhism teach on the nature of mind where psychotherapy is maybe silent?
The nature of mind, if you are really studying Buddhism and practicing meditation, using analysis, shamatha, vipashyana, and turning the gaze inward, you learn about the nature of mind. You ask not only can my mind create problems, but what is the nature of my mind? What is going on here? Psychotherapy does not take that inward turn to look at the nature of mind, to explore what is meant by emptiness. There is none of that. But psychotherapy does provide tools for certain kinds of issues. It can be a great benefit if it is held lightly.
Holding lightly seems very important. Can you describe what it means to hold life, or my own life, lightly?
In terms of psychotherapy, or even in Buddhist meditation and practices, it is something I think about a lot. If I hold something tightly, I am reifying it. If there is a tightness, I am taking it too seriously and there is ego involved.
If I look at something and remind myself to hold it lightly, whether its during a therapy session, working with a client, or practicing meditation, then I am not taking myself or the actual activity so seriously in a rigid way.
How would that look like in daily life?
With humor. There is a sense of humor. When I can find myself getting uptight or rigid about something, if I can look at it with a sense of humor then I hold it lightly. When I take it tightly I am reifying it and making it something that it is not. Imputing some kind of solidity to it.
To get to this lighter approach of life, this turn inward seems to be helpful. How does this turn help us to take life a bit lighter?
We begin to see – more clearly – what is in fact going on. I think we move through the world imputing meaning on things, on relationships. I see it all the time with people I work with. That is why therapy can be beneficial. If they take their imputations not as solid, as this is how it is – “this person is doing that and the reason they are doing that is this” – we can begin to see it is not how things are. This happens with some inward turn and with the question, am I interacting with how things are or with my imputations? Am I interacting with this other person or am I interacting with my imputations about this other person? This turn inward begins to give us an opportunity to begin to see things differently.
You mentioned a key term in Buddhist tradition: emptiness. This seems to be at the heart of Buddhist teachings. For those contemplating what this is, can you say a little bit more about how this emptiness relates to this imputation and mistaken views?
I think it is the core of our suffering: to interact with phenomena, or interact with relationships, or our thoughts, assuming that the imputations we are making is how things are in reality. I think, at an early stage in our meditation, we begin to dislodge that a bit. Right?
If somebody wants to study and understand emptiness more, I would direct them to Khenpo Rinpoche and Ponlop Rinpoche’s teachings who teach the progressive stages of meditation on emptiness. In the context in which we are talking, emptiness is probably best understood as not having the reified thought of “this is how things are.” I think it is about being able to say, “I am really uncomfortable with what I did or said right now, and my tendency to blame somebody else or some other thing,” for what just happened. It is my habit. If I can ask myself, “is that habitual response how things are in reality or is this just my own projection?” This begins to cut through some of the mistaken certainty I hold to be real. And maybe it is a small step towards a more enlightened attitude.
Buddhism and psychotherapy, you said, are informing each other, but Buddhism is informing how you move through the world. Can you say a little bit more how it is that you move through the world with Buddhism informing it?
I think a question I have, and that I try to bring to my awareness, something I contemplate is: how would a Bodhisattva act in this moment? How would a Bodhisattva think in this moment? In other words, what would somebody who has a decentralized a sense of self and who puts others in that central place, what would that be like in this moment?
When I am uncomfortable, I try to do some analysis. What is this discomfort that I am experiencing? One of the things I go to is a teaching by Khenpo Gangshar that I heard Trangu Rinpoche teach one year in Nepal, a teaching that has really stayed with me: If I feel uncomfortable and do a little bit of analysis, I inevitably see it is ego-related. Generally, it is ego-related. Khenpo Gangshar said we do not necessarily have to apply anything, an antidote, although we can. We do not have try and push it away. We don’t have to analyze it. Khenpo Gangshar says: it liberates itself, ego-clinging liberates itself. So, I like to work with that kind of edge. Sometimes I need to apply an antidote, but other times it just liberates itself. I try to use that to help me move through the world.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche often mentions analysis and philosophical,logical reasoning can only take us up to a certain point. I imagine that this notion of self-liberation is tackling that. Letting that analysis also go. Maybe modern psychology and psychotherapy does not include that?
I remember getting a thick fat psychology textbook one time with multiple theories of self. Each chapter was defining and reifying the self in singular independent terms: “This is the self,” “This is the self,” “This is the self.”
I think what you are pointing to is two different goals. The goal of psychotherapy is not to investigate the nature of a perceived sense of self. It is about fixing immediate suffering. The goal in Buddhist practice is to examine and liberate the root cause of suffering, the perception of an independent, autonomous, permanent self. The goal of Buddhism is not the goal of psychotherapy. In psychotherapy, people might apply various mindful meditation practices, as tools to fix their immediate suffering, but not as methods to liberate the root cause of suffering.
Does liberating ourselves from this sense of self, automatically lead to the wish to be of benefit to others, and having that as a main driving force?
I think so because the liberation of your sense of self gives rise to compassion. It is interesting to bring this question back to our discussion of psychotherapy. When working with clients, as we explore their lives, I might ask them: whe are they the happiest?
Inevitably, in some way or another, they say it is when they are doing something for someone else, or when they are thinking about caring for something or someone other than themselves. It is like the Dalai Lama who has said many times: it is our nature to have that compassion be there. When compassion comes forward, the sense of self goes to the background. It is not right there in front asking, “what about me?” This relates to the nature of mind. A mind that knows its own nature is a compassionate mind.
The moment someone understands how his or her life is related to others, also brings about compassion, does it not?
Yes. Yes. I agree.
I am still curious, to what extent does literature play a role for you?
I love to read and I still read. But most of my readings have changed. I don’t find myself as enthralled with different kinds of literature. So, the content of my reading has change a bit. As Ponlop Rinpoche often says in a different context, but I think it applies here – more Dharma less drama.
Minds’ nature. Secondly, how would a Bodhisattva think or behave in this particular moment? What would it be like to decentralize my sense of self and replace it with others? I think about that.
IF YOU CONSIDER TO TAKE A LEAP…
If someone is unsure about wanting to take a leap… a couple of things come to mind. First, it is like being in a jungle. Monkeys and apes are leaping from one tree to another. They let go of this tree (showing her left hand, holding something) but they got hold of this tree (showing her right hand, holding something). There is that grab and hold and letting go. If a person is concerned about taking a leap, it is helpful to have in mind what they are going to grab a hold of, more or less.
If they are taking a leap with that sense of not knowing and uncertainty, I would say: we are doing that all the time anyway. We just don’t recognize it. We are doing it continually. Every moment of every day is taking a leap, because we have no clue what the next moment is going to bring. If we contemplate this, and we say that every moment is like this… One moment we are shopping in grocery stores, going to restaurants, meeting with friends… The next moment we are in lockdown because a virus is taking over the world. Every moment is a leap. Every moment is a moment of uncertainty. I would invite us to contemplate that.
For someone who does not want to contemplate that and who wants a bit more illusion-like certainty, perhaps they can think about what that might look like to them. What does that next tree look like?